Monday, August 31, 2009

Manic Monday

Friday, August 28, 2009

Vacation: Day 5 D.C.

Day 5 began just like Day 4....breakfast at camp, a 10 minute drive to the train station and a 35 minute ride in on the blue line with one transfer on to the yellow line to get to the Rayburn building and start our Capitol Tour.

The L'Enfant Station where we made our transfer was DEEP underground. This is the humongous escalator we had to ride out of there. (We are the big clump of shadowy figures near the bottom.)

Once we made it the office building we met up with Jim (from Champaign, IL) for our tour. He took us through the underground tunnel to the brand new .....

....which is also DEEP underground. It is a beautiful basement though, and full of gorgeous statues. This is Jack Sweigert, astronaut on Apollo 13 (played by Kevin Bacon) and congressman from Colorado. His is the only statue to combine both marble and bronze.

This is a replica of the statue of Freedom that is on top of the Capitol dome. It is (by law) the tallest statue in Washington D.C. at 19 1/2 feet, because "nothing is greater than Freedom." Several statues push the envelope and stand at 19 ft. tall. (There were hundreds of other busts and statues, but you just can't take pictures of all of them.)
Then we moved in to the capitol itself. As the country expanded so did it's capitol building in order to house all of the new congressmen. When it was added on to great thought was put in to making everything equal so that neither the house nor the senate would be perceived to be getting preferential treatment. Both of them were given separate wings on each side of the main rotunda. Each of these wings has it's own grand staircase and entry way. This is the ostentatious chandelier that the Senate put over their staircase....just to show who is really boss.

In the Capitol rotunda itself there are paintings representing great events in American history and statues of some of the presidents. The most recent addition to this collection is the statue of Ronald Regan, our personal favorite.

The dome itself is a spectacular view.
Once you move through the rotunda you are in to National Statuary Hall (which used to be the House meeting area, before the new addition). Each state is allowed to send two statues to the Capitol, honoring citizens from their states. These statues are rotated through different locations in the capitol building and visitors center.

In Statuary Hall we assumed we would find Illinois' contribution to be Abraham Lincoln, but since he is already all over the building, and he is claimed by three other states as well (Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana) they chose to pass. We saw a statue of William Jennings Bryan and assumed he was the "delegate" from Illinois, since he is from our hometown of Salem, Illinois. We were wrong again. Bryan was there as a representative of Nebraska, where he moved to after his childhood in Salem. The statue from Illinois turned out to be Frances E. Willard, the first woman president of a university (Northwestern). She is the only female in Statuary Hall.

Because Statuary Hall used to be the House meeting area there are small brass plaques on the floor of the room denoting where prominent representatives' desks were located. This is the spot where Abraham Lincoln sat when he was representing Illinois.

Of course we saw hundreds of other interesting historical items but there is no way I can describe them all here. After our tour we took the underground tram back to the Rayburn building and said goodbye to Jim. We ate our sack lunch on the Capitol grounds and got ready for our next walk through Washington.
Next on our agenda was the Museum of American History, which was 3 miles away. We took a stroll past the statue of Ulysses S. Grant, through the National Botanic Gardens, and started walking down Constitution Avenue.

This took us right past the National Archives, home to the Declaration of Independence. We wanted to get in there but we knew that lines have been long at the Archives since "National Treasure" brought more attention to the famous document. We decided to just walk past and see how long the lines were. We had a little to spare and thought we might just wait.

When I arrived at the end of the line (which is outside in the blazing sun) I saw two signs. One said, "Your approximate wait from this point will be 45 minutes." The other said, "Due to the number of visitors today the exhibit hall is temporarily closed. Please be patient. The line will begin moving again shortly." That pretty much made up our minds for us. No Declaration of Independence this time. On to .....
Dad really wanted to see the exhibit of ancient coinage and I really wanted to see the First Ladies dress exhibit. We all were anxious to see the real Star Spangled Banner, since we had learned all about it back at Ft. McHenry. We did get to see all of those things (but taking pictures in a dark museum is next to impossible, and in the case of the flag, completely prohibited), plus a few more.

C3PO greeted us just inside the door.

And we found Oscar the Grouch and Jerry Seinfeld's puffy shirt.

