Sunday, July 28, 2013

Lemon Cupcake, Lemon Drops and Love

It's cupcake time again!  This week's dessert comes from Cupcake Charlie's at Patriot Place in Foxborough, Massachusetts.  I tried the Lemon Drop Cupcake--lemon cake with a sweet lemon filling, topped with mounds of buttercream frosting, a sprinkle of candied sugar, and finished with a white chocolate garnish.  The cake was fresh and just the right consistency, and the filling was a nice balance to the frosting and cake, with a lemon flavor that was not overpowering.  The best thing about this cupcake was the buttercream frosting.  It was the perfect blend of butter and sugar; not overly rich but also not too sweet.  The candied sugar on top was a nice contrast to the smooth buttercream.  The size of the cupcake was just right, and there was plenty of frosting to last throughout the entire cupcake experience.  

I was drawn to the Lemon Drop Cupcake because of my grandfather, who loved lemon drop candies.  I was lucky enough to grow up with my maternal grandparents living upstairs in our two-family home, and they were an integral part of my childhood and my life.  One of my beloved memories of my grandfather dates back to the 1970's, when I was about ten years old. Around that time, the game show "Bowling For Dollars" was running on channel 9 in New York.  Contestants would literally bowl to win money, and viewers would mail in postcards in the hopes of being selected as the 'Pin Pal.' Contestants would select one postcard from a big vat of postcards, and the Pin Pal would win the same money that the contestant won.  For each pin knocked down by the contestant, the contestant and Pin Pal would each win a dollar.  If the contestant rolled two strikes, the contestant and Pin Pal would win a much larger jackpot.  

My grandparents had mailed in a postcard, and one particular evening their postcard was drawn as the Pin Pal.  My grandfather and I were actually on a walk to the lake during the show, and I remember the excitement of finding out what had happened when we got back.  

It was one of those joyous, unexpected moments in life that you can't plan for. It started as an ordinary night, and then my grandparents' postcard was drawn, and my grandparents won money on TV!  It was big news in our house!  The contestant who chose their card did really well, and my grandparents ended up winning the jackpot of about $500.00, which, back in the 1970's, was a pretty good outcome for simply mailing in a postcard.  

What happened next was the best part of all.  One afternoon, with no fanfare or warning, my grandfather announced that we were going to play Name That Tune.  He gathered the grandkids together, and we sat in his living room while he played song after song on his piano.  When we recognized the song we would jump up and yell out the name, and if we got it right, we would win some money.  Of course all the grandkids ended up winning.  We thought it was great fun, and I still remember the scene like it was yesterday--my grandfather sitting down to play a few bars, one of us excitedly yelling out the answer, and him happily jumping up and giving out some more money.  He played tune after tune after tune, and we kept guessing and winning more.  

I recall that at the time, I had a vague realization that the Name That Tune game occurred coincidentally after the Bowling For Dollars win.  But back then, I just thought that it was so much fun that we were having our own game show, and that we were all winning money.  Looking back as an adult, I realize that it was a great act of love and generosity.  My grandparents were on a fixed income.  Winning Bowling for Dollars was a really nice windfall for them. And one of the first things they did was share it with their very young grandchildren.  

The fourteenth anniversary of my grandfather's passing was last week.  The money from the Name That Tune game is long gone, but that memory, and many more loving memories of my grandfather, will always remain.  When I think of my grandfather, I can't help but be reminded that the best legacy we can leave to others is the legacy of love.

I definitely enjoyed the Lemon Drop Cupcake. The sweetest desserts are those that remind us of the people we love.  Have a sweet week!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A Brownie and a Book

I'm not a brownie person.

That's exactly what I told the waitress at the Nosh Kitchen Bar in Portland, Maine, when she suggested I try the Betty Ford Brownie. "It's just a brownie?" I said, thinking this was probably a mistake.  

"I'm not a brownie person either," she replied. "But I really like this dessert."  

So I tried it.  And she was right, it was a winner.  The Betty Ford Brownie seems less like a brownie and more like an exotic chocolate square.  You need a fork to eat it.  It comes served on a plate decorated with ribbons of chocolate sauce and a mound of whipped cream off to the side.  The brownie itself is composed of three layers.  The bottom layer is chocolate chip cookie, but the cookie is so soft and chewy it's more like really good chocolate chip cookie dough. The next layer is oreo cookie, and in this layer you get large pieces of oreos, molded into a square which is sitting on top of the chocolate chip cookie layer.  Finally, the top layer is a thick layer of chocolate fudge brownie, probably about a quarter of an inch thick, which pulls the whole dessert together.  The flavors worked really well together, and somehow, resulted in a dessert that was not too sweet but incredibly flavorful.  I highly recommend the Betty Ford Brownie, even if you are not a brownie person!

