Playa del Carmen: A Retrospective – Day 4

Memories of August 10, 2016 – Wednesday morning was here – time to catch the bus to Chichén Itzá with about 50 other tourists. We boarded our very comfortable air conditioned coach and headed off through the Mexican countryside. The ride was pleasant, expertly navigated by our driver, Francisco. Our personable tour guide, Felipe was assisted by the efficient Jesus. Felipe made a point of pronouncing Jesus’ name with a hard “jee” sound, rather than the Spanish “hay” sound. Funny guy – little joke for the American turistas. After a light breakfast of Mexican pastries and orange juice, Felipe passed out name tags to each of us with his name on them. This was a bit confusing until he explained that, when we arrived at Chichén Itzá, there would be dozens of similar buses and, should we become separated from our group, we could be reunited more easily by knowing that we belong on Felipe’s bus. Ah, ha – made sense. Today, we are all Felipe.

About 25 minutes out of Chichén Itzá, we made a stop at a rambling gift shop filled with room after room of local artisan-made items. As we wandered, Scott and I were both attracted to a fire-glazed black pitcher. Scott did a quick peso-to-dollar conversion and determined that the price was a whopping…$12.00. Well, there was no question that little beauty was going home with us. As we made our way toward the front to checkout, we passed a display of Mexican vanilla. I was thrilled to discover that a liter of the “good stuff” cost only $8.00 American dollars. Thrilled with our finds, we hurried back to the bus with seconds to spare before it headed off the the ruins.

Scott patiently waiting for me to take all the photos I wanted

Right off the bus, Chichén Itzá looks like any amusement park entrance. Throngs of people milled about. Jesus offered us a sunbrella; we would be glad to have taken it at several points under the midday sun. With my “special needs” knees, the pace of the tour was uncomfortably fast at times. I fell behind on the path entering the grounds, but once we caught up to the place where our group had assembled, I was awestruck by the view of El Castillo, the massive pyramid. Once we’d received our initial briefing from Felipe, we had some time to wander the ruins. At several key locations, we assembled again for more information and history – and for refills on water. Despite there being more walking than my knees could enjoy, the rest of me was thrilled for the opportunity to visit the ancient ruins.

On the way back to the resort, we stopped at a phenomenal place for lunch. It was a combination nature park and buffet restaurant – an oasis of a sort in the middle of the Mexico wilderness. We were greeted with a shot of a local green tea that was supposed to have amazing health benefits. It was delicious but I have no idea what it was called. The restaurant was prepared to accommodate our tour group. The food was excellent and abundant. As we strolled through the grounds on our way back to the bus, we were awed by the array of native flora and fauna. Certainly nothing like the “middle America” landscape to which we’re accustomed. So exotic! Felipe showed us waaaayyyy up in a tree an avocado growing – easily grapefruit-sized. When we remarked at how much larger it was than avocados we get in the U.S., he divulged that they keep the big ones and export the smaller ones. Good for them!

There was still more on this day of adventure! A visit to Ik kil Cenote was also on the agenda! For those of you who, like me prior to this day don’t know what a cenote is, here’s a definition from Wikipedia:

A cenote (English: /sᵻˈnoʊti/ or /sɛˈnoʊteɪ/; American Spanish: [seˈnote]) is a natural pit, or sinkhole, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath.

The walk from the parking lot to the cenote was enough for me on that very hot day. An opportunity to descend to water level and swim in the cenote was offered. Not really being water lovers, we opted to watch from above. It was lush and jungle-like here. It was heartening to hear the excited screams and splashing from the divers and swimmers below.

The route back to the resort passed through several small villages, providing a little glimpse of life on a Wednesday afternoon in this hot, desolate area of the world. Many small homes, tiny shops and old cars lined the narrow road through town; life seemed simple there. Hard, yes. Meager, yes. But definitely uncomplicated, the likes of which I sometimes long for. A silly, romantic notion…I know.

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Back at the resort, my knees were burning but so was my imagination for having spent the day in such an amazing place on earth. Upon returning to our room, I was delighted to discover an elephant towel sculpture upon our bed, beside a heart fashioned from rose petals. How did they know I love elephants?

