Last month, we celebrated our oldest son Curtis’ birthday in Napa and St. Helena. It was a fun filled relaxing day and a day to remember. We had had an excursion like this one once before on Thanksgiving at the Sonoma Mission Inn a few years ago. It was so much fun, that I decided to plan another staycation for Curtis’ special day. If you are interested in how we celebrated Andrew’s birthday you can check it out here. Unfortunately, Curtis couldn’t join us that day.
My husband and I picked up our son’s Curtis and Andrew who happen to also live in Walnut Creek at 10:00AM. We stopped off at Stanley Lane Smokehouse for sandwiches to eat in the car on our way to the Alila Spa in St Helena. Stanley Lane Smokehouse Deli is family owned and is a fun place to visit in the Fall. They have a gorgeous flower garden as well as corn mazes, pumpkins and gourds for sale. They had a pig on the property also. How exciting! I was able to buy a bottle of white wine there (I only had red with me), so that we could save money on drinks during the day. We like to drink together, especially in the wine country so I always bring along a few bottles of wine from home.
Alila Napa Valley Spa was very accommodating. They were able to get all four of us into appointments at the same time, and I had only sent an email the evening before. It doesn’t hurt telling people you are a food and travel blogger either. I had been given a tour of the property after enjoying lunch at Acacia House Restaurant and Bar a few months before. It’s a great spot to have a day away from the stress of the Bay Area.
The spa offered a few different treatments, and we enjoyed being pampered. There were apples, granola and lemon, lavender cookies as well as cucumber water and green tea to keep us hydrated. After showers, we asked if we could sip the wine we brought by the pool. I even remembered plastic glasses and brought sparkling apple cider for my husband Ken who doesn’t drink alcohol.
Andrew and I were excited to be invited to a sip and paint event by the pool given by an artist named Andrea RJ Cazares. You can find her on Instagram under @AndrewCazaresArt or Andreacazares.com. A few other guests joined us and we had a ball getting one on one instruction painting on canvas. The wine was yummy too. Curtis and Ken talked by the pool and kept themselves occupied until it was time to meet us for cocktails at Acacia House Restaurant also on the property. I learned about this place while scrolling on Instagram. Chef Chris Constentino gave free cooking lessons online during the pandemic and kept me entertained. He became famous when winning Top Chef Masters, and donated the $140,000 winnings to the Michael J. Fox Foundation. How cool is that?
IL Posto “The Place” Napa was where we decided to dine since we love Italian Food. I had been there once before after dropping my Dad off at the Veterans Home in Yountville. I’m up that way often and love stopping somewhere for an appetizer and a sip of something if I’m not driving. You can find the locals here because they know founder Justin Graffigna makes great food. We had a substantial amount of food and wine including affogatos (espresso and vanilla ice cream) for dessert. The bill was just under $300.00 and it included a $50.00 tip for our waiter.
On the way home, Ken drove us to Stanley Ranch for one last cocktail. We didn’t want the night to end. I didn’t order anything else, but the boys imbibed. The Bear is the name of the Restaurant on the gorgeous Auberge Resorts Collection in Napa Valley. I like to sit at the bar and watch the bartender make drinks. It’s more fun and there is a certain vibe which you don’t get if you sit at a table. Try it. You’ll never go back.
Stanly Ranch is near the Stanley Lane Smokehouse where we bought our sandwiches earlier in the day, just down Stanley Lane. This place is a “must see” in the Napa Valley. Cyclists stop in for a Sightglass Coffee, freshly squeezed juice or a pastry made by Chef Harry at Gavel. They also sell unique gifts there. The property offers a Luxury Hotel, tours of the grange by farmer Nick Runkle which is where they grow the produce for the restaurant, Spa treatments, a wellness center where they offer classes, a wedding venue and more. I learned about their rare heirloom crimson flowered fava beans by farmer Nick who purchased them from Cottage Gardens of Petaluma. And if you are a gardener, you must make a trip there as well. It’s incredible.
Ken and I will often take a drive to Napa and enjoy lunch at Stanly Ranch, sometimes last minute. Solage in Calistoga, and Auberge du Soleil in Napa Valley are also very special places to visit. Two weekends ago we brought our good friends the Cowies out for the day to enjoy the good food and wine. I will write about that adventure later.
Thanks for joining me on today’s latest blog. I’m very lucky to have my boys in the Bay Area still and love hanging out with them. It was a memorable day and I’m grateful for being able to afford these luxurious “staycations.”
Do you have a favorite restaurant or place you go to get away? Please share in the comments below.
Hey there. It’s been a minute since I’ve written. I’ve been all over New York, Napa, Healdsburg, and San Jose California. The weather has been glorious, so I’m loving these day trips and enjoying the time outside before the rains come.
The last 24 hours I’ve been entertaining my Mom Diane. Her husband needed time with his grandson in Monterey, and my Mom doesn’t like to be alone. We stopped off at the closest Sloat Nursery where she found the most extravagant huge white poinsettia. I like to bring her flowers whenever she has her chemo/immuno treatments, and I haven’t been as regular about that lately. She has had cancer treatments every three weeks for the past nine or ten years, so It’s okay if I miss a week here or there. For dinner, I made grilled shrimp Caesar salad for dinner (her favorite), and we put together a cornmeal waffle batter from Tanya Holland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen Cookbook that sat overnight waiting patiently for us to cook them off this morning. Mom read me the ingredients and I put everything together. It’s not often I have my Mom overnight, so it was kind of special. We watched Chef’s Table:Pizza on Netflix and the Great British Baking Show Christmas Special and ate popcorn before our eyes got too tired to watch anything else.
Today, we explored Benicia after our waffle making effort. I was hoping my favorite One House Bakery would be open because my Mother has never eaten there. Turns out, Mondays and Tuesdays most businesses are closed down on First Street. We found a cute shop called Pink Arrows where Mom found a comfy pair of Christmas Sweats. She was excited to get something new and I was happy to treat her.
We walked through the town into a book store where she was inspired to buy a Christmas gift for her granddaughter Josie. Lucky us, we found a florist with cute wreaths, succulents and pretty fresh flowers to admire. A decision was made to head to Lafayette to have lunch and walk around Orchard Nursery. Unfortunately, it was also closed. Since Covid, lots of small businesses limit their hours and I always forget this is our new reality. Lunch was at Sideboard Cafe, but Mom wasn’t impressed even though she practically inhaled her pulled pork sandwich.
I dropped her off at home with all of her goodies and here I am at my gym where I prefer to write. I can concentrate better here without the distractions and responsibilities at home.
The latest day trip was celebrating my younger son Andrew’s 30th birthday. My husband and I were excited Andrew had time in his schedule to go out with us. We called our other son Curtis, but he wasn’t up for a last minute day trip. Our original plans were to go to St. George’s Spirit in Alameda only to find out that they haven’t been open since Covid. What a bummer. I have been craving their pear brandy and I’ve been on the distillery tour where they explain how it’s made with my niece Michelle. There are huge crates and crates of fresh pears lined up ready for the process. We could have gone back to the fabulous Hansons of Sonoma’s Distillery, (a previous blog with an apricot ginger biscotti recipe), but I didn’t think of that at the time. So my next idea was to check out the distillery in Napa.
Andrew loves Whole Spice in Oxbow Public Market. He loves to cook and make pickles with fancy exotic spices, so he chose several items from there. Next, I wanted to go to Model Bakery before they closed. I love their day-old pastries and we bought a ham and cheese baguette that was purchased at a reduced cost also. I love getting a deal and don’t mind the taste of a day old muffin or croissant. The Napa Distillery was disappointing. We waited for 15 minutes and the employees barely looked up at us while helping other customers. We also saw the sit down Napa Distillery in downtown Napa, but they were fully booked and not a chair in sight. Andrew was interested in their bitters, and they didn’t have any bottles in that location. Too bad, but not worth getting excited about.
Next door was The Fatted Calf Charcuterie shop. They have the best meats and cheeses to choose from. Andrew and I picked out two more sandwiches, a porchetta and a pastrami and we walked over to Fieldworks Brewery to enjoy our lunch. Andrew ordered the Sour and Dark flight for only $18.00 which included a Belgian Abbey Ale called Abigail, a Salted Raspberry called Gose, Cabana Republic a Tropical Sour Ale, Pioneers & Pirate Ship a Czech Dark Lager, the Nighttime Creatures a Pumpkin Milk Stout and a Plain ol dark Stout called Shtickless. My husband had a root beer and I had a glass of Dark Stout. The sandwiches and beer were a fun way to begin our celebration and their outdoor patio was relaxing and a fun atmosphere to hang out in.
Already 3:45PM, we drove to downtown Napa and parked near the Archer Hotel. This fancy place has a happy hour cocktail menu downstairs at the Charlie Palmer Steak Lounge Bar. We were happy to arrive just before it opened and were graciously served by the nice bartenders. I love sitting at the bar and watching the circus of drinks being made. I watch with amazement at the herbs, potions and citrus they use to doctor up our libations. We weren’t hungry, since we had just eaten, but I enjoyed the Pineapple Express made with Milagro tequila, pineapple, lime and jalapeno. Andrew had the Far West Cider and we got the scoop about where else to eat in Napa. Before going to the next restaurant, we made our way up the elevator to the top floor Sky & Vine RoofTop Bar. The 360 degree view is outstanding and we got lucky to find the last three seats that were open at the bar. I had to try the margarita on tap and Andrew was treated to a beer from a stranger who heard it was his 30th birthday. What a nice guy. He left where we were sitting with his partner to get a seat next to the fire pits.
