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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Baking Up Some Personal Growth

Grandma Bessie’s bread

Once a time a time, a young girl grew up in a house with a mom, a dad, a slew of siblings and a widowed grandma. Every Friday, that industrious grandma would bake loaves of her signature bread (also known as “Fireman’s Bread”), a fairly straightforward white bread recipe with a hint of sweetness.

The aroma of this particular bread was baked into the girl’s consciousness since as far back as she can recall. It represents to her home, security, tastiness and, of course the loving labors of a cherished Grandma. The girl grew up being acutely aware of the significant disparity between that which came out of the oven on a weekly basis and what came out of the wrapper with the colorful dots. Alas, a baker – or at least a baking enthusiast – was born!

The Recipe Card, side 1 (I’m so proud to have a copy in mom’s handwriting!)

Of course the girl is me and I’m indebted to my dad’s mother, Bessie, for bringing her recipe into our home and with it, the seeds of a lifetime of appreciation of home-baked goods. She taught my mom to bake her bread, who in turn shared the recipe with me and any interested siblings.

Probably as a result of these early memories, I’m very comfortable in the kitchen. I’m what I consider a comfortable-creative cook, always seeking to put a creative spin on basic cuisine. I cook at least one meal at home daily; it’s more than a matter of providing sustenance for my sweetie and myself – it’s an opportunity for self-expression and nurturing. Hopefully, in this pursuit, I’m carrying Grandma Bessie’s legacy forward.

About as fancy as my baking gets – my German Chocolate cake creation for my father-in-law’s birthday

In recent years, my “just for fun” baking has taken a back seat to more practical baking. Read: fewer cookies and cakes; more pot pies and artisanal loaves. And while it’s true that I don’t bake as often as I used to, I still would consider myself at an “experienced intermediate” level. I carry that same basic “foodlosophy” I mentioned earlier into my baking. I adore the process of baking but I’ve never ventured into the realm of what I’d consider “fancy” baking. I think of it this way: What I may lack in experience and proficiency, I make up in diversity. Curiosity drives my baking projects, as in, “I wonder how pita bread is made?” and, “What’s all this fuss about red velvet cake?” I’ve tried my hand at a wide swath of baked goods throughout the years, including English muffins, croissants, yeast and quick breads, pies, cakes, cookies, brownies… and I’ve always been satisfied with the results. Sometimes the verdict is “It’s not worth the effort,” and sometimes it’s “I’ll never go back to store-bought!” but each recipe has been a welcome learning experience.

This has been a pleasant enough stroll down Memory Lane but I do sense your wonderment: Why, you may be asking, is Gina suddenly writing about baking? Believe it or not, there IS a method to my madness (this time, at least)! I shall endeavor to explain… Recently, my dear friend Kelly began a new enterprise called Baking on the 15th. It’s a baking challenge that will begin on May 15th. She’s set up a website and all manner of social media channels for participants to utilize. Baking on the 15th goes like this: Once a month, a host baker chooses and posts a recipe for a baked item on the website. Those wishing to participate in the challenge bake the item, then reveal photos of their creations on the 15th of each month. I, faithful readers, have decided to participate in this venture’s initial incarnation. I will be baking along with the group and revealing photos of my results. I am extremely excited to participate…

and a bit, um, trepidatious.

Here’s why: In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that as comfortable as I am with baking, I am fearful that my final visual presentation won’t be up to par. That’s right – I fear I’ll be sharing photos of unphotogenic food. I’m confident about the baking component. I know from past experience that I’ve made some very tasty baked goods. Have they always been “ready for their closeup” perfect-looking? No. No, they haven’t. So that’s the real challenge in this challenge for me.

These feelings, I know, have nothing to do with the reality of this soon-to-come-together group of bakers. I understand that it’s a diverse group possessing varying levels of experience and expertise. By all accounts they are lovely, courteous folks who encourage, rather than judge their fellow bakers. The purpose of this challenge is NOT competition but camaraderie. We are building and celebrating community around this shared passion. I know this, yet I will, at least this first time, struggle to feel that my efforts are in the same league as others.

Because that’s me; I tend to naturally consider the fruits of my labors to be worth less than that of others. I sincerely desire to grow past that feeling to achieve a greater sense of being “as good as” others. The bottom line is that this is an opportunity for me to step up my efforts toward personal growth. I am voluntarily putting myself in a challenging situation; no one’s holding a spatula to my head to force me to participate in this. I recognize that’s a step in and of itself. This holds the potential to be a positive step toward finding a sense of satisfaction, ease and maybe even comfort with who I am.

At the very least, there will be cake.

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Let’s Talk About Eggs, Baby!

One year ago this very day, we brought home our newest feline friend, whom we named Eggs Benedict. We’d had the name chosen for years (it’s based on a character mentioned in an old Woody Allen standup comedy bit) – we just needed to find the appropriate kitty to fit both the name and the cat-shaped space we had in our life.

2015-04-25 13.50.40

Here’s how we arrived at this auspicious occasion:

At the beginning of last year, our home was an emptier place. We’d lost our Desi back in January, so Cooper was an only cat. We’d never experienced a one-cat home together and it didn’t feel right. Cooper is an amazing, friendly, loving, sweet and loyal cat. He’s a buddy to the -enth degree but the fact remained, he was only one cat.

