Sunday, December 26, 2010

“Do you want to make cookies with me?” I asked my four-year-old nephew the other day.

Caden: “I know how to make cookies. You take them out of the package and put them in the oven.”

I started laughing. “Well, that is one way to make cookies, but that’s not how Aunt Joy makes cookies,” I replied.

I can understand why busy parents use the refrigerator cookies. It’s easy and not messy that way.

But I’ve had some spare time this week in Pennsylvania, and I wanted to make Christmas cookies. My father-in-law had two requests: pecan sandies and snickerdoodles. Both recipes are simple to make.

I thought it would be fun to get the kids involved in baking since it’s something I always enjoyed doing with my mother and grandmothers when I was young. I usually see my niece and nephew twice a year since we live far apart. Often, they act shy and only want to play games or swim in the pool if it’s summertime.

This time, my nephew seemed fairly receptive to the idea of helping me. He donned a blue apron and pulled up a footstool while his six-year-old sister took a nap on the couch since she wasn’t feeling well.

Caden helped me measure the ingredients as best he could. Some of the flour and sugar ended up on the kitchen floor, but “grandpa” repeatedly cleaned up after us later. As soon as we finished the first batch of pecan sandies, Caden wanted to make another.

Caden helped add the flour and pecans to the mixing bowl.

Both cookie doughs needed to be chilled before we could roll them into small balls and bake them. We waited until the next day to bake the cookies. Then, Kendra, my niece, was feeling better and she helped us too.

The three of us rolled the Snickerdoodles into the cinnamon-sugar mixture.
Baking with the kids was a fun way to spend a few hours. Most of the family members were gathered in the kitchen while we were baking the cookies too. My husband was taking pictures for me.

That’s what I enjoy most about the holidays - coming together. This often seems to happen in the kitchen. The sharing of stories, laughing and enjoying just being together. Someday I’ll probably be teaching my own children how to bake cookies.

Afiyet Olsun!

Pecan Sandies
(Adapted from “The New Cookbook” published by Better Homes and Gardens, 1972 edition)

8          oz.       unsalted butter at room temperature
1/3       c.         granulated sugar
2          tsp.      water
2          tsp.      vanilla extract
2          c.         All-purpose flour, sifted
1          c.         pecans, chopped
As needed       powdered sugar

1. Using a hand or stand mixer, cream together the butter and sugar together in the mixing bowl.
2. Add the water and vanilla. Mix well.
3. Then, add the flour and nuts and mix until incorporated.
4. Let the dough chill for at least one hour before rolling into small balls.
5. Preheat the oven to 325F/160C.
6. Place the balls on an ungreased sheet tray and bake for about 15 minutes, until the cookies are slightly golden on the bottom.
7. Remove from the tray and let cool slightly. Then, roll the warm cookies into a bowl of powdered sugar until lightly coated.

A shot of the finished pecan sandies before they were consumed.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Two flights and about 66 miles later I find myself driving past our brick townhouse in Baltimore, Md.

I’m happy to see that our former home still looks the same on the outside, particularly since we still own it.

Two days ago I drove down to Baltimore from my in-laws house in Pennsylvania. I planned to run some errands, catch up with old friends and former co-workers, and of course, eat. After a week with my family in Nebraska, I am now spending a week with my husband and his family on the East Coast.

For lunch, I planned to meet two co-workers at B&O American Brasserie in the heart of downtown Baltimore. Jason and I had enjoyed a few good meals and cocktails here before we moved away this summer.

The restaurant occupies the original Baltimore & Ohio Railway headquarters, which is also home to a beautiful boutique hotel called Hotel Monaco. The hotel’s lower lobby is detailed with creamy marble walls, accents of green and burgundy and a dazzling crystal chandelier.

Beautiful architecture in the hotel's lobby.

The menu features American dishes with local and seasonal ingredients. For starters, we ordered the mac n’ cheese croquettes, curried mussels and a cup of chipotle, butternut squash soup.

The croquettes were served with pickled red onions and arugula.

I think the mussels were my favorite because of the slight spiciness. Unfortunately, the soup lacked enough spice and could’ve use used a good splash of cream or a rich chicken stock to enrich the flavor.

For our entrees, my friends and I ordered the grilled hamburger, pork ragout pasta and the market brick-oven pizza which included a fried egg on top of it. Since I’ve been pork deprived in Istanbul, the pasta tasted heavenly.

If you happen to be visiting Baltimore, I’d highly recommend stepping into B&O – It’s a mix of good modern-day food and drinks.

