Thursday, June 26, 2008

More Than it Hurts You

I just finished reading this book. Let me say this before anything else. The book reads like a script. Every detail carefully visualized. The characters all given 3-d lives, beyond the current storyline. I think it will make a great movie.

When I started reading More than It Hurts You, I thought it would be like an episode of House. A medical thriller. It is that on a certain level, for it does revolve around Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome, but upon reading it, I thought it was more about the undercurrents of a relationship. Husband-Wife, Parent-Child, Doctor-Patient, Lawyer-Client. Relationship when a certain trust between the two parties is implied and expected. Through intricate description of characters and their motives, these undercurrents shape the novel as they do shape our relationships and our world views in real life. It is a compelling read, although I must admit at times I was overwhelmed with the exhaustive imagery.

The story is about three main characters. Three and a half if you include baby Zack, whose life it most at stake. Josh Goldin is a TV airtime salesman, is married to Dori and is the father of their baby, Zack. When Zack is admitted twice to the hospital with the same mysterious symptoms – anemia and heart attack for no apparent reason, the head of the pediatrics unit a black women named Dr.Darlene Stokes starts to suspect something. Child Protective Services get involved and a public debate ensues – where no one is spared. The tale is disturbing at times and Strauss does a good job in exposing the nuances of the myriad relationships he examines in the course of narrating this tale. I have to confess that Dori was on my mind long after I finished reading the book. Do add it to your reading list.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Night Owl or Morning Lark

I am a confirmed night owl. I like to go to bed late-ish and wake up late-ish. I have struggled with it all my life. You know the proverbs they drill in your head in school – early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise. I guess that does not apply to me. I am no man. And even if I were a man, I would probably live by this credo – early to bed, early to rise means you had no fun last night.

I am glad I wasn’t born in the 1920s or the 1910s, hell even 1960s I suppose. When women had to wake up early to fetch water, clean house and cook. I would have gone insane, waking up at 5:00 am each day. Which brings me to this weird theory I have. The reason many women were generally meaner and crueler in the last century was because they woke up so early everyday. Ask a night owl to be a morning lark and you will get a real nasty lady, let me tell ya. Been there. Done that.

I have always stayed up late at night. Mostly to read books. Even with board exams looming ahead in less than a week, I stayed up at night, not to study, but to read Gone with the wind, for the second time. There is a certain thrill in staying up at night and reading or watching TV which just isn’t there when you set the alarm for 4:00 am and wake up promptly and turn the page to Scarlett O’Hara mock fainting on the couch. It just doesn’t cut it. And there are no nice shows on TV at 4:00 am either. Everybody is trying to sell you something then. From denture cleaners to geriatric cocktail rings. Positively depressing.

For what it’s worth, I have tried to change my ways. Many, many times. Only to fail miserably. I have tried waking up early in the morning, but I have always found it hard to do so without an alarm. And who wants to wake up to a shrill buzz? Not me. I have tried the clock radio but that’s no less jarring. Even the classical station. I don’t want to wake up to a crescendo. I don’t think I want to wake up at all. Not at 5:00 am, not at 6:00 am. Seven would be okay. Seven-thirty ideal. I literally loose sleep when I have to wake up early. I wake up on the hour, every hour at night to look at the glowing, green numbers on my bedside clock.Unhappy but relieved; it’s not time to get up yet. Wash, rinse, repeat till 6:00 am.

But I also would be lying if I were to deny the splendid feeling I get once I wake up early in the morning and boot. I am so fresh. No 10 o’clock slump. No 3 o’clock slump. No tried feeling at 8:30 in the evening. But I can’t do it for more than two days. Makes me nasty, generally, even if I have better energy levels. Don’t ask me why. Perhaps, despite the increased physical energy I am stressed with the prospect of going to bed early and waking up early. I can’t quite fall asleep at 9:30 pm, except when I am jetlagged at which time I hit the sack at 7:00. Every time I come home after visiting India, I make a pact with myself, to continue my natural jetlagged stage. Go to bed at 9:00 (and DVR all my favorite shows) and wake up at 5:30. The resolution lasts as long as my jetlag does and I am back to my never-go-to-bed before 11:00 pm routine.