It wasn’t long before we were walking to our next foodie spot. We were hoping to find the restaurant Morimoto Napa where we had eaten before and just happened to see the grand opening of Morimoto Asia. Of course I had to go in and try to get a reservation. When I tell people I’m a food blogger, they seem to make special arrangements in their bookings for me. This time, we were able to get in at 7:45PM if we could come back. We were thrilled especially because Chef Masaharu Morimoto, a Michelin Star recipient was there in the restaurant and I’m a huge fan. He’s famous for being on The Iron Chef America, and got his start by working at the popular Nobu Restaurant.
I’m getting ahead of myself because I haven’t written about Los Agaves Napa. The bartender at the Charlie Palmer Steak Lounge recommended we order their Quesabirras (a braised beef mini quesadilla with a side of beef broth as a dipping sauce.) I also ordered their guacamole and chips and La Marilyn for $14.00 (Mescal, Malibu Rum, Domaine Di Canton and coconut.) Sooo yummy. Andrew was enticed to try the Mezcal Flight which was three one oz pours of Union Mezcal, Ojo De Tigre, and Madre Mezcal with pineapple and orange garnish for $26.00. I must say Los Agaves didn’t disappoint my taste buds. This place is FOR REAL. It’s the best Mexican cuisine that I’ve ever experienced. The mariachi band came to our table and sang to Andrew who immediately got up and began to dance. Maybe the alcohol kicking in helped to initiate this. Executive Chef Erick Lagunas also took the time to speak with us and he was excited about the upcoming several new locations in the works as well as the existing one in Santa Barbara. Our waiter Carlos brought out complimentary flan and churro with chocolate sauce desserts with fireworks shooting high in the air to surprise us.
And don’t forget, we still had reservations at Chef Morimoto’s upscale second wine country restaurant Morimoto Asia within walking distance. The atmosphere was happening! You could feel the vibe of a restaurant’s opening night. The lighting was dim and the cuisine places more emphasis on Chinese flavors including dim sum, and sake flights.
The dedication to service was noticeable. We were spoiled all day and the night wasn’t even close to being over. I ordered the Saidoku cocktail made of Amaro, Montenegro, Cointreau and Yuzu. Obviously I didn’t need another drink, but I couldn’t help myself. It was Andrew’s birthday, and we had a designated driver Mr. Ken Smyth.He’s my everything. Andrew decided upon a sake which they served on ice. We ordered the salt and pepper black cod, the sticky ribs with hoisin sweet chili glaze and the dim sum samplers. Lastly, they served Andrew a complimentary coconut sorbet and Chef Morimoto signed a napkin ceremoniously and wished him a happy birthday.
What a day. Not only did Andrew have a memorable time with us in Napa, we sampled tastes of the best restaurants in Northern California. If you want the inside scoop, keep subscribing to my blog and I will keep you entertained. Thanks again for reading and commenting below about your favorite Napa experiences.
Chai Spice Shortbread Ginger Men Cookies
Chai Spice Recipe
10 Cardamom Pods (or 1 t ground cardamom)
4 whole cloves or ½ teas ground cloves
1 T fennel seeds or fennel powder
½ t nutmeg
1 cinnamon stick crushed or 2 t ground cinnamon
1 star anise
2 t ground ginger
10 black peppercorns
Using a blender or spice grinder, place all ingredients inside and blend until finely ground. Spice mixture will keep for four months if kept in an airtight jar in a cool dark place. (Only need 1 ½ T for recipe)
Shortbread Cookie Ingredients
1 1/2 C. Unsalted Butter softened
¾ C Granulated sugar Plus ¼ divided for use w nuts
1 t Vanilla paste
1 C All Purpose Flour
1 C Pastry Flour (Can substitute All Purpose)
½ C Flax Meal
½ C Whole Wheat Flour
1 ½ T Chai Spice
1 t Maldon Salt
⅛ C Shelled Pistachios
⅛ C Cashews
⅛ C Toasted Almonds (Put almonds only into a preheated 350 degree oven on a sheet pan for 9 min. Cool)
3 4 0unce bars High quality white chocolate baking bar (Lindt or Ghirardelli preferably) You can use morsels, but they are harder to melt.
2 T heavy cream
3 T Dried chopped raspberries for decoration
Using a food processor, blend nuts together with ¼ C granulated sugar until it resembles a fine powder. Using the sugar prevents the nuts turning into butter. Or use a coffee grinder or chop them finely.
In a stand mixer, beat butter, ¾ C sugar and vanilla paste until creamy on medium speed scraping bowl often.
In a large bowl, stir together flours, salt, chai spice, and finely chopped nuts (save a few Tablespoons for decoration). On low speed, add dry mixture gradually to sugar butter mixture just until well combined.
Divide dough in half, form into flat discs and refrigerate for an hour or longer. Tip: I use empty cereal bags that I cut and use to roll out dough. They can be cleaned and reused.
Line two sheet pans with parchment paper, or use sil pat mats.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C)
On a lightly floured surface, roll one of the discs out to ¼ inch thick, keeping the other half in the fridge until ready to use.
Use a gingerbread cutter dipped in flour and cut out ginger chai men. Alternatively, you can use any shape you desire.
Bake immediately using one pan at a time in the center of the preheated oven for about 15 min or until slightly brown.
Let cool on the pan for 5 minutes to let the cookie set. Remove from the hot pan onto a drying rack and cool completely.
In a ban marie, break up white chocolate bars into the bowl and add heavy cream. Stir until incorporated, not letting mixture get too hot or it will seize. (You can also use the microwave.)
Have a sheet pan with parchment ready. Dip each cookie into the melted chocolate mixture and sprinkle quickly with some reserved nuts and dried chopped raspberries before the chocolate dries.
Store cookies in the freezer, or in an airtight container for one week.
Cookies look best right after coated in chocolate, so keep cookie dough or baked cookies in the freezer for up to a month.
Recipe adapted from Mumbai Modern Cookbook and Amisha Gurbani also known on Instagram as @thejamlab
Have you ever had those days when you are so distracted that you get nothing done? That’s what kind of day I’m having today. Maybe it’s because it’s Monday, but I’m not sure. In any case, I need to write more and get some of my travel experiences recorded, yet I see a recipe and want to make it. Scottish shortbread was heavily on the list and so was a sticky toffee pudding recipe that I would have substituted dried figs for instead of the dates. Don’t those sound yummy? Ever since Queen Elizabeth II of England died last week, there have been Instagram and Facebook posts of the Royal family and their favorite foods. Chef Darren McGrady was a personal chef for Queen Elizabeth, Princess Diana, and the Princes’ of Whales, William and Harry for fifteen years. I want to try his Scottish shortbread recipe.
I found these gorgeous figs at Rick and Ann’s Restaurant and shop in Berkeley a few weeks ago while celebrating my sister Sue’s birthday. I surprised her by including her niece Gavan who happened to be still home from college for a few days. My sister was surprised and we had a nice breakfast together. There is usually a wait at Rick and Ann’s, so get there early. You won’t be disappointed. Did I mention I hosted our family of 20 people and had a party for my sister the day before? It was a last minute change of venue, but I was happy to do it. I had been in Wyoming with my husband and his family the previous 10 days, so it was a big deal to pull it off. I tend to like working under pressure to get things done.
Next, after saying goodbye to Gavan, on a whim my sister and I called the world famous The Fairmont Spa at Claremont Hotel to see if they had any luxurious massage appointments available. We were parked right in front of the hotel after all, so it couldn’t hurt to take a chance. (Rick and Ann’s Restaurant is around the corner.)Our original plan was to go on a hike in the Berkeley hills and stop by a nursery on the way home. You can imagine our surprise when we learned they had two openings for us! Sue asked for the 80 min treatment and I wanted the 50 min one. Quickly we turned back around and drove into the hotel parking lot. Parking is free if you get your card validated at the restaurant.
This place is special to me because my husband and I spent the night of our honeymoon here over 33 years ago. It’s a historic place that has been around since 1915. I even have a photo of my grandparents there when they were a young couple. My sister and I haven’t had any body treatments there for many years, but had taken our mother there for a day on Mother’s Day. If it seems like an extravagant birthday present, it was. Since our birthdays are exactly a month apart, we always celebrate them together and make a big deal about them. Here is a peek at the last time I was at Limewood Bar with my sons Curtis and Andrew and husband Ken.
We walked all over the hotel before our appointments to see what was going on there. We wandered into the dining hall called East Bay Provisions where there was a party going on. There were beautiful flower arrangements on every table, so of course I had to take a photo of all of them.
We found the spa on the lower level and looked at the fun items in the gift shop before signing in at the counter. My sister treated me to a new silk eye mask to help me sleep better. (That’s what we do. We spoil each other.)I mentioned we were there to celebrate my sister’s birthday and they immediately made sure we had complimentary champagne flutes filled to the brim put into our hands the moment we put our robes on. How fun is that? We sat in the quiet lounge and read magazines and sat in the jacuzzi tub to relax our muscles before we were taken in for our therapeutic massages. It’s nice to be pampered. It was heaven to have a day away without any chores or responsibilities.
