Day 81 – National Brandied Fruit Day

When I heard National Brandied Fruit Day was coming, I was intrigued.  I am not sure if I have ever had brandied fruit before and it sounded pretty good: nice delicious fruit sweetened by the syrupy goodness of a quality sipping brandy.  I didn’t give it much more thought than that.  When it was time to celebrate today, I read through the recipes.  Uh oh.  Most required that the fruit rest in the brandy for at least two weeks but most required at least ten or twelve months of resting for best flavor.  That makes this an incredibly hard recipe to make in one day.  Maybe I should have planned better and started my brandying back in December of 2015, but I kinda feel like I was a set up to fail here.  So goes the perils of this quest.

I thought of other ways I might possibly celebrate the day.  I could stick a banana in a snifter of Hennessy and enjoy it that way (although I imagine I would get some funny looks out at the bar).  Lola suggested that she could sing some songs by Brandy whilst eating an apple and that would give me my brandied fruit fix.  As tempting as that seemed, I still felt I would not be giving the day the celebration it deserved.  I don’t think celebrating brandied fruit was in the cards for me.

My fallback plan in these occasions (according to my quest’s prime directive) is to go with whatever is being recognized as the month’s special observations.  Earlier in October I had celebrated both National Pizza Month and National Sausage Month.  Thankfully October has no shortage of month celebrations.  Did you know that we also celebrate National Pork Month, National Cheese Month and National Pretzel Month all in October?  This month seems to have no end to what we will celebrate.  I decided to combine all three of those commemorations into one celebratory dinner for tonight.

I had never heard of pork being combined with pretzels but I figured the internet had and sure enough I found a recipe.  This recipe was from EatingWell.com which I really have no familiarity with outside of them posting this recipe.  I picked up the ingredients I needed (boneless center cut pork chops and a bag of pretzels) and then was ready to start cooking. The first thing you do is grind up the pretzels for a coating the pork.  I chopped them to a rough course using our food processor although I probably could have chopped them up a little bit more for a finer crust.  I pounded out the chops until they were about 1/2 inch thick, then I dredged them in flour and egg before coating them with the pretzel crumbs.  I baked them at a high heat for about 12 minutes.  They came out cooked nicely, although the pretzel coating made it a little hard to see if they were done.

The recipe calls for a mustard sauce and because I don’t do mustard (I hate mustard), I decided to make a cheese sauce to serve on top.  Although they weren’t really, the pork chops looked kind of dry and needed a little extra something on top.  The cheese sauce seemed like a great alternative because cheese goes great with pretzels and it was also National Cheese Month.  I simply made a roux, added some milk and chicken broth, then loaded in some cheddar cheese.  Once you learn how to make a roux, you can usually figure out how to make sauces like this.  It sounds like your quite chefly, but it’s really a pretty simple procedure.  The sauce cooked while the chops were in the oven which was the perfect amount of time needed to get the sauce nice and thick.  To further my cheese celebration, I made some instant Four Cheese Mashed Potatoes as my side dish (don’t knock instant potatoes – they are really tasty).

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This was a terrible picture of our dinner.  Sorry, photos aren’t really my forte.  All you see here is pretzels and something that looks like gravy.  This was a damn good dinner. The pork came out perfect and was not dried out at all.  The pretzels still held their crunchy texture, although they were softened by the cooking process.  You got the flavor of the salt from the pretzels in every bite.  The star however was the cheese sauce which brought it all together.  It really needed a sauce to bring more flavor to the party, and as always, the cheese delivered.  It wasn’t overly cheesy, but just enough to give you a slight cheese flavor.  It was cheese gravy (and it was good).  The potatoes capped off the greatness of it all and were the perfect side dish.  A bite with the pork, the cheese and the potatoes is everything a good bite should be and was savored with delight.

So in the end, even though I wasn’t able to celebrate Brandied Fruit, I was able to scrape together a celebration today (and a pretty tasty one at that).  This quest is going to keep presenting challenges and I am going to have to keep on rolling with them.  If I do, I might just end with something memorable.  And so it goes.

Next Up: National Pumpkin Cheesecake Day 

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Day 80 – International Gin and Tonic Day

“Gin was created in 1652 in the University of Leiden (in the Netherlands) for medicinal purposes.”

That was the opening line for a presentation I had to write for a speech class in college.  The professor had told us to write about things that we knew or liked and I, being a carefree college student, was all about gin.  I researched it at the library (yes Mom, I did go to the library from time to time at college).  Those were the days before the internet too so all my research had to be from encyclopedias and/or books that I would also have to cite as my sources.  I remember being confident going into that presentation because I was prepped and ready for it and I can still spew some of the the facts I learned about gin today.  I can’t recall what grade I got, but I definitely retained the knowledge which is what school is really all about, right?

Now that the internet is a thing and research is a bit easier to attack, it turns out that the origin of gin story that I was familiar with is not all that true.  The juniper berry, which gin is made from, has been popular for years and it is likely that some version of gin has been around long before the University of Leiden.  However, as the tale goes, the university is where gin was honed and perfected as a Genever or Dutch Gin.  When the spirit made it’s way to England, the Brits changed it slightly into the distilled gin we are familiar with today.  I think I should contact my speech class with this update.

As you can tell, I’ve been a fan of gin for a while.  Gin has a flavor that can really rub you the wrong way and not everyone is a fan.  But for me, it’s a nice light herbal flavor that delights my taste buds.  When you combine it with the effervescent tang of a nice fresh tonic water, you have found yourself a match made in heaven.  The bubbles give the drink the pizzazz your tastebuds need while the smoothness of the gin melds with the bitterness of the tonic water and it just tastes good and refreshing.  Drop a fresh lime in there and you have created some perfection.  It could be an ideal cocktail and I was happy to see it celebrated not just here, but on an international scale.  Gin & Tonics have that kind of appeal.

Lola has never had a gin and tonic.  GASP!

