Tsoureki (Greek Easter Bread)

April 15, 2017

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Happy Easter or since I’m going to go with Greek traditions this year, I should say Kali Anastasi (Happy Resurrection)! This year I’ve got quite a delicious treat to share with you: Tsoureki or Greek Easter Bread. Traditionally served at Easter, its three stranded braid represents the holy trinity and the red egg symbolizes Christ’s blood. This lovely enriched yeast bread is very similar to brioche or challah, but is spiced with Mahlep which is derived from cherry pits. This is what gives it a very distinct cherry/almond flavor. Yup…soft, moist & fluffy with an unforgettable sweet nutty flavor… now that is an Easter brunch winner if ever I’ve heard of one! But truth be told, what really sold the Husband on this recipe was the promise that it would make a superb french toast!

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I’ve done some really tasty Easter recipes over the years. Like this amazing Italian Easter Pie from last year:

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And I don’t want to forget this lovely Slovak Paska from a couple of years ago:

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Keeping up the International Easter theme, remember way back in 2012 I made this Russian Kulich (Easter Bread):

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And then there is that Easter classic Apple & Cinnamon Hot Cross Buns:

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There are just so many delicious Easter recipes to choose from. You just can’t go wrong! And this year’s offering is no exception. Now I will say, you do need to plan a bit ahead to make Tsoureki. You need to get ahold of some Mahleb. I have provided you with an amazon link below and I hear that Penzey’s Spices might also carry it. Luckily there is an amazing Greek Deli that we love, located right around the corner from our place in Richmond Virginia: Nick’s International Foods. They had an abundance of Mahleb available as well as some great greek easter egg dye which enabled me to get the loveliest red eggs out there! Nick’s authentic Mediterranean Market has been proudly serving Richmond since the late 1950’s and from its current location at Broad & Monroe since 1980. Not only do the carry your average small grocery store items but they also boast a huge selection of imported cheeses and specialty European ingredients not easily found elsewhere. And don’t even get me going about their deli! Delicious sandwiches and fantastic soups. Not to mention all the folks who work there are so friendly and helpful. You just feel right at home. So if you are in the area, make sure you check it out!

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But let me get back to this Tsoureki. This bread is pretty easy to make, especially since you break it up over the course of two days. On the first day you mix up the starter, make the dough and then you pop it into your fridge overnight so that it can have a long, slow rise. On the second day all you have to do is shape your dough, let it rise once again and then pop it in the oven to bake. Traditionally this bread is decorated with hard-boiled eggs which have been dyed red, symbolizing the blood of Christ. After the hard boiled eggs bake in the oven along with the bread, they are pretty much inedible, so although some folks decorate their Tsoureki with multiple evenly spaced eggs, I chose to only use one egg at the end of the braid. The way the Husband loves eggs, he would have cried if I had sacrificed any more eggs than necessary!

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Also, if you use a dyed egg when you bake the loaf, a bit of that red color will bleed onto the surrounding bread. If you are worried with the appearance, you can simply use an egg which has not been dyed as a sort of place holder. Then once the bread is out of the oven and cooled, simply swap it out for that vibrant red egg. And don’t skip rubbing the eggs with a bit of oil once they’ve been dyed. It really makes them look amazing!

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Once your dough is ready to be shaped, there are several ways to proceed. You can make one long braid as I did in the recipe shown below. Though I will say this makes a huge loaf of bread. I think the next time I make it I will divide it in half and make a couple smaller loaves. You can also shape the braid into a circle and put it into a 9″ cake tin to bake. Or you could make several smaller personal sized circular braids, which would be fun for a smaller Easter brunch. But definitely give this terrific bread a try. I can tell you right now that it is simply heavenly just slathered with butter. I’m sure the french toast we have tomorrow will be nothing short of divine! Happy Easter!

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Tsoureki (Greek Easter Bread)

  • Servings: 1 large loaf or 2 -3 smaller ones
  • Difficulty: easy - but you need to plan ahead!
  • Print

recipe slightly adapted from: King Arthur Flour

Ingredients:

Starter:

  • 1 1/2 cups (177 grams) Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
  • 1 cup (227 grams) lukewarm (95°F) water
  • 4 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast

Dough:

  • 1/4 cup (57 grams) unsalted butter
  • 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 cups (298 grams – 418 grams) Unbleached all-purpose Flour
  • 1/2 cup (99 grams) sugar
  • 2 tablespoons (18 grams) Baker’s Special Dried Milk
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground mahlep, or the same amount of vanilla extract
  • zest from 1 orange
  • 3 large eggs — 2 for the dough, 1 to brush over the loaf before baking

Optional Decoration:

  • 1 -6 hard-boiled eggs, dyed red
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil, for brushing the hard-boiled eggs
  • 1/4 – 1/2 cup halved almond (optional)
  • cinnamon/sugar (for dusting – optional)
  • honey (for glazing – optional)

Directions:

To make the starter: Mix the starter ingredients in a large bowl. Cover the bowl and let rest at room temperature for 1 hour. The mixture will initially be the consistency of thick pancake batter; after an hour it should be very bubbly, airy, and doubled in size.

While the starter rests, ready the dough. Melt the butter over low heat and set it aside to cool. In a small bowl, combine 1 cup of the flour with the sugar, dry milk, salt, mahlep and zest from one orange.

Mix 2 of the eggs into the risen starter. Stir in the cooled melted butter.

If you’re substituting vanilla extract for mahlep, stir it in. Add the flour/sugar mixture and stir until everything is incorporated.

Add the remaining 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 cups flour 1 cup at a time, as needed to make dough that’s stiff enough to form a ball but is also soft and slightly sticky.

Knead the dough — by hand, mixer, or bread machine — until it springs back when pressed gently with a floured finger. If kneading by hand, try to use only the lightest dusting of flour on the counter and on your hands. The more gently you knead, the less sticky the dough will seem. When done, place the dough into a lightly greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 8 to 12 hours, or overnight.

The next morning, remove the dough from the fridge and knead it gently a few times, to deflate it.

Decide whether you want to make one braided loaf, two loaves, or a round braid. If you want to make the round braid, liberally butter a 9″ round cake pan. For the braided loaves, line a baking sheet with parchment.

Divide the dough into three pieces for the 9″ round or the single braided loaf. Divide dough into 6 pieces for the two loaves. Set them aside, covered with lightly greased plastic wrap.

If you’re using the dyed eggs, rub each one with a paper towel dipped in vegetable oil and set them aside. 

Make three 16″ strands with the dough; pinch the ends together at one end. Braid for 4″ to 5″; tuck an egg into the braid. Continue to braid, placing another egg into the braid at 2″ intervals. 

Cover the shaped loaf with lightly greased plastic wrap, and let it rise at room temperature for 2 to 2 1/2 hours; if you’re using the round pan, the top of the loaf should be just barely level with the top rim of the pan. During the last 45 minutes of the rise, preheat your oven to 350°F.

To bake the bread: Lightly beat the remaining egg. Brush it over the loaf. (Alternatively, omit the egg wash if you’d prefer to brush the loaf with honey when it comes out of the oven.) Or brush the loaf with egg wash, sprinkle cinnamon/sugar over the bread and top with halved almond. If you’re baking a round loaf, press the last hard-boiled egg firmly into the center of the risen loaf. 

Bake the bread for 20 minutes. Open the oven door, reach in, and carefully press each egg farther down into the bread.

Continue to bake the bread for an additional 40 to 50 minutes, or until the internal temperature reaches 190°F. Tent the bread with aluminum foil for the last 30 minutes, to prevent over-browning. 

Remove the bread from the oven, and turn it out of the pan onto a rack. If desired, heat 1/4 cup honey with 1 tablespoon water until warm, and brush over the loaf. Let the bread cool completely before serving.

Enjoy!

