Yes - it is that time of the month again - .It's Daring Bakers!!

This month our challenge was Opera Cake. What - you never heard of Opera Cake? Me either, until the beginning of this month. You know me, my food is a little more rustic - I like my stuff to use a few bowls as possible. Less clean up means more time to eat.

Actually, though the recipe looked complex, once I broke it down into parts, it was actually pretty easy. The challenge rules stated that Opera Cake is usually made with coffee and dark chocolate. Yummmmmmmmmmmm.....but alas! this time we were to make pale cakes loaded with white chocolate in celebration of spring and all the happy birds, flowers and bunnies... Which kinda stank, as I really dislike white chocolate. Ah well...

The recipe consisted of cake layers (joconde - kinda easy),a flavored simple syrup (super easy!), a white chocolate ganache/mousse (which was optional, so I skipped it for the aforementioned reason), a white chocolate glaze (easy peeezy!) and an Italian buttercream (kinda tough but not too bad!). You take all these elements and build a leaning tower of Opera Cake.

We also had the option of favoring the cake and buttercream with anything our little hearts' desired. Me - I chose to stick with an almond based cake, but decided to make a mango flavored buttercream. I had some dried mango I picked up at Trader Joe's and decided that when cooked in a little water, would make a really nice paste which could be mixed into the buttercream without adding too much moisture. I also flavored the simple syrup with cardamon and cinnamon - plus I cheated a little and used the excess cooking water from the dried mango for the liquid. (I've been on an Indian food kick, so the flavor combination seemed to fit.)

Once of the things I liked best about this project is that I could tackle it in piecemeal fashion - one day I made the syrup and buttercream - the next, I baked the cake and assembled it. Unlike a lot of fancy recipes which require a ton of time all in one chunk, this one I would make again just because I could fit it into my busy schedule. The recipe states that the icing can even be made ahead and frozen for up to once month - that makes it a winner in my book!

Finished Buttercream

The buttercream was a pain in the patoot! For those of you who have not made Italian buttercream - it requires you to add blisteringly hot boiling sugar syrup to beaten eggs while the mixer is running with a whisk attachment. Yeah - I was sweating it hard. I could just see something bad happening - burn units and plastic surgery in my future. But thankfully, my luck held and no bodily harm came to me or any member of my household. Also, I had to guess at temperature of the boiling lava- I mean syrup. I do not have the right sized pan to hang my candy thermometer off of - and the instant read I have on hand only goes to 220 degrees. That was kinda scary - but I guessed right and the buttercream came out fantastic. It was all I could do to keep the family out of the bowl once I put it in the fridge.

For the syrup, I just threw in some whole green cardamon pods and a couple cinnamon sticks. The finished flavor in the cake was not super strong, but lent an air of mystery to the whole affair...

The cake batter came together nice and easy. It's once of those recipes that is very simple - therefore you can crash and burn quickly if care is not taken. Tons of eggs whites, beaten to stiff peaks are folded into a nut meal and egg yolk mixture. You can't over-mix or you have almond hardtack - under-mixed, you have big pockets of eggy tasting pockets of fluff. Though the recipe didn't state it - I used the trick of "lightening" the batter by mixing in some of the beaten whites before folding in the rest.

Assembly - well, I could not find my offset spatula. I realized as I was making this at 2 am in the morning that I had loaned it to one of my friends. Yeah me! So with the help of a butterknife, I assembled everything. Cake, syrup, icing,cake, syrup, icing,cake, syrup, icing,cake, syrup, icing, and then.... the glaze. I did white chocolate for the glaze. I would have loved to figure out how to do a fruit based glaze...but I was too darned lazy by this point.

Here is my pale, pale creation with all of its hidden exotic flavors. It made a boatload of cake which I ended up taking to work and calling friends to stop over and help me eat it. The hubby's verdict: The cake was simply a buttercream delivery system but on the other hand he said he never believed that he would like a non-chocolate cake this much. My friend Eric simply asked us to leave the room so he could have some private time with his slice.

So yes - this is one of those recipes that I would make again. In fact, I know that I will get requests very soon.

This month's challenge was hosted by four of our group: Lis, Fran, Shea and Ivonne. This month's challenge is dedicated to Barbara of winosandfoodies.com and her commitment to the LiveSTRONG foundation founded by Lance Armstrong. Barbara, despite her own everyday challenges, hosted an event called Taste of Yellow in support the LiveSTRONG foundation. On her site, Barbara shares with us her own personal story. That takes a lot of courage. It also takes a lot of courage to want to continue when it is easier to submit. So I am dedicating my post to Barbara, Lance and all the other people out there who find the courage to get up and keep on going.


