Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Uses for Buttermilk

Buttermilk isn't something I often use in my cooking and baking, but I bought a quart of it last weekend for the delicious Pumpkin Pancakes and still had quite a bit left over. Since I still have a bit of baking energy I decided to find a use for it. Today I made two different kinds of muffins. Hopefully they last awhile. I put most of them in the freezer. They are just too tempting to eat when they are sitting out on the counter.

Blueberry Oatmeal Muffin and Whole Wheat Apricot Muffin

Blueberry Oatmeal Muffins
From Cooking Light, JANUARY 2006
Yield: 16 servings
  • 1 2/3 cups quick-cooking oats
  • 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups fat-free buttermilk
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 2 teaspoons grated lemon rind
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 cups frozen blueberries
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • Cooking spray
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  1. Preheat oven to 400°.
  2. Place oats in a food processor; pulse 5 to 6 times until oats resemble coarse meal. Place in a large bowl.
  3. Lightly spoon flours into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Add flours and next 5 ingredients (through salt) to oats in bowl; stir well with a whisk. Make a well in center of mixture.
  4. Combine buttermilk, oil, rind, and eggs in small bowl; stir well with a whisk. Add to flour mixture, stirring just until moist.
  5. Toss berries with 2 tablespoons flour, and gently fold them into the batter.
  6. Spoon batter into 16 muffin cups coated with cooking spray; sprinkle batter with 2 tablespoons granulated sugar. Bake at 400° for 20 minutes or until muffins spring back when touched lightly in center. Remove from pans immediately. Place on a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Angela's Notes on Blueberry Oatmeal Muffins: I ran out of light brown sugar and substituted dark brown sugar. Still tastes great, but I think that is why they are so dark. Also used orange zest instead of lemon zest. Very Yummy!

Whole Wheat Apricot Muffins
From Cooking Light, NOVEMBER 2004
Yield: 12 servings
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons grated orange rind
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup low-fat buttermilk
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 cup finely chopped dried apricots
  • Cooking spray
  1. Preheat oven to 375°. Lightly spoon flours into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flours, sugar, orange rind, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl, stirring with a whisk; make a well in center of mixture. Combine buttermilk, butter, vanilla, and egg; add to flour mixture, stirring just until moist. Fold in apricots.
  2. Spoon batter into 12 muffin cups coated with cooking spray. Bake at 375° for 15 minutes or until muffins spring back when touched lightly in center. Remove muffins from pan, and place on a wire rack.
  3. These muffins are best served warm, so reheat before serving if you've made them a day or two ahead. Wrap the muffins in aluminum foil, and heat at 350° for 10 to 15 minutes. Try varying the recipe by using dried fruit in place of the apricots--dried cherries or dates, for instance.
Angela's Notes on Whole Wheat Apricot Muffins: Super Delicious! The blueberry muffins were really good but I liked these even more.

That is all I have for today...I think I've spent more time in the kitchen the past week than I usually do in a month. I think I'll take a baking break for least for a couple of days!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

More Good Stuff

My baking/cooking spree continues. Here are more tasty recipes to add to your collection:

