Fat Tuesday

Paczki Time

Paczki Time

Okay, so I’m going to go ahead and admit it, I still haven’t roasted those coffee beans due to working two jobs 7-days-a-week…The good news is, I’ll have some time the first week in March so as promised I’ll have plenty of fun tales about home coffee roasting…

Now, onto the task at hand.

Today is Fat Tuesday.

I grew up in an Irish-Polish-Catholic household in the Midwest and as such grew accustomed to enjoying a traditional paczki or two on Fat Tuesday. I didn’t realize that this was a tradition that the rest of the United States didn’t know about until moving to Philadelphia and not seeing them in every supermarket (though I’ve been told you can find them easily outside of Center City). Apparently the Midwest is a very Polish part of the US and so it makes sense that I saw them around this time in every gas station convenience store, supermarket and mom and pops place.

With this in mind, I also learned that most Americans know about Mardi Gras but have no idea about some of the traditions that surround this time of year, such as the making and eating of paczkis.

A paczki is a Polish treat that is kind of like a jelly doughnut. It is affiliated with the season of Lent and has everything to do with the final enjoyment of certain foods that are not supposed to be consumed throughout Lent.

Here you can find some great information about the tradition of the paczki: Fried Dough Around The World

Anywho, I’ve been aching for one and my whining words were heard round the world and as such my beautiful friend Amanda purchased some paczkis for me out in suburbia and brought them in today.

She got me two filled with cream and two filled with raspberry compote—I am one fat happy Irish-Polish-Catholic gal.’

As for tomorrow…well, tomorrow I will be fasting all day long so I’ll enjoy the fried dough while it lasts!

Beans!

This is just a quickie since I should be going to work in 4 minutes but…a package just arrived at my house filled with raw coffee beans. It’s my birthday gift from my little sister. I am so excited to embark on this bean roasting adventure. More later when I have a moment! PS, so sorry I’ve been away for so long, I had wrist surgery and typing took me a bit, not to mention baking and cooking. Love!!

Feliz Dia de los Muertos

So I might not be in Mexico or have any ties to the country outside of a brother who has spent a hefty amount of time there and is fluent in Spanish.  I do, however, have a huge appreciation and love for Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).  As someone who grew up in the Catholic tradition this Latin/Catholic tradition is something I relate to and think is very important for those people in Western cultures to explore.  Death seems to be a dirty word in America.  We cover it in black, wrap it up in shiny coffins and homemade casseroles and try to say farewell to those who die.  Dia de los Muertos (which is celebrated November 1 and 2, also known as All Saints and All Souls Days) is a celebration of those who have died, the things they loved and the lives they led.

I have been celebrating this holiday for 4 years now and each year I have constructed my own Dia de los Muertos altar as is tradition.  Altars include bright flowers, photos of the dead, objects and foods they loved as well as the traditional pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and brightly painted skulls made of sugar.  This year I decided to take the plunge and make the bread and skulls and include them in my altar.

I researched recipes online and found that both the bread and sugar skulls were simple recipes so long as a little bit of artistry was allowed for the shaping of each.  The bread is usually baked in the shape of skulls or in rounds with “bones” laying across the top of the bread round.  The recipe I used made enough dough for me to make one of each.  The flavors are interesting with the use of Anise Seed, sugar and an orange glaze.  Here’s the bread start to finish:

Rising dough

Rising dough

Skull bread.

Skull bread.

Bones bread

Bones bread

Baked Bread of the Dead

Baked Bread of the Dead

Baked Bread of the Dead

Most of the bones fell off of the bread round but I think that is because I made them too short and stubby.  Learning curve!

I also made the sugar skulls which consisted of confectioners sugar, vanilla, an egg white and corn starch.  They were a lot of fun to decorate.  I found these amazing food color pens!  The tips are like paint brushes and you can actually paint onto whatever frosted surface you want.  They were the perfect tool to decorate my skulls.

Sugar skulls before painting

Sugar skulls before painting

Sugar skulls after painting

Sugar skulls after painting

Much like kneading bread, I really enjoyed the hands on sculpting aspect of the skulls.  What started out was two balls of starchy sugar turned into something that I’m really proud to say I created.  Decorating them was really enjoyable as well because there’s really no wrong way to do it.  Sugar skulls are just supposed to be bright and beautiful and really, how could I go wrong there?!

After my cooking and confectioning were completed I took my creations up to my kitchen table where I had created my altar.  I purchased bright flowers, arranged various “saints” candles along with a photo of my grandparents, a list of other relatives and friends who have died and my roommates also included things from family and friends who have died.  It was really special to see both of them latch onto the concept of Dia de los Muertos and I felt honored to be able to fascilitate a place where people they loved could be honored.

The completed altar.

The completed altar.

A Shopping Buddy

I’m a single gal and have been so most of my life.  I’m used to the solo grocery shopping expedition.  You know the quick trip to the store to buy a handful of things.  I enjoy the simplicity and speed of single shopping but I do welcome the opportunity to make the trip more of an adventure with buddies.  I find that shopping with other people is an easy way to be exposed to new food suggestions.  Buddy shopping has opened my eyes to things Fage Yogurt (oh Yum) and the benefits of sharing the sometimes quick to spoil produce of the Italian Market.  I also find that shopping with someone else makes what can sometimes be monotonous into an enjoyable outing with two things I love—food and my friends.