The question of whether or not you are a brownie person, and whether you can still enjoy a great brownie-like dessert even if you are not, reminds me of a major life decision I made approximately fifteen years ago.  

I had a two year old daughter at the time, and a baby on the way.  I was working full time, and had been for six years.  I enjoyed my work very much, and had pretty much built my identity around my work.  It was what I had wanted to do since high school, possibly since grade school, and I was doing it! And doing it well!  But my life was pulling in a different direction, and I was wrestling with the decision to become a stay at home mom.  

A stay at home mom? Me?  That's not what I had worked all those years for, and that's not why I went to college and grad school.  Quite possibly, had there been such a category, I would have been voted "person least likely to become a stay at home mom."  But still, something was telling me to make a change. 

It was a difficult decision. It was all I talked about and thought about for a solid three months. During this time, I found myself talking to a mom who attended the same gymnastics "Mom and Me" class that my daughter and I attended.  I'm not sure how the topic came up, and I don't even remember the mom's name. But I do remember, almost as if it were yesterday, when she suggested that I read a book called "Sequencing."  She said that it was about the fact that women can have it all, but maybe not all at the same time.  She offered to let me read her copy, and I said that sounded like a good idea.  The very next class she brought the book for me, and told me not to worry about returning it, that I should keep it. And I did.

The book really helped. And I did decide to stay at home with my children, which I count as the best decision I have ever made.  It would probably take a host of blog entries to fully cover the nuances of the decision to stay at home, and I know and fully respect that it is not the right choice for everyone.  I myself have explored many permutations of being a working mom in my almost eighteen years as a mom;  full time, half-time, part-time, very-part time, and, fifteen years ago, no work at all.  But what I want to celebrate today actually, is the book, and the mom who gave it to me.  She barely knew me.  I don't remember her name, and frankly, I'm not sure I even knew it back then. But she must have sensed in me, a fellow mom, a fellow human being, a great struggle.  And she went out of her way to help me in that struggle.

I still have the book.  It's a reminder of a decision that I made.  But it's also a reminder of what people can do for each other.  I don't think that mom ever found out what I actually decided.  I would love to tell her, but mostly, I would like to thank her.  

It's amazing what a small act of kindness can do.  That book helped to change the course of my life.

Are you a brownie person?  Even if you're not, I bet there's a great brownie out there for you too! Have a great week!   

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Pudding, Expectations, and a Lesson

I have wanted to try the Salted Caramel Butterscotch Pudding at the Yard House in Dedham, Massachusetts, for months.  Doesn't that sound like a great dessert?  I have so looked forward to this dessert that I was almost certain it could not possibly live up to expectations.  Well, I am happy to report that it did.  What I loved most about it was that it was a true salted caramel dessert. These days, it seems like everyone is serving some version of a salted caramel dessert, and most of the time, there is barely any salt worth speaking of.  Not so with this dessert, as the salt pleasantly came through loud and clear. The flavors in this pudding were just wonderful.  The butterscotch was robust, and the rich ribbon of caramel running through the pudding added a delicious twist.  You could really taste the salt with the caramel.  All of the flavors were strong, and rather than compete with each other, made for a very tasteful dessert experience. The pudding was served with a dollop of whipped cream and topped with cookie pieces, which appeared to be oreo cookies.  Although the cookies added a nice crunchy texture, this dessert was really about the salt, caramel, and butterscotch, and it was a winner.  

How often is something that we look forward to as good as we hoped it would be?  I have a funny story about expectations.  And humility.  

When my children were very young, I auditioned for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which is the chorus for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  Around the second year of my time with the chorus, my children were old enough to start coming to my concerts out at Tanglewood, which is the summer home of the BSO.  My husband would find a nice section on the beautiful Tanglewood lawn, and my family would listen to the music having a picnic, sitting on large blankets.  I was glad they were there, but I kept thinking that they really needed to actually see the concert and watch what was happening.  I was still in the early stages of my singing with the group, completely enthralled with the very idea that I was up on the risers behind the Boston Symphony Orchestra. 