Pumpkin Spice Scones
  • 1 C. all purpose flour
  • 1 C. cake flour
  • 1 1/2 t. baking powder
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 1/2 t. ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 t. ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 t. ground allspice
  • 1/4 t. ground ginger
  • 6 T. unsalted butter
  • 1/2 C. raisins - (optional)
  • 1/3 C. pumpkin puree
  • 1/3 C. heavy cream
  • 6 T. brown sugar
  • 1 t. vanilla
  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Get out a baking sheet and line with parchment paper (not required but makes cleanup easy!). Cut the butter into small pieces, put it in a small bowl and put it back in the refrigerator. In a medium bowl, combine both flours, baking powder, salt, and all spices. Whisk together well. Place bowl in freezer (refrigerator is fine if you have no room in freezer).
  2. In a separate bowl, combine pumpkin, heavy cream, brown sugar, and vanilla. Whisk together well. Put this bowl in freezer (or refrigerator) and take the other bowl back out. Get the butter pieces out of the fridge and dump them into the bowl with the flour mixture. Cut the butter into the flour using a pastry blender or rub it in with your fingertips until it resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in the raisins if you are using them.
  3. Get the liquid mixture out of the freezer and pour into the flour mixture all at once. Stir with a wooden spoon until everything is just moistened. The dough will be very crumbly, this is the way it should be. Turn the mixture out onto the counter and push the pile together with your hands. It should stick together fairly well. Knead it just a couple of times until everything is together. Don’t knead it too much or the dough will get too sticky.
  4. Pat the dough out into a rough circle, 3/4 to 1 inch thick. Cut it like a pie into 8 pieces. Place pieces on the baking sheet so that they are not touching. Bake scones for about 15 minutes at 425 degrees. They should be light brown on the bottom, the tops will darken as they cool.
  5. Ice with Ginger Molasses Icing or Cinnamon Icing
Ginger Molasses Icing
  • 1 C. powdered sugar
  • 1 T. molasses
  • 1-2 T. milk
  • 1/4 - 1/2 t. ground ginger - (to taste)
  1. Stir together molasses, milk, and ground ginger (to taste). Adjust the amount of sugar or milk to make the icing the consistency you want. It should be pretty thick
Cinnamon Icing
  • 1 C. powdered sugar
  • 2 T. milk
  • 1/4 - 1/2 t. cinnamon - (to taste)
  1. Mix together powdered sugar, milk, cinnamon (to taste). adjust amounts to change consistency. Icing can be brushed on or drizzled.
Angela's Notes on Pumpkin Spice Scones: I used 1/2 & 1/2 instead of heavy cream. The dough was stickier than I expected - not sure if the 1/2 & 1/2 was the reason. They also came out more moist than I expected, but I prefer my scones a bit more moist. I tried a few with the Ginger Molasses Icing and the Cinnamon Icing. I preferred the Ginger Molasses, but Les preferred the Cinnamon. YUM!

Penne in Creamy Basil-Walnut Sauce
From Cooking Light, MAY 2004
Yield: 6 servings
  • 2 (1/2-ounce) slices white bread
  • 1/2 cup fat-free milk
  • 2 cups loosely packed basil leaves
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
  • 2 tablespoons grated fresh pecorino Romano cheese
  • 1 tablespoon extravirgin olive oil
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 garlic clove - peeled
  • 1 pound uncooked penne rigate pasta
  • Chopped parsley - (optional)
  1. Trim crusts from bread. Place bread in a shallow dish; pour milk over bread. Let stand 5 minutes. Place bread mixture in a food processor; add basil and next 6 ingredients (basil through garlic). Set aside without processing.
  2. Cook pasta according to package directions, omitting salt and fat. Drain in a colander over a bowl, reserving 3 tablespoons cooking liquid. Place pasta in a large bowl. Add reserved cooking liquid to basil mixture in food processor, and process until smooth. Add the pesto to pasta; toss well to coat. Sprinkle with parsley, if desired. Serve immediately.
Angela's Notes on Penne in Creamy Basil-Walnut Sauce: I wasn't expecting much from this recipe but was pleasantly surprised! The sauce is very similar to pesto, but not nearly as unhealthy. I did, however, need to add additional Romano cheese...but who wouldn't put a bit more cheese on pesto pasta? Not that it matters, but I also used Farfalle instead of Penne.

Pumpkin Pie Cheesecake

From Cooking Light, DECEMBER 2005
Yield: 8 servings
  • Cooking spray
  • 1/2 cup graham cracker crumbs - (about 4 cookie sheets)
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 (8-ounce) block fat-free cream cheese
  • 1/2 cup (4 ounces) 1/3-less-fat cream cheese
  • 1 cup canned pumpkin
  • 2 tablespoons reduced-fat sour cream
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup frozen reduced-calorie whipped topping - thawed
  • Cinnamon - (optional)
  1. Preheat oven to 325°.
  2. Coat an 8-inch springform pan with cooking spray, and sprinkle pan evenly with crumbs.
  3. Combine sugars and cream cheeses in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until smooth. Add pumpkin and next 9 ingredients (through eggs), and beat well.
  4. Pour cheese mixture into prepared pan. Bake at 325° for 35 minutes or until center is just set. Turn oven off, and partially open oven door. Cool cheesecake in oven 1 hour.
  5. Remove cheesecake from oven, and cover. Chill at least 8 hours or overnight. Serve with whipped topping, and sprinkle topping with cinnamon, if desired.
Angela's Notes on Pumpkin Pie Cheesecake: Delicious!

