East of Paris Bookstore

Monday, August 29, 2011

To Cruise or Not to Cruise?

To cruise or not to cruise? That is the question.

As much as the sea is enticing and boats always look elegant, Mr. Wonderful and I did not know if we were "cruise" people.  We had been on yachts, like gulets in Turkey, that can anchor in small coves and you can swim from ship to shore.
Or, you can get boarded by friendly pirates ...
But large ships were an unknown.  We finally signed up for a cruise as part of a tour headed by professors Victor Davis Hanson and Bruce Thornton.  The cruise would take us to Corsica, Sicily, Pompeii, and other locations of interest to those of us who like ancient and military history. The best way to get to the places we wanted to see with a group of about 60 people was via the cruise ship Azamara Journey, which carries hundreds of passengers.

We boarded the Azamara Journey at Civitavecchia and off we sailed. The ship itself seemed a little tired looking but everything was scrupulously clean and the crew was friendly and competent. The food was served in large quantities but I would not call it "cuisine."  There was a large library reading room but the air conditioning made it too cold to use at length.

So, what are some of the pros and cons of our cruise experience?  Here are six of each ...

Pros:

  • We unpacked once
  • Our "suite" had a private balcony
  • Our deck was high enough so the engines were almost silent
  • The weather cooperated and no motion sickness occurred
  • 24/7 housekeeping and room service
  • We unpacked once
Cons:
  • Cruising from port to port at night made new places just appear without the experience of context or a passage of time and scenery
  • Even though we were in waters off of Italy, we felt isolated from the place, as if we really weren't there ... or anywhere
  • The feeling of not being in Italy was compounded by the ship's food, which was of the anywhere variety instead of the local variety
  • The ship was too big for most docks, so we had to take a tender (which doubled as one of the life boats) to and from the ship to the shore
  • A shore excursion usually meant, getting off the ship onto the tender, then into a bus waiting (or not!) for us on shore and driving hours to a destination, then too little time at the destination before having to head back and leave again for a night's sailing
  • Karaoke night


So, will we ever take a cruise again?  Mr. W is adamantly against.  On the other hand, I want to see the itinerary. Besides, you only unpack once.

Stay tuned to see whose opinion will prevail.



Sunday, August 28, 2011

Presents

Sphere Within Sphere (Sfera con Sfera)
Bronze sculpture (1990) by Arnaldo Pomodoro

Have you ever received a present that you don't really like but felt compelled to keep and even display?  That question crossed my mind when visiting the Vatican museum and seeing the torn globe sculpture in the garden. It is actually a sphere within a sphere and can rotate. Our guide told us that this sculpture had been a present to the Pope.
It didn't do anything for me.  Even the attendant lion seems to agree.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Packing for Another Journey

No matter how often I travel, I still do not have the art of packing down to a science. Sometimes I will pack for a month long trip the night before leaving.  Sometimes I pre-plan a long weekend trip a month in advance. Then there's the issue of what to take when traveling to a distant land, where there is no place to buy replacements, versus going to a major metropolis, where everything is available.


I remember once arriving in St. Petersburg with Mr. Wonderful. Our checked baggage did not arrive with us. The hotel provided us with T-shirts and a few necessities.  With that and our carry on bags we had almost everything we needed ... except for undies. No problem, I thought. There is an excellent shopping center across the street, and off we went. Except for one thing, I did not recall how to say "panties" in Russian! We figured it out. But, what if we'd landed in Tashkent and forgotten the telephone charger cord or our medication. Odds are that we'd be stuck without.


To obviate travel panic, I'd become a bit more organized and am always open to learning how to do something better. So, this time, before leaving on our next voyage, I am checking blogs and books for tips.


I've been checking my own list of ten essentials to take on any trip at Don't Leave Home Without It. In addition, I'm scanning my copy of The Organized Life: Secrets of an Expert Organizer by Stephanie Denton.


There is also the "Travel Planner" template in Apple's "Numbers" spreadsheet program. It sets up pages for itineraries, flight reservations, packing lists, emergency numbers, and more.


And, three Internet sites with great tips are the  Danielle Darcy Lifestyle Travel section,  Road Warriorette, and Jennifer Bower Design.  From harsh experience, Jen's tip that resonated most with me is:
Don’t forget to call your phone Service Provider for U/S or out of country travel package to avoid atrocious roaming fees.
image:  Jennifer Bower Design

So, what will I do, having read up on packing advice?  Who knows?  I have a few weeks before we go, so I have time to experiment.