I don’t think I am cut out to be a morning lark. I am certain they will find an “owl” gene or a “lark” gene in all of us pretty soon. My only lament at being a night owl is this. I will never be powerful and famous. Because all powerful and famous people are always early risers. Or perhaps I will go down in history as the only famous and powerful person to be a night lark. That would be cool. Although the odds are not in my favor much.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Favorite Literary Characters

From Mystic. Thanks girl, I raelly went bonkers doing this tag. and whittling down to 10 was so hard.

From Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Swashbuckling hero. The angry young man. Full of good old fashioned adventure and chivalry, he was one of the first characters that made a lasting impression on me. I read the Three Musketeers (abridged) when I was in third standard and while I did not quite finish the book then (the whole Milady thing confused me so), D’Artganan made a lasting impression.

Mr. Darcy
I don’t know a single girl who did not read Pride and Prejudice and did not have a crush on Mr.Darcy growing up. Need I say more? Suffice to say, I married a Mr. Darcy of sorts.

Dagny Taggart
From Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. I think Dagny represents the dichotomy in all of us. A part of her feels that she can “fix” the system, a part of her wants to give abandon everything and run away.

Monsieur Poirot
Created by Agatha Christie, one cannot but adore the egg-headed Belgian with a waxed moustache, a keen eye, a sharp mind and love for pots of chocolate.

By P.G Wodehouse. How can you not love the smug, self assured valet (not butler) always pulling out his fumbling employer Bertie Wooster from the traps he constantly falls in? Jeeves is also a true renaissance man. He knows his history, literature, science, horse racing, weather, you name it.

Ford Prefect
From the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy, Ford’s original name cannot be pronounced. Or rather can only be pronounced in the original Betelgeusian dialect. A modern, no rather a futuristic D’Artganan, he always knows what to do and never forgets to carry a towel and belives in the words written (in large reassuring letters) across his hitchhikers guide – Don’t Panic.

Little Prince
The protagonist of the eponymous book by Antoine de Saint ExupĂ©ry. The little prince lives on a little asteroid with three volcanoes. One day, bored, he sets out to explore the universe, going to six neighboring asteroids, meeting their inhabitants and finally visiting earth. Through the little prince, one goes on a journey within, returning to the simple profoundness of a child’s eye.

Jean Louise “Scout” Finch
Scout Finch impressed me very much when I read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in middle school. As its main character and narrator, she is a tomboy, is mature for her age and is very clever. The best part about her is that she actually gets to see Arthur “Boo” Radley (the kids are terrified of this recluse) and even learns from him.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull
A cult figure. Created by Richard Bach, he made his appearance in the eponymous book. A castout, he leaves his flock behind to learn everything about flying. He is rewarded in his zest when two older, spiritual gulls take him to a higher plane of learning where he learns to fly anywhere in the world in an instant by knowing “he has already arrived”.

This protagonist has no name. Only a character. From the book I admire the most, The Castle. Neither here not there, unsure of what to do, K embodies a metaphor. He arrives in a distant village as a stranger to do his job as a land surveyor. Throughout the book (which ends in a mid-sentence) he strives to contact the mystifying people of the castle, only to be offered a job of a school janitor instead.

Anyone else who feels interested, please take up this tag and share!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The 55 tag

Preethi tagged me to complete the story in 55 words exactly.

What happened so far.

"She wondered if she could ever count each of the twinkling stars in the night sky. The clock in the tower struck 9. She had to get back to reading her text book, ignoring the weird grumbling noises her stomach was making. The flickering orange street light looked like it would go put any minute." [galadriel]

she considered her options. she cud complete reading before the light died on her. or she cud eat. or of course, she could attempt to count the stars. it was in the midst of this contemplation that her phone buzzed. books aside, hunger aside... she now focussed on the screen. should she answer... she wondered. [rayshma]

She decided to let it ring.. must be her mother calling to find out if she was alright. She was really tired of her mom checking on her four times every day! And then she heard it, a blood curdling scream filled the air. There were sounds of running feet ,followed by another shrill scream! [preethi]

And now 55 from me.
She stood up to see where the sound had come from. It was a bratty toddler throwing a tantrum. The phone was still ringing shrilly. She picked it up. It was not her mother. “Hello”, said a voice from the other end. “Did you get my e-mail?” “Yes” she laughed. “I just finished reading it.”

Tagging ~nm

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Here come the gadgets - Things you need and don't need to bake

So. On to Part Troix. The gadgets. I own every baking gadget under the sun (well, almost every), so I am going to divvy it up in three parts. Must have, Nice to have and Indulgences.

