Wednesday, October 30, 2013

I’m surprised to see that Warsaw seems to have embraced the Halloween holiday.

At least, I’ve seen several more stores selling Halloween decorations and costumes here than I ever saw when we lived in Istanbul. And other expat friends with children in the international schools here have been busy celebrating Halloween-themed parties.

At home, I’ve been busy baking Halloween-themed treats! Just yesterday I hosted a baking class for a group of the international ladies I’ve met here. I taught them how to make Halloween cut-out cookies with fondant, meringue ghosts, an American pumpkin tart and chocolate shortbread bats and black cats. It’s been a busy week, but it’s been a lot of fun too!
Some leftover goodies from our Halloween baking class. I'll be sending these cookies with my husband to the office tomorrow! 
You can make your own Halloween or any holiday cut-out cookies with fondant by following my directions on last year’s Halloween post. I know not everyone likes the taste of fondant, but it sure does make some cute cookies! I’m sure you’ll agree!

Wishing you a Happy Halloween (one day early) wherever you may be!
Look at this cool Jack-o-lantern hubby carved for our balcony in Warsaw!
P.S. My next baking class with CookUp Studio will feature some lovely fall desserts such as Sweet Potato Pie and Spiced Pumpkin-Cheesecake Bread. It will be held on Tuesday, November 5, at 6 p.m. You can sign up online here.

Joy’s Chocolate Shortbread
Yields: about 2-3 dozen cut-out cookies, depending on the shape used
170      g.                     butter, room temperature
200      g.                     granulated sugar
1          teaspoon          vanilla
¼         teaspoon          salt
90        g.         (12 Tablespoons) cocoa powder
170      g.         480 typ Szymanowska Polish flour
As needed       powdered sugar, for rolling out the dough
Garnish:           white royal icing

Using a paddle in the mixer, cream the butter and sugar together. Add the vanilla.

Sift together the flour, cocoa and salt. Add to the butter/sugar and mix until dough comes together slightly.

Divide the dough into two flat packets and wrap with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
Then, lightly dust your baking mat with powdered sugar, roll out the dough to about 1/4-inch (6 mm) thick. Then, cut out your cookies. You can reroll the scraps and cut into additional cookies.

Once the cookies are cooled, you can decorate with Royal Icing or fondant.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Whenever we return from a trip, it always takes a couple of days to recover, do laundry and simply catch up on everyday things.

Our recent trip to the Białowieża National Park (Białowieski Park Narodowy), located in eastern Poland, was an amazing, magical place. We saw a couple of bison, two boar and a fox in the wild. I took nearly 500 photos in two days so I have much to share with you soon.

In the meantime, I’ve had a busy week preparing for some upcoming baking classes with a local cooking program called CookUp Studio in Warsaw. My first class is tomorrow, which is sold out with 16 participants.

However, there’s still time to sign up for my next class on Wednesday, Nov. 5, which will feature American Sweet Potato Pie and Mini Pecan or Walnut Tarts. These are two of my favorite recipes for the Thanksgiving holiday. (Please check the studio’s website to sign up for my next class.)

Besides baking, I usually end up cooking something for dinner as well. One of my recent dinners featured the Polish chanterelle mushrooms (kurek or kurka in Polish). On the blog’s Facebook page, I had asked readers what I should make with the lovely batch of kurek. If I had Turkish yufka, a mushroom börek would have been a great idea!
I settled on using one of my old, but favorite recipes for risotto, cooked the chanterelle mushrooms in white wine and stirred the mushrooms into the risotto later. I served this hearty, fall risotto with garlic-yogurt marinated chicken breasts. It was a delicious dinner!

Remember as you’re cooking the mushrooms, it’s okay to enjoy some of the white wine for yourself like I did! A little wine for the mushrooms and a little for your glass!