We expected to see things like Abraham Lincoln's top hat.....
But we were surprised to find Anton Apollo Ohno's speed skates. Don't get me wrong. I love him. I can't wait to watch him in Vancouver in about 4 months, but I just didn't expect him to be represented in the Smithsonian.

We saw lots of Edison's inventions and a bunch of other cool stuff and then it was time to move on. We wanted to get in to the Museum of Natural History that day too. So we set off again, this time we only had to walk one block to get to our destination.

The beauty of the Smithsonian museums is that they are FREE. We were just about museumed out by this point and we knew that the only thing in the Natural History museum that we were really interested in was the Hall of Gems. No big deal. The museum is free. If we wanted to go in and see just one exhibit we could. It was so nice to have that flexibility.

The kids enjoyed seeing all of the different rocks and gems. They each searched until they found their birthstones and Ryker particularly liked the meteors. We were excited to find lots of exhibits from Illinois, more specifically the Cave-In-Rock area, where Brian's uncle and Grandma have their vacation homes. It was fun to see the names of places we go all the time listed in the Smithsonian.

Of course the Hope Diamond is the big draw in the Hall of Gems, but after seeing crystals the size of a Lazy Boy and rubies as big as your fist even the biggest and best diamond in the world looks a little puny.On the way out Cainan was thrilled to find an Easter Island Head, which he of course named Dum Dum.

Our day didn't end there....but this post is going to.

Next week I'll continue the vacation saga with our monument tour and a baseball game.

To be continued.......

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Dobos Torte

I know I promised more of our vacation stories today, but I forgot that it is the 27th, and that means it's Daring Baker's Challenge Reveal day. Woo Hoo! I promise that Day 5 of our East Coast trip will be up tomorrow. For now....let's bake.

The August 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Angela of A Spoonfulof Sugar and Lorraine of Not Quite Nigella. They chose the spectacular DobosTorte based on a recipe from Rick Rodgers' cookbook Kaffeehaus: ExquisiteDesserts from the Classic Caffés of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague.

The Dobos Torta is a five-layer sponge cake, filled with a rich chocolate buttercream and topped with thin wedges of caramel. It was invented in 1885 by József C. Dobos, a Hungarian baker, and it rapidly became famous throughout Europe for both its extraordinary taste and its keeping properties. The recipe was a secret until Dobos retired in 1906 and gave the recipe to the Budapest Confectioners' and Gingerbread Makers' Chamber of Industry, providing that every member of the chamber can use it freely.

Not being familiar with Hungarian desserts, I of course had never heard of Jozsef C. Dobos or his torte, but I was ready to give it a try. In this challenge I made three things I had never made before: 1. sponge cake, 2. chocolate buttercream, 3. caramel and they all turned out amazingly well....almost.
Dobos Torte

Sponge Cake Layers

6 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
1 1/3 cups confectioner's (icing) sugar, divided
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sifted cake flour
pinch of salt

1.Position the racks in the top and centre thirds of the oven and heat to 400F.

2.Cut six pieces of parchment paper to fit the baking sheets. Using the bottom of a 9" springform tin as a template and a dark pencil or a pen, trace a circle on each of the papers, and turn them over (the circle should be visible from the other side, so that the graphite or ink doesn't touch the cake batter.)

3.Beat the egg yolks, 2/3 cup of the confectioner's sugar, and the vanilla in a medium bowl with a mixer on high speed until the mixture is thick, pale yellow and forms a thick ribbon when the beaters are lifted a few inches above the batter, about 3 minutes.

4.In another bowl, using clean beaters, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in the remaining 2/3 cup of confectioner's sugar until the whites form stiff, shiny peaks. Using a large rubber spatula, stir about 1/4 of the beaten whites into the egg yolk mixture, then fold in the remainder, leaving a few wisps of white visible. Combine the flour and salt. Sift half the flour over the eggs, and fold in; repeat with the remaining flour.

5.Line one of the baking sheets with a circle-marked paper. Using a small offset spatula, spread about 3/4cup of the batter in an even layer, filling in the traced circle on one baking sheet. Bake on the top rack for 5 minutes, until the cake springs back when pressed gently in the centre and the edges are lightly browned.

