Monday, December 29, 2008

Everyone wants a little Russian in them

Well, when it's a Russian Tea Cookie that is. But more about that in a moment...

Melt in your mouth and also in your hand

For the 2nd month in a row - I have been a bad girl and not been able to participate in the Daring Bakers' Challenge. This month would have been SO fun and really truly a challenge (it sounded like one of those 2-3 day projects when I read through it!) But as you all know I spent most of the month in Africa and barely had enough time to take a shower when I got home; nevermind bake a 3 day project! Over the next few days you'll notice those fantastic Daring Bakers posting about tackling the French Yule Log by Flore from Florilege Gourmand. Hosts Hilda from Saffron and Blueberry and Marion from Il en Faut Peu Pour Etre Heureux instructed us to build this beauty for December. Jen and Helen have particularly beautiful ones (2 of my favorite DBs!)

There's a little butter in these ---- Powdered sugar inside and out!

Good vanilla extract - lots of it ---- I use pecans; you can use anything

However - I do not have a beautiful French Yule Log to share so instead I'll share with you an entry I've been meaning to write for a while now. Russian Tea Cookies! aka: Mexican Wedding Cakes, Snowballs, Viennese Sugarballs, Southern Pecan Butterballs, Italian Butter Nuts... you call them what you want. But I call them delicious! My mom faithfully makes these every Christmas (along with literally 7-8 other cookies/candies) and my dad eats pounds of them!

This dough comes together so nicely ---- I roll them and slice; you could make balls

I think it's funny that so many countries claim this cookie. I'm even told (by coworkers) that it's very similar to an Indian cookie called Nankhatai which is the same without the nuts. I actually made these and took them to work when I heard that a coworker is allergic to eggs. What a challenge that posed to me. What goodie could I make and take to work that didn't have eggs?!!

Before baking and after; you'll notice they barely spread so you can put them close on the sheet

The different variations of Russian Tea cookies are either sliced into round discs like we do, rolled into balls or even cut into shapes. There's really no rule to how you make them. Heck, just make up another name for them and call it your own! I like to shake them in powdered sugar while they're still warm (the sugar COATS the cookie and melts a bit over them) while Mom prefers to sprinkle them with powdered sugar as she serves them (they're far less sweet or messy that way!)

Shake, shake, shake ----------------- Mmmm COOKIE

Russian Tea Cookies

1 pound butter
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoon vanilla

4 1/2 cups flour

1 1/2 cups chopped nuts

Cream butter, add sugar and mix. Add remaining ingredients in order given. Add 1/4 cup of flour at a time. Roll and place in fridge to harden. Slice 1/4" and bake 375 for 10-12 minutes. Shake in powdered sugar while still warm (or sprinkle when cooled for less sugar coating).

We had Mom's version with afternoon tea yesterday,
along with some of her other goodies!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!

As you "readers" know, I've been all over the place lately. It took me literally 37.5 hours to get from our beach villa in Zanzibar, Tanzania to my parents' house in the East Bay outside of San Francisco. THIRTY-SEVEN [and a half] HOURS! Do you know how many glasses of Diet Coke and tomato juice and small movies with bad sound and trips to a tiny restroom and readjusting in a small coach seat and stretching and drooling on my neck pillow and times flipping through Sky Mall that is? Well, A LOT. By the time I reached Atlanta (Zanzibar --> Amsterdam --> Atlanta --> San Francisco) I had been traveling for about 30 hours. I climbed on my last flight weary, irritated, dirty, exhausted and a bit grouchy. Here I was amongst all these happy holiday travelers. I almost decked the flight attendant in the jingle bells and Santa hat - and I LOVE Christmas!!

Merry Christmas!

I promise to make some of the next entries about more of our trip to Africa. We ended up with very little time or internet on our last stretch which was to Tanzania but it doesn't mean it wasn't worth blogging about. While I'm off for the next week I'll likely be spending a lot of time on organizing photos for the blog and a larger scale viewing for family and friends etc. That is - after I get over my jet lag! I've been feeling like a zombie every afternoon around 4pm (3am East Africa time) which is usually around the time I'd get ready to sit down and do some computing!

I decorated the tree a day before we left ---- Our big dinner was last night on Christmas Eve

It's SO nice to be home for Christmas. There's no way I'd ever NOT be, but it's still nice all the same. I somehow managed to do all my shopping in 1 day before leaving and ordered a couple things online while in Cape Town. It worked!

Howdya like my jingle bells?

