Monday, April 25, 2011

Colorful cookies

Hope everyone had a wonderful Easter, yesterday.  Remember these?  I made them again yesterday.  SO pretty!!

I'm going to briefly veer away from my Costa Rica recap and head back to the reason I originally started this blog: to talk about food!  Baking in particular!  You all know I love tea.  I. Love. Tea.  I'm not talking about a good ole cup of Earl Grey, but afternoon tea and all the frilly girlie goodness that goes along with it: silver, china, tablecloths, cloth napkins, finger sandwiches, lemon curd, scones, sugar cubes, clotted cream, petit fours...  Frequently you'll also find cookies served at the end of afternoon tea, along with the petit fours (or in lieu of).  I'm hot and cold about cookies in general.  I know that sounds crazy since I'm a baker.  But bakers don't have to love everything they bake...  I mean, I don't even love eating my own macarons!  (I know - I know... there's something wrong with me).
Cranberry tea cookies with.... tea!
However, these cranberry tea cookies are ridiculous.  I can't stop eating them.  In fact, I think I can't make them anymore because I will NOT STOP EATING them.  To make matters worse, they're super easy to make.  So combine easy-to-make with delicious and you're in a dangerous spot.

It's kinda crazy how good these cookies are - especially for how simple they are to make
I'm not sure why I don't love cookies.  I also don't love cake - but I guess that's another blog post...  Cookies are boring to me, maybe.  They're not always very pretty - even when they taste great.  I think cookies are frequently done poorly too - especially homemade ones.  OK, ok... I know - now I'm just getting snobby.  But it seems people so often over-bake cookies that I just no longer trust I'm gonna get a tasty morsel when I'm offered one.  Instead, by default - I always turn them down. *sigh*
I ate all of these after I took this photo... seriously.
OK, so less tooting of the horn and more discussion on the blog post topic, yes?  The cranberry tea cookies.  These are technically called Cranberry Noel Cookies and I believe the original recipe has coconut in it.  Um, no thanks.  With a name like cranberry NOEL cookies - these are really a Christmas cookie.  But I love them.  And I wanted some in April.  So I'm calling them Cranberry Tea Cookies.  Problem solved.

Of course you can eat these cookies with coffee instead of tea.  Or a glass of milk.  Or like I do, out of the cookie jar with no accompanying beverage.

The original recipe doesn't call for this - but I thought it was a nice touch
I decided to make a little change to the original recipe which was given to us by a family friend... I roll the edges of the cookies in sugar before baking.  I originally did this because I thought I'd been a bit too generous with my cranberries and nuts in one batch and made the cookies not-sweet-enough.  So I rolled them in granulated sugar.  I loved how they turned out though; the sugar made them sparkle and the little crunch it added was very lovely.  I continue to roll them in sugar whether I'm heavy handed with the accouterments, or not!

Want the recipe?  I know you do...

Cranberry Noel Tea Cookies
Makes 35-40 cookies

2-4 oz sticks salted butter at room temperature (8 oz total)
1/2 cup sugar
2 T milk or cream
1 t vanilla
1/2 t salt
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 c chopped pecans
3/4 c chopped dried cranberries
1/4 c extra sugar

Cream butter and sugar til fluffy. Add milk and vanilla - mix. Add flour and salt - mix well.  It might seem crumbly at this point but if you keep blending it will come together eventually.  Add the cranberries and pecans.

Add cranberries and pecans...
Roll into 2 logs about 8 x 1 1/2".  Wrap and chill for 2 hours in the fridge.  I've also put them in the freezer for 30-60 minutes and this works the same way.  You just want it to be firm enough to cut without misshaping the round cookie.

Roll into logs
Wrap and chill for 2 hours
Slice cookies about 1/4" thick.  Roll edges of cookie in sugar (if you want.  But I highly recommend!)

Place on lightly greased cookie sheets, or Silpats. Bake at 375 for 10-15 minutes.  DON'T OVER-BAKE (well, unless you like hard hockey puck type cookies...)

