Day 271 – National Shrimp Scampi

Today was the day that I probably came the closest to just skipping the celebration part of the day. At the start of this journey in my list of rules (or guidelines), I allowed myself a few Mulligans throughout the quest where I could take a day off. I figured that over the course of a whole year there would be times when celebrating a day would be difficult if not impossible. So far however, I’ve been able to do it every day and now more than ever, its driving me to keep going. Although today was a challenge. It was a long day. I woke up at 5:30 because I had a case of hamster head (that’s a term that Lola  uses to describe when your head keeps spinning, like a hamster on its exercise wheel). I had to go to work at about 9 am, I had a few things that I have to get done before Monday that were on my mind, and to top it all off, we have a little issue with a leak in our basement that I am working on. With all that dancing through my head, I was up at the literal crack of dawn. Then when I went to work, it was busy and as they say in the business, I got my ass whooped. I didn’t get home until almost 7:30 and I was exhausted. Then I had to think about shrimp scampi because it was National Shrimp Scampi Day. I had to dig deep for this one. At that point, all I really wanted was a cold beer, a peanut butter sandwich and to call it a night. But I pushed myself. The quest must go on.

Lola had an equally exhausting day and when I got home, she was in the shower. I had texted her on my way home to see if she wanted to go out for scampi, but she wasn’t really feeling it. Truthfully neither was I, but if she got motivated to go, I would motivate me to catch my second wind. With going out off the table, I thought about making my own which would have meant going to Clement’s Market and getting all my supplies, prepping all the garlic and shrimp, cooking it and then cleaning up after myself. Scampi is fairly easy to make, but because it was late and I was tired, it wasn’t in the cards. That would have meant we wouldn’t get down to eating until about 9 pm which would not have been good for anyone. That’s where I almost said screw it and just ordered a cheese pizza for us and called it a night. But I pushed myself to keep looking so online we found a few local spots that carry shrimp scampi on their menu. Eventually we decided on getting it from a place in Bristol called Leo’s Ristorante. The streak would still be alive.

The name Shrimp Scampi is a bit of redundancy because Scampi are actually tiny, lobster-like crustaceans with pale pink shells (also called langoustines). A traditional way of preparing them in Italy was to sauté them with olive oil, garlic, onion and white wine. When Italian cooks came to America, they substituted shrimp for the scampi, but still kept the full name.* I always thought that scampi was just a delicious sauce of garlic, butter and wine; I had no idea it was actually a crustacean. I love the sauce part of this dish but I have never been a very big fan of the shrimp. No real reason just that shrimp don’t really taste like anything to me. But, because of the quest, I figured I could choke some down in the name of celebration. And again, there was the sauce to look forward to.

If I were to celebrate Shrimp Scampi in my most ideal way, I would have Lola’s sister Cherie cook some for us. As I mentioned before, she’s a good cook and Shrimp Scampi is totally her jam. It would probably be her marquis recipe and she’s nice enough to bust it out on occasion for us. Lola is a huge fan of it. I still get skittish about the shrimp part, but I will always sop up every bit of that garlic sauce until the very last drop. I’ve watched her make it before and I think she uses the standard fare like butter, garlic and white wine, but I think she also adds in some shallots, some Worcestershire sauce and naturally cheese. It smells so good. Cherie, and most of Lola’s family, are huge garlic fans so it’s easy to see why this is a fan favorite. Cherie could actually sell hers at fine restaurants – it’s that good. Plus she makes a garlic bread to accompany it that’s out of this world (and she likes to serve it with an always delightful Caesar salad too). Cherie’s cooking is definitely a “pro” when it came to marrying into this family – a definite perk of the Mellow life. Unfortunately though, Cherie was working tonight so I knew Cherie’s Shrimp Scampi couldn’t happen. I actually saw her coming to work as I was packing up to leave. She was all decked out in her bartender clothes and I forgot what Cherie the Bartender looked like. She’s a natural in any restaurant.

We called in our take out order to Leo’s and at this point, besides being tired, we were starving. Bristol is only a ten minute drive away (or 45 minutes if there’s bridge/Fourth of July traffic), so I hopped in the car. It was actually one of those oddly magical rides where I seemed to catch every light when it was green, the music on the radio was perfect, the night sky was still somewhat lit by the last glimpses of the setting sun and there was a pink hue to it all, and there was a full on fireworks display going off while I went over the bridge. It must have been something happening at Roger Williams University, but I had the perfect viewing spot from my car. When I got to the restaurant, there was a spot right in front and when I went inside, the order was just being wrapped up. It was about as easy a trip as you could possibly have. On my way back (which was still quick), I could still see the fireworks. When I got home, I unwrapped everything and I put our scampi into bowls to make it feel like we weren’t savages.

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If you like garlic, Shrimp Scampi is one of the best smelling dishes you will ever see (or smell). It wafts of that dreamy mixture of garlic and butter and it charges up your salivary glands. You want to dive right in. Leo’s gave us our choice of pasta and Lola chose wisely with linguine. That seems to be the perfect noodle to soak up all that garlicky goodness. It was chock full of garlic too (as you can see in picture). The cherry tomatoes were a nice touch especially because they were cooked just enough so they would gently burst open when your fork pierced the skin. There was some cheese on top too that balanced out the whole meal and the buttery sauce.  It was super good. I even ate the shrimp which were fine. Like I said, I can eat shrimp; I just don’t get what the big whoop is about. Lola thought the shrimp were slightly overcooked but that could have been a product of getting takeout. Shrimp cook very fast (and then slide into being overcooked just as fast). They probably kept cooking on the heat of the pasta as they were in transit from restaurant to home, so that could explain their overdoneness. Lola was happy enough though and our hunger pains were able to be satisfied and better yet, our quest notched another completed celebration in its expanding belt.

I selected Leo’s because they follow me on Instagram and I see their posts in my feed. They are kind of the first restaurant you see when you drive into Bristol. We have been there before and had a nice al fresco dinner overlooking the street. They actually posted a picture today for National Shrimp Scampi Day, so that’s what put them in my mind and why I thought about going there. I like to get behind anyone who acknowledge these special days.

I did it. I made it through another day and although I almost took the Mulligan, I persevered. That sounds overly dramatic because really all I had to do to persevere was eat a delicious buttery shrimp dish. That’s not exactly a problem that’s going to gather a lot of sympathy (nor should it). I guess some days I get caught up in the longevity of this quest and I overlook the simple parts of it. I am really here just to enjoy life and although it was a long day, it ended up with a nice garlicky twist. I got to take a nice relaxing ride and see a fabulous fireworks display. I got to take some quality time with Lola commiserating on our long days and enjoying dinner together. And I got to eat a meal that brings forth feelings of comfort and simple joy. Plus it was delicious. That’s a pretty nice celebration for any day, so I guess my Scampi celebration brought me the one thing that I wasn’t really expecting: gratefulness. (Plus lots of garlic. Did I mention the garlic?)

Next up: National Oatmeal Cookie Day and Lola’s Birthday! 

*From the New York Times

Day 270 – National Blueberry Pie Day

Ok, you probably think I’m sounding like a broken record here (do kids today even understand that reference?), but this is another holiday that is out of place. Blueberry season doesn’t really kick in around here until the early summer. The plants are just coming out of hibernation now, not even yet budding. In July and August, blueberries will be bursting in these parts and all the local farmstands will be practically begging you to make pies with their harvest. But now, the fresh blueberries around here are all from Chile or Argentina. And yes, the domestic season changes depending on what region you are in, but even the warmer US climates like Florida don’t start getting good berries until late April. In New England, prime time is mid-summer. When you celebrate something like blueberry pie, you are essentially celebrating the harvest of fresh blueberries not just the pie. You are so excited with your berry bounty that you have to find things to do with them. Making pie is one such way to use them up. In fact, it is a particularly awesome way to enjoy a fresh blueberry. I’m all for celebrating, it would just be more apropos in summer.

I’ve said before that pie is never my favorite dessert choice although I am intrigued by the romantic notions that seem to swirl around it. You can mention pie in a certain way and it evokes a warm response that not all desserts get. Pie is even particularly romanticized in movies and on tv when characters stop in small town diners and must have a piece of Edna’s famous homemade pie. It’s part of the allure of the pie. The magic. But for me, I’d always prefer a cake or cookie or brownie. Blueberry pie however is different. That’s a pie I like. I think it’s because I like berries and that’s what you get in a blueberry pie, and a whole lot of them. Visually, a blueberry pie is a vision of beauty with the dark purple hue of the filling contrasted against the golden brown crust which is offset by the stark whiteness of a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. Ice cream on blueberry pie is a must. You need the creamy, milky taste to balance out the sweetness. Plus the balance of the warm pie and cold ice cream creates a little wow moment on your tongue. I’m a fan.