That put how I should celebrate this day into focus.  I would make her one and have her share in one of my favorite beverages and expand her palate.  I never really thought she’d be interested in gin because it has such a distinct flavor.  Usually if Lola has a drink that is particularly strong or alcohol-tasting, she immediately regrets her sip and says “this tastes like date rape.” I always assumed she wouldn’t like it.  Tonight however she was game, almost curious, and she said she would have one with me.  I had picked up a small bottle of Tanqueray at the store earlier in the day and we were ready to celebrate.

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A good gin and tonic is easy to make.  Fill your glass to the top with ice (always fill your glass to the brim with ice), pour in the shot of gin then top with fresh tonic water (never use tonic that has been opened for more than a day or so – you need the carbonation), and then squeeze in a fresh lime wedge.  That’s it.

We were ready for our drinks just as Cleveland had won the American League pennant, so we had a little something extra to celebrate.  We toasted to their success, to gin, to happy moments and to life.  I admit I made Lola’s drink a little light – I didn’t want to overwhelm her with gin.  I think that was a good decision too because after her first sip, she said it was good.  Really good.  She said she could really seeing herself enjoying these.  I toted the gin and tonic’s merits as a refreshing summer drink and Lola said she could even see it as a good drink anytime.  It could become her new wedding drink (your goto drink at weddings once the signature drinks stop being passed around).  We had a believer in Lola!

This morning I woke up and I found Lola passed out on the floor, empty bottle of Tanqueray by the side of her head, lime wedges strewn around the floor.

Just to be clear, that was a joke.  The truth is we just had the one drink each last night and it was a nice little celebration of the drink and the day.  It was fun to show Lola a new taste that she liked, especially because it’s been a favorite of mine for such a long time.  It gave us the happy thought of enjoying future gin and tonics on warm beaches or at cozy dinners together.  That’s what a good celebration gives you: happy memories, anticipation for more and a sharing of the good life together.  That’s something you can celebrate any where in the world.  Cheers!

Next Up: National Brandied Fruit Day 

Day 79 – National Chocolate Cupcake Day

Cupcakes and celebration seem to go hand in hand with each other, so I’m not surprised they have their own day.  I also appreciate the specificity of this day being dedicated to just chocolate cupcakes.  You can really run the gamut with flavors here from vanilla to peanut butter to filled, so being a day for just chocolate cupcakes keeps it easy on my end.

We’re cupcake fans here at our house and I think we could even say we were just ahead of the cupcake craze that raged across the country over the last few years.  We had cupcakes as our wedding cake (no cake to cut, just cupcakes to serve).  Our brother-in-law Doug was kind enough to drive to New York on the day before our wedding (was it the day of?) to pick up cupcakes at the Buttercup Bakery in the heart of the City.  What’s not to like about a cupcake?  I will say that after all our cupcake samples, chocolate cupcakes are never our first choice.  They sound good but they usually end up being too much when paired with the frosting.  A nice plain but tasty cake always seems to be the better choice.

I turned to one of my fave blogs again, Averie Cooks, for my recipe.  She had a ton of recipes but the one that caught my eye was a chocolate cupcake with cookies and cream frosting (calling for 24 Oreos to be mashed up into the frosting).  I was in.  This recipe could also be made as vegan although I opted to keep with my 48 year old tradition and made it non-vegan (using milk and butter).  But I did learn that an Oreo cookie is a vegan product.  Who knew?

As far as recipes go, this one, like most of the recipes I have used from Averie, was easy to make.  You just follow instructions.  It did have me add some apple cider vinegar to the milk to curdle it which was a new procedure for me, but that’s the recipe, so I followed along.  I combined my wet ingredients with my dry, combined them all together and then scooped it out into the cupcake liners in the baking trays.  In about 20 minutes, the cupcakes were out and ready to cool.

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After they were completed cooled, I made my frosting by adding some confectioner’s sugar to some butter and beating them together.  When it was soft and fluffy, I folded in the chopped up Oreos (it’s hard to cut Oreo’s without making a giant mess) and then my frosting was done.  I am not a good froster.  It always looks so easy when I watch people do it, but when I do it, I always seem to struggle.  I guess it takes practice.  For these, I scooped out a big blob of frosting and put it on top of each cupcake, then worked it around the cupcake so it would cover the top.  They came out ok, but they always seem to lack that dazzle that other people’s frosting have.  I guess I have O.P.F. envy (other people’s frosting).

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I gave one to Lola to try and although she liked it, she had some critiques (part of the spoils of this quest is that you get accustomed to really great treats, so you develop a critical palate when it comes to tasting).  The cupcake itself was a little dry, she felt, and the Oreo overwhelmed the frosting.  Fair enough.  I liked the frosting, but the Oreos really were the predominant flavor.  The actual frosting was really, really good, so maybe it would have been better just by itself.  As far as the cake, I guess it was a little dry and maybe I left them in the oven a little too long (although I did pull them out before they were supposed to be ready).  I think chocolate cake does tend to be a little dry, so maybe that’s what se was tasting.  I’ve had better cupcakes, but I was still a fan of this one.

Our niece Molly had a volleyball game today so she had her very own cheering section with her mom, dad, stepdad, brother, three aunts, one uncle, three cousins and two friends all filling the stands cheering on the Patriots.  I naturally brought cupcakes.  My vision was to give them to Molly so she could enjoy them with her friends after the game, but when I got there, hunger was soaring through the stands, so Becky had one, then Cherie had one, then the kids split one.  The kids liked them – they had no complaints.  Becky and Cherie liked them too, but they also agreed the cake could have been more moist.  I still call this a success though because they were good and they were a fun little way to celebrate the day.  How often do you get to enjoy cupcakes in a high school gym while cheering on your niece?

Today was also National No Beard Day too.  When I saw this, I debated on wether or not I should acknowledge it.  Then I realized that the spirit of this quest is to celebrate as much as possible and while all theses food celebrations are fun, there’s more to the quest than just eating.  I felt that if I’m not willing to go that extra step for the quest, than I am not really challenging myself.  So I grabbed the beard trimmer and my razor, and off it came.