This step completely baffled me until I realized that you are not baking the sponge in a cake pan. You are baking it in the open on a piece of parchment paper that is laying on a cookie sheet. The traced circle is so that you will have a guide as to where to spread the thin layer of batter to make it relatively round. Why these layers can't be baked in 9 inch round pans I'm not sure, but I decided to follow the directions exactly.

Repeat process until all 6 layers have been baked. Invert cakes onto a flat, parchment covered surface and carefully peel off the paper. Let stand until cool. Completely cool the layers. Using an 8" springform pan bottom or plate as a template, trim each cake layer into a neat round. (A small serrated knife is best for this task.)

Since the layers were not baked in a pan they need to be cut in to perfect circles. I didn't have an 8 inch pan to trace so I used one of my pot lids that was the right size.

The boys enjoyed eating the trimmings left behind.

Now on to the Chocolate Buttercream Frosting:

4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup caster (ultrafine or superfine white) sugar*
4oz bakers chocolate or your favourite dark chocolate, finely chopped
2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature.

1.Prepare a double-boiler: quarter-fill a large saucepan with water and bring it to a boil.

2.Meanwhile, whisk the eggs with the sugar until pale and thickened, about five minutes. You can use a balloon whisk or electric hand mixer for this.

3.Fit bowl over the boiling water in the saucepan (water should not touch bowl) and lower the heat to a brisk simmer. Cook the egg mixture, whisking constantly, for 2-3 minutes until you see it starting to thicken a bit. Whisk in the finely chopped chocolate and cook, stirring, for a further 2-3 minutes.

I'll admit that I really couldn't tell when it was thickening or not. I just cooked it until I thought it was hot enough to melt the chocolate but not hot enough to turn in to scrambled eggs. I used the old "stick your finger in the pot" method to determine the perfect temperature.

4.Scrape the chocolate mixture into a medium bowl and leave to cool to room temperature. It should be quite thick and sticky in consistency.

5.When cool, beat in the soft butter, a small piece (about 2 tablespoons) at a time. An electric hand mixer is great here, but it is possible to beat the butter in with a spatula if it is soft enough. You should end up with a thick, velvety chocolate buttercream. Chill while you make the caramel topping.

Make sure that your butter is REALLY soft. It will whip up in to a beautiful frosting if everything is very soft and well melted.

Now it is time to make the Caramel Topping:

1 cup caster (superfine or ultra fine white) sugar *
12 tablespoons water
8 teaspoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon oil

Choose the best-looking cake layer for the caramel topping. Keep that cake layer at room temperature. If it is just out of the fridge it will cause the caramel to harden too quickly.

1. Line a jellyroll pan with parchment paper and butter the paper. Place the reserved cake layer on the paper. Cut the cake into 12 equal wedges. Lightly oil a thin, sharp knife and an offset metal spatula.

2.Stir the sugar, water and lemon juice in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over a medium heat, stirring often to dissolve the sugar. Once dissolved into a smooth syrup, turn the heat up to high and boil without stirring, swirling the pan by the handle occasionally and washing down any sugar crystals on the sides of the pan with a wet brush until the syrup has turned into an amber-coloured caramel.

The key here is "amber-coloured". I was talking on the phone while cooking my caramel and I let it get a little too brown. It poured and smoothed over my cake layer perfectly, but it had a bitter taste because it had cooked too long. If I would have pulled it off a minute earlier it would have been perfect. (Next time I'll just call my sister back.)

3. Immediately pour all of the hot caramel over the cake layer. You will have some leftover most probably but more is better than less and you can always make nice toffee pattern using the extra to decorate. Using the offset spatula, quickly spread the caramel evenly to the edge of the cake layer. Let cool until beginning to set, about 30 seconds. Using the tip of the hot oiled knife (keep re-oiling this with a pastry brush between cutting), cut around the edges of the wedges removing any caramel that has run over the sides, using one firm slice movement (rather than rocking back and forth which may produce toffee strands). Cool completely.

And now for the moment you've all been waiting for.....The Dobos Torte:

This is what it is supposed to look like (according to our hosts):

This is what mine looked like (minus the caramel layer and plus a little extra buttercream):
This torte was delicious but the chocolate buttercream stole the show. It is absolutely the best frosting I have ever eaten. We all ate spoonfuls of the leftover until we had stomach aches. I saved it in the fridge and spread it on graham crackers for a couple of days too. It is unbelievably smooth and rich and scrumptious. I will definitely make it again. No doubt. If you don't try anything else from this recipe you've got to try the Chocolate Buttercream. I may never make another kind of frosting again. A friend that I served the torte to said, "I'm resisting the urge to lick the rest of that frosting off of my plate."

