Biking Death Valley

Panoramic View - Badwater Basin

I made myself take a vacation. No excuses this time. I was in need of a break. The problem was, what to do. I would be traveling alone, but I wasn’t so keen on keeping within driving distance of home. I wanted to escape winter.

Cesar's Palace - Vegas

Venetian - Vegas

I did some internet searching and after a lot of hemming and hawing, I decided to splurge and booked myself on a biking tour of Death Valley. The tour was operated by Backroads. They took care of everything and all I had to do was show up in Las Vegas (with my pedals, shoes and biking gear).

Oliver is ready to ride - Death Valley

I showed up in Vegas and was whisked away with my 8 other tour mates for this trip.  Everyone was lovely, and the guides were awesome.  I was the odd man out of the group, but they never made me feel lonely.

The first day we rode to the Mesquite Dunes. It was my first ride on a bike since August. Those 23 miles were rough, but incredibly picturesque.

Seen on my ride - Death Valley

Elevation Sea Level - Death Valley

Mesquite Dunes - Death Valley

The second day, I got my tired butt back on the saddle and rode out to Badwater, located 282 feet below sea level. On my way back I decided to give the climb up to Artist’s Palette a try. It was rough. I made part way up before I ran out of gas and walked. I made it up to the top by the time the support van caught up with me. Once we made it back to the main road, I hopped back on the bike and rode the last 8 miles back to the inn. Total ride distance, 32 miles.

Seen on my Ride - Death Valley

Oliver at Badwater

Climbing Artist's Palette

Exhausted, we had one more day of biking to go. The third day was going to be a rough one. It involved an 18 mile uphill climb. By mile 1, my legs were crying uncle. At mile 10, when I hit the support van, I was ready to call it quits, but I decided to continue with one of my tourmates. She kept me going those last 8 miles. The van brought us up to the top of Dante’s View, and the view was amazing. Breathtaking really (also it was cold up there). I ate lunch sitting on the pavement ledge and soaked it all in. After lunch, we were driven back to our bikes and road 18 miles downhill back to the inn. The best 18 miles ever.

Dantes View - Death Valley

On our last day we went for a hike in Golden Canyon. To see the rocks up close and climb to see some of the vistas was the perfect way to end a trip to Death Valley.

Golden Canyon Hike

Oliver in Golden Canyon - Death Valley

Golden Canyon Hike

Golden Canyon Hike

That afternoon, on our way back to Las Vegas, we made a quick stop at Death Valley Junction. It was previously a ghost town until a woman came through and bought the Amargosa Opera House and restored it. Shows are still performed at this little opera house, and we had an opportunity to learn more about it.

Amargosa Opera House

Amargosa Opera House

I’m really glad I made myself go on vacation and continue to expand my solo travel horizon. I spent a lot of the time on my bike, alone, away from the others with only an occasional car passing me on the road. That feeling of solitude coupled with the sound of the wind and gentle creek of my bike keeping me company was soothing in an unexplainable way. There is something to be said about the feeling you get when you are alone in the desert. I didn’t think about work, I didn’t think about any of the conflicts I was avoiding or trying to work out in my life. All I kept thinking about was how amazing this was and how lucky I was to be able to experience this, while trying to soak in as much as I could of the majestic views.

This was the trip I needed. I cannot wait for winter to be over, and I can get back on the bike again.

Golden Canyon Hike

Visit my Flickr page for all the photos I managed to capture on my trip.

Posted in Biking, Photography, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Frozen Brownies

I think I’ve hit my 3/8 life crisis. Is there such a thing? If not, there is now. While in my quarter life crisis, the biggest question was, now that I’m out of school, what am I going to do for the rest of my life? At the 3/8 life crisis, the questions become (for me), Is my career going in the right direction? What next? Marriage? Kids? How badly do I want those?

Too many questions! The answer: I need a brownie.

I tried to make these Chocolate-Stout Brownies from a recipe I found from Bon Appetit magazine. I actually thought I’d make them for a Superbowl party I was going to. However, they didn’t turn out the way I wanted. Mostly because I decided to not listen to my gut (never a good idea).