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When Lola came home and saw my face, she smiled and said she had missed my face.  But then she also said, and I quote, “I feel like I’m seeing a scrotum.”  That’s my Lola.  It’s not that my chin looks like a scrotum (and I would assume that would be a scrotum treated with some scrotox).  It was just that awkward feeling of seeing skin you are not supposed to see.  That’s what it feels like to see someone’s face after they have had a beard or mustache for a while.  You don’t know if you should look or look away.  I had that feeling all day whenever I peeked in the mirror.  It will take some getting used to and I may just grow it back, but in the end, I can say that I went all in on the celebration today, and not just by the hair of my chin-chin-chin.

Next Up: International Gin and Tonic Day 

Day 78 – National Pasta Day

Endless possibilities here.  I had some trouble trying to think how I should celebrate.  Spaghetti?  Fusilli?  Some lasagna? What about good ol’ wagon wheels and butter (one of my childhood favorites)?  Do I make it myself or do we go out to celebrate?  Some Buffalo Shrimp Pasta from Brick Alley Pub?  Tour of Italy from the Olive Garden?  Mac and Cheese from Sig’s?  It was almost too broad a category to squeeze into an ideal celebration.

Pasta is technically a dish originally from Italy consisting of dough made from durum wheat and water, extruded or stamped into various shapes and typically cooked in boiling water.  And yet, that simple combination has been bringing joy to the world for centuries.  Pasta is celebration.  It’s family parties, banquets, Sunday dinners.  It’s the salad on the 4th of July, it’s the dish we make to bring to other’s for comfort, it’s the first meal we make for our boyfriend/girlfriend when we are trying to be a romantic. It’s everywhere and at every time in our life.

I grew up in a very pasta-heavy town which had a strong Italian population.  My friends would have a pasta course for their Thanksgiving dinner not to mention a standing Sunday family dinner featuring Noni’s gravy and pasta.  We even had a shop on Main Street called Mama Del’s (two doors down from my barber) that sold fresh made pasta.  That’s it – that was their whole business (and some fantastic Italian ice too).  I still regret that I was not a regular customer there. Can you imagine walking up the street, stopping in and grabbing some fettuccini that was just made fresh that morning, walking home and having it for dinner that night?  Then again, Mama Del could have been some kind of gangster and her shop was just a front for some kind of gambling empire.  I guess I’ll never know, but she did have great Italian ice.

I think I was inspired by Mama Del to make my own pasta today (although definitely not in her tradition).  When scanning recipes, I remembered one that we had made from Food Network’s Giada De Laurentiis.  It was for Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Maple Cinnamon Sage Brown Butter.  I remember Lola loving it.  It’s a great fall dinner with warm flavors like cinnamon, sage and maple syrup.  It’s a bit involved, but in the end kind of easy to make.  My only worry was that I would not be able to find the herbs, but thankfully, Clement’s had a nice supply of really fresh beautiful-smelling sage.

You bake the sweet potatoes first and then after they cool down, you make your dough from the scooped out potato, flour and ricotta cheese.  After the dough comes together, you roll out ropes of the dough and then cut them into pieces and your gnocchi is made.  You boil it for about five or six minutes and then when it’s done, you add it to the sauce which is fresh sage cooked in brown butter then some maple syrup and cinnamon added.  It comes together nicely and although it looks light on the sauce, the butter really coats the gnocchi perfectly so you get the flavor of sweet potato and the butter sauce in every bite.

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The sage is the surprise star of this dish.  When it cooks in the butter, it crisps up and when you bite it, you get this really fresh flavor tempered by the sauce is has soaked up.  It’s a subtle texture addition to the whole dish which is a welcomed surprise.  The sweet potato and cinnamon are the strong flavors that come from the gnocchi which would be a little bland without the sauce, but with it, comes together in a flavor marriage made in heaven.  The maple syrup is a nice subtle addition to the party too.  It’s still one of Lola’s favorites.

I still have some regrets that I didn’t celebrate with the traditional pasta dish today with sauce and cheese.  That’s kind of what I think of when I consider pasta.  But I was able to make my own pasta for this recipe, which I suppose is a more fitting celebration.  Plus it’s a meal that I know Lola loves, and it’s always good to surprise her with one of her favorites.  No matter what, once again pasta proves to be one of those meals that warms our souls, fills our bellies and brings happy memories to the table.  That’s why we celebrate pasta today and almost everyday, so we will keep the party going.  I’m thinking there will be more pasta for us in the near future.  There’s always more to celebrate.

Next Up: National Chocolate Cupcake Day  

Day 77 – National Liqueur Day

The good folks at Wikipedia tell us that a liqueur is an alcoholic beverage made from a distilled spirit that has been flavored with fruit, cream, herbs, spices, flowers or nuts and bottled with added sugar or other sweetener.  Typically they are sweet and syrupy (which separates them from flavored liquors like raspberry or lemon vodka which are not as sweet and definitely not syrupy).  You can serve liqueurs by themselves (straight up or on the rocks) or you can add them to mixed drinks to create some pretty great tastes.  The possibilities are endless.

I’m not usually a liqueur sipping gentleman.  I would say the places I most like to see a liqueur is in my margarita (Grand Marnier or Cointreau make an excellent complement to tequila) or in my espresso martini (which will inevitably include Kahluha and Bailey’s Irish Creme).  I looked inside our liquor cabinet today to see what we had for liqueurs.  Not much to be honest.  We had some watermelon schnapps which was something I used to make watermelon margaritas over the summer.  We had a generic brand coffee liqueur (probably a professional sample that made it’s way home with me), a bottle of Bailey’s which was a holdover from Thanksgiving after dinner drinks and of course the obligatory bottle of Jägermeister, because I don’t know why.

