Gingerbread

I read a book from the library recently, one that was part memoir and part recipe book. I can’t decide if I like this genre of “literature” that much. I think the problem is that the premise for these books is all the same: details about the writer’s ordinary life with some unique recipes woven in, the overarching theme being a statement about how the food that comes from our kitchens and the people who are present in our lives at these times can become like home for some. I find I’m mainly interested in the recipes, looking for an easy weeknight meal, which these books always seem to regard as utterly cliche, instead they squeeze in recipes for obscure things like Elderflower syrup or plum jam doughnuts. At any rate, I’ve read at least two of these type of books willingly, so if I truly felt this strongly about the subject, I’d probably quit reading them. 

The best thing to come of this though, has been the re-discovery of a sweet wedding gift I received when Andrew and I got married a year and a half ago. After paging through the recipes in the book, written by a woman living in Berlin, I decided I needed to write a few of them down for the day when I can source German staple ingredients, like the sour cream-like quark, in order to bake a heavenly German style cheesecake. In the process I remembered the recipe box with blank recipe cards that a family friend, Shirley Finch, had given me as a gift. As I opened it to retrieve the cards waiting to be covered in my scribbly handwriting, I was delighted to find 2 dozen or more of her recipes written onto a few of the loose cards, ready to be used and loved. I tried my first one out this afternoon, Molasses Sugar Cookies. Shirley, they were delicious; crunchy on the outside from being rolled in sugar and warm and spicy with cloves, cinnamon and ginger on the inside. I’m sure the corners of the card will soon be stained and dog-eared from the love I expect the recipe will receive this holiday season. I’m looking forward to Christmas at home. I’ve been prepping my Christmas cookie recipes and stockpiling chocolate chips, peppermint candy canes and pure vanilla extract. My other favorite Christmas tradition is the holiday music program at Church, which incidentally takes place tonight! I’m well on my way to feeling quite a bit more festive this year!

Shirley's molasses sugar cookies! Any ideas/suggestions on what I should read next? A trip to the library is imminent. 

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Incorrecto, El País

With the rise in prominence of long-time Congressman Dr. Ron Paul in this year’s primaries, the leading Spanish newspaper, El País, has finally decided to give him some attention in their election coverage. For weeks, I had noticed that the Spanish daily had simply omitted mentioning Ron Paul, instead reporting on challengers Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, as well as drop-outs Michelle Bachmann and Herman Cain. But after Paul nearly tied for first place in Iowa, El País decided to do a little investigation and report on the Texas Congressman.

On January 7 El País published an article on Ron Paul that was at best overly simplistic and at worst, incorrect.  It may be that it’s just that difficult for a center-left newspaper in a welfare-state country to grasp a candidate who calls for an extremely limited constitutional government. After all, Spain is a country where both right and left accept socialized medicine, a welfare state, and a central bank.

Nevertheless, the author grasps that Dr. Paul presents a unique challenge to both the establishment left and right in the United States, by opposing both the expensive welfare state as well as the costly warfare state.  But he then goes on to offer up totally laughable and untrue reasons for why Ron Paul is an extreme candidate and thus unelectable.

Reason 1 is that all of Ron Paul’s supporters are white, male, and well-off financially. Well right off the bat part of that assertion is totally false, given that so much of Ron Paul’s support comes from students and young people. The last time I checked, most students and young people (myself included) have a lot more debt and lower incomes than the rest of the population. It would be Mitt Romney and Barack Obama that get the support of the big-money folks on Wall Street. In addition, the paper adds that Ron Paul wrote racist newsletters in the 1980s and is against abortion and immigration, thus he will not get support from black people and Hispanics. Again, this is terrible reporting. Ron Paul has said repeatedly that he did not write those newsletters and as a civil libertarian, he is incapable of being a racist. He, unlike statists, looks at people as individuals and not as (color) groups. Further, Paul is not opposed to immigration. He just sees that one legitimate constitutional duty of the federal government is border control, and that it’s a total farce to obsess with “homeland security” when the borders are left wide open. Finally, Paul’s philosophy is strictly pro-life. For some reason El País believes that this is unacceptable to black Americans. Yet as black babies are aborted in much higher proportions then white babies in the U.S., this is all the more reason that Dr. Paul and his pro-life stance should have the support of blacks.