Later on, while I waited for my friends to get off work, I paid a visit to Salt – one of my all-time favorite restaurants in Baltimore that’s just a few blocks away from our house. Jason and I used to frequent here just to enjoy the duck-fat-fried French fries and the Salted Pomegranate Margaritas.

I didn’t want to order a whole order of fries for myself so I ordered the new steamed Asian pork bun off the appetizer menu. The pork was topped with a homemade, fresh kimchi. It was Asian-licious!

I apologize about the poor photo. I only had my cell phone with me at the time.

On the following morning, I took one last drive down the cobblestone streets of Fell’s Point. I stopped along the harbor for one passing glance before I headed back north to Pennsylvania. I definitely have many happy memories from living in Baltimore, and I do miss my former life. But we have a chance to do something different abroad, so that’s what we’re doing now.

January 2009 - Snowfall along the harbor in Baltimore.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Being back home means I get to eat my favorite foods that I miss!

Of course, I'm visiting with my family and friends, but everyone has to eat too, right? So we go out to eat and talk over good food and drinks.

In Nebraska, my favorite foods include Nebraska beef, anything pork and Mexican food.

My hometown of Grand Island has a population of 42,940, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Of that number, 6,845 are Hispanic or Latino - nearly 16 percent of the city's population. 

In the city's old downtown area, you can find several mercados, pananaderias y restaurantes. Of course, this is where I went searching for pork tamales! 

I found them at Sanchez Plaza, a local, family-owned restaurant that I hadn't frequented before. The whole menu was in Spanish so I was extremely happy to practice my Spanish and translate the menu for my parents.

The restaurant is located at 212 S. Wheeler St.
 The pork tamales were delicious and served with the typical Spanish rice and refried beans.

I also ordered the chicken tortilla soup, which had a flavorful and peppery broth. The bowl was like a meal in itself for only $5!

My dad ordered the carne asadero - which I think was a grilled flat-iron steak.

 My mom ordered the chicken quesadillas.

The restaurant is attached to a small bakery and store that specializes in imported Latino products. I  bought several cans of chipotle peppers and several kinds of ground chilies to take back with me to Istanbul.

Another favorite restaurant that I visit every time when I'm home is The Plainsman in Juanita, Nebr. - about a 30 minute drive away. I discovered this little family-owned gem while I was working at the newspaper in Hastings during college.

On Saturday nights, the restaurant offers a prime rib buffet. I had just eaten a steak dinner the previous night so I couldn't wait to sink my teeth into a pink slab of prime rib!

The prime rib is carved to order.

I selected the cheesy potatoes and pasta casserole to go with my prime rib.

What I also love about The Plainsman is a covered wagon that takes centerstage and holds the all-you-can-eat salad bar! Only in Nebraska will you probably find something like this, but that's what I enjoy about it too!

By the time Sunday rolled around, I had enjoyed my fill of beef and Mexican food so now I wanted to start on my pork binge. I met up with two college girlfriends in Omaha and we went to Charleston's Restaurant for dinner and drinks. (This name is similar to the restaurant I worked at in Baltimore called Charleston, but they serve completely different cuisines.)

This casual restaurant dishes up a menu full of American classics such as cheeseburgers, prime rib sandwiches, chicken fried steak and more. 

Grilled pork chops with smokehouse baked beans and creamy mashed potatoes.
So far my U.S. trip has been full of laughter, family, friendship and good eats!

Monday, December 20, 2010

The holidays are often full of traditions.

When I was little, I remember my brother and I were allowed to open one small gift each on Christmas Day morning. Still wearing our pajamas, we greedily tore into the wrapping paper to see what Santa had delivered to us overnight. Later on that day, we would attend the annual Christmas service at our hometown church. When we returned home, we opened the rest of our gifts and listened to Christmas songs on my parents’ old record player.

Christmas 1982 - My brother, John, and me at home in Nebraska.

Over the years as we both grew up and I moved around a lot, this tradition waned. We no longer believed in Santa. We didn’t live in the same state anymore. My family basically celebrated Christmas whenever we could get together in December.

However, the one thing that has remained is Christmas baking. My mom and I used to bake dozens and dozens of cookies together. A few times when I was home from college, I tried to select at least 12 recipes to make and a baking frenzy would ensue over several days.

There is one recipe that we make every year – Grandma’s Lebkuchen Bars.

This dense, seasonal bar pays homage to my German heritage. It’s full of anisette flavor and tastes like black licorice. 

