Ode to a chocolate croissant

Sometimes you just need a chocolate croissant from Pavel’s. When the world feels so ephemeral—I’m thinking of the fire of Notre Dame in Paris, not to make light of the situation—you need to devour a croissant in its lovely entirety. Or when someone lets you down or acts without integrity you have none other but to turn to Pavel’s for a buttery, dark chocolaty croissant. 

It was Tuesday and I was hungry for lunch. I was in PG running errands and popped into Pavel’s to get a sandwich. Side note, have you ever had their sandwiches? They are amazing. But they were out of sandwiches so I thought, this is God’s way of telling me I should have a chocolate croissant for lunch. To remind me of the beauty of each moment and reinstill my faith in humanity.

I got the chocolate croissant and suddenly there was a skip in my step. I didn’t eat it, of course, the consumption of a Pavel’s chocolate croissant is ritualistic in my book and must be done seated and without distraction. So I carried it, as if I were carrying a treasure, as I ran around PG taking care of my to do list. I smiled when I delicately deposited it on the backseat of the car to drive back to work, knowing the time was getting closer to enjoy my treat. And as I drove down Lighthouse, the fragrance of the chocolate croissant, a sweet, buttery smell permeated the warm car. I sang along with the radio in glee.

I got to work and parked. With great care I took the white paper bag that housed the chocolate croissant from the backseat and carried it as if it were on a platter. The bag was now grease-stained and wonderful. I usually walk with purpose but this time I was on a mission and I pounded the pavement to my office. Every step was bringing me closer to my indulgence. Once in my office I closed the door and smelled the chocolate croissant. It smelled so sweet. Its weight bent it in my fingers as I photographed it for you, my faithful readers. I set it on my desk and sat down in front of it. As always, I ripped the small nub off of one end and peered inside. This one was particularly chocolatey. Because of the imperfect nature of artisan baking sometimes some croissants have more chocolate than others. The ganache was beautiful and dark next to the white and fluffy internal dough of the croissant. The outside is brown and crunchy. I took the first bite and time stopped. My mouth watered and I closed my eyes to be present with my not-so-petit croissant.

I sat back in my chair and chewed slowly before contemplating the croissant and the beauty of life and slowly eating the whole thing.

perfection

Laguna San Ignacio, Baja, Mexico

The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Hola de Laguna San Ignacio, Baja California, Mexico. I am fortunate enough to have fun-loving, adventurous friends. I guess it’s true what they say, birds of a feather flock together. But anyhow, some friends of mine asked if I would be interested and available to join them in flying down to Baja California in their little Cessnas. I checked my work calendar and managed my schedule such that I could take some time off to fly to Mexico and camp on the beach.

The friend of my friends—Dave—has been flying down to this one little beach in Baja for about 30 years. He has a deal worked out with the guys who run the fishing and camping village on the Sea of Cortez where he leaves his RV and flies back a couple times a year to camp, fish, and enjoy the great outdoors. He often invites anyone who is willing and able to fly down because it’s pretty remote but does have a landing strip. I was fortunate enough to get invited down and…you know me…I’ll seize any opportunity for adventure.

It was my first time in a small plane and let me tell you, I could get used to this! We flew from Monterey to San Diego where we fueled up and had lunch and continued on to San Felipe, an official port of entry for us to clear Mexican customs. But no true adventure is complete without a hiccup or two and we were told we couldn’t make it where we were going before dark. The FAA gentleman told us to relax, we would have to spend the night in San Felipe. He called a cab—his dad—who picked us all up and took us to a hotel in town and the next morning he picked us up again, brought us to the airport and we were able to fly to our destination of Punta San Francisquito where we buzzed the beach and found Dave and his 88-year-old mother and some of his friends waiting for us. I just learned that “buzzing” in airplane speak is flying low to get someone to see you. So fun!

One day of this whirlwind adventure was slotted for whale watching. So we loaded up the three little planes with the twelve of us and flew to San Ignacio so we could get into boats and head out on the lagoon towards the Pacific Ocean to see the grey whales before they migrate north. It was such a magical experience, being in a small boat close to so many whales. And the calves are so curious, they would come up to the boat and nudge it and let us touch them.

