Pumpkin Bread

When we make a pie crust, a teaspoon of sour cream (or crème fraîche to be more precise) is required for a little moisture and flavor. Often this means we’re opening a new container. And if you’ve bought dairy products in Germany, you know how crappy the packaging is — unresealable, and in inconvenient sizes to boot. So then there’s a barely-used, broken-seal sour cream/crème fraîche hanging around.

Fortunately, there is a solution: Pumpkin Bread. We found the recipe on food.com and gave it a shot with just a few modifications and metric conversions of our own.

1/2 cup (100g) butter
1 cup (209g) sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups (207g) flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice (a mixture of cinnamon, cloves, allspice and ginger — hit up ochef.com for some ratios to choose from)
1 cup (330g) pumpkin purée
1/2 cup sour cream or crème fraîche (100g) or 1/2 cup plain yogurt
optional chopped nuts (walnuts, pecans, whatever)

Cream the butter and sugar together. Stir in the eggs and vanilla. Stir flour, baking soda, pumpkin pie spice and salt together and add that dry mixture to the wet mixture. Add the pumpkin, sour cream, and stir. If you’re using nuts, then fold them in after the pumpkin and sour cream.

Bake in a greased/floured loaf pan at 350°F (177°C). for at least 1 hour; ours took about 1.5 hours to pass the clean-stick test.

Italian Road Trip: Part Five, Ravenna

Part Five of our road trip through northern and central Italy in mid-November, 2011 brings us to a former empire capital. See Parts One, Two, Three and Four to catch up from the beginning.

The Chianti Road portion of our trip (Part Four) was the southern-most leg of the trip and the most intriguing, in terms of landscape. The cultural aspects of Florence and the Renaissance really shone through in Part Two. Ravenna returned us to a city-scape, but also gave us a glimpse much further back into the past.

Getting to Ravenna was pretty easy, but getting to the hotel IN Ravenna was like one of those dream sequences where no matter which way you turn, it’s wrong, and you can’t go back, and even though you can still SEE the turn you should have taken, you’re hampered by one-way streets and sudden lane merges. I guess we kind of forgot some of the lessons Verona taught us. Or, perhaps I did. Sarah had maps and confirmations printed out on paper for us, and I neglected to pack them. Oops.

Our GPS refused to take us to the address of the hotel, because it it’s in a pedestrian zone. So why couldn’t they program it to offer us parking lots nearby? We really could have used that kind of thoughtfulness, because the arrival directions from La Reunion were pretty much “head into town, follow the signs for the hospital and the fire department and then follow signs to La Reunion.” Not particularly helpful, given that one wrong turn (saw the La Reunion sign too late) embedded us deep in a labyrinth of one-way streets. I bet we lost 45 minutes driving around Ravenna just trying to get back on track. And then we found a nearby parking lot and paid 2,50 € to park for 30 minutes while checking into the hotel and they issued us a parking pass to park on the street.

The staff was exceedingly helpful and friendly, even after I tripped the circuit breaker in our rental apartment and calling the staff up to our unit to double-check the circuit box. Note: when your dad hands you free stuff from ACO like cheapo flashlights, say thank you. It was pitch black in there without a flashlight at hand. Thanks Dad! One of their power strips accepted our power strip and then promptly shorted out and died. Have you ever been traveling in Italy and not been able to plug in your German devices? The pins on my German power strip were too big for the Italian outlets! Fortunately the staff had a suitable adapter we could use. We were pretty well worn out after that little drama, the parking, the arrival at the hotel, and the road trip into and out of the Chianti region, so we called it a night and resumed regular tourism activities the next morning.

We set out of after a lackluster breakfast at La Reunion to visit two of the town’s claim on its UNESCO World Heritage status, the Basilica San Vitale and the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. Entry to the whole site (including admission to five different exhibits/venues) was €9 and well worth it. Tripod and flash photography are not permitted, but being there in the off season meant it was largely empty and I was able to get long exposure shots of the ceilings simply by resting my camera on the ground and using the self-timer to snap the shot from a safe distance. We found the mosaic art fascinating.

And then we moved into the mausoleum just a few steps away for a much closer-up, but drastically shorter look at the same style of art — environmental conditions require a maximum five minute stay in the mausoleum. I’m not sure I’ve ever been in any mausoleum before; any future ones will compared to this one.

It was noticeably colder in Ravenna than anywhere else on our trip thus far; we welcomed a hot chocolate stop on the way back to our car for the final stop on our trip.

Italian Road Trip: Part Four, the Chianti Road in Tuscany

Here’s Part Four of our road trip through northern and central Italy in mid-November, 2011. See Parts One, Two and Three to catch up from the beginning.

We’d heard so much about the wine regions of Italy, and this seemed like the perfect chance to drive the Chianti Road in Tuscany as we were leaving Florence and Lucca for parts further east and north.