I’ve been volunteering with a new local community group called Penn’s Village over the last three weeks.  It’s based in Center City Philadelphia and has a center aim to help senior citizens stay in their own homes longer by providing help (through volunteers) with day to day activities like raking leaves, going grocery shopping, going for walks and cleaning. 

I’ve been paired up with a lovely woman named Margarette.  She’s 97 years old, originally from Vienna, has lived in NYC, lived in Cuba for 10 years and has amazing stories.  She was a beautiful soprano opera singer who traveled the world as a young woman in the 1940’s singing for people at the Metropolitan Opera House in NYC, the Havana Opera House in Cuba and hundreds of other venues across the globe.  Her stage name was Greta Menzel.  Now she lives alone in Philadelphia.

My amazing Margarette

My amazing Margarette***Ever the diva Margarette made me wait for her to brush and fluff her hair before taking this photo of us together. She told me this was a terrible photo of her. I think she looks beautiful but you can't fight with a onstage opera veteran!***

 I go grocery shopping with her once a week and it’s truly one of the highlights of my week.  She is spunky and enjoys the walk from her home to the supermarket 3 blocks down the street.  One of my favorite things about shopping with Margarette is the challenge of finding what she wants and needs.  You see, Margarette writes her grocery list in German because she says it’s just more natural for her.  I always ask her what is on her list but each trip inevitibly ends up with me blindly following her around the store and doing my best to understand what she’s saying in her beautiful accent and warm gurgling voice.  Today’s biggest challenge was finding razor blades.  I still don’t know what type of razor she uses to shave and I never did manage to find what she needed.  Thankfully she’s patient with me and doesn’t mind the language gap that sometimes shows itself. We did manage to find everything else on her list so overall we felt like the trip was a success.  With each trip I am learning more about her eating habits and noticing some trends that strike me as very European in comparison to what an American might consider a staple.  Some things Margarette usually has in her fridge: brie, brown eggs, fresh fruits, crusty bread, Vitamin D milk.  Next Wednesday we are going for a walk together to Whole Foods to buy mums.  They are on sale 3/$12 and Margarette wants to get two for herself and one for me.  She’s so lovely.  Today she also gave me these delicious hazelnut chocolates that her son (who lives in Europte) had sent from Vienna!  I just had one with my lunch, so creamy and perfectly hazelnutty.  YUM!German chocolate yum!

Mediterrasian Revisited:

Check me out waxing poetic about Mediterrasian for the Philadelphia City Paper.

Helpful Hint:Smoothie edition

Part of my goal in writing about my food adventures is to show people how sometimes you can make incredible food and it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.  With this in mind here’s a helpful hint:

When it comes to smoothies who cares if the fruit is a bit bruised or the lemon that you juiced was shaped more like a piece of corn!  A lot of grocery stores have a rack dedicated to the less appetizing pieces of produce and normally they are priced at a very high discount. 

Imperfect Produce=Superb Smoothies

Imperfect Produce=Superb Smoothies

Today I nabbed up a grab bag plate of fruits for smoothie use.  Sure one peach had a few serious bruises, one mango had some dark spots on the outer skin and the limes and lemons had less than perfect rinds but when it came to blending them up with my immersion blender for a late night snack none of these things mattered! How can you go wrong with that price either, do you see that $2.00 got me 2 peaches, 2 mangos, 2 lemons and a lime.  Now that’s smart foodin.

Breaking Bread

Well, normally I write about my cooking but today I’m going to put that on the back burner (you can see the Japanese avacado, snow peas and cucumber noodle salad I made today in the Flickr to the right).  Baking explorations are going to take center stage today.

I’ve been thinking about bread a lot lately.  I made some pretty tasty sandwiches last week using a lot of heart healthy fresh ingredients and lip smakin spices.  The only downfall was spending a lot of money on some nice bread.  I decided it was silly to spend $5-$8 on a loaf of bread just so I knew it wasn’t pumped full of preservatives and had some flavor. In order to combat my bread woes I have decided to dabble in baking some of my own loaves. The Simple Dollar has a great post with a step by step for anyone who wants to try a basic flour, butter, milk, water, salt, sugar, yeast recipe.  It even has photos every step of the way to put any worries that you might be doing something wrong at ease. 

I’m starting simple, a whole wheat loaf made with 90% whole wheat and about 10% white flour because most of my reading lead me to believe it’s easier to succeed with white flour but I wasn’t ready to give into it completely even on my first bread baking attempt.

So here’s my fist try, I have to say, I’m very proud. I can’t even deny it.

Yay for bread!

Yay for bread!

 Baking bread was a really enjoyable experience.  I felt very at ease throughout the process. I really like that there’s a lot of “feeling” involved with baking bread.  The amount of flour needed isn’t an exact amount instead I had to keep adding flour until I felt it was the right consistency (not sticking to the bowl or my hands). I also had to feel the dough as I kneaded it. It was really relaxing to feel the dough between my fingers as I worked it on the countertop. 

I’m already starting to think about what I can add to my bread to make it more interesting, healthy, tasty and fun.  I think my next loaf will involve some experimenting with adding seeds, nuts and other possible grains (and maybe even some honey).  I hear sourdough is a tough bread to bake on your own which makes me really want to try baking it!