Place on cookie sheet
Eat.  Eat more.  Eat a few more.  Give some to friends - wait, just kidding.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Green Mountain

Wow!  I was a little overwhelmed at how many folks *DO* still seem to read my blog and even, gosh... missed me while I was gone!  I knew this to be partially true from comments I've received from some friends over the past few months.  But those are my personal FRIENDS!  It's wonderful to see so many of you out there commenting to me in various places.  Hopefully it'll keep me going!
Monteverde was just beautiful
A little cheesy but a little cool too: the Tree House Restaurant
Our Costa Rica trip continued with 3 nights in Monteverde.  Monteverde is about 100 miles from Tamarindo but takes upwards of 2.5 hours due to the BUMPY and ROCKY roads as you get into the mountains.  I tend to get car (& sea / air / hand-filmed-home-video)-sick and was a bit concerned about the winding roads to get there, but when the roads are THAT rocky, one can't get to traveling any faster than maybe 25 mph on them.  No speed = no carsick.  Perfect!!
Our home for 3 nights: Arco Iris Lodge. VERY happy with this place.
In hindsight we would have rented a car while in Costa Rica - but the price (and an amazing amount of concern from friends) caused me to go the shuttle/private driver route instead.  I actually think we still spent less on transportation than a rental would have been, however a rental would have provided us flexibility and of course a lot more freedom.
More casado... *yawn*
We loved the fresh fruit drinks all over CR - tho I was a bit skeptical of the BLUE cherry?
Monteverde might have just been my favorite stop on our trip!  But I think that may have had something to do with the weather.  At 4600 feet in elevation, it was MUCH cooler here.  And I am absolutely a cool-climate girl.  It was beautiful and sunny during the day, with temperatures maybe into the 80's but at night it dropped as low as the high 50's.  It was like San Francisco Bay Area weather!  The one thing I didn't love was the wind.  At night it was so loud I thought it might actually tear the roof of our hotel off!  But I guess, it also made bundling up under the thick blankets seem more cozy and appropriate.
One of the lodge's doggies - they have a very rough life
Breakfast buffet at the Arco Iris Lodge - $7/person (yes that is passionfruit spread!!)
We stayed at the Arco Iris Lodge in Monteverde.  Again, I found this place on TripAdvisor and for the millionth time since I began seriously traveling 10+ years ago, thanked my lucky stars for TripAdvisor.  The lodge was no-nonsense, basic accommodations but clean and safe and affordable.  And while it was right smack dab in the middle of town, it was up a long [steep] driveway which put us just far enough off the beaten path that we were not at all bothered by foot (or car) traffic.  It was very quiet and relaxing.  (OK, how *old* am I getting that I'm continually recommending places because they're "quiet"??!!)
We did a night walk tour one night, which I don't mention in this post - it was OK... mostly insects
The beautiful gardens at Selvatura Park
We did what I'd say were our most interesting tours in Monteverde.  What's the one thing everyone comes back from Costa Rica talking about?  Well, okay maybe the mediocre food too, but: ziplining!! (aka: "canopy tour").  We spent the better part of a day touring Selvatura Park.  Selvatura seemed to have the most prominent reputation for ziplining and hanging bridges tours in the area, versus others like Sky Trek (where The Bachelor went) and Extremo.  While Mr. Travel Companion felt they were a little anti-climactic, I had a great time zip-lining from tree to tree, HUNDREDS of feet in the air.  I only wish I could have paused to take photos from up there!  Our 13th, and final zip-line was done in pairs and because of that, was the fastest line (more weight = more inertia).  75% of that line was THROUGH a cloud.  We couldn't see more than inches in front of our faces for the whiteness surrounding us.  We got off at the end and my face was soaked from the condensation - but we were pretty thrilled!
I was already very high up where I took this picture!
My turn!
The hanging bridges walks were tame - you walk through the cloud forest at your own leisure, occasionally coming to a suspended bridge which crosses varying expanses at varying elevations.  And yes, you are sometimes hundreds of feet in the air.  So for folks who want to see the cloud forest from up above, but don't want the "thrill" of ziplining, the hanging bridges are a perfect solution.