Lots of good stuff today. Had to give some of it away, too much for us to eat by ourselves! Lucky friends... :-)

A small disclaimer: I did not author the recipes or take the pictures in this post. My source for each is listed.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Feeling Domestic

I've been in a cooking/baking mood. I'm not sure if it is the change in the weather, the nearing holidays, or just the fact that I'm not in class right now and don't have much else to do. It might also have something to do with being severely limited in the amount of driving I can do until the first of the month (need more gas coupons, can't afford another $100+ tank of gas).

So, until I can get out and about I thought I'd share some of the recipes I've tried lately that have been a hit in my house. I try to cook with fresh ingredients whenever possible, but I don't mind taking shortcuts like using canned stock (who has the time to make fresh stock??). I also try to find recipes that are healthy. Most importantly, I like to make food that tastes good!

Pork Chops with Pear & Ginger Sauce
Yield: 4 servings; Total time: 40 minutes
  • 4 4-ounce boneless pork chops - 1/2 inch thick, trimmed
  • salt - to taste
  • pepper - to taste
  • 2 teaspoons canola oil
  • 3 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2/3 cup dry white wine
  • 1 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 firm, ripe pear - such as Bosc or Anjou, peeled, cored and cut lengthwise into eighths
  • 1/4 cup fresh ginger - peeled and cut into thin julienne strips
  • 6 scallions - trimmed and sliced into 1/2-inch lengths
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 2 tsp water - to mix with cornstarch
  1. Season pork with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add pork and cook until browned and just cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate and keep warm. Pour off fat from the pan.
  2. Add vinegar and sugar to the pan; stir to dissolve the sugar. Cook over medium-high heat until the syrup turns dark amber, 10 to 20 seconds. Pour in wine (stand back, as the caramel may sputter) and bring to a simmer, stirring. Add broth, pears and ginger; bring to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, turning the pears occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add scallions and cook until the pears are tender, about 2 minutes more. Add the cornstarch mixture and cook, stirring, until lightly thickened. Reduce heat to low and return the pork and any accumulated juices to the pan; turn to coat with the sauce. Serve immediately.
Whole Wheat Pumpkin Pancakes
  • 1 C. whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 C. cake flour
  • 1 t. baking soda
  • 2 t. baking powder
  • 1/4 t. salt
  • 1 t. ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 t. ground ginger
  • 1/2 t. ground nutmeg
  • 1 C. buttermilk
  • 1 C. canned pumpkin puree
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 T. oil
  • 1 t. vanilla
  • 2 T. dark brown sugar
  1. In a large bowl, whisk together the first eight ingredients (whole wheat flour through nutmeg). In a separate bowl, whisk together the last six ingredients (buttermilk through brown sugar).
  2. Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients and blend together with a wooden spoon until just combined. Lumps are ok, just make sure all the flour on the bottom of the bowl is mixed in. If batter seems too thick to pour, you can gently stir in a little more buttermilk.
  3. Drop pancakes by ladleful onto a medium-hot griddle. Pancakes are ready to turn when the edges start to look a little dry and you can see small bubbles forming on the surface.
Notes: You may substitute all-purpose flour for the cake flour if that’s all you have on hand. You may also use only whole wheat flour, just increase whole wheat to 1 1/2 cups and omit cake flour; pancakes will be just a bit heavier. Light brown sugar or white sugar may be substituted for dark brown sugar. If you have it on hand, 2 teaspoons of pumpkin pie spice can be used in place of the cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg.

