Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Dabs Go European!

Bonjour family and friends! Part of the purpose for starting this blog was so I could share with you stories from our summer 2012 family European vacation, and to have a written record of our trip to look back on. We were going to blog live from our trip but due to internet constraints this was not possible. However, I kept a diary and took 3,000 pictures. Therefore I have a lot to share! Each post will be a different day from our trip in order. 

Our vacation included the 5/23/12 sailing of the 12-night Celebrity Solstice itinerary out of Barcelona, Spain. Following our cruise, we spent 4 nights in Paris, France.
As you can imagine, most would be very excited about going to Europe. I was overly excited because my mom and I are the only ones who have been to Europe (and she only went to Paris in 1985). AND I am the only one who has been on a cruise in the past 15 years; the cruising industry has changed a lot since their days of cruising in the 80's and 90's. Tyler had never been on a cruise and Brandon was just a baby. I was so excited, I am sure my family and friends were annoyed with me because all I would talk about was the trip, sorry friends. 
Almost anyone who knows me knows I am obsessed with Europe. I had the opportunity of a lifetime to go to Europe in 2004 with the SPC student trip. Since then, I have had dreams of taking my family back to Europe. Those of you who have been to Europe know there is nothing like seeing Europe for the first time; it cannot be recreated. There is something special about stepping off the plane in Europe for the first time, the air and ground just feel different (At least to me). As I already had my first encounter with Europe in 2004 I was overjoyed with the idea of getting to experience that feeling again through the people I hold closest to my heart- my family. I think the feelings I had are probably similar to a parent seeing Disney though children eyes?

Leading up the trip we recorded a bunch of Travel Chanel and Rick Steves shows.  I was the researcher and planner of the trip. Mom and dad just booked it and left the rest up to me. Planning a 3 week Europe trip takes a lot of time! I had no idea how much research I would have to do. The best place I found was the forums on CruiseCritic.com (CC) and Trip Advisor. CC is great for anyone going on a European cruise! You will get everything you ever needed to know and more. If there is an answer you cannot find, just ask and someone will know it, guaranteed! To stay organized I created the "Master Book" or command central as I sometimes called it. I kept everything in there- tickets, itineraries, reservations, language phrases, directions, excel time sheets, etc. I might have over prepared when I scheduled "sleep time" into the excel spread sheet version of our itinerary.Time was precious!

IN THIS BLOG I WILL POST ALL MY TIPS AND TRICKS IN BOLD SO IF YOU DON'T READ THE ENTIRE ENTRY YOU CAN AT LEAST GET THE TIPS. AS YOU PROBABLY NOTICED, I TYPE A LOT SO ENTRIES WILL BE WORDY :)

We all had something different we were looking forward to most.

-I (Ashley) was most looking forward to the cruise (I have never been on such a nice ship before!), seeing my families reaction to Europe, and Paris (of course).

-Mom was looking forward to Paris, the cruise ship itself, and everything.
Dad is most looking forward to seeing the Grand Prix of Monaco and the ship itself.
-Brandon is most looking forward to Rome.
-Tyler is most looking forward to the food, Barcelona, and the new experiences of Europe.
Accommodations:
Barcelona: Hotel Arts Barcelona, a Ritz Carlton

Paris: Marriott Champs-Elysees, a Marriott

Flights: Lufthansa and Air France
Cruise: Celebrity Solstice, Concierge Class, Port Side, deck 10, C3 Level
So how did this trip come about? I never thought in a million years the Dabs would go to Europe, together, as a family! One day, out of the blue, my parents call me and ask me to “sit-down.” Uh-oh, I thought- usually you get bad news when you hear something like that! They proceeded to give me the shock of a life-time; my mom said “Well your father and I wanted to go somewhere nice for our 30th wedding anniversary... we booked a 12 night trip on a Mediterranean cruise… and we are not done yet, we will be following the cruise with 5 days in Paris.” “UMM, DID I HEAR YOU CORRECTLY?" I thought. Next my mother tells me “After we hung up with the trip planner we felt it would not be the same without you kids… so we called back the planner AND we are bringing you, Brandon, and Tyler!”… “SHUT THE FRONT DOOR!” I shrieked (hey, I live in Georgia now so I can say that, HA!). And that was that! The Dabs were OFFICIALLY going to Europe! Plane, hotels, and cruise, booked! 
Needless to say, I was in shock. Apparently I need to be thanking Rick Steves; without my dad seeing his show this would all still be just still be a dream. And Celebrity cruises for offering an itinerary during the Grand Prix of Monaco!
As I previously mentioned, my parents left all the planning up to me! I had a year to plan the trip of a lifetime. My parents booked the cruise, and plane tickets, the rest was up to me! I instantly got to work. I had full control on making this trip a "hit or a miss"- the pressure was on! 

