Prague Winter

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A celebration of Prague:  my photo and Madeleine Albright’s words (from her book Prague Winter).

“On a hill in Prague there is a castle that has stood for a thousand years.  From its windows one can see a forest of gilded cupolas and baroque towers, slate roofs and sacred spires.  Visible too are the stone bridges spanning the broad and winding Vltava River as its waters flow northward at a leisurely pace.  Through the centuries, the beauty of Prague has been enriched by the labor of artisans from a plethora of nationalities and creeds; it is a Czech city with a variety of accents, at its best in spring when the fragrant blossoms of the lindens burst forth, the forsythia turns gold, and the skies seem an impossible blue.  The people, known for their diligence, resilience, and pragmatism, look forward each winter to when the days lengthen, the breezes soften, the trees regain their covering, and the river banks issue a silent summons to play.”   Madeleine Albright, Prague Winter.

 

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Platform 9 3/4 . . . or, Ways My Family Travels Diagon-Alley

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At Kings Cross Station, London, Platform 9 3/4, driving a baggage cart through the brick wall like true Harry Potter fans. 2007 maybe?

We try to be normal.  We really do.  But every straight line we draw canters just a little to the side–and so, in travel (as in everything else), our lives run a little diagonally.

This truth was on full display a few years ago in Mirabell Gardens, Salzburg:

The thing for Americans to do here, besides wander and take in the beauty, is to stage photos that resemble scenes from The Sound of Music.  (The song, Do Re Mi was partly filmed here.)  Ideally, these photos look a little like this:

do re mi

This is the top gate at Mirabell.    (Notice the fortress, Hohensalzburg, on the hill in the background–it’s really a fantastic shot of the gardens and the city behind.)  We spent some time here.  We took some photos here.  But none looked like this.

What did they look like?  Well, look to your right.  DSC_0125   This is my son, sleeping (while being serenaded by an accordion player) on those same steps at the Mirabell Gardens.  Why is he sleeping, you ask?  He’s tired from sightseeing, but especially from running through the gardens.  Singing Do-Re-Mi?  Oh no.  No.  This child was reinacting some “American Ninja in Salzburg” screenplay known only to him.  My favorite scene from that movie, below.  (Clearly the people around him are a little surprised and amused by the sight.)

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I’ve been thinking about our quirky travels this past weekend while in Chicago with my daughter.  In another year, she’ll be heading off to college.  And my son, the masked ninja, begins high school in August.  They’ve grown up fast, and our travel adventures with them are changing.  I already miss the visits to “knight schools” and castles, the nativity plays we attended with dishtowels  on their heads, and their absolute inability to stand still for photos.

 

Still, I imagine our “diagonal” travels will continue into the future.  After all, they started before our children were born.  In Turkey, we were just two people with little dog garnering stares as we drove by in an old Volvo wagon.  On it’s own, that doesn’t sound so strange, but we stuck out like a sore thumb.  In Turkey, it wasn’t unusual to count 7 people on a motorcycle and sidecar.  So when we made our way through the streets– streets that might find two lanes stuffed with five “lanes,” including cars, giant trucks, mopeds, buses, and donkeys– our long wagon, carrying only two people and a tiny dog, was the thing outside of the norm.  Why waste such a long vehicle on so few travelers?  Why bother with a dog too small to herd sheep?  And why crawl slowly through the melee of a Turkish traffic jam instead of throwing yourself into the mix full throttle while laying on the horn?  Clearly, we were the nuts who didn’t understand the rules of the game.

When you travel, people always tell you to try to fit in– obey the customs, don’t be too awkward or too obvious.  It’s safer and more respectful to conform to the norm as best you can.

They tell us to try to fit in, but who does that, honestly?

Sometimes you just have to embrace the diagonal.  What else can you do?

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In Germany, 2008.

 

Twilight at the Tower Bridge

London

Tower Bridge, just beyond the Tower of London, as the sun goes down. February 2016
Tower Bridge, just beyond the Tower of London, as the sun goes down. February 2016

About this time last year, Katie and I flew off to London for the weekend to take in some theater, a London Fashion Weekend show, some good food, some history, and a shot of urban living.