Tsoureki brought to you by: Runcible Eats (www.leaandjay.com)

Links for Helpful Kitchen Tools & Ingredients for Tsoureki:

OXO Good Grips Stainless Steel Food Scale

Kitchen Aid Artisan Stand Mixer

6 Quart Dough Rising Bucket

SAF Instant Yeast

Mahlab Spice

Hand Held Zester

Greek Red Easter Egg Dye

Whole Milk Powder or here from King Arthur


Ástarpungar ( Love Balls) & Our Icelandic Holidays in July and December

February 27, 2016

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So I’m not sure if you know it or not, but I am pretty much obsessed with Iceland. I absolutely love it there. I just can’t seem to get enough of it! The husband and I originally visited in December of 2012 and we have been back three more times since then. In fact we went twice last year and I must confess, I’m in the midst of planning our next visit! But it wasn’t until our third trip around the country that I discovered Ástarpungar aka Love Balls. A Love Ball is the Icelandic version of a doughnut, though they are completely round (ball shaped in fact) and do not have a hole in the center. I’ve read that they get their quirky name from an odd legend. Seems once upon a time there was a very beautiful, but rather unfaithful woman who was married to a very jealous and vengeful husband. And, oh yeah, there is also a very unfortunate lover involved who soon found himself to be missing bits of his anatomy! Yeah, I’ve also heard these little delicacies referred to as “Lover Balls”. Hmmm…So there you go!  I’m not sure how I missed out on them in previous visits, but now I’m in the know. So, being a fan of all things Icelandic, and these pastries are no exception, I thought I might share the recipe with you as well as some pictures from both of last year’s trips. (At this point, if you hate looking a vacation photos, you can scroll down to the end and just get the recipe. I’ll get over it, I’m sure. But if you think you might want to visit Iceland someday, and I highly recommend it, I hope that I can give you some useful tips and inspiration for your upcoming trip!)

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It was on our July 2015 visit that I first encountered Ástarpungar. We were on our way up to the Westfjords and stopped at the Geirabakarí in Borgarnes. (I’ve just gotta say here, if you are visiting Iceland and are in the Borgarnes neighborhood, this bakery & cafe should be a must for you. Everything I have tried there is out of this world. The husband and I were able to stop by twice in July, once on the way north and we made a point to stop again of the way back to Reykjavik. Really top notch pastries, bread, sandwiches, coffee…etc. And if you are at all interested in movie trivia, the Geirabakari is disguised as the Papa Johns in the Secret Life of Walter Mitty). I already knew that I loved Kanilsnúðar and had read that Geirabakeri did snúðar that could not be beaten. So of course, I ordered up one of those, but rather than the cinnamon variety, I had one with chocolate topping. It was superb! As I was trying to decide what other of the delicious looking pastries I was going to sample, one of the helpful folks working in the bakery suggested the Ástarpungar (Love Balls) and I am so glad they did.

Geirabakari Astarpungar

Geirabakari Astarpungar

Basically it is a slightly sweet, deep-fried ball of dough shot through with plump juicy raisins and a hint of cardamom. It was crispy on the outside with a light fluffy center. Yum! We found ourselves wishing we had gotten a bunch to go as we continued our journey up to the Westfjords.

Gerðuberg Basalt Columns

Gerðuberg Basalt Columns

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Stykkishólmur harbor

Stykkishólmur harbor

Stykkishólmur harbour

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And the Westfjords? The husband and I were completely smitten. Absolutely stunning no matter which way we turned!

Crazy Icelandic fog!

Dynjandi Waterfall

Dynjandi Waterfall

Dyandi heights

Westfjords Church

One of the highlights of the visit was The Under the Cliffs tour that we took with Wild Westfjords. This tour took us way off the beaten track along the rugged Svalvogar Peninsula trail. This road is inaccessible for most of the year and we certainly would not want to have attempted it on our own, even though we had rented a 4×4.

Skinny trail!

Skinny trail!

So we were very happy to have our experienced tour guide, Magnus, take over the driving. Friendly and entertaining, he imparted a local’s knowledge of the area to us and told us all about the history of the road, the local wildlife, legends and tales of the area, while we sat back and enjoyed all of the inspiring beauty surrounding us. Quite an unforgettable day! (O.k. – time for another endorsement. If you are planning to visit this area of Iceland, I can not recommend the folks at Wild Westfjords travel agency (especially Halldor) highly enough. Not only was their Under the Cliffs tour breathtaking, but Halldor helped arrange most of the details of our Westfjords visit, from the hotels, to ferry bookings, to the daytours. He gave us advice on driving times between areas and the sights to see along the way. His attention to detail was amazing, all of his recommendations were right on target. I found him simply indispensable!)

On the Svalvogur Trail

On the Svalvogur Trail

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Another fun stop for us in the Wesfjords was the town of Hólmavík. Talk about quirky! This town’s claim to fame is that it is the home of the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft. Fascinating!

The Husband casting spells

The Husband casting spells

We stayed just outside of the town in Hotel Laugarholl. The hotel is a converted school and that school-house vibe is still charmingly present. There is a Sorcerer’s Cottage on the grounds of the hotel which is part of the afore-mentioned museum. But hands down, the highlight of our stay here was the dip we took in the geothermal swimming pool as well as the time we spent soaking in the natural geothermal spring.

Hótel Laugarhóll hot pot

Hótel Laugarhóll hot pot

But our adventures in July were not over yet. We headed back to Reykjavik and on the Inside the Volcano tour were able to actually able to descend into the magma chamber of a dormant volcano! Iceland’s Thríhnúkagígur volcano is the only place in the world that you will find this unique natural phenomenon. After a short, relatively easy hike across a lava field, we arrived at base camp, where we were served a delicious and welcome traditional Icelandic lamb soup while we waited our turn to descend 120 meters (395 feet) down into the volcano.

Geared up & ready to go!

Geared up & ready to go!

Long way back up to the surface!

Long way back up to the surface!

volcano colors

The experience was awesome and I mean that in the truest sense of the word. There was a dazzling array of colors on the walls of the chamber from the mineral deposits which formed when the lava was present. We were lucky enough to actually meet Árni B. Stefánsson, the man who originally discovered Thríhnúkagígur, in the lava field on our hike out that day. He told us that he wanted everyone to have the opportunity to “feel small”. And standing there in such epic grandeur, we certainly did!

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The husband and I certainly enjoy heading off into the Icelandic countryside, but we also actually love the city of Reykjavik.

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In July I was able to book a walking tour of the city with I Heart Reykjavik. I have been following Auður who writes the I Heart Reykjavik blog for a couple of years now. Not only is she witty and entertaining, but her blog provides a wealth of information to anyone planning a visit to Iceland. When she started offering tours, I couldn’t wait to sign up for one! So, even though this was our third visit to Reykjavik, we took the tour and learned quite a bit from our fantastic tour guide, Ásta. Not only did she tell us about the history of the city but she also imparted a local’s insight on the best bars, restaurants and shopping that Reykjavik has to offer. She took us off the beaten tourist routes and back into the neighborhood streets to get a glimpse of a local’s life and to reveal some of the wonderful hidden street art.

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We loved the tour so much that when we returned in December, we took the Christmas Version of the I Heart Reykjavik walking tour and were actually able to meet Auður who was guiding the tour that evening. This special edition Christmas tour was full of valuable tidbits for the holiday season. Not only did we hear about the Yule Lads and my favorite – the Jólakötturinn (the yule cat who eats children who do not receive new clothes for Christmas),

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but we also got great insight into how average Icelandic families celebrate the holidays. We also received a wealth of information on all of the Christmas events happening around the city such as concerts, where to taste Christmas beers (For those of you not familiar with Christmas Beers, the breweries in Iceland produce a limited edition Christmas Beer every holiday season. The beers are generally a little darker, a bit spicier and somewhat higher in alcohol content.

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They are available in liquor stores starting November 15th, but are usually for sale in bars a bit earlier. Once January 6th rolls around, the Christmas beers are no longer sold and any beers left in the liquor store are shipped back to their manufacturer, at which point they are usually destroyed. Seems like definite alcohol abuse to me….just saying!) and the best restaurants for feasting on traditional Icelandic Christmas Dinners.

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And for those of you thinking….hmmmm…Iceland in December?! We actually love visiting in December. Folks in Iceland definitely get into the holiday spirit. Everything is decorated beautifully and if you don’t find yourself in the Christmas mood after a few days there, I must say, there is no hope for you. You’re a certified Scrooge!  Although we had visited twice before in December, the weather on this particular trip was remarkable. Reykjavik had just received a record amount of snow in the days just preceding our arrival and the snow just kept on coming!

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We even had a Winter hurricane show up while we were there with winds topping 65 mph in the city (30 mps)!

Sorry for the blurry pic, but I think it captures the moment & wind speed perfectly!

Sorry for the blurry pic, but I think it captures the moment & wind speed perfectly!

And I can’t forget to mention that most elusive of natural phenomena – the Northern Lights. We were actually lucky enough to get a glimpse of them one evening. It was a bit cloudy and the lights were not as strong as the first time we saw them back in 2012, but it was still an amazing experience.

lights – Version 2

lights – Version 2

So there you have it! A recap of our 2015 Iceland adventures! And it is true, I am in the midst of planning the first of our 2016 visits. So I hope you will stay tuned to see what we’ll get up to in Iceland this year. For those of you interested in experiencing Iceland for yourselves, at the bottom of this post, I have listed some other links to our favorite Icelandic businesses which may be useful in planning your trip. In the meantime, perhaps you can whip up a batch of these tasty little Love Balls to inspire you!