After showering and cleaning up a little, we met at the Limewood Bar and Restaurant for a drink and dinner upstairs. The hostess was able to secure us a spot on the terrace overlooking the breathtaking views of the San Francisco Bay. The bartender made me a fun cocktail called the Oakland Bramble: Hendricks Gin, St.-Germain, lemon juice, muddled blackberries, soda water and mint. So yummy. Sue had a class of La Crema, Sparkling Brut Rose from Napa. We shared the kale and strawberry salad with ricotta salata and the rib eye steak with scalloped potatoes, confit of allium (garlic) and a demi glaze and Sue picked up the tab. How generous is that?
We met two new lady friends and asked them to join us. One of the ladies lived in Washington, and was in town to celebrate her girlfriends’ 60th birthday. We thought it was surreal that my sister had also turned 60 and we compared stories for the next hour or so. It couldn’t have been a more perfect day.
Here is the Frittata Recipe I promised.
Summer Vegetable Frittata
6 Large Eggs
1 T Chopped Fresh Parsley
1 t dried Basil
¼ t Salt
¼ t Black Pepper
⅛ C Olive Oil
1 med size zucchini halved lengthwise and crosswise into ¼ in thick slices
5 Swiss Chard leaves (1 ½ C) finely chopped, stems discarded
6 Green onions finely chopped
¾ C finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1 T fresh chopped chives (To add for decoration after baked)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
In a 12 inch ovenproof nonstick skillet over moderate heat, saute chard and zucchini until tender about eight minutes. Add scallions to the pan and set aside to cool.
In a large bowl, add eggs,olive oil, herbs, cooled vegetables, spices and Parmigiano Reggiano. Stir until combined. Pour into a 12 inch skillet or buttered glass baking dish and bake for 40 minutes until a knife comes out clean. Sprinkle with fresh chives and serve along a green salad.
Should I make the sticky toffee pudding now? This wasn’t the plan to write about Berkeley today, but now that I have, I’m glad I did. Time to feed the chickens more grubs that I’ve discovered are in my compost bin. They love grubs! And I need to make a risotto for dinner because my younger son Andrew is coming for dinner. He wants to learn how to use the bread maker. Maybe he will want to help with the Sticky toffee pudding recipe, or the shortbread. Which should we try first? I will keep you posted and updated with recipes and photos.
Thanks for reading and hopefully signing up to receive more blogs and recipes. I will try to stay focused and next time write about the vacation in the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, and Jackson Hole Wyoming. It’s been a fun filled summer and I’m grateful for how fortunate I am every day.
It’s been a hot few days here in Northern California. It is currently 111 degrees and it’s only the beginning of September. A month ago, my friend Marie and I decided to celebrate her birthday today. We were hoping to go towards the coast to avoid the hot weather. I chose to spend the day with her at Filoli Historic House and Garden in Woodside which is located 30 miles south of San Francisco, nestled on a slope of the Santa Cruz Mountains and have lunch after. Here’s a tip:It’s best to purchase tickets ahead of time online. I brought my Aunt Teri here a year ago when there was a last minute change of plans because of a fire along the Highway and I had to buy the tickets in the parking lot on my phone.
She left her house at 7:40 AM and didn’t arrive at my place until 9:00 AM. Since school has started, we’ve had to factor in more time to get places and Marie lives further inland. We were excited to spend the day together and didn’t mind getting an early start.
We arrived at Filoli by 10:20 AM and practically had the whole place to ourselves. It wasn’t much cooler than the East Bay, but we were happy to see the statues, wrought iron gates and beautiful gardens. The property has a Georgian revival-style mansion and is considered to be one of the best remaining country estates of the 20th century. The gardens are from an English Renaissance era with stunning hydrangeas, rose of sharon (a hibiscus shrub), purple and red salvia, tiny cyclamen, pink amaryllis, roses, English lavender and a deep blue ‘Hidcote’ lavender in the summer, and camelias, orchids, magnolias and citrus blossoms in the winter just to name a few. The spring display features thousands of daffodils, tulips, hyacinths and blue violas.
I was excited to see the prolific newly renovated vegetable garden on display. They had everything you could think of. We walked down rows and rows of green beans, amaranth, squash, tomatoes, peppers, artichokes, herbs, Swiss chard and much much more. We barely got a glimpse of the cut flower garden that included massive sunflowers, bachelor buttons, zinnias, bright and tall yellow marigolds, echinacea “purple cone flower” in every color and waist high dahlias that were popping up everywhere.
Eventually we needed a rest on a bench in the shade under a massive Oak tree where flying insects began swarming into our eyes and mouths. I swallowed a bug, basically inhaled it and Marie had to put her sunglasses back on to keep them out of her eyes. Obviously, we didn’t sit there long. There were massive Elm trees, Oak-Madrone Forests, Redwood Groves, Chaparral and Irish Yews (evergreen conifers) from Muckross, olive trees, heirloom apple orchards and hundreds of acres of natural lands situated on the 654 acres of ancestral lands of the Ramaytush Ohlone people. There are 5 distinct ecosystems there and a 1 mile Estate Trail that we had to miss because of the heat.
We stumbled upon the gift shop where we could find shade and cool air. There I purchased sunflower seeds for Marie and I to plant in the Spring, wildflower honey, and a cute white and pink ‘marshmallow’ fuchsia plant for a new planter box that Marie’s husband made for her. Marie loves sunflowers, so these were the perfect gifts.
We didn’t walk around the gardens as long as we wanted to because it was very warm and we had lunch reservations a few blocks away. The Village Bakery Restaurant was a glorious next stop during our birthday celebration for Marie. We had developed an appetite and decided to sit inside even though both of us prefer to stay safe and eat outdoors if possible because of Covid. I had been there many years ago when my sister lived in Belmont. It is 10 times better now than it was years ago.
The waiter was quick to bring us cold water and offer us fancy libations like aperol spritz and various cocktails, but I was driving and Marie was happy with an iced tea with lemon.
We started with a chilled cucumber gazpacho served with a cherry tomato panzanella, extra virgin olive oil and mint. The waiter was kind enough to split it for us and give us individual servings. It was cool and refreshing with just the right amount of acid from the tomato and crunch from the crouton and the cucumber. Delicious! And since we were at a bakery, we had to order the Parker House Rolls with flaky Maldon sea salt and sweet butter. My favorite!
Next Marie ordered the Caesar salad with grilled chicken which practically melted in your mouth and I had to have their French Dip (Prime Rib thinly sliced, caramelized onions, gruyere on a toasted baguette) with au jus. These were simply divine. The restaurant began to get busier and busier and both of us became a little uneasy, so we decided to skip the dessert. The waiter again thought of everything, and brought Marie a large chocolate chip cookie “to go”. It should be mentioned that there is a 20 percent service surcharge already added onto the bill to help pay the staff in support of the San Mateo County employer mandate. Many restaurants are establishing these rules and I’m happy people in the food industry are beginning to be paid what they deserve.
Lastly, we stopped in San Ramon at The Lot City Center Bishop Ranch for ice cream at Salt & Straw. This is a fairly new shopping center with many restaurants, shops and a theater. I ordered the Marionberry Coconut Sherbet in a waffle cone and Marie picked the Chocolate Gooey Brownie in a waffle cup. The $5.95 each scoops are enormous and the waffle cones are $1.50 extra, but who’s counting? Not me, certainly. Locations are popping up all over California including San Francisco, Palo Alto and Burlingame and many in Los Angeles if you want to give them a try. They have seasonal flavors no one else has like Spiced Goat Cheese Pumpkin Pie, Plum & Chocolate Hazelnut Shortbread, Wild-Foraged Berry Slab Pie, Pinot Poached Pear Sherbet and Honey Lavender. These are so interesting that you want to taste all of them!
I can’t imagine a more perfect day. Marie and I have been friends for over 43 years. (Tammie Berg -my bestie pal from high school. You have her beat with 44!)(Donna- It’s been 36 years!)(Denise -It’s been 20 plus years) (Kathi- It’s been 34 years) (Sherri- It’s been 27 years) But who is keeping track? Marie and I met in 1979 at Mr. Steak Restaurant while working as hostesses. We’ve been through a lot of years raising 5 boys and two husbands between us and keeping in touch regularly. I’m so happy we could take time away from our busy schedules to make it a special day. Here is our day together last year in Napa.
Thanks for following my blog and reading my stories. I will be sure to share a recipe here when the heat subsides. Until then, stay cool and enjoy life.
A lot has happened since my last blog in the beginning of February. I was fortunate enough to get invited to the family Disney trip again. I went last weekend with two of my sister in-laws, four of my nieces, one nephew, his wife and their significant others. It was a nice distraction from the sadness that I have been feeling about losing four of my pet chickens.