Our first night in town, we’d seen the play “The End of Longing” on the West End.  The play was pretty good, the stage sets were remarkable (both for their look and for their “rapid changeability”), and our meeting with Matthew Perry after the show went well– no matter what my daughter might tell you to the contrary.  (Unless Matthew Perry is actually reading this, in which case, let me take a moment to apologize and say that I’ll try to be much cooler if I ever meet you again, please don’t feel the need to take out a restraining order against me.  And, for the record, that person who called out your name before you approached me, thinking it was me, was actually someone standing behind me– and this is why I was totally unprepared for your approach and may have lost it a little.  Seriously.  I don’t usually blither . . . or shake–it was REALLY cold out too, and I was wearing a sleeveless coat in the middle of winter in London– not practical, but it was really cute, don’t you think?  Anyway, Matthew, we got off on the wrong foot, you and me.  I’m lots cooler than that.  Sometimes. Anyway, embarrassing as it was, I really did mean it– you are great.)

Moving on. . .

Our second night in London required a strong drink to make me forget how I’d embarrassed myself on our first night in London.  Katie wanted to go to a rooftop restaurant or bar and soak up a little urban chic.  Good plan.  But the chicest of the chic would have required reservations much in advance, so we looked for “in and out” bars that would fit the bill.  One popped up with potential, and in an area of the city that we know well and has some great views.  The rooftop bar at the Hilton Doubletree by the Tower of London.

It fit the bill well.  The bar itself was chic enough, if not ultra swanky.  The drinks and desserts we ordered while oogling the view were spot on– I went for a Moscow Mule, my favorite go-to, and something cheesecake derived (fuzzy memory, but I remember that the presentation was great).

We sat inside (it being February), but there is a very large and lovely outdoor terrace too, if you find yourself in London during warmer months.

The view as the sun dropped low and disappeared altogether was stunning.    I did feel urban, and I did feel chic, as I sipped my Moscow Mule and looked out over the hustle and bustle of London.  So much energy and atmosphere rolling out in the streets below and all along the Thames.

First, it’s the urban energy and the architectural artistry that quickens your pulse.  But then . . . well, maybe it’s my wistful nature, or maybe it was the Moscow Mule, but I think maybe it’s a universal truth that you look out over a scene like this and you find yourself not just overlooking geography, but gazing at history rolled out before you like a red carpet just begging you to walk it.

The Tower of London alone could suck you into its stories, never to re-emerge in the present.  (Because so many people who entered the Tower of London never did re-emerge.  So many.)  There alone you have 1000 years of history: a history that includes  Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard, Guy Fawkes, and Sir Walter Raleigh.  A history that includes the prisoner who escaped by dressing as a washer woman and walking out of the gates undeterred– a tale later immortalized by Mr. Toad in the Wind in the Willows.  And a history that, despite it’s strong-arm nature, notes its own possibly precarious existence in the legend of the ravens.  The flock of ravens that lives at the Tower, considered a menace by some, enjoys nearly sacred status by others.  Legend has it that if the ravens ever leave the Tower, the Tower and the Monarchy will fall.  This legend is taken seriously, if not somberly: the ravens have their own Yeoman Raven Keeper.  (Brexit may be problematic, Parliament may be bickering, but rest assured that the Monarchy doesn’t plan to fall any time soon, and the Raven Keeper will see to that.)

If your gaze slides just west of the Tower and down the Thames, you’ll be strolling into Southwark.  Into the history of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, past The George Inn, the oldest (or only) galleried Georgian pub remaining in London, and a favorite drinking spot of the ever-thirsty  Charles Dickens.  Here, if you are terribly bookish, or prone to the seductive ambiguity of twilight, or more than one Moscow Mule into the night (which I wasn’t), you might get so caught up in the teaming past-life of the London streets you are over-looking (that you might have, in a less wistful mood, entirely overlooked), in their teaming vapors of past-present-literary lives that, each and every one, ask to be explored and understood– well, you might just never re-emerge.

But we did. We drank in the view and wondered at the lights and lives we peered out over, if not into.  Then we left our towering view above the Tower. We emerged energized, awe-spired, and feeling rather chic and smart.  We emerged ready to tackle more of what our fabulous friend London could throw at us.

If only it had given me one more chance at making a good impression on Matthew Perry.

C’est la vie.  Or, as my London friends might say:  th9sb27hg3

 

 

Epicurean Update

I woke this Saturday morning to find that Epicurious.com had left a delicious morsel in my news feed:  a short article by Sam Worley,

Stretchy Turkish Ice Cream Now Available in U.S. Grocery Stores

What?  Is this possible?  You know I have a thing for stretchy Turkish ice cream– if you were paying attention, I sang its praises last fall in a blog post called “How We Eat . . .”.  You can imagine Mr. Sam Worley’s article quickened my pulse more than a little. It has arrived on my shores!  Turkish Dondurma!  I squealed, I celebrated!