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P.S. On Tuesday March 1st, I will begin my annual St. Patrick’s Day blog-a-thon of Irish-y recipes. I hope you’ll check back in to join in on all the fun!

Ástarpungar aka Love Balls or Icelandic Doughnuts

  • Servings: 15
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Recipe adapted from: Tasty Trix

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups pastry flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon cardamom
  • 1/2 cup caster sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup raisins, plumped with Brennivín (Having no Brennivín on hand, I actually used Rum)
  • zest of one lemon
  • canola oil for frying

Directions:

Place raisins in a small bowl. Cover with boiling water or if you’d like to add a bit more flavour to the fruit, you can add some liquor to the water, or replace the water for liquor all together, depending on the day you are having. If you want to be very Icelandic, you can use Brennivín (Icelandic Schnapps, also known as “Black Death”). I went with good old dark Rum. Let the raisins soak for 15 minutes. Drain liquid away and gently pat raisins dry with paper towels.

Combine the pastry flour, baking powder, cardamom, caster sugar and salt in medium mixing bowl.

In another small bowl, whisk the buttermilk, egg and vanilla extract together.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix until they just come together. Gently fold in the plumped raisins and the lemon zest.

Heat 2″ of oil in a deep pan to 350°F. Drop large cookie scoop (size #30, approximately 2 tablespoons) full of Ástarpungar batter into the oil. Fry, occasionally turning the balls so that all sides cook, for about 5 – 6 minutes.

Remove Ástarpungar from oil with slotted spoon. Drain on paper towels. Serve warm.

Enjoy!

Ástarpungar brought to you by: Runcible Eats (www.leaandjay.com)

Links to Useful Kitchen Tools & Ingredients for Ástarpungar:

Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron Sauce Pan

Thermoworks Super-Fast Thermapen Cooking Thermometer

Norpro 2 Tablespoon Cookie Scoop

Additional Links for Planning your vacation in Iceland:

Blue Car Rental: The husband and I have rented our car from Blue on three different trips now and wouldn’t consider renting from any other company at this point. Every single time, their service has been fantastic from the first email until we drop the car back off to them. The cars have always been very clean, low mileage, newer models. We also love that the quote you get from them on their website includes everything: unlimited mileage, taxes and all of those pesky insurances like CDW, TP, GP etc.

The Black Pearl Reykjavik – Reykjavik’s Finest Apartments – We have stayed in their luxurious apartments twice and love them! The apartments are fantastic, location perfect and the service is absolutely top-notch.

I Heart Reykjavik: I know I have already linked to this blog above, but I can’t emphasize enough how helpful this travel blog is in planning your Icelandic vacation. Such a wealth of information it is an essential!

Grillmarkaðurinn – (The Grill Market) Our favourite special occasion restaurant in Reykjavik!

Baejarins Beztu Pylsur – Legendary Icelandic Hot Dog stand in Reykjavik. A one a day must for the husband while we are visiting the city!

Sandholt Bakery – If you are not headed out of Reykjavik – get your Ástarpungar here! Along with a plethora of other tasty treats!

SuperJeep – These folks will whisk you away from Reykjavik’s city lights into the darkness of the countryside to chase down the elusive Aurora Borealis. We have been on two of their Northern Lights Tours and were very pleased!

Kraum & Foa – Great shops in Reykjavik for quality, unique handmade Icelandic souvenirs.

Laundromat Cafe (yup…there really is a laundromat here in addition to all the great food and drink),

Kaldi Bar (Fun & hip Bar featuring beers from the Kaldi Brewery)

Ölstofa Kormáks og Skjaldar (Kormakur’s and Skjöldur’s alehouse) – Or just plain Ölstofan (house brew Brío is not to be missed!)

The Reykjavik Grapevine: A witty English language Icelandic magazine. Great read whether or not you’re planning a visit!

Our December 2012 visit blog – Full of useful links, pretty pics & a recipe for Kanilsnúðar

Our December 2013 visit blog – Full of useful links, pretty pics & a recipe for White Chocolate Skyramisu

 


Pretzel Dogs!

August 6, 2015

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I’mmmmmmmmm back! Good Lord above, I can not believe that I haven’t written one tiny little thing on this blog since April 3rd!  And that post was written after I had taken a sizeable break after my St. Patrick’s Day blog-a-thon. Yup…back then I said I’d be getting right back into the kitchen. I don’t know what got into me. Wellll….I kinda do. You see I’ve been busy planning a big bathroom renovation. I’m not sure if I mentioned it or not, but about 1 1/2 years ago we had a bathroom fire that was started by a faulty bathroom exhaust fan. (Here’s a tip for all you readers out there…Do NOT leave your exhaust fan running over night. The motor in our’s heated up and because our bathroom had last been renovated sometime in the 70’s, the fan did not have a thermal fuse, so it just kept getting hotter and hotter until it caught the insulation in the ceiling on fire. We were very lucky that the bathroom was all that burned up.) So yeah, you did read that right…the fire happened all that time ago and we are just now getting around to doing something about it. How pathetic is that? Seriously, we just sealed that bathroom off with plywood, moved to the guest bathroom down the hall and have been doing our best to ignore it. But I’m happy to report that we’ve finally got our act together and have hired a contractor and have nearly finished the design. Construction is nigh I tell you!

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Big gaping hole which we unbelievably ignored for over 1 year!!!

And then we just purchased a condo down in Richmond Virginia. Yes….I did say “down”. That is because Richmond is even further south in Virginia than we currently are now. I’m sure you all know how I loathe summer weather in Virginia and what did we do? Went further south! Must be stone cold crazeeee! So that has taken a bit of doing. The good news is as it turns out, Richmond is quite the hidden foodie destination. So I’m looking forward to telling you about some of our future dining exploits. But here is a sneak preview pic:

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Green Eggs & Lamb & Non-Huevos Rancheros with Griddled Jalapeno Grits, Black Bean Chili & Carnitas at Black Sheep brunch! #RVA#BlackSheepRVA

And last but not least, we just returned from a completely fantastic holiday in Iceland. Yup, we’ve been there before, three times now counting this visit and I am completely smitten! I’ve got a post coming up about a delicious Icelandic doughnut I sampled there.

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Icelandic Doughnut or ástarpungar from the Geirabakarí in Borgarnes…stay tuned for the recipe!

So anyhoo…..I should probably make you some sort of assurances that I’ll settle down again and blog faithfully, but I’m not sure it would be prudent to make such pledges. I do have good intentions….but I am the person that walked around with a boarded up bathroom for almost two years. So there you have it. I can be a bit negligent. But I beg your forgiveness and will try to be better. I’m going to start out fresh today with a great recipe for Pretzel Dogs!

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At this point, I don’t know if I even need to say one other word, their name says it all. Who doesn’t love those big soft chewy salty pretzels? And hot dogs? We loooove hot dogs in this house. I’ve posted quite a few hot dog blogs in the past, like how ’bout those Bacon Wrapped Dogs,

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or those tasty little Mini Corn Dogs?

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Yup, we’re big fans. I just told you we were recently off visiting Iceland. Well, as it turns out Icelanders love hot dogs too. There is this famous hot dog stand, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, in downtown Reykjavik and the husband and I made it a point to stop there every single day for one of their hot dogs with everything (“eina með öllu.” – they have a whole bunch of delicious toppings like mustard, raw onions, crispy onions and some sort of special hot dog remoulade).

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Day one….

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Day two….

And I can truly say the husband and I have never met a pretzel we didn’t like. Usually we nibble on the hard and crunchy store-bought variety, but certainly do love the big soft and chewy ones. So when I came across a recipe for  Pretzel Dogs, I knew without a doubt I would be giving it a whirl. Basically you just make up a yeast dough, similar to what you would do for bread. The thing that magically transforms it into a pretzel is the alkaline bath that it is dipped into prior to baking. That magical soak is crucial for both the texture as well as the color of pretzels. Once that yeast dough is introduced to this bath, the outside of the dough is gelatinized which prevents the usual “springing” of the dough which occurs during baking, giving you the chewy texture, distinct pretzel-y flavour and lovely brown colour. Once upon a time, pretzels were a noticeably darker brown color. This was achieved with a dip in a lye bath – albeit a food grade lye ( sodium hydroxide) bath. Now that stuff, “food grade” or not, is actually quite the hazardous chemical. I’m serious….you can still use it but you’re going to have to go all “Breakin Bad” and wear big rubber gloves and safety goggles when you’re doing your cooking. Personally, I don’t think I need to be that authentic. I’m happy to go with the old tried and true baking soda as a substitute. Everyone has a box of that lingering on their shelves at home. It will definitely give you that lovely soft and chewy brown pretzel crust that you’re longing for without any hazardous chemical concerns.