Must Have
One good pan
Please don’t buy cheap pans. They will not conduct heat properly and will warp in just a couple of uses. The right pan must be made of professional grade aluminum and should have straight edges. I would recommend Wilton since they are readily available. A 9 inch round is a good first pan to have. Calphalon makes dark pans and are fairly decent, but don’t have straight edges and the cakes don’t come out looking “clean and neat”. I have never found the need to go with silicone bake ware- they are wobbly and synthetic. They are not truly non-stick. Most come with instructions to grease them. Also, you will have to place the pan on a cookie sheet when baking because it is so wobbly. And these pans will never work for Angel Food Cakes – where you don’t grease the pan. Stick to metal. It’s natural. And real bakers don’t need silicone (pans).

One good hand mixer
Unless you want to get exercise and/or a sprained arm, it would be better to go with an electric hand mixer. There are many to choose from. I had a cheap Hamilton Beach that I bought for $15 a long time ago that served me very well. It has been passed on to the MIL now. Don’t use your regular blender or food processor. They don’t work in mixing air properly with the batter which is the whole point of beating/creaming.

One good spatula
Don’t underestimate its importance. A rubber or a silicone or even a wood spatula is a MUST for folding flour. Stainless steel works too, but I hate the grating npise it makes when you fold. Never use a hand mixer for this step.

One reliable oven
That heats to 350F when you turn the knob at 350F. Should not overheat or underheat.

One offset spatula
To spread frosting. They are cheap. They cost a couple of bucks and are invaluable when spreading frosting. Don’t try to do the job with a butter knife. You will not only leave fingerprints all over the cake, but the job will take twice as long and will frustrate you. For the longest time I thought this was an indulgence. But had I bought one before, it would have saved me hours of agony.

Nice To Have
Definitely more pans
If you are bored of baking in the same old 9” round over and over again, you might want to invest in a few more pans. If you have kids, muffin pans are most useful to make quick cupcakes. Calpahalon works well for Muffin pans. I always line them with paper cups. Bundt Pans are another nice thing to have. I would only recommend Nordicware. The pans are expensive, but are very handy when baking for a party or a potluck. Bundt Pans should be heavy. Since they have designs in them and have many nooks and crannies it is vital they are made of a good quality iron for even heat distribution. A 8x4 loaf pan is also nice to have to make quick breads and pound cakes served for tea. And of course a cookie sheet.

Piping bags and tips
For frosting cakes. I would tell you to not spend good money on the “decorating sets” they sell which has a piston like contraption. Decorating is hard with those because you don’t get good control over your motions. Invest in a set of piping bags a set of couplers and quality tips like Ateco or Wilton. Some basic tips to would be a open star to make stars and shells(Wilton#21, #28), a round(Wilton #3, #4), a leaf(I use Wilton #352) and grass (Wilton #233,#234). If you have kids – this will be used very often.

Even more cake pans
Square, heart, different sizes of round (my favorite pan is the 6”round). Character pans. The list is endless. I don’t do character pans – they are expensive, but if you plan ahead you can buy them on e-bay for less than half of retail.

A Stand Mixer
I have one of this and I debated a LONG time if this should go in the nice-to-have section. It probably would have, had it not been for the price. The stand mixer is used more than my food processor. I use my stand mixer every other day to make chapatti dough, mix batters for quick dosa or thalipeeth. It’s a life saver and needs no baby sitting. The best part is that it does not have a zillion lids like my food processor has so it saves on clean up and storage. I have the Kitchen Aid brand and I will recommend that because they don’t change the way their attachments couple to the machine. So attachments from 25 years ago will work on today’s Kitchen Aid and today’s Kitchen Aid will work with attachments 25 years from now. And yesh, the standmixer will also grind, slice and grate (you have to buy attachments).

All purpose flour works well in most cases. I generally use organic. You can even buy whole wheat pastry flour and that is delicious too, although you might have to go to specialty stores to buy it. For fine textured cake, you might want to buy cake flour. Swanson is the most popular brand in the US. I never buy self raising flour. I’d like to add (or not) my own leavening agents.

Butter should be unsalted. Salted butter has way too much salt in it. For sugar, use plain old granulated sugar. I have substituted Splenda for baking with excellent results. Don’t use brown sugar if the recipe calls for white. For frosting, use 10x confectioner’s sugar. That’s standard.

