Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Most Versatile Spice Cake Recipe Ever

It may look plain, but this tasty recipe is my go-to dessert for parties, family gatherings, and cold Sunday mornings. It has the texture of bread, the sweetness of spice cake, and can be made with apples, bananas, or even raisins and figs. On top of that, it's super easy to make. You probably already have the ingredients in your pantry.

Fresh Pear Cake


4 cups fresh pears, peeled, cored and diced (or apples or bananas)
3 eggs beaten
2 cups sugar
1 cup broken pecans (optional)
1 cup oil (or apple sauce; I always use this substitution)
1 tsp. vanilla
3 cups flour (I use spelt flour, which has a denser texture)
1/2 tsp. clove
1/2 tsp. allspice
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda


Combine fruit (and pecans, if desired) in large bowl. Mix sugar, spices and salt; pour over fruit mixture. Set aside for one hour, stirring several times. Sift together the dry ingredients, and then sift them again over fruit mixture and mix thoroughly. Combine eggs, vanilla, and oil or apple sauce in a separate bowl and pour over fruit mixture and stir.

Pour batter into greased and sugared 13 x 9-inch or bundt pan. Bake at 300 degrees for 45-50 minutes, or until inserted knife comes out clean. Cool in pan for 15 minutes. Invert into cookie sheet, turn top up, and dust with cinnamon.


Saturday, April 21, 2012

London: Day Two - March 15, 2012

It's always strange, revisiting the hurriedly scrawled notes I make in my travel journal. Usually, they are written in the hasty fifteen minutes before dropping into bed from sheer exhaustion or scribbled during quick train or bus jaunts across town, so the writing is always skittery and disjointed, and it rarely makes sense. For example, the March 15 entry:
Katya still wasn’t feeling well and our search for dinner was fruitless. Arabic man asked us to figure out camera. Thought we were locals. Big Ben at night = <3. Crazy trains. Katya cried.
We've traveled a lot, Katya and I, and we have a tendency to add a bit of hindsight gloss to our stories over time. It's been a month since we've returned home, though, and while I can still recall the details of this day clearly, I cannot remember Katya crying at all in London.

The thing is, my daughter doesn't cry. In the last year, she's wept maybe twice, both times out of anger, not sadness. Sadness,profound beauty, and ASPCA commercials are things that cause me to weep like a lovestruck fangirl at a Panic! at the Disco concert, but not her. So what made her cry?

So I dug a little deeper through my notes. Katya wasn't feeling well from the outset, partly because I broke the coffee maker in our flat that morning and dragged her out of the flat and into the street in less than an hour. (Actually, I didn't know I broke it until later; I just thought I was doing it wrong, that it was some old-fangled British coffee maker that my simple American mind couldn't figure out.)

On the way to Notting Hill Gate tube station, we did find something that made Katya deliriously happy:

This message on the wall of a Notting Hill department store evoked a fangirly squee, but was not tear-worthy.

Because of our early departure, we beat the crowds for the Westminster Abbey for the tour we'd missed the day before. While I was impressed by the vastness of the 900-year old church, Katya thought it was "creepy" because of the crypts in the walls and floors. I love it. I think it's a brilliant use of otherwise wasted space. What she really enjoyed of Westminster was the college gardens. Because Westminster Abbey is still a functioning cathedral, the clergy live and learn on site, and their apartments open onto beautiful gardens. They were closed to the public, according to some signage, but we managed to find a secret way in, and found ourselves transported to a tranquil walled garden of calm.

We spent a couple of hours wandering the grounds of Westminster before we headed back out into the bright spring afternoon. Next on our list was the Tower Bridge, which we quite enjoyed until Katya began to get hungry. She's one of those kids, though; she will neglect her physical needs when she's interested in something. By the time we completed the Tower Bridge tour, she was pale and shaky. We headed down to Katharine Dock and found a little Italian cafe called Strada. Open air and full of light, the restaurant was filled with local business folk, and the savory scent of the food nearly knocked us over. I had Coniglio and farfalle -- rabbit pasta! -- and Katya had porcini pasta with tomato and basil. The Spanish waiter was very kind to us, too. He gave us a basket filled with a dozen different types of bread, which reminded us Peeta in The Hunger Games.

Katya seemed restored by the meal, which was good, since we were prepared to head back to the flat for a while if she didn't feel better. Also, the weather was perfect -- neither too warm nor too cool -- and we didn't want to waste the day. We found a tiny park across from the Tower, right in the shadow of a hunk of the original London Wall. We just had to touch it, of course, and then we played on the swings and the merry-go-round. There were two little boys watching us from the benches, and after a bit, their father brought them over so they could play, too. I'll never forget that: my 13-year-old and those two blond toddlers running around in the shadow of a wall that is two thousand years old.