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And now that we’ve covered the pretzel bit, lets not forget that oh so important dog that it is wrapped around. So everyone has their favourite brand, and far be it from me to tell you what you should buy. However I will say, I like a dog that has a bit of flavour and a little snap when you bite into it. Usually we buy Hebrew Nationals, Nathan’s or Boar’s Head brands, but I’ll leave that choice up to you. As far as I’m concerned, you really can’t go wrong with these. Straightforward and easy to make….not to mention so delish! Comfort food extraordinaire! With a little side dish of good ole yellow mustard for dipping, you’re totally set. Don’t even get me started thinking about the spicy nacho cheese dip possibilities. So don’t be a proscrastinator – like yours truly – jump right on this and make up a batch of these comfort food gems today!

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Pretzel Dogs

  • Servings: 8 pretzel dogs
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

recipe from: Bake with Christina

Ingredients:

  • 1½ cups warm (110 to 115° F) water
  • 1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 package (2 1/4 teaspoon) active dry yeast
  • 4½ cups all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup unsalted butter, melted
  • Vegetable oil, for pans
  • 10 cups water
  • 2/3 cup baking soda
  • 8 hot dogs (we love Hebrew National, Nathans and Boars Head)
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted
  • Kosher salt, for sprinkling

Directions:

Combine the water, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle the yeast over top. Let sit for 5 minutes, or until the mixture begins to foam. In the meantime, lightly oil a large bowl and set aside.

Using a dough hook, add the flour and melted butter to the yeast mixture on low-speed until well combined. Increase speed to medium and knead until the dough is smooth and pulls away from the side of the bowl (about 4 to 5 minutes).

Place the dough in the lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and place in a warm area for an hour, or until the dough has doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 450° F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and lightly brush with the vegetable oil. Set aside.

Pour 10 cups of water in an 8 quart pot which has deep sides. Bring the water to a rolling boil. Carefully add the baking soda. The mixture will foam up quite a bit, hence the deep sided pot recommendation. Stir until the soda has dissolved and then lower the heat to medium and keep the solution simmering.

In the meantime, turn the dough out onto a slightly oiled work surface and divide into 8 equal pieces. Roll out each piece of dough into a rope that’s about 24-inches long. Starting at one end, wrap the dough around the hot dog, pinching each end together so that it’s sealed and stays in place. Take care to make sure you have a good seal or your pretzel dogs will begin to unravel in the baking soda bath. Place onto the baking sheets and repeat with the remaining dough and hot dogs.

Lower the pretzel dogs into the boiling water two at a time and boil for 30 seconds. Using a large flat slotted spatula, remove them from the water and place on the baking sheets. Brush the tops with melted butter and sprinkle with the coarse kosher salt. Bake for 12-14 minutes, or until they are golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool for at least 5 minutes before serving.

Enjoy!

Pretzel Dogs brought to you by: Runcible Eats (www.leaandjay.com)

 

 


Pici al Ragu Di Cinghiale (Pici with Wild Boar Ragu)

February 27, 2015

 

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So I’m sure you’re all glad to know that you’ve reached the third and final installment of my odyssey of Italian Holiday posts. Yup, today is it and then on Sunday, two short days from now, I will be embarking on my annual St. Patrick’s Day blog-a-thon! That’s right…I’ll be doing one blog with an “Irish-y” Recipe everyday up to March 17th – St. Patrick’s Day. I’ve found some great dishes to share with you this year. There has been an absolute run on Jameson’s, Baileys and Guinness in my house, so I hope you will remember to check back in to see what I’ve been getting up to. And speaking of great recipes, I definitely have a winner to share with you today, Pici al Ragu Di Cinghiale (Pici with Wild Boar Ragu)! I had this dish for the first time, oh and the second time, and maybe the third time during our holiday in Tuscany. Sooo delicious. Pici Pasta, for those of you who don’t know, ’cause I certainly didn’t before our visit, is a thick, hand-rolled pasta which originates in the Province of Siena in Tuscany.

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Traditionally the dough is only made with flour and water, though in some areas it is made with the addition of an egg and some olive oil, as I have done here. Making Pici is a very forgiving introduction to homemade pasta for folks because traditionally it is not uniform in size and varies in thickness along its whole length. There is no special pasta making equipment necessary either, the pasta is simply rolled on the counter or between your hands.

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I paired my Pici with a wild boar ragu. Apparently there are plenty of wild boar in Tuscany. There was some sort of wild boar dish on the menu in nearly every restaurant we visited. Even our Trekguyd in Cinque Terre mentioned that he had come across a wild boar or two while hiking on those trails which certainly got me to be a bit more alert. But here in good old Virginia, I think it has probably been quite a while since a wild boar sauntered by. Luckily I live very close to The Organic Butcher. I rang him up to ask if he had Wild Boar, expecting the person on the other end of the line to laugh at me and instead what I heard was, “yes, of course. How much are you looking for and how would you like it cut?” Wow, huh! But if you don’t have an organic butcher near you, feel free to substitute in some ground pork or italian sausage. The ragu will still be delicious I’m sure!

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So I’m going to jump right into the travel blog portion of this post now. If you are totally over that, feel free to scroll down to the bottom at this point to get the actual recipe. After reluctantly checking out from the perfect La Bandita Townhouse, we set out for the tiny town of Castelnuovo Berardenga, which is located about 9 miles east of Siena, kind of at the end of the Chianti Wine Trail which winds south from Florence. We didn’t actually stay in the town, but stayed just a few miles out at the stunning Castello di Montalto.

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The date of the original construction of the castle is uncertain; perhaps as early as the 7th or 8th century. We do know for certain that members of the Berardenga family were living at Montalto by the 11th Century. Ownership of this castle has only changed hands 4 times, the last time being in the 19th Century. The descendants of those owners still reside in the castle and have made portions of the estate available to rent. We stayed in the very romantic former gatekeeper’s lodgings, San Martino, so known for the fresco of St. Martin,  located right above the castle gate.

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The castle and grounds were absolutely beautiful. And although the owner had recently taken a fall, she took the time to check in and make sure that we had everything that we needed. We were very happy with the apartment, but were even more thrilled when we found out it came with a resident cat, Pinky, who seemed very content to hang out with us through our stay!

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As I mentioned, the closest town to the castle was Castelnuovo Berardenga. Unlike some of the other places we visited which had seen their fair share of tourists, this town did not seem touristy at all. And although I had learned a few words of Italian, it really had not been necessary, up to this point. The first night we arrived, the castle concierge recommended that we go to dinner at a small trattoria only a short distance away. She said that it “was not touristy or expensive” and that “all the locals eat there”. Sounded great, so off we went. The restaurant, Il Bivacco, was wonderful. The atmosphere was very cozy, apparently the restaurant now resides in a renovated blacksmith’s forge. The food was tasty, plentiful and inexpensive. We ate there a couple of times over our visit. However, we did not hear a lot of English spoken at all, certainly not by our waiter. The very first night, being somewhat tired after driving the Italian highways, and being a bit weary of wine at that point (it can happen…), the husband said “I’ll have the big beer” to the waiter. Not being at all ready to order, I said “yes, that’ll be good”, and held up two fingers. So, you’ve probably guessed it by now, but the “big beer” was immense! I’m talking like a pitcher. Seriously, it took me two hands to lift it!! Not only were we laughing, but I think the folks at the neighboring table were quite amused as well. Though I should probably mention that the husband had no difficulty finishing “the big beer”. We were a bit more cautious after that…

Now that is one big beer!

Now that is one big beer!

Siena was very close, 15 -20 minute drive away from Montalto, so we couldn’t pass up visiting and I’m so glad we didn’t! I loved Siena! We visited the Duomo and I was completely floored! As I mentioned, we saw a lot of churches in Italy, but I was really unprepared for Siena’s Gothic Cathedral. Stunning, incredible, spectacular….none of those words seem to do it justice!

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The black and white stripped walls which lead up to starry blue ceilings were inspiring (though I will mention that as soon as we entered, the husband did lean over and whisper to me “Who let Beetlejuice loose in here?”)

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Starry ceiling

Starry ceiling

And we really lucked out because we were visiting outside of tourist season, which meant that the inlaid marble mosaic floors which are usually covered with plywood, had been unveiled. This was such a treat and is only done for a few months out of every year. The floors were crafted by about 40 artists and artisans between the 14th – 16th Centuries. They were just amazing and that was only the floors! Everywhere we looked we saw fantastic art by the masters, simply too many treasures to mention.