I am sharing my Disneyland experience with you since it is not like any other. Exactly a week ago, at 7AM, my husband Ken drove my sister in law Kathleen and her two daughters Keri and Jamie to the Oakland Airport.He saved us a lot of trouble and cost not having to drive ourselves and drag our luggage from the extended parking lot near the airport. We were surprised to see the huge line going through security. Luckily, all of us have Pre TSA and were able to fly right past them in our own special line. The process of qualifying for the Pre TSA is paying extra money and showing your passport and ID ahead of time in a screening process. It’s totally worth it, in my opinion.
We stopped off for mimosas, waffles, oatmeal and fruit at the Escape Lounge which is affiliated with American Express. It is all free to members and their guests. This is a special way to begin your vacation and I feel fortunate to be traveling with my sister-in -law who is a member.
We boarded the flight without any complications and landed at the Santa Ana Airport at 11:00AM. We were given strict instructions to not remove our masks during the flight so we wouldn’t be exposed to the CoronaVirus.Since I was staying in the same room as Kathleen, I needed to be safe. After we landed, my niece called an Uber driver to take us to the Grand Californian Hotel next to Disneyland. This hotel is gorgeous. It has every amenity you can think of: Pools, jacuzzi’s, a spa, a fireplace, a bar, restaurants, a grocery store, and more. My sister in law always pays for the hotel for the family. She is extra generous to me, her daughters and to the Louie family. I wouldn’t normally be able to afford this kind of luxurious vacation. I love going with her and her daughters and my other sister in law and her family because it is extra special family time. It’s worth mentioning here that we haven’t had many family get togethers the last two years because of Covid. Before Covid, we would celebrate birthdays and see each other at least once a month.
We dropped off our luggage at the hotel even though our rooms weren’t ready. Check in time is usually at 4PM, and the front desk will text you when the room is ready. Until then, the bellhop will store your items in a secure place. Next we entered Disneyland park and went to our pre scheduled reservation at the Plaza Restaurant. The four of us shared the fried chicken platter served with mashed potatoes, green beans and a buttery biscuit and we ordered a huge piece of the dark chocolate cake (shown above). It was a large amount of food and plenty for the four of us to share. My niece Jamie grabbed two corn dogs from the Little Red Wagon next to where we were sitting for us to share. These corn dogs have the best cornbread covering. It’s enormous! I tend to purchase a lot of the food since I know it helps Kathleen with the cost of the trip. We were asked to download the Disney app ahead of time to be prepared to purchase items from the stores, bars and so we could get our lightning pass tickets. These were previously called fast passes. You pay extra for these and get a limited amount of them per day. Again, Kathleen managed all of our rides on her app the entire vacation. She was on top of it, always looking to see if a ride was open or closed. She also prepares much of the itinerary before we arrive, by booking all of the restaurants and bars for each meal. This is all new. Disneyland has changed a lot since the pandemic began. They had to close down for a year.
Thunder Mountain Railroad was our first roller coaster ride of the day. Buzz Lightyear was our next ride. Of course we didn’t stand in long lines because Kathleen is smart and has a strategy of when to go on which ride most efficiently. We stopped for a pickle for Jamie because it’s her favorite snack of all time. They are big and juicy and hard for her to resist. Personally, I’m a sweet pickle kind of girl and usually only eat them when I’m making tuna salad sandwiches.
Off to California Adventureland Park where we went on Soarin’. This ride is especially fun and involves a fantastic airborne hang gliding flight which takes you through the wonders of the world. Web Slingers located in the Avengers Campus was the next obvious choice since it is the new Marvel Spider Man Adventure interactive screen ride where you wear 3 D glasses. There is a huge wall outside of the ride where spider man flies around doing aerial somersaults for the audience and people walking by. It’s very cool and popular for the little ones. I’d also mention how funny it is to see many of the children wearing costumes while in the parks. It’s hilarious to me when you see a toddler sound asleep in a stroller wearing a complete Spider-Man costume including the mask. Many of the little girls are wearing princess dresses and have their hair pulled tightly up into a bun with a tiara on their head. You really feel like a kid walking around seeing the magic all around you and remembering how you felt when you were a child in Disneyland. It’s so exciting.
The girls were ready for some shopping time. They thought that they could order clothes and have them delivered to their hotel, but that option wasn’t available this time. Kathleen uses her Disney credit card all year long and gets points to use towards the restaurants and merchandise at the stores. It’s a win win for my nieces who appreciate wearing all of Disney’s attire. Kathleen actually purchased matching Disney sweatshirts for the four of us to wear during the trip. She thinks of everything, and I love being spoiled by her.
We were thirsty, so we ordered drinks from the phone app from Pym Tasting Lab. They give you a time to pick them up and you tell them when you arrive. Our drinks were ready and we sat and drank four outstanding cocktails. I had the “Molecular Meltdown” a Garage milk stout with vanilla ice cream and marshmallows. Keri and Jamie and Kathleen had the X-Periment drink with Patron Silver Tequila, mango and habanero syrups, and mango flavor filled boba. These were so good that we went back for more throughout the weekend.
Goofy’s Sky School roller coaster was up next because Incredicoasters ride was down. I didn’t remember going on Goofy’s Sky School before. It was twisty and turny and jerky. Not my favorite, so I skipped it the next time the group wanted to go on it. Matterhorn was our next ride. I was terrified of this rollercoaster when I was young, but decided to go for it and go with the flow. It was fun. It’s even more fun at night.
I talked the group into the Winnie the Pooh ride. He’s my favorite Disney character. I love the music on this ride. Rabbit, Piglet, Tigger, Roo, Owl are cute and colorful and fun. I’ve always read these stories to my kids and provided videos for my oldest son Curtis to watch when he was a little guy while I cleaned houses.
We ate at the Blue Bayou Restaurant for dinner. They offer only a few choices and have a New Orleans cajun style menu. We shared the steak and salmon which they cooked perfectly. It’s also right next to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and it is a little dark but has many hanging lights. It’s very relaxing after a long day of running through the parks. Of course Kathleen had dinner reservations for us that she made ahead of time.
Keri, Jamie, Kathleen and me were all very excited to check out the new Star Wars ride “Rise of the Resistance.” It was an epic attraction and worth the purchase. Space Mountain was where we headed to next. This ride brings back so many memories for me because my son Curtis hated this ride when he was about 5 or 6 years old. He spitted and said it was “stupid, stupid, stupid!” We shouldn’t have tried to go on it with him. He has been scared of roller coasters ever since and this is why he doesn’t come with us to Disneyland. I don’t think he would enjoy all of the walking either. Turns out, we walked 22,000 steps that day according to my niece’s Apple watch. We landed at the pool bar called GCH Craftsman next to the Grand Californian Hotel where we were staying. We met my sister in law Terri Ann, her daughter Laura and Laura’s girlfriend Fiona at the pool bar. Eventually, my nephew Peter and his new wife Alex joined us. It was nice to connect with more of the family. I had a chocolate sundae since I don’t like to drink too late into the evening. It wasn’t that great as far as chocolate sundae’s go. The whipped cream tasted fake and it wasn’t sweet and there wasn’t enough chocolate sauce in it. But I’m a chocolate snob, so there’s that.
It was back to the hotel room to catch some zzz’s. I like to shower before bed, so I can be clean when I get into clean sheets. I’m not a morning person, so I get as organized as I can by laying out my clothes and having everything ready for when the alarm goes off.
I will have to continue this blog at another time. I have three more days to write about plus details about my sister in laws strategy to get in as many rides as possible each day. And cocktails! Lots more cocktails! I will leave you with this funny photo taken several years ago in Cancun when all three of our families the Van Winckels, The Louies, and the Smyth’s went on vacation together. Thanks for reading, and follow my blog for more recipes and stories of my travels.
I’m excited to share our last family day trip in Half Moon Bay California. We were celebrating my son Curtis who recently had a birthday. The last adventure we had before that was on Thanksgiving day at the Sonoma Mission Inn enjoying their spa treatments, pool and scrumptious dinner. Neither of my son’s had ever been to Half Moon Bay before, so this day was going to be extra special.
We started off leaving Walnut Creek at 10:30AM so we could get to the coast as early as possible. None of us like waking up early, with the exception of my husband, so 10:30 seemed like a good compromise. We made it to the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company by noon, just in time for lunch and a cocktail.
We loved their outdoor dining set up with plenty of tables and chairs available. The staff was outstanding accommodating our every need, and the cool, fresh ocean air was delightful. Some days are completely fogged over near the coast, but not this day. It was sunny and gorgeous, the perfect kind of day to celebrate a birthday.
Curtis ordered his favorite handcrafted cocktail the Brewco Bloody Mary served with Tito’s Habanero Vodka infused in house.He loves the spice! Andrew and I went on the more conservative side and ordered beer. He sampled the Saison Farmhouse Ale: 6.8%ABV a pilsen malt that lends a soft dry mouthfeel with notes of bread crust and honey. I ordered the 16 oz Tactical Sunglasses: IPA-New England 6.4% ABV which had pineapple and passionfruit with hints of ripe stone fruit and citrus lime from HBC 735, Citiva and Citra Hops. After we managed to finish these, we shared a Flat Mars Society IPA-New England 6% ABV which is floral and fruity with passion fruit, grapefruit, pineapple, orange, and lemongrass overtones from Nelson, Citra, and Simcoe. Their house N. E. yeast blends lends to a nice juicy mouthfeel, with a soft and clean finish. My favorite was the Tactical Sunglasses IPA. Ken always orders water since he doesn’t drink alcohol.