Book Review: Comfort Food by Kate Jacobs

A while back Penguin Books emailed me asking if I would like to review a book. I like to read books and I said "Sure - send it!"

The premise behind Comfort Food is that "Gus" Simpson, an aging star of a cable food network, hits a big hiccup in her life and career - her ratings are slipping, her two daughters are in the midst of turmoil - and to make matters worse, the network has saddled her with a younger, glamorous co-host who is constantly trying to upstage her. Sounds like a pretty good premise right? I thought so too when I cracked the cover.

After spending two days reading this book, I felt as though I was never going to be done soon enough. The problem was that poor execution really kept this book from reaching its potential. The first half of the book is more of an expose on all the characters - even minor ones - that went on and on. Did I really need to know that much about the contest winner that was introduced about halfway through the book? And what real purpose did she even serve? The character really didn't further the plot and kind left me feeling as if I had been cheated in the way she was kind of swept under the rug after the big build up.

The whole thing smacked of soap opera at its cheesiest. What was the next big drama?! The daughter who has been engaged 5 thousand times is engaged again - and it might stick this time! Gasp! Wait wait - Gus's best friend has a terrible secret from her past that caused her to become a recluse and it's about to be revealed!! Double Gasp! The whole crew is sent to a "bonding weekend" - watch the fur fly!!! Triple Gasp!! Ummmmm...not really...

So what was it that I wanted? More, that's what I wanted. If you are going to go for the soap opera approach - let's just go over the top. The co-host should have been a uber-bitch who would stop at nothing. Gus should have had some personal earth shattering event - like her uterus falling out during the taping of her new show. Yes, I wanted pure unadulterated over-the-top melodrama. As it was, what happened to the characters was just plain dull - and the wrap up even duller.

Once the "introductions" were over the book was pleasant enough. Just think "Chick Flick" and you would be dead on. If you can get past the bad plotting, the two dimensional characters, slow pacing of the book, and the "everybody is happy" ending, then this book is for you. God help ya if you can't find anything else better to read. I've got an extra copy of Valley of the Dolls if you want some dirt for your summer reading list.

Yeah yeah yeah you say - so what did you expect? I should have known better I tell ya! You always pay for the things you get for free!


Let's break for a news bulletin!!

So - I moved to a new position at work and ended up with a schedule that makes it impossible for me to go to the Farmer's Markets on Saturdays. I am very sad.

And to make matters worse - I also can't get my garden put in. It's just been too damn wet. What's up Mother Nature?! Do you have it in for me?

I am excited about a lot of non-food related things coming up in the next month.

The first is Cinevent, a movie convention that will be held over Memorial Day weekend. Tony, Annie and I are all old movie buffs. And that is what this convention is all about - movies that were made 1955 or before. If you like Turner Classic Movies - you'll probably love this convention. Talkies, Silent, Westerns, Comedies, Action, Animation - you name it there is something on the bill for everyone. We've been going to Cinevent on and off for almost 15 years now and every year we see something that we fall in love or discover an old star that shouldn't have been forgotten. Plus - and a big plus for me - is the dealer's room. Posters, movie stills, 16mm and 35mm films plus tons of other movie related items to buy and enjoy at home. I usually add a few more posters to my collection every year. And for the folks who really love eye candy and have the deep pockets to own it, a huge movie poster auction is held every year as well. Even if you don't care to bid, it's worth it to take a spin through the auction room during the preview.

While I love newer movie posters, some of the old ones have a impact that is hard to resist. As a little treat, here is one of the posters I picked up last year. I wanna see the evil orgies now! God I love schlock!

Now after sitting in a dark hotel ballroom watching old movies, where do you think I'll be heading on Monday night? You guessed it! Right back to see more movies!! This time we are heading to Studio 35 for the opening weekend of the new Indy Jones movie. I am in total movie geek heaven - watching one of my favorite characters in a great theater drinking really good beer and eating pizza. So folks - if you want to see Indy Jones opening week- please head on over to Studio 35 and say "Hi!" To Eric and Rita. Tell them Rosie sent ya!!

Lastly - we are heading out to another magic convention, this time in Vegas. Now you would think we would have learned our lesson, but nooooooooooooooo... Like moths to the flame... Amazingly enough, three of our non-magician friends have decided to come with us. The poor fools - little do they suspect...

