Monday, June 21, 2010
But I've never really understood the trend until I went to Cappellino's Crazy Cakes in Charlottesville.
This small sub-street-level store is off the downtown pedestrian mall. The day I showed up, an afternoon thunderstorm had just tore through, leaving dead traffic lights and flooded streets in its wake. Cappellino's electricity had gone off, just as 100 cupcake liners were about to be filled with batter and baked. Ouch.
I was lucky. The owner let me and another cupcake-craving woman in and offered to sell us the last few cupcakes, so long as we didn't need to use credit cards. At $2.30 a cupcake, I can handle paying in cash.
But what kind to buy?
Thankfully, the shop offers samples. Can you spot the chocolate-raspberry? The peanut butter-chocolate? The coconut?
Displayed, the cupcakes are miniature works of edible art.
After much waffling, I finally settled on the lemon drop cupcake. The pound cake is fabulous, light and airy and sweet, topped by an authentically lemony cream you want to lick straight off your fingers. (The hard candy makes it look pretty, but you can have mine.)
Which one will you get?
Cappellino's Crazy Cakes
103 3rd St. NE
Friday, June 18, 2010
We had heard of Turkish ice cream — dondurma — from friends and guidebooks. And we had seen the tourist-centered stands on the streets. And one day, we finally took the plunge.
The ice cream seller posed for us, as I'm sure he had for hundreds of tourists. The ice cream is gooier and stretchier, like chilly taffy, almost.
For 5 lira, we got 5 flavors. Some were odd (peanut butter, maybe? lime? I can't seem to recall...), some typical. Yummy, but not worth a trip to Istanbul in and of itself.
I'm happy to return to Splendora's, our sweet gelato spot in Charlottesville.
The pamphlets laud the cruises folded in with dinner and the belly dancers — and a tourist-appropriate price tag of 70 lira or so. We had browsed through the assorted offerings and hadn't felt particularly compelled.
But still: the Golden Horn! The Bosporus! The strait that separates Asia from Europe! How could we simply stare longingly from the shore?
Then, after an afternoon of the cacophonous Spice Bazaar, we emerged from the retail tunnel lined with mounds of spices into the daylight. I was tired, but a nap felt like cheating. A precious day in Istanbul was still full of possibility.
Across the highway, we spied the sea — and a row of ferries.
Turkish commuters rushed about. It was 5:45 or so.
We trekked across the lanes of traffic to the ticket window, hoping to find precisely what we did: For 10 lira each, we could take a 1.5-hour trip up the Bosphorous and back. No belly dancers. No bad buffet. Just a jaunt on the fairy tale strait.
And the next ferry? 6 o' clock.
We could hardly believe our luck, and with just a minute of hesitation, hopped aboard.
This photo is for my mother, who always urges her children to locate the life preservers.
For some reason, all the ferries set off at precisely the stroke of the hour. Wouldn't it be more efficient to stagger the starts, we wondered ...
Departing the dock, Europe would soon be on our left, Asia on our right.
Soon we would approach the bridge linking the two continents.
We saw ancient walls, a modern amphitheater created out of (we later learned) an old dungeon, the giant block of Istanbul Modern, elegant mansions that reminded me of Lake Como's residencies, and interesting ships churning up the waves.
One of the more disturbing and beautiful sites in Istanbul is the Harem, a decadent complex within the Topkapi Palace where foreign ladies were held.The Lonely Planet offers a recap of Harem life here. An excerpt:
"Upon entering the Harem, the girls would be schooled in Islam and Turkish culture and language, as well as the arts of make-up, dress, comportment, music, reading, writing, embroidery and dancing. They then entered a meritocracy, first as ladies-in-waiting to the sultan's concubines and children, then to the sultan's mother and finally, if they were the best, to the sultan himself ...
"As for concubines, Islam permits as many as a man can support in proper style. The Ottoman sultans had the means to support many, sometimes up to 300, though they were not all in the Harem at the same time."
It's difficult to fathom such an arrangement today, and to a woman in 2010, horrifying to imagine such a life. Still, the harem decor is beautiful and worthy of a visit.
The rooms themselves are not disturbing — they mimic the delicate decoration and architecture of any other building within the palace grounds, at least to my untrained eye, but the thought of the establishment's purpose gave me the shivers. It felt creepy to be thinking of all of the tourists, myself included, wandering the chambers as a form of education and entertainment.
I find it difficult to grasp the centuries of rule, headquartered here, over most of the planet's population. I read the plaques with dates far before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and it's like reading about the distance to Saturn.
Topkapi Palace, home to the Ottoman Sultans, was built around 1480. That's just a level more approachable than, say, the Hagia Sophia's creation around 530.
Unlike the free mosques, the palace costs 20 lira (~$13) per visitor. Also on the palace grounds, the harem (that's a whole other blog post) costs another 15 lira.