After a lovely and turbulent boat ride we stepped into the restaurant for lunch and based on all the shells we passed on the drive in, I knew I was to order scallops, grilled and served with garlic. With of course, piping hot, paper thin tortillas and a killer margarita. It was just the perfect thing, making my own little tacos with the scallops on the hot tortillas and drinking the cold margarita in good company.

I have to say, this is a beautiful life we live and I urge you to seize any opportunity that comes your way. Or make adventure right here in PG…grab a friend—or take yourself!—and head to Peppers for Mexican food if this article has got you craving Mexican food. Or, did you know the new Poppy Hall on Lighthouse offers $1 oysters on Monday evenings? Along with a cava (Spanish sparkling wine) special. Regardless, there is no shortage for adventure opportunities in our little PG. It’s a matter of making magic.

scallops and garlic, rice, and my margarita

San Diego

Carpe diem. Seize the day. 

Greetings from sunny San Diego! I’m on another work trip to San Diego and back in my old stomping grounds. (I went to university at UCSD.) Being so close to the border means San Diego has amazing Mexican food so naturally, my colleague and I found a new Mexican place to try every day.

The first day we were on our way to work in Coronado and my colleague had her GPS navigating us. I know they are supposed to be helpful but the automated voice drives me crazy. We missed an exit on the freeway and Gidget—as my colleague calls her—was attempting to re-route us. Well in doing so, we drove by a hole in the wall joint with a line out the door and down the street. “Lyla…what’s that? We need to go there.” We took note of the place but didn’t catch the name and kept driving. We did, after all, have work to get to. After we had finished our meetings for the day, we asked one of the people we were meeting with where we should go for Mexican food. We were hoping he would direct us back to this really popular place. He did not. So, the next day, we decided to find it ourselves, googling “hole in the wall Mexican place” plus the street it was on.

Lyla turned the phone around to show me, “this is it!” she said. “Petra & Nati Las Cuatro Milpas” read the sign on the photo in Google with the same green awning and line out the door we had seen the day prior. On our one-hour lunch break, we drove straight to Petra & Nati Las Cuatro Milpas and couldn’t find parking on the first go around. So, we drove around the block the other way and wouldn’t you know, someone pulled out immediately in front of the restaurant just as we drove up.

A woman sat on a blue checkered blanked and made beaded bracelets and sold colorful things: wallets, headbands, etc. And the line was—as we anticipated—out the door and down the street. When it got to be our turn we decided to split a bunch of things so that we could each try more things. This is my favorite route when eating at someplace new. The menu was on one of those marquee boards where you can replace the black lettering in the white lined board. The whole menu fit on one of those boards. We ordered a pork tamal, the burrito—“you choose whatever you think is best,” and two chicken tacos. They were frying the rolled tacos right there and were just barely keeping up with making the tortillas. A huge caldron of soup simmered on a stove. The food smelled amazing and the seating area was all family style, the tables donning light blue checkered tablecloths.

Our food—plus two bottles of water—came to $12 and some change and we found seats at a long table with a couple who looked like they came here often. We split up everything evenly and went to town, generously heaping the deep and oily red salsa they had given us on top of everything. The food was fantastic and greasy. The tortilla that the burrito was wrapped in was unlike any tortilla I have ever had before. Normally tortillas—to my knowledge—are made with flour and water (or corn flour and water). No, this one was different. It tasted to me like the flour had been kneaded with lard. It was soft in a way that only grease gets soft. Buttery.

The tacos were perfect, the chicken was boiled and it was reminiscent of chicken soup…so naturally comforting. And the tamale. Again, it felt like the pork grease had been used to make the masa (the dough of the outside of the tamal). Everything was flavorful and sitting in the warm, small place with the food cooking so close to us made the experience all the better. They say it’s a good sign if there are a lot of people in a restaurant. Who wants to eat at an empty place…that must mean the food isn’t good, right? Well following that logic, this place exceeded our expectations and all those people standing in line…both days…knew what they were doing. And I guess something good came from the annoying-voiced GPS.

Burrito with cilantro, tacos, a tamal, and the hot sauce in the background

Stammtisch German Restaurant

“The true enjoyments must be spontaneous and compulsive and look to no remoter end.”

–C.S. Lewis

We are incredibly lucky to live where we live. For many reasons but one because we don’t have to travel far to find good food. One such gem in our area is Stammtisch German Restaurant in Seaside.