Enough about beer, although we were at a Brewing Company. Isn’t it always about the food? Fresh Crab was available, but I didn’t notice it on the menu. They also served cioppino which had ½ crab, calamari, 3 prawns, linguicia, tomato, red and green onions, fennel, and an in house tomato base served with garlic bread. I have never made cioppino, but I have a recipe from my dad’s cousin’s husband Skip which I have been meaning to try. I will be talking about Skip again later in the blog.
We ordered their cheese bread with a delicious tomato sauce as an appetizer. This was devoured almost immediately. My best bite of food that I have eaten in a long time and we make a lot of cheese bread in our house. My husband ordered the fried chicken sandwich with caesar salad, I ordered the pretzels and cheese sauce and grilled artichokes which were a little over cooked to my liking. But I had to because we were near Watsonville where artichokes are grown. The Blackhawk Grille where I worked as a pastry chef had the best grilled artichokes. They were to die for, but I don’t think they are on the menu anymore.
Andrew ordered a Portuguese seafood soup with clams, prawns and garlic toasts. He loved it. And he is my budding chef. He loves to cook, has no problem cooking with a lot of spice and makes his own fermented vegetables. Curtis ordered the beer battered seafood sampler with calamari, prawns, cod and French fries. This was served with both tartar sauce and cocktail sauce and plenty of lemon. It was very tasty, but isn’t deep fried food always tasty?
We stopped off at the inside bar and ordered a 6 pack of something that Andrew wanted to try and I bought Curtis a hoodie with Half Moon Brewing Company on it so he would have something to remember the day with. Next stop: The Ritz Carlton.
Lucky us, we happened upon a free parking spot along the coast walking trail on the way to The Ritz Carlton. Otherwise, they do have 25 available spots to park in for the hikers at the hotel. They have been known to charge a day rate to park there, which I don’t love.
It was lovely walking along the path next to the golf course and the ocean on the other side. We don’t get out to the coast as much as I’d like. So today was the day. Ken and I can walk for hours, but Curtis complains of going too far because of his knees. He was also sore from a basketball game he played in the night before.
Eventually we made it to the hotel. I like looking around, but am happier at the bar. We chose the inside bar, since there were 3 seats available. We loved our adorable bartender Vienna, who poured generous portions of a 2019 Merry Edwards Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc from Sonoma County alcohol 14.0%. I try to order wines from the Russian River because that’s where my dad’s family is from. My dad was raised in Guerneville and would swim up the Russian River to visit a friend at Korbel Winery (his friend’s parents worked there), and then swim back down the river to his home.
The Ritz Hotel is stunning inside and out. If it were up to me, we would have stayed for dinner and dessert at The Conservatory, their signature restaurant. They serve everything from a Niman Ranch Pork chop, a Rack of Lamb, or a American Wagu Ribeye served with duckfat potatoes, brussel sprouts and red wine Jus.They served a beet salad with burrata, toasted pine nuts, peach balsamic and sourdough croutons. Grilled octopus, pumpkin soup, baked oysters and Marin County Cheese platter with Point Reyes Blue, Marin Schloss Nicasio Reserve and Walnut Bread. My kind of food right here. And much, much more was offered, but we decided upon another pour of the wine, Andrew had a blackberry beer and Curtis switched to wine after he drank the Purissima Mule: Purissima Vodka, fresh lime, strawberry mint syrup and Fever Tree Ginger Beer.
As the night grew darker, we found ourselves on the patio getting warm from the fire pit and enjoyed visiting with the hotel guests. It’s always nice to chat with people from all over, yet these locals were from Santa Rosa. They was a charming young couple celebrating their Baby Moon, which is a vacation you take before the baby comes. The woman happened to be a special education teacher and was fascinating to talk with. We shared our son Andrew’s diagnosis of autism and explained how he overcame some of his challenges. It was a win-win for us all. Here is the blog where I explain our story on raising a son with special needs. Ken and Curtis talked business as Curtis is in sales and has admired all of Ken’s achievements in his career as an Information Technology executive.
Overall, the day couldn’t have gone any better. Ken and Curtis walked back to the car and Andrew and I waited at the turn around for them to arrive. It’s a glorious place. You feel spoiled and special even if you only stop by for drinks.
I hope you have enjoyed my story about our fabulous day with our son’s Curtis and Andrew. It’s days like these that give me great joy to know they still live close and we can run away if only for a few hours to spend time together. It may not be this way forever and this I understand.
So here is a Blue Cheese Dressing recipe that was shared from my dad’s cousin’s husband Skip Cassidy who is 85 and lives in Guerneville, California. He and I chat from time to time. Last year he generously gifted me four marajuana plants that I grew and harvested last year. I make apple cake with the dried leaves and it helps me sleep. He’s a gem.
Skip’s Blue Cheese Salad Dressing from Casanova’s Restaurant in Cazadero
1.5 C. Milk
10 oz Blue Cheese
¼ C Apple Cider Vinegar
3 C Best Foods Mayonnaise
2 tsp Kosher Salt
1 T No Salt
4 Cloves sauteed garlic
1 tsp Accent
¼ t black pepper
Heat milk in a medium size pot on the stove on medium heat. Watch to make sure it doesn’t overboil. Add crumbled blue cheese and stir until melted. Saute’ garlic in a small pot with a little olive oil. Put all ingredients in a blender and blend until combined, being careful to cool the warmed milk and cheese before adding liquid in a blender. Place in the fridge and the dressing will thicken.
Place cleaned and dried greens in a large bowl. Pour dressing along the inside of the bowl. Toss greens to coat. Sprinkle it with salt and pepper and add any topping you wish.
I served mine with pistachios and a cup of warm apple butternut squash soup.
Stole my husband away from the Bay Area a few weeks ago to celebrate his birthday. Ken has been working from home since the March lockdown and hasn’t had a vacation since our trip to Tuscany last July. So you can imagine how excited he was to learn of my escape plan to The Albion River Inn close to Mendocino, our favorite place. Today’s blog will be about our adventure, exploring the town and local businesses. I will also share my cheese zombie recipe that my friends keep asking for.
Mendocino is special because it is where my husband and I spent our honeymoon 31 years ago. We hadn’t been back to the Albion River Inn for many years and we wanted to escape the poor air quality in Walnut Creek. California has had the worst fire season ever. Even Oregon and Washington are struggling to contain wildfires also, causing smoke all across the West Coast. Yesterday, we had our first clear blue sky in many weeks. It was so bad that no one could go outside for fear having the effect of smoking 20 cigarettes. Ugh. We escaped to Yountville in August to get away as well.
After a restful night at our bed and breakfast, we drove to Mendocino. The Albion River Inn provided hot coffee, homemade granola, fresh fruit and yogurt, and freshly squeezed orange juice brought directly to our room and left on the doorstep of our little cottage. We slept like angels listening to the ocean and breathing fresh salty air all night long.
Not much of the town was open, but there were a few quaint places to check out. The streets and stores were adorned with the most beautiful wildflowers. We found a natural food store Corner of the Mouth Co op. I bought local whole wheat flours, buckwheat, teff, cracked freekeh, and organic barley so I can bake healthy breads and pizzas. They even had an herbal section where they sold a pandemic tea for $49.00 a pound. Let’s hope we never need it. I spotted dried organic hop flowers, horehound, holy basil, hibiscus flowers, lobelia, linden leaf, maca root powder, marshmallow root, green teas from India, China, Japan, Nepal, Argentina, Ecuador, South Africa, USA, Poland, Cameroon, Hungary and more. Wild yam root, yarrow, turmeric, white willow bark, wild cherry bark, wormwood, valerian root and much much more. I saw many kinds of dried mushrooms including reishi which has healing powers. These herbs and mushrooms fascinate me since they have been used as medicine for many years.
We stumbled upon a small family owned business called Garden Bakery where we had fresh chicken tacos and empanadas, and a blueberry cream cheese pastry for lunch. I saw an Oreo cookie baked inside a chocolate chip cookie too! They only took cash, so we had to go back to the car. We hardly carry cash anymore. Totally worth it.
The Mendocino Garden Shop had plenty of seeds for me to buy. Have you noticed the seed shortage? More people are planting gardens since the pandemic, so it can be hard to find seeds. I also bought cover crops like crimson clover, rye grass, and fava beans to add to my soil. These fix nitrogen that have been depleted from our summer vegetable gardens.Other cover crops that I didn’t buy were Red Fescue, Daikon Radish, Bell Beans, Common Vetch, Red Oats, Journey Peas, Blue Wild Rye Grass, Meadow Barley, White Dutch Clover. If you are interested in learning more about cover crops, you can listen to John Kempf and this YouTube video. It is so interesting. Some other soil diversity experts are Chris Nichols, Jeremy Wilson, David Johnson, Grant Simms, Joel Williams, Russell Hedrick from North Carolina and Andrew Man from Alberta. If you want to grow great crops, listen to these experts.
The flowers in Mendocino are outstanding! I loved seeing the hollyhocks, sunflowers, naked pink ladies (belladonna lily), and more in bloom. It is enchanting and romantic to be where we began our marriage.
