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

Cibo, Monterey

When I moved back from Spain I was nostalgic for everything Galician—I lived in the small town of Ourense in Galicia, the Northwestern corner of Spain, above Portugal. (You can read about my adventures in Spain here.) One of the things I thought I would miss the most was the live music, it felt like the old alleys incessantly reverberated with the piercing hum of violin music or echoed with the bellow of a cello. But as I re-settled into my hometown, I found that Monterey was rich with live music, too.

One such place is Cibo Ristorante Italiano (pronounced chee-bo), offering live music six nights a week. I often walk by on Alvarado and am drawn in by the music—it’s so lively and welcoming.

A friend invited me out there the other night and it was a nice reminder of what a fun place Cibo is. It’s wonderful to meet those friends that you see only once every few months and get to catch up on everything over a long, leisurely meal.

We sat in a booth and, having just driven back from the Bay Area, my friend suggested I order a glass of wine. The waiter recommended a nice Cabernet. We started with the polenta and sun-dried tomato appetizer. And talked and talked. My parents used to say when I was a kid that I talked more than I ate which I think is true during meal times—well not only meal times but especially meal times because I have a captive (read, stuck) audience.

The waiter brought us this incredible, warm, crunchy-crusted ciabatta bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I always ask for butter as well because butter is perfect. More on that another time.

Eventually we ordered more appetizers: arancinette (crispy fried rice balls) and calamari. The calamari tentacles were crispy on the ends and meaty at the core, just the way I like them while the rice balls with tomato sauce were a tangy complement to the hearty squid. I think it’s important to have diversity in your life. Not just with the foods you eat but with your friends, too. Having friends with different backgrounds, ages, jobs, etc. really gives you a perspective on life and can often help you navigate your own life with a broader point of view. This particular friend is a generation older than me and has been wildly successful in her career in public relations. She says things to me about my just-beginning writing career as though they were so obvious and I have to remind myself that I am pursuing writing because I like to write, not because I’m a brilliant marketing specialist or PR person.

She’s also commanding which I love. She would give me a piece of advice and say, “write it down.” I diligently pulled my notebook out, for the fifteenth time and wrote down some brilliant piece of advice she had just casually passed along. “Don’t put it away, you’re going to need it again.” Another flippant, brilliant comment.

For dinner I ordered the gnocchi trio. If you’re not familiar with gnocchi I have to say it’s the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to tasting clouds. Well, my imagination’s idea of what clouds might taste like. They are light, fluffy potato dumplings that melt in your mouth. The trio were: spinach & ricotta filled with a Bolognese sauce, truffle-filled with brown-utter sage (who was the genius who thought to fry sage leaves, please thank her), and traditional potato with pesto cream shrimp. The nice thing about the trio is that it’s enough of each to taste a little bit of each very different flavor.

We wrapped the evening up with dessert, the only civilized way to eat a meal, and we had the pear almond tartlet that was nicely served with whipped cream, mango sauce, and crunchy, caramelized almonds.

Calamari & arancinette

The next time you’re looking for a place to liven up your evening, I really recommend that you check out Cibo in Monterey. Check their website to find out who is playing, one of my local favorites is Andrea’s Fault who play jazz there every Wednesday evening. Or, you could try all night happy hour on Thursday nights in the bar.

Plato said, “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” So add a little music to your life, or more music because most of us could probably use more music.

*a shorter version of this story was published in the Cedar Street Times on 19 October 2018

Taos Pueblo – Chimayo – Santa Fe

I woke up well before my alarm, turned it off, lit a candle, rolled out the yoga mat, brushed my teeth, rolled up my yoga mat.  Dawn and fresh air were beckoning, I knew I would not be able to concentrate on yoga.  I got dressed and tip-toed out of the bed and breakfast, careful not to wake anybody as it was not yet 6:20.

As soon as I opened the hotel door, the crisp, cold air slapped me in the face, along with the smell of skunk.  I got in the car and drove out the pot-holy driveway where I found the skunk scurrying across the street!  Such a beautiful creature.

I drove towards the Taos Pueblo and found a cafe (The Coffee Spot) open so I popped in.  I think I have found the best dirty chai, yet!  I have a thing for dirty chais and I go around all over everywhere and order them, I have my favorite in Monterey (Bright Coffee at Lilify) but I have found one better!  Must come back!

The barista clarified that it was a shot of amaretto SYRUP, not the spirit…bummer

I got back on the road and drove to Taos Pueblo.  I was trying to get to the church but every road was blocked with a “Closed” sign, so I kept driving around trying to find a back way in.  Eventually, I saw a kid walking and slowed the car down to ask for help.  As soon as I lowered the window, he pulled his hood off his head.  I was very impressed  by his manners.  I told him my issue and he politely gave me directions.  As he walked away, he put his hood back on.  I really liked that gesture of his.