I picked up my friend Maryann who lives in Seaside the other day in search of Mexican food for lunch. As we drove down Fremont, yacking away, she asked if I felt like having German food. I know German cuisine is not anywhere near Mexican cuisine but I am always open to spontaneity. “I’ve always wanted to go there!” I said. So, we wove our way back from the end of Fremont to Echo Ave. and found Stammtisch.

We walked in and were greeted by Erwin, dressed in traditional Austrian embroidered white shirt and a vest. He seated us and asked if we would like to have a beer. We both said no thank you but looked at one another. “Come on,” he said with a smile in his charming Austrian accent. “OK, fine,” we both said. The table where we were seated was in the middle of the main dining room, next to the pot of the umbrella plant that is growing perfectly out of control around the room with one branch supported by yellow yarn on the ceiling. I commented on the beautiful plant and Erwin told me about once a month he wipes the leaves down with a mixture of water and beer, just like his mother taught him. “That way it’s always drunk!” he proclaimed.

Two slices of rye bread along with butter appeared in a gold-rimmed black basket lined with a napkin and then two steins of German pilsner beer from the tap. Next, we were each brought a bowl of the daily soup, cream of asparagus. We chatted with Erwin, who was very hospitable and charming, and we found out is married to the chef and owner, Claudia who is from Berlin. We ordered our lunch, Maryann, the special of the day—the cabbage stew with slow-cooked pork on top—and me, the currywurst.

The décor and vibe felt so German. The wooden tables and chairs, the wall clocks, and the Underberg: the iconic German herbal digestif. Traditional German music played in the background and it was raining outside. When our main dish was served, Claudia came out and we introduced ourselves. She gave me a stiff handshake and welcomed us. The food was presented so beautifully and we immediately dug in. Claudia’s goal is to serve traditional German food, old-fashioned home cooking. “I have achieved my goal if someone says this is how my mom or grandma cooked,” she told me. Now I don’t have a German mother or grandmother whose cooking I can compare to but I do know that even for me, a non-German, it was comfort food and I certainly felt comfortable.

After the meal—which we each took half home for the next day—we ordered two desserts to share, the lemon dessert and the apple crumble along with two cups of strong German coffee. The desserts were delicious and with the rain pitter-pattering on the roof, I sat back drinking my coffee contemplating my happy, full belly and how content I was with our spontaneous decision. I encourage you to check out Stammtisch, spontaneously—if you find yourself in Seaside, or if not…plan a trip. 

Cream of asparagus soup
Currywurst, potatoes, and sauerkraut
Apple crisp and coffee

Porta Bella, Carmel

This past Friday night I went out to dinner at Porta Bella in Carmel with my friend Father Dominic and our deacon friend John. We sat in their quaint, heated back patio that is painted Tuscan clay red and has plants creeping on the walls. One of the co-owners of the restaurant, Faisal, who is also a friend of Father Dominic’s joined us.

One thing I always do when I go out to eat—after looking over the menu and picking one or two things that sound good—is ask the waitress what her favorite item on the menu is. The response is one of two things: without skipping a beat she tells me her favorite item or she says, “that’s a tough one!” and lists a few items she likes or are popular among diners. If what she recommends lines up with what I was looking at, I definitely know what I’m ordering. If not, well it depends on if it was her favorite item in which case I’ll consider ordering it. This time I had the luxury of asking one of the restaurant owners. One of his three favorites, the Lamb Ossobuco, was one of the items I was considering so I knew I’d be having that for dinner.

But of course, it was Friday night and Father Dominic and John, like myself, are epicures so we started with soup and appetizers. I had the roasted corn and crab bisque and it was spectacular: rich, warm, and creamy on a cold rainy night. I appreciate a slow meal and this was just that. We talked and caught up on life and for those of us who were not already friends, we got to know each other a little more. Next, we shared the skewered grilled jumbo prawns served with a lemon aioli, the lobster ravioli, and the beef tenderloin carpaccio. I love beef carpaccio—a raw dish of thinly sliced meat typically served with lemon, olive oil, parmesan cheese, and truffle oil. Porta Bella’s also adds arugula and capers and they’re perfect accompaniments to the raw meat. Interestingly enough, the dish was invented in 1950 by Giuseppe Cipriani of Harry’s Bar in Venice for countess Amalia Nani Mocenigo when he heard that her doctors had recommended she eat raw meat. The name—carpaccio—comes from the Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio whose work is characterized by red and white tones, reminiscent of raw meat.

