Sunday, July 19, 2015

In Pursuit of the Perfect Cheese Pastry

First, a brief note as to our absence of late: We're still alive! Still biking, boating, gardening, cooking, camping and generally having fun, mostly. We have, though, in the last 8 months, been sort of derailed a bit from our regular routine of fun, fun, fun and more fun: Zeek had a quarter of his lower jaw bone removed last November because of cancer, and two more tumors of the same type popped up very recently. And Sprocket came down with Valley Fever in March, after our last Arizona trip. Naturally, we've been very focused on taking care of them and getting them through what we hope was the worst of their illnesses. Things are as under control as they can be at this point, so we'll likely have the mental energy to resume more of a presence here, including more on the dog dramas at a later date. For now, the boys are doing a lot of recuperating and just enough playing, and I'm taking comfort in baking while they rest:

In Pursuit of the Perfect Cheese Pastry
by Trina

Greg isn’t really one for planning. He enjoys the spontaneity of winging it and going with the flow. He’ll show up in an unknown country with his bike and some camping gear, pick a direction at random, and start riding. He loves seeing what surprises are in store for him when he just lets things unfold as they will. Plus, planning is hard. I’m 99% happy to wing it as well, and I, too, find that if you leave things unplanned, you are likely to stumble upon much more magical experiences than anything you could’ve conceived of in advance and from afar.

Proceeding in this manner, we frequently find ourselves stumbling upon secret hidden treasures that we would never have known to seek out: unlikely little creeks bursting out of the side of a mountain; bike-able trails that aren’t on any map; vugs in the sparse, arid desert that are full of water and teeming with odd and unfamiliar lifeforms; incredible handmade cheese in the Baja farm country; the world’s best cheese pastry in a homely Mexican cafĂ© in a mostly abandoned Southern Arizona border town:

…which brings me to the 1% where I’m not willing to risk missing something because I didn’t know where to look for it: cheese pastries.

It doesn’t take much research to find, in advance, the “best bakeries” or “ethnic bakeries” or “gourmet bakeries” or “best cheese danish” in a town, state or country you’re going to visit. Doing this tiny bit of advance planning allows your route to be dictated by the locations of bakeries, and you can still leave all the rest of the (less important) details of your journey delightfully unscripted.

Before we went to Baja a few years ago, I had seen a picture of a pastry that looked like it must be the Mexican version of sfogliatella, which is stuffed with a sweet ricotta mixture, and is divine. The picture was, however, without caption or any other descriptive text – it was just a picture of beautiful handmade pastries at a farmers market – so all throughout our travels in Baja I described the pastry, in my best Spanish, and asked people if they knew it, and where I might find it. My inquiries were fruitless until, at last, eating at a taco-stand-style breakfast shack, seated on sawhorses at the bar, I asked our dining companions about it. They talked amongst themselves in Spanish that was much too brisk for me to follow, and then, with the wide-eyed excitement of having solved a puzzle, one of the men shouted, “O, si, si, si! Se llama La Philadelphia!” Ugh. My must-have authentic Mexican pastry had an English name based on the American brand name product it featured. Bubble popped, I longed a little less for the previously romanticized pastry, and was therefore not heartbroken when we never managed to find La Philadelphia in Baja.

The other place where a great cheese pastry cannot, with any amount of planning or mapping, be found is the culturally-lacking mountain biking Mecca where we currently live. Yeah, the local bagel shop has a cheese danish. It’s lame. It has not enough cheese, an overly greasy pastry and a dollop of highly-sugared fruit-flavored glop on it. For a very brief time there existed in town a little coffee shop owned by a woman who studied pastry-making in France – Good sign! I was excited! – but while her cheese mixture was perfect, she put it on a giant mound of weird, flavorless, leavened dough that really didn’t work.

Recently, I’ve taken advantage of some (unusual) rainy Sunday mornings to stay indoors and see if I could come up with a cheese pastry that might satisfy. Also, we have a burgeoning crop of raspberries that need to be used.

In tackling these two "problems," I ended up with two different pastries, both of which are scrumptious and pretty easy to throw together.