Polish Chanterelle Mushrooms in Risotto

2          T.         olive oil
1          ea.        medium yellow onion, cut into small dice
1          cup       Arborio rice (approx. 210 grams)
2-3       cups     chicken stock (approx. 480-720 ml.)
1       T.            butter
½         c.         grated Parmesan cheese (more to taste)
To taste           salt and pepper
Garnish:           fresh Italian parsley, chopped

2          T.         butter
½                     medium onion, cut into small dice
16        oz.       Chanterelle mushrooms (about 500 grams), cleaned and trimmed
1          cup      dry white wine such as a Chardonnay (240 ml.)
2          ea.        bay leaves
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
To taste           salt and pepper

1. In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until softened, about 10 minutes.
2. Then, add the rice and stir with a wooden spoon until toasted and opaque, about 5 to 10 minutes.
3. Add a 4-ounce ladle of the stock to the risotto and cook. Continually stir this mixture until the liquid is absorbed. Add more stock. Stir again. Repeat this procedure until all the stock is fully absorbed.
4. Cook the rice until it is tender and creamy, but a tad al dente, about 20-30 minutes. As the risotto cooks, just taste a bite of it. If it seems too al dente, add more stock and keep cooking and stirring.
5. Lastly, stir in the butter and cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Pull the pan off the heat if you are still finishing the mushrooms.
6. While the risotto is cooking, heat a second saucepan for the mushrooms. Add the 2 Tablespooons of butter. Once melted and hot, add the onion and sauté until translucent.
7. Then, add the mushrooms, thyme and bay leaf into the pan. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms have released their moisture and turned golden brown.
8. Next, add the white wine and cook until most of the liquid is absorbed. (Pour yourself a glass of white wine too!)
9. Lastly, fold the mushrooms, removing the thyme and bay leaf stems, into the finished risotto. Add as much chopped, fresh parsley as you like. Season with more salt and pepper as needed.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Last Sunday, the silver-gray sky and threatening rain clouds in the distance didn’t stop us from trekking out to a national forest, located on the outskirts of Warsaw.

Kampinos National Park (Kampinoski Park Narodowy) is located  in east-central Poland and covers an area of 407 square kilometres (157 sq. miles). We had visited the forest once before in early spring shortly after we moved to Warsaw, but this trip we headed out to see the remaining fall foliage and changing colors.

We drove to the small village of Kampinos, 38 km. away from our apartment, turned north on a narrow, paved road and then found a spot to pull off on the side of the road. We saw a large pathway and some trail markers and so we decided to start our trek here.
Compared to our last trip to Kampinos, this time the trails seemed poorly marked and even non-existent in some places. But the trees were beautiful, and luckily, my husband has a good sense of direction. If I returned to this trail by myself, I would have gotten lost especially since the compass on my cell phone wasn’t working. (Note to self: buy a real compass!)
As we walked along, I noticed you truly could smell the forest – pine needles, tree bark and the musty smell of decaying leaves. It’s wonderful that we can escape the city for this gigantic forest and see the seasons change.
I was hoping to see a moose, which the forest is known for, but we only stumbled upon several forest frogs (toads). These little, tan-colored guys practically blended right into the forest undergrowth.
One thing that did not blend into its natural landscape was a bright red, white-spotted toadstool. This fairytale mushroom reminded me of that part in “Alice in Wonderland” when Alice is talking to the hookah-smoking caterpillar about eating the mushroom to grow big or small.
However, this red mushroom is one you do NOT want to eat! Known as an amanita muscaria (fly agaric or fly amanita), it is considered poisonous and is noted for its hallucinogenic properties.

We found dozens of other types of mushrooms, which Poland is known for, but we didn’t know if they were poisonous or not.
We left the pockets of fungi to the foraging mushroom hunters which we ran into as we were ending our hike in the forest. Incidentally, I’ve been reading The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America on my Kindle which talks about the crazy mushroom trade in the U.S., but also references Poland and its mushroom notoriety several times. Definitely a good read!
A family of Polish mushroom hunters out for a Sunday trek. 
We exited the forest empty handed and drove back into Kampinos. The few stores all seemed shuttered on Sunday except for a small pizzeria, La Foresta. We ordered the mushroom soup, of course, and a delicious pepperoni pizza.
Until we know what’s edible and what’s not, we’ll leave the mushroom picking to the locals.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Every now and then, I truly get lucky and end up in the right spot at exactly the right time to capture a beautiful photo.