The main course, the Lamb Ossobuco, was served with a potato gratin and vegetables while the lamb itself was cooked with red wine and white raisins. The meat was spectacularly tender and the flavors were perfect. We enjoyed a local cabernet with the meal and it was the perfect complement.

As the evening and meal went on, more people joined or replaced others and our table was buzzing with people and lively conversation; as the plates were cleared, a backgammon board appeared and a game was started. You see Faisal comes from a big family and network of restaurateurs in Carmel and as some got off work they would come to check out Porta Bella…seeing the owner seated for a change inspired people to come chat, pull up a chair, and join us. And even more so after learning that we had a priest at the table.

The discussion grew philosophical and Father Dominic was questioned on issues of morality which he answered in stride…as a Catholic priest, this is what he does for a living. It became a regular occurrence for someone seated at the table to apologize to him after saying something off-colored. Which brings me back to my initial point, “how you do anything is how you do everything.” I don’t believe that we ought to alter our behavior or our self in the presence of a Catholic priest or anyone for that matter. Sure, there is discretion and professional behavior but who we are ought to be who we are always. I find the idea of behavior-altering more troublesome than the off-colored comment, in other words, I appreciate integrity of the self. If I say something and feel I must apologize for it, maybe I oughtn’t have said it. Don’t get me wrong, I have said my fair share of things that I shouldn’t have said and will probably do so many times over in my life but, in an effort to grow and constantly improve myself I like to remind myself that how I do anything is how I do everything, to be intentional with each little thing because the culmination of all of those little things is me and my character. So here’s to being true to oneself when nobody is looking or even in the highest profile of company.

roasted corn and crab bisque
skewered grilled jumbo prawns with lemon aioli

Chocolate Stout Cake for a friend’s birthday

This past weekend was my dear friend Shandy’s birthday. The week prior she had asked me if I would make her birthday cake. It has become a tradition that I make this chocolate stout cake for a couple friends’ birthdays, including Shandy, and she swears it’s her favorite cake in the world. A week later her husband also sent me a text asking if I would make her favorite cake. What an honor because I simply have to follow a recipe and it can mean so much to a friend.

I first discovered this recipe in Gourmet magazine when I was in college. I was captivated by the photo of the big slice of chocolate cake sitting alongside a chilly glass of stout. Being in college and just beginning my relationship with beer—my relationship with chocolate has been lifelong—my curiosity was piqued. I was living in Del Mar at the time and working at a gourmet chocolate shop where we carried—and paired to chocolate—several beers by the local Stone Brewery. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to explore and expand my understand of chocolate and beer pairings. I lived in what my roommate and I called the beach shack, it was one block from the beach, we never locked the door and the house always seemed to be buzzing with people, the only two constants being my roommate Diana and myself. Our other semi-permanent roommate Kate was a Biochemistry post-doc at UCSD and we transformed the back of the house into a crash pad for post-docs, surfers, friends, etc. I often cooked big pots of curry or baked something and left it out for whoever was around to eat. I made this cake regularly and we always had beer in the fridge to go along. It seemed to be the perfect post-surf or post-run snack for us twenty-somethings who could never get enough to eat and always had room for a cold beer.

A word of warning, this cake is heavy so it is not for the faint of eater or heart. Also, the original recipe suggested you eat it alongside a stout beer. I hope you enjoy and maybe it will become the favorite of someone in your life’s.

Chocolate Stout Cake

  • 3 oz unsweetened chocolate
  • 3 eggs, separated
  • 1 1/4 cup + 3 tbsp. sugar (for 2 separate things)
  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 14 tbsp unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup stout, I use Boatswain chocolate stout from Trader Joes
  • 2/3 cup freshly brewed strong coffee, cooled to room temperature

Frosting

  • 1 lb bittersweet chocolate, I use Trader Joe’s 70% pound plus chocolate
  • 1 pint heavy whipping cream
  • 1 tsp instant espresso powder, optional

Heat oven to 350˚F. In a double boiler, melt the chocolate.

Butter two round nine-inch cake pans. Line the bottoms with parchment paper, butter and flour the parchment paper. Set aside. In a medium bowl, mix flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a standup mixer beat the butter and 1 1/4 cup sugar until light and fluffy and pale yellow, about two minutes. Add yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add lukewarm chocolate and mix until well-incorporated. Next add the coffee and stout and mix until incorporated. Beat in flour mixture in two additions until it is just incorporated.