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Siena’s she wolf

And as if the Cathedral itself wasn’t enough, the Piccolomini Library is attached to it. You remember the Piccolomini family I mentioned in the last blog…yup…them again. This library was built to house Pope Pius II’s (aka Enea Silvio Bartolomeo Piccolomini ) collection of illuminated manuscripts, which are certainly beautiful

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but the frescos on the walls and ceiling come very close to stealing the show!

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We spent hours in the Duomo and could’ve stayed for days longer and still not seen everything it had to offer. Before heading out to dinner though we did head over to the Museo del Opera to climb the 131 narrow, corkscrew stairs to take in the view from the Panorama del Facciatone which is located at the top of the Nuovo Duomo facade. It was a bit of a wait and a minor cardiac stress test to get up there but the views over medieval Siena were worth it!

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Having recovered from Siena, we set out on the nearby Chianti trail to check out yet another winery, but this time rather than go with the old-established vineyards we decided to visit a newcomer, The Cantilici Winery located in Castagnoli, a small medieval hamlet close to Gaiole in Chianti. The drive to get there was truly enjoyable, very picturesque and all of the wine we tasted was excellent.

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Our favourite was Tangano which is a blend of Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet grapes. Apparently “Tangano” is local slang for “really good-looking man”. We grabbed a few bottles to go and then headed over to the small local Osteria Il Bandito for lunch. What an unexpected pleasure. The atmosphere was charming and comfortable, the staff attentive and the food was fresh and absolutely delicious. What a delight!

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Sadly, it was time for us to leave Montalto but we were very excited to head back to Florence. We did have a couple of days left to explore the city before we had to board our flight back home and were going to try to fit as much in as possible. We lucked out again and stayed in a fabulous hotel, Mulino di Firenze, located about 15 minutes outside of the city. The hotel offered convenient shuttles in and taxis were not really very expensive. (Keep in mind, I’m saying that with a Washington, DC point of view).

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We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Florence and saw a lot more churches, visiting the Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore) as well as Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella. By the end of our time there we were without a doubt, “churched out”! And although Brunelleschi’s dome was impressive (yes…we climbed the 463 steps up to the viewing terrace),

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the inside of the cathedral was rather sparse (especially after just being dazzled in Siena). We were much more intrigued when we visited the crypt which houses the remains of the 7th Century church of Santa Reparta on top of which the Duomo is built.

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The little Baptistery was impressive as well. This building, the oldest in the city, was built on a 7th Century building and served as Florence’s cathedral until the early 13th Century.

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Baptistery ceiling

Of all of the Florence cathedrals that we visited, I much preferred Santa Croce where the graves of Michelangelo, Ghiberti, Galileo and Machiavelli can be found.

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Feeling that we had not yet climbed enough stairs on this holiday, we decided to trek up the 414 steps of Giotto’s campanile (bell tower of the Duomo), which offered great views of the city as well as of Brunelleschi’s Dome itself.

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And yes…we did end up spending a bit of time having a few pints in an Irish pub! Go figure!!! I don’t know what to say…there’s only so much wine one can drink before….I guess you wind up in an Irish pub!

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So that’s it for the holiday review. We had a fantastic time and hope to visit Italy again soon. Next time we are eyeing the Amalfi Coast with a requisite stop over in Pienza so we can pay a visit to La Bandita Townhouse! Until then, I hope you will enjoy this recipe for Pici al Ragu di Cinghiale. Believe me, unless your people grew up with an Italian nonna who made fresh pasta every Sunday, this dish will impress and with a bit of planning, is not very difficult to pull off. Buon Appetito!

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Pici al Ragu Di Cinghiale

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

Ragu recipe adapted from: Bon Appètit

Pici recipe from: Jamie Oliver

Ingredients:

For the Pici Pasta:

For the Spicy Wild Boar Ragu:

  • 1 medium onion, quartered
  • carrots, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • celery stalk, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 2 teaspoons fresh oregano leaves
  • leaves from 4 -5 sprigs of thyme
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley, divided
  • 28 ounces crushed tomatoes (we used crushed tomatoes with spicy red pepper)
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 pounds ground wild boar (can substitute pork if there is no wild boar to be found)
  • Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 3/4 Cup finely grated Parmesan, divided

Directions:

For the Pasta:

Place the flour in a large bowl. Add pinch of salt and stir to combine. Make a well in the center of the flour. Add the egg and olive oil to the well. Start to mix, slowly adding the 175 ml of water as needed. Once you have formed a firm dough, knead on a lightly floured surface until dough is smooth and elastic. Wrap in saran wrap and place in refrigerator to rest for 30 minutes.

Once the dough has rested, roll it out into a 1/4 inch thick rectangle. Using a sharp knife, cut the dough into long 1/4 inch strips. Roll these strips on the counter or between your hands to form long tubes, about 24 -26″ long. Don’t worry if they look a bit irregular, that is part of the beauty of this rustic pasta. Place the pasta on flour dusted cookie sheet and cover with linen towel until ready to cook.

When ready to cook, place pasta in large pot of boiling salted water. Cook for about 6 – 10 minutes, or until al dente. Drain pasta, but reserve 1 cup of the cooking liquid.

For the Ragu:

Place onion, carrot, celery, garlic, oregano, thyme, red pepper flakes and 1/4 cup parsley in food processor and pulse until it is finely chopped. Place in small bowl and set aside.

Heat oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat. Add ground wild boar, season with salt and pepper and cook until browned. Transfer to plate with slotted spoon.

Increase heat to medium-high. Add reserved vegetable mixture to oil and drippings in pot, season with salt and cook until golden, about 8 -10 minutes.

Stir tomato paste and 1 cup of red wine in a small bowl until combined. Add to vegetable mixture. Cook, scraping up any browned bits from bottom of pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until liquid has almost evaporated, 6 -8 minutes.

Add reserved meat, crushed tomatoes and 1 cup of water to the pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, adding more water or perhaps a glug or two of wine as needed to keep meat nearly submerged, until meat is tender, about 4 hours. Season with salt.

This ragu can be made 3 days in advance. Let cool. Cover and chill, or freeze for up to 2 months. Reheat before continuing.

To Serve:

Add pasta and 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta cooking liquid to ragu and stir to coat. Stir in 1/4 cup of the Parmesan. Add more reserved pasta liquid if needed. Divide among bowls; top with more Parmesan.

Enjoy!

Pici al Ragu di Cinghiale brought to you by: Runcible Eats (www.leaandjay.com)

 

 


Chickpea, Cremini Mushroom & Farro Soup

February 24, 2015

 

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After leaving the beautiful Cinque Terre, we headed south to explore Tuscany. And no dish better represents  Tuscany than this warming peasant-style soup of Chickpeas, Cremini Mushrooms & Farro. All of the ingredients featured in this soup can be found in abundance in the region. And besides evoking images of that beautiful Tuscan landscape, this soup is actually quite good for you. It is a vegetarian dish, though I suppose you could add a bit of pancetta or sausage if you really needed to satisfy the carnivore within you. It also has the ancient grain Farro in it, which has recently been stealing some of the limelight away from Quinoa as the next big supergrain that everyone should be eating. Though that doesn’t mean it has just been discovered.  Farro has been cultivated and used in Italian cooking for centuries. It supposedly fed the Roman legions at one time. A great source of protein and fiber, it has satisfyingly chewy texture and a nutty taste. It is a wheat grain, so unlike Quinoa, it is not gluten-free. Those little devils are definitely in there.

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I first tasted the soup that inspired this recipe in the small town of Chiusi, Italy. The husband and I were very interested in seeing some Etruscan tombs and artifacts and little Chiusi was one of the greatest city-states of the Etruscan league back in the day in the 7th century BC. Today the town has one of the finest collections of Etruscan archaeological findings in Italy housed in The Museo Archeologico Nazionale. The museum was fascinating, chock full of beautifully carved sarcophagi, expertly crafted jewelry, as well as stunning art and pottery.

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intricate mosaic of hunting scene

intricate mosaic of hunting scene

The most unusual, odd and somewhat creepy thing we saw there were these Canopic jars which have lids that were modeled as a portrait of the dead person held within.

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And although we thoroughly enjoyed our museum visit, we were just itching to head out to the outskirts of the town and go underground to explore some actual Etruscan tombs. There are over 400 of these tombs in the area. Although Etruscan tombs varied according to local custom, generally the rich were buried in stone sarcophagi which were placed in chamber tombs the walls of which were often decorated with brightly painted frescos. We toured the Tomba della Scimmia (Tomb of the Monkey) so named because there is a monkey portrayed in one of the frescos, not because one is interred there, The Tomba della Pellegrina (Tomb of the Pilgrim) and La Tomba de Leone, which date from around 470 BC.