Reason 2 that Ron Paul is unelectable is that he is “isolationist” in foreign policy and wants to eliminate domestic government spending and regulations. Al contrario, Ron Paul is not an isolationist. He just applies the golden rule to foreign policy, meaning he believes in non-interventionism and that wars should be declared by Congress. Then the paper alleges that Ron Paul’s America would have no air traffic controllers and people would be dying on the streets without healthcare. Anyone that has spent anytime dealing with the bureaucracy in Spain (or even the U.S. post office for that matter) knows that free markets do a much better job at regulating and providing servies than does government.

In the end, El País suggests that the Ron Paul campaign won’t gain too much traction or much of a broad following. I suppose their hopes are that the status-quo candidate Mitt Romney will be the nominee and that the Paul movement will quietly die. But I think that is where they err, because Paul supporters aren’t going anywhere. His message is already extremely popular with young people and will only grow as the country faces skyrocketing debt, high unemployment, endless wars, and seizures of liberties. Only the Paulian philosophy towards government will solve these problems, and more and more people around the world are waking up to it.

A tribute

I’d like to tell you a little bit about a city that I had previously, and erroneously, underrated. It’s name doesn’t slip off the tongue with an appealing ring. In fact, it is one of those Spanish words that I will always struggle to say correctly.  Burgos. It sounds, well, a little homely. It doesn’t ring as glamorously as Oviedo. Burgos doesn’t sound as exotic as Barcelona or Valencia, León or Santiago. For that reason, I think I decided to write it off. And, truthfully, Andrew talked about it with such a wistfulness in his eyes that I couldn’t bring myself to believe it was that incredible. But, against my prejudgement, I am enthralled with Burgos. With that, I am going to attempt to describe to you one of the most agreeable Spanish tourism experiences I have had in quite a long time.

We parked, purely by accident, but what a great coincidence it was, underneath the Plaza Mayor. Essentially the hub of the city, it is the perfect place to start a tour of this provincial capitol. We ventured over to the giant, soaring Gothic cathedral. We took in the medieval gate to the city, La Puerta de Santa María. We hoofed like billy goats up the side of a hill to an overlook of the entire city. We ate a typical Spanish lunch of ensalada mixta, pollo asado, patatas fritas, y flan. We shopped and gawked approvingly at each new sight.

That all sounds like a day we’ve had before, in any Spanish city you can think of.  But, there are quite a few ways that Burgos proved it is different from the rest.  First, the most perfect example of a Spanish Gothic cathedral sits in a plaza that feels empty next to its enormity.  Not only is it’s size impressive, but the restoration work that has been done is immaculate. Each spire, each dome, each relic and gold retabla, are cleaned, as if done with a miniature toothbrush, to the hilt. I couldn’t have done a better job myself, and Andrew knows I mean business when the windex and paper towels are brandished. Also, the tour of the cathedral is laid out in a logically pleasing order. The same can be said for the city gate’s cleanliness and majesty. Within the city wall, underneath the gate, is a smallish, contemporary art museum. It even merits a quick spin.

The casco viejo is also surprising in its orderliness. The buildings are quintessentially Spanish, but in good repair. The streets are void of dog poop. Most charmingly, the city of Burgos must have commissioned innummerable street statues to keep tourists entertained.  They pop up on every corner and in each plaza and they are, well, really great.  Some illicit laughter, others recall a difficult journey or a particularly introspective memory. A majestic bull, a puzzling young woman serenely holding her umbrella against the rain, two plump dwarf-like figures that exude the feeling of cheeriness that permeates, a battered pilgrim following the way of St. James. Also appealing were the historically important buildings we seemed to bump into; for example, a beautiful home where Isabella and Ferdinand received Christopher Columbus immediately after his second voyage to the New World or one of Franco’s homes during his fascist reign.

The sense of hospitality the citizens of Burgos showed us also impressed me. The server at lunch tried, good-naturedly, to joke with Andrew and I, (alas, humor is mostly lost on non-native speakers), the shopkeepers were friendly, warm, helpful, and even carefully gift wrapped our purchases. The kind woman who sold us hot chocolate asked where we were from.  The thick chocolate drink she served us defrosted our insides and the proceeds went to a non-profit organization.

