Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Even though we've spent the last two weekends traveling abroad, we're hitting the Polish highways later today for another road trip in Poland

That makes three weekends on the road, and even I'll admit that I'm tired.

So why do I travel so much? It's a question I've been asked a lot, especially lately, which I'll try to answer in this post.

Since I grew up in a small town in the middle of Nebraska,  I think part of me is making up for lost time. My first trip to Europe was for my 30th birthday. I missed out on that whole backpacking stage in my 20s, so now I'm doing it in my late 30s.

I travel because I want new and different experiences and to enjoy new cultures. Growing up I was only exposed to really good Mexican food and really bad Americanized Chinese food. Not a very culturally-diverse area. Now, I've lived in two different cultures - Turkish and Polish - and traveled to places in Europe I never learned about in my world history classes. 
The more I learn, the more I want to know.
Ancient ruins near Split, Croatia
I get a thrill from planning each trip and wonder what I'll see once we get to our destination.  I like wandering around small streets, camera in tow, and catching glimpses of everyday life and local people.

I should note that we’re not rich by any means, but simply plan our budget accordingly so we can afford to travel. When we moved abroad in 2010, we set a goal of being able to travel once a month, and nearly 5 years later, we done exactly that! If you want to travel, it means setting goals and priorities. I’d rather spend our money on a really good meal or a European trip instead of a fancy handbag or new clothes. The same theory holds true if you live in the United States.

As an expat, I never truly know when our time abroad may end so I want to see as much as possible. I don't want to have any regrets. So even though I'm tired, I couldn't pass up spending a weekend with friends because this was the only weekend that would work for all of us. That previous weekend in Lviv was too good of deal to pass up with our plane tickets only costing 300zl each (about $80). We had an awesome weekend in western Ukraine while most of our friends told us we were crazy.

The more I travel, the more I've come to realize how gigantic the world really is, and the more I want to see.

Why do you travel?
Don't look down at San Sebastian, Spain!
View over St. Emilion, France, in June 2014.
View over the medieval city of Torun, Poland, in May 2014.
Stopping for a break in Tallinn, Estonia, as part of our November 2014 Baltic road trip.
I had no idea Scotland would be so beautiful! I was blown away by the lush green hills, fluffy sheep everywhere and the snow-capped mountains.

We kicked off 2015 with a long weekend trip to visit friends in the Highlands, a large region in northern Scotland that is dominated by many mountain ranges and forests. The Highlands also are one of the most sparsely populated areas in Europe. I would have to guess there are more sheep than humans here.

As our train chugged along the rail from Glasgow to Aviemore, I couldn’t help but stare out my window in amazement. How come no one ever told me Scotland was THIS stunning?

Every scene looked like it belonged on a postcard!
Our friends, a Scottish-British couple, swore we got lucky with the weather as the Highlands generally receives a lot of snow during the winter. We had little snow on the ground near the village of Carrbridge, but we did have abundant sunshine, which led to spectacular sunsets and sunrises. I could still sleep in and catch the sunrise at 8:45 a.m. each day.
Our weekend included two hikes through the large Cairngorms National Park which covers 4,500 sq km of snow-covered mountains, green forests and picturesque lochs. The hikes I did were fairly easy, lasting about 3 hours, and took me through an ancient Caledonian pine forest, sheep-grazing fields and past Carrbridge’s most famous landmark, the Old  Packhorse Bridge, from which the village is named. The bridge, built in 1717, is the oldest stone bridge in the Highlands.
Like I said, sheep were everywhere in the Highlands!
Meanwhile, my husband and our friend’s husband took a more adventurous 15km hike which took them to the knee-deep, snow-covered top of Meall Chuaich (map), a Scottish Munro, with a height over 3,000 feet (915 m). The national park is home to five of the United Kingdom’s six highest mountains, including 43 whose summits are considered Munros.
I’m so happy I decided not to go with them on that hike as I would have been climbing headfirst into bitter, winter winds and trudging through snow in my ill-equipped hiking boots. No thank you! Instead, my girlfriend and I had a relaxing hike through the nearby forest and ended our afternoon with glasses of wine on the porch at home.

After our busy Christmas trip through Spain and France, a chilled-out weekend in Scotland is just what I needed. The Highlands definitely impressed me and I hope to return to explore more of its scenic landscape. 