Chipotle-Orange Chicken Cutlets
From Cooking Light Magazine, APRIL 2006
Yield: 4 servings
  • 4 (6-ounce) skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup thawed orange juice concentrate
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped chipotle chile - about 1 chile
  • 2 tablespoons water - (optional)
  • 2 cups hot cooked brown rice
  • 1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  1. Place each chicken breast half between 2 sheets of heavy-duty plastic wrap; pound each piece to 1/4-inch thickness using a meat mallet or small heavy skillet.
  2. Melt butter and oil in a large nonstick skillet over low heat.
  3. Combine flour, cumin, and salt in a shallow dish. Dip chicken in orange juice concentrate; dredge in flour mixture. Reserve concentrate.
  4. Increase heat to medium-high. Heat pan for 2 minutes or until butter starts to brown. Add chicken; cook 3 minutes on each side or until done. Remove from pan; keep warm.
  5. Stir in reserved concentrate, 1/2 cup water, and chile. Bring to a boil; cook 2 minutes. (Thin sauce with 2 tablespoons water, if needed.)
  6. Combine rice and chopped cilantro. Serve with chicken. Garnish with cilantro sprigs, if desired.
Wild Rice with Cranberries and Caramelized Onions
From Sheena, her source was the Craisins package
Yield: 4 servings
  • 2 cups vegetable broth
  • 1/2 cup brown rice
  • 1/2 cup wild rice
  • 3 tablespoons canola oil
  • 3 medium onions - sliced in thin wedges
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • 1 cup Craisins Orange Flavor Sweetened Dried Cranberries
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
  1. Combine vegetable broth and both rices in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer 45 minutes or until rice is tender and the liquid is absorbed.
  2. Meanwhile, heat oil in a medium skillet over medium high heat. Add onions and brown sugar. Cook 6 minutes or until liquid is absorbed and onions are soft and translucent. Reduce heat to low. Slowly cook onions, stirring often for 25 minutes or until they are caramel color. Stir in Craisins Orange Flavored sweetened cranberries.
  3. Cover and cook over low heat for 10 minutes or until cranberries swell. Gently fold cranberry mixture and orange zest into cooked rice.
Beef Stroganoff with Portobello Mushrooms
Yield: 4 servings, 1 1/2 cups each; Total time: 40 minutes
  • 2 teaspoons plus 1 tablespoon canola oil - divided
  • 1 pound flank steak, trimmed
  • 4 large portobello mushrooms - stemmed, halved and thinly sliced
  • 1 large onion, sliced
  • 3/4 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 14-ounce can reduced-sodium beef broth
  • 2 tablespoons cognac or brandy
  • 1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup reduced-fat sour cream
  • 4 tablespoons chopped fresh chives or parsley - divided
  1. Heat 2 teaspoons oil in a large skillet over high heat until shimmering but not smoking. Add steak and cook until browned on both sides, 3 to 4 minutes per side. (The meat will be rare, but will continue to cook as it rests.) Transfer to a cutting board and let rest for 5 minutes. Cut lengthwise into 2 long pieces then crosswise, across the grain, into 1/4-inch-thick slices.
  2. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil in the skillet over medium heat. Add mushrooms, onion, thyme, salt and pepper and cook, stirring often, until the vegetables are very tender and lightly browned, 8 to 12 minutes. Sprinkle flour over the vegetables; stir to coat. Stir in broth, cognac (or brandy) and vinegar and bring to a boil, stirring often. Reduce heat to a simmer, and continue cooking, stirring often, until the mixture is thickened, about 3 minutes. Stir in sour cream, chives (or parsley), the sliced steak and any accumulated juices. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring, until heated through, 1 to 2 minutes more.
Sweet Coconut Tapioca Soup with Bananas (Che Chuoi)
From Cooking Light Magazine, AUGUST 2004
Yield: 4 servings
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 (14-ounce) can light coconut milk
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup uncooked granulated tapioca
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 large ripe bananas - quartered lengthwise and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 1 1/2 cups)
  • 1 teaspoon sesame seeds, toasted - (optional)
  1. Bring water and coconut milk to a boil in a medium saucepan. Stir in sugar, tapioca, and salt. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook 30 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in bananas. Remove from heat; cover, and let stand 15 minutes. Serve warm, or chill 3 hours. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, if desired.
I hope you have a chance to try some of these recipes. Les and I loved all of them! I have more on the way, just need to try them before I share.

Happy Eating!

A small disclaimer: I did not author the recipes or take the pictures in this post. My source for each is listed.

Now playing: Colbie Caillat - Bubbly
via FoxyTunes

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Gas in the US is so CHEAP!

I don't want to hear anyone back home complain about gas prices!

Normally we buy coupons for gas on base and pay a semi-reasonable price per liter. We are allowed to buy coupons for up to 300 liters per month. The month we ran out of coupons and still have several days to go before we can buy more. Yesterday we had to pony up and buy gas for our car with Euro - at Italian prices. This means:
  1. We pay 1.311 Euro per Liter
  2. We pay approximately $1.47 for each Euro (the exchange rate keeps getting worse!)
This hit our pocketbook pretty hard:
  1. To fill up the car we took just over 54 Liters
  2. This came out to 71 Euro and change
So, to put this in American terms we took roughly 14.25 gallons for about $104.37.