A few years ago on my birthday (in August – the height of blueberry season), Lola surprised me with a little getaway trip. We were living in New Hampshire at the time and we had both gotten used to hearing how great the blueberries are in our neighboring state of Maine. It was an odd little Maine fact that Mainers would oddly boast about, so we had been curious. Lola being Lola, she did some research and found a spot in Maine that offered one of the best blueberry pies in all New England if not the United States. She booked us a little trip to make that journey. The pie was at a spot called Helen’s in Machias, Maine which is about an hour and a half North East of Bar Harbor. It was quite a trek. What we both remember from that trip was the bed and breakfast we stayed at which had that cumbersome moment of us being the only two guests in the place and having to eat breakfast with the owners. The breakfast was filled with awkward conversation, some neat local facts (they showed us some pictures of a bobcat that had been spotted around town), and probably the worst breakfast I have ever been served. It was awful. In my mind, which has spent years trying to erase the memory, it was a dish of hard boiled eggs mixed in some kind of sausage gravy over biscuits with a mustard sauce too (as a reminder, I HATE mustard). I just gagged a little thinking about the whole thing. Lola and I couldn’t even look at each other while we were eating it, and because we were sitting with the owners, we had to choke it down. We left shortly there after and immediately commiserated on how bad it was. Then we went to Helen’s for pie. The pie was pretty good but to be honest, it wasn’t particularly amazing. Nothing really stood out about it even though it was delicious. But, we were still emotionally scarred by our breakfast, so in truth, our palates were likely off. We spent the next few days in Bar Harbor which was way more relaxing and fun and less saucy hard boiled eggs.

I was working today so I knew I had to crank out a pie early in the day which was not a problem. I had purchased my supplies the night before and I was ready. I found a recipe from Sally’s Baking Addiction which is a site I use quite often for sweet desserts. She called it “Simply the Best Blueberry Pie” and I trust her judgement, so I figured it was worth a try. The first part of this pie (and any pie) is making the crust and she gave nice easy directions to make your own. However, I have been a little hesitant about making my own crust because I seem to have a tough time with dough. I was also limited on time and happened to have a frozen pie crust in our freezer, so I went for the easy way and used the pre-made pie crust. All I had to then was fill it with blueberries. I bought two packages of frozen blueberries at the store (her recipe said frozen blueberries were ok to use too). You basically just mix the berries with some sugar, lemon juice and cornstarch and then dump it into your pie shell. That was super easy, although I may have overfilled. The final step was the top of the pie. Sally gave us a few options: you could top it with more dough so it would have a nice layer of crust on the top. She also broke down a few ways to go including a lattice pattern and a star pattern. Her other suggestion was making a crumble top which she directed you to another recipe for instructions. I hadn’t made my own dough, so adding another layer on top would have been tricky, so I went with the crumble which is actually my preference. It was kind of easy too, just a combination of brown sugar, cinnamon, walnuts, flour and butter. When it combined, you sprinkled it over the top. Then it was ready for the oven and it baked for about fifty minutes.

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I timed it so that it came out of the oven about ten minutes before I left for work and then I let it rest (as instructed). I left it on a trivet but I put the trivet in a sheet pan just in case and it was a good thing. I must have overloaded the pie shell because when I got home from work about seven hours later, it was sitting in a slight puddle of blueberry juice. I think as the pie settled, the juice from the berries kept extracting and it went up and over the sides of the pie. It still looked fine, it was just a leaker. The crumble was still nice and brown on top. I was pretty happy with the result.

I had some after dinner served naturally with vanilla ice cream. The messiness of the blueberries made it a little hard to cut that perfect piece, but I still cut out a nice triangle which kind of changed shape when it hit the plate. This pie was particularly good. The berries were nice and juicy and every bite was filled with the sweet juice that was created in the filling. The crust on the bottom was nice and firm and gave the bites some texture, but the star was the crumble on top which brought in that added dose of texture with a sugary, nutty flavor to it. The ice cream melted slowly into the blueberry juice and the perfect bites were created. Lola opted for no pie tonight, but when she saw me eating it she naturally wanted a taste. She loved it too. I have a feeling she will have a piece today when I am at work.  It was that good.

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I have celebrated pie a bunch of times along this journey but I have to say that in regards to sweet pies, blueberry has been and probably always will be my favorite. To me, there’s no better pie. I was excited to have actually made one too even though I took a few short cuts along the way. There’s something about a fresh baked pie that fills a house with the most delightful smells and makes it feel homey. I wanted to leave it on the windowsill to cool like they do in cartoons. Best of all, it delivered a great taste (dare I say even better than Machias, ME). Yeah, I like blueberry pie and I was excited to celebrate today. It’s also gotten me excited for the blueberry season that is almost here. I can almost taste it. That means more blueberry pie will be coming this summer, but hopefully no hard boiled eggs in cream sauce will come with it.

Next up: National Shrimp Scampi Day 

Day 269 – National Prime Rib Day

I don’t think I’ll get a lot of sympathy if I start to complain that as part of my quest I had to spend a portion of my day trying to find some Prime Rib. That’s kind of a first world problem. Nonetheless, that was my dilemma today. It’s not as easy as you would think – at least on a Thursday. It’s not the menu fixture it once was. I had to really look at some menus online and hunt for it. In the end, I found some at the 99 Restaurant and it ended up being pretty good. But it wasn’t easy.

Prime Rib is simply roast beef, although it’s a bit more than that. When I hear of roast beef, I think of the rump roast that my Mom would cook almost every Sunday night when my grandmother and uncles would join us for Sunday dinner. If you look at the chart below, the rump roast (which is a round roast) comes from the hindquarters (hence the rump name). A Prime Rib is, oddly enough, cut from the rib section of the steer and is specifically the section of the ribs that go from rib six through rib twelve (the other ribs are used for short ribs and more). To be considered Prime meat by the USDA, the beef must have abundant marbling (fat within the beef) and must come from a cow under 42 months of age. However, the term Prime Rib predates the USDA’s beef-grading system and doesn’t necessarily mean the same. So technically you could have Prime Rib that is not Prime Beef. When I have told Lola about cuts of beef before, it tends to confuse her and she needs a visual aid. Because of that, we actually have magnets on our fridge with the cuts of beef listed on them (although it’s not quite as in depth as the chart here). But, if someone happens to gift us with an unbutchered side of beef, we’ll be ready to carve that sucker up.

Cuts of Beef

We used to serve Prime Rib on the weekends at the restaurant I used to work for (the New England Food and Beverage Company). The reason why restaurants only serve Prime Rib on weekends is because you have to cook the whole 25 pound rib at a time, so they offer it as a weekend special because that’s when the most people are in your building. If you don’t sell out of it, that’s a lot of waste (or a lot of roast beef sandwiches). It would always be the first thing you had to tackle on the Prep List for the day because it would need to cook all day long. You would fire it in the oven at a high temp for about an hour and then you would put it in a warmer where it would continue to cook low and slow for the rest of the day. By service time, it would be right at that rare-medium rare mark. Pieces were cut to order and if you wanted it on the more well done side, you would get either the coveted end piece (which was always around medium well) or it would go in the oven with some au jus and cook the rest of the way. The whole rib was kept in a warming oven for the night and the cook would have to pull it out every time someone ordered it. He/she would then have to slice it and then put it back, so although it was simple, it was laborious to plate. The cook also had to be pretty good at eyeballing what a 12 ounce piece of Prime Rib looks like as compared to 16 ounces and of course, the 32 ounce king cut.

When I was young and would go to fancy restaurants with my parents, I’d always go for the Prime Rib. To me it was just super tasty roast beef which I was a fan of, but it was also exciting because it always looked so big on your plate. The possibility that there was a giant cut of beef out there that was almost three times the size of the cut I was eating was magical. I would see other people getting it and it was mammoth, like something Fred Flintstone ordered that would make his car fall over. When I got older and a bit more sensible, I realized that there’s really no need for that much beef. The smallest cut is enough beef. Anything bigger is just ludicrous. Still, for a young boy who loved Prime Rib, the king cut was something you could dream about. You don’t see the 32 ounce piece in many restaurants any more unless you are in one of those old school steak houses which are decorated with dark wood, low lighting and memories from the eighties. It’s a dying breed.

While Prime Rib may not be a fashionable trend in restaurant fare any more, you can’t deny it’s deliciousness. Thankfully, I have in-laws that agree with that and now as a family tradition, Pete and Cherie cook a giant, bone-in Prime Rib for the family on Christmas. When I remember that they are cooking this, I usually start to drool and that kicks in about the second week of December so its kind of an issue. Cherie is kind of famous in the family for being a good cook and really good, savory dishes are her specialty. She’s a fan of the good things: pasta, cheese, sauce, garlic and more cheese. That makes for some great food. Pete is a good cook too and when they make dinner, you have to be ready to loosen your belt afterwards. The Christmas Prime Rib has been captured in photos quite famously (at least in our personal Facebook circles) with me carrying this mammoth beast to the table and Pete, carving knife and fork in hand, anxiously waiting to cut in. Pete really sells the whole image with his enthusiasm. The other funny moment from that night was Pete’s walking around like a German general giving instructions on how to cook the rib as a slight mockery of Cherie’s need for control in the kitchen. It’s a funny little bit, although I really do admire Cherie’s leadership in the kitchen. Too many cooks do indeed spoil the broth. In any case, this is our holiday tradition and it always comes out so good that you feel full for days. Just seeing this makes me wish Christmas was here.