Have you been to Scotland? If so, please share your tips/advice in the comments below.
(I loved these bright blue doors we passed by in the village of Carrbridge.)
My Traveling Joys

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

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Just 10 days ago, we experienced a phenomenal dining experience thanks to a visiting 2-Michelin Star chef from France here in Warsaw.

Besides dining at Nolita for my birthday, this special 7-course degustation menu by Chef Olivier Nasti, MOF, was THE best meal we’ve eaten in our Polish capital city. The event was hosted by the Sofitel Warsaw Victoria and sponsored by AirFrance so we sampled some fantastic French wines (at a bargain) as well.

Chef Nasti has achieved some high accolades in his culinary career such as competing and then winning the Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF, best craftsman of France) title in 2007 and 2 Michelin stars for his restaurant Le Chambard in Kaysersberg, a small town along the Alsace wine route in northeastern France, in 2014. Nasti will retain the MOF title for life and is one that’s recognized by culinary professionals worldwide. (I haven’t visited the Alsace region yet, but that’s where my head chef, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, also hails from and whom I luckily worked for in NYC for nearly 3 years.)
Chef Nasti plating the roasted pineapple dessert at the Le Victoria Brasserie Moderne.
Our fancy French dinner started with a glass of French G.H. Mumm champagne followed by an amuse-bouche of foie gras mousse with perfectly brunoise of tart apples and mushrooms. I love anything with foie!
The first course was an interesting play on spinach and eggs with the egg white being cooked at 64C by sous vide, served with a spinach puree and langoustine sauce. A little odd, but still delicious.
The second course featured smoked eel with pike fish mousse and orange gel. This was my least favorite dish mainly because I dislike ANY smoked fish. But the glass of 2009 Meursault Clos du Cromin, a honey-flavored chardonnay from Burgundy, was lovely.
Our third course was a superbly-cooked, flaky sea bass fillet with charred leeks and topped with tiny morsels of mussels and oysters. This dish made me long for the fresh sea bass I used to buy when we lived in Istanbul.
The main entrée was roasted pigeon smothered in black truffles and served with a dollop of celeriac puree. I also love truffles!
After the main dishes, we were treated to not just one, but TWO desserts AND a plateful of petit fours. At that point, I think I had died and gone to heave while my husband was starting to complain how full he was and couldn’t eat any more sweets. It’s a rare treat to enjoy a fancy meal like this and it makes me nostalgic for my restaurant days.
Plating chocolate goodness!
Dessert number 1: a rich, dark chocolate mille feuille with coffee ice cream
Petit fours and dessert number 2: roasted pineapple baked in Zacapa rum and served with pineapple sorbet and passion fruit.
Throughout our tasting meal, I enjoyed watching Chef Nasti work alongside Executive Chef Maciej Majewski of the Le Victoria Brasserie Moderne and his crew. I love experiencing the culinary dance that happens in a professional kitchen – the careful plating, the swoosh of purees across a fine bone china plate and the final inspection of each and every plate before it goes out to the diners. Luckily, the Brasserie features an open kitchen so you can enjoy this same experience even when a famous French chef isn’t in the house!
Chef Nasti and Executive Chef Majewski plating dishes together for our French dinner.
I should also mention that the service and attentiveness from the Sofitel staff was impeccable. Other Warsaw restaurants should take note of this high level of service.

I swear if there’s an afterlife, I want to come back as French woman and enjoy as much foie and truffles as I want!

Le Victoria Brasserie Moderne at the Sofitel Warsaw Victoria
Królewska street 11

(Note: I’ve heard the Sofitel’s Chef Majewski also serves wonderful takes on French dishes. Here’s a recent review by blogger friend, Magda at Crust & Dust. I think we’ll have to return again soon.)

Friday, February 13, 2015

Move over pączki, now it’s time for another sweet-based holiday – Valentine’s Day!

I couldn’t let this holiday slip without baking something sweet for my husband to share with his colleagues. So earlier this week, I baked some mini cupcakes and decorated them with pale pink and red fondant, colorful sprinkles and a white chocolate buttercream. A traditional Red Velvet Cake seemed appropriate for this lovely holiday!
Baking cupcakes for colleagues is a far better way to spend Valentine’s Day versus the hundreds of chocolate boxes and tiny petit fours I used to make when I worked as a pastry chef in U.S fine dining restaurants. One year, I even recruited my husband to help finish and assemble the chocolate boxes or I would have ended up sleeping at the restaurant!