I followed the recipe more or less to the letter. Except, instead of Guinness, I used Young’s Double Chocolate Stout. I also cut the sugar to 1 cup. I also used 60% Cocoa, bittersweet Ghirardelli Chocolate.

When reducing the room temp stout, I found that part way, it started smelling really bitter and burnt. Despite my stirring. So, I stopped the reduction early and only got it to reduce to 3/4 cup.

I baked it according to the directions, for 35 minutes. At the end of 35 minutes, the center was strangely still jiggly. The tops was cracked and brownie like and the toothpick test came out clean, but that center was not set. I got nervous. I left it in for a few more minutes, but was so afraid of overbaking it, I decided to take it out. Maybe the 40 minute rest will let it set, and maybe it was supposed to be more fudgy.

I finished off the brownies after adding the top layer and letting it cool. When I cut into it, the center did not set as I had hoped. It was still very much underbaked.

Stout Brownies

I was so disappointed. What was I supposed to bring now? I ended up quickly thawing a sheet of puff pastry I had in my freezer and churning out some mini cinnamon sugar palmiers. But what do I do with this brownie mess? I put it back in the pan, wrapped it up and threw it in the freezer. I had four bars of good chocolate invested in this, I couldn’t just throw it out. I was running late, so this was a problem for future Sylvia to figure out.

A couple of days later, I decided to face the brownies. I took them out of the freezer and broke off a piece and tasted it. It was amazing. It was cold fudgy chocolate goodness. A touch grainy in parts, but for the most part, all that underbaked brownie batter set up in the freezer and it was like eating frozen fudge. So, I divided up the pieces, wrapped them up and threw them in a bag and in the freezer.

Stout Brownies - frozen

For dessert/snack/stress eating time.

Posted in Beer, Dessert | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

2014 is Done!

Rainbow

With 2014 coming to a rapid close, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately.  Or, as many others might refer to it, reflecting.

“You only live once, but if you work it right, once is enough” – Joe E. Lewis

It’s been quite a year.  A year of changes big and small.  A year of continual growth and transformation.  A year of victories, set backs, and general shenanigans.  A year like any other year really, except it felt more special.

I took a huge leap of faith in the beginning of the year and threw myself into job that makes me operate way outside my comfort zone almost every day.  I continue to try solo traveling.  Still very stressful, but always rewarding.  I still have to learn the art of conversing with strangers.

“I don’t need a boy to pay attention to me, I pay attention to myself” – Tina Belcher

I am still in the process of learning how to make new friends.  I don’t make friends easily.  I am friendly with people, and make acquaintances well, but to go from someone I know to a friend is a tough transition with me.  I don’t make it easy, that’s for sure.  But this year I started letting some more people in.  I’m not good at telling people how I feel about them, but hopefully those who strong armed their way in know how much I appreciate them for doing so.

I did a lot in 2014.  Even though I only accomplished one of my goals set for the year. Setbacks happen and I accomplished many other things that make up for the others. I still had a ton of fun and collected yet another year of wisdom, bumps and bruises to build upon.

There are many things to look forward to in 2015 (like Clueless turning 20…20! #ifeelold).  Hopefully this momentum from 2014 carries through and picks up a bit.  There are many adventures to be had, lessons to be learned, books to be read, cakes to be baked, moments to photographed and memories to be made.  I’m looking forward to it!

“Live every week like it’s Shark Week” – Tracy Jordan

Posted in Life | Leave a comment

Chicken Soup for my Chinese Soul

Chicken Soup

I’ve been watching a lot of Mind of a Chef: Season 1.  In this season, it’s basically all about David Chang, the mastermind behind Momofuku.

Besides making me want to drop everything and eat all the ramen in Japan, watching all these episodes has definitely given me a lot more appreciation for cooking and chefs, while also a great insight into who David Chang is and how easy he makes everything look.

A lot of the dishes he and other chefs illustrate on the show look super simple to make, but we all know if we tried it at home it would not work the same way.  However, there was one dish he made that piqued my interest and I thought…I can do that.