Topkapi Palace reminded me of Versailles, the decadent estate outside of Paris, though with intricate tilework instead of manicured trees.
You can take a virtual tour here or here with 360 views of the courtyards, entrances, hallways, and thoroughly decorated rooms.
I felt overwhelmed after entering room after hallway after room of detailed tilework, swirls, colorful branches, twists and turns. Like the Louvre, the palace gushes with artistic creation in a way that one lone human brain can't properly absorb at once. It goes on and on and on, until you must run for a window and stare out at the placid sea.
Above the tourist bustle of Sultanahmet is a serene rooftop world.
Take the elevator up above any hotel, and you'll find a lily-pad collection of cafes and patios. It's like dipping into another world, enchanting and surprising as anything we saw in Istanbul.
One evening around 7, inclined to write in journals and chat and mull wine, we asked a maître d' stationed outside a random cafe if there was a rootftop seating area. Ah, yes, around the corner, he declared, and then briskly set off to show us the way. Sure enough, a block to the left, then the left, then the left, and we came to an elegant boutique hotel with a tiny European elevator that rose to a hidden cafe. And a window into another world.
The sun was just beginning to set. We ordered wine and then, swayed by an intriguing menu, a couple of appetizers.
One was an eggplant dip with paprika and pine nuts. Eggplant is ubiquitous in Turkey, as potatoes are in America.
As the hours rolled by, the sun set, and we finally decided to order an entree. The savory rhythm of Europe, captured perfectly in Turkey, feels magical at time. No one rushes you to finish your latte. No one hovers over you while you are finishing your sandwich. No one gives you the evil eye for lingering after glass has been emptied.
And we like to linger. For hours.
So it's night now. Maybe 10 o'clock. This is a bulgar cake, I think, and a very tender lamb, and roasted vegetables. All quite good.
By 11, we start to think about dessert. We both have sweet tooths (teeth?), and Ron is head-over-heels mad about chocolate. I love it, too.
So when the waiter began extolling the virtues of the chocolate souffle, baked just that day, Ron's eyes lit up. The other possible desserts seemed more traditionally Turkish — really, you can get a good souffle in America, right? Shouldn't we order fig something? — but we had a two-person conference and decided, we needed to go with the chocolate recommendation
"One?" asked the waiter. "One," I replied, as we had split the entree and both declared we were not all the hungry.
Then I hear an alarmed voice: "Two!"
"Two?" The waiter pauses. I look at Ron. "Two!" he says.
It's a very good thing we got two.
This was the best chocolate dessert I've ever had. Ron nearly floated away with happiness.
This was not actually a chocolate souffle, at least not by any definition I know. In the United States, we would call it a lava cake. Because when your fork cuts through the crispy chocolate exterior, through the luscious cake, out spills the most decadent chocolate.
Chocolate abroad is so much richer, darker, layered than any corn-syrup American creation. Think of a luscious cocoa waterfall or a thick spoonful of melted heaven.
It was exquisite. I don't know that we'll ever have another chocolate dessert as perfect as that one.
The coffeehouses are part of a rich culture and tradition. Even the residual grounds are more than leftovers: The chocolate brown splotches reveal your fortune, much like reading tea leaves.
The first I had heard of this was at a dinner graciously prepared by one of Ron's co-workers, a Turkish major. What a feast! The opening meze seemed endless, followed by two kinds of lamb, various salads, spiced vegetables, desserts and tea and coffee. I regretted having eaten any time in the proceeding week. So delicious.
At the end, Ron asked the Turkish major to read his fortune.
Here's how it works:
Once the coffee has been all sipped up, flip the mug over onto the saucer. Sandwiching the two together, swirl them several times. Place the mug-saucer down and let it all rest for a few minutes. Then flip the mug over and peer inside.
What do you see?
We repeated the trick in Istanbul. Ron spotted a match with our guidebook map.
Can you see the Black Sea mirrored in his coffee grounds?
No. 2? Cooking classes at the Sarnic Hotel.
He was delighted. I was a bit wary. Cooking classes seemed like an expensive way to impart what any hum-drum cookbook or chef show serves up for a dash of mental energy. But who knows? I can be wrong about anything, and cooking with Ron is one of my favorite things to do, period.
"Cooking classes" was scribbled into our Moleskine on the Istanbul wish list.
Once we landed in Istanbul, we were swept up into the iconic tourist sites. The week flew by. We kept saying it each other, "Oh, the cooking class! We really need to figure that out!" And then we'd get distracted by a stunning mosque or a rooftop sunset.
Then one day, strolling back from a museum, we happened upon a sandwich sign in the street: "Cooking Alaturka" – a cooking school!
We peered inside to find a charming eggplant-purple and pale green dining room with a professional kitchen nestled in the back.
A small class was in session, though a woman spotted us and came out to greet us. Eveline runs Cooking Alaturka and signed us up on the spot for a class the next day. She trained at Cordon Bleu in Paris and worked in St. Regis in New York, a swanky restaurant that Ron knew and loved. She has cooking cred.