For the seven minute frosting, if you don’t feel comfortable consuming eggs that are not completely cooked, you can buy Meringue Powder (Wilton Brand) which is pasteurized egg whites. For Whipped Cream frosting that is fat free (you can also buy this in a can), you can buy sachets of stabilizers by Dr.Oetkar. Beat them up with cold skim milk and you get a nice mock whipped cream. You can find this in the baking aisle on the lower shelves (where they have boxes of instant mousse). I prefer this to cream in a can because the can is left in the fridge to expire.

So there! Hope you head out and buy pans and spatulas and make that cake you have been meaning to for a while.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Icing On The Cake - Secrets To Decorating A Cake

We eat with our eyes – that how the common saying goes. Once you have baked a cake at home and if it is a special occasion like you child’s birthday or even your birthday, it would be fun to decorate it.

Decorating need not always be elaborate. If you double the recipe in the last post and bake it in a Bundt Pan and dust it lightly with cocoa or confectioner’s sugar, topping with fresh berries or a berry coulis, it will make a pretty cake indeed. This is how I decorate most of my cakes. Or with dollops of light whipped cream.

But if you must do an elaborate decoration, you will need some tools and well, some frosting recipes. Again, homemade frosting tastes way better than what you can buy ready made off store shelves. There are two ways to decorate a cake. With Buttercream frosting and with Fondant.

When you buy cakes at a bakery (no matter how upscale the bakery) they always use shortening to make their butter cream. Not only is it full of trans fats and leave that greasy film in your mouth, if often does not taste good. A better alternative is the Seven Minute Frosting. This uses no butter and is incredibly light. It is suitable for piping decorations too. And I will also give out the Classic Buttercream Recipe – the one made with confectioners (icing) sugar which is super-easy to make.

Classic Buttercream
1 cup butter
6-8 cups confectioners (icing) sugar
½ cup milk
2 tsp vanilla extract

Beat the butter, milk, vanilla and 4 cups of icing sugar using a hand mixer. Add the remaining sugar in small batches until the frosting has reached spreading consistency. For piping decorations, add more sugar to make a stiff butter cream. Tint it with color if desired. To make chocolate butter cream, replace sugar with ¼-½ cup of cocoa powder.

Seven Minute Frosting
This is slightly more involved but tastes a 100 times better than classic buttercream. This can be frozen up to six months.
2 egg whites
1 pinch salt
1.5 cups castor sugar
1/3 cup water
1 tsp vanilla (or any other extract you like)
¼ tsp cream of tartar (don’t skip this – you will get scrambled eggs otherwise. This stabilizes the egg white foam. You can substitute with ¼ tsp of lemon juice or white vinegar)

Heat an inch of water in a skillet. Place another sauce pan over the simmering skillet (to make a double boiler) and combine all ingredients except vanilla and color in it and beat or whisk for a minute. Cook over the boiling water while constantly beating it until the frosting makes stiff peaks. Remove from heat and mix in vanilla and color.

How to fill and frost a cake
I generally bake cakes and freeze them beforehand. If you use 3” tall pans, you will need to slice the cake horizontally with a long serrated knife. (Trick: make a small notch in the side of the cake before cutting it. One can never uniformly slice the cake, so when the times comes to put the two halves together, the notch will be a good guide.) To fill the layers, you can pipe a round of frosting at the periphery of the layers – I am lazy and generally don’t do this. Put 1/3 of a cup of frosting and spread it over a layer taking care not to spread too close to the edge. Because you don’t want the frosting to squeeze out when you cover with the second layer.

While spreading butter cream over a cake, it is useful to invest in an offset spatula. And remember this rule. Always start with at least 2 cups of frosting to frost a 2 layer 8 or 9 inch cake. Dump all frosting on the top of the cake. It is a lot of frosting and I never said this was healthyJ. Using semi-circular motion spread the frosting on the top then over to the sides. You always frost by subtracting the excess frosting. Never by adding more. You will get catch crumbs in your icing that way. And that looks very unappetizing. Smoothing out frosting needs a bit of practice, but it’s not rocket science. If you have a turntable or a lazy susan, your job will be made easier. I use a painters scraper ($0.99 at home depot to smooth sides)

At this point, you can either pipe decorations with the frosting itself or use fondant.

You can by fondant off the shelf, but it tastes like toothpaste. Better make it at home. This takes minutes.