I parked in the church’s driveway and walked in.  It was just as Alice said it would be!  I was probably the only person who didn’t have a blanket wrapped around me. It was dimly lit and the pews were packed, there were even people standing in the back.  The mass was lovely and the homily the priest gave was beautiful, about love.  He spoke about how we ought to show love everyday in our lives, and not just to our romantic partners, but to everyone, we ought to live in love, with love, by love, etc.  I really appreciated the message.

After mass, I lit four candles at the alter and said some prayers.  On my way out, I noticed that the church was giving away books, “Resisting Happiness,” and it put a smile on my face because mama is currently reading that book.

I was disappointed to find, back at the bed and breakfast, that Alice had decided against making green chili, she said they had a big group of “youngsters” and so she had made French Toast.  Boo.

“Did you find that bar last night?” Jeremy, the innkeeper asked me.

“Yes, it’s called Don Carlos, but I decided against going, when I got there it was a bunch of dudes and being female and traveling alone, I try to be cautious.” I responded.

“I totally understand,” he said.

I went in the kitchen to tell Alice that mass this morning was everything I’d hoped for and more.

“Good! I knew you’d love it, sweety, it’s so peaceful, isn’t it?”  She said as she gave me a good morning hug.  “Aww you didn’t go to Don Carlos?  That used to be my hangout but I’m not allowed there any more.”

“What? What happened?” I asked.

“Like you say, all those dudes! And pool sticks, you know.” She laughed.

I guess I had made the right decision to avoid the bar with all the dudes last night.

I thanked her and Jeremy with big hugs and told them I’d be back again one day, I might even bring someone with me next time! They said, “you’d better!”

The back of The Blue Water Retreat at San Geronimo says “’til we meet again,” I love that, not only as a sweet detail but as a life’s philosophy

I got on the backroad and drove to Chimayo, per Alice’s suggestion. It was lovely, but the main attraction was a church, it is after all a sacred holy site.  I walked around, admiring peoples’ prayer wishes but didn’t go into mass, I had had enough priests and preacher-ing for the day.  The open road called.

Let’s go!

View from a lookout on the side of the road, a little south of Taos

Some run down houses in Truches

Candles and rosaries left with prayers and hope at Chimayo

Crosses tied to the fence at Chimayo

Chilis in Chimayo

Back on the road, next stop, Santa Fe!  I returned my rental car and took an uber to my hotel.  The room wasn’t ready yet so I left my luggage at the front desk and walked to the plaza where I found Draft Station, where I sit now writing this, enjoying an Oatmeal Stout from Blue Corn Brewery here in Santa Fe.

I eventually checked into my hotel room, had a bath, refreshed my soul, and then went out for a walk around the plaza and downtown Santa Fe.  There are so many fun and funky shops here that you could spend an entire week just exploring them.  I found a great wine shop that sold one of my favorite sparkling wine’s (Gruet) that’s made right here in New Mexico! The sweet girl, Mary-Francis who sold me my bottle even told me that Gruet has been voted some of the best American sparkling wine! (For a couple fun articles on Gruet, read this and this.)

I was stopped dead in my tracks by a pair of suede fuchsia pumps, ugh how I love high heeled shoes.  I went in the shop.  “Those shoes are beautiful!” I told the shopkeeper.

“You’re beautiful.” he responded.

Good salesperson, I see.  We started chatting and it turns out he’s Syrian!  I took a closer look at his other shoes and it was reconfirmed to me that I have expensive taste.  The cheapest pair of pumps was $700.  Well, not today, I guess.

I went to the hotel’s happy hour.  I parked my laptop at a table facing west, in hopes of watching the sunset, and asked a woman if she’d keep an eye on it while I ordered a drink.  She was very sweet and said yes.  When I came back, I thanked her and struck up conversation with her and her husband, they invited me to join their table and I did.  I ended up chatting with them for 2 hours!  They were charming.

Lights in the plaza

Afterwards, I decided I needed dessert and headed to La Boca which had been recommended to me, several times now.  I was really craving sweets so ordered two desserts.  The one I wanted (chocolate pots de creme) and the one the busser, hostess, and waiter unanimously suggested (gateau Basque).  The Gateau Basque is HANDS DOWN one of the best things I have ever eaten in my life.  It is now my life goal to recreate it.

Dessert at La Boca

Buenas noches.

Taos

I woke up this morning in my lovely hotel room.  I did yoga and made my way to the breakfast room where Alice was cooking for the guests.  I wrote in my journal as I ate the yogurt, eggs, toast, etc.  Towards the end of breakfast, Alice walked around, table-by-table, asking the guests if they would be OK with chili for breakfast in the morning.  When she got to my table, she said, “I don’t need to ask you, I know you’ll eat the chili.”

What? How did she know I’ll eat anything you put in front of me?  I guess I’m that obvious.