This one is a tart -- actually 12 individual tartlets -- with a pecan shortbread crust. The tart crusts are baked, and then filled with room temperature cheese filling (recipe below) and fruit right before you plan to eat them. If you fill them and let them sit, the crusts will get soggy and fall apart.

The second is a danish, which is surprisingly quick and easy if you use frozen puff pastry instead of making your own, which is a ridiculous undertaking, really, considering that when you need a cheese danish, you need it pretty much ten minutes ago.

Filling (for both the tartlets and the danish):
8 oz cream cheese (Philadelphia brand, naturally)
¼ cup sugar
Zest from 1 lemon, chopped

A couple of handfuls of fresh fruit

To make the danish:
Thaw the pastry according to the instructions on the package. Cut one sheet into four squares and roll them out a bit. (Save the second sheet in the freezer for another time.) Pile on the cheese and fruit. Form the pastry into whatever shape you want. Brush the dough with melted butter. Bake at 400 for 15 minutes.

I also made one with no berries, enough cheese filling and a generous grating of fresh nutmeg. I’m not sure whether my eyes rolled back in my head before or after my socks were knocked off my feet. And really, does it matter?

Friday, April 10, 2015

Blood Moon II

Last week. Another lunar eclipse. Another full moon. Rising near sunset and moving across the night sky. Then, near dawn, a shadow passed across the brightness. The white light faded on red stone cliffs. Until the moon darkened into a red orb. Lit only by sun-fringed earthlight. This time, unlike last time, the moon was near the horizon as dawn approached. And a tricky trail provided a chance to join the blood moon against the brightening sky.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Winter, Or So They Said

photos by Greg

We've turned the astronomical corner into Spring. Leaving the cold dread of winter behind. But riding-wise (and otherwise) it wasn't much of a winter. We did get one day that started like this:

Then changed to this:

And ended up like this:

After that day, we had very little of this:

Before moving on to many, many days of this:

Which, isn't really a bad thing, from a riding perspective. We'll take it. But we'll continue to peer somewhat suspiciously into the future, wondering what spring and summer will bring.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Clear and Pleasant Danger - part 2

Words by Greg
Photos by Greg and Trina

Part 1 here

The drizzle faded away. The wind died down. The sky lightened. We paddled under the angled brace of a fallen tree. Into a straight stretch of creek. A slight widening of the canyon. And there on the grassy bankside, a trickle of water was pouring downward toward a bouldery beach. With just a hint of steam coming off that trickling flow? We beached the boats and stuck fingers into a boulder-lined pool. Hot! We'd made it. Trina was almost immediately grading the temperatures of the several shallow pools until she found one with the right mix of hot spring water and river water. She slithered in and laid her head back onto a smooth stone and closed her eyes, lost in a small piece of heaven.

I leashed the dogs and we explored the immediate neighborhood. A decaying cabin and some rusty machinery moldered next to a small tree-lined meadow. A perfect spot for our tent. The pack trail crossed the slope above, heading upstream, where we'd return, and downstream. The dogs and I wandered down and found more hot springs. Steaming water rolled down the hill and poured off rough, mineralized cliffs into creekside pools. Showers too hot to stand under. Pools too shallow to soak in. Though some toads were enjoying a mix of creek water and mineral warmth.

We were almost back to the boats when Sprocket, the red Assyrian Moth Hound, gave his warning bark. This usually means some sort of dangerous intruder, seen or smelled, violating his dog-sense of our private realm. We scanned in the direction he was aimed and saw a small furry creature on the hillside. Marmot? But no. Lower, flatter. Stripes. A badger. I'd only gotten a fleeting glimpse of one of them, ever. Trina had seen a pair, once. So a rare sighting for us. But what surprised us was that somehow Sprocket had been able to distinguish, at a distance, between a small furry creature he'd like to chase, and a small furry predator that he needed to warn us about. We don't know how he knew, but we are definitely glad that he knows.