Using clean, dry beaters, in a separate bowl beat the egg whites and remaining three tablespoons of sugar until they form stiff peaks. Fold one-third of the whites into the cake to lighten it. Then fold the remaining egg whites in in two additions. Pour batter distributing evenly in the two cake pans and bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool in pans for 20 minutes, then invert on a cooling rack, remove the parchment paper and cool completely before frosting.

For frosting:

Chop the chocolate and place in a medium, heatproof bowl. Set aside. In a saucepan over low heat, heat the whipping cream with the instant espresso, if you so choose. Bring the cream to a simmer stirring occasionally. Once it’s reached a simmer, pour it over the chocolate and let it sit for two minutes then whisk until all of the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Chill until slightly thickened and spreadable, stirring occasionally, about two hours. But not much longer because otherwise you can’t spread it.

I use all of the frosting to stuff and frost the cake. Serve with coffee or stout or a coffee stout and enjoy!

Red’s Donuts, Monterey

As you ramble on through life, Brother,
Whatever be your goal,
Keep your eye upon the doughnut,
And not upon the hole.

–Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin 

Walking into Red’s Donuts on Alvarado Street is like taking a stroll down memory lane. The donut shop that has stood in the same spot since March 15, 1950 looks like it hasn’t changed one bit, perhaps added a few decorations to the walls and updated the cash register. That’s it. The shop was started by Herman O’Donnell in 1950 as Angel Food Doughnuts and changed names to Red’s in 1957 as that was Herman’s nickname on account of his red hair.

The idea to write about them was inspired last week when I was volunteering at the AT&T Pro-Am. The Pro-Am gets donuts for their volunteers from Red’s and has for years. This year the Pro-Am got 200 dozen donuts…that’s a lot of donuts! Actually, one of my most avid-readers and a professional donut enthusiast himself had recommended I write about Red’s a few weeks back and it finally all came together.

After indulging in several donuts at the Pro-Am — chocolate old fashioneds are my favorite — I decided to visit the shop on Alvarado Street. I had never been inside despite growing up here and now living here as an adult for the past seven years. The place was happy and vibrant with clown paintings on the walls, photos of former president’s, and the family-owners and almost every stool at the counterwas filled. I waited to be attended to and asked Evelyn, a seasoned Red’s employee of 26 years and counting, if I could ask her a few questions. She was busy, it was before 9 am on a weekday, but she said she would make time for me.

I found a stool and ordered a donut and a cup of coffee. There is something wonderful about coffee and donuts. And chocolate old fashioned donuts…what an invention of pure magic. When business quieted down a bit Evelyn and Ollie—who has been there for six months—both answered my questions. While we were talking, George, a regular, came in and said hi to everyone. They knew his order and in between chatting with me, got it for him without his having to ask. A young musician, Steve, who just moved back to the area from LA told me he has eaten donuts all over the country and nothing compares to Red’s. The customers chimed in the impromptu interview. Stacey told me she had been bringing her daughter to Red’s since she was small enough to sit on the counter. “Now she can’t come because she’s in high school,” she laughed a guilty laugh.

Red’s has another location in Seaside where they make the donuts. The Red’s donut operation is 24/7; they begin making the donuts at 4pm and work all night for the deliveries. Evelyn estimated that they deliver to 35-40 establishments on the peninsula and make about 500 dozen donuts a day. She told me the recipe is the original recipe, “nothing has changed.” The Seaside location, being open all night, gets their clientele at all hours of the morning, some coming in off the graveyard shift at 4am.

Red’s serves 33 different kinds of donuts and rolls and 11 special donuts (certain days only), and of course, a fresh pot of coffee is always on. They even serve milk for those who prefer their donuts with a cold cup of milk. Simple, delicious pleasure. Specials Monday and Tuesday on boxes of a dozen. With one location in Seaside and one on Alvarado Street in Monterey.

Evelyn knows most of her customers by name and has their orders committed to memory. She is friendly and personable and that’s what makes Red’s unique with a genuine hometown feeling. She told me that she had moved to the area in 1964 when her father was sent to Fort Ord. “He was a drill sergeant,” she smiled, “with the Smokey the Bear hat and the whole nine yards.”

On my way out, an older gentleman came in. I heard him say to Evelyn, “I’m changing it up today.”