For one particular concert, the weather forecast was not optimal, and I discovered that chorus members could reserve seats on the green benches all the way in the back of the Shed (concert hall).  I was excited to have my family within the Shed, watching the chorus and the orchestra and enjoying the magic of what I was doing.   And so, I made sure to reserve seats on the green benches and told my husband where to find the seats.  I could see, from my spot on the stage, the images of my three children and my husband making their way to their seats.  I was pleased!  

After the concert, I found my family, and excitedly asked what they thought of the music.  They said nice things, as they always did.  I specifically asked what they thought about being in the Shed, and actually getting a chance to watch the concert.  I was sure they had loved the whole experience.  

My middle daughter, six years old at the time, looked up at me and said, "Well, it was good, but there's no place to look except the stage.  When we're on the lawn, we can look all around.  We can look at the sky, or at the lawn, or at the other people.  We can look all around.   But when we're in there, there's no other place to look."  

There is nothing like children to keep you humble.  I decided to be less self-impressed from that moment on, and I did not ask my little children to sit on the green benches again.  My family continued to support me at my concerts; my children pretty much grew up on the Tanglewood lawn, immersing themselves in the culture, the beauty, and yes, the music, which they could hear loud and clear from their blankets.  And when I would see, from my spot on the stage, three little figures appear just behind the green benches, to take a quick peek at what was happening on the stage, it melted my heart.  I knew they were not coming up there because they were oh so impressed by the fact that I was singing behind the BSO, or because they wanted to see a world famous orchestra and a great big chorus.  It was because they loved their mom.  

Try a dessert you've been looking forward to!  And have a sweet week!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Peanut Butter Perfection and Neighborhood Connections

Today, I am pleased to review my all-time favorite ice cream flavor, Vanilla Peanut Butter Chip!  I have tried many, many permutations of peanut butter themed ice cream: chocolate-based ice cream with peanut butter, chocolate-based with peanut butter cups, vanilla-based with peanut butter cups, peanut butter-based with chocolate chips, peanut butter-based with oreo, and the list goes on.  Vanilla Peanut Butter Chip is quite simply, hands down, the best. The only place that I have been able to find it is in Westwood, Massachusetts at Bubbling Brook.

This is a vanilla-based ice cream. The vanilla is a traditional sweet cream vanilla (as opposed to the more spicy vanilla bean).  There are thick ribbons of peanut butter running throughout the ice cream, alternating with pieces of chocolate that fall somewhere between a chocolate chip and a chocolate chunk. Although the flavor is called Vanilla Peanut Butter Chip, the 'chips' are not your average chocolate chips.  First of all, they are bigger, and are square or rectangular in size.  They are not quite as thick as chocolate chunks, but they pack more concentrated chocolate flavor than your typical chocolate chip, and provide a nice contrast in texture.  There are ample amounts of both peanut butter and chocolate chips (pieces) in this flavor.  The sweet vanilla, plus the peanut butter, and finally, the chocolate pieces, all work together beautifully. This is precisely what a peanut butter ice cream should be!

Bubbling Brook, the only place to find my favorite flavor, is that wonderful kind of small town eatery where odds are you will know the wait staff, the person scooping your ice cream, as well as the person standing next to you in line.  In today's busy world I think it's important to celebrate the connections we make with people in our day to day lives.  No matter where you live, there are those people who become part of your circle.  Perhaps it's the postman, the dry cleaner, or the waiter at your favorite diner.  Kia was one of those people for me.

Kia worked at my favorite supermarket, bagging groceries.  She was young, probably in her 20's.  She worked hard and took pride in her work.  She had a beautiful smile and a kind face, the kind of face that was a clear window to a beautiful soul.  Kia was like a little ray of sunshine, and she was one of those people whom you knew were genuine and good, to the core.  I always looked forward to Kia being the bagger on my checkout line.  

Tipping your grocery bagger was discouraged at this store, but many chose to do it anyway.  When I would try to tip Kia, she would often say "No, no tip. You pray for me.  That will be my tip." 

After years of seeing Kia in the checkout line, suddenly she wasn't there anymore.  I discovered, years later, that Kia passed away from a brain tumor. I was deeply saddened, and also full of regret that I had not made the effort to contact her after she left the supermarket.  To this day, I hope that Kia knew how much of an impact she made, and how much she brightened our days.  I have a feeling that Kia probably would tell me not to worry about it if she were here today.  She was the kind of person who seemed to operate on a different plane from everyone else.  But still, I hope she knows.  