It was his Chinese Chicken Soup, that he made in the episode titled Simple.  Boiled down, it was basically, boiling up a chicken in one pot, and the vegetables in another and you got yourself a soup.  By dressing the chicken separately, it adds an extra layer of flavor to the end product without over cooking the chicken.  So simple!

So, I decided to try it.  With some help from this post by Dula Notes, I made broth that actually tastes like something!  I was proud, and I will most definitely keep making chicken soup like this from now on.

Chicken Soup (Based on Mind of a Chef and Dula Notes)

Break down a whole chicken (about a 4 pounder) and put into a large pot with 16 cups of water, about a tablespoon of salt and tablespoon of black peppercorns and bring to a boil then let simmer for about an hour.

In a smaller pot, put in 2 white onions (peeled and quartered), 2 shallots (peeled and halved), 3-5 cloves of garlic (peeled and smashed), 3 carrots (washed and halved), 3 scallions (washed and halved) and cover with 8 cups of water and bring to a boil then let simmer.

After an hour, remove the chicken pieces from the pot and set aside to let cool down enough to handle.  Once cool enough, remove and shred the meat into another bowl and return the bones and excess skin back into the pot and continue to simmer for another two hours.

Keep an eye on both the chicken and veggie pots and add water as needed during the two hours.

Once reduced, taste and adjust seasonings for both as needed.  Skim the chicken fat and set aside.

Strain the vegetable broth and set aside.   Strain the chicken broth into a large bowl, then add the vegetable broth.

Chicken Broth

Dress the chicken meat with soy sauce and sesame oil to taste.

Cook the the egg noodles in some broth.  Pile some chicken in a bowl, add the noodles and top with broth, hard boiled egg and some scallions.  Drizzle some of that chicken fat on top for extra yumminess.

Dive in.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mac & Cheese for Friends-giving-mas-wanza-anukah

Friendsgiving 2014

To kick off the holiday season, I threw a party.  I called it Friends-giving-mas-wanza-anukah.  Just to cover all of my bases.

I made it a potluck and my contribution was mac & cheese and an apple pie.  I figured something not so easy, and something super easy since I know I was going to be super busy at this party.

The mac & cheese was the easy one.  It was a recipe from a Cook’s Illustrated magazine circa October 2009.  They called it the Foolproof Mac & Cheese.  I agree.

Mac and Cheese

Mac & Cheese (slightly adapted from Cook’s Illustrated, October 19, 2009)

Gather:

4 slices white bread
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 pound of elbow macaroni

another 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
5 tablespoons flour
3 (12 oz) cans of evaporated milk (full fat version)
2 teaspoons hot sauce
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon dry mustard

8 oz shredded extra sharp cheddar cheese
5 oz shredded American cheese (deli counter will cut you a block so you don’t have to use singles)
2 oz shredded Monterey Jack Cheese

Steps:

First make the bread crumb topping by tearing the bread into chunks and throwing them into a food processor along with the 4 tablespoons melted butter and parmesan cheese.  Pulse till they resemble bread crumbs.

Cook the macaroni until al dente, about six minutes.  Reserve about 1/2 cup of pasta water, then drain and rinse in a little cold water.

In the same pot, melt the other 4 tablespoons of butter.  Once melted, add in the flour and stir and cook for a minute until slightly brown.  Add in the evaporated milk then the hot sauce, nutmeg, mustard and some salt.  Whisk/stir the mixture until thickened.  Take off the heat and mix in the cheese and reserved pasta water.  Mix in the pasta until coated, pour into a 9″x 13″ pan and top with the bread crumb topping.  Bake in a 350 degF oven for about 20 minutes till topping is golden brown and bubbling.  Let sit for 10 minutes before serving.

The end product was delicious.  Not too greasy or heavy at all.  Still cheesy and gooey!  I made it twice and I learned a couple of things…

The bread crumb topping cannot be made ahead of time and stored in the fridge for anything longer than 20 minutes.

The mac & cheese, however, can be made a couple of hours ahead of time.  I made a batch a couple of hours ahead of time (without the breadcrumb topping) and covered it in foil and kept it at the back of my oven near the vent while the oven was making my pie.  Once I was ready to make it, I topped it with some panko crumbs and grated Parmesan cheese and it came out just fine!