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Playa del Carmen: A Retrospective – Day 3

Memories of 8/9/16 – Tuesday was a low-key day at the resort. Another lovely breakfast buffet where the choices never ceased to end, followed by a bit more exploring. Now that we had our bearings, we became aware of opportunities to participate in some off-site activities. Once we heard of a day trip to the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá, we needed hear no more! We booked our adventure for the next day, which also included a visit to Cenote Ik kil. My, how our Spanish language knowledge was growing already! We were thrilled for the unexpected opportunity to experience both an amazing, historic cultural wonder, and a natural one!

We found a beautifully decorated scallop shell towel sculpture upon stopping back at our room in the early afternoon. We spent a little time on our private balcony, enjoying the peace, the nothing-to-do-ness and happy sounds of our fellow vacationers milling about below.

That evening, we enjoyed a feast at the resort’s Brazilian restaurant. It included course after course of foods cooked on skewers and served at the table. The amount and variety of foods offered was absolutely overwhelming: Several cuts of beef, sausage, chicken, shrimp… A beautiful array of vegetables and, lest I forget, bucket o’salad. And a chimichurri I could have just drunk right out of the bowl!

Stuffed and relaxed, we wobbled outside to the strains of the evening’s entertainment. We found an empty table at a fair distance away, ordered up a couple (more) margaritas and enjoyed the lively music and dancing.

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Playa del Carmen: A Retrospective – Day 2

By this day last year, we’d settled in and recovered from “travel day weariness.” We were excited to get out and about to explore this wonderful resort and all it had to offer!

Memories of 8/8/16 – As I look at the photos from this day, it is clear to me that I wanted to capture every sight with my camera so I could somehow “take” pieces of the experience with me to visit again into the future. Not that I don’t trust my memory, but I didn’t want to let a second go by, it seemed, without snapping an image of every detail.

The photos in the slideshow were taken by me unless noted that Scott took them. He took four to my forty; clearly preferring substance over quality.

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Playa del Carmen: A Retrospective

It was our distinct pleasure and privilege to be treated to a family vacation last year to Playa del Carmen, Mexico by my wonderful and generous mother-in-law, Sharon. I haven’t shared many photos from that thrill-of-a-lifetime adventure, but this week, on the one year anniversary, I plan to remedy that. Each day, August 7-14, I’ll share our photos and memories of what we were up to south of the border on the corresponding day in 2016.

I hope you’ll enjoy going along with us on our retrospective.

Memories of August 7, 2016 – Up SO very early; to the airport in style with Sharon and the nieces and nephews; a lovely flight. On the ground: HOT (as is to be expected in August in Mexico); a cool and comfortable shuttle to the resort; being awestruck from the moment I stepped off the bus at this tropical paradise; a refreshing little shot of fruity water served to us as we checked in. A little language issue when asking an employee to help us find our room number leading to an impromptu detour; setting foot in that amazing room that awaited us!

Our settling-in night was low key: Acquainting ourselves with our room, our air conditioning (how loooowwww can it go?), our view and the contents of our mini bar. A quick drink in the buffet restaurant which was already closing for the evening; a trek to the resort’s Mexican restaurant for a light dinner; a leisurely stroll back to our room for some TV, including CSI: Miami in Spanish; learning that there’s a Mexican version of the Trivago guy and that the Spanish word for “selfie stick” is, indeed, “selfie stick.” Great sleep, despite unfamiliar surroundings, different bed and pillow. Buenas noches!

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Choux Cake Challenge Accepted!

I did it! I recently opted-in to participate in a baking challenge on Baking on the 15th. The challenge works like this: Participants agree to bake the same recipe which has been selected in advance by the host. Each participant bakes the item and on the 15th of each month, the bakers post photos of their creations across their social media channels. We share stories of our experience and encourage one another’s passion for baking.

Today is the reveal day of my first baking challenge and I’m proud to say that, as far as I’m concerned, it was a complete success! At first I was a bit hesitant because the recipe called for an ingredient I’d never even heard of (ammonium carbonate) equipment I didn’t have (cake ring and sheet pans of the specified size) and a fairly complex-sounding method (even though I fancy myself a fairly competent and experienced baker). Bravely setting that all aside, however, I dove in – and boy, am I glad I did!

Amazon delivery. Let the baking begin!

I did a little research (because I’m a curious sort that way) on ammonium carbonate, then purchased it on good ol’ Amazon. That’s also where I bought a replacement springform pan, which I determined would serve well as a cake ring for the purposes of this challenge. Also included on that Amazon order was the nicest sheet pan I’ve ever owned – and obviously the largest – as, alas, it turned out to be too big to fit in my oven. Good thing I know they have an excellent exchange/return policy!