Today, I want to thank some people in my circle.  Thank you to Al, who used to work at the post office, who always greeted people by name and asked about their day, even if you were just there to buy stamps.  To Rocky, who collects the trash and recycling with a great smile, who looks out for the dog and works hard and is always happy.  And to my friends at Bubbling Brook, for taking the time to chat about new flavors, for listening to my incessant requests for Vanilla Peanut Butter Chip,  and for putting this great flavor back on the menu.  

Thank someone in your circle today! And find some time to enjoy your favorite ice cream flavor!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Gelato Guide and a Bike Ride

Recent European travels provided a great opportunity for some blog research. Gelato! Europe is the absolute perfect place for a gelato tour.  

My first stop was at a little gelato shop in France, in the resort town of Bandol. I tried the caramel gelato.  It was impossibly creamy, and the caramel taste was deeply rich.  This was an adult gelato, a mature and not-too-sweet gelato, light but with serious taste and wonderful texture.  

My next gelato stop was in Lucca, a small city in Italy. They had an abundance of choices at this gelato shop, and I chose two flavors, strawberry and banana. The gelato was cool and smooth, and the fruity combination worked perfectly together.  The banana, in particular, was a standout, somehow taking the banana flavor and elevating it to something else entirely. The flavor was not overpowering, and the creamy consistency worked extremely well with the subtle flavor.  

In Rome, I tried something called Grom, which the store clerk told me was similar to what we know as ice cream in America. I picked Stracciatella, which was vanilla-based with small chocolate chips.  I have to say, I was not all that impressed with Grom;  it lacked the creamy texture of the previous gelato flavors, and fell short in comparison to American ice cream. I would say it tasted like a watered-down version of ice cream.  

The final stop on my gelato tour was in Barcelona, Spain. I chose Stracciatella again, and this time it did not disappoint. It was lighter and creamier than both the Grom and the chocolate chip ice cream that we have in the US.  It was vanilla-based with chocolate chips and chocolate shavings, and had more chocolate than chocolate chip ice cream usually has.  It was a good choice, with the creamy vanilla balanced by chocolate pieces and chocolate shavings in every bite.  

My favorite of all the gelato flavors I tried was probably the caramel, with the banana a close second. On the whole, gelato is lighter than ice cream, and seems to be a healthier choice because of its lighter consistency.  Which leads to the perhaps false assumption that you can eat a lot of it! Luckily, I had the opportunity to work off some of the gelato on an old fashioned bike ride in Lucca, Italy, which was one of the highlights of my trip.

The city of Lucca is a walled city, with a wide, paved pedestrian and bike path at the top of the wall.  My family and I rented bikes to ride the two mile circumference of the city, which is a great way to see all of Lucca from a bird's eye view.  As you ride, you can look down into the city, and every few minutes there is a paved path to ride down into the city and explore. The day we rented bikes it was in the mid-90's, but I refused to let that deter us from our ride.  I zoomed away on my bike, while trees, flowers, and beautiful Italian buildings whizzed past.  The breeze provided a nice diversion from the heat, and I just wanted to keep riding, to experience the city from my bicycle. My oldest daughter caught up to me and said, "You ride shockingly fast for someone who could barely climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa."

Indeed, the climb to the top of the Leaning Tower was a struggle for me, and truth be told, I am not a huge fan of regular exercise unless it involves walking my dog or a yoga mat.  But bike riding, now that's a different story.  I'm not talking about serious biking, which again, is beyond my capabilities.  I'm talking about 'going for a bike ride,' like in the 1970's, on a bike with a bell and a flower basket.  I grew up during that glorious time when kids could take off on a bike for hours and no one worried.  I spent many a summer day riding my bike up and down our street, or better yet, riding down the street to the dirt path, past the giant rock, and down the long dirt road to the lake.  In elementary school, I had a series of one-speed bikes with back-pedal brakes and a banana seat. In the fifth grade, I graduated to an orange-red ten speed, and that became my forever bike, which came along with me years later when I went to college.  During most of my childhood, any day that wasn't raining involved a bike ride of some type, whether it was to find friends, to ride off to the lake, or simply to ride up and down the street and practice riding with no hands.  

It's nice to know that the best parts of our childhood never really go away.  It was quite special to find my 11-year-old self on a rented bike in Italy, and to see that my forty-something-year-old self could actually keep up with her.

Tap into your inner child this week! And take a sweet treat along for the ride!