Marshmallow Fondant
1 lb mini marshmallows
2 lb confectioner’s sugar
2 tbsp water
½ cup oil for greasing your palms

Microwave marshmallows and water in a bowl in 30- sec increments until the mixture turns soupy. Generously grease your food processor with oil and fix the dough attachment and dump the soupy mixture and ½ the sugar in it. Slowly add more sugar until the mixture resembles a soft dough. Shrink wrap it until you are ready to use. If it goes hard, just microwave it again. If you want to tint it with a color, soften it using the microwave and add color with a toothpick (the colors are potent). The chocolate covering from the Enchanted Tree Cake is fondant tinted brown. Using cocoa is not a good idea because it will dry out the fondant.

To cover a cake, frost with butter cream first. Roll out the fondant in a large circle. The circle must be large enough to completely drape the cake and two or more inches left over which can be trimmed. This is essential otherwise you will get folds in your fondant covering. Once the cake is covered, your imagination is the limit. You can buy fondant cutters with which you can fashion leaves and flowers. You can make 3-d animals just like you will from play-do. This site will give you pictures of simple animals to make.

How to make the Enchanted Tree Cake
For the enchanted tree cake, I made two 6 inch cakes and cut them into 4 layers. Filled and frosted with buttercream. I rolled out a small circle enough to just cover the top of the cake. Then I rolled out two large rectangles and covered the side leaving frayed edge at the top and at the bottom. I attached the seams using water. This was the basic tree stump.

Then I made snakes out of brown fondant and made the eyebrows and other features. I scored the tree using a sharp paring knife to give it a bark-like look. I fashioned a nose by hand. I made the 3-d animals and added those. Made leaves and the fruit and arranged those on top. I had made the cake layers ahead of time and had made chocolate and white fondant. I decorated the cake on a Friday evening after coming home from work. Took me about 3 hours. Longest time took to color the fondant to the exact shades I wanted.

So there. This is 101 of frosting and fondant. I hope this inspires you to create beautiful cakes at home. And don’t worry if they seem a bit rough. That’s what makes them special and homemade. And remember, this is not rocket science. Believe me when I say it’s harder to type about decorating cakes than to actually decorate them. And if you all are not bored yet, I’ll do another post on baking and decorating equipment.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Bake Easy – Secrets To Making Mouthwatering Cakes

If you have felt inspired to try baking on your own, even if you are novice, let me share a little secret with you. Baking is not difficult. Now repeat that after me. It is so easy even a caveman could do it. So I thought I should do a post and share some baking tips with you that I have learned from baking pros to some (very inedible) experiments from my own kitchen. Nothing comes close to the smell of freshly baked bread or muffins or cake wafting through your home and nothing tastes better than freshly baked anything.

You don’t need a recipe
If you don’t want to look up recipes every now and then to bake a simple butter cake (also called Madeira or Pound cake), invest in a reliable pair of kitchen scales and remember this rule.

Weight of eggs = Weights of Butter = Weight of Sugar = Weight of Flour.

Weigh, mix and bake, and you got cake. A large egg weighs about 60-65 grams. 3 eggs would be ~180 gms. So our recipe can be something like this-

Simple Butter Cake
3 eggs
¾ cup butter (1.5 sticks, ~180gms)
¾ cup castor sugar (~180 gms)
1.5 cup Flour (~180 gms)
1.5 tsp baking powder (rule : 1 tsp per cup of flour and for this cake, it is optional.)
¼ cup milk (optional. This is our insurance. Butter varies widely in its water content, so you might just need some milk to thin the batter. Want to see if your butter has high water content? Let is sit on the counter for some time. If it sweats you have butter with high water content, so you won’t need as much liquid)
2 tsp vanilla (for butter cake), almond (for pound cake) or lemon (for Madeira cake). Remember to use good quality extracts, not essences – it makes a world of difference.
1 tsp salt.

Grease your pan with butter and set aside. Preheat the oven to 350F.

Butter cakes are cream cakes. Meaning, you cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Hand mixer or stand mixer work well. Add eggs one at a time and mix until just mixed. Whisk (or even sift, if the four is too compacted) together with salt and (optional) baking powder. Add the flour in small batches and mix lightly (called folding in baker-ese). Add milk in tablespoon increments if required. Do not over mix. Over mixing will encourage formation of gluten strings that will make the cake chewy, not soft. That’s not nice.