After playing in the park, Katya began to feel ill again. We decided to head on to the flat to do a little shopping on Portobello Road. We picked up some pain reliever (not Tylenol; the man at the chemist looked as though he'd never heard of it before. We got Paracetamol instead) and returned to the flat for a few hours.

After resting and watching American TV (Seriously, Britain, why do you love our trashy reality shows? We had a choice of How I Met Your Mother, 16 And Pregnant, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and Man vs. Food. Where's our Doctor Who and Torchwood? We chose How I Met Your Mother.), we got dressed all fancy and went back out for our trip to Queen's Theatre to see Les Miserables. Seriously, I cannot rate London2Go highly enough. We navigated our way to Piccadilly Circus with zero difficulty. Of course, the lights of Piccadilly are like a beacon anyway. It's British Times Square! And we love it, despite what some American students said at the Sherlock Holmes Restaurant.

We reserved our tickets for Les Miserables in early February through Viator, a travel and entertainment site, and they were waiting for us at Will Call, so everything went smoothly there. This is my fourth time seeing Les Miserables, but the first with Katya. I was worried about how she would receive it. As I mentioned earlier, she's not overly sentimental (like me), and though she's familiar with the story and the history, I still wondered if she would somehow think it was silly or dated.

But it wasn't. It was beautiful. The London cast was the best I've seen, and our seats were close enough that we could appreciate the expressions on the faces of the actors as well as their voices. I cried. More than once. She didn't, though.

And now I remember why she did. After the show, we went back out into the cool London street. There was a bite to the air now; a storm was coming in. The street bustled with theatre-goers, just like in Times Square, and we jostled with them, feeling light and ethereal, the way you do after a really good show. We were both hungry again, so we decided to head back to Westminster to see if we could find dinner before returning to Notting Hill.

It was nearly midnight, now, and a Thursday. The trains were crowded with young people in clubbing clothes. When we arrived at Westminster, we found a passel of teenagers getting makey-outy along the banks of the Thames, and the odd Arabic man who couldn't work his camera. He asked us how to get to Soho, then seemed surprised that we weren't locals. But all the restaurants were closed, and Katya began to get cranky. Even though Big Ben is beautiful by night, the time had taken its toll, and she'd been feeling unwell all day.

Finally, we decided to abandon the search for food out, since even the McDonald's was closed. We boarded the train again, bound for Notting Hill, and there, on the train, out of tiredness and frustration, she cried.

We got home and ate our microwave meals. Katya asked if we could sleep in the next morning, and since I'd bought instant coffee at the Marks & Spencer, I told her we could.

Then I scribbled my notes and crashed. Not the best ending for an otherwise decent day, though I wish Katya had felt better.

But I'll leave you with this image. Big Ben at night really does = <3

I pretend that David Tennant is standing behind me, admiring Big Ben... It could be true!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Happy Easter, everyone!

As usual, we had a busy family day together with a picnic that spanned both Aunt Ava's and Grannye's yards, as well as our own. Ava's yard looked outstanding with her deck and patio festooned with paper lanterns, eggs, flowers, and bunnies. Mine looked pretty good, too, since we strung the hummingbird feeder and have been watching the showdown from the porch ever since. Adorable little birds, hummers, but vicious as TIE fighters.

One guarantee about any holiday in the Die family, we always have outstanding food. Mom supplied some amazing sandwiches a bit like Monte Cristos. I'll have to get the recipe for that one. Aunt Amy brought her to-die-for banana pudding. Katya and I devoured an entire heaping plateful between us. For my contribution, since I'm the one with eclectic tastes, I brought something a little unusual.
Last week, my co-workers held an Iron Chef competition. In observance of the upcoming holiday, the secret ingredient was eggs. I tried a recipe from the April 2009 issue of Better Homes & Gardens: Bread Pudding Quiche with Berries and Bacon, and it won!

Therefore, I decided to try a variation of that recipe for today's Easter picnic, and it turned out even better. So, here's my latest take on an award-winning quiche recipe.

French toast quiche with blackberries and bacon lattice

4 slices cinnamon raisin bread, cut into 1/2-in. squares
5 eggs
1 1/2 cups milk
1 1/2 cups chopped Gouda
2 tsp. all-purpose or spelt flour
3/4 cup chicken sausage, chopped
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
2 cups blackberries
4-6 slices crisp-cooked, drained bacon
1 10-in graham cracker crust

Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees.

In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs and milk. In a small bowl, mix cheese, flour, salt, and pepper. Add to egg mixture. Fold in bread squares, sausage, and green onions. Pour into crust.

Bake 50 to 60 minutes or until knife inserted near center comes out clean. If necessary, after 30 minutes, tent with foil to prevent over-browning. Cool on wire rack 15 minutes.

To serve, arrange bacon in a lattice and top with blackberries.