This mac & cheese reheats very well in the microwave.  Still cheesy and not greasy, which is the best.

I think this will be my go to mac & cheese recipe.  Very simple recipe, very simple ingredients.

The party was a success.  I was told I had 17 people packed in my apartment at one time.  I’m not the greatest hostess.  My style is kind of laid back.  I always believe things will come together themselves.  It’s tough being a hostess, orchestrating a pot luck while trying fight the urge to just run into a quiet room and just hide.  17 is a lot of people, and I was overwhelmed at times.  But I loved it.  I have amazing friends who helped tremendously, and the pot luck made feeding everyone a breeze!  I loved watching everything unfold from my little spot in the kitchen.  I need to work on incorporating mingling into my repertoire, which just means I need more practice.  But now…recovery time…

Happy Holiday season 2014 everyone!

 

Posted in cheese, Dinner | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Weekend Adventure: Kykuit

Kykuit

One of the perks of having some time off during the weekday is the ability to partake in some local tourist attractions without the weekend crowd.

Kykuit

I have always meant to visit Kykuit, the home of the Rockefellers, hidden away in Pocantico Hills.  I went to the elementary school there, I spend many many hours walking and running the Rockefeller Preserve, but I have never had an opportunity to tour the house.  In fact, there is a spot on the trail, where after the leaves have fallen, you can see the house through the trees.

I took the classic tour, which gave a pretty good overview of the house and the grounds. My tour group consisted of a Women’s Club from Connecticut and me.  I felt so out of place in wrinkled clothes with dog hair, no makeup, hair still air drying and toting around my weekend bag with little whales on it.  I am most definitely not a lady of Connecticut.

Kykuit

My only gripe with the tour was the swiftness in which we moved from place to place.  I would have enjoyed the ability to wander the grounds a bit, and we were moving so fast, I felt like I just didn’t have the opportunity to take any pictures or really enjoy the various gardens we were whisked passed.

Kykuit

Otherwise, the tour was nice.  I don’t think it would be something I’d have my out of town guests consider during their stay here, but at least I had the opportunity to see what the view looked like from the top!

Kykuit

Kykuit

Kykuit

Kykuit

Kykuit

Kykuit

 

Posted in Photography, Weekend Adventure | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

ChezSylvia Travels: Ogunquit, ME

Marginal Way

I forced myself to take three days off of work this week and disappeared off into Maine.  Ogunquit, Maine to be more precise.

Perkins Cove Drawbridge

Gorgeous little coastal town that is full of character.  I can see why people who come here keep coming back, and people I talk to about Ogunquit have nothing but great things to say about it.  I am so glad Cape Cod didn’t want me this weekend, making me explore other options and discovering this little gem.

Quick trip notes:

I decided to try something new.  I brought along a new little travel picture buddy.  Think Amelie and the adventures of her father’s gnome.  His name is Oliver, and he is very photogenic.

Oliver on the Beach

Sometimes taking a wrong turn leads to amazing surprises.  I took a wrong turn while driving through Kennebunkport, and ended up finding the jaw dropping views of Ocean Drive.  I think President Bush has a house there.  I think I found it accidentally.

Kennebunkport_panoramic

Marginal Way is by far my favorite place to be.  I must have walked that path twice a day every day.  One day, I will get old and perch myself on this one bench I’ve decided had the best view and reflect on the awesome life I’ve lead so far.  One day…

Marginal Way

Sunrise is my favorite time of the day.  It was 40 degrees out the morning I ventured out to watch the sunrise over Maine.  Completely worth it.

Sunrise

For all of the photos that made the cut, go HERE.  I had a really hard time picking which ones to put on this blog.

Oliver on Marginal Way

Ogunquit Beach

Ogunquit 2014

Surfer

Oliver goes sailing

Oliver at Kennebunkport

Sailing

Sailboat deck

Perkins Cove Drawbridge

Norseman Resort at sunset

Ogunquit sunrise

Sunrise on the Beach

Perkins Cove Window

Rowboats

Sailing Ogunquit

Until next time…

Oliver_sunrise

Posted in Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment