Thursday, September 25, 2014

{wanderlust} hakone, gora kadan and mount fuji

This is the third post in a multi-part series on my trip to Japan. Read the others here and hereAfter four days packed with ramen, temples, and more ramen, we departed Kyoto by bullet train and headed North. Not only was the bullet train so clean, fast, and timely that it made Amtrack look like a toy tank engine, but the station offered an embarrassment of riches in terms of picnic provisions. I cobbled together a lunch of roasted and marinated veggies, a rice ball wrapped in seaweed, and a delicious green tea. Our destination was Hakone, a mountainous region just outside of Tokyo known for its stunning scenery, natural onsen (hot springs), and proximity to Mount Fuji. 
In Hakone, we checked into Gora Kadan, a modern take on a traditional Japanese ryokan, or inn, and one of the most amazing, luxurious and unique hotel experiences I've ever had in my life. Upon arrival, we were greeted by Yoshi, a member of the Gora Kadan staff who showed us to our tatami room, which was outfitted with straw mats and futons for sleeping, a low dining table, and a spacious modern bathroom. Once in our room, we were given our Gora Kadan uniforms--daytime kimonos, jackets, and even kimono pajamas. 

Gora Kadan is situated in the beautiful Hakone hills, and is completely and utterly peaceful. Though the hotel was nearly full the night we were there, it never felt crowded. In fact, we barely ever saw other guests. Which isn't for lack of taking advantage of the hotel's resources--we tried out the spa, walked the iconic long glass hallways, read in the relaxation areas overlooking the hills, and made several visits to the property's biggest draw: it's beautiful onsen, or hot springs. 
There are two hot springs at Gora Kadan, and at any given time one is assigned to men and one to women. Each includes a well-appointed locker room, an indoor pool of spring water circled by showers in which to rinse off before entering the springs, and a stunning outdoor spring pool surrounded by a canopy of trees. The first time I went to the onsen there was a group of Japanese ladies already there, which turned out to be lucky because I wouldn't have had a clue as to proper onsen protocol had I not had the chance to observe them first. (For the uninitiated, you shower, then go into the pool sans-kimono with a towel wrapped around your head). We went back late and night and early the next morning, and both times I was the only person in the women's springs (allowing me the opportunity to snap the above photos, natch). The onsen water is supposed to be healing, and while I can't claim that it miraculously cured all of my ailments, it was certainly relaxing. 
Besides turning into prunes in the onsen, the other thing we did at Gora Kadan was eat. Keeping with ryokan tradition, dinner was served in our room Kaiseki style, meaning that it consisted of many small artfully arranged plates. I'm still dreaming about the breakfast that Yoshi brought us the next morning--eggs, grilled vegetables, breads, interesting spreads like sesame paste, yogurt, cereal, stewed tomatoes, and coffee. After all that food it was clearly time for some exercise, so we made our way to Gora Station to catch the Hakone mountain railway. After taking the railway partway up the mountain, we boarded a gondola for the rest of the journey, which is when we caught our first glimpse of Fuji out the window. Our destination was Owakudani, the highest accessible station, which is home to both a volcano and amazing views of Fuji. We walked around the volcano, took hundreds of pictures of Mount Fuji, and sampled some local cuisine (yes, more food). Owakudani is known for its black eggs, which are hard-boiled in the sulfur rich volcanic water found there. The sulphur turns the egg shells black, and legend goes that eating one adds seven years to your life. 

After a few hours of exploring and miracle-egg eating, we journeyed down the mountain, said a reluctant goodbye to Gora Kadan, and hit the road for our last and final stop: Tokyo!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

lemony blueberry pie

We're coming up on (gulp) the very last weekend of summer. And I know just what your holiday weekend needs: pie. It's the perfect way to end an all American barbecue, just the thing to serve your house guests for a late night snack, and all you're going to want to eat for breakfast come Monday morning (because if you can't eat dessert for breakfast on a holiday, what's the point?)
For this version I went light and lemony. I also packed so many blueberries into my pie that they came bubbling out the edges. Not a bad thing in my opinion. I'm going to be baking up another pie for us to enjoy in Minnesota this weekend (when we're not eating fried candy bars on a stick that is). Wherever you're celebrating, I hope you ring in the end of summer in style. And with pie.
 
lemony blueberry pie

enough chilled pie dough for a double crust pie, divided in two*
6 cups blueberries
3/4 cups sugar
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup quick cooking tapioca
pinch of salt
pinch of cinnamon
1 tablespoon butter, divided (optional)

Preheat the oven to 425. Combine blueberries, sugar, lemon zest and juice, tapioca, salt and cinnamon in a large bowl and stir to blend.
 
Roll out half of your pie dough into a circular shape, and carefully transfer to a 9-inch pie plate. Press the dough gently into the plate and trim the edges, leaving a slight overhang. Put the pie plate in the refrigerator so that the dough can chill while you roll out the top crust.
 
When you are ready to assemble you pie, pour the blueberry mixture into the bottom crust, mounding the berries a bit in the center. If you'd like, dot the blueberries with butter (for some reason, I always seem to forget this step). Carefully fit the top crust over the pie and crimp the edges to seal. Using a very sharp knife, cut several steam vents a few inches long into the top of your pie. Sprinkle the top lightly with sugar.
 
Bake at 425 for 30 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375, cover the edges of your pie with foil so that it doesn't get too browned, and continue baking for about another 45 minutes, until the crust is golden and the filling is bubbling. Let cool for several hours so that the pie can set before serving.
 
*I always use Dorie Greenspans' Good for Almost Anything Pie Dough, which I've previously posted here.
 

Monday, August 18, 2014

{wanderlust} kyoto recommendations


Kyoto was the perfect jumping off point for our Japanese adventure. The former imperial capital is situated in a mountain valley, making it rich in both history and natural beauty. We spent our first day wandering the city, feasting on soba and tofu, and trying not to fall asleep in our food (jetlag: whoa). Day two was devoted to a walking tour, which involved temples, shrines, and the most amazing fall foliage I've ever seen in my life. On our third day we headed to the Golden Pavilion and the Bamboo Forrest, and on our last day we walked the Philosopher's Path, visited more temples, and did a little bit of shopping. Our Kyoto favorites are below. 

The Westin Miyako: This was our home base for our four nights in Kyoto. The Westin is situated outside of the city center, making it a bit further from shops and restaurants, but closer to some of the major temples. The expansive grounds at the edge of the valley also made for a peaceful setting. A mixup with our room was quickly resolved in our favor, and we ended up in a large room with a nice view of the trees behind the hotel. We also loved the Westin's breakfast--while it wasn't cheap, it boasted an expansive buffet of both Western and Japanese foods, and we loved eating there while perusing the international edition of The New York Times and plotting our route for the day. We tried to be adventurous with our lunches and dinners in Japan, so it was also nice to have familiar, reliable options like yogurt and toast to begin the day. Overall, we were very happy with the Westin in terms of the room, location and value. 

Gogyo: On our second day in Kyoto, we went on an all-day walking tour, and then headed back to the Westin to rest. Four hours later, we woke up disoriented, starving, and having slept through our dinner plans. A few clicks on Trip Advisor later, Ben found a ramen shop fairly near our hotel that was highly rated, and still open. Our goal was to get some food in our stomachs as quickly as possible before going back to sleep, but when we saddled up to the ramen bar at Gogyo, we ended up finding our favorite meal in all of Japan. We both ordered Gogyo's famous burnt miso ramen, which is made by actually lighting the miso on fire before adding it to the broth. The result is a sweet, rich black broth that was served with plenty of noodles, seaweed,  scallions, cabbage, and egg. We loved that ramen so much that we went back on our last day in Kyoto, and traveled nearly 45 minutes from our hotel to eat at the Tokyo location later in the week. It was by far our favorite meal of the trip, and no ramen we had before or since has ever measured up. If there were a Gogyo in the United States, I'm pretty sure we would have come up with an excuse to travel there by now. Probably more than once. 

Yoshikawa: Tucked away inside of a ryokan, or a traditional Japanese Inn, Yoshikawa Tempura was one of the most memorable experiences of our trip to Japan. Upon arrival, we were ushered into a  tiny room that consisted of 8 stools clustered around the Tempura bar. Behind the counter was our chef, who battered and deep fried anything that wasn't tied down before passing it across the counter and onto our waiting plates. Some (sweet potatoes) were more delicious than others (tiny deep fried whole white fish--bones, eyes, heads and all) but taste was secondary to the amazing experience of eating fresh tempura in such a beautiful and traditional Japanese setting. The staff could not have been kinder, and after dinner we were escorted to a sitting area to have dessert around a fire pit. We were joined for dessert by the other diners in the restaurant that evening--a couple from Thailand and their Japanese host. Much was lost in translation due to the language barrier, but we're pretty sure they told us that they had been invited to Japan by the Japanese Prime Minister, and that the gentleman with them was their state appointed escort. We figured we must have chosen well if we were eating in the same restaurant where the Prime Minister sent his guests! While it wasn't our favorite food, Yoshikawa was certainly an unforgettable Kyoto experience.

Eikan-do: In a fantastic stroke of luck, our visit to Kyoto happened to coincide perfectly with fall foliage season. One of the best spots for viewing the amazing colors was the grounds of Eikan-do, a Buddhist Temple near the eastern edge of Kyoto. It was so beautiful that we returned for the "Light Up," or an evening viewing of the fall foliage illuminated by spotlights.