When we picked up our rental car at the start of the trip, the cigarette lighter wasn’t working, and our GPS (“sat-nav”, “navi”, etc.) would have been useless in that car. I’m really glad we made the rental agency give us another car with a working power port — this part of the trip would have been v e r y   s l o w, pausing at every intersection to try to decide how to proceed. Indeed, the pace of this part of the trip was quite a bit slower anyways, owing to the terrain and pulling over frequently to take in the sights at the crest of a hill or in the middle of an olive tree grove.

    Some things to note for next time:

  • In the off-season, not a lot was going on in the towns. Most cafés, restaurants, and stores were closed in the middle of the day, or maybe for the whole day. But the roads were wide-open — it mostly just us and the racing bikers, which made it easy to park. It’ll be drastically different in the high tourist season.
  • You’ll burn through a lot of gas up and down those roads twisting between the hills; probably best to start with a full tank of gas.

Lemon Risotto

We’d just returned from Italy with all kinds of ideas and experiences and raw materials for good food prepared at home — welcome, after being on-the-go for so much of September, October and November. We had a few lemons (from the Biomarkt) and shallots and garlic to use up, plus arborio rice and Pecorino Romano cheese from our grocery expeditions.

The original recipe came from our swell How to Cook Everything app (thank you Mark Bittman!), but the version below has our enhancements in it.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 large shallots, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Large pinch saffron threads
1½ cups arborio rice
½ cup (120 ml) dry white wine
4 to 6 cups (950 ml to 1400 ml) chicken or vegetable stock
2 to 4 tablespoons softened butter
juice of one lemon
zest of one lemon
½ cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Heat the oil in a large, deep nonstick skillet to medium. Then add the shallots, garlic and saffron, and cook, stirring constantly, until they soften, 3 to 5 minutes.

Add the rice and cook, stirring constantly, until it is glossy and coated with the oil, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the white wine. Stir and let the liquid bubble away.

Use a ladle to begin adding the stock, a ladlefull or so at a time, stirring after each addition. When the stock is just about absorbed, add more. The mixture should be neither soupy nor dry. Keep the heat at medium to medium‐high and continue stirring.

Don’t plan on doing anything else while this risotto is going — you gotta keep stirring it. It’s going to take a while to get to that perfect texture. Plan on an a half-hour, but check it occasionally after 20 minutes. You want it to be tender but still with some resistance upon chewing; it could take as long as 30 minutes to reach this stage. When it does, stir in the butter and lemon zest and at least ½ cup of cheese. Taste, adjust the seasoning if necessary, and serve immediately. Throw some more grated cheese on it, if you like.

We used peppercorn Pecorino Romano, so we didn’t need any additional salt, pepper or other seasoning. You will need some of those flavor boosters if you choose a less burly cheese.

We found this recipe went exceedingly well with Roasted Brussels Sprouts.

Italian Road Trip: Part Three, Lucca

This is the third installment of our road trip through northern and central Italy. Check out Part One and Part Two if you’ve missed them.

On our last day in Florence at the Villa Fiesole (after feeling confident we could find the hotel again, and at night if necessary), we ventured out to Lucca. Our Frommer’s Italy guide recommended it because it’s mostly overlooked by tourists (especially in mid-November) but is famous for olive oil production in the region and its intact city wall.

Our first discovery was a group of old men playing a board game in a park on top of the city wall. Venturing into the city a little deeper in search of lunch, we found some beautiful churches and a surprisingly familiar cultural icon in the form of a clothing store.

Then, as our 3 hours of parking was due to expire, we got back in the car in search of the Fattoria Maionchi, since our Frommer’s book listed them for olive oil and wine. Well, we certainly found the vineyards (the olive groves appeared to be all around the Fattoria grounds, but not actually on them). But at first glance, the place seemed abandoned — not a soul to be found. Eventually a cute couple came out of the farm house to see why were poking around, and we all chuckled sheepishly as we discovered we had no languages in common. We hauled out the Frommer’s and pointed to the reference and in a flash of brilliance, Sarah said “comprare olio, per favore” at which they nodded and smiled and said “ah, cinque minuti” as they dialed Giuseppina on their phone. While we were waiting, I snapped these shots of the vineyard.

Then Giuseppina the olive oil lady drove up from somewhere else, unlocked the storeroom, happily sold us some oil, locked up the shop again and drove off. I guess we confused them all by seeking out olive oil after the wine season was pretty much over, but it was smiles all around the whole time.

Italian Road Trip: Part Two, Florence

We started this road trip with a drive down from Regensburg to Mantua. This is the next installment.

After resting up at our B&B in Mantua and spending some time walking around after having driven the whole previous day, we packed up our stuff and got back in the car for another two and a half hours. On paper. It felt a lot longer than that for several reasons:

  1. I’m not used to driving any kind of distance much anymore.
  2. There was a lot of construction on those toll roads (which is good, I guess — that’s what we were paying for)
  3. Seems like we were constantly heading into our coming out of a tunnel.
  4. Street names in Italy as listed in mapping resources apparently don’t have to be reality-based.