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Prime Rib its not cheap either so I am grateful to Pete and Cherie for their holiday generosity in the name of good food. That’s super kind of them. It’s also why I didn’t cook one today. Not that I’m opposed to buying good meat, it’s just that it was only going to be me tonight and that didn’t warrant buying a whole rib. Lola was visiting a friend in New Hampshire and I was working until about 7, so making my own just didn’t make sense. That’s when I started looking online to see where I could grab some for take out after work. Nothing was really popping out to me and when I searched, I was getting a lot of links to chain restaurants like Outback and Texas Roadhouse. Those places are fine, they are just not on the island. So I thought about what chains are on the island and I came to the 99 Restaurants. Their menu said they had Prime Rib every Thursday through Sunday while it lasts. I had my answer. I’m sure there were local steakhouses or family restaurants in the area that had Prime Rib, but the 99 was just more convenient and the food is usually pretty good. After work, I made my way there and called in my order to go. It was ready right on time and they even provided delivery right to my car so I didn’t even have to get out (which was good because I was intently listening to the Yankee game on the radio). Pretty convenient.

When I got home, I unpacked it an put it on a plate (I’m not a huge fan of eating out of styrofoam containers). It actually looked pretty good. It was on the rare side which is what I wanted and I was worried that it would be a bit overdone. It wasn’t exactly hot but that was because it had to be transported home so no fault of the restaurant. I got the 12 ounce cut with French Fries which gets served with au jus and horseradish dipping sauce. The au jus is a must because it keeps the rib juicy and even a little warmer on each bite. It gives it a little saltiness too if you dunk your piece into it. The horseradish sauce is a must when serving Prime Rib, although I’m not a fan. It’s basically a mix of horseradish, Worcestershire sauce and sour cream and it’s the perfect accompaniment, it’s just not my thing. Still, I would have been offended if it had not come with it because it’s such a part of the whole Prime Rib experience (incidentally, Pete makes a great version of this sauce, or so I’m told).

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For any non-meat eaters out there, this picture probably makes you gag (and it’s actually rare enough so some actual meat eaters might even feel a bit icky). But that’s Prime Rib. If it cooks any more than that, it gets less tasty. There’s always a lot of fat in a Prime Rib and that can be a good thing (although it looks gross). Fat delivers a lot of flavor to the beef, so seeing it is a good thing. The big pieces you just have to cut out. One of the most overlooked parts of a Prime Rib is the outer portion which tends to get crusty and well seasoned as it cooks. It gives you texture and a robust burst of flavor. I kind of feel those crust pieces are the best bites. The meatier parts of the beef can get a little chewy, so having those outer pieces balances it all out. This was actually pretty good. I like 99 Restaurants although I don’t go there that often. However the food always seems to be good, the service is usually up to par and it’s a good value. I was impressed that they could deliver a good piece of Prime Rib on a to go order too. They get good marks.

The struggles of doing this quest are not easy. Today I had to search out one of my favorite types of roast beef and then I had to eat the whole thing! The things we have to push ourselves to do all in the name of adventure. Oh well, such are the trails and tribulations of this undertaking. Writing this I kind of remembered some fun things about Prime Rib and how I’ve been around it for a long time. As a youth, it was my dream meal. As an adult, it was something I sold and had to cook. And as a celebrator, it has become a nice little family tradition filled with equal parts deliciousness, kindness and fun. That’s kind of cool. I may not order Prime Rib every time I see it on a menu anymore, but I like seeing it there as an option. It’s a happy memory and I like knowing that it is still there for me when I have the craving, complete with horseradish sauce.

Next up: National Blueberry Pie Day

Sources: SeriousEat.com and Visualy.com

Day 268 – National Pretzel Day

Sometimes you make plans and God laughs. Other times you make plans and you realize that your mind has just turned to mush. That’s how today went, but in the end I was able to scrape together a pretty nice tribute to the beloved pretzel with a little bit of Rhode Island flair.

Pretzels are actually one of the world’s oldest snack foods and while there is not an exact history to them, they trace their way back to the 7th century. They are made basically like a very simple dough made from flour, water, yeast, shortening, and sugar. They are believed to have been created by Italian monks who gave the treats to children. The monks twisted the dough before baking them so the final product looked like crossed arms which was a symbol of prayer. It also became a staple of the Catholic diet in those early years during Lent when the eating of meat and dairy was prohibited. Later, the pretzel shape would come to symbolize undying love and they started to become standard fare at wedding ceremonies. It seems that people really read into the deeper meaning of the shape of a pretzel. Pretzels were believed to come to America on the Mayflower and then when the Pennsylvania Dutch settled in to their new surroundings, they kind of became the pretzel kings in these parts. Even today, 80% of all American pretzels come from Pennsylvania.

There are basically two kind of pretzels: hard and soft. The difference depends on how much water is used in the dough and how hot/long they cook. The soft pretzels have a higher moisture content and that’s why they are soft and chewy on the inside. Consequently, they don’t last as long. A hard pretzel can stay on the shelf significantly longer than a soft pretzel. If my memory serves me, the first soft pretzel I ever had was in New York City. I believe my dad had taken us into the City for a Yankee game and one of the treats of the trip was a nice soft pretzel from a genuine street vendor. I can still kind of smell them cooking. It’s a different animal than a hard pretzel. Soft, salty, chewy and warm. Plus it was giant too, especially in a small boy’s hands. It would forever stand out in my mind so much so that I still crave them whenever I see them.

Years later, when I was living in New Hampshire, a group of my friends and coworkers decided to take a road trip to New York to see the Yankees vs. Red Sox game. I was the only Yankee fan, but everyone else was curious about seeing the famed House that Ruth Built. We actually rented a van for the drive and I believe there was possibly some drinking involved on the way down. And then possibly more drinking in the parking lot and in the Stadium. When the game was over, our group was in two different rows of seats and as we filed out, the guys that were in the higher row of seats met us as we were leaving our row. One guy, a Red Sox fan who was sitting up higher, was particularly ‘polluted’ and he was feeling pretty proud of the Sox victory. To take him down a few notches, we reached down underneath the seats and pulled out a large soft pretzel that was just kind of sitting there underneath someone’s seat that was half-eaten. We’re not sure who left it behind, but we decided it shouldn’t go to waste. We asked if our friend wanted a pretzel and not knowing it was basically stadium trash, he took a giant mouthful of the pretzel which had been freshly picked off the ground at Yankee Stadium. The lesson here was to always be wary of a gift pretzels from Yankee fans. That’s kind of my most memorable pretzel story.

I was working today so I didn’t have time to make my own pretzels. I tried that once and it was kind of a failure, so I have been a bit skittish about doing it again ever since. I then took a mental trip around town trying to figure out where I could find a good soft pretzel. Being such a fan of soft pretzels, I felt that having one would be the most appropriate tribute. My mind drifted to thoughts of Auntie Annie Pretzels which is always a good time (I think they soak them in butter), but the closest location was about a half-hour away at the mall. Then I drifted into thinking where I have seen pretzels before and I remembered snack counters in shopping stores. I knew Target had a snack shop that always seems to have a pretzel or two hanging in its glass case waiting for hungry shoppers. But Target is also about a half-hour away and that was too far to go for a pretzel. Then I remembered BJ’s Warehouse which not only has and 96 pack of toilet paper, they also have a snack shop at the front of the store. Best of all, they are five minutes from work. So that was the plan: Leave work, swing by BJ’s and enjoy a nice soft pretzel.

After work, I made the quick trip and proudly walked through the doors of BJ’s and that’s when I realized my brain is mush. The BJ’s in Middletown does not have a snack shop in the front of the store. The one in Newington, NH does which is the BJ’s that a frequented the most over the last ten years, but all that the Middletown store had was a Verizon counter which did not serve any pretzels (although maybe they should, with unlimited minutes). My brain had failed me and now it was 6 pm and I had no pretzel celebration in the works.

Think Danny, Think.