This blog will NOT be brief or perfect; it will be candid, heart-felt, and wordy :)
 
Ok, now that we got the introductions and formalities out of the way we can move right along...

Atlanta airport... off we go!

Sunday 5/20/2012
Mom, dad, and Brandon arrive at our place in Atlanta- where we will be flying out of in the morning. We had last minute packing and errands to run, like most families about to go on a big vacation. I always play the scene in Home Alone when they are rushing to get to the airport. I think that is an iconic scene for our generation!
I conducted an “orientation” or “briefing” as they called it on what to expect on the trip as they left all the planning up to me. I used my command center (the ironing board) with packets I made for each family member that contained an abbreviated version of my main folder. I handed them out just like I would to my students telling them when to turn the page :) You can never get the teacher out! They think I am a little nuts, but hey, who isn’t? Ha!
That’s all for this entry! The rest of the entries will each feature one day of our trip, in order with LOTS of pictures!
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Friday, January 18, 2013

Cake Batter Sprinkle Cookies

I love anything cake batter flavored so when I saw this recipe for cake batter sprinkle cookies I knew I had to try it out! These cookies have a strong cake batter flavor- so if that is not your cup of tea I would make something else ;) However, if you L-O-VE cake batter like I do, you will love these!

You could change the colors of the sprinkles for any holiday or occasion... oh the possibilities!I thought about also changing the flavor of the cake mix to make a red velvet version, funfetti for a sprinkle explosion, or strawberry.

Cake Batter Sprinkle Cookies


Ingredients:
   
makes 30-32
1 box vanilla cake mix, 18.25 oz
1 tsp baking powder
2 eggs
1/2 C vegetable oil
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 C color sprinkles

Directions:


1.) Preheat oven to 350°. In a large bowl, mix together the cake mix and baking powder. In a small bowl, mix together the eggs, oil and vanilla. Add the egg mixture to the cake mixture and stir to combine. Stir in the sprinkles. Drop by spoonfuls onto a cookie sheet or silicon baking mat.

2.) Bake for 10 minutes. Allow to cool for 5 minutes on cookie sheet before transferring to cooling rack. They will be very soft at first.

And that's it! Easy-peasy! 

Source for Recipe



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Monday, January 14, 2013

Mac-A-Wha?


"Not to be confused with Macaroon, Macron, McCarron, or Macaroni 
Macaron: a sweet meringue-based confectionery made with egg whites, icing sugar, granulated sugar, almond powder or ground almond, and food colouring.[2] The macaron is commonly filled with ganache, buttercream or jam filling sandwiched between two cookies. Its name is derived from the Italian word maccarone or maccherone." Thank you Wikipedia 
Macaron with one “o”
There is a difference!
Most people know of the macaroon with two “o’s.” That extra “o” makes a world of a difference. The French macaron (one “o”) is hard to explain. I describe it as part brownie, part cookie; see definition above. If you will recall how a brownie has that flaky top layer? Well a macron has that layer and much more. French macarons are delicate, fragile, and divine. French macarons also come with a heavy price tag- perhaps because they are extremely difficult to make, temperamental, and one “fold” too many can ruin your batch. A minute too long on the counter while waiting for the “skin” to form can ruin the chances of your macaron developing perfect Laudree “feet.” Macron’s require you to even age your egg white? What?

macarons from the fabulously perfect Laduree
When I first went to Paris in 2004 I did not know about the “one o” macaron. It was not until about 2009 I first heard about it. I made a deal with myself that I would wait until I made it back to Paris to have my first real “one o” macaron. The opportunity came in 2012 (thanks mom and dad). I was finally going to the one and only Laduree to experience my first “one-o” macaron in the city of lights. 

Laduree at Avenue des Champs-Elysees
You may be asking what the heck are “feet” or “skin?” I had to double check I was on a baking blog! I decided to take on the macaron challenge over winter break while off of school and my nanny job. People have entire blogs dedicated to making macarons. I spent hours scouring the internet blog world on tips and tricks to making macarons.
 On December 30th I was ready, challenge accepted! Below I have the recipe I followed (combined from a couple different ones I read) and pictures along the way.
macaron station ready!