I figured the natural way to really celebrate National Liqueur Day would be to just sip a nice drink after dinner, so that was the plan.  Lola wanted no part of this one (and to be honest, neither did I, but the quest must go on).  Working in restaurants, you grow accustomed to having the proper glasses for whatever you are making.  I went in search of a good rocks glass for my drink and the best I could come up with was a holiday-themed stemmed punch glass which looked like it would do the trick, plus it was festive.  I plopped some ice in there filling it to the brim (always fill your glass to the top with ice).  I poured in some of the coffee liqueur so there was a nice dark liquid at the bottom as the base of my nightcap.  Then I found a leftover nip (do you know what a nip is or is that a local thing?  It’s the small “airplane” size bottles of liquor) of Bailey’s Espresso Creme Liqueur.  I had picked these up at the liquor store one time as they had the bottles on the counter as an impulse item.  I like espresso, so I figured I’d give it a try.  I poured the whole bottle over a spoon into my drink (pouring it over the spoon allows it to float on top of the coffee liqueur so I could have a nice layered drink).  Voila! Looked pretty celebratory if you ask me.

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This was pretty good.  I sipped it in our easy chair watching the Cubs game and peeking out at the full moon that was illuminating the sky.  I’ve never really been a fan of cream drinks (your White Russians, Toasted Almonds, etc), but maybe my palate is changing because I found it tasty.  It was like an espresso martini but not quite as boozy.  I think this has a place in the rotation.  I wouldn’t call it my ace, but it would be really adequate in a situational save circumstance (sorry, I think baseball is in my brain now).  The only problem will be the availability of the Espresso Creme because it’s hard to find and I really want that espresso flavor.

I’m not sure if the drink was solely responsible, but I had really weird, vivid dreams last night.  I guess that can happen when you drink an espresso product after 9 PM.  But wow – wasn’t expecting that.

What I learned from National Liqueur Day:

  1. I like a nice Bailey’s and Kahluha drink
  2. Liqueurs make nice little drinks for the end of your day and can be festive.
  3. At some point, we need a few rocks glasses.
  4. Espresso at night gives me crazy dreams.
  5. After 25 years in the restaurant industry, I still need spellcheck to spell liqueur.
  6. Beautiful full moons make everyday a holiday.

Cheers!

Next Up: National Pasta Day 

 

Day 76 – National Sweetest Day

Apparently, Sweetest Day is a thing.  It was started in 1922 by a candy maker from Ohio who collaborated with other candy people to distribute over 20,000 boxes of candy to “newsboys, orphans, old folks, and the poor” in Cleveland.  Although many view it as a second Valentine’s Day, Sweetest Day is more about celebrating all those that make your life special. It is an opportunity to let those people around you know that they are special and that they make you happy.  And you do this by giving them candy.  It hasn’t really caught on here in New England, but it’s a thing in Ohio and in the Midwest (with a few flare ups in Pennsylvania and New York).

It’s odd timing for this kind of holiday.  In just two weeks we will be giving out candy to any stranger that walks up to our door (as long as they are not dressed up as themselves).  As a kid, your Halloween bounty should last you until Thanksgiving.  I imagine a Sweetest Day throws off that ratio and already puts those too-much-candy conscious parents on full alert.  Apparently there are a lot of critics about this holiday too, mostly calling it a Hallmark Holiday invented to sell candy and cards.  Maybe so, but isn’t that what we do for everything in our culture?  My biggest bone to pick with this holiday is that it’s hard to say.  Try saying it to someone who has no idea what you are talking about.  Did you say Sweetener Day?  Sweetheart Day?  Who are you and why do you have candy?

To celebrate, I picked up some Charms Blow Pops at the store.  Can we give some props to the Blow Pop which gives us the best of both worlds: candy and gum?  I mean, outside of Razzles, there’s no other candies that combine the two with such success in the candy world.  With the pops, I wrapped them up little bouquets with the flavors divided equally, I taped them together and then added a little ribbon and homemade card.  Not something you’d promote on Pinterest, but I have to say not too bad for a non-crafty dude like myself.

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I could have easily gone overboard on this one because I like the idea of giving things to the people you love.  However, because the holiday kind of snuck up on me and in the interest of saving money and time, I kept it local.  We were heading to the soccer fields today to watch our nephew Ben play and to see our niece Eva play too (they happened to have games at the same time in the same complex).  This was ideal for Sweetest Day distribution because I was able to bring along the lollipops for Ben and Eva and for Eva’s sister Savvy.  I gave a bouquet to each of them after their games.  They all seemed rather clueless as to why I was giving them lollipops but they happily accepted them nonetheless with smiles and thank-yous.  Savvy naturally had a few questions which I answered as best I could (she always has a few questions).  She then spent the rest of the time at the field holding onto her sweetest bounty.  She dropped one at one point and seemed crushed it was missing, but I was able to find it and return it to her and she perked back up.  When I gave Eva hers, she just kind of giggled as Eva does and then had her Mom put the lollipops in her bag for safekeeping.  Every once in a while, Eva would check back in with her Mom to make sure she still had the candy (as to make sure Katie had not binged on the pops in that five minutes).  Ben, who had scored the go ahead goal in his game, was happy too and gave me his sly smile of thanks.  He actually gave two of the pops to his buddies and saved one for himself.  He’s nice like that.

On our way home, we dropped off some lollipops for our niece Molly at her house.  Our plan was just to drop it off because we knew only Jeff was home and we didn’t want to bug him, but as we approached the house, Rosie the dog gave us away with her enthusiastic and sad to say screen-tearing greeting.  Jeff restored order, and I quickly left the pops (and a cookie for Becky) on their kitchen counter, and then we skedaddled leaving Rosie behind to face her consequences (I hope she blamed it on Rivet).  We still had two more bouquets left and we decided to drop them off at Pete & Cherie’s house for the kids.  We knew they weren’t home, but Katie was actually there picking up some Halloween costumes, so she let us in and we left a bouquet for Brix and Wavy on their kitchen counter (we skipped Calix only because he hasn’t learned to enjoy a good Blow Pop yet, only if they are Breast Milk flavored (hey Charms – how about that for a new favor!?!?)).

That was our celebration which was actually the biggest Sweetest Day Celebration we’ve ever had.  My apologies to those who I was not able to share the Sweetest Day love with.  I think next year we will be more prepared and get out in front on this one.  You have to like a holiday that makes you take a moment to appreciate the people in your world that you love (and one that keeps candy flowing).  Yeah, I know, it’s a made-up holiday, but that doesn’t take away from what is intended to celebrate: Love.  We all need to keep fighting for that and celebrating it as best we can.