But then I wondered.   Can I eat Turkish dondurma from the local grocery aisle, or would it be wrong, and certainly disappointing, to pull it from my upright freezer in my air conditioned Floridian home and eat it with a spoon and dish in my breakfast nook?  Would it betray every memory I have of sassy dondurma sellers in Istanbul or on the Turkish Mediterranean, paddling out the stretchy treat, only to whip it out of your grasp at the last moment. . . only to finally relent and offer up the treat,  which I would greedily gobble before it (or I) melted into the hot walkway of a Turkish summer day.

Would my favorite sweet Turkish treat suffer if it wasn’t fresh, and if everything about its presentation and circumstances was decidedly un-Turkish?  Decidedly mundane.  Bought at the local grocer.

Yes.  I think the answer has to be “yes.”

Still, you know I’ll look for it in the stores.  Maybe I’ll purchase some.  I hope it will be delicious.   It’ll certainly be a treat and a novelty . . . but scooped from a store carton  it will be an anemic facsimile.

I’d rather enjoy it by the Sea of Marmara or the Mediterranean– who wouldn’t?

I’ll leave you with the blurb from Epicurious (which includes a fantastic video of an impish Turkish ice cream man at work), as well as my original post on Turkish ice cream.

Happy Monday and bon appetit– or, as they say in Turkey, “Afiyet Olsun!”

http://www.epicurious.com/expert-advice/turkish-ice-cream-comes-to-the-us-elastic-stretchy-article

Stretchy Turkish Ice Cream Now Available in U.S. Grocery Stores

Behold the pictures, all over the internet, of street vendors stretching Turkish ice cream just like it’s boardwalk taffy. That’s maraş dondurma, a confection made not just with milk and sugar but with mastic, a tree resin, and salep, the roots of wild mountain orchids, which imparts elasticity. The best and frankly only way to describe this is as stretchy, chewy ice cream. Word on the street is that people have been photographed jumping rope with it; others have cut it with knives and chainsaws. On the street, too—or in the markets, rather, where you get this ice cream in Istanbul—its unique stretchiness enables vendors to play all manner of practical jokes with would-be ice cream eaters, as in the video below.

The metal rod you see there is part of the traditional production process: the ice cream is beaten—kneaded, more or less—so that it sticks to itself. What results is a frozen confectionyou can do some tricks with; it’s also quite a bit slower to melt than non-elastic ice cream, a boon in the Turkish summers.

Something like dondurma is now available in the U.S., but in grocery aisles rather than bazaars. Lezzetli Mediterranean Ice Cream, which has been selling in the New York area for a while, announced today that it’s expanding its distribution throughout the northeastern United States, with four flagship flavors: Chios vanilla, made with a Greek tree sap; chocolate–orange blossom; spiced date, and tart cherry. Lezzetli bills its ice creams as inspired by similar desserts of Turkey and the Levant—versions of dondurma also exist in places like Syria and Greece—and they aren’t thickened with orchids, which are endangered, but with other natural gums. (In Turkey, for this same reason, salep has given way to other thickeners, like guar gum.) Not in your local place yet? Request it! Your grocer might be pliable.

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How We Eat: Banana Pudding, Banoffee Pie, Songs, and Stretchy Ice Cream

PicMonkey banana pud shoofly

The title is a mouthful:  a delicious, caloric mouthful.  Inspired by a delicious and caloric, if somewhat stressful, week of cakes and puddings at our house.  An actual storm is sitting out in the Gulf, on our doorstep, and making vague threats, while the figurative storm of finding your bearings in a new environment is battering us around quite handily.  Under the circumstances, why not fatten our bodies and spirits for the fight, right?  Cakes and Ale is a fine battle strategy, I say.  Anyhoo, on with the post. . .

When I was young, my mother used to sing a song that would make us giggle and make us hungry at the same time: “Shoofly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy, make your eyes light up and your tummy say ‘howdy.’”  Silly.  I’ve never had Apple Pan Dowdy, but I can imagine the cobbler-like creation with no problem.  Shoofly Pie is harder to conjure.  Obviously sweet and sticky– a fly magnet (yuck!)– but the closest thing I can picture is a chess pie, and I don’t think that’s exactly right.  Which brings me to stretchy ice cream.  What, you’ll ask, is that?  A Floridian taffy-ice cream hybrid?  An over-cooked custard that makes a chewy ice cream?  No and no.  I’m thinking of Turkish Dondurma– an ice cream made with wild orchid extracts and salep ( a milky Turkish drink containing orchids).

Dondurma doesn’t taste of orchids, it comes in many flavors.  My favorite was banana.