I don't want to hear anyone in the US complain again that paying $3.50 per gallon is sooooo expensive. Try paying more than $7/gallon!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Last Two Days in Firenze

My fourth day in Florence wasn't my best. I'd been constantly on the go for a week and had not slept well for three nights. I woke up with a headache and was exhausted. Nevertheless I didn't want to waste my vacation time.

That morning we went to the Galleria dell'Academia - another great museum that didn't allow photos. The highlight was Michelangelo's David, but I was also enamored with Michelangelo's Prisoners (I wasn't able to find a link with good pictures). The Prisoners were pretty amazing. Michelangelo felt that the images he carved were just waiting to be released from the marble. The Prisoners are unfinished and you can really imagine these bodies trying to free themselves from the stone.

The Galleria dell'Academia recently opened a couple of new sections dedicated to musical instruments. The first section showcased several antique pieces including one of the first upright pianos. The second section displayed the most ornately decorated musical instruments I've ever seen including a marble harpsichord, marble guitar, intricately carved wooden instruments, and others made out of ebony and ivory. Beautiful!

By the time we finished exploring the Galleria dell'Academia my exhaustion was catching up with me. I grabbed some lunch with my family (another McDonalds feast) and headed back to the hotel with Grandma for a rest. I felt a bit better after a nap so Grandma and I went back to the outdoor market to do a bit of shopping. She bought me a beautiful scarf as a late birthday present (I've already used it once since the weather has turned cold here in Sicily!) and I bought a few other things for myself and for early Christmas presents.

We met back up with my mom and aunties at the hotel around 7 in the evening. They were exhausted from walking all afternoon. We decided to go back to Trattoria Tito again for dinner and even though they were extremely busy they recognized us from the night before and squeezed us in. The service and food were so good! Another great evening.

I slept a bit better that night, probably because I was so exhausted. The next morning my aunties took off for a day trip to Cinque Terre. I decided not to go because I would like to spend more time in that area and not be rushed. Plus, it was my last day to spend with my mom so I stayed in Florence. Unfortunately my mom didn't feel well when she woke up. She ended up staying in the hotel most of the day. Even though I wish we would have had more time together at least I got to spend a lot of quality time with Grandma.

In the afternoon mom tried to perk up a bit and went for a walk with Grandma & I. As we were heading toward the city center we noticed a store that had displays of mushrooms, more of an exhibition, they didn't appear to be on sale. I've never seen so many types of mushrooms!

I don't think this one should be eaten...

A Neat-looking Mushroom

As we wandered along we came back to the Duomo. In addition to the crowds of people the street merchants selling knock-off purses, scarves, and all sorts of things were lined up in front of the church. I was a bit disturbed and was reminded of the story in the Bible where Jesus cleared the merchants out of the Temple (John 2:12-25)

Merchants in front of the Duomo

We continued exploring without any particular destination. We wandered up and down streets, in and out of shops, and enjoyed people-watching.

"Gone Tanning"

Picture of the Ponte Vecchio on a carousel in Piazza dell Republica

Tower in Piazza della Signoria

Lovers' Locks on the Ponte Vecchio
Lovers come to the bridge, put a lock on the bridge and throw the key into the Arno River as a sign of their undying love.

Musicians on the Ponte Vecchio

After walking for a bit my mom decided that she wanted to go back to the hotel, she wasn't feeling as good as she thought she was when she left the hotel. Grandma and I continued exploring.

A local artist at work

The Ponte Vecchio at sunset

Another evening shot of the Ponte Vecchio

Grandma and I wandered into Piazza Santa Croce and discovered an artists' market full of artists selling their unique pieces, anything from paintings, glass work, jewelry, bronze work, and painted silk.

An artist working with bronze

A piece of painted silk in progress

It started to get dark and Grandma and I decided to find an early dinner. I had been hoping to eat Chinese food (a luxury I don't often get) at some point on this trip so Grandma indulged me and we had a delicious dinner. We took our leftovers back to the hotel for my mom, hoping she'd be able to eat a bit. Luckily the Chicken Fried Rice tasted good to her. I spent the rest of the evening packing up my suitcase and getting ready go home.

It was really hard to leave my family. They were continuing on to Switzerland and I had to go home. I was ready to sleep in my own bed but didn't want to say goodbye to my mom, grandma, and aunties. I kept myself together and was ok until I got to the airport and was all checked in. Then it hit me...its gonna be awhile until I see them again. It took all of my control not to break down crying in the airport. I had such a great time and I really feel like I was blessed to be able to share so many great experiences with those that I love.