If you’re looking for a recipe to bake for your sweetheart this weekend, these cute red cupcakes are sure to please!

Happy Valentine’s Day!
The original recipe for Red Velvet Cake is associated with the restaurant in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in the 1920s. The cake is a dark red or red-brown color achieved by adding cooked beets/beet juice or red food coloring, and topped with a cream cheese frosting. The cake is very popular in the southern states of the U.S.

Red Velvet Cake with White Chocolate Buttercream
Yields: 24 normal-sized cupcakes or 60 mini cupcakes
Or two 9 or 10-inch (22-24 cm.) round cake pans

425      g.                     480 typ Szymanowska Polish flour or All-purpose flour
350      g.                     granulated sugar
1          teaspoon          baking soda
3          Tablespoons    cocoa powder

330      ml.                  sunflower or vegetable oil
2          ea.                    large eggs, room temperature
230      ml.                   buttermilk (maslanka in Polish)
1          teaspoon          vanilla extract
1          teaspoon          white vinegar
1          Tablespoon      red food coloring

Preheat the oven to 350 F/175 C.
In a medium mixing bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, baking soda and cocoa powder.

Using an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, on medium speed, mix together the oil, eggs, buttermilk, food coloring, vinegar and vanilla.

Add the dry ingredients to the liquid ingredients above. Mix until smooth and thoroughly combined, about 1 minute.

Bake mini cupcakes for about 10 minutes, normal cupcakes for 20 minutes and 9-inch cakes for about 25-30 minutes until the cake springs back on top. Test the cake with a toothpick or metal skewer for doneness. Remove from the oven and let cool completely before frosting.

To decorate the cupcakes, use a large star tip or a French tip in your pastry bag. Fill the bag with the buttercream and make swirls on top of the cupcakes. Garnish with fondant cut-outs and colorful sprinkles.

White Chocolate Buttercream
180      g.                     egg whites (from approx. 6 large eggs)
300      g.                     Drobny granulated sugar
340      g.                     butter, room temp.
215      g.                     white chocolate, melted
Optional                      2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Make a Swiss meringue. Place the egg whites and sugar into the mixing bowl and place over a pot of simmering water. Heat the mixture and whisk continuously until the temperature reaches 60C.

Remove from the pot. Place the bowl on the mixer and whip on high speed until the mixture reaches stiff peaks and feels lukewarm.

Then, lower the speed on the mixer and gradually add in the butter. If the butter is cold, the mixture may break and separate.

Lastly, add in the melted white chocolate, a little bit at a time. Add vanilla for flavoring.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Today marks probably one of the sweetest days on the Polish calendar.

Locally known as Tłusty Czwartek (Fat Thursday), this day allows you to  greedily stuff your face with as many Polish doughnuts as you can before the fasting season of Lent begins. This is the Polish version of Fat Tuesday!

Instead of parading and partying like other Catholic-observant countries do for Mardis Gras, the Poles stand in long, long lines to purchase pastries from the cukiernia (bakery). The most popular Polish pastry, particularly on Fat Thursday, are pączki – large, deep-fried doughnuts. These sugary sweet doughnuts are typically filled with cherry or rose petal jam, glazed with sugar, and then sometimes topped with candied orange peel. The pączki are very similar to our American jelly-filled doughnuts in the U.S., but perhaps a bit more egg-y in texture.
Unfortunately, this year, I won’t be sampling any pączki since I’m on my gluten-free diet. Sadly, my husband will have to eat my share of doughnuts too!
The piles of pączki sold at large grocery stores like Carrefour are very non-traditional in their brightly colored icings.
If you’re not sure where to buy your pączki today, my sweet Polish friend Magda has taste-tested several here in Warsaw. Check out her recommendations at her blog: Crust & Dust. Her post is in Polish, but it’s fairly easy to figure out the addresses of her recommendations. 

Another Fat Thursday favorite in Poland are faworki. Nicknamed “Angel’s Wings, these thin, crispy ribbons of pastry dough are fried, and then sprinkled liberally with powdered sugar. I saw a bunch of these for sale while I picked up some fresh produce at Hala Mirowska yesterday.

If you’re celebrating today, please enjoy a sweet pączki for me too!