I’d like to imagine that Burgos would be as spectacular on any day of the year as it was on January 5th, but I highly doubt you would find it as magical as we did. This was because January 5th is like Christmas Eve for Spain.  The Three Wise Men, whom bring children their gifts, parade through town on this day and the atmosphere is so festive and bright. We waited until dark so we could enjoy the lights and festivity with Burgos and it was the highlight of the day for each of us. The city morphed into a bustling fairy-tale land. And even if you can’t visit Burgos on this special day, I have a gut-feeling that any day of the year would serve you well.

L’Abri sous Roche

Our first B&B experience in France was my favorite. Although the town of Tautavel is a little off the beaten path (think: it is most famous for housing the largest prehistoric museum in Europe, seriously?!) staying with Didier and his huge, friendly dog Bali was really pleasant.  Huge, clean room, spacious shower with ample hot water, and delicious homemade apricot jam for breakfast.  Did I mention that Andrew had an entire conversation with the host in French and I said stuff like j’meeapple Amanda.  Un semáne in Paris.  Chien, fromage, pain.  And the host still decided he would help us plan our driving route for the day.  Wow.

Day 3 of road trip was an ambitious day, and it paid off quite nicely.  We started off on a nice windy drive with Carcassone as our destination.  Although the wind on the ground in this fairy tale city was frigid, we enjoyed touring around a castle and eating a feast for lunch.  (Well I mostly enjoyed the feast. One of Andrew and Mitchell’s favorite mantras throughout the trip was that a hot meal can really boost morale.  I admit, its true. They know how to appease females when we are starting to feel road trip and endless car time weary). Andrew, Mitchell and I all ate a huge portion of a typical southern France meal, cassoulet, which included roasted duck, two types of sausages and white beans.  There was also the most wonderful salad served alongside.  It was simple, only mixed dark leafy greens, tomatoes and a bitter dijon mustard dressing that I must learn to recreate.

Our next stop was in Bezièrs. A quick, but enjoyable jaunt to the top of a hill to see green fields, a walk over an ancient Roman bridge and a race back to the car sums up our hour long visit.

Back in the car and onto the seaside town of Sete.  It had a distinctly charming feel.  Mitchell likes to say we can show folks the pictures and say we jetted on down to Venice.  I’m not so sure, but before sunset the town was bustling, maybe a little grungy, but the sparkling Mediterranean water in the canals made up for the graffiti.  After the sun set, the charm turned into a cheap, red-light district, I’m-not-so-sure-I-like-this-empty-street-feel, so we decided to book it on out of there.  I think part of the problem was we decided to use the public bathrooms near Plaza Stalingrad.  I don’t think that is ever a good idea.

Also a long car day, we left Sete to pick up our fourth trusty travel buddy at the Marseilles airport.  After a tense hour trying to find the location of our bed and breakfast for the night, we rolled in, tired, but satisfied.

And, if you didn’t know, South France loves bullfighting.  We didn’t know either.

Hacia Francia: Reflections from Andrew part 1

Well the blog is finally back after a nice long hiatus for winter travel. One of the beauties of teaching, especially in government-run schools, is a long Christmas break, free of responsibilities. With this time off, Amanda and I took to the road to see new parts of Europe.

This time around, we had a couple of new travel partners. We were joined by my good friend and roadtrip expert, Mitchell, and one of our friends living in Spain, Lauren.

Our destination for this trip was Spain’s Costa Brava and the broad region of Southwest France. While Mitchell and I both thought that these regions would be a small area that could be covered in a week at a leisurely pace, we quickly realized that there was much more to do than we had time.

We began by car from Laredo across Spain’s rural northern lands of Navarra and Aragón, before finally reaching the eastern part of Cataluña. The very first day we were reminded of the fact that traveling across Europe in winter is a different experience than in summer. Mitchell and I had memories of a previous Spanish roadtrip, with 15 hour days of sunlight and not a cloud in sight. This one started out with wind, then rain, and then cold. But what one loses in weather in winter, one gains in off-season prices and an absence of other tourists.

Our first night was in the Girona province, where we stayed in the small town of Caldés de Malavella. Amanda had found a nice-looking hostal with a local feel and we were pleasantly surprised. We were greeted warmly, enjoyed a nice outdoor patio, and were fed a generous breakfast. We then headed up through two Catalan classics: Girona and Figueres. Girona, which I had visited once before, impressed me once again. Everyone we encountered was friendly and the town is well maintained. Figueras was also a real win in my opinion. Made famous as the hometown of the surrealist master Salvador Dalí, Figueres has a charming old town, Rambla and of course, Dalí museum. A guidebook review of Figueres downplayed the city as being run-down, but I personally found it to be a pleasant Catalan town.