Whether you celebrate Christmas, or something else, or nothing at all - I hope today was relaxing and peaceful and spent just the way you like it. A very happy holidays to all of you!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Kenya and a Safari

Well... I truly feel like a seasoned traveler. And by seasoned, I mean with dust and dirt and sweat and sunscreen and bug-spray. But surprisingly Kenya has been way more fantastic than I ever expected. It's hard to explain (as it is always hard to explain to people when you've been somewhere they have not). Everything is better than I expected - which is fantastic. People are kind and speak English everywhere. It's much more lush than most Americans might expect. All those movies/images we get at home made me think all of Africa was dry desert!! The people are very modern, intelligent and forward thinking too too. I know, I know - typical "superior American" viewpoint I have. But that's why it's so important to travel!!

Our first stop in Kenya was Mombasa. These are
the famous tusks that are the symbol of the city.

We took an overnight train from Mombasa to Nairobi.
That is for real the train station back there!
You'll notice I'm wearing the headwrap/bandana in most pictures. Lemme tell you - you wouldn't want to see what's under there!! It was hot and humid in Mombasa. I just wanted to shave my head! And I now see why people look so "weathered" after being on safari. It's a dusty mess!

We took the overnight train from Mombasa, Kenya to Nairobi. It's only about 400 miles but the train took like 14 hours. I think it moves about 50 MPH. It was a living hell (literally) the night we got on. It must've been about 90° inside the train and the air barely moved. There were fans in the train but they wouldn't work!! We were seriously dripping sweat into our dinners on the restaurant car. But after a semi-restless sleep we awoke to some BEAUTIFUL landscapes. We were traveling past these little villages. People literally lived in small huts made of mud and straw. They owned goats and cattle and grew corn. And every time the train would stop at a station, the local children living in the huts nearby would run up to the windows hoping we'd throw things out.

The people live in those huts -- Handing some snacks out to the kids

I love this picture I got of this boy out the window. The train had
just started moving but
he was still "flirting" for a free gift.
Even with the yo-yo he already got from us!

At an especially long stop, we actually climbed off the train to be more among the children. We handed out some American granola bars and small toys some of our group was smart enough to bring along. It was very humbling. They are "required" to go to school, but many can't afford it. We also saw our first zebras from the cars of the train traveling through the Kenyan countryside. ZEBRAS!! After spending a night in Nairobi we left for our safari in Masai Mara. It was in the top 3 things I've done here in Africa if not #1!

I'm ready for my safari! Camera and
binoculars in hand (neck)!

How exciting was it to see wild elephants and wild zebras?!!

We drove 5+ hours in a non-AC bus on a BUMPY and DUSTY road (of course that means 5 hours there and 5 hours back!) but it was so well worth it. To see these animals RIGHT in front of you and know that they are completely wild - UHMAZING!

Oh. My. God.
Masai Mara is known for their almost guarantee of spotting the Big Five Animals: Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Buffalo and Rhino. We unfortunately didn't see a leopard or a rhino, but we did spot something usually evasive: a cheetah. She was in the middle of her hunt. Beautiful!

You don't mess with a wild cat on her hunt!!

That little cub was so adorable!!

The other animal I was dying to see and even see more of than we saw - lions. Wild lions!! We spotted a mother and her baby yesterday morning, a couple of males "relaxing'" and later, 3 males hunting a giraffe!! That was unbelievable, and apparently rare to catch them hunting. Especially males!

Fortunately (?) she got away. At least while we were watching...
Just to show you how close those animals often come to our vans.

We ate a picnic lunch under that tree - how fantastic is THAT?

We're back in Nairobi tonight after that magnificent safari. We leave early tomorrow for our last stop on our trip before I head home for Christmas. I'm hoping we'll have a little Internet but of course there's no guarantee. Hope you're all enjoying your cold weather and Christmas shopping at home. Is it pathetic that I play Christmas music on my laptop in our hotel room at night? It didn't seem right while on safari somehow but I still did it...

Saturday, December 13, 2008

To the "real" Africa

We left Cape Town 2 days ago and flew 2 hours to Johannesburg, 4.5 hours to Nairobi (Kenya) and another 1 hour to Mombasa (Kenya). We're staying in a much more sparse place than we were in Cape Town so Internet is not only slow but about 5 cents a minute (no wifi to be found!)

This is the Indian Ocean as seen from Mombasa, Kenya

I've logged on just to email my family but will leave with a picture or two here so that this entry isn't totally boring.