Way high up above the tree-tops on a "hanging bridge"
HUGE hydrangeas on our coffee & sugar cane tour, the next day
The other tour we did that I really enjoyed (and was surprised how much I enjoyed it) was the El Trapiche Coffee and Sugar Cane tour.  We were taken through a local farm and shown how coffee is grown, harvested, beans prepared and roasted.  Simultaneously we saw sugar cane growing and went through the process of pressing it, cooking the juice and making candy!  We got to make our own candy!! (Sort of like that maple sugar candy you can get in New England...if you know what I'm talking about.)  At the end of the tour, with a giant bag of candy in our grip, we were invited to sit and sample the coffee along with a lemonade sugar cane drink and some snacks of picadillo arracacha.  It was really a lovely experience.
Coffee beans in left hand, coffee bean skins in the right
Snacks and coffee after our tour!
Stir rapidly to incorporate air (+ chocolate, coconut and peanuts) into the cooked sugar cane juice = candy!!
I really did enjoy Monteverde.  It was a larger town than I was expecting, full of everything we needed: restaurants, souvenir shops, grocery stores, bakeries, umm - sushi place (we didn't go) and the sort of famous Monteverde ice cream shop.  There is a Cheese Factory tour (basically a dairy tour) that I'd read about, but we were advised to skip it and just go to the ice cream shop in town.  We complied.  We weren't disappointed.  Twice.  Almost thrice.  Mmmm, cereza...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Hello again

I've never been gone this long.  I'm not even sure anyone's still out there waiting for me to return.  But life has been good.  So good in fact, that my blog has clearly moved to the end of my priority list.  There are a few reasons for this... 1) I kinda did a big makeover of myself which includes running (a lot) and consuming A LOT FEWER baked goods.  When you consume a lot less, you bake and cook a lot less.  You also lose a lot of weight - so this is a good thing.  2) Most of my favorite things to bake and cook have already been blogged!  You wouldn't want to see repeats, right?  3) Blogging used to fill a void in my life that I seem to no longer have.  I won't go into detail on this, but it still comes into play here.  4) I've been busy living a fabulous life!  Can't blame me for that one, right?!

Mine's the beer, J/K!
So I haven't been baking a lot, or cooking a lot, or eating a ton... but I've still been traveling!  And I've always said, my blog is my blog to blog about what I want to blog about.  So if I go somewhere and want to tell you about it - I shall!

I recently returned from a 10 day trip to Costa Rica.  No, not exactly the adventure travel I've gotten a little used to (Africa or China, anyone?) but still a great vacation.  I always say there's a difference between "travel" and "vacation".  Travel is hard work, but one can have the greatest experience of their life while learning so much about themselves and the lives of others.  Vacation is relaxing, vegging and the dulling down of one's brain.  We thought Costa Rica would be travel, but in fact, it turned out to be a vacation.  I didn't complain too much.

Our view each morning from Villa Alegre's patio (breakfast)
Monkeys playing in the lobby of a local hotel!
I planned my own trip after doing a few zillion hours of online research.  No all-inclusive resorts or package tours for me.  I like learning about a place and then picking exactly which towns/hotels I want to stay in and for how long.  It's just my controlling organized nature.

Playa Langosta -> Monteverde -> La Fortuna
We spent 3 nights in 3 different towns all in the northwestern-ish part of CR.  We started in Playa Langosta / Tamarindo, then headed east to the mountains (4600 ft in elevation) of Monteverde, finally ending in hot-humid, La Fortuna at the Arenal Volcano.

First and most importantly, in light of this blog... The Food.  It is nothing to write home about (hmm and yet here I am).  We kept discussing how even the most average meal in San Francisco is better than most of the food we ate in Costa Rica.  We constantly claimed how spoiled we are living in the Bay Area, where the food and restaurants and chefs and ingredients are not only good, but phenomenal.