Next Up: National Liqueur Day 

Day 75 – National Dessert Day

I started my celebration today, as everyone should, by having a cookie for breakfast.  I can’t say that this was motivated by it being National Dessert Day.  Rather it came from seeing the container of fresh cookies on our counter this morning and remembering how good those cookies were.  In any case, I popped open the tupperware, grabbed a cookie which was sill soft and chewy, and started my celebration.

I had a hard time trying to figure out how to celebrate this one.  It was almost too broad a holiday to try to narrow down.  I’ve certainly celebrated a lot of desserts over the last 75 days including cake, cookies and bars just in the last week alone.  I guess this quest is spoiling me on desserts.  I tried to think of some local spots that have some really good desserts that we could go taste, and there are many.  I kept going back to the Brick Alley Pub in Newport which is one of our favorite spots (it’s kind of everyone’s favorite spot).  It’s also the place where our Mike & Tina work too, so we always feel so welcomed when we are there.  On one of our visits, Our Tina, being nice, sent us over their famous Ghirardelli Brownie Heaven dessert as a little surprise (it’s a triple chocolate walnut brownie served with vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup, sliced almonds, whipped cream and shaved Ghirardelli chocolate.)  So good.  That was the dessert that kept popping up in my mind’s eye when I kept thinking about dessert.  I should say that Tina also has her own dessert on the menu at the Pub (Tina’s Bread Pudding with caramel rum sauce).  I am not sure if I have ever tried it because we are usually so full when we finish our meal there, but it sounds awesome.  In any case, when it came down to it, we got a little lazy and didn’t feel like making the trip into Newport.

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The Brick Alley Pub’s Ghirardelli Brownie Heaven with a side of Lola. 

That’s when I realized it was time to just play this one smart.  If that was my ideal dessert (and I’ve been a sucker for a brownie sundae since I was little), then I really had all the fixings for a good one right at home.  We stayed in on a nice relaxing Friday night.  We had a nice little dinner, watched a movie and just chilled.  When it was time for dessert, I just took one of the M&M cookie bars that I had made yesterday, heated them up so they would be warm, scooped on some vanilla ice cream, topped it with chocolate and caramel sauce, sprayed on some whipped cream and sprinkled with jimmies.  It was every bit of delicious as it sounds.  So while I didn’t go crazy for dessert day, I was able to save some resources and use what I had available to make a pretty happy ending.  The spirit of dessert is to top off your day with some sweet joy, and I certainly did that in style.

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Lola and I tried to think of our top five dessert list of all time from all our travels.  That’s a tough question.  The Fluffernutter Pierogi that we had last Saturday was ranking pretty high but we didn’t know if that was because it was so fresh in our minds.  We couldn’t really come up with a definitive list, but we did agree on our all time favorite: the Louisiana Bread Pudding Soufflé at the Palace Grill in Santa Barbara, CA.

We were out there on one of our trips to visit Op and Sted at their ranch (actually, we were on our honeymoon).  We hadn’t planned to stay in Santa Barbara for any length of time, but due to unforeseen circumstances (poison ivy), we ended up staying there for about a week while Lola recovered.  Consequently, we had done no research into this great city and did not know what to expect. And if you have to ‘end up’ anywhere, Santa Barbara is a pretty incredible spot to land.  Great views, great people and great restaurants.  We found the Palace Grill because we were just walking by and they seemed pretty busy and lively.  Plus there was a Zydeco band playing on the sidewalk for guests waiting.  Lola actually joined in for a song with them too, playing the frottoir for a song (she really did!)  When we went inside, the place was full of energy.  The staff was happy, the guests were smiling – it was a  full on party.  When we sat down, after the usual pleasantries with our waiter and drink orders, he asked if we might want to order the soufflé for dessert, because if we did, it needs at least 20 minutes to cook.  How can you say no to that?

I can’t tell you what we had for dinner (although Lola probably could – she has an incredible memory for good food).  I recall getting some kind of Cajun martini to drink which was made with a hot pepper which wasn’t my favorite but I wanted to be adventurous. This restaurant does things right and they take the team service concept to new heights.  One of their traditions is to have a group sing-a-long to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” when the song gets played in the restaurant (which much be every hour or so).  Everyone (guests, servers, managers, cooks) stops what they are doing, raises their glass and sings loud and long.  The lyrics are printed out for you too, so you had no excuses not to join in.  It may sound a little hokey like Bugaboo Steakhouse, but it’s not.  It’s fun and really part of the experience.  I’ve not seen anything like it anywhere else.

After dinner, when our soufflé came, it was a beautiful little pot of puffed up glory.  It was hot and sweet and the Whiskey Cream Sauce it was served with was the perfect complement.  It’s been over nine years since we were there, and it still stands out as being incredible.  That’s a pretty good dessert.  While we were finishing up, the band from the sidewalk came inside on a break and we actually invited the leader over to join us for a drink.  We sat with him for a while and he told us a couple of tales about his Zydeco adventures while Lola, as politely as she could in front of our guest,  licked the bottom of the soufflé plate clean.  Maybe that dessert is memorable because of the whole evening and because of the time and place we were in our lives, but it still stands out as being the best and someday, we’ll be back for more.

So that’s how we celebrated National Dessert Day.  Not only did we enjoy our homemade treats, but we also smiled in the memories of desserts past.  I guess that’s a pretty good way to do it.  To my loyal readers, my challenge to you is to tell us about your favorite dessert.  We’ve got more places to explore and we are always looking for the best in sweet endings.  Plus, its always fun to recall and share your sweetest memories.