Well, on the food front - not much happening here in my kitchen. My work schedule has kept me busy and I've been eating a lot of my stand-bys like pasta, salads and sadly - lots of take out.

I did get to go out for Mother's Day. The family took me to Smackies - the best 'que joint in Columbus. Sunday brunch was fine as always - in fact they have extended the offerings to include a custom omelet station staring their signature omelet names the smokehouse special. It contains pulled pork, brisket, cheese and onions. Yummmmm... The really great news is that they seem to have a better handle on the waitstaff - considering how busy they were, the gal who waited on us did a great job. Since the summer is coming up, I hardily recommend stopping in for some sweet tea and brisket. (I am having a hard time eating any pulled pork after my Carolina experience... no reflection on Smackies..)

I am working to perfect a good pickled egg recipe for football season - anyone have any suggestions?

Daring Bakers is coming up very soon and I can't wait to show you this month's disaster..I mean, challenge.

So that is it for now - I am trying hard to get some more stuff written, but I can only squeeze it in here and there until things simmer down.

And just in case there is a sugar daddy out there who wants to buy me a nice present (hint hint hubby!!!), here is a link to the poster I want most! !!


Fayetteville part two

So we finally got into Fayetteville NC - land of strip clubs and bars (saw a couple of pawn shops too!) . Yes there are other businesses in town but at 11pm coming in along Bragg Blvd - that was all we could see.
Prince Charles Hotel: I confess - I stole this picture from the internet - mine didn't come out!

We pulled into the Prince Charles Hotel about 11:30 pm. It was the tallest building we had seen in the town since we pulled in - eight stories tall. It was built in 1924 and like all grand dames, while she may have had a face lift on numerous occasions but once you get a close look, she isn't fooling anyone - there are places that are sagging that give away her age. We got checked into our suite, which we thought would have a king sized bed, but instead had two full sized beds. Now those of you who have met me and the hubby know that we are not going to fit into one full sized bed - a queen would be a tight fit. After the appropriate Hays office jokes we proceeded to tuck into our separate beds and pass out.

Next morning we get up - are surprised to find out there is no breakfast. The hotel had offered a free breakfast. Now I assumed it would be along the lines of what most hotels offer - juice, milk, coffee, rolls, toast - American "continental" fare. Nope - turns out they cook to order. Except for this morning. Someone had locked up the kitchen the night before and not left the key for the morning staff. No free breakfast for us!!

Being adventurous, we hopped in the car and started driving looking for a chicken and biscuit place recommended by one of the idle kitchen staff. Well - we never found it. Never found the liquor store she was talking about either. (Yes were were looking for booze at 10 am. This should be an early warning sign.) We did find the Rainbow restaurant. You know the old adage about "look for a full parking lot - the locals know what is good" - in this case it was dead on. We sat in "The Smoking Section" - yes in the heart of tobacco country, free choice is alive and well. I insisted we sit in the smoking section for the novelty of it and I am glad we did.

Jada: Best Damn Waitress Ever!

There we met Jada - one of the highlights of our trip. Jada was handling her section of the restaurant with a grace that only comes with long years of practice. Regulars were coming in and asking to be seated in her section - and were greeted with a big bottomless cup of joe and a big smile. Some of them even got hugs. We got to chat with Jada a little bit as she hustled to and fro in her section. She had started waiting tables when she was 15 and ended up saying with it for over 20 years. She asked our names - and even gave us a little hug as we went out the door. I only wish the Rainbow was a little closer to home...we would be regulars.
The food was great too - nothing fancy, but correctly prepared every time. And I do mean every time, as we ended up eating there three out of the four days we stayed in the Prince Charles. Eggs done right, buttered toast, crispy hash browns - it's what you want TeeJay's to be when you stop in and rarely ever is. The highlight for us ended up being the country ham - a huge piece of salty hammy goodness. All that and many many cups of hot black java steeled us for what was would be a very exciting weekend.

Ah yes - the convention. The whole reason for the trip. Tony and I do about 2 or 3 conventions a year. Sometimes we get a dealer's table, sometimes Tony will lecture and sometimes we just go to be going - and we always throw a party when we get there. The convention - which for reasons which will become apparent - will remain unnamed. This was the first time we had been invited to this convention - and at first we had sat on the fence about going. But as the line up of talent got larger and larger and included some of the best closeup magicians in the world, we eventually broke down as decided to go as a dealer. The organizer, whom we had never met before, has said there would be about 100-150 people at the convention. While that was a pretty small number of attendees, it is still possible to make a enough money to cover your nut plus a small profit. Plus, Tony had talked to the organizer who has said he would pitch in some cash to help cover the expense of an after hours party - free booze and snacks tend to get pricey after three nights.