The badger wandered off and we tucked the dogs under the trees with the gear since it was drizzling again. Then Trina and I headed for the shallow pools where we lay half submerged. Cold river water and hot spring water mixed and surged around our lower selves. Light rain tickled across our upper selves. The softest of breezes dried the rain from our exposed skin almost as fast as it fell. In all, a dazzling sensory experience. We sprawled, half aquatic, half awake, half melting, half evaporating into silence, until the light began to fade from the sky.

We emerged and fell to the comfortable rituals of camp. Dogs fed. Tent up. Bags unfurled. Food cooked and enjoyed. Wet gear slung in trees. During this, another warning bark from Sprocket. This time it was a pair of hikers. Two young men. One hale and fit, carrying enough gear for two. The other, tired and struggling to smile, carrying almost nothing at all. We chatted briefly as they filtered drinking water. Then they hiked onward. These, the only people we'd see over the two days of our trip.

Darkness fell. And shortly after, rain fell, pattering on the thin skin of the tent where we lay snuggled with dogs. Blind dark outside. We slid into a shallow stream of sleep between waves of rain and the softer shushing of the nearby creek. But later in the night our small meadow and the crowding trees were lit by blue-white constellations in a clearing sky.

Morning light limped slowly into the canyon behind a scrim of pale fire-smoke. Oregon was burning. Closer, the chill air was filled with steam rising from the hot spring. Pine trees spiked the rough grey rock and pale slopes of the canyon. Leafy trees and bushes gathered along the blue flow of the creek. The rich dark smell of wet earth pressed upward from our morning footsteps. Sharp, clear cries of unfamiliar birds winged through the nearby branches. Clearly this was a setting that called for a strong sense of leisure. To which we resigned ourselves. With enthusiasm.

We brewed morning beverages. Languished in the soft warmth of hot pools. Strolled with exquisite slowness along moisture-muffled trails. And let our minds wander through the calm air. Quietly alert to the silence that was never quite silent. To the stillness that never quite stopped moving. To the unknown around us that could never quite be known.

Eventually we fed ourselves and the dogs. Eventually the weak sunshine pulled most of the rain from our gear. Eventually the packs were loaded. Eventually we realized that we were about as spring-soaked and relaxed as we were ever going to be. Time to move onward into a new unknown.

We let the languor follow us along the trail. One foot in front of the other. Miles to go… But no hurry. The day before we'd been pushed along by the rushing insistence of the creek. But the trail was smooth and made few demands. Leaving curiosity free to leap to fresh bear scratch. To the sweet tang of thimble berries and raspberries. To fire-blackened trees. To unusual flowers. To red burn-scars on lichen-blackened scree fields. To signs of the small quiet lives that played out in the canyon. To…

Warning bark! All eyes to Sprocket, who was pointing across the canyon, across the creek, to the opposite canyon slope. Across… there… nothing… Then motion. A thick black shape. A bear. Moving upward over brush and boulder. Then stopping to look over its shoulder at us. The dogs, intense and agitated. Sprocket -- warning us, but maybe also warning the bear that it had best keep moving. Zeek - fool of a Jack Russell, probably wanting to show the bear a thing or two about the predator/prey relationship. But we kept the dogs to hand. Happy to observe, briefly, from a safe distance. Then we moved onward to allow the bear to get back to the more normal business of being a bear.

Most of the trail was cut into the slope a little way above the creek. And from that higher perspective, the creek looked… small. Probably too small to entice any respectable paddler to think about floating. Certainly too small to account for all the thrash and dash of the day before. What had we been thinking? But we remembered back and knew what we had been thinking.

There. Floating forward. The pull of the creek beneath us. Looking toward the next bend. Not knowing what was about to come into view. We had been thinking -- with anticipation, with excitement, with a hint (at least) of caution -- that we really, really wanted to know. Wanted to find out. Wanted to round that bend and face what was there. Smiling as best we could. Hanging on as best we were able.

By mid afternoon we had finished the hike. We were off the creekside trail. Back to the truck. Gear strewn and thoroughly dried. Tea and naps attended to. The boats and gear re-packed. Then we jumped in the truck, turned it around, and headed down the dusty road. Headed off into the hazy light of a sky fading toward smokey sunset. Headed off into the rest of Idaho. Into the rest of our lives. Looking for the next unknown.