Bake times vary by the pan you are using. Smaller pans will reduce bake time. So if you pour the batter into cupcake moulds, delicious cupcakes will be ready in about 25 minutes. A 9” round will take about 35 mins. A dark pan will take more time, a light-colored pan (such as aluminum) will take less time. So bake times are only a suggestion. Change your pan and you have to adjust for that. If you are just starting out down the baking road, and don’t want to invest in professional grade pans –and I will always tell you to buy professional grade pans, please don’t buy cheap, thin pans - use glass pans like Pyrex or Corning everyone has at home. A glass pie dish works rather nicely. But, reduce your oven temperature to 325F. If you don’t have muffin pans, use steel katories. They work nicely too. But adjust baking times.

The above recipe will make about 4.5 - 5 cups of batter. Enough for a 9 inch round pan or a 8 x 4 inch loaf pan. So there you have it. A versatile butter cake that will taste and smell like real cake. Not faceless versions you make out of a box.

Add chopped nuts, or other spices like all spice or ginger and you have made yourself a tasty variation.

Now on to what I think is everybody’s favorite cake. Chocolate. Again, I am not just going to give out a recipe. But will make changes to the formula above.

Weight of eggs = Weights of Butter = Weight of Sugar = Weight of Flour + Cocoa.

Point to remember. Natural Cocoa is acidic. You can buy (alkalized) Dutch Processed Cocoa which is less acidic, darker and mellower and a lot of European cocoa makers like Valhrona and Droste (my favorite) only make alkalized cocoa and is popular in European baking. But we’ll just stick to regular cocoa for now (Hersheys and Ghirardellis). Cocoa will also dry out cakes, so some extra liquid is needed. Also the full flavor of cocoa can be better released by boiling it in water and this tastes a lot better than just adding cocoa to the flour. So, we will modify our formula above to make a chocolate cake. Baking powder which was optional before is no longer optional since we need an alkali (baking powder is baking soda + cream of tartar) to neutralize the acidic cocoa.

Simple Chocolate Cake
3 eggs
¾ cup butter (1.5 sticks, ~180gms)
¾ cup castor sugar (~180 gms)
¾ cup Flour (~90 gms)
¾ cup Cocoa (~90 gms)
1.5 tsp baking powder
1 cup boiling water (You can mix cocoa in milk for a mellower cake or in strong brewed coffee for a mocha version)
2 tsp vanilla extract.
1 tsp salt.

Follow directions for butter cake. Except in the end, mix cocoa with boiling water and mix it in with the batter. The batter will be thinner than butter cake batter, but chocolate cake batter need to be thinner since cocoa is a drying agent. Also don’t over bake chocolate cakes. If the cake leaves the side of pans, it is too well done and will come out dry.

So gather your aprons and mitts and give these cakes a try. I guarantee, once you have tasted a real cake made with natural ingredients, you will never look at Betty Crocker again. And if you all are further interested, we can visit making allergen free cakes and sponges next time. Or even pies and scones and muffins and yeast breads – which again is a different chemistry.

I looked at my post counter while posting this and saw this is the 150th post. So the sweet treat is a fitting one :)

Friday, June 13, 2008

I Bake, You Vote

Which one do you like the best? #1 or #2/3?
These are the cakes we had for Chip's Birhday Party a few weeks ago.
#1 is bakery made is is allergen free. Cost: $85 This was for his pre-school party.
#2/3 are different views of the same cake. This was made by me for the party we had with family and friends. Cost: less than $15

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Four Days in San Francisco - Part II

Day three found us driving towards the Monterey-Carmel area. To the south of the city. We drove through Silicon Valley looking for the Mystery Spot, but the tickets were all sold out. Just before we reached Monterey we stopped at Moss’s Landing to see the sea lions. Young ones climbing on top of their elders, the elders basking in the sun on a cold day. Some fighting, pushing. It was a riot. It was late in the afternoon when we reached Monterey. We parked and went to the beach. It was a beautiful day. Blue skies with few white clouds. The bay a deep cerulean blue in some places, a frothy sea green when you turned and looked the other way. Chip obviously wanted to dive right into the really cold water, not interested in shells and sea glass on the beach that I tried to distract him with. BigGeek hurried us as we tried to get sand off from our shoes. Everybody was hungry. BigGeek tried to find a small Syrian place where we had eaten the best spanakopita ever five years ago. He found it and we all did a take out of tasty Mediterranean food – perfect accompaniment to the Mediterranean blues and whites of the water and sky outside. We drove on looking at the famous Cannery Row, which not surprisingly had Steinbeck plastered everywhere you could see. We took some pictures and headed to the 17 mile drive.