A couple additional local faves: Imperial cerveza and sea bass ceviche (and in all honesty - Lizano Salsa too)
We kept asking the locals for their favorite local food and KEPT getting the same answer: casado.  Casado is the traditional national dish of CR.  The plate consists of a meat (beef, fish, pork or chicken) beans, rice, fried plantains and sometimes a salad.  It's certainly well-rounded.  But it's EVERYWHERE.  I mean it'd be like if a foreigner came to the U.S. and everyone they asked told them to get a steak and potatoes.  Sure it's tasty the first few times but after that you just want some VARIETY.  I hate being "that" traveler who orders pizza or a burger in a foreign country, but by the end of our trip I found myself doing just that.  It was sad... I was ashamed of myself, but really I couldn't HANDLE it anymore!
My First Casado: mahi-mahi. Not bad...
One thing I was quite happy with about our trip were our accommodations.  Sure I did a lot of research, but the research paid off.  We ranged from a private and personal bed & breakfast on the beach to a clean and basic lodge in the mountains to a 5-star tropical resort with hot springs.  And on the whole, I was pleased with all of them.

Doggie waiting for his surfing master
Our first stop was Playa Langosta which is a very small [Pacific Ocean] beach village immediately south of the much more famous beach town of Tamarindo.  It seemed like a good idea to stay close to a "big town" like Tamarindo which had restaurants and hotels and grocery stores and tour operators and a store that sold Apple products banks with ATMs and basically a large spot on the map.  But I didn't exactly want to hear the boom of Aqua Disco as I tried to sleep each night.  So I chose Playa Langosta which is a mere 3/4 of a mile south of Tamarindo.  A $5 cab drive, 5 minute bike ride or 15 minute walk gets you between the two, yet puts it just far enough away to have peace and beauty.

Welcome to Villa Alegre Bed & Breakfast
Would you move back to L.A. if you had all this that gazed out onto the ocean?  Me neither...
We stayed at Villa Alegre Bed & Breakfast after I read their wonderfully glowing reviews on TripAdvisor.  They are not inexpensive (NOTHING is in Costa Rica) but it was an incredibly personal and convenient experience with Barry and Suzye as such friendly and welcoming hosts.  I honestly felt like I was a guest at a friend's home (well... err... a friend who charges.)  The Los Angeles transplants fed us grand breakfasts each morning, answered all of our questions, booked our tours, drove us to town, chatted about world travel and politics, lent us bikes, bodyboards and snorkeling gear and yet seemed to make themselves sparse when we were relaxing around the pool and common areas.  We also got so lucky as to be the only guests 2 of our 3 nights there!  It was like having this HUGE home to ourselves - very quiet, relaxing and peaceful.  Just what we needed as our first stop.

Typical Tamarindo
We sat here and had drinks and snacks for an hour or five one afternoon
I have mixed reviews on Tamarindo itself.  There was no shortage of restaurants and small shops and bars and.... Americans.  It sorta kinda felt like Hawaii, minus the polish.  But people were friendly and being there was easy.  2.5 days was just enough before we would have needed to start venturing outside the area to see additional beaches along the coast.  And of course, as I mentioned before - the food was not excellent.  Even venturing away from the casado and trying the local seafood.  Dishes were over-salted or under-flavored or just not done well. 

Taco Tico - tho I don't think tacos are very Costa Rican...
This was the portion of the trip where we kinda just decompressed.  We tried a lot of food, drank a lot of daiquiris, watched a lot of sunsets and put our bathing suits on each morning.  We took surfing lessons, but I think I'll need to try again when the ocean is not quite so "enthusiastic".  As I was dragging my board back into the beach, the hard bodied surfers were running past me to head out - a true sign that perhaps it was not the BEST day for me to learn...

One of Barry's unbelievable breakfasts: chili egg pie. I meant to ask for the recipe!
I'll wrap this up here while I still have some steam.  A bit about our other stops in Monteverde and La Fortuna will be upcoming - I promise think.  It's probably best that I leave myself with topics to continue talking about or I might not make my way back.  But it's not that I don't love and appreciate you all!
Our first sunset in Costa Rica. It did NOT disappoint.

And yes, if you've read this far down into my post you may have caught on that I somewhat danced around the existence of a companion on my trip.  I've found myself someone worthy of being a traveling partner.  It's definitely a great thing.  I think you'd all like him too, since he's more than a few times urged me to get back to my blog... it is kind of nice to be back.