Another thrill was finding the Highlight Gallery where we enjoyed seeing exceptional fine art, watercolors and oil paintings. Erin Dertner is one of the local artists who provided us with gorgeous watercolors that adorned our walls for many years. We met Phil Chomak who happened to overhear me speaking to the sales lady at the gallery. He is one of Erin’s good friends and was able to tell us how she recently relocated to Santa Rosa. We were given her biography which revealed her philosophy, “There is no better life than to study the world with paintbrush in hand and a heart full of love and gratitude.” We love art galleries. Here is the one of the artsy blogs I wrote when we went to see my friend Margery Ammond’s art in Caramel a few years back.
Getting to run away with my husband to Mendocino was one of the best vacations we have ever had. The time away and clean ocean air was just what we needed to get rejuvenated and reconnected. I highly recommend eating at the Albion River Inn Restaurant too. We were spoiled with free champagne, an incredible Caesar salad with grilled shrimp and anchovies, meatballs and mac, and a seafood chowder with crispy croutons. The table was set outside with the most beautiful view of the sea and coastline. Charming lights were lit and strung above us and whimsical heat lamps were nearby to keep us warm. It will be an evening I will always remember.
Thanks for spending time with me today. I hope I’ve inspired you to bake, garden, or vacation with a loved one. I’m grateful for the time you have shared with me here and outside these homebound walls.
While rifling through my recipes, I encountered this family favorite. Cheese Zombies! I first experienced tasting one of these in high school in 1978. They were sold at brunch and provided by the cafeteria ladies. I’ve since learned my girlfriend Kim Johnson’s Russian grandmother Helen Ballock who worked for the Mount Diablo School District in the 1960’s came up with this recipe and it was inspired by her husband’s Piroshkis. The government had a cheese surplus, so she invented the Cheese Zombie. Kim’s grandfather immigrated from Russia to the United States in 1926. I may have to make Piroshki’s next since Kim shared her family’s traditional recipe with me.
These delicious warm balls of cheesy dough make the perfect snack. I hope you will give them a try.
MOUNT DIABLO SCHOOL DISTRICT ZOMBIE RECIPE
This recipe makes 2 ½ pounds of dough or 15 large filled zombies or 24 smaller zombies
2 C warm water
2 T Active Yeast
6 C Bread Flour
¼ C Sugar plus 1 T for activating the yeast
½ C room temperature unsalted butter
1 ½ t Kosher salt
⅛ C Poppy seeds or White or Black Sesame seeds
1 whole egg whisked
1 t black Hawaiin Sea Salt or whatever special salt you have
Whichever filling you desire:Cheese, sausage, etc… I used canned chili and cheese.
In a large mixing bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water and 1 T granulated sugar. Stir and let bubble up for about 5 or 10 minutes.
Using a dough hook, slowly begin adding some of the flour (about 2 cups) a bit at a time, incorporating the sugar and salt also while the mixer is on low. Add the room temperature butter to the dough in stages to make sure all butter is incorporated equally.
Let dough rest for 5 minutes, before adding more bread flour until most of the flour has been added. The dough should be mixed on medium high for about 10 minutes or until it is soft and pliable to the touch. Set dough aside to rest for about another 5 or 10 minutes.
Divide the dough into 1pound portions and roll into long logs. Cut each log into 5 equal pieces.
Roll out each piece with a rolling pin, using extra flour as needed to keep from sticking and place your favorite filling in the center of the dough, being careful to pull dough up from the sides to cover filling. Pinch to close carefully, so the filling can’t escape while baking. Place zombies pinched side down on a well greased or use parchment paper on a sheet pan. Brush with one whole egg.Sprinkle with poppy seeds or sesame seeds and Hawaiin Sea Salt. Let rise until doubled in size.
Bake in a 375 degree preheated oven for about 15-20 minutes or until golden brown.
Use 1 ½-2 oz of cheese per zombie.
Traditionally, Velveta Cheese was used, but I prefer a sharp white cheddar.
Other filling suggestions are:
Pepperoni, pizza sauce and cheese, ham and cheese, green chilies, ground beef, sausage, roasted vegetables, or scrambled eggs.
I’m told these zombies were inspired by the Russian Piroshikis. My friend Kim Johnson told me her grandmother worked for the Mount Diablo School District in the 1960’s. The government had a cheese surplus, so she invented the zombies to use up the cheese. Kim’s grandfather would fill his dough with meat. Great history lesson there.
I’m a huge fan of these lunchtime or anytime treats. It’s comfort food during these hard times.
I’m stuck sitting in my house all day because the smoke and ash from the West Coast wildfires are making the air unhealthy to breathe.The fires have charred over 2.5 million acres and it’s only mid September. I can’t imagine anything else that could go wrong in 2020. America and the world have been dealing with the Covid pandemic. We have missed weddings, funerals, concerts, and everything about our previous lifestyle and all this began a little more than six months ago. But August 23, 2020 will go down in history as being one of my favorite experiences ever, dining at The French Laundry in Yountville, California.
I’ve been following Thomas Keller (ChefThomasKeller) and the Three Star Michelin Restaurant The French Laundry (tfl) on Instagram for years. I’ve walked through the gardens across the street from the restaurant every time I visit my dad at the Veteran’s Home in Yountville. I’m inspired by the organic produce they grow and look to see what flowers I can identify by name. Not only have I worked as a pastry chef, I’ve also been an avid gardener for over 30 years. So getting the chance to dine at one of the world’s 50 best restaurants, was a dream come true.
In January, my sister Sue booked a reservation in May for four to celebrate her daughter Marie’s 30th birthday. Marie takes after her auntie and is one of the biggest foodies there is. She knows her wine too, especially after working for Wente Winery for a few years.There is a great story of our day together in a previous blog if you want to check that out. When Covid hit in March, the restaurant had to close and pivot to outdoor dining reopening on July 8th. Our reservation was rescheduled for August 23rd, which happened to be my sister’s birthday. Perfect right? I was excited to be included in this fancy affair and couldn’t wait for August to come fast enough.
When the day finally arrived, we started it off the right way by having brunch at my house first. Here’s the beginning of the story tfl Part 1. I didn’t want to go wine tasting at Robert Biale on an empty stomach, so I whipped up a few dishes to keep our tummies full.
Before our reservation, we had to get coffee and hot chocolate and buy something at Bouchon, the famous French Bakery also owned by Thomas Keller. We then took a walk through the gardens, said hello to the chickens and the bees and took photos like we were having the best day of our lives. And we were. We even touched up our makeup and hair in the car so we would be ready for what was to come.
The time had come. It was 5:15PM, so my husband Ken dropped us off (a designated driver is always a good idea), took a few photographs and we walked up to the back entrance. We were greeted and welcomed with a smile. We gave our name and were escorted to our table. Just so you know, I don’t get to eat at places like this every day. I appreciate restaurants and bars and how they make us feel and that’s why I write about them.
Our waiter was handsome and had an English accent. Very charming. We were smitten with him. My niece is single so of course I wanted to see if he was available since I am a matchmaker. I bet you didn’t know that about me. Well, he was taken, so that was that.
Marie brought a Del Dotto Rose sparkling wine and I brought a Red wine to avoid extra costs. Our waiter was nice enough to decanter the Italian Amarone Della Valpolicella Terre Molin red wine and open the sparkling wine to start. It was delightful. Light and plenty of bubbles. The perfect way to start the evening.
Then the tastings started coming. There was an amuse bouche of a cheese ball served in a cone dipped in white and black sesame seeds, chia seeds and flax seeds I think. We were also given hand made, perfectly cut out, flower shaped crackers filled with special cheeses that came from the cheese maker Soyoung Scanlan at Andante Farm in Petaluma California.
And lucky me, Chef Keller graced our table. I was so excited I could hardly contain myself. Chef’s are like rock stars to me. I had to give him my business card with my blog on it and share that I almost applied to a job to be his assistant 8 months ago, before I chickened out. Maybe I will get the courage to apply there someday. He was warm and professional and everything I had hoped for. He is an author of three cookbooks: Bouchon Bakery, Ad Hoc At Home, and the latest one Under Pressure Cooking Sous Vide, none of which I have. Hint. Hint. He also launched a magazine called Finesse in Dec 2010 that featured different themes of importance to Chef Keller such Design, Community, Preservation and Evolution. I must check these out. For $15.00 a month you can register for his Online Masterclass and learn how to poach perfect eggs, make pasta by hand and confit vegetables. Pretty cool.
I should have taken better notes because I’m trying to decipher the menu and compare it to the photos I took of the dishes. I can recall a special pastry that we were served along with their extraordinary butter made by Diane St. Claire, found only in Vermont by a dairy called Animal Farm. Chef Keller even had a cow named after him. I bet the pastry was made from heirloom grains provided by Glenn Roberts owner of Anson Mills in Columbia, South Carolina. The miller also grows Japanese buckwheat, French oats, Italian farro, legumes and antebellum corn. I’ve been experimenting with these grains and making bread by grinding grains with a Mocksmill that I purchased when there was a flour shortage.