After I wrapped up my meal, I tip-toed to the kitchen to thank her for breakfast.  She asked me what my plan was for the day and I told her, she said “are you leaving right now?”

“No, I’m going to go up to my room to pack up.”

“What room are you in?” she asked.

I told her and she said “OK! Wait up there, I’m going to run home and get you something, I just live across the street.”

I went upstairs and brushed my teeth and packed my bag for the day, moments later there was a knock on my door and Alice had brought me maps of Taos, and post-it marked travel guides of the town and surrounding areas.  She got down on her knees and laid the map on the bed and highlighted for me (with the highlighter she had brought) the best route for my day.  I couldn’t thank her enough.  She shrugged it off like it was nothing and told me to enjoy Taos.

I drove into town, a whopping 3 miles from where I’m staying.  I stopped at the World Cup Cafe and ordered a picante mocha, the cute girls behind the counter made it just perfectly and we had a lovely chat while I waited.  Next I drove, 3 blocks, to the St. Francis of Assisi Church.

St. Francis of Assisi Church, Taos, NM

I went in and it smelled just as a church should–of sandalwood, frankincense, and prayers.  I got down on a kneeler and prayed and meditated for a bit.  I went across the street to the gift shop and bought a candle to light.  The attendant asked me who I was praying for, “I pray for everybody,” I responded.

She smiled real big and said, “then I think that size candle will do.”

“How are you today?” I asked her?

“Heartbroken.” She said, melancholy, “My brother died.  He died on Valentine’s Day.” She choked up.

“I’m so sorry for your loss.  I will pray for you then, too.”

“Thank you, mija. Have a blessed day.”

I went back over to the church and lit my candle.  I watched the flame as I always do, fascinated by the way it catches fire.  I stood a bit then went outside to admire the architecture and the structure of the church.

Look at that! There’s hay in the adobe. Amazing.

I wanted to take a backroad to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, but I took a wrong turn and ended up on a dirt road…AWESOME!!  I eventually looped back around and caught the right road but had welcomed the detour.

Dirt road, look at the clouds!!

I stopped at a fruit stand.  The fruit stand was closed so I went into the little shop next door (Blue Feather) that sold body lotions and soaps, I bought some lotion on account of my skin being super dry from the altitude and went along my way.

The road approaching the bridge is flanked with artists selling their creations, cool…but the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge is gorgeous, sorry can’t stop! Well, the bridge itself is not gorgeous, the gorge and the landscape are what is gorgeous.  My photos do not do it justice but maybe you can get an idea.

Rio Grande Gorge

Alice had recommended a brewery to me “somewhere over here” she had pointed on the map and I had driven by it on my way out to the bridge so on my way back towards town, I stopped at the Taos Mesa Brewery a super funky brewery in a quonset hut!  I chatted with Cam, the sweet lady behind the bar, “What brings you to Taos?”

“Well, I was in Albuquerque for a conference but I couldn’t stand it so I rented a car and drove here.”

“Oh, honey, I don’t blame you, Albuquerque is the armpit of New Mexico!”

Validation!! Not that I need validation but this was a real live New Mexican confirming my gut feelings about the icky, run-down city.

I ordered the Fall Down Brown (delicious!) and went outside where the sun was shining bright enough for me to strip down to my tank top and soak up some rays.  I wrote in my journal and enjoyed my beer until I decided I needed food.  I went inside and ordered the nachos.

Beer, sun, and snow-topped mountains…life is good

Cam said, “honey, I’m putting in a half order for you, the nachos are huge.”

“Thank you!” I said enthusiastically, I really appreciate the honesty and addressing the fact that this one individual (yours truly) does not need to eat a full order of nachos (or waste half or more of it).

The half order of nachos was still enough to feed a family of four…and DELICIOUS!

As I paid my bill, some people in line behind me told me I had to go to Taos Cow because they had home made ice cream…um…OKAY!!!! I have been known to drive distances for home made ice cream.  So it became obvious what my next pit stop would be…

Incredible mint chip ice cream!! The chocolate was very high quality and the ice cream itself had a consistency more akin to cookie dough, not perfectly smooth but melted in your mouth just right, if I had to guess I would say they use honey in making it…

Taos Cow is located in Arroyo Seco, a small town that the highway drives right through.  I parked in what felt like the middle of town and walked around the different galleries, prolonging my indulgence of the ice cream.

Storefront in Arroyo Seco

 

Beautiful

I rested in the afternoon and did some reading and as 5:20ish hit, I was called to go find the sunset! Unfortunately, the western sky was overcast so I just drove into town where I knew there was live music.  I headed to the Adobe Bar and had a margarita and wrote in my journal.  I was quickly over the scene and came back to my hotel room, where I sit now, in front of a beautifully burning and crackling fire, sitting in my bed, reading for the night.

Good night.