This happened to me when I visited Istanbul last month. My friend and I started walking along the sea side from Bostancı toward Kadıköy on the Asian side of the city.

It was after 6 p.m., and the sunlight was waning. Sunset was just around the corner. This perfect time, called the golden hour, occurs right around sunset and sunrise. The light tends to be softer and warmer which makes for wonderful photos.

As we walked along the Sea of Marmara, I noticed the golden yellow and orange hues appearing in the sky.
The sun’s rays reflected off the sea as we passed the boats docked at Suadiye. The bustling city appeared to be (finally) quieting down.
As we rounded a bend, I quickened my pace because I could see the sun rapidly dipping down into the sea. I told my friend I was running up ahead to get some photos.

I clambered over the wall onto the large rocks along the sea. I saw a few lone fishermen in the distance still trying their luck at getting some fish for dinner. And that was when I saw what was probably the most splendid sunset I had EVER seen in Istanbul. There was simply something special about this sunset.
The brilliant colors were outstanding. I kept taking as many photos as I could, trying to quickly check to make sure I had the right settings. I didn’t want to lose this moment.
The fishermen continued to fish, perhaps oblivious to this beautiful sunset.

Boats and gigantic shipping containers were off in the distance in the sea.

Seagulls silently flew overhead.

I watched as the sun set below the horizon, leaving behind a warm, fiery red glow in the sky.
It’s funny I had to leave Istanbul in order to return and see the best sunset in more than three years.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Hearing friends talk about the lovely weather lately in Fethiye got me thinking how it’s already been a year since our grandparents visited us in Turkey.

We are fortunate to still have one set of grandparents living. And at age 90 and 84 years old, respectively, grandpa and grandma have promised to come visit us in Warsaw next summer. I hope they continue to have good health so that visit comes to fruition. I also can only hope that my husband and myself still are traveling around the world at that age!

Last year around this time, we took our grandparents to Fethiye for a weekend getaway from the hecticness that is Istanbul. Grandpa loves the water and was ecstatic about our hotel located in the Fethiye Marina.

I wrote about how they spent An Afternoon at Yakapark, but what I didn’t tell you about was our visit to the nearby ancient Lycian ruins of Tlos, about 38 km from Fethiye. Well, we left grandpa and grandma to relax at Yakapark because climbing around “a pile of rocks” just isn’t their idea of fun anymore.
Part of the necropolis tombs and the Ottoman-era fortress at Tlos.
Tlos, perched high up on a hill overlooking the beautiful Xanthos Valley, is one of the oldest and largest settlements of Lycia. This ancient city later was inhabited by the Romans, Byzantines and eventually the Ottoman Turks, making it one of few Lycian cities to be continually inhabited until the 19th century. You’ll find Lycian-era rock cut tombs and sarcophagi, dating back to the 3rd century BC, as part of the necropolis, as well as remnants of the Ottoman-era fortress and stables on the hilltop.
The climb up isn’t easy going so I definitely recommend wearing a good pair of athletic shoes and lots of sunscreen and bringing a bottle of water. Imagine our surprise when we found ourselves entirely ALONE climbing amongst the ancient ruins and overgrown pathways of wild thyme! These are just a few of the reasons why I always enjoyed exploring all the ancient ruins in Turkey – there are no barriers. You are free to wander and explore!
Don't do this if you have a fear of heights!
Did you know that Tlos also is home of the mythological hero Bellerophon and his winged flying horse Pegasus? How could you not want to visit here? Unfortunately, we missed seeing his tomb, located on the northern slope of the Acropolis.