We then ventured over to the coastal jewel of Cadaqués. Again, made famous by the work of Dalí, Cadaqués is a summer playground of Europe’s wealthy elite. That didn’t stop Amanda, Mitchell and myself from enjoying a couple of hours in this beautiful town, where we were blessed with sun and moderate temperatures.

After Cadaqués, we had planned to continue along the curvy coastal road that winds into France at Portbou stopping at each coastal village, but daylight was running out, so we headed back inland to make the journey into France faster. Crossing into France at La Jonquera, we then had to make it to our B&B outside of Perpignan, in a tiny town called Tautavel. After an hour or so of very dark roads in the French countryside, we finally made it to the B&B for our first night in France.

Le weekend

Our weekend was pretty relaxed due to a number of reasons:  Andrew was recovering from a wicked cold, we have a pending trip beginning this Friday, and the weather was less than perfect.  We did have a few adventures though, starting with everyone’s favorite Swedish mega-store: IKEA.  After browsing their Christmas decorations online, we decided it would be worth it to buy a couple of things to make our apartment feel cheery.  I really like the live poinsettia and the cinnamon smelling tea-lights are great.

On the way home from IKEA, we took an hour long detour in Portugalete. Portugalete is a seaside Basque town, that has really turned into a suburb of Bilbao. Despite its proximity to the tenth-largest city in Spain, Portugalete still preserves an old world feel. The main tourist attraction is the Puente colgante, a transporter bridge that connects the two Basque towns of Portugalete and Las Arenas. It is like nothing I have even seen before since a cabin that can transport cars across the river hangs from light-weight steel cables that are attached to wheels underneath the bridge.  You can also take an elevator to the top of the bridge and walk across, but we opted out.  Walking 50m above the water, in December no less, even if the bridge has been there since 1893, doesn’t sound like real fun to me.

Saturday we took another trip to Liérganes where we attempted to go on a hike.  The main problem with trying to go for a hike in Spain outside of a national park is that the trails are poorly marked.  We saw two trails markers within the first fifteen minutes of our hike.  Afterward we were left on our own to guess which cattle run was actually the correct path. Although we didn’t make it to the top of the monte, we still enjoyed ourselves and got to enjoy being outdoors.

And, Sunday was our 6th month wedding anniversary.  I guess you only count that your first year of marriage, but this year I think it is worth recognizing! We celebrated by preparing for class and starting the countdown for our big before-Christmas adventure!

Next up: Christmas sugar cookie baking and package opening!

Turrón

Wow, do Andrew and I have enough turrón to last us a lifetime.  The sweet family that allow me go to their home each week to give conversation lessons gifted me the most delicious Spanish Christmas sweet.  They have truly been one of the bright spots for me since I have been in Spain and I hope that I will be able to continue to work with them throughout our year here.  They are generous and kind and exemplify hospitality.  I hope that I can be as good of an ambassador for the United States as they are for España.

Turrón blando is a paste made from ground almonds, honey, milk, flour and eggs.  It is a traditional Navidad treat and it literally melts in your mouth.  I like it quite a bit (think almond butter, but sweeter and richer) but Andrew isn’t so sure.  Included in our package were polvorones, marzipan people and turrón duro.  We’ve yet to try the turrón duro, but I’m sure we’ll break it out over the holidays.

Last week at tutoring, I did attempt to make pumpkin bread with the family as a way to share a traditional American holiday sweet with them. I thought they might like seeing canned pumpkin, individual measuring cups and learning new food vocabulary. It turned into a minor disaster though.  The oven smoked up a thick black, smelly fog that spilled into the kitchen (who knew it needed to be on circulate?!), there was no dish soap to be found and I miscalculated the conversion for the oven temperature by 20 degrees Celsius.  That’s no small mistake, let me tell you. Our bread turned out black on top, but tasty in the middle.  Just remember 350 degrees Fahrenheit equals 150 degrees Celsius, not 170 degrees Celsius.  ¡Feliz navidad!