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Fresco on wall in Monkey Tomb

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The Monkey himself, peeking out from behind some sort of plant.

So, as you can see, we were pretty physically active on this holiday, hiking up and down the Cinque Terre hillsides and venturing underground to explore tombs. We definitely enjoy those things, but we are also way into relaxing and being pampered. And that is just what we did at what we found to be the best hotel at which we have ever stayed, La Bandita Townhouse. This absolute gem is located in the center of historic Pienza. The charming hill town of Pienza is situated in the heart of Tuscany, nestled between Montepulciano and Montalcino. The town had been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and overlooks the Val d’Orcia, which boasts some of the most often photographed, unblemished landscapes that exist.

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Pienza city walls

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La Bandita Townhouse is a 500-year-old palazzo and convent, lovingly renovated by John Voigtmann, a retired record company executive. From the outside it is indistinguishable from its neighboring Renaissance age buildings. It is when you step inside the 12 room luxury boutique hotel that the magic begins. All of the nun’s cells have been replaced with an expert blend of contemporary furnishings accented by the old world charm of exposed stone walls and rustic ceiling beams.

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All of the light-filled rooms boast fabulous views of the charming town

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The view from our room out into a private medieval walled garden.

or the gorgeous surrounding countryside.

Crazy Tuscan Tree

Crazy Tuscan Tree

But as I’m sure you all know, design – stunning though it may be –  isn’t enough to make a great hotel experience. Customer service makes all the difference in the world and the folks at La Bandita Townhouse have perfected it. They were wonderful from the very first email when I was planning the trip, offering information on the surrounding area, restaurants, shops, towns, you name it, throughout our entire stay right up to the moment we reluctantly checked-out. And whenever we needed anything, which wasn’t often because they had obviously put a lot of thought into the layout of the rooms and common areas – and everything we needed, for the most part, was often to be found in the first place we looked for it, the attentive hotel staff was right there to help in any way that they could. And although Pienza is certainly a captivating town, La Bandita Townhouse is a destination all within itself. I can’t wait to visit again!

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Guest lounge and honor bar serves champagne every evening for happy hour.

 

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Not only was the hotel top-notch, but they also have a excellent restaurant as well which serves traditional Italian food but with a modern twist.

Visiting a winery in Tuscany and trying some of the local Brunello was high up on our to do list as well. The folks at La Bandita Townhouse were happy to assist us and quickly booked a tour and tasting for us at one of Montalcino’s premiere wine estates Ciacci Piccolomini D’Aragona. The estate, dating from the 17th Century and located just outside the medieval village of Castenuovo dell’Abate, was beautiful. The tour started with the history of the winery, peppered with some intriguing inheritance scandals, moved on to the production of the wine and concluded in their new modern tasting room. We sampled three of their wines, the 2012 Rosso di Montalcino, the 2011 Montecucco Sangiovese and the 2009 Brunello di Montalcino, as well as their olive oil and honey which were all excellent.

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On the way back to the hotel we stopped to visit the 8th Century Abbey Sant’Antimo, a former Benedictine Monastery. This abbey is richly decorated and  functions today as a Cistercian house.

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Love these gargoyles!

 

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Mystery creature…looks pretty scary!

 

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Sneak peek of one of the elusive monks in residence.

Well, I’m sure I’ve surpassed your vacation picture tolerance level at this point. So I’ll leave off for today. Stay tuned next time to hear about our stay in an 11th Century castle’s gate keepers lodgings, our visit to Siena and Florence and to get a great recipe for Wild Boar Ragu and homemade Pici pasta. Until then, if your home base is anything like good old Virginia, gripped by this relentless Winter, you’re probably still shivering in your boots. I hope you will make up a big pot of this hearty Chickpea, Cremini Mushroom & Farro soup to warm yourself and enjoy it with some toasted crusty bread and a bottle (or two….) of wine.

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Chickpea, Cremini Mushroom & Farro Soup

  • Servings: 4 - 6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

recipe adapted from: Williams Sonoma

Ingredients:

For the Soup:

  • 1 1/2 cups (9 1/2 oz./295 g) dried chickpeas, picked over and
    rinsed
  • 8 cups (64 fl. oz./2 l) cold water
  • 1/3 cup (3 fl. oz./80 ml) olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 small fresh rosemary sprig
  • 1 Tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 cup (8 fl. oz./250 ml) warm water
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 4 cups (32 fl. oz./1 l) vegetable broth or water
  • 1/3 cup (2 oz./60 g) pearled farro (if you can’t find pearled, you will need to soak the farro overnight.)

For the Mushrooms:

  • 1/2 lb. (250 g) fresh cremini mushrooms, (can substitute porcini mushrooms) brushed
    clean
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 2 Tablespoons dry white wine
  • 1 fresh thyme sprig
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 1 1/2 tsp. unsalted butter

Extra Virgin Olive Oil for Drizzling

Smoked Paprika for Garnish

Directions:

Put the chickpeas in a large bowl with water to cover and soak for at least 4 hours or up to overnight.

Drain the chickpeas, rinse well and place in a large saucepan. Add the cold water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until the chickpeas are tender, about 2 hours.

In a large, heavy pot over medium-low heat, warm the olive oil. Add the onion, garlic and rosemary sprig and sauté until the onion is softened, 5 to 7 minutes. In a small bowl, dissolve the tomato paste in the warm water and add to the pot. Stir in the chickpeas and their cooking liquid, and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook for 3 minutes. Add the broth, return to a simmer and cook, uncovered, until the flavors have blended, about 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly. Discard the rosemary sprig.

Working in batches, puree the soup in a blender and return it to the pot. Alternatively, process the soup in the pot with an immersion blender. Bring the soup to a simmer over medium heat. Add the farro and cook until tender yet still slightly chewy, about 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the mushrooms: Cut away the tips of the mushroom stems and thinly slice the mushrooms lengthwise. In a large fry pan over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring, until they begin to soften, 3 to 4 minutes. Increase the heat to high, add the wine and thyme sprig and cook, stirring constantly, for about 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, season with salt and pepper and continue to cook, stirring often, until the mushroom juices have evaporated, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and discard the thyme sprig. Stir in the butter.

Stir the mushrooms into the soup. Ladle the soup into warmed bowls, drizzle with olive oil and garnish with a grinding of smoked paprika.

Enjoy!

Chickpea, Cremini & Farro Soup brought to you by: Runcible Eats (www.leaandjay.com)


Pears with Pecorino, Pistachios & Honey

February 21, 2015

 

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Holy frozen tundra has it been COLD for the past week. I know, I know…it’s winter. It is supposed to be cold. And yes, I am the person who detests hot weather. And yes I will be complaining much more loudly and often once that sultry Virginia weather kicks in this summer. Still…it was been awful freaking, record-breakingly, bitter cold recently. Perhaps that is why I have found myself thinking fondly back on a trip that we took to Italy last October. That was where I had my first taste of Pears with Pecorino & Honey. I saw it served both as an appetizer and as a light dessert. The juicy ripe pears combined with the salty Pecorino cheese and the sweet honey was just sublime.

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Fresh, simple. locally sourced…seems to describe everything we ate on that holiday. And I can truly say, we didn’t have a bad meal the whole time we were there, whether we were dining in a fancy pants restaurant or a little local trattoria. Except for the bread that is…what a disappointment. In my visions of Italy I would always be sipping wine at a little table with some lovely cheese and a loaf of bread. Well, truth be told, I did have a few where I was zipping around on a Vespa with a bottle of wine and a fresh loaf of bread in tow (Ciao!) … but anyway, my expectation for the bread was way high and it tasted pretty abysmal. Well, in Tuscany proper anyway. Tuscan bread does not have any salt in it. Bleck! Apparently back in the day, their old enemy Pisa, set up a blockade of sorts which made it difficult to acquire salt. So the Tuscans started making bread without it and have kept up the daft practice even though salt is readily available. Talk about fearing change… But besides the bread, it was a fantastic trip. I have been dying to tell you all about, so I think I will take advantage of this weather which certainly brings hibernation to mind, to stay put (under a mound of blankets…) for a few moments and take the time to do just that over the next few posts.