Kiyomizu-dera: At the top of a shop-lined hill is Kiyomizu-dera, probably my favorite of the Kyoto Temples. Besides providing a stunning view of the landscape, there was also much to do and see at the Temple complex. One of my favorite experiences was visiting a pagoda on the grounds dedicated to the Buddha's mother. After removing our shoes, we descended a staircase into the pitch black basement of the building, meant to symbolize a mother's womb. We made our way through the dark, using a rope as a guide, to a stone shrine at the back of the Temple where we made a wish before continuing on to the other side of the structure and finally up and into the light.

Shigeharu: Ben wanted to buy a nice knife as a souvenir from Japan, and after some extensive internet research, he decided that he wanted to buy it at Shigeharu, an ancient knife shop that is the one of the oldest stores (of any kind) in all of Kyoto. There was just one problem--Shigeharu was far away and notoriously difficult to find. Undeterred, we set out on our last afternoon in Kyoto in search of Shigeharu. After numerous twists and turns around a residential Kyoto neighborhood, we were finally spit out of a back alley and onto a main street a few blocks shy of Shigeharu. When we approached the shop, we found an older gentleman sitting in the corner, making a knife. He didn't speak English, but after lots of gesturing and writing down numbers on a piece of paper, we were able to communicate what we wanted. It was a great experience, and the knife itself is fabulous. I immediately regretted not buying one for myself as well, and now that Ben and I live together, it's my go-to everyday knife. And a daily reminder of our lovely trip to Kyoto.

Monday, August 11, 2014

{wanderlust} kyoto


This is the first of several long-overdue posts on my trip to Japan last November. The first stop on our three-city trek was Kyoto, where we took in the stunning fall foliage, visited temples galore and ate more ramen than I thought humanly possible. Recommendations for Kyoto coming up next, but first some photos from this amazing ancient city.

From Top: Faux Geikos on the Streets of Kyoto; Foot Bridge at Eikan-do; The Bamboo Forrest; Fushimi-Inari; Ramen Chef; Burnt Miso Ramen;  Nanzen-Ji; Pocky!; The Golden Pavilion.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

charlie bird's farro salad


Last spring, my friend Kate and I went to check out the new Soho hot spot Charlie Bird. We ordered a veritable feast of veggies, toasts, and pastas, and while everything was delicious, I don't remember the vast majority of it (and that's not due to the feast of cocktails that was also ordered).  It's just that the first thing that appeared on our table, a sweet, salty farro salad studded with nuts, cheese and herbs, was so overwhelmingly good that I have a hard time recalling anything else about the meal.

Apparently I wasn't the only one totally smitten with this salad, because shortly before our visit, the recipe appeared in the Dining section of the New York Times. I made it for dinner recently and it was just as good as I remembered. In addition to pistachios and Parmesan, the salad is loaded with radishes, tiny tomatoes, peppery arugula and fresh herbs, making it an ideal vehicle for the summer produce currently flooding the markets (and for making dinner without turning on the oven). 
Speaking of herbs, pictured above is my latest obsession--tiny potted plants procured from the Union Square Greenmarket. Longtime readers know that I'm incapable of keeping a plant alive for more than a few weeks, but at only a few dollars, these aren't much more expensive than buying cut herbs at the grocery store, plus they do double duty as kitchen-brightening decor. Add in the fact that they make me smile ever time I catch a glimpse of them on the kitchen window sill, and they're practically a bargain, even if they do only last a few days. Either way they outlived the farro salad--I gobbled up the leftovers straight from the refrigerator the very next day. Now that's the sign of a good salad.

Charlie Bird's Farro Salad
Barely adapted from The New York Times

1 cup farro
1 cup apple cider
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (see note, below)
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, shaved with a vegetable peeler
1/2 cup shelled chopped pistachios
2 cups arugula
1 cup basil, torn
1 cup mint leaves
3/4 cups grape tomatoes, halved
1/3 cup thinly sliced radish
Maldon or other salt for serving if desired

Note: the original recipe called for 2 teaspoons of salt, but since I used a particularly salty Parmesan, I thought it was a bit too much. You can add salt to your finished salad if necessary.

Combine the farro, apple cider, salt, bay leaves, and 2 cups water in a saucepan. Simmer for around 30 minutes, until farro is tender and the liquid is evaporated. (If the liquid evaporates before the farro is done, add a little more water). Discard the bay leaves and let the farro cool. 