This dining experience is special because of the close relationship the chef has with the farmers like Sadie Kendall at Kendall Farms in Atascadero who makes creme fraiche, seafood purveyors like Island Creek Oysters in Massachusetts,or Ingrid Bengis Seafood for her lobster, scallops and crab. Chef Keller buys only the best ingredients for culinary excellence and discriminating appetites such as special spices and olive oils from Le Sanctuaire in San Francisco. You get the idea.
I won’t go into every bite with you here, but I will include the menu so you can look it over yourself. It’s totally worth every penny to have an experience like we had.
In my opinion, the best part of the meal was the dessert. We were presented with a birthday cake “Gateau Marjolaine” a hazelnut dacquoise, chocolate ganache and praline buttercream for the birthday girls that had fireworks coming out of it. No joke. Incredible. My niece was blown away and so were the rest of us.
Did I mention Sue Baker, my sister’s best friend paid for Marie to have a special glass of wine selected from the wine cellar to celebrate her and to make her experience even better? How sweet was that? I can’t forget to address that my sister Sue paid for all four of us to dine at The French Laundry. It’s seriously unbelievable and added to the excitement of the day. Thank you Sue. So generous.
Back to the desserts, because of course these were my favorite treats and the most indulgent part of the evening. They kept coming and coming. There were caramels, and a strawberry flavored one too. We tried a peach French macaron (My recipe here) and chocolate covered macadamia nuts. I ate a white sesame cake with yuzu glazed strawberries, served with cream and cosmos flower petals.
Our service was undeniably the best I’ve ever had and our waiters had the precise attention to detail, skill and expertise that you would expect from a three star restaurant. They anticipated our every desire. Only better. I’m pretty sure someone stood near our table the whole evening just in case there was something we needed.
I wish I had taken better notes because I can’t begin to describe what was served in a tiny coffee cup. I also couldn’t stop eating the fluffy white dessert with chocolate crumbles. You realize we had been eating for four hours at least nine or ten decadent servings of everything a person could ever want and yet, I couldn’t stop myself from eating every single bite. Then they brought out the chocolates and we could try as many as we wanted. OMG. To die for. Don’t tell anyone. I took a few home in my purse so I could save them for later. Delicious. Works of art.
To make the day even better, the staff guided us through the kitchen for a tour. The kitchen is spotless and shiny like no other. Copper pots lining the walls, bins of tiny white and red onions probably coming straight from their garden across the street.
We laughed and giggled all the way back to the East Bay telling Ken all about the upcharge option of wagyu beef, and the stunningly, impeccably cared for grounds and the gently lighted ambiance when the sun went down.
Dining at the French Laundry has been the most relaxing and memorable foodie experience ever. We were treated like royalty by the most courteous staff. It was truly remarkable.
I hope you enjoyed my blog on The French Laundry. Meeting Chef Thomas Keller made my evening, but dining with my family and loved ones will be something I will always cherish. Thanks for stopping by.
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CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM
50g or ½ C. Cocoa Powder
40g or ⅓ C. Powdered Milk
150g or ¾ C. Granulated Sugar
10g or 2 T Instant Coffee powder Or Espresso
½ T Kosher Salt
100g or about 5 large Egg Yolks (Yolks ONLY)
360ml or 1½ C. Whole Milk
2 T Rum
480ml or 2 C. Heavy Cream
1 tsp Tahitian Vanilla Extract
In a medium size heavy saucepan, place the cocoa powder, the powdered milk, granulated sugar, instant coffee, rum, salt and stir with a wire whisk. Stir in the egg yolks. Pour the cream, milk and vanilla extract into the pan. Whisk ingredients and cook over low to medium heat until the thermometer reaches 158 degrees F or 70 degrees C.
For the next 25 minutes (set your timer), move the pan off and on over the heat keeping the temperature between 158-162 degrees F or 70-72 degrees C and constantly stirring. Stay with your ice cream base the entire 25 minutes.
Remove the pan off the heat, once the 25 minutes is up. Strain the custard through a wire mesh into a large bowl to remove any clumps.Cover with plastic wrap touching the custard directly onto the plastic to prevent a skin from forming on your custard.
Put the chocolate ice cream base into the refrigerator overnight or for at least four or 5 hours to chill. Pre chill the 2 quart bowl preferably overnight. (I leave mine in the freezer all year long, always returning to the freezer after my ice cream is made.) When ready to churn, take the frozen ice cream container out, add the chocolate ice cream base and churn according to the manufacturer’s instructions approximately 15-20 minutes or until doubled in volume. Remove it from the ice cream machine and place in a container with a lid and freeze until firm.
This is my latest favorite dessert. It is fairly easy to make and keeps well in the freezer. Never lasts long in my house… Here is a video of me making the chocolate custard that is uploaded from my Instagram page.
Spent last Sunday in Napa and Yountville celebrating my niece Marie’s 30th birthday and my sister Sue’s birthday. We were joined by Sue’s best friend Susan Baker, her college roommate from 40 years ago. Today’s blog is all about our day together having brunch at my house, tastings at Biale Winery and dinner at the world famous three Star Michelin restaurant The French Laundry.
I was concerned about drinking on an empty stomach, so I decided to whip up a few things to keep our tummies happy. The day before, I prepared an organic milled spelt, bulgur, heritage grain Olan wheat flour by Capay Mills, sun dried tomato and salami bread and kept it in the refrigerator to ferment overnight. Baked it fresh that morning, so it would have time to cool before cutting into it. I served this wonderful high protein bread with two cheeses: havarti dill, and Nicasio Reserve from Marin County California and my homemade Blenheim apricot preserves. We splurged and opened a bottle of sparkling wine and made bellinis with my canned peaches from my garden and garnished with lemon verbena from the garden.
I also served a potato Spanish tortilla and a peach crumble with vanilla ice cream and homemade caramel sauce. So yummy. I probably over did it. But this was going to be a special day and I wanted to start it out right.
We left for the winery later than expected with full bellies and smiling masked faces all piled into my Lexus. My husband Ken agreed to drive us, so we could enjoy the day.
We had a nice experience tasting wines at Robert Biale Vineyards. Since Susan has a membership, we were spoiled with impeccable service and attention. We relaxed looking at the vineyard, chatting and sipping some of the best Zinfandel, Petit Sirah, and Biale’s rare blends some of the best in the Napa Valley. We happened to be the only people there because of the wildfires and smoke permeating the area. We were lucky there was a breeze and the air quality didn’t bother us. It was much worse in the Bay Area where we traveled from. We sat for hours admiring the planters filled with prolific fuchsia pink and yellow perennials lantana, pink dianthus and red and yellow dahlias. Just gorgeous.
We were blessed to be able to get a reservation at The French Laundry 6 months ago for a May celebration. Covid closed down many restaurants in March, April and May, but we were fortunate enough to claim one for August so we could acknowledge Marie’s 30th birthday. Her dream came true that day, and I was ohh soo grateful to be included in her special day. I can’t forget to mention the quick stop at Bouchon Bakery where we indulged in hot chocolate, espresso, fresh French bread and pastries, not wanting to spoil our appetites for what was to come. Bouchon sells Paris-Brest, Macarons, fresh fruit tarts, chocolate eclairs, cupcakes, pain aux raisins, yuzu citrus croissants, chocolate almond croissants, cream cheese Danish, french baguettes filled with ham and cheese, smoked salmon sandwiches on seeded rolls,tomato and brie sandwiches, cookies, chocolates and candies like almond toffee.
It’s hard to know where to begin on describing my experience at the French Laundry. The four of us began by walking through the gardens across the street from the restaurant. They are incredible. They keep bees hives, tiny new starts of herbs in a tunnel, rows of lettuce, peppers, squash, onions, tomatoes and more. We visited the chickens who seem happy eating their fill of discarded squash. I’m curious about owning chickens and am ready to try keeping them in my home garden.
My husband took photos of us perfecting our makeup, like we were getting ready to get married or something. We were so excited and had waited so long to have this day finally happen. It had been cancelled a few times because of Covid and we were worried it would be cancelled again because of the fires and smoke in Napa County. The tables would be set up outside because no one is allowed to eat indoors for fear Covid could spread. We were fortunate to have the money and resources to afford the $350.00 per person fine dining experience. My sister Sue treated us by scheduling the date and paying many months ago. How incredibly lucky I was to be included in this special day, since originally my sister had another person in mind for the ticket.
More photos were taken at the entrance, then my husband drove off to find his own dinner nearby. Kind of sad we couldn’t include him in the event, but he wouldn’t have wanted to participate nor have wanted to spend the money on this extravagant meal.
I’m going to end here and write my next blog about the remainder of the day. I hate to see my blogs getting too long. Look forward to my next write up continuing on about our French Laundry experience part II.
First I will share my Peach Crumble and Sea Salt Caramel Recipe.
Peach Crumble with Sea Salt Caramel Sauce
4 or 5 medium to large size peaches peeled and sliced ¼ inch thick
2/3 C Brown Sugar
⅓ C Granulated Sugar ( Plus 2 T more sugar for peaches
2 T Tapioca Flour or arrowroot to add to peach mixture later)
½ C. Buckwheat flour
¼ C All Purpose Flour
¼ C Oats
½ C Unsalted Butter room temperature or cold cut into chunks Plus 1 T extra to coat pie dish
½ t Kosher Salt
½ t ground cinnamon
½ t ground ginger
¼ t ground cloves
1 Baking pie dish or use several individual oven safe serving size bowls
1 Cuisinart Food Processor or Kitchenaid Mixer
In a Cuisinart food processor, Kitchenaid Mixer or large bowl combine all dry ingredients: Brown Sugar, White Sugar, Buckwheat Flour, All Purpose Flour, Oats, Salt and spices: Cinnamon, Ginger, Cloves.