Image from website: http://www.lakshmisharath.com/
Image from wikicommons and website: http://www.lakshmisharath.com/

   I only discovered dondurma toward the end of our life in Turkey, which is a shame because it is silky and delicious . . . and stretchy.  That doesn’t really affect the taste, but it makes for a great parlor trick.  Dondurma is often served in a dramatic way, dished out with a paddle and wrapped around your cone, only to be pulled back at the last moment.  The Turks love a laugh and good food, so why not marry the two?

I’ve been thinking about Dondurma lately.  August in Florida will bring out all of your ice cream fantasies, believe me.  But this week, I’m remembering Banana Dondurma while making a traditional Banana Pudding for my children.  A REAL Banana Pudding– no instant pudding and cool whip.  Ugh.  A silky homemade custard is the only way to go, people.

My mother made this Banana Pudding for us growing up, and I’m pretty sure that her mother made it too.  I’m printing the recipe at the end of this post.  It’s simple and satisfying, and I like it best when it’s still a tad warm (but I know people who only like it cold, so this is clearly a matter of personal taste).

Photo from myrecipes.com--sadly we ate into our pudding too quickly to get a good photo!
Photo from myrecipes.com–sadly we ate into our pudding too quickly to get a good photo!

Like all recipes for BP, this one layers Vanilla Wafers, banana slices, and pudding.  Like all the best recipes for BP, this one features a homemade pudding of milk/cream, eggs, and sugar– with a splash of vanilla tossed in after the pudding thickens.  Believe me, you’ll be licking the mixing spoon after making this one.  (And, as I’m writing this, I’m wondering if I could use this pudding, with banana and wafer bits thrown in to churn up a really delicious–though certainly un-stretchy– ice cream.  I’m going to try this soon and get back to you.)

Banana Pudding is a staple of the American South, a time-tested comfort food, welcome around any pot luck or picnic table.  Why is it Southern?  I have no idea.  It goes well with bourbon?  (There are worse theories.)   If you want a primer on the treat and its history, I’d suggest you read the article posted on the SeriousEats website– an interesting and remarkably in-depth read.  If you’re here for the yummy, not the history, feel free to skip the article, fast forward to my recipe, and judge for yourself.

But not before you consider Banoffee Pie.  It deserves a mention in a travel and culture blog, because what Banana Pudding is to the American South, Banoffee Pie seems to be to Brits.  A perfect comfort food, a sweet banana dessert that pops up everywhere.

photo from commons.wikimedia.org
photo from commons.wikimedia.org

“Banoffee” you say?  Yes– bananas, cream, and toffee.  BAN. OFFEE.

Although it’s a British staple, it’s not one of those long-standing English recipes that dates back to the middle ages (think mincemeat pie).  No– bananas weren’t easy to come by before modern times.  Still, you find it in so many homes, on so many menus, and in endless incarnations these days. Nigella Lawson has a great looking Banoffee Cheesecake recipe, as well a Chocolate Banoffee recipe.  There are Banoffee sundaes and cupcakes and pastries.  If you can think up a twist to banoffee pie, it’s out there.

I have nibbled at Banoffee creations, but haven’t perfected my own version, so I’ll encourage you to find your own recipe.  If you already have the perfect recipe, feel free to share it with me!

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moveable feastI’ll leave you with my pudding recipe and a final thought on comfort food.  On how we eat.  I love sugar, and I love rich puddings, and I love sharing these things with family.  But it’s not just the yumminess, and it’s not just the hospitality, it is the comfort that gets me this week– the ritual of sharing this favorite family recipe. Hemingway spoke of Paris as a moveable feast–a joy and light and influence, a wealth of experiences–that stays with you wherever you go.   Whether or not we have Paris, we all have a storehouse of moveable feasts.

This week, Banana Pudding is my moveable feast.  The world is spinning a bit fast for me, the Gulf is churning a bit violently, but I have my pudding (a tad warm yet) and I have my children with their spoons at the ready . . . and I find that I have a feast of friends around this table — I have my grandmother’s cooking, my mother’s singing, my Turkish ice cream man, and my British bakery, and I sit in the company of these fine things and dig in to my bowl, and I know, with a quiet conviction, that the world will be right soon enough.

*Ba’s BANANA PUDDING

  • For the custard: 1/2 cup sugar, 3 Tablespoons flour, dash of salt, 1 whole egg, 3 egg yolks (save the whites), 2 cups of milk.
  • Cook this in a medium saucepan over a low heat until it thickens.  Then take it off the stove and stir in 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
  • Layer vanilla wafers and banana slices; pour some custard over the top; then repeat these layers.
  • For meringue topping: beat the 3 egg whites, gradually adding up to 1/4 cup of sugar (and 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar, if you wish).  Bake this until browned (at 400 degrees, or using the broiler).
  • Enjoy!

 

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