I left BJ’s and made my way to Shaw’s supermarket which was right next door. I went there for inspiration (BJ’s could have provided similar inspiration, but I felt it would push me towards buying a year’s supply of whatever I selected). I was walking the aisles of Shaw’s trying to think about any times that Lola has talked about pretzels and I realized that Lola talks about pretzels a surprisingly little amount of time. I wheeled my cart into the snack aisle and came upon the hard pretzel section and there is where I saw the answer. Pretzel rods. Of course! Pretzel rods would be the perfect Rhode Island answer. This was actually a pretzel Lola had talked about and she talks about them when it come’s to Del’s Lemonade, the quintessential Rhode Island product. Whenever we get a Del’s, she always wants a pretzel rod to dip into the Del’s. I guess that’s how it’s done. That’s the true Rhody way. I picked up the bag of rods, I grabbed a few other things for dinner and then made my way home. Shaw’s did not carry the Del’s lemonade mix, but I knew Clements did and that was an easy enough stop on the way home. I picked up the Del’s and also some fresh lemons.

When I got home, Lola was just coming in from a walk and it was the perfect time for some Del’s, so I took the packet and put it in the blender along with two cups of ice and a cup of water. I then zested some fresh lemon peel into the mix as well to give it that more authentic Del’s taste. I blended it all up and soon the pitcher was filled with that bright white mix of lemony slush that is such a staple of Rhode Island life. Sure it’s better right from the truck, but the home version is not bad at all. I poured us each a glass and then I opened the bag of pretzel rods and we had our little Happy Hour of Del’s with nice salty pretzel rods that we dipped into our frozen lemonade.

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I asked Lola the proper way and she said that you put the rod into the Del’s and let it soak there for a few moments. You don’t want to get it too soft because it will break off, but you want the rod to soak up some of that lemon flavor. I followed the instructions and it was delicious. You get that tart and sweet lemonade taste mixed with the salt of the pretzel in one bite. The rod gets soft (hee hee) so it doesn’t have that sharp crunch that a real hard pretzel will have. It was a great combo and I am still finding out that these Rhody folks know how to enjoy the finer things in life. Del’s is always fun to have. We had just talked about having Del’s at our wedding which was a nice little touch for that celebration especially because that day happened to be about 95 degrees. A lot of folks remember the Del’s at our wedding, so it will always be a special memory for us. I should have served pretzel rods too.

For dinner, since I knew we were having some pretzel rods as an appetizer, I decided to go light and just made us some sandwiches, but I made them on some fresh pretzel rolls which I had picked up at Shaw’s. Nothing fancy – just some black pepper turkey topped in American cheese with bacon, tomato and avocado. I put mayo on the sandwiches but Lola requested mustard which seems natural (for her) to go with a pretzel. I’m not sure when the whole pretzel roll craze became a thing (and I think it’s fading out), but it is an interesting addition to the bakery section. It really tastes like a pretzel and you get that salty finish to it. It pairs well with pepper turkey. We don’t get pretzel rolls all that often, but when we do, it’s a nice little surprise.

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When I was knee-deep in pretzel celebration, my friend Mike texted me to let me know that it was also National Michael Day. I think he was fishing for a mention in today’s post, so a Happy Michael Day to all those afflicted with Michael-ness. Mike has been an ardent follower of the blog since day one so no matter the holiday, he deserves a shout out whenever I can give him one. I don’t know though – I’m kind of thinking that they made up this holiday to help get some social media play (no disrespect to the world of Michaels celebrating out there).

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The best made plans of mice and men will go awry. I’m not sure what happened to the mouse’s plan for pretzel celebration, but mine took a sharp detour. I had to make an audible in the 4th quarter and change direction. In the end however, I think it worked out for the best because not only did I celebrate the pretzel, I celebrated the pretzel in the best Rhode Island way. Drinking a Del’s got me excited for summer too. There’s always a day during the summer when it’s really hot and we are working outside and we will take a break and go get a nice cold Del’s. We’ll get pretzels too, if we can, because that’s the best way to enjoy it. Pretzel’s are a great summer food in any form. Perfect at the beach, at picnics, on hikes – they stay nice and crisp and hold up better than a potato chip. I’d say that today was a pretty good celebration. It maybe a symbol of undying love, but to us, a pretzel is a symbol of summer fun and magic. Just don’t eat one off the ground at Yankee Stadium.

Next Up: National Prime Rib Day 

(History of the pretzel from History.com and MadeHow.com)

Day 267 – National Zucchini Bread Day

Hold on. Not this again. I understand Zucchini Bread deserving it’s own day but why now, in the middle of April? The zucchini seeds haven’t even been planted yet. Don’t the Holiday Gods know that the reason you make zucchini bread is because you have zucchinis you don’t know how to get rid of? This holiday needs to be in the middle of summer, in harvest time, when all those home gardeners are trying to figure out what to do with all their excess zucchini. Not now. Not when you have to go buy ones from the store that are imported from Mexico. This is just bad planning.

A zucchini is a celebration of the home garden. Zucchinis must grow fairly easily (or at least have the best plant yield) because its the one vegetable everyone seems to have a surplus of from their garden. Anyone who grows their own veggies is always trying to dump their leftover zucchinis on you. Not their broccoli or their carrots. It’s always the zucchini. And that’s why zucchini bread was invented – it’s a sweet way to use them all up.

I did think that it was kind of serendipitous that I started today, a day that honored one of the stars of any home garden, by celebrating the act of gardening. I did so by heading to my niece Wavy’s kindergarten class to join her for a little celebration called “Planting with Pops.” This is part of her school’s “Week of the Young Child” celebration (the fact that they were celebrating a holiday like this was also not on lost on me). Planting with Pops was where students could invite in their father, grandfather or special person to do some planting with them in the classroom. Because Wavy’s dad Pete was working, Cherie (Wavy’s mom) asked me to fill in. I couldn’t say yes fast enough. I headed to school this morning dressed in my finest overalls and I got to the lobby right on time. I signed myself in clearing the security check and then marched down the hallway with the other special people en route to the classroom. This was the same elementary school that Lola attended so I have heard tales of this place before but had never been inside. When I walked in, I gave a quick scan of the room and after thinking that all these kids looked alike, I saw a very bright smile beaming up at me from the back of the room. She rushed over to me and gave me a giant hug which kind of melted my heart. We then sat down at her table to await further instructions.

The class took turns planting so one table would go up to the planting area at a time. We were the blue table and were batting third, so in the meantime, the kids were told to read to us. That’s when Wavy opened her books and started reading. There was one about shoelaces, one about a cake that ran away and one about a whole silly chase where a dog had a remote control in his mouth. I couldn’t believe what a reader Wavy was! She tackled every book like she had been reading for years. She didn’t stall on any words and she even had some complex words in the text. She was so proud of herself too. I knew she was a good reader but I had no idea that she was so advanced. I was sitting there in awe, eating paste (just like I had in my kindergarten days). When the blue table was called up to plant, we walked up to the planting table and Wavy took the flower, placed it in the pot, added in some dirt and then spritzed it with water. She was very precise in her work and moved like a pro. In fact, she told me she was a plant expert and I couldn’t argue the point. We took it back to our table when we were done and we both marveled at her fine work.

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Wavy told me the flower was a forsythia and I believed her. In fact I asked her who was Synthia and why was she getting the flower? That joke fell flat – apparently she is a little too young for my puns. It turns out however the flower was a marigold, but because Wavy said she was the expert, I assumed she was right. This kid is going to be anything she wants to be because she has the smarts and confidence to get there (plus she is as silly as can be too). It was a brief little segment, almost precisely a half hour in length, but at the very end all the kids went to the front of the classroom and sang us a song. I’m not sure exactly why – maybe it was the voice of children, maybe it was seeing Wavy smile, maybe it was being her special person – but as I watched them all sing, I got a little moved by it all. The lyrics of the song had something to do with it:

Cause It’s a beautiful day just to be alive, A beautiful day so glad that I’ve got
A beautiful day and I’d like to share it with you!

It was such a cute little song of hope that it made me appreciate life and all its little moments. It reminded me of a Woody Guthrie poem that I have hanging on the wall of my office for daily inspiration that goes, “I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.” Woody was fighting against the struggle we all face, but he always knew the importance of keeping songs in our heart that made you appreciate life. Wavy’s song reminded me of that. I felt so lucky that Wavy had shared her day with me. They always say it’s the little things in life that matter – today it was the little people.

After I said goodbye and got another big hug, I made my way out of the school and then back home with a  big smile still on my face. I had an appointment at noon so I had to change pretty quickly and get into that mode, but I was still beaming with pride. I had an oddly busy schedule for the rest of the day that took me to Warwick, Providence and then Westport, so life got hectic after my half hour at school, but I still kept thinking about how sweet it was to be Wavy’s guest. Of course I still had to worry about zucchini bread too, so in my travels, I stopped at the store and begrudgingly picked up a couple of zucchinis that were undoubtedly grown on foreign soil and not in someone’s backyard. It was about five o’clock when I started to make the bread.