Below the fortress, you’ll see a large open field home to a recently-excavated Roman stadium with a capacity of 2,500 people, complete with a swimming pool in the middle, and a 150 meters-long agora (market) next to it.
Looking out over the stadium, swimming pool, Roman baths and the theatre in the background at Tlos.
Near the stadium, you’ll find the ruins of the Roman baths with stupendous views overlooking the Xanthos Valley. Here you’ll also find the dramatic set of seven stone arches called Yedikapi (Seven doors or gates in Turkish). I’m always amazed at how these architectural pieces have survived over the centuries!
On our way back to the car, we bought a few souvenir trinkets from a nearby stall and walked over to take a few photos of the Roman theatre, which was closed off to the public. The what-looks-like-badly-damaged theatre once seated 6,000 viewers and dates back to 141 A.D.
We only spent 90 minutes at Tlos, but easily could have spent at least 2-3 hours. We rushed back to Yakapark only to find grandpa drinking his Efes beer and grandma with a glass of red wine. Grandpa asked us why we were back so soon.

Gotta love grandparents!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The inspiration for this autumn soup resulted from having just 2 sweet potatoes and 5 apples left in our kitchen pantry.

After returning from my recent trip to Istanbul, we literally had no fresh produce left in the fridge. Hubby also had been out of town and made do with what was on hand the few days he was home.

When he asked what I was going to make for dinner, I jokingly told him sweet potato and apple soup. After just having a lovely cream of pumpkin soup for lunch back in Warsaw, I got to thinking, why couldn’t I make some kind of creamy sweet potato soup as well?
A seasonal Cream of Pumpkin Soup at Słodki Słony in Warsaw.
When I returned home, I inputted a Google search for exactly that kind of soup. The recipe I created is loosely taken from this Real Simple recipe for Sweet Potato & Apple Soup with Cheese and Walnuts. I love soups year-round because they are so simple and satisfying to make, but I especially like to eat them on a cold day like the ones we’ve been having lately!

This recipe was born, like many others in my kitchen, out of necessity and partially from my upbringing. I learned to use what you had in the kitchen, and I still act on that today.

With just a few spices and ingredients, you can make a splendid, sweet-and-spicy, fall soup like this one!

Curried Sweet Potato and Apple Soup
Serves 4-6

2          T.                                 sunflower oil
1          medium                       onion, diced small
2          ea.                                celery stalks, diced small
4-6       cloves                          garlic, roughly chopped
2          teaspoons                    curry powder
2          large    (700 g.)            sweet potatoes, peeled, cut into 1-inch cubes
2          ea.                                tart apples, peeled and chopped small
1          L.         (33. 8 oz.)        chicken stock or water
To taste                                   salt and freshly ground black pepper
Optional                                  If you like it spicy, add a generous teaspoon of pul biber (red chili flakes).

For garnish:      yogurt or 18% Polish cream
                        Fried garlic chips (Note: mine only took about 30 seconds to fry. Strain immediately and place on paper towel to absorb extra grease. Season with salt.)

1.         In a large stockpot, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onion, celery and garlic and sauté for about five minutes, until softened.
2.         Add the curry powder. Stir. Then add the sweet potato and apples, stirring with a large spoon and cook for a few more minutes.
3.         Then, add the chicken stock or water. Add more liquid if necessary to cover your vegetables. Add a teaspoon of salt and pinch of black pepper. Cover the pot with a lid and let simmer for about 20 minutes, until the sweet potatoes are tender.
4.         When finished cooking, remove from the heat. Using a handheld immersion blender, puree the soup until smooth, adding more water if necessary to reach the desired consistency. Taste and adjust the seasonings, if needed.
5.         To serve, ladle the hot soup into warmed bowls. Garnish with a dollop of the yogurt or cream and a sprinkling of the fried garlic chips.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Signs of autumn are now everywhere in Warsaw.

All the trees are changing colors in shades of crimson, cinnamon, golden yellows and pumpkin orange. Sidewalks and parks are littered with fallen brown leaves. Temperatures are hovering around 50 F (8-10 C) during the daytime and down to 32 F or below (0-1 below C) at night. Brrr!