Without skipping a beat, she told him, “You can’t do that, Ken,” and they both erupted in laughter. We live in such an amazing community that such a wonderful donut shop exists. I could get philosophical about donuts and donut holes but I’ll spare you. Just find your way down to Red’s and have a donut, I won’t think less of you if you order anything other than chocolate old fashioned but do be sure to chat with Evelyn. She is the prototypical diner waitress and I mean that in the best way possible, she never stops working, she is always smiling, friendly, has an excellent memory, and always has an ear to bend for a customer.

A thing of beauty
Don’t you feel at home?

Cornbread and Yuengling Beer

You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.

–Henry David Thoreau

On my last night in Norfolk, I went to happy hour for dinner. I ordered a Yuengling on tap and cornbread from the appetizer menu and sat with a book at a high-top table. The part of town we were staying was a college town so the bar was empty when I first arrived at 6:30.

Yuengling is an American beer proudly claiming to be the oldest operating brewery in the US, established in 1829. If you’ve ever lived on the east coast, maybe you’ve had it. You can only find it as far west as Louisiana and Arkansas (in the south), Indiana and all of the states east of those three, except Michigan. I am no beer expert but I love their beer and try to have it when I’m back east. Their traditional lager—which is what was on tap and happy hour at Mojo Bones—is great. It is their flagship beer and an amber lager in the pre-prohibition style. The founder of the brewery David Gottlieb Jüngling anglicized his name to Yuengling when he immigrated from Germany and started the Eagle Brewery in Pottsville, PA in 1929. In 1973, the company changed its name to D.G. Yuengling and Son when Frederick joined David in running the brewery.

There’s something so refreshing about an icy cold beer after a long day of work. There are many ways to let out a sigh of relief after the tenseness of being “on” and, if you have neurotic perfectionist tendencies like myself, the stress of wanting everything to go right and the warm flush that rushes over your body when things start to go awry. So, on this particular day, that was long and rife with navigating interpersonal relationships, I was ready for a cold beer, a good book, solitude, and several deep breaths to relax. The first sip really is something of magic.

And cornbread. I love cornbread. Especially the kind with whole grain corn kernels floating in the bread and baked in a skillet, the edges crisping and caramelizing just so. It’s an added bonus for my taste buds when the cornbread is drizzled with honey, as this one was. I enjoyed bites of warm cornbread in between sips of cold beer and read a book and miraculously, the stress of the day washed away.

As I was leaving the college kids began to trickle in. While waiting for my bill I overheard that it was one guy’s 21st birthday and many of his friends were joining him to celebrate. I remembered my own college days and birthdays surrounded by friends and I couldn’t help but feel overcome with joy and nostalgia. I wanted to tell the kids to enjoy it—revel in the time where days consist of attending lectures, studying, celebrating your friends’ birthdays, and lots of sleep. But I didn’t. I watched from a distance with a smile on my face. I paid my bill and walked home to my hotel thinking of all my friends from college and those I’ve lost touch with. When we’re in the moment we don’t think life is ever going to be different in the future so I urge you—and myself—to enjoy each moment as we are in it. Tomorrow everything could change, your best friend could move away, you change jobs, you could lose a loved one, life as you know it, so cherish each moment just as it is.

Bern’s Steakhouse–Tampa, FL

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

–Anthony Bourdain

I am here to dispel the myth that work-travel is paid vacation. I often hear from people how great it must be that I get to travel so much (it is, but bear with me). In their mind they have painted a luxurious picture of me lounging in spas getting massages, leisurely visiting museums, and dining at the best locales the city du jour has to offer.

Let me repaint that picture for you based on my most recent work trip to Tampa. My flight was at 6:05am out of Monterey this past Sunday. I woke up at 3:13am despite having set my alarm for 4:24am. I couldn’t go back to sleep so I gave in and got up to cook all the leftover food I had in the refrigerator to take with me. This actually turned out to be a great inclination later on the plane. I left for the airport a little before 5:00am, parked in long term parking, and rolled my bags to the airport check-in counter. I flew to Phoenix where I had a quick cup of coffee before boarding my next flight. If you have ever flown through the Phoenix airport you’ll know that the terminals are quite far apart. While I always welcome a walk, especially when I have planned sitting all day long, what I’m trying to acknowledge is if you have a tight connection, a long walk may increase your stress levels…which may or may not be elevated due to a poor night’s sleep. I made it to Tampa and by the time I had collected my luggage, found a ride, and made it to the hotel, it was 5:00pm. I had intended to go for a walk but it was pouring rain and so settled in and prepared for my next day’s work. Monday we worked all day and, at the insistence of my colleague, we went to a late dinner—not my style—at the place to go in Tampa, Bern’s Steakhouse. We got to the restaurant at 8:00pm.