Whisk the lemon juice, olive oil and a pinch of salt in a bowl. Add the farro, cheese and nuts. (The salad will keep assembled up to this point for 4 hours at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator.) Just before serving, fold in the arugula, herbs, tomatoes and radishes. Sprinkle with salt if desired. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

hello again {sour cherry pie}

Well. It's been a while. After a long stretch of time where I just didn't feel like blogging, I'm back, inspired by a new apartment, and more importantly, a new kitchen. By New York standards it's huge--so huge that all of my prior apartment kitchens would likely fit inside of it comfortably at the same time (though that's not saying much). It also has a window, which is a first for me (unless you count my law school apartment, but my "kitchen" there was really just a wall of appliances in the living room) and a machine that washes dishes for you. I don't know how I survived eight years without a dishwasher, but I am never going back. Ever. I would marry that dishwasher if I could. I should also mention that I share this kitchen with someone else. His name is Ben and he's an enthusiastic eater and an excellent kitchen-cleaner. For those and about a hundred other reasons, cooking is so much better when he's around. So I've been back in the kitchen in earnest, with the winners so far being these chicken fajitas, this spinach, these muffins, and this sour cherry pie, which was Ben's birthday request.

Oh this pie. It involved an early-morning trip to the farmers' market, a hefty sour cherry bill, and even a bit of cursing-the-baking-gods as I attempted to roll out the dough in my overheated kitchen. But all of that strife was quickly forgotten as soon as I took my first bite. Ben claims that I proclaimed myself a "pie genius" upon tasting it, but I think he must have been hearing things. (He totally wasn't--this pie is definitely genius-level). Two days later, it's nearly gone and I'm already planning to make another. If you can get your hands on some sour cherries, I suggest you do the same. I'm so happy to be back--more sweets soon.

sour cherry pie
adapted from Food Network

enough pie dough for a double-crusted 9 inch pie, chilled and divided in two (see note, below)
5 cups sour cherries, rinsed and pitted
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar, plus 1 tablespoon for sprinkling
3-4 tablespoons quick cooking tapioca
1/8 teaspoon almond extract

For the Filling: Place the cherries in a saucepan over medium-high heat and cook, stirring frequently, until they start to release their juices. Add 1 1/3 cups of sugar and 3 tablespoons tapioca, and cook, stirring very often, until the mixture thickens. Stir in the almond extract and remove from the heat. Let the filling cool. If it is too thick, add a little water. If it is too thin, add another tablespoon of tapioca.

To Assemble and Bake the Pie: Preheat the oven to 375. Roll out the bottom crust and transfer it to a 9-inch pie plate. Pat the dough into shape and trim the edges. Pour the cooled cherry filling into the crust. Roll out the top crust and place it over the top of the pie. Flute the edges, and cut steam vents either by making slits in the top crust with a sharp knife, or by using small cookie cutters to make a decorative pattern, as I did above. Sprinkle the remaining tablespoon of sugar over the top of the pie, and bake for about 50 minutes. The pie should be golden and the filling should be bubbling. Transfer to a rack to cool completely before serving.

Note: I always use Dorie Greenspan's Good for Almost Anything Pie Dough, which has never failed me. It's flaky, buttery, and, in my experience, very forgiving. The recipe is available in her book, Baking From My Home to Yours, and I've previously posted it here

Sunday, December 15, 2013

peppermint chocolate bundt cake

It's the most wonderful time of the year. And to celebrate, I have a tradition of packing 30-odd people into my 500 square foot studio apartment and plying them with bourbon punch and cookies until they forget the close quarters and start feeling festive.

There are a few things that are always on the menu: the aforementioned punch, my favorite cookies ever, iced sugar cookies, and some sort of over the top, no holds barred peppermint chocolate show stopper. Last year, it was this pink candy cane layer cake. This year my version was more casual, but no less delicious. A devil's food bundt cake was spread with a pillow of mint buttercream, drizzled with chocolate mint ganache, and sprinkled with crushed candy canes.  It's hard to resist the holiday spirit with this on your table. Even if you're packed like sardines into a small studio apartment. Happy Holidays!

Peppermint Chocolate Bundt Cake

For the Cake
*Note: My bundt pan is only 10 cups, so I did 2/3 of the recipe

For the Peppermint Buttercream
1 stick unsalted butter
1 1/3 cups powdered sugar
2 teaspoons whole milk or half and half
1/4 teaspoon peppermint extract, or more to taste
pinch salt

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and sugar until soft and well combined. Add milk or half and half, peppermint extract and salt and beat several more minutes, until light, fluffy and the desired texture. Taste and add more peppermint extract if necessary. If your icing is too dense and buttery, add more powdered sugar until it's the desired consistency. 

For the Mint Chocolate Ganache
*Note that I halved the recipe, and added a little additional cream to make the ganache the desired consistency for drizzling

For Assembling the Cake
3 candy canes, roughly crushed by sealing in a ziplock bag and using a rolling pin to pound to the desired texture

Place the bundt cake on a cake stand or plate. Use a spatula to spread a thick coating of the peppermint buttercream over the top of the cake. Put the mint chocolate ganache in a liquid measuring cup or other vessel with a spout, and drizzle a thin stream over the top of the cake, letting the ganache run decoratively down the sides. While the ganache is still soft, sprinkle candy canes over the top of the cake.