Next up: National Sweetest Day 

Day 74 – National M&M Day

M&Ms were created in 1941 by Forrest Mars (son of of the Mars Candy empire founder).  Forrest copied the idea from an English candy called Smarties (a chocolate treat and not the Smarties we know today).  Essentially the candy was milk chocolate encased in a candy shell made from  hardened sugar syrup which would help prevent the chocolate from melting.  He used Hershey’s milk chocolate because Hershey’s had control of rationed chocolate at the country (it was wartime).  He ended up forming a partnership  with Bruce Murrie, son of Hershey Chocolate’s president William F. R. Murrie and Hershey would have a 20% ownership of the original candy.  The name M&Ms comes from their last names, Mars and Murrie.  They became a big success during the war because the candy would not melt so our troops could take them with them and not worry about having a gooey mess in their pocket.  At the end of the war, Mars worked their way out of the partnership with Hershey and went on to turn M&Ms into one of the most successful candies of all time.  Meanwhile, they also created a embittered rivalry between the two companies (Hershey’s and Mars).  Today, Mars is the sixth largest privately held company in the United States with over $33 billion dollars in annual sales (still owned entirely by the Mars family).  Hershey’s made out ok though.  They are still the largest manufacture of chocolate in North America and bring in billions of dollars of annual sales.

Sorry to get all factual with you there, I just find candy companies interesting.  There’s a great book about the Hershey-Mars saga called The Emperors of Chocolate that gives you more details.  If you like that, I would also suggest a book called Candy Freak which talks about the smaller candy companies around the country and the struggles they face to stay relevant (plus it’s filled with all kind of candy references that will have you craving the candy of your youth).

In any case, let’s hear it for M&Ms!  When was the last time you heard someone say “I hate M&Ms!”? Pretty much never.  What’s not to like?  The only argument comes from flavor choices.  Peanut or Plain?  Crispy or Almond?  Mint or Coffee Nut?  That’s right, if you haven’t been paying attention, M&Ms have been popping out new flavors over the last few years kind of like what Lay’s is doing with their potato chips.  A side note, the holiday flavor of Candy Corn M&Ms is kind of gross – and I love candy corn.  It’s just too sweet and not a good combo with the chocolate.  But, it does look festive with it’s yellow, white and orange colors.

That’s how I started today’s celebration, by exploring the many M&M flavors available.  I went to Rite Aid and picked up a small package of all the flavors they had available.  Peanut, Plain, Coffee Nut, Pretzel, Peanut Butter and Crispy.  That’s just the tip of the iceberg for flavors, but it’s the gamut of availability at Rite Aid.  My thought was to have a taste test, but that didn’t quite pan out.  I can tell you that the Coffee Nut flavor is actually pretty good – it’s a peanut M&M made with coffee flavor.  It’s a winner.  But other than that, I have tasted all the over flavors before so a taste test would have been silly.  The takeaway from that is now we have M&Ms stored for emergency occasions (which come up frequently around here).

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Outside of eating lots of M&Ms, I tried to think how I could celebrate this day.  Then I realized that I have never made M&M cookies.  Lots of people make M&M cookies, so it was time for me to join the ranks.  I looked online for recipes and I found a great one from a blogger whose recipes I have used before, Averie Cooks (her Fudgy Banana Bars with Vanilla Bean Browned Butter Glaze are legendary).  I actually found two recipes: one for a cookie and one for a bar.  I decided to make both.  After all, it is a holiday.

I made the M&M Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars first. These were super easy to make and if you enjoy eating raw batter (not recommended by the Surgeon General), the batter was out of this world.  They do take a few hours to cool which was the hardest part because they smelled so good when they came out of the oven we really needed to restrain ourselves to dig in.  But the bars needed to set, so we let them rest.  When we finally dug in, they were super rich and decadent.  I think I may have pulled them out of the oven a tad early, but somehow that made them a bit more tasty.

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Then I made the Soft and Chewy M&Ms Cookies.  These were easy too.  I’ve really been giving my pantry a workout lately, reaching for the all-stars almost every day (flour, sugar, vanilla, baking powder, baking soda).  I’m getting efficient at gathering all my ingredients and cookware and putting them to use, then cleaning them up and putting them away.  It’s a whole system.  For the cookies, I made the batter in no time and then the instructions called for the batter to chill for at least three hours, so I did.

While the batter chilled, we decided to go visit Laura’s sister Becky who was at home with her brand new Boxer puppy which had just arrived earlier in the day.  We packed up some of our M&M bars and headed over.  Becky’s daughter Molly was psyched we were bringing treats too – she’s been a quiet follower of this quest and she definitely enjoys the spoils of it all.  I love sharing with her too.  When we got there, the puppy, Rivet, was in Becky’s arms.  It was a tiny little thing, just eight weeks old, with a body of brownish-beige fur and a face of back fur so his Boxer roots were unmistakable.  Within minutes, Lola was lying on the floor and Rivet was lying on her chest and sleeping.  Lola was in heaven.  I think everyone needs a little puppy cuddle every now and then to set your world straight.

When we got home, I preheated the oven and got ready to bake the cookies.  The cookies were bigger than the cookies I usually make and I wasn’t sure how they would come out. They looked a bit underdone when it was time to pull them from the oven, but Averie said they will look this way and just to let them cool for about ten minutes on the tray.  I did that and just as promised, they seem to set while they cooled.  I couldn’t tempt Lola (she was ready for bed), but I had one myself with a small glass of milk.  You can never go wrong with a warm cookie, but man o’ man, was this a good cookie.  It was, as promised, soft and chewy, plus the chocolate chips were nice and melty.  The M&Ms got a little soft too so biting in to them was a delight as well.  I dunked my bites into the milk and was pretty much in a state of cookie bliss.

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At the end of the day, I can say I celebrated M&M day, although now I have a lot of leftover M&M stuff.  I suppose there are worse problems to have.  A great day to celebrate and I think we should keep up celebrations of the great candies of the world.  They need be appreciated for the smiles they bring!

Next Up: National Dessert Day 

 

Day 73 – National Gumbo Day

Growing up in an Irish Catholic family from Connecticut, there was always one meal that I could always look forward to: Gumbo.  I remember my grandmother spending hours at the stove making her Sunday special, sneaking me bites of andouille sausage along the way.  The house would be filled with the delightful smell of cajun seasoning and we’d all be salivating at the hint of our upcoming meal in the air.  My dad would sometimes bring home some fresh crawfish he would catch out by the creek and after he boiled them, we’d all take turns cracking them open.  I’d dip mine in the gumbo – I’m a dipper.  Then my uncles would break out the banjo and accordion and our feast would suddenly turn in to a singalong that would last into the early evening.  Those were the days.

Actually, if anyone ever suggested that we serve gumbo at a family dinner when I was growing up, they’d be laughed out of the room.  We were kind of a meat and potatoes family.  You wanted some seasoning?  Here’s the salt and pepper.  No, my family, my mom especially, was never into any regional foods or foods with any kind of spice.  Don’t get me wrong; I had some good food growing up.  But in retrospect, my palate was pretty boring by the time I was released into the real world.  That’s a good thing though because there was so much to explore.

Lola made gumbo for us once before.  Gumbo just sounds like something you want to try.  The word itself is tasty and full of promise.  It’s fun to say.  When you start watching cooking shows and reading magazines and seeing what’s in it, you start getting curious about it.  I’m not sure what was the catalyst was that made Lola make her gumbo, but it was exciting to have it on our stove.  My recollection was that the gumbo was tasty however, and Lola can attest to this, she used okra in her recipe which is authentic and acts as a thickener, but it’s kind of a gross vegetable.  It was either undercooked, overcooked or it’s just an awful plant in general – we weren’t a fan.  So we enjoyed this wonderful gumbo that was filled with delightful bites, but it was littered with this gross odd looking vegetable they call okra.  That kind of soured us on it.

If you don’t know, gumbo is a stew that originated in southern Louisiana during the 18th century.  It consists primarily of a strongly-flavored stock, a thickener, and the Cajun holy trinity of vegetables (celery, bell peppers, and onions).  Gumbo is a stew while other dishes like jambalaya and paella are considered a casserole which is the difference between the two.  The popularity of the late, great chef Paul Prudhomme in the 1980s helped spur the popularity of gumbo and helped bring it to an audience outside the Bayou.  And for trivia purposes, gumbo is the official cuisine of the state of Louisiana.  Now you know!

I looked for a recipe that uses a roux as a thickener (not okra) and I found one courtesy of my old pal Rachael Ray.  There are a ton of recipes out there for good gumbo.  I picked one that looked easy.  I also opted to not add in shrimp which is a usual ingredient in gumbo.  I’m not a huge shellfish fan and I didn’t want to make the effort of making something I would really not want.  To start, I got all my ingredients together and got to work cutting up the holy trinity (and garlic too).  This recipe was kind of a one-pot process.  You cook the chicken, take it out, cook the sausage, take it out, cook the veggies, then add everything back in.  It probably took about a half-hour of work to get it on the stove and ready to do it’s thing.  While it cooked, the house slowly filled with great smells between the cooking veggies, the sausage and the cajun seasoning.  It’s nice to have a house filled with some good home cooking.

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When it came time to eat, I wasn’t sure how to serve it.  After some quick research, it seems the best way to serve it up is with some rice and some French bread.  I whipped up some scallion rice which was really just white rice with scallions mixed in.  I scooped some rice in a bowl and then labeled some gumbo around it so the rice was still peeking out the top.  Then I ripped off a couple of chunks of crusty French bread, buttered it and served it on the side.  The biggest dilemma was what to serve it with: fork or spoon.  The spoon seemed like a good idea, but it’s hard to eat a chunk of chicken with a spoon.  We went with the fork although in reality, this is exactly the kind of meal a spork was meant for.

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This was good stuff.  It was spicy (probably a 6.5 on the 1 to 10 scale) but great flavor too.  The rice helped soak up the broth so it really ate like meal.  The broth was a combination of tomatoes and chicken stock and that combined with the the cajun seasoning really made the flavor pop.  The chicken was good an flavorful, as was the sausage and it was nice to have the chunks of protein to give it all some heartiness.  The bread was a must-have addition to the party too because you could use it to scoop up all that goodness.  Best of all, there was no okra.  I’d say this was a winner.

We celebrated gumbo today which is something a ten year old me would have never done.  I’m glad I branched out and started trying different things along the way.  There’s so many flavor and tastes in this world it seems silly to just keep yourself confined to a limited menu.  Sure you will hit some okra along the way, but at least you tried.  You’ve expanded your view of the world.  You’ve explored.  You’ve been brave and tried something new.  That’s what celebrating every day is all about.

Did I just hit you with a morale to this story?  I think I did.  If this was a movie, this is where the banjo music from my uncles would kick in and play us out.

Next Up: National M&M Day 

 

 

Day 71 – National Angel Food Cake Day

Today was chockablock full of holidays.  It was of course Columbus Day which is why the kids, bankers and our mail carriers were all off.  For our Canadian fans, it was also Thanksgiving Day – a day to be thankful for all our Canadian harvests and other blessings of the past year.  I was going to celebrate this but after looking into it, it seems that the Canucks celebrate in the same fashion we do with turkey and all the trimmings.  I didn’t quite have the energy for pulling that together.  It was also World Porridge Day which not only celebrates the delightfulness of this warm breakfast favorite, but also in Scotland where porridge is the traditional national dish, it has become a tradition on this day to help provide rich nourishing porridge to children all over the world.  That’s a nice way to celebrate.  I tried to make porridge today, but the first batch was too cold.  The second was too hot.  I gave up then.

Today was also World Mental Health Day. Did you know that 1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem during their lifetime and many more will see friends and family members affected?  I wish this day was talked about more.  It would be nice to see mental health issues being addressed with the same sort of compassion and understanding that we have for other health issues.  I wish we could remove the shame and the discomfort we have when talking about it too.  Let’s not glaze over these issues with empty words like “cheer up” or “lighten up.”  Let’s be compassionate and encourage sufferers to seek help and support with the same care and concern we would have for any one that is being affected by a disease.  We need to let our friends and family who are suffering know that we love them and we are there for them.  That’s an important message to get out to everyone in our community, so this is an important day to celebrate.

Today was also Native American Day which is a day to acknowledge the crimes committed against native Americans, and encourages people to learn about and respect the cultures of historical and modern native Americans.  It’s kind of a counter-celebration of Columbus Day which celebrates where the mistreatment of Native Americans began.  I thought this would be a good holiday to celebrate because it’s a culture we don’t pay too much attention to even though our daily life is filled with all kinds of reminders of Native American influence.  The name for Aquidneck Island comes from the Narragansett tribe word for island (although some say it translates to “Isle of Peace.”)  The Sakonnet River gets it’s name from a Native American word which is said to mean “Haunt of the Wild Black Goose.”  Native American influence is everywhere.

I’ve never looked up the history of Native Americans in Rhode Island before so in the spirit of the holiday, I did that today.  There’s a lot of history and this blog is not the place to try to incorporate it all.  But I will encourage everyone to at least read the Wikipedia entry about it (and click on the links too).  This is  our history and it’s good to know (plus you will recognize the names like Metacomet and John Sossamon.  Here are just a few takeaways:

  • The  Narragansett Tribe ‘controlled’ lands in Rhode Island and parts of Connecticut.
  • The first European contact was in 1524, when the explorer Giovanni de Verrazano visited Narragansett Bay.
  • In the early 1600s, thousands of Native Americans died because of the diseases carried to Rhode Island from European fisherman.
  • In the mid 1600s, wars started to happen between colonists and Native American tribes.  That’s when it starts to get ugly.
  • I mean ugly, as in surviving Narragansett tribe members were forced into slavery and shipped to the Caribbean while others became indentured servants in Rhode Island.  Yep, that happened here.

I wanted to honor our Native American heritage so I decided to look up Native American recipes to see if I could make something special to help mark the day.  The recipe that kept coming up was for American Indian Fry Bread.  In retrospect, especially after reading about all the pain and suffering Native Americans endured, this was a pretty insignificant way to honor their contributions to our society.  Furthermore, this was a delicacy associated more with the tribes out west in Arizona and Utah.  But it was Fry Bread!  You read that right, bread that is fried!  I had never heard about Fry Bread until recently when comedian Jim Gaffigan mentioned in his book Food: A Love Story.  He was amazed as I was that this is a thing and he also imagined what an interview would be like with someone ready to enter the fry bread culture:

INTERVIEWER: Have you ever eaten cake in the shower?
APPLICANT: A couple of times.
INTERVIEWER: You may be ready for fried bread. Ever eat in your car so you don’t have to share with your children?
APPLICANT: Every Day!
INTERVIEWER: You are definitely ready for fried bread.

It was really easy to make and just four ingredients: flour, baking powder, salt and water.  You just make the dough and after rises, you roll out little balls, flatten them out and fry them in oil.  I used them to make Fry Bread Tacos which also seemed to be a popular recipe for what to do with fry bread.  Nothing fancy, just ground beef tacos with Ortega seasoning.  When I built the tacos, I stacked them like this: fry bread, fresh arugula, refried beans, taco beef, diced tomatoes, cheese, salsa sour cream and fresh guacamole.  They were a sloppy mess and a ten napkin dinner, but pretty awesome.

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The fry bread is dense but it’s really good. Although there is only a little salt in the recipe, it had a nice salty flavor.  That outside had a nice firm texture while the inside was doughy and soft.  It also made a great vessel for the flavors of the taco fixings too.  It was sturdy enough to hold everything, but the flavors soaked nicely into the dough for an extra bit of delight.  I imagined it would have a heavy fried taste, but it really didn’t (I had drained and dried them fairly well).  It was kind of like a gordita, but better.  It was homemade.

Before our dinner, we took a second and reflected on Native Americans.  We imagined them on these lands only a few hundred years ago.  Canoes on the river.  Families harvesting the land and feasting on their bounty.  Waking to the divine joy of a sunrise over the Sakonnet.  We said thanks for their love of the land and offered up our own solemn apologies at the crimes against them at the hands of our ancestors.  Eating fry bread is not really a good tribute to the plight of the Native American.  However, we did take a break in our day to remember them and celebrate their affect on our own community.  We are going to try and learn more about their culture and history in the future.

Today was also Angel Food Cake Day too and to celebrate, I made one.  Once again, I was trying to figure out what the difference is between Angel Food Cake and Sponge Cake.  The difference is that the Angel Food Cake uses only egg whites (sponge cake uses yolks too).  It uses a lot of egg whites too – a dozen to be exact (anyone know what I can do with 12 yolks?)  For my recipe, I went with my old fictional friend Betty Crocker (no relation to Apple Betty).  I wanted it to be an easy recipe withs simple ingredients and Betty C. didn’t disappoint.  Essentially, to make an Angel Food cake, you make a meringue and then you fold in your flour and sugar.  That’s what I did and I took my time making sure not to deflate the meringue.  It cooked in about 45 minutes and came out looking pretty good.  Part of the process was letting it cool for at least two hours (they were very specific on this).  There was also a confusing instruction about putting the pan on a funnel or bottle to rest (the bottle would be the male connection to the female tube pan).  I’m not sure if I got it right or if it made a difference, but for two hours in our kitchen, the pan sat atop a bottle as some kind of weird balance exercise.

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When I told Lola I had an Angel Food Cake for dessert, she kind of gave me a “meh” answer.  I understood that completely because the thought of a plain piece of Angel Food seems rather blah.  But then I told her I had plans to pimp it up, and she was now interested.  My Pimp that Angel Food Cake plan was simply to add vanilla ice cream and top with caramel and chocolate sauce.  That pimps up anything.  So that’s how I served it and Lola was pleased.

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You use a little bit of almond extract in the recipe and that flavor really comes out in the cake.  You also get a good sugary taste in every bite as well.  The crust gives it a somewhat crunchy texture but the cake is soft and spongey.  It perfectly soaks up the other flavors too (chocolate, vanilla and caramel), so it ended up being pretty happy ending to our feast.  You did it Angel Food Cake – you own us over, and that’s why we celebrate you.

Next Up: National Coming Out Day (big announcement coming!)