Friday and Saturday went great - several of the lecturers were people we had hung out with before and they actually seemed glad to see us. Some of the folks we had been chatting with over the Internet and it was great to put faces to names. And lastly we met some new people who - after Sunday - would become connected to us as well. The lectures were great - some really top notch folks were in attendance. However, by Saturday morning, we could only count about 40-50 people at the lectures - much less than the number we expected. The dealers room was dead - and no one was making any money. Tony worked like a dog to get people part with their cash - and it was like pulling teeth. We hoped that there would be a last minute buying frenzy on Sunday to help offset expenses - plus we would get some money back from the guy who ran the convention to cover our party expenses. In the meantime, we just talked with folks and had a blast.

Downtown Fayetteville from the 8th floor of the hotel

One of the best things about hanging out at conventions is going out to eat with the folks who are attending. Downtown Fayetteville is in the middle of a rejuvenation that brings to mind the Short North of 15-20 years ago. On a street that used to contain some of the most notorious strip clubs and bars there are new restaurants and "nice" bars opening up with the encouragement of the city. A local was telling me of how the city has made a concerted effort to clean up the area and how back in the "old days", many people would get robbed, stabbed, shot and sometimes killed every weekend. In fact, the city bought the property from the worst strip club, tore down the building and built the new city hall on the land - with the main police station right next door. So yeah - downtown Fayetteville is a much quieter place than it used to be.

Lots of things were within walking distance of the hotel - even a Gameworks-type of business. To be truthful, only one restaurant of the many in this part of the city would survive here in Columbus and it was a sports bar franchise named Beef O'Bradys. Really pedestrian fair, adequately done and served in a clean modern environment surrounded by large flat screen tv's. Oh and if you want your burger rare - no doing. The franchise has a rule against serving "undercooked" meat. (We recently encountered this same policy at the Red Robin up at Polaris - I can see "we don't wanna get sued" written on the menus.)

The other place I ended up eating at was a small tapas restaurant called Blue Moon Cafe. The cafe was small - it maybe sat 25 -30 max and that would be pushing it. It was doing a fairly lively business when I went in to get something to take back to the hotel. They served wine and beer - no hard liquor. Someone at the hotel mention that you have to have a separate licence to sell the hard stuff. The kitchen was open - and I watched the one poor kitchen guy turn out item after item without a stovetop - yup no burners for him! He had a refrigerated prep station, a microwave, a panini press and a small oven/broiler set up.
See I have this thing about watching people work in open kitchens - it kinda fun to critique their technique. Lots of items were prepped and held cold - like stuffed mushrooms, shrimp in garlic and olive oil and French onion soup. (I didn't think that was tapas - but hey what do I know?) The cook would then use the oven and/or the microwave to heat items up. For example, the onion soup was nuked - then grilled bread and cheese put on top and popped into the over to be finished off. Sandwiches and sliced of bread would be heated on the panini grill. I ended up getting a salad, some hummus with grilled bread and some marinated olives - for a whopping 20 dollars. Yeah - I felt ripped off. An OK meal with no alcohol for $20?! Bite me!

The next morning - this being Sunday - the true adventure began. Downtown Fayetteville closes down on Sunday morning. Not even the local coffee shop was open. That meant no caffeine for the hung over magicians who missed breakfast.

Since we had a car, I offered to take a couple of the attendees to the closest Starbucks. It turned out to be in a location of the local grocery chain called Harris Teeter. Boy was I glad - we had found a Wal-mart on Friday and as much as I hate shopping there, we had bought party supplies and a few other snackies. Harris Teeter reminded me more of Kroger's - more upscale so the prices were a little more expensive, but they had made to order sandwiches on really excellent bread (which I bought for brunch), a nice deli, a wide selection of beer and wine, and the aforementioned Starbucks.

The three of us loaded up on groceries and caffeine then headed back to the hotel.
As we were going back up to the convention floor (the ballroom on the 8th floor), the staff at the front desk stopped and asked me if I had seen the organizer of the convention. This was about 11 am.