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We arrived in Florence mid-October which meant the majority of the flood of summer tourists had subsided. The weather was absolutely fantastic, still warm during the day but a bit chilly in the evenings, though in light of recent weather around here, perhaps I will revise my opinion to say it was a bit “balmy” in the evenings. We rented a car and drove north to the Italian Riviera portion of the Ligurian region where we planned to spend 3 days visiting Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre, the “five lands”, is made up of the five towns of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare which seem to cling precariously to steep cliffs jutting up from the sea.

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The towns, along with the surrounding hillsides and coastline make up The Cinque Terre National Park which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. No car traffic is allowed in the villages but no worries, it is easy to travel between them by train or boat taxi. We had booked a room in the lovely Luna di Marzo hotel which is located in Volastra, a really small village, still in the park, located just up the cliff from Manarola. The views from the room were simply breathtaking!

 

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The husband and I were really psyched because not only was Cinque Terre amazingly beautiful, but the park has hundreds of miles of hiking paths which shoot dramatically skyward, wind through the hillside vineyards and olive groves and descend steeply to twist along rugged coastal footpaths. We love hiking and couldn’t wait to hit the trails and take in all of that the area had to offer.

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Luckily I had heard about Pall Forloney, the Trekguyd and was able to hire him to take us on a trek of all five towns and I’ve got to tell you this was the highlight of our holiday! Originally from Rhode Island, Pall has been living in Riomaggiore for over 10 years. I would say that he has all the knowledge of a “local”, which he certainly does, but it is more than that. He is so enthusiastic about the area and has been traversing it for so long, he certainly knows more than the average local. He proved invaluable to us during our visit.  Not only did he expertly guide us (and yes there is a “right” and a “wrong” way to hike it…or perhaps I should say a “savvy” vs. a “clueless” way…) on a small, personal, day long trek through all five towns and the surrounding hillsides,

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but he was also a fount of information on everything from local history,

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Saw lots of churches in Italy. But when Pall took us to The Black Church in Monterossa al Mare, it definitely stood out.

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It is the chapel of the Brotherhood of Death and Prayer and is filled with “momento mori”.

 

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The Brotherhood saw to the welfare of orphans, widows, shipwreck victims and the destitute.

 

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You could also have a burial mass said for folks who had been excommunicated here as well.

 

to Sciacchetrà wine production,

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on to general hiking tips and even recommendations for the best restaurants that the 5 towns had to offer. He took us to the best gelateria in all of the five towns! Not to mention he is a truly fascinating guy and great fun to hang around with. All park passes, train tickets and boat taxi fares were included in the price of his tour.

Relaxing on the boat taxi headed back to Riomaggiore after our trek.

Relaxing on the boat taxi headed back to Riomaggiore after our trek.

 

Having booked with Pall on our first day in Cinque Terre, we were able to benefit from all of his knowledge and make the most of our next two days there. Even after Pall’s tour was officially over, he was still trying to make sure we had a great visit. So, when the husband and I let him know we had never tried the local Sciacchetrà wine, he arranged to have us meet a friend of his, Roberto  who owns the Terra di Bargòn vineyard.

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For those of you who might be unfamiliar with Sciacchetrà wine, it is the white wine that has been cultivated and produced in Cinque Terre for many years. It is odd that there even is wine production in this area. Remember, the towns are situated on rather steep cliffs. Those industrious Cinque Terre dwellers from long ago literally carved out the terraces on which the vineyards grow and then undertook the backbreaking challenge of harvesting the grapes, carrying them on their backs down along the narrow, cliff’s-edge paths to town.

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But that wasn’t the end of the hard work for them. Then they had to dry the grapes. Sciacchetrà is a straw wine meaning that the grapes are dried to concentrate their juice. Though often thought of as a dessert wine, Sciacchetrà is considered a wine of meditation and is excellent paired with cheeses. We were very curious about it to say the least after hiking through the vineyards all day. With hardly any notice, just a quick phone call from Pall, Roberto was able to come meet us at his Cantina where the Terra di Bargòn Sciacchetrà is produced and cellared. What a treat! Roberto is quite a character. He told us all about the history of that rare wine, how his family came to produce it and gave us a first hand account of the labor intensive cycle of production.

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But better yet, he let us taste the Sciacchetrà of the year (there is a two-year fermentation) as well as a 2009 reserve and a 2003 reserve. It is difficult to describe the taste, but I would say sweet but not too sweet and silky smooth with hints of honey and apricot. All I can say is that it is unique, delicious and definitely something you should sample. (Sciacchetrà is not widely imported to the US. Terra di  Bargòn will ship to the US through their website if you are interested. Better yet….go visit them in Cinque Terre.) There are not a lot of folks in Cinque Terre today that are willing to do the kind of work that is required to make Sciacchetrà. Roberto is perhaps one of a dying breed. He offered us keen insight into a way of life which has been handed down for generations in Cinque Terre. Unfortunately this way of life and this special wine is in danger of being lost forever, but not if Roberto has anything to do with it. The authentic cultural experience of tasting the wine and meeting Roberto was essentially priceless!

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Cinque Terre was absolutely amazing. I am so glad that we decided to give it the time it deserved and did not try to do it as a “day trip” from Florence. It would not have done the slow-paced vibe of the place justice. Now, that being said, I do understand that in the Summer months, especially August, the place is over-run with tourists, so you might want to plan accordingly. What you must do is book a trek with Pall Forloney, the Trekguyd. While you are traversing the hills, he will have you up to speed and CT savvy in no time flat. And make sure you sample that Sciacchetrà wine while you still can. In the meantime, I hope you will enjoy this simple, yet elegant dish of Pears with Pecorino, Pistachios & Honey.

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It will have you dreaming of long and lazy, sun drenched days. When you gaze out your window, you won’t see a frozen, barren, arctic waste land. No. You’ll see a beautiful green and rugged coastline framed by the turquoise sea. Just make sure you don’t shatter the illusion by sneaking a peek at your thermometer!

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Pears with Pecorino, Pistachios & Honey

  • Servings: 2 - 4
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Ingredients:

  • 2 pears
  • 3 Tablespoons Honey
  • 1/4 cup shaved Pecorino Cheese
  • handful of roughly chopped pistachios
  • freshly ground pepper

Directions:

For a Fresh & Light Spring/Summer Dish:

Core and slice pears. Scattered shaved Pecorino over pear slices. Warm honey and drizzle over pears and cheese. Sprinkle pistachios over the top. Season with freshly ground pepper if desired.

For a Warm & Comforting Fall/Winter Dish:

Core and slice pears. Place on broiler rack. Scatter shaved Pecorino over pear slices. Broil until cheese is melted and slightly browned. Warm honey and drizzle over pears and cheese. Sprinkle pistachios over the top. Season with freshly ground pepper if desired.

Pears with Pecorino, Pistachios & Honey brought to you by: Runcible Eats (www.leaandjay.com)


White Chocolate Skyramisu & our annual Iceland in December Adventure

February 27, 2014

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I bet I’ve got a few folks scratching their heads with the title of this blog post, wondering what is “skyramisu” and who goes, nevermind goes annually, to Iceland in December? Well, let me begin by saying Skyramisu is not a misspelling of Tiramisu, the coffee flavoured Italian dessert. It is an adaptation of that popular treat using Icelandic Skyr and cream cheese instead of mascarpone cheese. Tiramisu with an Icelandic twist if you will. The resulting dessert is simply divine! There are a few other differences between the two as well. Instead of using coffee soaked ladyfingers, wafer cookies are used here. Prince Polo, a very popular chocolate bar in Iceland, was the ingredient called for in the original recipe, but since I couldn’t find Prince Polo here in the States, I went with Quadratini biscuits, little bite sized wafer cookies in dark chocolate and cappuccino flavours made by Loacker. These worked perfectly. (You can find them at World Market or online at Amazon.) At this point you may be saying “Hold on a second, what exactly is Skyr?” Well, Skyr is Icelandic yogurt, though I believe it is technically not yogurt, but rather strained skim milk cheese. If while reading this you find yourself pulling some horrible face, just stop it! Skyr is delicious! The Vikings brought Skyr to Iceland with them when they settled the country and it has remained in the Icelandic diet since the 9th Century, so you know it must be good! ( And before you start, don’t even mention the rancid shark thing…Everyone should be allowed a few little quirks…)

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Just focus on this delightful dish…stop thinking about the shark!