Bern’s is an institution Tampa, it has been in the same location since 1953, growing with time. It was opened by Bern & Gert Laxer initially as a luncheonette. Today, it has eight dining rooms, is dim-lit—bad for taking photos, sorry—has red velvet walls and gaudy renaissance looking artwork scattered around the place. In addition to the dining rooms, there’s a bar and lounge area, a separate dessert room upstairs (more on that in a moment), a huge kitchen that offers tours, and a huge wine cellar. We didn’t have a reservation so we got in line to put our name down with the hostess. The people in front of us were doing the same thing and after they finished one said to the other, “Where’s Harry?” I couldn’t help myself so I responded, “He’s with Sally.” Harry and his friends got a kick out of it and invited my colleague and I to join them in the lounge while we awaited our table.

Eventually we were seated and I was told to order steak, “this is no time to think about dieting,” chided my colleague. The steak came with French onion soup, a house salad, grilled vegetables from the garden, and a fully-loaded baked potato. The page on the menu for steak was a full sheet—legal-sized—arranged in a table with the rows telling you the cuts of steak and columns explaining the two thicknesses of cuts of each steak, its weight, how many people it serves, and the price. On the following page was another table describing to you how you should order your steak depending on how you like it cooked, according to its thickness, and the cut of meat. I ordered the 7 oz. châteaubriand, rare warm—as opposed to rare cold where the meat on the inside would still be cold. A châteaubriand is a thick cut of tenderloin. I couldn’t finish it or the baked potato. The soup and salad would have made for a lovely meal all alone but not at Bern’s.

After our meal my colleague insisted we take a tour of the kitchen and it was spectacular. We saw cuts of meats with specific instructions on receipt paper tooth-picked to them, sprouted greens for salad garnish, and the “onion ring” station where we were told that Bern’s goes through about 300-500 pounds of onions a night.

The wine cellar was unbelievable: cold, dark, damp, and expansive. We were told that it is the world’s largest privately-owned collection of wine. At any one time there are 100,000 bottles in the cellar…and another 500,000 bottles across the street at their storehouse. The oldest wine by the glass is a Madeira from 1900 and the oldest wine by the bottle is an 1845 vintage Bordeaux.

Next we hiked up the stairs to the dessert room where all the booths are made out of the wood of whiskey casks. In each booth is a land-line telephone where you can direct dial the pianist to request a song. He’s playing somewhere in the dessert room—I never saw him. We ordered a couple desserts to share: a baked Alaska that they flambéed at our table and the King Midas (carrot cake, chocolate ice cream, and fudge sauce). It was an exquisite and excellent experience and totally worth it.

By the time I got back to my hotel room it was after 11:00pm and I needed to pack for our 5:00am departure to the airport for the 6:15am flight to return home the following day, Tuesday. While work-travel is most certainly not a paid vacation it is thrilling if you love what you do, like I do. There is (usually) time to try a great restaurant at the expense of sleep and most of the time it’s worth it, like Bern’s was. As the late Anthony Bourdain said, travel isn’t always pretty or comfortable but in travel you are changed and hopefully leave something good behind. I’d like to think I left something good behind in Tampa or with you all, by sharing my experience and urging you to seek similar, positive experiences in any way you can.

Poor lighting, steak, vegetables, and super thin onion rings
That’s a lot of meat
More meat
Micro-greens, grown in the kitchen for salad garnish
Some of the wine in the 100,000 bottle cellar

Bûche de Noël

I know it’s after Christmas but Christmas is not a day but a season so why not a recipe three days late? I wanted to share this for the recipe-clippers and recipe-savers out there; it is pretty involved but well worth it as my family testified to.