Pulse 5 times to mix thoroughly. Add butter pieces and pulse again until mixture is crumbly. Set aside.
Peel peaches by boiling first and placing in an ice bath to loosen skins. Dry and cut peaches, remove pits and cut into ¼ inch thick slices and place in a medium size bowl. Sprinkle 2 Tablespoons of sugar mixed with 2 T tapioca flour onto peaches.
In a buttered pie dish, place cut pieces of peaches that are covered with sugar and tapioca flour. Add crumble topping on top of peaches. Set the pie dish on a sheet pan and bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 35-50 minutes or until dessert is hot and bubbly.
Remove from the oven and cool slightly. Dessert can be refrigerated at this time and reheated and served later.
Serve alongside vanilla ice cream and sea salt caramel sauce.
Sea Salt Caramel
Ingredients and Instructions
320g or 11 oz Heavy Cream
200g or 7 oz Light Corn Syrup
60g or 3 oz Granulated Sugar (Plus an additional100g or 3.5 oz for later)
Heat these ingredients together in a medium size pot and set aside keeping it hot.
In another medium size pot, on medium low heat sprinkle 100g or 3.5 oz of granulated sugar little by little melting and cooking sugar slowly NOT stirring, until caramel turns amber color.
Slowly add hot cream mixture to amber caramel stirring and cooking until temp reaches 105 degrees C or 220 degrees F. The longer you boil, the thicker the caramel.
Add 4g Sea Salt, Maldon, or Fleur de Sel and cool. Caramel will thicken as it cools.
Recipe credit to Pastry Chef and author Dominique Ansel
I’ve used buckwheat flour to add complexity to the recipe and to make it healthier. You can substitute your favorite flour or use flax meal or almond flour.
Thanks for joining me today. Leave me questions or comments below.
Part II of my hike through Spain. Here’s a link to Part I, in case you missed it.
Sylvia.Peregrina and me at a cafe in Spain
Where do I begin? Well, I have to give a few shout outs to Silvia Peregrina who I watched from afar for a few days before approaching her. You see she happened to be walking the Camino at the same time as our group. Turns out, she is a tour guide and had a big group with her. My friend Nancy and I noticed her one morning as she walked beside us singing an American tune by Bruce Springsteen with her ear buds on. She wore a cowboy hat and stood out among the others on the trail. She was happy and had a lot of energy. When we finally met, I asked her if I could take a photo of her and write about her. She said I could, and also was very helpful in giving us good places to stop and eat along the way.
Us at dinner in Portomarin. And Wine! from left:Jeanne, Marianne, Sharon, Me, Beth(Nancy taking the photo)
We were excited to find a special bocadillo restaurant that served humongous sandwiches. Sylvia also recommended A Paso De Formiga Restaurant which was all about Ants. We ate at Restaurante O Mirador on the first night of our hike walking from Sarria to Portomarin. A few of us shared a bottle of Albarino white wine, blistered padron peppers, fish entrees and pizza. I think we were just getting in the groove and relaxing a bit. After all, I basically got off a plane one night and began walking the Camino the very next morning. And we got up EARLY.
It’s hard to really describe what’s it’s like to get up and walk for 6 or 7 hours every day for 6 days straight. There is something about Walking the Camino that you just can’t understand until you do it yourself. We read books, watched movies and read blogs trying to prepare for what this experience would be like. The best part was sharing the many hours chatting with my friends Nancy, Jeanne and Beth and getting to know them better. We had nothing else to do while walking through the Spanish countryside. Of course, the farm animals kept us guessing. We saw herds of sheep running through the streets of Sarria while stopping at a cafe to use the ladies room and grab an espresso. Next thing you know, we would come across a local farmers market getting set up for the day with cages of chickens, bunnies, sausages, bacon, and seasonal vegetables.
We were entertained by the roosters who would crow early in the morning to greet us and enjoyed listening to the variety of bird calls. There were many dogs in backyards who would run to the fence to say hello. I was amazed when I saw an older kitten drinking from his mother on the side of the road. He looked about the same size as the momma cat and I wondered about that. It was funny to see a chicken running around near a cat and a dog, like they were just another member of the family. There were herds of cattle grazing on fields of bright green as far as the eye could see. The people were friendly and hospitable to us and it was fun to see the locals, many of them little old men walking to town. Spain is incredibly beautiful.
Me and Nancy walking along the Camino de Santiago in Spain
I haven’t mentioned the cathedrals and churches we encountered on our walk, but there were many. I am Catholic, yet I don’t consider myself as devout as most. I’m religious, but don’t consider myself as faithful as some friends of mine. This trip, I was the only person who was interested in going into these beautiful buildings. I would light candles and say prayers for my friends and family that are in need. I’m grateful for my faith that my parents gave me, especially my mother who was raised Catholic. My Dad never fully converted from being Lutheran, but always went to Mass with us when I was young. All that went away when my father stepped out on us and left when I was 14 years old. My Mother never felt accepted because she divorced my dad and the church frowned on that. We grew up going to Catholic School in the 1970’s when divorce wasn’t popular.
Different Routes getting to Santiago
I digress… I enjoyed seeing these ancient cathedrals. After a long, hard second day, we came upon Iglesia San Tirso that we hoped to get a stamp from (We had books that we stamped to prove we walked the camino), but the doors were locked. As we walked down the stairs a man with a guitar case approached us with keys in his hand. We were so grateful to have made it in time to see this beautiful place in Palais de Rei. I was surprised to find my friend crying as we walked out. I immediately began to cry too, thinking I should be feeling her feelings as well. It was moments like these that made our trip. We looked out for each other. When Nancy needed a band aid for a cut, I always had one. When someone needed Advil to relieve a headache or sore feet, one of us would share our stash. I always had extra food to share in case any one got hungry. It was brief moments like these that helped us women stay strong throughout our journey.
One of the many older gentlemen we passed by who would be sitting along the road in Spain
I will put this away for now. I’m writing from a Casino in the wine country while my father is sleeping in the room next to me and I’m waiting for my older sister to come to bed. We are making new memories here at Twin Pines as much as I can’t stand these places. Good night and hope to share more stories and pictures very soon. Part III is coming next.
Fashionistas at the airport heading to Milan and Bergamo for a bike ride
But first I’d like to share our family recipe for Sweet Potato Casserole which we serve at every holiday. It’s perfectly sweet and oh so good!
Sweet Potato Casserole. Our families favorite side dish
Sweet Potato Casserole
3 C. Roasted or boiled mashed Sweet Potatoes .See article to choose your favorite variety
⅓ C Brown Sugar
⅓ C Skim Milk
2 T Unsalted Butter or Margarine melted (plus more for buttering dish)
1 t Vanilla
½ T Kosher Salt
1 t. Ground Cinnamon
1 t. Ground Ginger
½ t Ground Cloves
2 Egg whites whipped in a separate bowl
1 t lemon juice
⅓ C Packed Brown Sugar
¼ C Unbleached all purpose Flour
2 T Unsalted Butter chilled and cut into pieces
½ C Chopped Pecans
1 t Ground Cinnamon
1 t Ground Ginger
1 t ground Cloves
Preheat Oven to 350 degrees. Roast 3 large sweet potatoes I like garnet or jewel variety. Or peel and boil them until soft. Cool.
In a stand mixer place cooked cooled sweet potatoes and mix on low. This will help them cool down a bit. Add Milk, brown sugar, melted butter, vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and salt and mix until combined.
In a separate bowl, whip up egg whites and a teaspoon of lemon to soft peaks. It’s best to have the bowl super clean with no residue of oil residue which would inhibit the eggs from getting to their fullest volume.
Fold egg whites into sweet potato spice mixture until combined. Place mixture into a buttered 13X9 casserole dish. Set aside. This dish will serve 6 -8 people.
If you have a Cuisinart Food Processor this step is very easy. Place all topping ingredients brown sugar, flour, chilled butter, chopped pecans and spices into food processor. If you don’t have one, place all topping ingredients except pecans into a medium sized bowl and cut in cold butter with a pastry cutter until topping is well combined and butter is the size of small peas. Add chopped pecans and sprinkle topping over sweet potato mixture.
Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 45 minutes until casserole is golden and bubbly. Your house will smell amazing and your family will ask you year after year to make this delightful dish. It is especially good served with roasted turkey or roasted chicken.
Side note: I usually double this recipe and use two 13 X 9 pans because we have about 25 people that come to our holiday parties. And we never mind having left overs if there happens to be any left. I should mention I first learned of this dish through my sister Julie’s sister in law Maryann Weigant who made this special recipe for us many years ago. I added more spices because I love to spice things up! Thanks again for spending time with me and reading my blog. Feel free to sign up to receive and read more blogs and recipes. Every time I write a new one, it will arrive in your in box for you to enjoy at your convenience.