As soon as I smell the bars baking, it reminds me of Christmases past and my long-gone Grandma. Even my dad wandered into the kitchen while I was baking the bars and said it smelled like Christmas. Yes, this is what traditions are all about.

If you are reading this in Turkey, you probably will enjoy this recipe too because the flavor is similar to that of Raki, the country’s popular anise-flavored liqueur. (If you'd like me to convert the recipe to grams, please send me an email at

Even if I don’t live in the same country as my family, baking Grandma’s bars is one holiday tradition I always plan to carry on no matter where I live.

Afiyet Olsun!

Grandma’s Lebkuchen Bars

2          c.         dark molasses
1          c.         brown sugar
1          c.         buttermilk
3          T.         unsalted butter

3          c.         All-purpose flour
2          tsp.      baking soda
2          tsp.      ground cinnamon
1          tsp.      ground cloves
Pinch               salt
1          tsp.      Anise oil or extract (add more to your liking which is what I usually do.)
2          ea.        eggs, slightly beaten

Optional:         pinch of freshly ground nutmeg (I usually add this, but it was not listed in Grandma’s original recipe.)
As needed       powdered sugar

1. Lightly pan-spray a half-sheet baking tray (13”x18”) lined with parchment paper. (I used a 9x13 metal baking pan this time and the bars took about twice as long to bake.)
2. In a large metal or glass mixing bowl, add the molasses, brown sugar, buttermilk and butter. Heat the bowl over a pot of simmering water and stir until the sugar is slightly dissolved.
3. In a second bowl, sift together the dry ingredients.
4. Add the dry ingredients to the molasses mixture and stir well.
5. Then add the eggs and anise oil, stirring until the batter is thoroughly combined. (At this point, I like to taste the batter to see if the anisette flavor is strong enough. I usually add a few more drops anyway.)
6. Spread the batter evenly onto the sheet tray. Place the tray in the refrigerator to set overnight.
7. On the next morning, preheat the oven to 325F/160C. Bake the bars for 15 to 20 minutes, until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
8. Let the bars cool until you can cut them. Then place several cut bars and a good amount of powdered sugar in a plastic container with a lid and shake together.  The bars need to be covered with the powdered sugar shortly before you plan to serve them because the sugar will “melt” into the bars over time.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Normally baking with butter is my only M.O.

I love the rich taste! I figure as long as you use butter in moderation it can’t be that bad for you.

Since I’m home visiting my parents right now, I’ve made some baking substitutions. My dad needs to closely monitor his fat and cholesterol intake because of past heart complications.

So I’ve traded in my butter for applesauce and light margarine. I even gave up granulated sugar for Splenda.

This morning, I wanted to make us a breakfast treat. Muffins or coffee cake? I decided to go with an apple coffee cake.

The recipe comes together fairly quickly. In less than 1 hour, you can enjoy a healthier treat for breakfast or for an afternoon snack.

My dad was happy and said the cake tasted “great.”

I, too, was pleased with the moist, spiced cake and its slightly crispy topping. I hope you enjoy the cake as much as my family did.

Afiyet Olsun!

The coffee cake looks so pretty sitting on my mother's wedding china.

Low-Fat Apple Coffee Cake
(Adapted from: “The New American Heart Association Cookbook”)

1/3       c.         dark brown sugar
1/3       c.         oatmeal
1          T.         plus 1 1/2 tsp. flour
1          tsp.      ground cinnamon
1          T.         light margarine, melted
1 ½      c.         flour
½         c.         Splenda or sugar
2 ½      tsp.      baking powder
1          tsp.      ground cinnamon
½         tsp.      ground ginger
Pinch               ground nutmeg
¾         c.         fat-free milk
½         tsp.      vanilla extract
1          ea.        Granny Smith apple, peeled and shredded
¼         c.         unsweetened applesauce
1          ea.        egg white

1. Preheat oven to 375F or 190 C. Lightly pan-spray a 9-inch square metal baking dish.
2. For the topping, combine all ingredients and mix well. Set aside.
3. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, Splenda or sugar and spices for the cake.
4. In a metal bowl, whisk the egg white until very frothy - almost soft peaks.
5. Add the milk, vanilla, applesauce and shredded apple to the dry ingredients. Stir until moistened.
6. Then, carefully fold in the egg white to the above mixture, being careful not to deflate it. Pour mixture into the baking pan. Sprinkle the topping on top.
7. Bake the cake for about 30 minutes until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
8. Let the cake cool for at least 20 minutes before cutting. Serve a piece of the cake with coffee or tea.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Four airports and many hours later I finally landed back in Nebraska last night.