(Read a profile of Eveline here. As we found out later, she was the original owner and operator of Sarnic Hotel, which created the cooking classes raved about on Tripadvisor! We had stumbled upon the real gem, shifted into a new location.)
Classes start at 10:30 a.m. and go until 2:30. In those four hours, we were to cook a five-course meal and eat it. At 120 lira each, it was not cheap, but as it turned out, it was one of my most memorable uses of $77.
We arrived at 10:30 and settled into the couch for Turkish tea and coffee. Our three cooking classmates — a Dutch expat and her parents — arrived shortly, and the menu was distributed. We were to make:
- Yogurt soup
- Zucchini cakes
- Runner beans with tomatoes, garlic, lemon, dill
- "Split-belly" eggplant with lamb
- Walnut-stuffed figs
Eventually, we sliced the "belly" of each individual eggplant open and stuffed it with a lamb-tomato mixture.
The "split-belly" eggplant went back into the oven with slices of pretty tomato and pepper as garnish.
These are runner beans, which I had never heard of nor seen before. We trimmed the ends and sliced them into thirds, creating makeshift French-style green beans.
Later, back in Charlottesville, I tried forcing the recipe on a suspiciously similar bean. But the skins refused to soften, and the peas fell out. The cooking style — a simmering bath with garlic, tomato, lemon, dill, salt, and sugar — can reportedly be used with a menagerie of vegetables. I haven't located the suitable American ones yet.
For the zucchini cakes, first we went into a shredding frenzy. Feyzi mixed up the ingredients, and we the students took turns plopping the pancake-like batter onto a cast-iron skillet, waiting for each green disc to crisp up around the edges, and then swishing and clanging the pan over the burner grate so the patties didn't get too friendly and start to stick. With a flick of the wrist, Feyzi sent the cakes into a circus flip. I tried, but only managed a weak somersault with one cake.
The yogurt was whisked on the stovetop and then simmered with dill.
We stuffed dried figs with walnuts, slicing them open like monster mouths. The figs went for a soak with cloves and lemon. Later, we sprinkled them with pistachio dust and coconut flakes.
First course: the yogurt soup. Not my favorite, as I like my yogurt chilled. But you may feel differently.
The beans, having spent the past hour in the company of with garlic, tomato, dill, lemon, were as pleasant as you can imagine. That's a recipe I will tuck in my suitcase. The zucchini cakes were tasty, too.
Rice appeared as if out of a magician's hat, the ideal companion to the tomato-lamb stuffing inside the soft, savory eggplant. I wish I could have taken it home with me — the serving was simply enormous!
And for dessert, the succulent figs. Mmmm.
Lunch came with our choice of white or red Turkish wine, and it all finished off, of course, with Turkish coffee. Feyzi demonstrated how to stick a copper pot into a gas flame and whip up this rich coffee.
As the clock struck 2:30, our cooking adventure ended. With aching bellies and happy faces, we headed back, around the corner. The verdict? The sweet memories of a cooking class in Istanbul were well worth the price.
Friday, June 11, 2010
Across from the Blue Mosque, with a Epcot-esque fountain park separating the two, stands another glorious holy building. Hagia Sophia (or Church of Holy Wisdom) began its life as a Christian church and later was converted into a mosque. Now a museum, it hosts throngs of Istanbul tourists six days a week.
While the Blue Mosque was lovely inside, the Hagia Sophia is jaw-dropping.
The space is huge, and you can roam upstairs or down.
You'll find words from the Quran and paintings of Mary and Jesus. The combination is startling, curious, and beautiful.
The interior had been undergoing repairs for some time ...
... so scaffolding was still up in places.
If you look carefully, you'll see angels in the corners under the dome. Only one had a face — we wondered why. Are the rest facing outward?
Later, while reading the International Herald Tribune at breakfast, we happened upon this little travel article:
"After what seems like ages, a portion of scaffolding has been removed from the interior of the Hagia Sophia, the church-turned-mosque-and-museum, allowing the best view in years of the soaring arches and colorful domes inside the sixth-century architectural gem. But the biggest change involves the roughly 700-year-old face of a mosaic angel.
It is visible, high above the building’s central hall, for the first time since 1849, when Italian restorers concealed it in compliance with the Islamic ban on praying before human images."What! How amazing! We got there just in time to see the angel's face. We felt quite lucky.
Ron was thrilled to see the marble columns. In the James Bond movie, "From Russia, With Love," our spy hero stands right by one in a scene actually shot in the Hagia Sophia.
The intricate capitals atop the columns caught our eye.
From the second floor, you could peer out a window and see the cafe below.
Here's a ground-level view. We paused at the cafe for tea and reflection. After all, the Hagia Sophia is quite a lot of beauty and history to take in during just one afternoon!