We fed giraffes at Haller Park. They're just so cute!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Cape day drinking wine

We spent the entire day yesterday with a private tour guide who picked us up drove us literally wherever we wanted (I needed to get a speck of dust off my camera sensor and he took us to a shop who did it for free in 5 minutes!!) Steve Thomas is totally getting a plug here in case anyone who reads this ever goes to Cape Town and needs ANYTHING in way of a tour. He's hilarious and well informed and fabulous and sat in his van for 4.5 hours while we fine-dined in Franschhoek!!
First [gorgeous] winery stope - Zevenwacht Wine Estate
absolutely loved this winery - it was so beautiful
The more we see Cape Town and the surrounding areas the more I am reminded of California. I keep having to tell myself just how far from home I am! The city center, waterfront and some roads and streets remind me of San Francisco. The Cape Peninsula reminds me of Monterey. The Winelands of course remind me of Napa Valley. Driving through the Winelands and being surrounded by the tremendous mountains reminds me of Tahoe or Yosemite. Camps Bay reminds me of San Diego. The weather is temperate and mild and familiar. It's really remarkable!

Could this be California? (along the road from Cape Town
to the village of Franschhoek in the Winelands)

Could this be CA? Or this? (all views of the Winelands)

So yesterday, Steve took us in his van and showed us the Winelands. It was absolutely perfect! He picked us up at our first [fan-flipping-tastic] guest house, An African Villa (the website just does not do it justice!) He basically told us the day was our day and he'd take us wherever we wanted. I knew we wanted to do a Winelands tour and that we needed to end at Le Quartier Francais in Franschhoek for a reservation I'd made weeks ago. So he took all our suggestions in and took off to show us a good time.

Next was a German winery called Neethlingshof. The stone pines that line the entrance are also a recognizable feature on their wine label:

The wine label ------ The stone pines

Steve then took us for lunch in a cozy little cottage in Stellenbosch that was Volkskombuis Restaurant. I love it. The food, the feel, the charming-ness! It felt like 1807 but with air conditioning!

Update late night, Dec. 13: Um - I wish I could finish this entry in it's entirety but it was saved in my account for that last couple days while we traveled to Kenya. Since fast Internet (ie: uploading pictures) is just not easy, I'm cutting this short for now in light of just getting it posted. Enjoy!!

Monday, December 8, 2008

A couple days in Cape Town

I don't know who reads my blog since no one COMMENTS {hint!} but I'm hoping some folks are enjoying that I'm attempting to post while traveling!!
The Cape of Good Hope

As I've heard many times before - the Cape Town and Winelands area really does resemble the San Francisco Bay Area. We haven't yet gotten to the Winelands (tomorrow!) but so far I've driven streets, gone through nature reserves, dipped my toes in the sea etc. each of which remind me of San Francisco, Monterey, Santa Cruz and even more.

Our own private breakfast table at our guest-house!

We're LOVING it! The weather is (global warming) unseasonably hot. While it is supposed to be the beginning of summer here, it's been close to 90° the last 2 days which isn't supposed to happen until ~February. And boy, do I have a [sexy] sun-burn on my shoulders to prove it!

Wanna hear about unseasonal? Whales are supposed to be gone by mid-November.
Our tour driver was FLOORED when we saw these Southern Right whales along our drive!!

So what have we been doing the last couple days? They've been full - that's for sure!

Yesterday, we went on a Cape Peninsula Tour which took us down to the Cape of Good Hope and the Cape Point...

Along the way we:
Took pictures at the Twelve Apostles on the backside of Table Mountain

Climbed up to Cape Point (the lighthouse above the Cape of Good Hope)

Saw African penguins

Marveled at the water off Boulders Beach in Simon's Town

People-watched in Camps Bay

Snuck into the Bay Hotel (in Camps Bay) and enjoyed a drink, a rest and a sunset

Dined at Blues Restaurant (that's the seafood platter with mussels,
line fish, calamari, jumbo prawn and crayfish)

and that was just yesterday!!

Today we covered a lot less ground, but had just as much fun and took some fantastic pictures as well!

We started the morning meeting the guest-house
new 8-week-old dachshund puppy, Tailor

Visited the V&A Waterfront for the first time (very similar to Pier 39 in SF)

Had high tea at the Mount Nelson Hotel (has been written
up as the best afternoon tea in the world!)

Enjoyed the sunset on the top of Table Mountain before having to depart early due to high winds!

Hope you're enjoying the pictures and posts! Not sure for just how long we'll have Internet on this trip so get it while you can!