Now playing: Plumb - Bittersweet
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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Firenze Day Three, Excursion to Tuscany

One of the collective priorities of our group was to do a bit of wine tasting while in Tuscany. We decided to take a tour that included San Gimignano, Casa Emma winery, and Siena. Our driver, Adamo, and tour guide, Joanna, picked us up at our hotel and whisked us out of the city. Perhaps whisked isn't the right word...turns out that day was a major student demonstration protesting a new student tax. The streets were crowded and driving was difficult. I'm glad I wasn't in the driver's seat!

Finally we escaped the throngs in the city and made our way to San Gimignano - a beautiful town situated on a hillside. This town is famous for its medieval towers. Originally there were about 60 of them, only 14 remain.

A house in San Gimignano

San Gimignano Towers

A flower with the Tuscan countryside in the background

Looking out on the surrounding towns and countryside

We could have spent a good deal more time in San Gimignano but we were running late for our wine tasting. On our way out of the town we grabbed a quick gelato. My aunts had been hunting for dark chocolate and orange gelato - something they had seen in Rome but got away without trying. We found a gelateria that had it so we had to stop. I had a bit of the orange chocolate, a white wine and orange flavor, and fig. All three were soooo delicious!

About 30 minutes later we arrived at the Casa Emma Winery in the Chianti region. Their specialty is the Chianti Classico wine, but they had a few other varieties as well.

Casa Emma Winery

Casa Emma's Vineyards

A bunch of grapes that missed out on the harvest

After our very informative, private tour of the winery we sat down for a tasting.

Bread and olive oil - probably the best olive oil I've ever had!

Mom, Chris, & Cyndy enjoying their wine

An advertisement for the winery that I found in the tasting room

I could have spent a lot more time at the winery as well. I love vineyards and could look at them all day, but we were still a bit behind schedule; we had another tour guide to meet in Siena and needed to get a bit of lunch to put into our wine-filled tummies.

After a quick lunch at a cafe on Piazza Campo in Siena we met up with our tour guide to get an overview of Siena.

Piazza Campo, City Hall

Siena Duomo and Bell Tower

An addition to the Duomo that was never completed

Facade of the Duomo - too bad there was construction, it was hard to get a good picture

Siena was a destination in itself. I could have spent a few days there absorbing the unique culture. On our way back into Florence we stopped at Michaelangelo Square overlooking the city. The view was beautiful.

Arno River and Ponte Vecchio from Michaelangelo Square

The Florence Duomo from Michaelangelo Square

Sadly the tour had to come to an end. I thoroughly enjoyed it! I'm glad we had the opportunity to see some of the countryside and do a bit of wine tasting.

We rested at the hotel for a bit and then went searching for dinner again. We finally found a keeper! Trattoria Tito - a little local place a block over from our hotel. It was delicious! A great end to a great day.

Now playing: Keely Smith - Fly Me To The Moon
via FoxyTunes

Over 1000 Hits!

I just noticed that my blog has now received over 1000 hits! I am amazed that my life is interesting enough that others want to read about it. It reminds me that I am blessed with amazing opportunities and experiences that others may not have. Just knowing that you, my readers, are interested, motivates me to continue living life to the fullest. Thank you!

Now playing: Garth Brooks - One Night A Day
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Our Second Day in Firenze

I didn't sleep well the first night in Florence. Hotel Giglio wasn't exactly what I expected. The bed was extremely hard and narrow and the pillow wasn't much better. I woke up exhausted (and in desperate need of a cappuccino), but ready to see more of the city. The plan was to climb the 463 steps to the top of the Duomo before our 11:15AM reservation at the Uffizi Gallery.

The climb to the top of the Duomo was exhausting but the view was spectacular! I'm just glad we did it early in the morning before the weather warmed up and the crowds descended. I can't imagine navigating those narrow corridors and stairways with a crowd of people.

A closeup of the interior of the Duomo

Looking down on Florence - the Bell Tower of the Duomo

Church of San Lorenzo

Mom on her way down the narrow stairs of the Duomo

After our climb Mom & Chris went back to the hotel to get Grandma. Cyndy and I took off in our own directions for a bit. I found a cafe near Piazza della Signoria, had a cappuccino, wrote in my travel journal, and enjoyed a bit of alone time. I love traveling with my family but its good to have a bit of quiet time to myself too.