I found a recipe online from Yankee Magazine for Old Fashioned Zucchini Bread. Oddly the recipe was originally published back in 2013 on August 4th which just happens to be our anniversary. I’m not sure if that had any significance, but it was one of those odd coincidences. Needless to say, I took that as the sign that this was the recipe I should go with and I did. It was pretty easy too. After having made banana bread and carrot bread, I realized that these kind of sweet breads are basically the same. Same ingredients, same cooking process, and almost the same look when they are done. It really took me no time to throw it together and the only ingredient out of the ordinary was the zucchini which you grate with the skin on and it turns into fine little chunks. The recipe was for two loaves which I didn’t really need, but I didn’t feel like converting the amounts for a half batch so I made the two loaves.

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I can’t say I was ever a zucchini bread fanatic and because I don’t really fancy zucchini, I have tried to avoid it. However, in my past it has snuck into my life. I first had it at work when someone was nice enough to bring a loaf in for the office. I think I just saw it sitting in the kitchen where the communal food was kept and I just dug it, not knowing exactly what it was. I’m not very selective when it comes to free food. In any case, I probably ate it before someone told me it was zucchini bread. It was actually pretty good and reminded me of my favorite which is carrot bread. Today, after my zucchini bread had cooled, I cut into it and tried a piece with a little dab of butter on top. This too was good. You don’t actually taste much of the zucchini. You see it in the bread–the green little flakes in your bites–but I think the zucchini just provides moisture so the bread doesn’t dry out. It doesn’t change the flavor. The flavors of the other ingredients come out such as the cinnamon, the sugar, the walnuts and surprisingly the salt. This recipe called for a whole teaspoon of salt which seemed like a lot and I tasted it in my piece, but in a good way. It gave the sweetness of the bread that slight salty finish which was nice. I was a fan. I gave Lola a slice too and she also liked it. Serving it to her at night was not the optimal time for her sweet bread enjoyment however. I think if she has it tomorrow alongside her afternoon cup of coffee, she will enjoy it even more.

Any zucchini bread fans out there? I have a whole extra loaf looking for a loving home.

Today was a day that I will remember for a long time. It just had a few twists and turns in it that will make it stick out in my mind. It all started out on a positive note with a cute, freckle-faced girl greeting me with a big hug in her classroom. Lola and I may not have kids, but we think we make a pretty good Aunt and Uncle team which gives us the joy of being a special person in the life of all our little friends. They all think we are silly and from what we can tell, they like to play with us too. Wavy’s smile today will warm my heart for a good long time. I only wish we had planted zucchinis in class today because that would have been even more appropriate for the day. It’s not often you get to spend quality time with a six-year-old genuine plant expert, so I could have learned something from her. Maybe she is working on a banner crop of zucchinis in her own garden. I’ll have to wait until harvest time, but when that comes around and Wavy gifts us her unwanted ones, I’ll know just what to do with them. It’s going to be a sweet and tasty harvest season whenever it gets here.

Next Up: National Pretzel Day 

Day 266 – National Pigs in a Blanket Day

I don’t think there is any food that is more pleasantly named than pigs in a blanket. You envision cute little piglets all cozied up and cooing in a nice warm comforter. You can almost hear their squeaks of delight (I suppose that would be their ‘oinks’ of delight). Of course that vision isn’t quite as endearing when you realize that you are actually eating pigs that have been haphazardly prepared and cozily wrapped in dough. There’s kind of a misleading disconnect between this fun image of piggies resting in comfort and the horrific thought of hogs ground up and encased in sausage casings wrapped in hot dough for your enjoyment. So goes the dilemma of a modern carnivore.

There’s no direct history on where the name comes from. Some say it comes from a 1947 cookbook, others say it comes from a roadside diner on historic Route 66. But the concept of pigs in a blanket have been around for a few hundred years. As soon as man started making sausages, he started wrapping them in dough so they could easily travel (not to mention the tastiness of the combo). Its modern name seems to have been created to make them more appetizing to little kids who would naturally be intrigued by the thought of eating pigs in blankets. Silly kids. They’d probably be eat anything if we gave it a cute name – like Halibut in Sweaters or Liver in Jorts (patent pending). At some point they made it on to the hors d’oeuvre scene and that’s when they kind of became a fixture of the cocktail party. Then as America’s love affair with the hot dog started to fade, pigs in a blanket kind of became a bit gauche and they became less popular on the party circuit. Still, there are few people who still eat meat that don’t enjoy the occasional cozied up pig in a blanket.

I made these on my quest back on National Croissant Day. That seemed appropriate because the modern American version of pigs in a blanket is made from hot dogs wrapped in Pillsbury crescent roll dough. They say it’s different in other parts of the world. The UK favors sausages wrapped in bacon and Mexico has hot dogs wrapped in tortillas. But in America, it is the hot dog wrapped in the ready-made dough from a can.

We were having some old friends drop by for a lunch visit this afternoon, so I wasn’t really thinking about pigs in a blanket as I made my way to Clements Market to pick up some sandwiches for us. When I was there, it suddenly dawned on me that I should get hot dogs and dough too so I could serve them as an appetizer/side dish. That made sense because not only would it provide more food, it would also be a celebration that we could share. It’s funny that after 266 days of doing this, making something for the quest isn’t my first thought when preparing food, but sometimes I am thinking about other things. Nonetheless I grabbed a package of Nathan’s Hot Dogs and some Pillsbury Butter Flake Crescent Dough. When I got home, I popped open the can of dough and rolled it out. I cut the triangles of dough in the can in half and then I cut each hot dog into half as well. I wrapped each hot dog up in an individual piece of dough and then placed it on a sheet pan. When they were all rolled up, I brushed them with a quick egg wash and they went into the oven for about 14 minutes. They came out looking pretty good.

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Our friends Matt and Jenni and their son Charlie (daughter Grace was swinging a hammer in Mississippi) were in town for some family matters and Lola had arranged for them to swing by for a visit. It’s probably been a year or more since we last saw them. If you are following the tale of Dan and Lola, Jenni is probably the key link to our eventual meeting and subsequent life together. I was living in New Hampshire at the time and unbeknownst to me, a young Lola was moving to the same area from little Rhode Island. Lola was moving up to NH somewhat blindly (and courageously) and did not know anyone in the area. Jenni who is a Newport native (she used to work at Christy’s) was actually a childhood friend of one of Lola’s cousins and she was living in Portsmouth, NH at the same time with her husband Matt. I think Lola’s mom got word to Jenni that Lola was moving up to that area and kind of hoped she would keep an eye out for her. Knowing Jenni as we do now, you know that if anyone tasked her with such a request, she would take it to heart and of course she did. She got Lola a job at a little Mexican restaurant where Jenni and Matt were both working, and coincidentally, so was I. Jenni and Matt looked out for Lola in those early days and made sure she was safe, happy and doing ok. It was the type of kindness that keeps the world going. Just making sure the people around you are ok, and Matt and Jenni gave Lola that kind of love, just when she needed it. The relationship would later forge into a genuine friendship and there are few people who can make you laugh more that Matt and Jenni. And if you really want to smile, put Lola and Jenni on the dance floor together with some Salt n’ Peppa on the turntable. We always thank the universe for putting them in our lives. Had Jenni not brought Lola into that Mexican restaurant, we very likely would have never met. That’s why we owe our lives together to them.

When they came today and after we got the initial greetings and catching up out of the way, we sat down to our feast which was really chips, sandwiches and the pigs in a blanket. For whatever reason, the pigs in a blanket were the big hit. They came out perfectly and the “blanket” was golden brown without any burning on the bottom which is always the worry. The hot dog was actually great too. I don’t usually go for the Nathan’s dogs – I opt for Saugy Doggies (a RI tradition) or Hummel Brothers (a New Haven tradition). But obviously the folks at Nathan’s know a thing or two about hot dogs. They just had good flavor and they were the perfect pairing for the dough which was nice and buttery. The tray made its way around the table a couple of times and the reviews were positive. Sometimes you just get that craving for a hot dog and a pig in a blanket is the perfect fix for that. Lola even had one later in the day after everyone had left because she thought they tasted so good.

It’s always fun seeing old friends again especially ones that you feel comfortable with within minutes of seeing them. We spent most of the afternoon catching up and just having a good time. We even scanned the beach for sea glass and found some pretty choice pieces out there too. We hope we get to see more of Matt and Jenni this summer when they come back down to the island with more regularity. They are good people who bring smiles and joy whenever we see them. We can spend more time combing the beach, soaking in the sun, hearing about old times and just enjoying the good people in our life. And naturally, we’ll be serving pigs in a blanket too.