The captain said the temperature was 20 F outside when we arrived. But when I went outside to find the rental car, I swear it felt like 5 below zero. I immediately wanted to retreat back inside to the warmth of the terminal.

The brutal wind whipped across my face. I’d forgotten how awful winters can be in the Midwest.

My home state is mainly flat, especially on the eastern side. The wind easily blows when nothing is standing in its way. Snow drifts pile up several feet high.

Welcome home!

I’m spending the next two weeks in the U.S. to visit my family, my husband’s family and our friends for the holidays. On Monday, I spent the night in New York City to visit with some close friends. It was frigid and snowy there too.

I woke up at 5 a.m., still disoriented and sleepy from the travel and time difference. I decided to take some photos from my friend’s 12th floor apartment on the Upper West Side.

The city that never sleeps appeared to be in a dark slumber at least from where I stood. A few cars whizzed by on the West Side Highway, but otherwise the predawn air seemed still.

I finally went back to sleep after reading for a bit.

Later, my longtime friend and I were able to catch up over coffee and then lunch at Big Nick’s on Broadway Street. I couldn’t leave town without having some NY pizza – especially pepperoni. Although we’ve eaten several tasty pizzas (with a crispy, thin crust) in Istanbul, nothing beats a NY slice.

The funny thing is that this NY institution serves you a small piece of bakalava at the end of your meal.  The menu features several Greek specialties.

During the past two days I’ve racked up about 7,000 miles so I could be home for the holidays. 

It’s been a tiring journey, and I’m still a bit jet lagged. But like Dorothy said when she clicked her ruby shoes: “There’s no place like home.”

Nebraska snow indeeds piles up.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Murano chandeliers drip with crystals.

Glass domes over the lobby let sunlight dapple inside.

The foyer is lined with refurbished Carrera marble and gold-leaf decoration.

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to dine in a place that has a unique, intriguing, and dare I say, almost boisterous history. The Pera Palace Hotel, recently opened after a 2.5 year+ and $30 million renovation, was the location for the Christmas Luncheon of the International Women of Istanbul.

When I received the invitation over a month ago, I immediately sent in my "yes" response. I wanted to peek inside the hotel and see what the fuss was all about. When I first arrived in Istanbul in July, the hotel still was under construction. I remember walking by, seeing the impressive marble columns outside and wondering what the place had been.

According to local history, the Pera Palace Hotel, originally founded in 1892, opened for the specific purpose of hosting passengers arriving on the Orient Express train. Over the years, the hotel was witness to many spy games and hosted several popular personalities in its time. (You can read more about the hotel's history here.)

Writer Agatha Christie is said to be inspired by the hotel and used it as a backdrop in her stories. It is rumored that she wrote “Murder on the Orient Express” here. Author Ernest Hemingway drank in the Orient Bar while possibly penning his next novel. King George V and Greta Garbo were regular visitors to this place. Alfred Hitchcock, and Winston Churchill also stayed here. Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish republic, stayed while he prepared for the Turkish War of Independence. “Ataturk’s Suite,” room 101, is now preserved as a museum. 

For our lunch, we started with a glass of hot mulled wine. It was fun to walk around and talk with several women I’ve met before and to meet new faces as well. It’s such a lively and welcoming group of women.

After an hour, we finally all sat down (imagine trying to get 180 ladies into the same room to sit down) and proceeded onto the appetizer of stuffed zucchini blossoms with goat cheese.

Before the entrée arrived, I switched to a glass white wine. The meal was a pistachio-crusted salmon filet on bed of creamed leaks served with fondant potatoes. The rich dish was fairly tasty, but the neon green pistachio dust, which also covered the chicken entrée, was a bit much.

Later on amongst all the gossiping, dessert – a baked cherry and almond tart - arrived. It was good, but I had three complaints. The tart’s crust was too thick and heavy. Two – cherries aren’t in season so I can only assume a canned filling was used. Three - I despise mint sprigs being used as a dessert garnish.

After my luxurious lunch, I walked through Taksim Square and Nişantaşı, and stopped at several places so I could finish my Christmas shopping. Yes, it was a rough day.

The hotel was decorated with Christmas trees and ornaments.
Outside view of the Pera Palace Hotel.
I wish I had taken more photos inside the hotel, but there were so many people milling about that it was difficult. 

Next time, I hope my husband and I can enjoy a drink at the famous Orient Bar or we can take in an afternoon tea.