Soon it was time to meet up with everyone again for our reservation at the Uffizi Gallery. It was a great museum, so many beautiful pieces, but unfortunately pictures were not allowed. My favorite piece in the museum was the Birth of Venus by Botticelli.

We spent a couple of hours exploring the gallery and then found a small but nice restaurant a few blocks away from the Uffizi for a tasty lunch. After lunch Grandma was ready for a rest so Cyndy took her back to the hotel. Chris, Mom, & I wandered for a bit and then met up with Cyndy near the Ponte Vecchio. We decided to check out the Pitti Palace on the other side of the Arno River. We were mostly interested in exploring the gardens. Unfortunately you can't get into the gardens without purchasing tickets to the museum. It was already late in the afternoon so we decided to move on.

A lamp post outside of the Pitti Palace

Our wanderings took us back to the Arno River. We meandered, took pictures and enjoyed the scenery.

Another lamp-post near the Arno

We crossed back to the other side of the river and wandered some of the smaller, less touristy streets. We found the Biblioteca Natzionale and wandered into Piazza Santa Croce.

Santa Croce Church
This church looks a lot like a smaller version of the Duomo

We eventually made our way back to the hotel, got Grandma, and decided it was time to find dinner. We decided to play it safe since our experience the night before wasn't the best and we ended up at McDonalds. I've never been a huge McDonalds fan - at least until that night. I ate my first Big Mac ever, it was soooo good! I kind of wish I didn't know how good because now I crave them. (Yes, that was my first Big Mac. My fast food preferences in the states leaned towards In n Out and Jack in the Box.)

After our tasty dinner we made our way back to the hotel hoping for a better night of sleep than the last.

Now playing: Sara Evans - Suds in the Bucket
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Monday, October 22, 2007

From Roma to Firenze

We left Rome mid-morning on a Wednesday by train. The trip to Florence few by in a just an hour and a half. Once we checked into our hotel and had a short rest we took off walking to see what suprises the city held for us.

A few blocks from the hotel we glanced down a street and saw a market so off we went. The market started near San Lorenzo Church and went on for blocks in several directions. Markets in Florence are awesome! Full of scarves and leather goods and plenty of touristy souvenirs.

When we had our fill of outdoor shopping we decided to make our way toward the Duomo. Although the church itself was built in the 13th century the facade (as it appears today) was not completed until the late 1800's.

Duomo - Santa Maria del Fiore

We admired the exterior and then made our way inside the large church.

Looking up into the dome of the Duomo

Bell Tower of the Duomo

Once we finished admiring the Duomo we continued our explorations. We wandered through Piazza della Repubblica, Piazza della Signoria, admired local artists at work outside of the Uffizi Gallery, and suddenly we found ourselves at the Arno River. We glanced to the right and there was the Ponte Vecchio.

The Ponte Vecchio

A lone gondola under the Ponte Vecchio

The Ponte Vecchio is lined mostly with expensive jewelry stores and (at least while we were there) very crowded.

A roof-top on the Ponte Vecchio as the sun was setting

We enjoyed the lowering of the sun near the river and then headed back towards our hotel room for a rest before dinner. We picked up a bottle of wine to take back with us for "happy hour". Soon we were ready for dinner. We walked back towards the city center and found a pizza take-out place where the pizzas looked delicious, covered with vegies and other yummy looking toppings...sadly they looked a lot better than they tasted. Oh well. At least we found out early on where NOT to eat. In spite of the less than wonderful food we had fun laughing and talking over dinner. Tired and happy we walked back to our hotel ready for a good night of sleep.

Now playing: Benise - Shakara
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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Ever Heard of "Sweetest Day"?

Yesterday afternoon my hubbie came home from running errands with a card for me. I was a bit suspicious thinking "what did you do...?" He said he was wandering the card section of the exchange thinking of getting me something "just because" and he stumbled on a section for "Sweetest Day". My first thought was that Hallmark was making up holidays to sell cards, and their ploy caught my husband hook, line, and sinker. :)

This morning I turned the card over and noticed that the card wasn't by Hallmark, it was by American Greetings. Here is the little explanation about "Sweetest Day" that they have on the back of the card:

Celebrated on the third Saturday in October, Sweetest Day started in 1922, when a candy company employee organized a group to help deliver candy and small gifts to orphans and others whose lives needed brightening. Today, lovers and romantics embrace the day as well, but it's still a time to remember those who bring happiness to our lives.