A brief history: a yule log or bûche de Noël (in French) is a traditional dessert served on and around Christmas in Belgium, France, Switzerland, Quebec, and several former French colonies, one of which—Syria—yours truly happens to be from. The word “yule” actually means a festival observed during the winter solstice by the Germanic and Nordic peoples. The tradition of the yule log predates Christianity and is believed to be about luck. During the yuletide season (between November and January), families were to go into the forest and pick a hearty tree to cut down. They were then to return with the most robust log they could find and burn it in deference to various deities in celebration of life and prosperity. One old European belief says that the log had to catch fire on the first attempt to light it, otherwise the family was doomed to bad luck that year.

The yule log, the cake, is composed of a genoise—an Italian sponge cake—iced, rolled to form a cylinder, and iced again on the outside with chocolate buttercream decorated in such a way so as to resemble a log.

For the genoise (sponge cake). This recipe came from my mom’s tattered and batter-stained cookbook. She transcribed it long before I existed and got it from her childhood neighbor and mom’s dear friend Tante Viva—Tante meaning auntie, another remnant of French colonialism in Levantine Arabic.

100 g. all-purpose flour, sifted

125 g. powdered sugar, sifted

4 egg yolks

6 egg whites

The juice of half a lemon

The rind of a half a lemon

1 tsp baking powder

Heat the oven to 400˚F. Line a swiss role pan with parchment paper, leave some parchment as overhang.

In a medium bowl, mix the flour and baking powder, set aside. In a large bowl, beat the yolks, sugar, lemon juice, and lemon rind. The goal is to not have lumps, set aside. In a separate bowl beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Add one spoon of the flour mixture to the egg yolk mix and fold slowly and gently enough to not form lumps. Add one spoon of egg whites and fold gently. You want to incorporate the egg whites into the yolk mixture but maintain the fluffiness and airiness of their texture. Repeat this until all of the flour and egg whites are fully incorporated.

Spread evenly onto the prepared swiss role pan. Bake for exactly 10 minutes. Until the top of the cake begins to have a golden tinge—almost like the texture and color of the perfectly roasted marshmallow. Remove from the oven and let cool a few minutes. While cooling, dust a clean kitchen towel with powdered sugar and gently peel the cake onto the powdered sugar-dusted towel. Roll gently and set aside.

While the cake cools, prepare the buttercream, recipe pieced together from multiple verifiable sources:

3 egg yolks (how convenient, you have 2 leftover from step 1)

1 egg

1 cup sugar

1/3 cup water

1 1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

1-2 tbsp. coffee extract or make a really strong coffee using 1 tbsp boiling water and half a tbsp instant coffee

In a standup mixture, beat the yolks and the egg until it has tripled in size. While it is beating away, prepare a syrup with the sugar and water in a heavy bottomed saucepan. You want the syrup to reach 225˚F, measure with a candy thermometer, and be patient because it may bubble over so you will want to do this over low heat and pay attention.

Once the syrup reaches 225˚, reduce the speed on the standup mixer, remove the syrup from the heat and add slowly and gently over the egg mixture. Once you’ve added all of the syrup beat for three more minutes.

Add the butter slowly, 1/4 stick at a time. You want the quarter stick to get at least half incorporated before adding the next quarter stick. Once all of the butter has been added, beat another ten minutes. Add the coffee extract, according to your preference.

Chocolate icing, from Paul Hollywood an English celebrity chef

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature

200 g. powdered sugar, sifted

25 g. cacao, sifted

1 1/2 tbsp. milk

With a handheld mixer beat the butter until it’s soft. Sift sugar and cacao over the butter and mix well. Add the milk to soften the icing. Add it in increments because you may not use it all. Or you may need more, use your judgement, but you want it to be a somewhat stiff icing—soft enough to spread but stiff enough to hold the shape of “bark.”

To assemble the cake:

Spread buttercream over the sponge cake and even it out. I only used about half of the buttercream, the other half you can put on toast and enjoy post holidays but before the New Year’s resolution goes into effect. Gently roll it up and transfer to the platter on which you will be serving. Delicately spread the chocolate icing over the rolled cake. I say gently because you don’t want to tear the sponge cake. Some people use a fork to make the effect of a tree’s bark. You can dust powdered sugar over it to look like snow, or shave chocolate, and add decorations such as macaroon or marzipan mushrooms—the traditional bûche décor. I made my mushrooms (and ladybug) by dying marzipan and hand-shaping the figures. And lastly, enjoy!

My 2018 bûche de Noël, I took the photo from the side
so you could see the genois and buttercream
Voilà