Thursday, April 24, 2014

To Market, to Market....and hidden gems of Philly

I had a great day yesterday! My brother and I went into Philly and spent the morning at the Reading Terminal Market and then a quick trip to the Museum of Art's Korean Treasures exhibit.

The Reading Terminal Market is such a treasure. It contains over 80 vendors, many of them selling ready to eat food, as well as purveyors of vegetables and fruit, meats, poultry, fish, chocolate and a smattering of non-edibles such as french linens, cookbooks, "made in Pa" items and a kitchen supply store. The ethnic range of the food is remarkable and representative of the region: Amish, Italian, Soul Food, Chinese, Japanese, Greek, Middle Eastern, French, Caribbean and more. You can taste your way through the Philly classics: an Amish breakfast at the Dutch Eating Place, snapper soup at Pearl's Oyster Bar, a cheesesteak at Carmines or Dinic's award winning pork sandwich, Bassett's ice cream for dessert and from one of the numerous candy stands pick up some Wilbur buds (from whom Hershey stole the idea of the kisses...buds are better!)

Usually when I've visited the market, I've rushed through at lunch time or on my way from one destination to another. Yesterday, it was my destination. We arrived at about 10:30, a perfect time to stroll the aisles. The lunch crowd hadn't arrived so we were able to go up and down each aisle and really peruse the goods. I noticed there are a good amount of new vendors that look promising as well as the old stalwarts. There is Valley Shepherds Creamery & Meltkraft Grilled Cheese (won best of Philly grilled cheese sandwich) which produces cheese in New Jersey. I didn't try one of their sandwiches but plan to bring Bobby back next week to sample. I have high hopes!

At 11am we joined a food tour of the market with our guide Betty. It was an excellent tour, giving the history of the market and a real "flavor" of the place. The tours run Wednesdays and Saturdays and for $16 are a bargain!

As part of the tour, Betty took us outside the market building and onto Market Street to look at the Terminal Head House where the Reading Railroad trains used to come into the city. It's a beautiful Victorian building but the best part is on the inside. If you go into the entrance marked "Convention Center" and up the escalator, you'll come to the original train shed. When the Reading Railroad built this terminal in the 1890's, there was an existing farmers market on the site and they refused to leave. So the company built the train shed above them and created the market space (originally for 800 vendors) below, in the space that still houses the market. The trains stopped running to the elevated tracks in the 80's timeframe, with the Market Street East Station being built underground. When the convention center was built they took over the train shed and as part of Philly's mandated public art initiative (1% of new construction cost must go to public great is that!?), they added a wonderful Calder-like aerial sculpture in the beautiful hall where the shed existed. You can still see the arched structure with sky lights and if you examine the marble floor, you can also see the original tracks. I never knew this place's now on my list of hidden gems of the city.

Also on this list is Maxfield Parrish Tiffany mosaic in the Curtis building. The Curtis building is just across from Independence Hall's back park on 6th Street and is where the Saturday Evening post was published. You need to go around to the 7th Street entrance, walk through the marble atrium, telling the guard you are going to see the mosaic, and head to the 6th Street side of the building. As you come around the corner, you'll be blown away. The mosaic is huge and breathtaking...I like to sit and contemplate it. It is an oasis of calm and beauty.

My last gem (hopefully I'll find more) is the Rare Book room in the Free Library of Philadelphia. For years, I've wanted to go into the Free Library just off Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and finally did a year or two ago on another jaunt into the city with my brother. The building itself is impressive but I had read about the rare book room and wanted to check it out. It was the year of Dickens celebration and they were having an exhibit that sounded interesting. I asked at one of the information desks where the room was and was directed to an elevator and told to go to the third floor. There you'll see a glassed in room with a doorbell! You ring the bell and are ushered into an incredible collection of beautiful and rare books and a rotating exhibit space. There is the original lovely 62 foot paneled Georgian library room from the original bequester, William Elkins, who donated all the contents and the room itself. They even have Charles Dickens pet raven, Grip, stuffed for all to see! If you are one of those people who treasures books, this is a wonderful place!