Anyway, the card my hubbie gave me was very sweet and heartfelt. Thank you sweetheart! I love the little things you do to show me that you love me.

Now playing: Carla Bruni - L'amour
via FoxyTunes

Friday, October 19, 2007

Our Fourth and Final Day in Roma

We decided to spend our final day in Rome exploring the area around the Colosseum. Mom and I had the opportunity to explore the inside of the Colosseum on our previous trip to Rome so my aunties, grandma, and cousin took off to tour the interior and Palatine Hill while we spent time in the Roman Forum.

il Colosseo

Flower with il Colosseo in the background

Temple of Antoius Pius & Faustina
Built sometime between AD 138-161, Church was added later, This building was buried in dirt as high as the green doors until the 1800s.

We met up with the rest of the family around 1PM. Erik (my cousin) had to take off for points north and had a train to catch. It was good to see him and get to know him a little bit better. Growing up we didn't have many opportunities to spend time together. He is also a few years older than me and I think I probably was the annoying little cousin and he wanted to be left alone. Now that I've spent some time with him he seems like a really cool person, I hope to get to know him better in the future.

After Erik departed everyone wandered back into the Roman Forum. We weren't there long before our stomachs told us it was lunchtime and we went in search of food. We decided to eat at the cafe inside the Capitol Hill Museum and then explore the museum after lunch. From the moment we bought our tickets nearly every employee at the museum was extremely snotty. Their attitudes made me so upset that I nearly left without seeing any of the exhibits. Fortunately I stuck it out and truly enjoyed the pieces on display. And to make it even better I was asked to answer a customer service survey on my way out. Yep, they got an ear-full. Actually, I was very polite, but did say that most employees were extremely rude, but that I enjoyed the museum itself.

Boy Extracting a Thorn (Spinario)

Bernini's Medusa

Capitoline She-Wolf with Romulus and Remus (the symbol of Rome)
Etruscan from fifth century BC

A Piece of a Statue of Constantine from the Roman Forum
The hand (not including the pedestal) is nearly as tall as I am! Can you imagine how big the statue was when it was whole?

My aunt Cyndy disappeared somewhere in the Capitol Hill Museum. Tour guides throughout the trip dubbed her "the missing sister" because she has a way of getting caught up in her photography and either took off ahead or was left behind.

The rest of us weren't quite sure of what to do next. We figured that Cyndy was a big girl and would probably, eventually make her way back to the hotel. Grandma was tired so Chris decided to take her back to the hotel as well. That left mom and I on our own. I decided that we needed to explore the Trastevere section of Rome. Rick Steves has a walking tour of this area in his Rome 2007 book. We made our way that direction and some some really neat sights.

This church was built around existing ruins
The columns of a temple are still visible in the outer walls. I can't remember the name of the church but it was amazing to see.

The other side of the church, a better view of the old temple columns

Our walk took us over the Tiber River, first onto the Isola Tiberina (an island in the Tiber River) and then into Trastevere. We meandered the streets following Rick Steves' book and saw things that without his book we wouldn't have known or appreciated what we saw.

This building, now a restaurant, was a Jewish Synagogue 1000 years ago. You can still see a bit of Hebrew writing at the base of the pillars.

Our walking tour ended in the piazza of Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of the oldest churches in Rome. A string trio was playing in the piazza and they were quite good. I could have sat and listed for hours soaking up the atmosphere. Trastevere was amazing and very different from the touristy sections of Rome. I highly recommend checking it out.

Church of Santa Maria in Trastavere

We left the piazza much sooner than we would have liked because we told the rest of our family that we'd meet at a certain time for dinner. We had 15 minutes to cross to the other side of the city. We flagged the first cab that we saw and were on our way. Sadly, this cabbie wasn't the best. I think we got conned. One block before the hotel the meter said 7Euro. Suddenly when we stopped the meter stopped to 12Euro. We tried to figure out what happened but suddenly the guy didn't speak much English. Shocking. We just paid it and got on with our evening. It wasn't worth causing a scene.

We went on up to Grandma & the aunties' room and this is how we found them:

Cyndy-Lou-Who, Grandma-Lou-Who, and Chris-Lou-Who
Were they bored waiting for us??

We had more than a few laughs and then went back to il Pomodorino for dinner. We didn't eat nearly as much this time, but the food was still excellent.

After dinner we took a cab back to the flat and packed our suitcases. Our train left for Florence the next morning.

Now playing: Sting - Desert Rose
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