Next up: National Zucchini Bread Day

Day 265 – National Cherry Cheesecake Day

Cheesecake dates back over four thousand years to ancient Greece where it was considered to be a good source of energy, so much so that they served it to the athletes at the first Olympiad. It’s history may go back even farther than that, but recorded history only catches up with cheesecake at that point in time. The Greeks would also serve it at weddings and celebratory events. It was a simple recipe of cheese, flour, honey and wheat and definitely a lot simpler than the recipes of today. If you fast forward to the 1800s, that’s when eggs started to be used in the recipe rather than yeast which made it look a little more like the cheesecakes we are familiar with in the 21st century. In the latter part of the 1800s, cream cheese was created by someone trying to replicate the more familiar French soft cheese Neufchatel. Cream cheese has since become the staple ingredient in any American cheesecake. (History from Cheesecake.com)  I’m not exactly sure where the cherries come in to the mix along the path, but the addition of fruit to any cheesecake would just seem natural. It’s creamy sweetness pairs well with sweet, syrupy fruit. Cherries fall perfectly into that category.

I’ve never made a cheesecake before and I was a little excited to tackle one. I like cheesecake. It was a long time before I actually tried one as I, being a sheltered youth,  usually turned my nose up at any dessert made from cheese (oh how naive we are when we are young). We served cheesecake at the first restaurant I worked at and I think that’s when and where I first tried it. Usually when you get to snack on desserts in a restaurant as an employee it’s because the piece you are going to serve gets messed up some how. Your piece of pie is cut too small, or falls apart. You happily indulge in the scraps. Cheesecake however was different because we bought ours from a supplier who gave us the cake pre-sliced and individually divided into perfect little pieces. The only way to mess a piece up was to drop it. So having a piece of cheesecake up for grabs was a bit of a rarity, but it happened on occasion. That’s how I ended up trying it and I have to say I liked it immediately. It’s a good combo of flavors: sweet, creamy, very slightly pungent and the crisp sweetness of the graham cracker crust. We served ours with strawberries on top which were strawberries in syrup so it gave the piece of cake some extra sweetness. It looked good too with the bright red of the berries shining atop the slightly yellow-hued cake. I became a fan and even ordered it out from time to time. I found it paired well with a nice cold beer, although I suppose a nice dessert wine would be more appropriate with a cheese-based dessert.

Now here is where I made my big error for the day. In my rush to find a recipe and get all the ingredients, I didn’t really read through everything. The recipe I found was titled “The Best Unbaked Cherry Cheesecake Ever.” I read “Best Ever” and I thought I couldn’t go wrong, plus it was all pretty simple. I wrote down the ingredients which were simply cream cheese, vanilla, whipped cream and powdered sugar. I didn’t really consider what I was making – I just got the ingredients and started going. I knew that a cheesecake would take time in the fridge to set, so I tried to get it done early in the day. Plus it was a beautiful Sunday and I wanted to spend most of it in our yard with Lola. So essentially I was making a no bake cheesecake and upon reflection, that’s not what I wanted to make. I wanted to make a real cheesecake. I don’t mind baking. When did the “no bake” tag become such a plus for making something? You still have to create something – throwing it in the oven takes no more effort. I don’t get it.

At this point however, I was committed. I didn’t want to go back to the store and set myself back another hour. I wanted to get it done, so I proceeded with my no bake cheesecake. I started with the graham cracker crust and they told me to not even bake that. I was starting to resent this recipe maker and their anti-oven agenda. I should have just plopped the crust in the oven for ten minutes to solidify it, but I was afraid it would offset the rest of the cake from setting properly. When the crust was firmly pressed in the bottom of the pan, I started to make the cake which was simply combining the cream cheese, the sugar and the vanilla until it was all mixed together and then folding in the whipped cream. The recipe said to use one cup of heavy cream whipped, although I went the easy route and bought some Cool Whip. I’m not sure if the portioning was right, but I folded in the whole tub and I was left with a big bowl of white, creamy “cake batter.” I emptied that into the pan over the crust and put it in the fridge to set. I didn’t feel good about it. I essentially just made cream cheese frosting with whipped cream.

The rest of the day was spent in the yard. I got to walk around with Lola and she pointed out what plants and flowers were starting to come in and subtly noting areas where I should be careful when I mow the lawn. In the few days that Lola was away, Spring really sprung around here and everything seems to budding. Our little walks around the yard are always fun. Lola gets excited when she sees something she planted last year that’s coming back again. I like to try to test my knowledge by naming plants and impressing Lola (my teacher). I identified the Astilbe, the Golden Leaf Spirea and the Chlamydia while noting that certain plants have striped or variegated leaves. It’s funny how that sticks in your head and how you start to learn it by osmosis. We’ve got a long spring and summer ahead of us in the fields, but that time is usually fun. A labor of love. I am looking forward to more afternoons like this. (By the way, I do know it’s not a Chlamydia plant – it’s Clematis).

After post-field clean up and a nice Sunday dinner, we were both chilling on our couch and it was time for some cheesecake. Like I said, I was already disappointed in myself that I took the easy way out on this one. There have been a few times when the easy way out was the only way to go because of certain circumstances, but today I could have gone the whole nine yards, I just didn’t prepare correctly. The cheesecake looked good. The cherry filling that I had spread across the top of the cake after it had been in the fridge for a few hours was a beautiful bright red and the cake portion was a brilliant white color, so it looked appealing. It was easy to cut a piece out although wasn’t as clean as you would really want it. The crust was super crumbly which made me wished I had baked it. In any case, it looked tasty.

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Ok, so this no bake thing isn’t all that bad. In fact, it’s pretty tasty. The graham cracker crust is the perfect crunch for this because the rest of the cake is so creamy you need the added texture (and yes it would be better with a baked crust). The cake part is really like fluffy cream cheese frosting. It is sweet and creamy with that tang you get from cream cheese wafting in the background. The cherries were probably the biggest surprise. Both Lola and I are morally opposed to maraschino cherries and that was the worry here, but that’s not what they were. First off, the syrup they come in is super sweet and clings beautifully to the creaminess of the cake, but second, the cherries are actually not bad. There is a quality to them that makes you feel they were once real cherries and not that fake maraschino quality. It worked really well with the whole cake so a great addition. Lola was a fan too, although her palate noticed that I had substituted Cool Whip for real whipped cream. She wanted to make it with the homemade whipped cream folded in to take the difference, but in general, she was a fan. A surprise success.

Today’s disappointment was only because I didn’t make the type of cheesecake that I know and love; the famous one: the New York Style. But technically, I did make a cheesecake. It was a cake made with cheese and on the plus side, it was delicious. I’ll just have to tackle baking a cheesecake on another day. I’ll have to stick with the positives from today. It was simple with only a few ingredients. It took very little time from start to finish and that allowed me to spend most of the day outside. It was delicious giving us a great sweet finish at the end of a good day. It was a surprise delight which is always a plus. So even if it wasn’t what I expected, it was ok in my book. That’s the joy of this quest which among other things has shown me that life is a bowl of cherries (which just happen to go well on top of a cake made with cheese).

Next Up: National Pigs in a Blanket Day

Day 264 – National Jelly Bean Day

It may seem odd that National Jelly Bean Day comes the week after Easter, but it appears that Jelly Bean Day is an annual holiday that always falls specifically on April 22nd while Easter tends to happen at different times (depending on lunar calendars and if Jesus sees his shadow, I think). Easter came a bit earlier than usual this year so that throws off the whole Jelly Bean Day tie in for big Jelly Bean. However, it makes sense on paper to celebrate at this time of year. The problem I discovered was that if Jelly Bean Day comes after Easter, the availability of jelly beans for sale becomes limited. Sure, they were half-priced, but the selection wasn’t that great. Jelly beans are carried year round in most candy stores and candy aisles, but after Easter, I think they hide the everyday jelly beans so they don’t get mixed up with the clearance sale.

I didn’t go all out looking for jelly beans. I was in Stop and Shop and they had a whole table of all their Easter candy available for quick sale and that’s where I bought mine. While they had some good chocolate goodies available for the half-off discount like Cadbury Mini Eggs and Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs, the jelly bean section had been thoroughly picked through. I was given three options: spiced jelly beans (a creation so offensive to my taste buds I literally sneered at the vision of them), Sweet-tart jelly beans (billed as having a “punchy tanginess” which I was curious about but I felt that they wouldn’t be the true jelly bean experience), and finally the Brach’s classic Jelly Egg jelly bean. This was the jelly bean of my youth because it was pretty much the only one available for mass distribution. I picked up two bags and was ready to celebrate.

I could have just sat there and eaten a bag of jelly beans as my celebration for today but I always feel that’s not so exciting for my readers. I decided to look at what recipes I could make with jelly beans and after a brief search, I found a recipe for Jelly Bean Donuts from a blogger/baker called Melanie Makes. You baked these donuts so you didn’t have to deal with frying and hot oil and that whole rigamarole. I have kind of been hoping to try to make my own donuts although that could be a dangerous path to head down. That’s almost like an addict saying, “I’ve always wanted to make my own meth.” Nonetheless, this quest is a battle of new challenges but with a healthy dose of self-control, so tackling a donut seemed only natural.  The recipe seemed easy but I had two discrepancies on the ingredients. First, it called for a half cup of yogurt which I did not have in house, so I substituted sour cream. I looked online and it seems that sour cream is a pretty easy substitute for yogurt. I have heard about sour cream donuts before, so I knew it was a thing, so I was pretty ok with my substitution. Second, the recipe specifically called for Laffy Taffy jelly beans and I had the Brach’s variety. This is where I may have strayed too far.