I love exploring cities and need to make the effort to explore my own city more...there are so many treasures to discover!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

It's Spring! Time for my own creation: Lemon Lavendar Cookies...

At Christmas, my mom's Orange cookies are my sister's and my favorite cookie of the season. I don't know why I only make it then, but for some reason that's the case. A few years ago, I had been given some lavender to cook with, one of those pretty crocks from Williams & Sonoma, and hadn't used much of it. Then I went to a local tea house and they served lemon lavender scones which I feel in love with. I decided to tinker with the orange cookie base and came up with a cookie recipe with the lemon lavender combination. It was a hit! I have people who go crazy over these cookies (myself included). To me, they are the perfect spring and summer cookies. The lavender flavor is not overpowering...just a hint to accompany the lemon flavor. Be sure to make the glaze as well. It dresses them up and adds a sweet/tart punch. I also adapted the Nigella Lawson scone recipe with a lemon lavender variation....I'll post those one of these days as well.

Lee's Lemon Lavender Cookies

  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk (or sour milk)
  • 1/8 cup (=2 T) lemon juice
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • grated rind of one lemon
  • 1 Tablespoon of lavender
For the icing:
  • 1 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • lemon juice 
  • water
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar together with a mixer. 
  3. Add the egg and mix and then add the buttermilk and lemon juice and mix. The consistency may look a bit odd, but don't panic!
  4. In a separate bowl, mix the dry ingredients with a whisk: the flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, lemon rind and lavender.
  5. Add the dry mixture to the sugar/butter mixture and blend well. 
  6. Drop rounded teaspoonful onto cookie sheets layered with silpat or parchment paper (this is optional but prevents the cookies from getting too browned around the edges)
  7. Bake for 15 minutes.
  8. While baking mix the powdered sugar with the lemon juice, adding the lemon juice a teaspoonful at a time (it doesn't take too much) until it's at a spreading consistency (not too liquidy). If you want to cut the lemon flavor you can also use some water though I stick with the juice.
  9. When you remove the cookies from the oven, let them cool for 2 minutes on the cookie sheet and then transfer to the cooling rack. Start icing them as soon as you've transferred them to the cooling rack so that you are icing while they are still warm.
Photo's below to help:

Lemon zest and lavendar
Heaped teaspoon on parchment paper or silpat
Right out if the oven!
Icing consistency
Iced and cooling (add the icing while cookies are warm)

Monday, April 7, 2014

Mountains of cookies!

We went to a party this weekend and I promised to bring dessert so I made 3 varieties of cookies and a batch of fudge. After finishing up the last batch of cookies on Thursday, I felt like a professional baker or at least like my mom, when she had her cookie making business that almost took over our house, if we hadn't moved to Japan.

As I've mentioned before, my mom was a wonderful cook and baker. I never ate store bought cookies growing up and only tasted my first Oreo when we had kids and my husband introduced me to them! Well, my mom, Kate, was known for her fantastic cookies and she and her friend Aggie had a brilliant idea that sprang from the delicious care packages my mom was sending to my oldest brother in college. All his friends would devour my mom's cookies as soon as they arrived. We lived in Pittsburgh and it is filled with a number of colleges. This was back in the mid 60's and privacy wasn't as closely guarded. Mom and Aggie were able to get the names and addresses of the parents of freshmen at a number of the schools. So they sent out mailers offering delicious, homemade care packages for a fair price.

The orders started to trickle in. Mom was the baker and Aggie was the delivery person. They decided to do this on the quiet, as Aggie's husband didn't want her "working", so no one in either family knew about it. In our house, we did notice that the house smelled continuously of fresh baked cookies, but the only ones we saw were burnt and broken ones, so we thought my mom's skills were deteriorating.