So, we commenced a cat search to again set the people:cat ratio right in our household. After meeting older kitties, special-needs kitties, unsociable kitties and feral kitties at a local shelter, we determined what we really wanted/needed was a kitten. Not just a young’en but a tiny little baby, younger than any cat we’d ever raised. In addition to re-infusing our home with feline energy, we believed Cooper would gracefully step into the role of big brother.

Male or female didn’t matter to us. We were confident that we’d know the “right” cat for us when we met him/her. With our “kitten radar” switched on, it was early spring (aka kitten season) so we were fairly certain we’d find somebody to love if we just kept our eyes, ears and hearts open to the possibility. Quite on a whim, while out and about one day, I called our vet to inquire as to whether they had cats available for adoption. Oh happy day, they did!

We proceeded there forthwith, excited to meet the three 11-week-old brother kitties they had in house. While waiting for an attendant to help us, we approached the adoption corner of the waiting room. As we neared the cages configured two on top of two, we were greeted with a resounding, “MEEEEEEEEEWWWWW!!!” from the lower left cage. Something tiny and gray looked up at us and repeated himself, “MEEEEEEEEEWWWWW!” – even louder (if possible) than before.

“Well, hello there, noisy!” we responded. Oh, he’s so tiny! Ohhhhhh. Myyyyy. Love. Fawning. Weak knees. AWWWWWWW, he’s freaking adorable! And what “cattitude” he’s got! “Yes, please, we’d like to meet this guy in person.”

The attendant told us that he was the runt of the litter and because his two brothers – who were a bit bigger – wouldn’t let him have any food, he was put in his own cage. She left us in a meeting room with the little furball so we could all get acquainted. In the room we sat, entertained by him skittering around the room, evading nearly every effort to pick him up or even touch him. Arching, running, jumping, rolling, flipping…a tiny perpetual motion machine, he was. But what a first impression he made upon us: Look at that face…OMG he’s beeeeeautiful! Big bright yellow eyes shining out of a face full of pure kitten innocence. And look at that short scraggly tail – like a twitchy little torpedo sticking out of his hind end!

While we met his adorable acquaintance, we began filling out an adoption application which was necessary to be considered as adoptive parents. As exciting as it was to be taking this “official” step, it also brought home the reality that no matter how much we might possibly want it to be, the adoption was not yet a done deal. Not only could the approval process take a couple days, but another person had already expressed an interest in adopting him so it was possible that someone else technically had first dibs on him.

We thought he was a whirling dervish when he was alone with us but when the attendant brought in his two black-furred brothers, he kicked into overdrive. The three of them cavorted and wrestled and bounced off the walls of the room, explored every electrical cord, shoelace, purse strap and pant leg in sight. Despite being the runt, the tiny gray thing was every bit as feisty as the bigger guys and gave as well as he got. We spent at least 45 minutes witnessing the little family play and eventually got close enough for a little interaction with each of them. The bigger brothers were fine and dandy but we already felt a connection to the little feller.

I was eventually overcome with an urgent need to leave – I was already falling for him and I’d reached the end of my ability to part ways with him without it tearing part of my heart out. And knowing that we wouldn’t find out if he could be ours for several days was only going to make the yearning worse. So we left – hopeful, yet trying not to get our hopes up too high….

We were completely unable to take our minds off the adorable tiny gray bundle of life, energy and love; we waited with our hearts in our stomachs…

The next day, around noon, the uncertainty was killing us – so I called the vet. They told me the best news we could imagine… YES, we could adopt “Colin” as he was called originally – obviously by someone who failed to recognize his “Eggness.”

Well, we couldn’t get ourselves – and Cooper (who would need a checkup before the adoption could go through) in the car. It seemed it took an interminable amount of time to get Colin ready to go and to sign all the necessary paperwork but eventually, we walked out the door with our two boys, heading for home.

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He made his two-pound self at home nearly instantly. Cooper accepted him immediately, like the friendly, social, goodhearted guy he is. Snuggling, wrestling and general playing began soon thereafter and continues on a daily basis. Eggs is a lovey-dovey to his people, too, and loves to be wherever we are.

He’s a particular creature of habit, even for a cat. Yes, he wakes Daddy Scott up every day at 6:00 AM on the dot – but that’s the most inconvenient of his habits. His endearing qualities of sitting on the scale while I shower every day, snuggling, leaping from great distances into his people’s laps, hugging Cooper with his paws and creating his own unique playthings (including gift bows, Dum Dum pops, metal bolts, twist ties, medication bottles, lengths of yarn…) far outweigh any inconveniences he perpetrates. And speaking of “outweighing” – he comes in at a whopping 10.6 lbs as of today.

In this big and sometimes ugly world, we found ourselves a little piece of beauty and  love. His name is Eggs Benedict.

I’m so excited about this day that I was actually moved to write a poem…

Ode to Eggs
(which is actually a limerick)

There once was a couple with cats by the ton
Who found themselves sadly down to just one
Searched everywhere
For a kitten to share
For loving and petting and fun

In a cage they did see gray furry cuteness – alas!
MEEEEEEEEEWWWWW did he yell at them like a blast
“Take me home!” he did plead
“I‘m the one that you need!”
Welcome to the family – at last!

His name’s Eggs Benedict – unusual that’s true
It suits him just fine – he’s unusual too!
He’s been here one year
And that makes us cheer
Our little Eggs, my how you grew!

And just in case you haven’t yet seen enough Eggscuteness… Watch our persistent guy in this video!

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