Skyr is very smooth, rich and creamy and is a sort of cross between ice cream and yogurt. It has 0% fat, has 2-3 times the amount of protein found in regular yogurt and is high in calcium. And unlike the elusive Prince Polo bars, Skyr is now widely available here in the US. Skyr.ie is imported direct from Iceland and there is a company located in New York owned and operated by a fellow from Iceland, Siggi’s. Their delicious products can be found in the yogurt section in Whole Foods and many other chain grocery stores. See, what’s not to like? If you haven’t tried it, run out today and give it a whirl! I first came across it last December, when I visited Iceland for the first time. My husband and I fell in love with the place and particularly liked being there in December. Contrary to popular belief, the temperatures are generally not that cold, they hover right around freezing, though I will admit there always seems to be wind, ranging from breeze level right up to gale force. Even though there are few hours of daylight, that actually gives you a better chance of seeing the Northern Lights. Icelandic folks love Christmas, so it’s great to visit in December. Believe me, if you can’t get in a Christmas-y mood there, you really are a terrible Scrooge! Another plus is that there are very few other tourists visiting at this time, which suits me just fine – we got the run of the place along with all sorts of airfare and hotel discounts for going in what is considered the “off season”. This year like last, we stayed at lovely Hotel Rangá for a few days and splurged on the Antarctica Suite.

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We hoped to see the Northern Lights again, after last year’s amazing display,

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but alas we were not so lucky. The weather this year was very snowy, indeed snowing every day. (We actually really loved all of the snow this year) So, with the snow came the clouds and the lights were just not visible. In a last-ditch attempt to chase the Aurora down, we even went out with SuperJeep on one of our last days in Reykjavik, but still it managed to elude us.

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I will say though, the SuperJeep Northern Lights tour was a lot of fun, full of off-roading and vodka spiked hot chocolate. I definitely recommend them if you are in Reykjavik and want to get out of the city for a better chance of seeing the lights. The folks at SuperJeep really put forth a good effort on our part, but the cloud coverage just would give! Oh well, I won’t be too disappointed because it means we’ll just have to go back next year to try again 🙂

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Another tour that did not disappoint, but was in fact the highlight of the trip this year was our journey to Jökulsárlón with South Iceland Adventure Company.

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We had gone on a tour to Thórsmörk with them last year and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. So I contacted them this year and was able to book a private Jökulsárlón tour with them. They don’t usually offer that tour in December because the limited daylight hours combined with the long travel time and possible dodgy December weather make it a challenge. Nevertheless,  they were willing to give it a try if we were and we are so glad that we decided to give it a go! Now we probably could have just driven there ourselves, but the advantage of having South Iceland Adventure take us was that there was no driving, we could just sit back, relax and take in the gorgeous vistas. And our fantastic tour guide, Stefnir, is from the area right around Jökulsárlón, so he was just a wealth of information and knew all the best places to visit along the way. Nothing like a local’s knowledge! Jökulsárlón is a large lake formed by a glacier located in southeast Iceland, on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park. Bits of the Vatnajökull glacier break off (calve) into the lake and these icebergs float around until they melt enough to fit through the narrow opening of the lake and drift out into the ocean, though some do wash up on the nearby black sand beach.

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This place is stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful! Completely surreal, haunting and magical. Simply a must-see if you visit Iceland. And if you can, leave the driving and the expert guiding to the folks at South Iceland Adventure Company. You won’t regret it.  Pictures really don’t do Jökulsárlón justice, but here are a few for you.

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The black lines in some of the icebergs are caused by ash from past volcanic eruptions.

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In the summer you can zoom around the lake in Zodiac boats for a upclose view of the icebergs. As you can see, December proves a bit too icy for that.

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Over at the black sand beach…

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Now we did manage to drive around  south Iceland on our own a bit and after getting turned back by a snowstorm one day, we persevered and made it out to the tiny fishing village of Vík and the Dyrhólaey peninsula the following day. I’ll just let our pictures do the talking here…

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After our stay in the countryside, we headed into Reykjavik for a few days. We hiked up to Hallgrímskirkja to take in the views.

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Reykjavik bird’s-eye view

We took a day trip out to The Blue Lagoon, a geothermal pool and Spa located in a lava field in Grindavík about 40 minutes from Reykjavik.We simply wouldn’t miss it. This year was interesting because the winds were just insane. I kid you not there were literally white caps forming in the pool! As a consequence we tended to shelter under bridges and behind rocks and were still able to really enjoy the waters.

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Otherwise we had a great time just hanging out in the city.

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Once again, we couldn’t stay away from Bæjarins beztu pylsur! Best hot dogs in the country.

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Believe me, we ate at least one every day we were in Reykjavik!

This is where I have to give a huge shout out to a superb Icelandic travel blog, I Heart Reykjavik , written by Auður Ösp. I found her site after our visit last year and have followed it ever since. If you are headed to Iceland, you really must take a look this blog. Come to think of it, you should really check it out whether or not you have plans to visit Iceland. Not only is this blog very entertaining and witty but it is also chock full of honest expert advice from a local on all the sights and natural wonders to be seen in Iceland.  You will also find savvy travel tips, bar and restaurant recommendations and reviews, notes about Icelandic history and culture and even a few lessons on how to say useful phrases in  the Icelandic language. And for a bonus, Auður is a wonderful photographer and Iceland is a gorgeous subject. If her stunning photos can’t tempt you to visit, I don’t know what could! This year we followed lots of her recommendations and can say it sure beat the tired old tourist guide we were dragging around with us last year. Thanks to I Heart Reykjavik we found Ölstofan, a great down to earth bar which not only serves up delicious beer – such as Bríó, their own German pilsner- but does it with music played at a level which is conducive to actually being able to have a conversation with the other folks there who, like us, tend to be a few years past their 25th birthday, she led us to

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Chillin at Ölstofan

The Noodle Station which served up some truly spicy (not often found in Icelandic cuisine) Thai Noodle Soup that I’m still craving, ate the best french fries in Reykjavik at the Laundromat Cafe (and yes you can really do your laundry there while eating fries, reading a book, drinking a beer and surfing the internet) and had one of the best meals of our lives at Grillmarkaðurinn. This top-notch restaurant serves up the freshest local ingredients in exquisitely prepared traditional Icelandic dishes with a modern twist. And it is one of the most beautifully designed restaurants in which we’ve ever had the pleasure of dining. The decor was a blend of chic modern and natural organic outdoorsiness (I think I just invented this word). Our experience there was superb from start to finish! We give it our highest recommendations. So our heartfelt thanks go out to I Heart Reykjavik! We couldn’t have done it without you!

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But I suppose I should get back on the subject of this White Chocolate Skyramisu. Icelandic folks love their Skyr and I noticed that it was featured in quite a few desserts. This one really tempted me in particular because of the inclusion of coffee and white chocolate. Yum!  This tasty dessert comes together very quickly and is sure to please. It is a bit heavier than its inspiration, Tiramisu, but believe me you will savour every thick, rich, creamy decadent spoonful.

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All the while thinking of just how good for you Skyr is. Yeah…you could even say you were being virtuous by gobbling up this dish…At least that’s what I was able to convince myself of! I’m just sitting around, scarfing down dish after dish, thinking about our recent Icelandic break and planning out some adventures for this coming December! (Anyone up for a jaunt into the magma chamber of a volcano?)

PS. Just a reminder – my annual St. Patrick’s Day blog-stravaganza is going to start this Saturday March 1st! I will be posting one Irish-y recipe a day all the way up to March 17th! The Baileys, Guinness and Jameson will be flowing! Check back in to see all the fun! (And wish me luck! – 17 days in a row is a lot of blogging!)

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White Chocolate Skyramisu

recipe adapted from skyr.is

Ingredients:

for the base:

  •  2 – 250 gram bag of bite sized wafer cookies
  • 3/4 cup strong black coffee

for the filling:

  • 400 grams cream cheese
  • 2 containers (300 grams) vanilla skyr
  • 1 tablespoon milk or cream
  • 1 cup (150 grams) White Chocolate
  • 2 Tablespoons brandy or coffee liquor (I used Kahlua)
  • 1 cup (100 grams) icing sugar
  • 2 egg yolks
  • white chocolate shavings for decoration
  • cocoa powder for decoration
  • rolled wafer cookies

Directions:

Layer the wafer biscuits (cookies) on the bottom of a 9 X 13″ dish. Pour coffee over wafers and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer combine cream cheese and skyr mixing until smooth. Add icing sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time, to cream cheese/skyr mixture and continue to mix until fully incorporated. Add egg yolks to the cream cheese mixture mixing until combined.

Place chopped white chocolate in microwave proof bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of milk to chocolate. Microwave in 15 second increments until melted, stirring often. Add liquor into melted chocolate and mix until combined.

Gently fold the melted chocolate/liquor mixture into the skyr mixture.

Spoon filling over the soaked wafer cookies and chill.

When ready to serve, sprinkle with cocoa powder and grated white chocolate. Garnish further with a rolled wafer cookie.

Enjoy!


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