Overall I would call the Dobos Torte a success. I can't wait to see what our next challenge will be. If you would like to be a Daring Baker you can sign up here. You can also check there in a few days to see pictures of all of the Dobos Tortes made by Daring Bakers from around the world. The creativity will blow you away.

*I just used plain old white sugar because I couldn't find caster and it turned out just fine.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Vacation: Day 4 D.C.

After a full day in Baltimore we arrived at Pohick Bay Regional Park in Lorton, Virginia just before dark on Sunday night. We switched campsites to one that backed up against the playground and got everything set up while the kids played. We had a nice supper and planned our attack of D.C. the following day. Brian and I have both been to D.C. before but it has been over 15 years for both of us. Mom, Dad and the kids had never been there so we really wanted to be able to cram as much in to two days as possible. To that end, we hit the hay early.

Our campground was a convenient 10 minute drive from the first Metro stop on the blue line. So we packed our lunches and the stroller and bought our tickets. Since Brian and I had some recent experience with the El in Chicago we were able to explain to Mom and Dad how to put money on their card and use it etc. By the end of our stay the kids were using their own cards and zipping through the turnstiles themselves. We were making transfers and switching lines like old pros by the second day.
We rode the blue line in to Arlington, where we toured the National Cemetery for most of the morning. It may sound creepy but it is one of my favorite places in D.C. I love the neatness and orderliness of the identical graves and what they signify.
We saw President Kennedy's grave, flanked by his wife and two infant children....

...the monument to the USS Maine, which exploded in February of 1898, killing 274 sailors on board and precipitating the Spanish American War.....
....memorials to the crew of the Shuttle Columbia....
....and the Challenger.
Then we set off for the tomb of the unknown solider....

and watched the changing of the guard.

Then we made the long walk to my favorite monument in all of D.C., the Marine Corps. memorial.
I think the reason that this one seems so special is that it is sculpted from real life. These are real men, several of whom died on Iwo Jima after they raised this flag, who really, of their own will, raised the flag atop the hill they had just captured. It isn't some artists idea of heroism, or war, or esprit de corp. It is an actual moment frozen in time. The addition of the "hand of God" is also a moving addition to the scene.
We sat in the park and ate our sack lunches as we looked at the Marine Corp memorial. It was a beautiful sunny, but bordering on hot, day. By that time we had walked several miles and were practically all the way to another (different) Metro station. We walked a few more blocks, stopping for cold drinks and restrooms along the way, and hopped on the blue line once again to go all the way in to the Smithsonian.
Of course the kids were excited about the Smithsonian because of the movie Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. And what did we see immediately upon our entrance to the castle? The "pile of loot" created for the movie. We had to take a picture of that!!

Our first museum was the Air and Space Museum. Once again we had to walk a few blocks to get there from the Metro station, but this time it was a good thing. We ended up walking right along the Planet Walk. The Planet Walk is a series of plaques (like the one below) that gives information about each planet in our solar system. The plaques are spaced (to scale) the exact distance that they are apart in the solar system. Brian teaches Astronomy and mentions the Planet Walk in his lecture. Now he has "been there, done that" and has pictures of it to boot. He and Ryker were very interested in the Planet Walk.

Once inside the museum we saw countless "flying machines" but these are the highlights. We saw the original "Spirit of St.Louis" and had the chance to teach the kids about Lucky Lindy. Of course we've seen a replica all of our lives at Lambert Airport, but it's neat to see the real thing. The thing that amazed me was that it has no windshield! Poor Charlie flew all that way with only a view out the side or straight down. He couldn't even see where he was going!!!

We also saw Amelia Erhart's jacket, which of course thrilled the kids because she was in the movie too.
We saw lots of rockets and capsules, etc. We saw the "balloon" that was first used to circumnavigate the globe and a Gemini capsule. We saw the Wright Brother's plane and a street car trolley. We didn't take many pictures and we really weren't that impressed. Not because it wasn't a great museum but because the Air Force Museum (which we've visited twice before) is so much better. It has ten times the actual planes that are in the Smithsonian and actually a couple of the space capsules that were at the Smithsonian the kids had already seen at the Air Force Museum in Dayton because they rotate through there every so often. We had a great time, but we didn't see much that we hadn't seen before.