Aggie had a bigger challenge. Their family, like many in the 60's only had one car and her husband took it to work with him. Fortunately he worked at the local steel company that was in the same town. So Kate would drive Aggie and the cookies down to the parking lot of Edgewater Steel, where Aggie would use her keys to take the car and care packages and drive to Oakland and drop off the batches of cookies to the starving freshmen. The complication came in when she would return the car to the parking lot at the steel company. Often the original parking space was now occupied so she'd be forced to park the car in a different spot...attempting to get as close as possible to the original space.This went on for MONTHS and her husband never noticed the car was moving!

Once the college students had a taste of my mom's cookies, the business exploded. The orders began pouring in and it was like an "I Love Lucy" episode of constantly baking and delivering cookies (and moving the car) and then trying to figure out how to explain the influx of cash (or figure out where to hide it!). They were just at the point where they were considering bringing on more bakers and delivery people (and about to spill the beans to the spouses), when we were transferred to Japan and the cookie business crumbled!

So, as I was making fudge and the chocolate chip, and the Asian pear spiced and lastly the lemon lavendar cookies, and my house smelled heavenly, I thought of the cookie business and Aggie and Mom, early culinary entrepreneurs!

I'll share with you the secret to my mom's chocolate chip cookies which are the BEST...use the recipe on the back of the toll house chocolate morsels package BUT melt the butter in the microwave and then add the sugars. It creates a much better flavor. I also prefer Trader Joe's or Ghiradelli's semisweet bits.

And below I present the recipe for the Asian pear spiced cookies. It uses Asian pear butter which is probably tough to get for you but you could substitute apple or peach butter and it would taste just as divine. I am not a chocolate dessert person (though the rest of my family is). I much prefer cinnamon/ginger spiced cookies or citrus and fruit based desserts. These cookies taste yummy and earthy and luxuriously spiced with the combination of cinnamon, clove and ginger. The recipe is another from North Star Orchards (, where I bought the Asian Pears butter and I've mentioned repeatedly in this blog.

Erica's Asian Pear Cookies

  • 3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1/4 cup Asian pear butter (or apple butter or peach butter)
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • powdered sugar for rolling
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In a medium bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Add egg and mix until smooth, then stir in the Asian pear butter. 
  3. In a separate bowl combine the dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, salt and spices). 
  4. Blend the dry mixture into the sugar/egg mixture.
  5. For thicker, soft cookies (which I recommend), chill batter for at least one hour and then roll about a teaspoonful into balls, roll the balls in powdered sugar, and bake on ungreased cookie sheets for 10 minutes or until tops are cracked.
  6. For thin, crisp cookies, don't chill the batter, and drop by teaspoonful onto ungreased cookie sheet. Sprinkle with regular sugar and bake for 8-10 minutes until the edges look browned and dry.
  7. Cool on wire racks.
I don't like blogs where the recipe is imbedded with the photos so I include these photos below (separately) to help:

Rolled ball of dough
Dipped in Powdered Sugar
Cracked and Cooling!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

SPRINGING into action

Is spring finally here?

Is the mind numbing, cold, inescapable snow-filled winter gone for good?

I shouldn't complain since we missed 3 weeks of this frozen hell by visiting Asia over the winter holidays but still, I am sooo ready for spring. Ever since we returned from vacation, I've felt lackluster, uncreative and lazy! I'm not sure if it's a seasonal disorder or a lack of caffeine (I've cut back significantly).

I seemed to be spinning in circles: Do I get a formal Project Manager certification? Should I create a site in WordPress to expand my skills? I'll work on my French! I'll get back to my watercolor painting! Meanwhile a significant portion of my time has been spent reading books, and binging on House of Cards and BBC series. At least I have kept exercising...

I'm the type of person that needs to plan. Whether it's work, the next vacation, a project around the house...I need a list to cross accomplishments off of. Otherwise I spin like a top from one thing to another.

Today my spring fever really kicked in. Of course it might have helped that I started my morning with a matcha latte! All day I've been energized and feeling fabulous. It was relatively warm and sunny, the air smelled of green and possibilities, and all was right with the world.

So here's to spring...may the warmer temperatures and budding trees inspire me to "spring" into action...and maybe I should add a little caffeine back into my routine!