There is a whole new world of jelly beans over the last few decades with more fruity and sweet flavor to them. It also seems that famous candy makers have taken their tried and true best sellers and turned them into jelly bean form. That’s where Laffy Taffy beans come from: the great taste of Laffy Taffy condensed into jelly bean form. I’ve never had them before but I’m sure they are great. I have had Starburst jelly beans and in my opinion, there is no finer product out there. They give you great fruity taste which is nice and chewy and the perfect balance of sweetness. If they were on the discount table, I would have surely gone for them. In any case, the new modern jelly bean are sweeter but they are also smaller, especially when compared to the Brach’s Jelly Eggs. I thought that might be an issue. But I had to work with what I had, so to make them smaller for the recipe, I cut them in half. Cutting jelly beans in half is not an easy job. You have to cut each one individually and they tend to roll while you are cutting. They have a hard outside which you really have to work the knife to get through, then it all sticks to the blade. It called for a cup of jelly beans so I tediously cut enough to fill a one cup container.

When I was cutting the jelly beans I realized that there is one major flaw in using the classic Brach’s variety. I almost overlooked it and it would have been a huge error. That was of course the black jelly bean. The licorice tasting one. The Mike & Ike to my Good & Fruity desires. I think modern jelly beaners have removed the black jelly bean from the mix because so many people dislike it. So before I cut, the first thing I had to do was separate out all the black jelly beans. I took out most of the white too as a precaution. The white jelly beans are on the sweeter side (and no anise taste), but I was just worried that it would be the wrong flavor. I tried some of the other jelly beans, orange still being my all time favorite. It’s still the great classic jelly bean taste. I could almost feel the sensation of Easter grass on my fingers when I was eating them because that was part of the whole jelly bean experience. The jelly beans always fell to the bottom of the basket and you had to search for them like a bird seeking a grub in the lawn. They were also the quick bite you could take while you were sizing up your easter candy haul. You couldn’t bust into to the chocolate bunny without parental permission, but you could always steal a quick jelly bean and get a quick sugar fix on Easter morning. We’d have to seek out every bean before we got rid of the grass. When all the candy was removed, we’d start organizing. Trades would begin. I was always looking to pick up some extra Cadbury Creme Eggs and would trade away the Milky Ways and a draft pick to be named later for one. The black jelly beans in everyone’s basket were ceremoniously collected and given to my Dad who oddly liked them. He would make out pretty well on Easter morning.

The recipe came together super fast and the half jelly bean pieces were folded into the batter. When it was all incorporated, I put the batter into a plastic bag and cut off the tip so I could squeeze it in ring shape into my donut baking pan. They took about 12 minutes in the oven and I let them sit for five more minutes in the pan. Then came the moment of truth when I had to flip them out onto a wire rack and this is when I started seeing the errors of my way. At first they didn’t pop out, so I shook the pan and lightly tapped the back. Then half a donut popped out. Uh oh. I could see what happened. While the dough was cooked and I don’t think it needed any more time, because I cut the jelly beans, the sugar started to melt and seep out. That made it so that the donuts never really came together as an actual whole. Wherever there were jelly beans in the donut, there were areas of wet, syrupy mess. That made it hard to get them out of the pan. It wasn’t too bad and with effort I was able to get a few whole donuts out of the batch of six, but they weren’t ideal looking. The final step was to glaze them and I made a quick glaze of milk, sugar and vanilla. I ended up putting in too much vanilla to the glaze because I basically over-poured on my measurement. It still came out good, it just had a strong vanilla flavor (almost overpowering).

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No, it’s not a fruitcake donut. This wasn’t my best work. I think the dough was cooked to perfection, the jelly beans just messed it all up. Taste wise, they actually weren’t that bad. The donuts were light and airy and the vanilla glaze (which is pretty much just liquid sugar) was nice and sweet. The jelly beans added more sweetness, but to be honest, it wasn’t a flavor that needed to be in there. It was like eating jelly beans and taking a bit of a donut (and yes I have experience with that). They are kind of two different flavors that don’t need to be combined. The jelly beans were chewy too (as they should be), so it added a different dimension to the joy of a donut. To me, with a donut, you want a nice flaky, light pastry that packs big flavor. The jelly beans complicated that. Honestly, despite the cooking mishaps, they aren’t that bad. But, when Lola asked me what they were, I couldn’t recommend them.

And oh yes, Lola came home today so all is right in my world. I was working for most of the day today and she arrived about a half hour before I got home. I had cooked the donuts in the morning before work, so they were on the table when she got home. Naturally she was curious and I couldn’t recommend them as her first step back into the quest. I told her to go for my Animal Cracker White Truffle Bars instead. That was a better choice.

When I was tasting the Brach’s jelly eggs, I was immediately taken back to the joy of Easter morning and rooting through an Easter basket. Jelly beans were always little treasures to me when you found them. The best part would be when you thought you had eaten them all and then you suddenly found one in a particularly thick tangle of Easter grass. I don’t think kids today have loose candy in their Easter basket. I think it all comes in neat little packages now, but they are missing that thrill of the hunt. I guess if I had just eaten the jelly beans and revisted that memory, that would have been the perfect Jelly Bean Day celebration. It would have made me re-appreciate the fun these candies have given me throughout the years. They are the workhorse of the Easter basket; the base upon which they are formed. So I am grateful for that. My recipe may have gone astray, but it still gave me something new to try and an appreciation for how jelly beans can be used outside the basket. At the end of the day, I think I liked jelly beans a little more than when I started the day (which is saying something because I really like jelly beans). So I can call this a day well celebrated. And now Lola is back, so this day keeps getting better.

Next up: National Cherry Cheesecake Day 

Day 263 – National Chocolate Covered Cashews Day

I can get behind any day that celebrates nuts and chocolate, and I’ve certainly seen my share of them. When I saw this one on the calendar, I didn’t get that worried because I was pretty confident on how to make them. I’ve made other chocolate covered nuts before and this would be the same thing. The only difference was the introduction of cashews, but from an execution stand point, it doesn’t matter what nut you put in the chocolate – the process is the same. So when I was at the store the other day, I picked up some roasted, salted cashews and my plan for celebrating today was to just cover them in chocolate.

When I think of cashews, I think of my sister because she has always been a big fan. In fact, at some point in her younger years, she would even ask for a can of them for Christmas – something she could have all to herself. I think that’s what happens when you are the youngest child and you have two older brothers that are pretty quick at a buffet line – you start coveting the crumbs that trickle down to you. You hold on to your favorite foods like they are treasure. That’s why there was always an oddly wrapped can under the Christmas tree every year with her name on it. In a cruel twist, her son is actually allergic to cashews (a lesson she learned the hard way), so she doesn’t usually keep a secret stash of them in her house, although I’m sure she still craves them. I can’t imagine that she would object to ones that are covered in chocolate.

I didn’t really know chocolate covered cashews was a thing, although it doesn’t surprise me. I would have figured it would be a specialty items at one of those fancy food mail order places like Harry & David’s or William Sonoma. But apparently they have found their way into the snack aisle (or is it the nut aisle? maybe the chocolate aisle?). They can indeed be found in most stores and are readily available with brand names such as Planter’s, Godiva and even Ghirardellis. They are a thing. I could have gone super easy and just picked up a bag today, but I knew they were easy enough to make so I stuck to my original plan.

I made them this morning before work. They really only take about 15 minutes from start to finish. You melt your chocolate first and I was using the standard Nestle semisweet chocolate morsels. I put a pot of water on the stove, brought it to a boil, and then placed another pan on top where the chocolate went in and melted double-boiler style. I also added in about a tablespoon of coconut oil. Adding a fat to the chocolate helps it melt easier and allows it to cover the nut more. When it was all completely melted, I dropped the nuts into the chocolate right from the bag (I was using Emerald Nuts brand which seem to be pretty good – no broken pieces or scraps). When the nuts were all covered, I took them out with a fork and placed them on a sheet pan on a layer of parchment paper. Then I put them in the fridge to chill. Then I had to go to work. It was going to be a long day at work so I made sure I got the nuts done early in the day so I wouldn’t have to worry about it on the other end.

I got home about ten hours later and took them out of the fridge. I had to break them up a little as they dried in clumps, but they still came out looking good. They were nice and chocolatey and the salt form the nuts came through on every bite. Cashews have kind of their own unique taste to them. They are like a peanut, but softer and a little bit more flavorful. The addition of chocolate to them was a good pairing. The chocolate was still chilled and so each bite had a thick crunch to it which made them even better.