When we finished with the Air and Space Museum it was time to head over to the Capitol Building (you guessed it) a few blocks away. By that time Mom's legs were about done for so she and dad hired a pedicab, otherwise known as a rickshaw, to take them to the Capitol Building while we hoofed it.
We just checked out the outside of the building......
.....and then went around back to see the Library of Congress. Ryker (inspired by National Treasure) really wanted to tour the inside but we just didn't have time.
We also got a look at the Supreme Court.
It was at this point that Kinley announced that she had to go potty. I asked a policeman (the ones who hang out in these little huts on the street corners) where the nearest public restroom was. He told me that we could go in the Library of Congress or the House Office Buildings down the street. Ryker (excited to at least see the inside) and I raced down the sidewalk pushing Kinley ahead of us. We then carried her all the way up all of those stairs in the stroller only to find that it was already closed. We then sped over to the Cannon Building, one of the House office buildings.

We made it through security and found a bathroom and the day was saved, but the visit to the office building (and discovering that it was still open after 5 pm) inspired us to find our Rep. John Shimkus' office and stop in. Of course he is in the Rayburn building which is two blocks further down the street ....and in the evening only has doors on one side of the building open to visitors. So after quite a walk to, and around, the building we found his office and met his very outgoing aid, Tony.

Tony invited in the the Representatives private office to have a look around. I will report that it was a small office (he let the numerous aids have the big offices) and very tidy. He was also obviously a big baseball fan, as you can tell by the decor pictured below.
Tony told us that Rep. Shimkus pitches for the Republicans in the annual Republican/Democrat softball game. Tony also invited us to come back the next day for a private tour of the Capitol Building. We hadn't scheduled in time for a tour (Brian and I had both done one before) but we decided to go for it, and we were glad later that we did.

Bone tired and almost walked to death we got back on the Metro and rode the blue line for 30 minutes or so back out to the end of the line where we retrieved our car and headed back to camp. We had a late supper and fell in to bed. We still had a lot to see the next day.

Tomorrow: Day two in D.C. Two more Smithsonians and lots of a little baseball.

Spicing Up the Grill

It's Tempt My Tummy Tuesday again, so I've got a delicious recipe to share with you today. On one of my many trips to the chiropractor I was looking through a Kraft Food magazines. They had lots of great recipes so I began scribbling frantically on scraps of paper that I found in my purse. The two that I have tried so far have been scrumptious. Here is the first one:

Fiesta Burgers

1 lb. ground beef
1 pkg. taco seasoning
onion and chive cream cheese
shredded cheddar cheese

Mix taco seasoning with ground beef. Mix well and form in to thin patties. Mix cream cheese and cheddar cheese. Spread on to top of pattie. Place another thin pattie on top of cheese mixture and seal edges. (Like making a sandwich with hamburger as the bread.) Grill. Serve with avocado and sour cream if desired.

These burgers were a cinch to make and they were really flavorful and delicious. It was a nice change from the standard hamburger on the grill.

Check out more great recipes at Tempt My Tummy Tuesday. And come back here on Thursday for the big reveal of this months Daring Baker's Challenge. It's a decadent dessert that anyone can make at home. You won't want to miss it.

More vacation stories and picks will be up here tomorrow. Washington D.C. here we come!!

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Difference Between Boys and Girls

I sort and fold clean laundry on my bed.

If it doesn't get put away during the day I have to transfer it to the cedar chest in the hall so that we can get into bed.

This morning I noticed that the boys clothes on the cedar chest had been rummaged through and generally unfolded and thrown on the floor as they got ready for school, instead of put away in to their drawers as they had been asked. I sighed and went downstairs to work on something else.

A few minutes later I heard doors slamming and called upstairs, "Kinley, what are you doing?"

"Putting my clothes away", came the reply.

A three year old girl puts her clothes away in her wardrobe without even being asked and a nine and six year old boy will only do it upon threat of death...or no SpongeBob for a week.

Manic Monday

More vacation pics and stories later this week. For now let's have a little demotivation to start out our Monday. Enjoy!