P.S. One thing that I have discovered in the last year are Pack-It (tm) cubes from Eagle Creek Co. They come in various sizes, are virtually weightless, and a welcome element of organization



Sunday, August 21, 2011

Rum Torte

Rum Torte

A picnic with friends, a Rum Torte, a dozen eggs, a million calories.  This post is not for the time constrained or the feint-hearted!

I only ate this torte once and it was a challenge to unearth the recipe and try it.  It didn't help that the book pages were yellowed with age and that instructions were of the "bake until done" variety.  Nevertheless, here it is ... cake, syrup, assembly, glaze, frosting.


Torte


The torte consists of four layers -- two yellow, one chocolate and one pink.  They all are made from the same base batter with the coloring added to make the middle layers chocolate and pink. 


12 large eggs, separated
300 grams (1-1/2 cups) granulated baking sugar
250 grams (2 cups) sifted flour
20 grams (3 Tbsp) unsweetened cocoa powder
red food coloring
1/4 teasp. Cream of Tartar


Beat the egg yolks with 150 grams (3/4 cup) sugar on a high speed until they become a glossy pale yellow and very thick (at least 5 minutes if not longer).  
Fold in the flour.
Beat the egg whites on a medium speed for about a minute.  Add the Cream of Tartar and beat at high speed for a minute.  Slowly add in the remaining 150 grams (3/4 cup) sugar and beat until glossy stiff peaks form.


Add a third of the egg whites to the yolk and flour batter and rapidly stir in to lighten the batter.  Next, fold in the rest of the egg whites.


Grease and flour four 9-inch round cake pans.  Fill two cake pans each with 1/3 of the batter.  Divide the remaining 1/3 of the batter in half.  Add a few drops of red food coloring into one of the halves to make the batter pink.  Add the cocoa powder to the other remaining half to make the batter chocolate.  Pour the pink and chocolate batter into the other two cake pans.  Bake the torte layers in a pre-heated 350 F oven for 25 minutes.  Remove when done and invert on racks to cool.  Once cool, cut the chocolate and pink layers into cubes or wedges and put in a bowl.


Rum Syrup


300 grams (1-1/2 cups) sugar
200 milliliters  (0.84 cup) water
50 milliliters (0.21 cups) rum
zest of 1/2 lemon
zest of 1/2 orange


Boil all the ingredients until the sugar dissolves and remove from heat.


Pour the hot liquid over the wedges of the chocolate and pink layers and let it all sit until the liquid is absorbed.


Assembly


Melt some apricot jam until it is easy to spread.


Put one layer of the yellow torte in the bottom of a 9-inch spring form pan.  Spread apricot jam on it. Then, arrange the pink and chocolate layers on the jam.  Next, spread the second yellow torte layer with apricot jam and put it (jam-side down) on the pink and chocolate layers. 


At this point, whether or not the four layers are higher than the sides of the spring form pan, put a cover or plate over the torte and weigh it down so as to compress all the layers together.  Let it all sit for a few hours or overnight in the refrigerator.


Take the torte out of the spring form pan and put on a working surface to complete.


Glaze


300 grams sugar
100 milliliters (0.422 cups) water


Combine the sugar and water in a heavy sauce pan. Heat and boil until the sugar dissolves and turns a golden caramel brown color.  At this point the glaze will be thick.  Quickly pour it over the top of the cake.  Use a sharp knife to score the glaze in slices to make it easier to cut later.  The glaze hardens fast, so work quickly.


Frosting


2 sticks (1/2 lb.) of unsalted butter at room temperature
2 lbs. powdered sugar
6 to 8 Tbsp. milk
2 Tsp. vanilla
Red food coloring


Beat the butter until fluffy and add the powdered sugar and vanilla. The frosting will be very stiff. Add 6 Tbsp of the milk and enough drops of food coloring to get a pink color. Add the remaining milk, if necessary, to thin out the consistency of the frosting.  Frost the sides of the tort.  


Transfer to a serving platter. And, voilĂ , you're done. Finally.


Rum Torte

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Poppy Seed Strudel

Friends were coming to our home for dinner and I wanted to try something different:  poppy seed strudel with walnuts.  Poppy seed strudel -- Makowiec --  and walnut strudel -- Orzechowiec -- are traditional Eastern European desserts.  I love them, but I thought I'd try a combination of the the two fillings.  Happy I tried. Everyone was satisfied, and I enjoyed leftover slices for breakfast.