Preparing for greatness! Fun fact: there are 18 large eggs in a quart.

With the baking challenge deadline drawing near, it seemed I’d have to do some problem-solving as to what to bake my choux in. Upon my umpteenth reading of the recipe, I determined that there would be little problem portioning the dough out into smaller batches that would fit an existing sheet pan. So I baked each layer separately, rather than enough for two layers at a time. Although this solution necessitated double the baking time, perhaps it turned out to be a stroke of serendipity; I had no issue of gummy, undercooked choux that I have heard about from other bakers of this challenge. My smaller batch may have allowed for more thorough baking?

Perfectly baked choux!

I went all in and, despite warnings of the copious amount of dough it created, I made the full recipe. My initial plan was to make two complete cakes and “something as yet unspecified” with the extra third the choux cake did not require. Well, once I was in the trenches of baking, and realizing I didn’t have a second springform pan in which to build the second cake, it was “think on my feet” time once again. I did the “math” and realized that I already had begun the filling for two cakes so clearly I would have to find a use for the second half of that delightful strawberry concoction – because, boys and girls, nothing goes to waste in Gina’s kitchen. Cream puffs, I decided, were the solution. I watched a quick YouTube video on method and amount to pipe out for cream puffs – and away I went! Twenty four or so (some were taste-tested along the way, of course, so I lost actual count!) cream puffs later, the strawberry compote cream was used up – and the bowl licked clean (chef’s prerogative, am I right?).

Piped cream puffs

So, to review… One-third of the chox for the cake. One-third of the choux for cream puffs. And a third for…well, I was still unsure. So I reached out to the Baking on the 15th community and they came through for me! Courtney Nzeribe was kind enough to suggest I make gougeres (a word I honestly had to look up and am SO glad I did!) A gougere, I now know, is a cheese puff; choux with cheese mixed into the dough. Perfect – one batch of savory puffs coming up! I grated up some lustenberger cheese and added it to that last third of the choux and got busy with more piping! I baked up a couple batches of these puffs (to make certain they were edible) and, to our delight, they were absolutely delicious! Yet another batch of piped dough went into the freezer for future cheese puffs. I was feeling extremely successful, accomplished – and resourceful – for utilizing all that dough.

Baked cream puffs – light as a feather!

I was also feeling hungry. I’d begun my time in the kitchen at around 1:00 PM and here it was nearing 7:00. Time for a meal! I was struck simultaneously with these feelings:

    1. I have been in the kitchen for six solid hours. Enough with the cooking already!
    2. How silly to be surrounded by so much food and feel like you don’t have anything handy to eat!

Leave it to my logical better half to suggest the perfect solution to our hungriness – “do something” with the cheese puffs for dinner. Ah ha! It was positively a revelation! I scoured through the contents of the fridge in my mind and devised the following very simple and satisfying dinner: Scrambled eggs, pancetta and cream cheese stuffed into those cheesy puffs – yes, it was magical!

Egg & pancetta stuffed gougiers

Ok, back to the strawberry choux cake that started it all… C’est magnifique! It was important for me to follow the recipe as close to the letter as possible so that I felt that I accomplished the same challenge that was presented – and I did! I was frankly concerned when I began seeing photos of completed cakes that were taller than mine. I worried that I’d done something wrong and didn’t get good rise but I think they stacked more than two layers to gain extra height. Once I realized that, I felt good about my results. My pastry came out just beautifully – light and airy, just like it’s supposed to be! The filling is subtle, fluffy and just what you want mushed into those flaky layers! The whipped cream frosting tops it all with a light, warm vanilla sweetness.

Completed choux whole!

In addition to completing the challenge as presented, it was also fun to be able to “riff” on it and explore some creative detours with all that extra choux. I appreciated the opportunity to experience a technical baking project. The science of ammonium carbonate was new and fascinating to me (I look forward to discovering more ways to use it, lest it wither away in my baking cupboard). I’ve also never weighed my baking ingredients before. And I’ve never cracked so many eggs in one day! Making this cake was an adventure – a challenge, even – that gave me the gift of a day of unbridled excitement in my favorite room of the house. I would definitely make it again someday without reservation.

Choux interior and flaky, airy goodness!

And now… the challenge after the challenge is figuring out what to do with All. This. Cake!

Choux and a slice!

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