Before temps get too cold and the trees loose all their leaves, I decided to spend an afternoon taking some fall photos in Łazienki Park (Łazienki Królewskie in Polish). This centrally-located park is the city’s largest at 76 hectares (187 acres). This is the same park that hosted the summer Chopin concerts on Sundays that we enjoyed so much.
Here is the Chopin monument where the summer concerts were held.
Łazienki Park dates back to the 17th century, taking its name from a bathing pavilion that was once located here. In 1764, the King of Poland Stanisław August Poniatowski acquired the gardens for himself and later had a former palace, nicknamed The Palace on the Water (Pałac na Wodzie), remodeled for his own residence. The palace is currently undergoing massive renovations, but you can still get some lovely photos of it residing on the artificial lake.
The Palace on the Water (Pałac na Wodzie) in Warsaw.
The park is a gorgeous setting for a morning or afternoon stroll. I saw older couples together, young mothers with their children and friends of all ages strolling through the park, picking up fallen leaves and chestnuts and watching the squirrels and ducks.

Speaking of the squirrels…As I was squatting down to take some photos of these rambunctious red squirrels, one of them decided to run towards me and climb up on my leg! I did not appreciate this fellow’s friendliness and may have screamed a bit.
These red squirrels sure are cute until they try to climb up your leg!
After the squirrel incident, I stumbled upon a long path filled with red, Chinese lanterns. Apparently, the King created “Chinese Avenue” in 1780 because of his fascination with the Far East, and this road was only recently reopened after renovations. This wide avenue connects the 18th-century Royal Garden to the 19th-century Belvedere Garden. It’s also another excellent place for photos!
I left the park with a bag full of chestnuts and a memory card full of fall photos.

Happy fall everyone!
The "White House" housed the King's mistress for awhile.
Marble busts near the Old Orangerie in the park.
I love the bird just sitting on this statue!

Friday, October 4, 2013

My favorite city, Istanbul, has had its ups and downs this summer thanks to the Turkish government.

One of the positive highlights happened on August 27, when a local shopkeeper, Hüseyin Çelikel, set out to paint the 100+ steps leading from Fındıklı to Cihangir in rainbow colors. This was not a political statement. He just wanted to brighten up people’s day. At first, Çelikel painted only three of the steps, but then, after positive comments from passers-by, he decided to paint them all. Soon, residents were posing for picture on these colorful steps.

But this happy moment was shortlived because the local municipality quickly took action and repainted the stairs an ugly, boring grey.

Of course, this act of grey-ing the rainbow stairs soon triggered more anti-government protests in Istanbul and across the country. Shortly afterwards, the municipality (smartly) decided to repaint the Fındıklı-Cihangir in its former rainbow splendor.
In the past month or so, the movement of painting rainbow staircases has spread all over Turkey from Ankara to Yalova and Antalya to Gaziantep and even N. Cyprus. I set out to find the rainbows myself during my recent trip to Istanbul.

Following the tram route from Kabataş, I got off at the Fındıklı stop and walked south towards the Tophane stop. In between these two tram stops, you can’t miss the uneven and rundown steps that are painted in bright rainbow colors. A cat posed in front of the steps for me, and four young, German tourists asked me to take their photos while I was there.

As I had the afternoon to myself, I leisurely walked up the steps to take a bunch of photos. I found tons of colorful graffiti on the walls here as well.
Later in the week, I moved over to the Asian side of the city and strolled around the neighborhood of Kadıköy where I found a few more rainbows near the main square.
Left: Part of the Cihangir steps. Right: More painted stairs in Kadıköy.
Random street posts painted in rainbow colors in Kadıköy.
In a city that is full of contrasts, I think it’s wonderful to see these rainbows brighten up some otherwise less colorful parts of the city.

I can only hope these rainbows will remain.
The "controversial" rainbow-painted steps leading up to Cihangir.
A second set of rainbow-painted stairs leading to Cihangir.
Of course, the Turkish police are stationed nearby so things don't get out of hand at the rainbow-painted steps. Boo!
If you are on Twitter, look for the hashtags #direnmerdiven and #direngökkuşağı to find more rainbow-painted staircases across Turkey.

And for related articles, please visit:
Rainbow’s end?’ published in Cornucopia Magazine

Diren Merdiven on Moe’s blog: Passion Taking Flight.
 More photos can be found on the Turkish Rainbow Revolution website.