The 17 mile drive is a stretch of a private road between Monterey and Carmel. With exquisite views the bay, the houses here are uber expensive. A getaway for the richest of the richest. Filmstars, hot shot lawyers and business men have beach homes here on the Pebble Beach, home also to the famous eponymous golf course. Five years can make a lot of difference in what you consider “money”. I remember being very impressed with the homes then. But this time, not so much. Some of the houses, no mansions were certainly breathtaking but this time it was somehow different. We stopped at the many vista points to get gorgeous views of the bay and the cypress trees that line it, including the famous lone cypress. I have yet to see a desi that does not have a picture of this one.

We reached Carmel-by-the-bay wanting coffee. At least my mother-in-law and I wanted coffee. I had promised Chip that I would buy some salt water taffy for him in Carmel. We stopped on a charming street flanked with small shops. We went to a candy store to buy taffy but when I looked at its ingredients it listed egg whites, and since Chip is allergic to egg whites, we, after a bit of tears and foot-thumping settled for a lollipop the size of a saucer! We bought two coffees at a nearby coffee shop and headed back to San Jose to eat dinner with BigGeek’s distant uncle – whom he had not met in over a decade.

Fourth day, was our last day in San Francisco. We were scheduled to catch a red eye that night. We planned to see Coit Tower and the famous china town and perhaps the aquarium and another ice-cream at Ghirardelli’s. By the time we checked out out of the hotel it was afternoon. We were not hungry since we had a good breakfast, so we decided to go doen crooked street and head to Coit Tower. Lombard street also known as the Crooked Street, is the world’s crookedest street. The mile long street has about 40 turns. They are made so that motorists can negotiate the almost 70 degree incline in such a short distance. They are houses on crooked street and people actually live in them. I can’t imagine parking there. For that matter I can’t imagine parking or even driving anywhere in San Francisco – the city and so many ups and downs – its not for the faint of heart. By the time we reached Coit Tower, Chip was asleep. I dared not wake him up and was happy to sit out Coit Tower since I am deathly scared of heights. I napped with Chip too when the trio came back an hour later from their trip. Chip was awake by then and we decided to head towards the Aquarium.

The Aquarium-by-the-bay is a glass tunnel constructed under the bay to showcase local marine wildlife. It was a blast. We saw starfish clung to the wall of the tunnel. Eels, giant fish that were atleast five feet in length (I forgot their name) bat rays, sharks, colorful anemone. Schools of fish swam over head – it was like scuba diving without getting wet or without getting your toe bit off by a shark! The best part were small pools where they kept bat rays, sharks and star fish. You were encouraged to touch them. Chip was wildly excited. He was ready to take off his clothes and dive in with the sharks. And in his quintessential Chipness boldly went to touch all fish – bat rays, sharks and the star fish which were his favorite! It was getting late in the afternoon and out breakfast had worn itself. It was time to refuel. With what else- but another ice-cream at Ghirardelli’s. This time BigGeek refused to share a sundae with me. We all got dark chocolate stuff – and ate to out heart’s content. With a few more hours to kill before the flight, we decided to go to Silicon Valeey again to meet another relative who my MIL had not seen in over a decade. We ate Chat –after all a trip to Silicon Valley or Little India as I like to call it is incomplete without some desi food. As we sat sated in the Chaat Palace on El Camino, watching as the place filled with all manners of desis, reflecting on the last 4 days, I looked at BigGeek and said “I know you will hate me for this, but I could move here in a heartbeat.”

Friday, June 6, 2008

Four Days in San Francisco - Part I

On a cool spring morning, just as the sun broke out in the eastern sky, five people and four bags piled themselves in to a large taxi and hurried away to catch a plane. To San Francisco. Chip, his parents and his grandparents. A red backpack, one large bag – the kind you would take for a 2 week trip to India (don’t ask, it was filled with diapers I had no intention of putting on Chip’s butt) and two small strolleys, one of which Chip called the dibs on right away and hauled it to the ticketing counter. Any one would think here was a happy family spending a week or a better part of ten days away vacationing. But no. This happy family was spending a mere 4 days – whole 4 days because of the time difference in what I think is one of the most charming cities ever – San Francisco. Or Frisco. Some one told me, I think it was my father, that San Francisco natives did not like people calling their city Frisco. If anybody can confirm this, please do so.