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I made myself a little something to eat when I got home and then I was kind of craving something sweet for dessert. I had the cashews available, but kind of had the ice cream hankering. Then I realized that ice cream and chocolate covered cashews would be a pretty good combination. So I scooped out a bowl of vanilla and topped it with some of the fresh nuts. It still needed a little something extra. Normally I would add in chocolate syrup to the ice cream, but that would mean I was having chocolate on chocolate action. I decided to use some caramel topping instead. All in all, I made myself a nice little treat.

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Someone should tell Ben & Jerry about this. It was super good and the perfect way to end a long day. After my snack, I sat down and worked on this (my blog entry for today). Usually I work on that the morning after a celebration, but because I have to work tomorrow and Lola is coming home tomorrow night, I knew my Saturday morning would be busy cleaning up and making it look like I wasn’t living the bachelor life for the last five days. I’ll make the bed, put away my clothes, tidy up and you know – just make it look nice. That covers up my path of laziness and also means Lola can come in to a comfy home. I have a short window in the morning to get it all done, so I figured I’d bang this out tonight (especially when riding the sugar high of the ice cream). I’ll be excited to see her.

Chocolate covered cashews are delicious – there’s no doubt about that. Cashews seem particularly amenable to having a nice coat of chocolate on them. The taste of the cashew just melds well with the sweet chocolate, plus the saltiness from the nuts broaden the overall flavor. It’s a good time and I would even say they were better than chocolate covered peanuts. Cashews are at the top of the nut world in my book. Plus they make a great topping on vanilla ice cream.

Next up: National Jelly Bean Day 

Day 262 – National Cheddar Fries Day

One of the best parts of being on this quest is that I have people following along. Honestly, on those days when I just don’t feel like doing anything, I always hear from someone who read my blog or saw my post and their encouragement gives me a little boost to do one more day. So thank you all for all the support. Today, somewhat randomly (although she has been a loyal follower of the quest since day one), I heard from my cousin who told me about a podcast from NPR called Planet Money. She sent me the link to their website too. They are essentially a segment that tackles economic issues or happenings but in a fun and relatable way.  Today’s segment was on what they called the “Holiday Industrial Complex” and essentially talked about the rise of all these little holidays and national days. Moreover, they tried to trace back some of the more obscure holidays (like National Splurge Day) to find out where it began. It’s worth a listen especially if you are intrigued by all this celebration. It made me feel that I am not the only crazy out there and that this quest has deeper roots than I thought. Also on my cousin’s request, I wrote Planet Money and volunteered my services for any future segments on holiday celebrating. With hopes, I could become the next talking head or the resident holiday expert for NPR. (Thanks Liz!)

When I started thinking about today’s holiday which was National Cheddar Fries Day, it made me realize this was a pretty random holiday. First of all, it could be celebrated two ways with two very different products. Also, it’s not a very common dish. I don’t know too many restaurants that offer cheddar fries, at least by that name. Naturally there are cheese fries and poutines on lots of menus, but something actually called cheddar fries was something new. Inspired by Planet Money, I decided to dig in to where this holiday came from and the answer was actually Dallas. Apparently there is a restaurant in Dallas called Snuffer’s which has been around since the late seventies. Today they have eleven units, all in Texas. They’re pretty proud of their cheddar fries and it’s all over their website and menu. They were the originators, probably riding the coattails of the potato skin appetizer craze which gained popularity around the same time.  This was their version and the folks in Dallas sure loved it. It became their signature item and then later, Snuffer’s pushed it through the proper channels to have cheddar fries recognized as a national holiday. That’s how we got there today.

A trip to Dallas to try the official Snuffer’s cheddar fries was not in the cards. It would be a fun way to celebrate the day for sure, but not very practical. Maybe that’s something I can do when I get my own show on Food Network. But making these at home would not be that difficult. I got myself a bag of Nathan’s crinkle cut fries which I baked in the oven for about 20 minutes until they were done. Fries are always best when you fry them, but baking them at home makes more sense. It’s less messy, safer and you don’t have to deal with that smell of frying food that will linger in your kitchen. They do get somewhat crunchy and that was good enough for me. When they were done, I seasoned them with some salt and pepper and then I arranged them on a sheet pan. I topped it with plenty of shredded cheddar cheese. On top of that, I sprinkled on some chopped bacon and diced tomatoes. I put it back in the oven under the broiler to melt the cheese (watching them carefully), then when it came out, I plopped on a dollop of sour cream and garnished with some fresh scallions.

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If you don’t like french fries, cheese and bacon, then you wouldn’t like these very much. However, if you do like that stuff, than this was unbelievably good. The fries held the cheese perfectly so each one you pulled out was wrapped in the mild sharpness of cheddar goodness. Bits of bacon found their way into every bite too and added some savory saltiness. The sour cream made a nice little dipping sauce and balanced out each bite with a little cool creaminess on your tongue. Plus the touch of fresh scallions was a boost too – just something about fresh cut herbs that brings out the full flavor of whatever you are eating. Simple to make, easy to eat and delicious. I can see how Snuffer’s built an empire on them.

I really believe the concept of cheese fries (or cheddar fries) comes from a slow night at a restaurant and from the mind of some hungry cooks. When you are cooking in a restaurant, especially in a pub or bar atmosphere, you are always looking for ways to grab a quick snack. Until portion control became a major concern in kitchens, there were always french fries hanging out in kitchens that were cooked but not served. As a cook, you would snack on these until you got bored. Then you would start playing around and looking on how to make it better. I’m sure the first cheese fries were probably the creation of a cook who had worked a long shift, was probably a little hungover, and just decided to top fries with some cheese, fire it in the oven for a few minutes and just see how it tasted. He probably shared it with others and it probably became a special staff order. When the staff started requesting it, guests probably noticed and wanted some too. That’s my theory on how cheddar fries became a thing (based entirely on no evidence). That’s how good things happen some time.

If you are from Texas, then you might be familiar with Cheddar Fries and Snuffer’s. But if you are not, you may think of something else when you hear the words cheddar fries. Something from the snack aisle. Something with the comic strip character Andy Capp on the bag. Yes, cheddar fries are also a somewhat popular snack food that were created in 1971 (predating the Snuffer’s variety). They are billed as corn and potato snack strips and are shaped like french fries. I always thought they were kind of a weird product mainly because the spokesperson is Andy Capp who was always a weird little strip on the comics page. He was a bit of a drunk, he was always fighting with his wife (who was twice as big as he was), and it wasn’t particularly funny to a young boy reading the funnies. Yet there he was, right underneath Peanuts and next to Hagar the Horrible. I could never quite fathom how this dude had a loyal following that would flock to his endorsed snack foods and what about his image made people associate him with good food. Was it his frequent trips to the pub? Were they going for the bar snack food crowd? No matter, he’s still on the bag. Andy Capp the comic strip is still in publication even though the creator died in 1998 and has been in the papers since 1957. He’s more popular in England where it originates and is set, but the snack food is decidedly American.

I was at Benny’s today which is a Rhode Island institution for bargains. I was picking up some leaf bags and just walking around the store to see what they have (you can always find something at Benny’s). In any case, I saw that they had a bag of Andy Capp Cheddar Fries, so I was obligated to pick it up. My checkout was the typical Benny’s purchase: leaf bags, mouse traps and Andy Capp fries. If I was ever going to plan a murder, I would pick up all my supplies at Benny’s because I don’t think any purchases that you make there are particularly suspicious. It’s all so random that even a purchase of rope, duct tape, plastic sheeting, butcher knives and even lye wouldn’t create a smidge of suspicion in the eye of the check out clerk. (I think I’ve said too much). When I got home, I made myself a nice chicken sandwich and poured out some cheddar fries as an accompaniment.

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I don’t usually go for cheddar fries so it was a nice change from my usual snack chip. It’s a combo of corn and potato, so it has a somewhat unique flavor that’s part potato chip and part corn chip, but no dominant flavor. Texture-wise they have the whole look and feel of a french fry down and best of all they are airy on the inside with the perfect crunch on the outside. It was similar to the texture of a Funyon, only in stick form. They have a high-residue factor from the cheddar cheese coating so your fingers start to get covered in dust as you work your way through. The cheddar dust brings the most flavor to the party, but it’s actually not overly cheesy. Just enough. It’s a good little snack.

A cheddar fry is whatever you make it. Whether it’s a crispy fry covered in cheese or a crunchy stick dredged in cheese dust, it’s still a good time. I think I did a good job celebrating today although that trip to Dallas would have been a nice addition to the tale. I did discover the origins of this rather unusual holiday and I can attribute the inspiration for discovering that to someone who has been encouraging me throughout the quest. Today I am very appreciative of all those who follow along with my blog. Thankful for all those who offer suggestions, who share their opinions and who just have my back. You guys make it all worthwhile and make me feel like I am doing this for a greater good. That was a good lesson to learn today and a tasty one because it came covered in cheese.

Next up: Chocolate Covered Cashews Day