That last one really stuck it to us as we approached the Florence suburb of Fiesole. Viale Beato Angelico, Via Beato Angelico, Via Angelico, some jumble of Via-Delle-Beato-Angel-something or another, and Via Doccia. Via Doccia is the only one you can use to reliably arrive at Villa Fiesole. And they don’t show you that on their booking.com page or even their own webpage optimized for mobile devices (wha?). It’s only when you view it with a computer that they give you the address you can use to actually arrive.

villa fiesole mobile site directions

But, after all the frustration of tooling up and down the mountainside, consulting our GPS, Google Maps (mobile roaming, argh!), and intuition, we finally arrived, checked in and decided to eat in the hotel restaurant. The food was pretty good, but the best part was the cheese course at the end of the meal. If you get antipasti, primi, secondi, and then some dolci or a cheese sampler together with a bottle of wine at every meal, then you’re going to get full and broke pretty quickly.

Fortunately, we stopped doing that almost right away. You will save a lot of money if you get lunch from a sandwich shop, like these guys. Our Frommer’s Italy book steered us to I Due Fratellini and we were quite pleased with the quality of sandwiches coming out of this lunch counter not really even big enough for two workers.

That last one there was a nice place to stop in for a sit-down lunch after tromping around outside all morning admiring the architecture of Florence’s Cathedral, other churches, and nifty doorknobs. Because sometimes the sandwich-on-the-street-style just doesn’t cut it, either.

We took the opportunity, while in the leading city of Renaissance art, to visit the Uffizi. I can handle about two hours of serious art and the crowds there to experience it. I appreciate, as much as the next guy, I suppose, the ancient Greek and Roman mythological and political figures, and their fans in the Renaissance period. But dang! In my swordplay/wrestling matches with mythical creatures, I always wear pants.

Italian Road Trip: Part One, Oberpfalz to Lombardy

We had some time to kill (don’t let anyone tell you 30 days of vacation is necessarily easy to manage) and decided to give Italy one more try. We were kind of disappointed and stressed out by Verona, didn’t get enough time in Bologna (and were rather nonplussed by Tren Italia on the way back), and are running low on fancy imported olive oil.

So we rented a car, said goodbye to the work peeps for a week, and bugged out for Mantova (known in English as Mantua), the first stop on our road trip.

We stayed overnight in Mantua at the Armellino Bed & Breakfast in Mantua. It was a perfectly lovely room with very friendly and helpful hosts. We’d recommend them again anytime.

Getting to Mantua by car was pretty easy; our GPS did not lead us astray and the weather cooperated. We rolled up in front of the Armellino, and Massimo came out to advise us where to park the car. We dropped our bags and set out exploring, looking for dinner. While we were out strolling, the fog rolled in, making for an eerie evening with (seemingly) no one else out to enjoy the atmosphere.

We slept in the next morning, enjoying the Sbrisolona for breakfast and strolled around a bit more to get a glimpse of the city by daylight — or what little the clouds let through. After a nice lunch of pizza, we got back in the car and made our way further south toward Tuscany.

Choir Concert in Munich, December 4, 2011

I’ve never put this on the blog before, but I thought it might be fun to give it a try. Once.

I’m in a choir and we’re having a Christmas concert in Munich. It’s a pretty good group with a variety of musical abilities and an eclectic program of songs. There’s also an orchestra and Big Band doing instrumental pieces.

Wanna come?

If you’re going to be in Munich that day and have a couple of hours to kill, check out the details at the TT Orchestra & Singers website. The venue is somewhat small (fewer than 300 seats), so buying tickets ahead of time is probably a good idea. Any questions? Feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me directly through the ‘Contact’ link above.

Nice night for it

I met up with some local friends for dinner last night and almost didn’t grab the camera on my way out the door. I’m glad I did. I’m also glad I took an unusual (for me) route to the restaurant, heading west on our island first and then crossing the Danube on the Eiserne Steg instead of taking the Steinerne Brücke across the Danube first and then walking the city streets to the restaurant.

I came back a slightly different route, past one of our favorite Biergärten (for the setting, but not the service) and the scene struck me as a little sad, like everyone’s just in a holding pattern until it’s time to break out the Glühwein and tolerate being active outside again.

Don’t go there…

I think everyone is familiar with this concept:

I can bag on my mom and you can bag on your mom. But under no circumstances can YOU bag on MY mom.

Lately I’m feeling that way about the U.S. and its international relations. I’m not super thrilled about everything they do, but I understand where the decisions are coming from (mostly), because I get who the players are and what motivates them. But when people from elsewhere spout off about how stupid and wrong the actions of the U.S. government are, I get very uncomfortable. I occasionally have to suppress the urge to shout, “Why don’t you stop talking out of your ass?” And if you’ve met me in person, you know just how out of character that is.

As TQE says, I’m an expatriate, not an ex-patriot. Anyone else experience patriotism flare-ups?