My spidey-sense started tingling. When we got up to the ballroom, I saw the other people working the convention huddled together talking in hushed tones and looking around. Rut-ro Shaggy! Tony asked me what was wrong as I gave him his coffee and sandwich - I told him my suspicions - that the convention organizer was not around to pay the bills. True - it was still early - he might be passed out or hung over - we had made a late night of it on Saturday.
Time rolls on as we watch some of the lectures.

By 2 pm though - things were starting to happen. The organizer was still no where to be found. Some of the lecturers were having to head to the airport without getting paid. The hotel was still asking the convention attendees if they had seen him. The dealers were getting spooked - along with many of the attendees - and started packing up their stuff. Tony and I decided to head back to our room - and several other followed us, including our friend David from France and proceeded to grab a few beers.
We started relaxing and making jokes - not much you can do otherwise. After a few minutes one of the other performers, Jon, came into the room. He had been up all night and our noise had woken him. Jon was rubbing his eyes and taking little steps - just like a little kid who had just gotten up from a nap.

"What's happening?" asked Jon.
David looked at him and said "I've got good news and bad news."

Jon looked at all the faces turned toward him.
"I think a I better sit down." And he did.
The room was hushed with anticipation....
"So what's the good news?"
David looked at Jon. "The good news is - You don't have the cancer, and you don't have a spot on your dick."
The room roared.

Jon looked concerned... "And the bad news?"

"You ain't getting paid!!!"

Good news - Bad News!

Damn my sides hurt after laughing...I thought I stopped breathing at one point..

The convention staff decided to call a meeting - yes it's true - we have no idea where the guy with the money is. No - we don't have anything to do with the business end of this - we just volunteered to get in the door for free. We called the young man's mother and she said didn't know where he was either. The hotel also had a representative in the room - who stated that we would have our credit cards charged for the rooms when we checked out if no payment was forthcoming from the convention. There had been no formal contract between the organizer and the hotel stating that he was going to pay for the performer's rooms - just a verbal promise. However, the performers had contracts that did have a clause that promised payment of the hotel by the convention.

Then Chino stepped forward - I haven't mentioned Chino up until now. It's hard to describe Chino - to a certain extent he is an archetype in the magic world. The guy who is a member of the local magic club - the man whose love of the craft far exceeds his skill of the craft. But his enthusiasm and tenacity are really what make him a valued member of a club - we've all met a Chino in our time.

May the Chino be with you!

Chino has been good friends with the organizer - and in the words of the other club members - "knew him best". They called upon Chino to give an account of this young man's character as they had spent the most time together. Chino talked about what an upright guy he was, how he was kind and generous he was. The performers, looking at their empty purses asked - Generous - how did he show he was generous? To which Chino replied -
Why I once saw him give $500 to a titty dancer!

All the performers howled. I think I lost control of my ability to reason at that point. We had - as a group - entered some kind of warped and deranged pocket universe where the rules of normal life had ceased to apply. Once the laughter had died down, the volunteers and the performers started making arrangements to call the police. The volunteers talked to the hotel and worked out a deal where the deposit that was payed on the public rooms would be used to cover the performer's bills - thereby saving some folks' bacon. At the end of the meeting, I turned to an acquaintance of my hubby's, Robbie (also a broke performer!) and said, "Damn, I am worn out. I need a beer and something to eat." Robbie said,"I could go for a bologna and mayo sandwich right now." I said, "OK - I can do that!" And off I went to Harris Teeter once again. I figured these guys would need food and drink as most of them were stuck in the hotel until the following morning when their flights were taking off. I got a bunch of sandwich makings and more beer - including a big bottle of mayo, some white bread and a bunch of pretty decent garlic bologna.

This is how wild a magic party usually gets!

Once we all come to accept that we were going to be monetarily poor but richer in friendship - things went pretty smooth. We drank beer - we talked - I filmed guys playing with cards and coins - over all, it was a fun convention.

So what did we come home with - even if it wasn't money?

Harris Teeter Deli Style Mustard
- awesome product. I am thinking of having someone down South send me a couple more bottles.

Brooklyn Brown Ale - Kevin W. is a self confessed beer snob and travels with his own supply of Brooklyn Brown and his own glass. He was kind enough to share one of this precious beers with me and now I am hooked. Kevin arranged for me to receive 2 cases of this fine beverage once I got home - yummmmmm.

Seeing old friends - You know who you are! Always good to catch up!

Making some new friends
- including Jon who we will get to see at conventions in both June and July - looking forward to seeing him there!

A really fine story
- one that is sure to get us many beers for years to come.

So that was my spring vacation...