French Macarons at Home: You can do it! 



French Macarons 
Ingredients
               2 1/4 cups confectioners’ sugar
               1 1/4 cup almond flour
               1/2 cup aged egg whites (see below)
               Pinch of salt
               1/3 cup granulated sugar
               food coloring

Directions:
*Macarons are temperamental oven temps and time may need to be adjusted to your oven, home, and humidity level! This is what worked for my home.
Preheat the oven to 315 degrees
Sift or use a food processor to blend the confectioners’ sugar and almond flour. (My arm got sore from my hand sifter and I do not have a food processor so I used the blender). Blend just until evenly incorporated- of you blend too long the oils come out and will turn it to a butter consistency. 
Use a standing electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment whip the egg whites with salt on medium speed until foamy. Keep whisking until the eggs are very foamy. This will take longer than you would imagine, maybe 8 minutes?

foamy egg whites


Increase speed to high and gradually add granulated sugar. (I added about 6 drops of food coloring here) Continue to whip until stiff glossy peaks form. This should take about 10 minutes. You want it to be stiff enough that you could safely hold the bowl upside down over your head without it spilling out. 




With a rubber spatula, gently fold in the confectioners’ sugar mixture until it is completely incorporated. Fold and scrap the rubber spatula along the side. Do not over fold! This is how you form the macaronnage stage. This is critical for preventing cracked macarons. You should stop just when it looks evenly incorporated. A good rule is to scrap up a big dollop and hold it about one inch above the bowl- the dollop should all fall off together in one piece. 
Line baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpat. I tried both and they came our about the same- however they were easier to peel off the Silpat.
Fit a pastry bag with the batter. Pipe 1-1.5 -inch disks onto prepared baking sheets, leaving 2 inches between cookies. The batter will spread a little. Try to be as consistent as possible with the sizes

all piped out! Waiting patiently for the "skin" to form
Tap the sheet against the counter to get the air bubbles out. I forcefully tapped (slammed?) mine down 6 times at 6 inches above the counter.
Important! Let stand at room temperature until the glossy surface has turned dull, and a soft skin forms on the tops of the macarons. Depending on the temperature of your home it could be anywhere from 20-60 minutes. It took mine 45 minutes. This step is critical for the feet to form. 
Bake for about 10-12 minutes (mine were perfect at 11). Some say to leave the door of the oven slightly ajar with a wooden spoon between the door and the oven. I did not need to do this, again it depends on YOUR oven. 

fresh out of the oven... HOLY SMOKES! I can hardly believe my eyes! Yes some are bigger than others and lopsided but I am pleased with the outcome! Patience pays, my friend.


Remove the baking sheet to a wire rack and let the macarons cool completely on the baking sheet. Gently peel off the sheet grabbing the sides of the macaron. The tops are very delicate and easily crushed, your finger will go right through them. I learned the hard way. But hey, at least I got to eat the ruined ones! 

look at the perfect little feet!

Once completely cooled pipe your filling onto one side. Very carefully press the two macaron discs together to form. (remember to grab from the sides) 

A little (ok, a lot) over stuffed, but I am still please with the outcome!
Use immediately or store in an airtight container. When left at room temp. eat within in 12 hours. Refrigerated for up to 2 days or frozen for up to 1 month. I have some now in the freezer that I will eat at the one month mark to see how they turned out frozen.

I started out “easy” on the filling. I made a simple chocolate ganache filling:

Chocolate Ganache Macaron Filling:













  • 3/4 cup whole milk
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 8 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped

  • Bring milk and butter to simmer in heavy medium saucepan. Remove from heat. Add chocolate; whisk until melted and smooth. Transfer to small bowl. Cool. Cover and refrigerate until thick and cold, at least 1 day and up to 3 days.

    source: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Chocolate-Macaroons-with-Chocolate-or-Caramel-Filling-105084


    **Aging egg whites: Aging helps concentrate the egg whites. You put them in a bowl and set them out for 24-36 hours. Be sure to use pasteurized eggs! OR you can microwave the egg whites in a bowl for 10 seconds. That is what I did- age the egg whites in the microwave.


    And that’s that… the macaron!

    Good luck, you can do it! Just give yourself some time in the day, don’t rush the process!
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