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!

Monday, February 9, 2015

As we neared the peak of Mount Giewont, I stopped. I was on the verge of hyperventilating. I hung onto the handgrips carved into the mountain with all my strength and tried to control my ragged breathing.

One minute passed. Maybe two minutes.

I was scared shitless, but at that point, quitting wasn’t really an option. This trail section was one-way at a steep 75-degree angle and lined by a heavy chain pathway. The only way to escape was to keep climbing and pulling myself up. My husband was already ahead of me, so he couldn’t help me get down either.

About 5 minutes earlier, a girl around age 12 had simply scampered up the mountain path following her father. If she could do it, surely I could, I thought. 

Oh how I wish I were young and fearless again!

If I had known that climbing Mount Giewont would have been this difficult, I probably would not have done so. Instead, I went in blindly, figuring it wouldn’t be any different from other hiking trips we’ve done in Poland.
My view from the top of Mount Giewont.
How wrong and inexperienced I was! But at least, I was wearing the proper hiking gear, including a pair of gloves and a winter hat. Even during the middle of summer, the mountain peaks in the Tatras were chilly and some peaks still were covered in snow!
Sign pointing to the last 40 minutes of hell.
On the right is the path we had to take to reach the top and looks deceptively easier in this photo!
After hiking about 20 km the day before in Morskie Oko, my muscles were straining to keep up. Small rocks slid out from under my hiking boots as I slowly inched my up the mountain. Larger rocks were damp and a thick cloud of moisture hung in the air.

Finally, my painstakingly trek was rewarded with a marvelous view over the town of Zakopane and the surrounding Tatra Mountains. I paused a moment and then sat down on some of the large boulders as far away from the jawdropping edge as possible. No handrails here!
On top of the 1894-meter summit is a gigantic, steel cross, constructed by the local Highlanders. A plaque on the cross reads: “To Jesus Christ, from the Highlanders of Zakopane. 1900.” I wonder how the heck those Highlanders carried all that heavy metal up to the mountain’s peak!
We rested at the top of Mount Giewont for about 10-15 minutes, long enough to catch my breath and to have a small snack. Apparently, other hikers thought it was a good time to have a drink because that’s what I’d like to do when I’m near the edge of death!

Soon, our clear view of Zakopane was covered up by a fast rolling mist. We quickly decided we didn’t want to be anywhere near that giant lightening rod on top of the mountain in case a storm was on its way!
My descent was 10 times easier than my ascent to the top. I even paused a moment on the heavy chains so hubby could take a photo of me. See, I can do it!
Our total hike took a little over 5 hours. I’m pleased I climbed to the top Mount Giewont simply to say I accomplished that, but I doubt I’ll ever do it again.

Would you climb up Mount Giewont?

3 lessons learned from climbing Mount Giewont:

  • Make sure you’re not standing at the top during a thunderstorm!
  • Do not climb Mount Giewont if you are afraid of heights!
  • Wear the proper hiking gear. Tennis shoes do not count! The trail is rocky and slippery in many places.

We passed this pretty green valley during our hike to Mount Giewont.
This looked like a fun lodge to stay in along the trail.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

During the winter months, most tourists visit the Zakopane region in southern Poland for its skiing and snowcapped mountains.

Well, we went in the middle of summer for the bacon, oscypek cheese and the beautiful hiking trails in the mountains. Honestly, the bacon just happened to be an accidental benefit!

One of the highlights of our summer trip to Zakopane was hiking to Morskie Oko, which means “Eye of the Sea,” the largest lake in the Tatra Mountains located deep within the Tatra National Park. Local legend claims it was named as such because the lake was connected to the sea via an underground passage. Interesting!
Me taking a break at Morskie Oko.
The roundtrip hike to Morkskie Oko is 18 km (11 miles) from the nearest road where we parked our car. The lake is bardzo popular so many mini-buses from Zakopane travel here as well.

Honestly, most of the hiking trail wasn’t that interesting since it’s a long, paved blacktop, but you are surrounded by lots of greenery. However, one stretch did have us climbing over some tricky boulders to join the next section of the trail. And if you don’t want to walk the whole way, there are horse-drawn carriages that will take you about 7.5 km one way for a nominal fee (about 30pln or $10).
I wish we had opted for the horses, at least for the uphill hike, because my legs were on fire the next day!

Once you reach the lake, you enter through a small pass and then you are entirely surrounded by the mountains. Morskie Oko, with its clear blue-green waters, stands before you in all its natural beauty. The lake covers about 35 hectacres and looks as if it’s occupying a huge crater.
Unfortunately, on the day we arrived at Morskie Oko, the skies were overcast and depressingly gray, which later turned into a little bit of rain.

Still, the lake is beautiful! In fact, last year, the Wall Street Journal called Morskie Oko “a hidden gem” and one of the world’s great lakes.

We admired the lake, took a bunch of photos and opted not to walk around the entire lake because of the uncooperative weather.
The hut of the Polish Tourist Country-Lovers' Society (PTTK) is located close to the lake and is the oldest chalet in the Tatras. 
After our looong hike, we decided to visit Slovakia – just because we could! We literally drove across the border (about 15 km/9.5 miles) and stopped in the tiny town of Ždiar, situated between the mountains of the Belianske Tatra and Spišská Magura.
Ždiar looks quite lovely, doesn't it?
We stopped at the chalet-looking Penzion Kamzik where our friendly waiter served us some hearty Slovakian food and local pilsner beers. We warmed up with two bowls of super garlicky soup (cesnaková polievka), which reminded us of a similar soup we’ve tried in Budapest. I ordered a “vegetarian” dish which was cheese dumplings with bacon bits (bryndzové halušky so slaninkou). I didn’t know that vegetarians like bacon! Well, at least they do in Slovakia!
Because everything tastes better with bacon!
We really enjoyed our summer weekend in the Tatras and would love to return during the winter season. I just wish the trip didn’t take six hours by car from Warsaw.
These funky Polish haystacks (stogi siana) around Zakopane reminded me of Cousin Itt from the Addams Family TV show.
These Polish haystacks were even taller than me!
I absolutely loved this smoky, salty oscypek cheese from the Zakopane region. It's usually served sliced, grilled and topped with a dollop of tangy cranberry jam!