Here is a recipe that will yield three strudels each about 12 inches long. 

Dough:

1 envelope dry yeast
400 grams flour
280 grams butter
1 egg
1 egg yolk
60 grams of sugar

Sift together the flour and yeast.  In a food processor, pulse the butter with the sugar.  When combined, add in the flour mixture and pulse until it resembles pea-sized crumbs.  Add the egg and egg yolk and pulse until the dough just comes together.  Remove the dough from the food processor, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for one hour.

Filling:

1 can (850 grams) of poppy seed filling or 2 (12 oz.) cans Solo brand filling*
150 grams ground walnuts**
zest of 1/2 of an orange
1 egg, lightly beaten

Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator and divide into three equal parts. Roll each third of the dough out on a floured surface into a rectangle about 8" x 12" [or approx. 20 x 30 cm]. Spread the filling over the surface of the rectangle. [This isn't easy since the filling will be sticky.] Loosely roll up the filled dough and place on a greased baking sheet putting one strudel next to another on the same sheet.  [If the dough sticks to the rolling surface, help it along with a spatula.]  Brush the surface of the strudel with the beaten egg.  Bake in a preheated oven at 375 F for 40 minutes.  Cool before cutting and serve with or without powdered sugar on top.

 * While a poppy filling can be made with dry poppy seeds ground by hand, with sugar or honey and a bit of hot milk added, I find that canned poppy seed filings are just fine.  The Solo brand is readily available in the US, but I prefer the less sweet and more crumbly versions from Poland.

** Walnuts can be ground in a blender or food processor, but the result can be too oily and the walnuts may be uneven.  The best method, sorry to report, is to grind them by hand.

Walnut grinder from Esty.com
And, if you want to go all out, you can also grind the poppy seeds with a special mill:
A Czech poppy seed grinder from Cooking Treasures
Yes, I have one one these but, to tell the truth, I only used it once.  A bit too much work when there are good ready made products.



Sunday, August 14, 2011

Adieu to the White Mouse

30 August 1912 – 7 August 2011
Nancy Wake, legendary World War II heroine, died a week ago. Originally from New Zealand, she later moved to London, married a Frenchman, and served as a British agent during the later part of WWII. She was an important and fearless leader of maquis groups of the French Resistance and became one of the most decorated servicewomen of the war. The German's called her the "White Mouse" for her ability to slip through their traps; she was on their most wanted list in 1943.

Besides being loyal, tough and even ruthless, she was also fun and feminine. Her obituary in the Economist magazine notes:

CONVIVIAL, and not averse to a drink, Nancy Wake could often be found cheering up a cocktail bar. In the late 1940s, and again towards the end of her life, it might have been the American Bar of the Stafford Hotel, just across the road from The Economist’s offices in London.
And it was in the dining room of the Stafford Hotel that I met her about ten years ago.

When traveling alone to London, I often like to stay at the Stafford Hotel.  Tucked away behind Piccadilly and St. James Street and adjacent to Green Park, it is a sophisticated hotel, near everything I like, yet homey and relaxing at the same time. The dining room is small, elegant, and a comfortable place for a woman to have dinner alone.

So it was, one night, while seated on a banquet having my dinner, I noticed a little old lady dining alone at the table to my right. She was eating a cream soup and crackers and wanted ice cream. But, the charming waiters would not let her have ice cream if she did not finish her soup and eat more vegetables. A bit of friendly banter followed and finally, they brought her ice cream. She turned to look at me and happily remarked:  "they always do as I ask."

That experience only confirmed my liking for the hotel and it's staff. A few years later, when Mr. Wonderful and I travelled to London, I insisted that we stay at the Stafford. When we were having dinner in the dining room I noticed that the little old lady was not there. I asked the maitre d' about her and told him about the dinner vignette I'd once witnessed. He told us who she was and quickly brought several photos of her from the American Bar ... including the photo above. He then said that Nancy Wake had suffered a fall and had relocated to a nursing home for ex-service men and women.

I was saddened to learn of her death when reading the Economist this morning.  They just don't make them like that any more.  Or do they?

P.S.  Nancy Wake wrote an autobiography in 1986 called, White Mouse A more recent biography by Russell Braddon is also available.


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