Six and a half hours, and one mad dash of a connection later we reached Point B. Rental car picked up, the family once more piled themselves in it and drove away. It was only 11:00 am. We were a bit tired but excited. We could not check in until 2:00 pm, so we had a good four hours to kill until then. I turned to my vacation excel sheet. In my uber planning mode I had completely forgotten that we would reach 4 hours before the check in time. My sheet said that we were to check in, eat and go to Fisherman’s Wharf. But with time to kill, we decided to drive around, eat, check-in, nap and then go to Fisherman’s Wharf.

From the list of eateries, DDMom had given me and from some more places I had looked up on tripadvisor, we decided to go to in the Haight-Ashbury district, hoping to also see some hippies colorful people with alternate lifestyles, along with some good desi food. The food was good, the owner over bearing. In the middle of the meal I wished there was some way of telling the owner to just let us eat in peace. We ate and drove to the hotel and napped. By that I mean BigGeek napped, the mother-in-law and father-in-law caught a couple of winks on a cramped sofa, while I suffered Chip. He refused to sleep and in one tired, exasperated moment when I threaten to give him a pop on his behind, he calmly told me, “Aie, I am going to go sleep next to Baba. He has more patience.” And off he went. An hour later, our senses somewhat restored we stepped outside on chilly, breezy afternoon headed towards Fisherman’s Wharf.

This was our second trip to San Francisco. The last time we were able to see the piers of the Golden Gate the first day we saw it. I never knew what a big of a deal that was until my cousin explained to me that he had visited the city a dozen times to find the bridge shrouded by a dense fog. We were lucky this time too. The sky was cloudless and as we walked towards the Fisherman’s wharf, we could see a giant red bridge looming up on the horizon. We went to a small pier to see if we could ride a boat to get nicer views of the bay, the bridge and the Alcatraz. We were lucky here too. It was almost 6:30 pm and the boats were running their last trip of the day. We hurriedly paid and found seats and a minute later, we set sail.

Mark Twain once said that the coldest winter in America was summer in San Francisco. As the little boat sped on the bay, a cold breeze swept our hair up and chilled our noses. Chip, who was wearing a fleece but no wind breaker refused a blanket, pulling it off vehemently every time I tried to cover him in it. But the cold was more than worth the views. The bay, lined with multimillion dollar houses, the Alcatraz on the other side and the most beautiful of it all- the Golden Gate.

When we debarked, we decided to get an ice cream. We walked towards the very crowded Ghirardelli Square and managed to order ice creams and find places for all of us to eat them. BigGeek and me shared a banana split, Chip dug into his vanilla scoop topped with fresh strawberries, father-in-law ate a dark chocolate mint and the mother-in-law enjoyed a bowl of chocolate chip.

The next day we decided to drive to Sonoma. DDMom had told me Napa would be crowded and Sonoma was a better bet. As we headed north across the Golden Gate, the busy streets of the city gave way to gentle plains dotted with vineyards and orchards. Looking at them only added to our excitement. Our first stop was Ravenswood – their zinfandels are a family favorite. Chip was blissfully asleep and I was not about to wake him up, so BigGeek and the in-laws went for a wine tasting. 40 mins later, they returned disappointed. It was too crowded. And chatotic. So much for tasting the nice zins. Our next stop was Sebastiani. Chip was still asleep and I voted to stay back with him while others went. This time everybody was happy. The wines were good and they even bought a bottle to enjoy later with dinner. One thing about the wine business or rather the tasting business is the amount of snobbery that goes around. One vineyard that we stopped at (we had a guide with us and picked this winery just because) was most unfriendly. After BigGeek, my father in law and I waited for about 10 minutes, some one came and asked us if we had reservations. I said no. The ad did not mention that reservations were required, but I did not tell him that. We needed reservations and they only did food and wine pairings. A point they had again missed while putting in their ad in the guide. There was a party of about 10-12 people sitting on a large table in the tasting room. The harried sommelier went back to them and poured wines hurriedly. The people were tense, a bit afraid that in their simplicity, they would fail to appreciate the wine and the food and both.

On the way back from Sonoma, we stopped at Muir Woods to marvel the magnificence of giant costal redwoods. Some over a thousand years old. Wonder how they must feel to stand in one place for so long. Chip enjoyed the trip thoroughly, running to and fro on the tracks not really awed by the trees but by the odd squirrel or the deer he spotted.