Tag Archives: America

Cheesecake

I made a cheesecake for a colleague’s birthday. This is a proper baked cheesecake, American style. You can find the recipe in Sue Lawrence’s book of Baking.

You start with a base made from digestive biscuits. I suppose if you’re a real purist you could make your own… but they do come in packets. I put them in a bag and smash them with a masher.

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And then some melted butter goes in.

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Once it’s all mixed together, I used the masher again to flatten it all out in the greased and lined tin. Springform cake tins are brilliant.

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And now for a whole lot of cheese! I’m not using the light Philly out of calorie-fear – it’s recommended in the book as it gives a better texture than the full fat kind. I did make a full-fat one once and it wasn’t as good.

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OK, this is how much flour is in the whole cheesecake. I think this is the part that makes it a “cake”.

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Mixing all of the ingredients together makes a brilliant squelching noise. Or a disgusting one if you’re not a fan of squelches.

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After it’s all thoroughly mixed it gets poured onto the chilled biscuit base and gently smoothed out.

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Happily, I had a tiny bit of spare everything.

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They go in at a high heat for the first few minutes, and then bake cooler for a lot longer. I had to guess a bit for the mini cheesecakes! Near the end of the cooking time, you can add a thin layer of sour cream mixed with sugar. It really makes the top nice and smooth, but take care not to let too much run down the sides of the tin like I did… it burns up.

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But look how smooth it makes the top!

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The mini cheesecakes didn’t fully cook through, but the big one was lovely and rich and fluffy when it was cut the next day!

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At least we got to eat the mini ones the same day…yum! The big version was left in the oven overnight to cool slowly, and cut well the next day.

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Vermont

During the drive up to Stowe the roads got smaller, the temperature began to drop, and millions of fir trees started to appear. I was in Vermont for nearly three weeks, here are some of the highlights in no particular order.

The friendly town of Stowe

I think it’s fairly safe to say that Stowe does well to cater to tourists. The ski resort brings in plenty of business to the area, and as a result the small town supports plenty of arts and crafts places, cafes and restaurants. There is  a supermarket and a few general stores as well. The atmosphere in the town was extremely friendly, and very relaxed. Even though it wasn’t peak season, there was plenty of life around the place and enough to do if you weren’t on the mountain. The buildings are picturesque and colourful, and there’s a recreation path too.

Sushi Yoshi in Stowe

Three out of the four of us had Hibachi, which is sort of like performance cookery. There is a flat grill in the centre and the chef cooks there, with the diners sitting around on three sides. There was a lot of setting things on fire, and the chef cooked as well as giving us a show. At one stage he was chucking things at us to catch in our mouth and cheering when we managed. I’ve never had so much fun while performing this feat. I had a bento box and really enjoyed it, especially the sushi which was fantastic. Naturally I had a try of the hibachi as well and it was also lovely. You can see pictures on their website.

Stowe Recreation Path

Maybe it’s more spectacular in the depths of winter, or during the summer, but this easy walkway down by the river was a lovely way to spend an afternoon. I walked out of town along the roadside path, and headed back in towards the church along the recreational route. It was fairly chilly, but there was evidence in the snow of plenty of people using the route.

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Ben and Jerry’s Factory Tour

This was lots of fun. The inside of the building is pretty psychedelic, and the tour guide we had really knew his stuff (even when asked some non-standard questions about cows). We were given a free mini-cup of ice cream at the end of the tour as well. The tour itself lasted about 30 mins, and only cost $4, which is a bargain. This factory is no longer the largest factory, but it was the first one where the ice cream was produced. If you like the ice cream, it’s a fun thing to go and see. They also have a flavour graveyard, with headstones erected to flavours no longer made. This comes complete with styrofoam crows.

Learning to Ski at Stowe Mountain Resort

Definitely one of the best days ever! I had never skied before coming to Vermont, and learning to ski with my hosts was absolutely brilliant. Josh took charge of the lesson and was very patient with me all day, and I made much faster progress than I had expected with only minimal falling over and frustration! We started off on a small bump (not even a hill), then I graduated to the Magic Carpet (whose witchcraft I still don’t understand) and I managed to ski down a beginner slope (Inspiration) before lunch, with Josh helping me to improve by giving me strange feats to perform. The lessons on Inspiration continued after lunch, and my much more experienced hosts kept me company at times, practising more advanced techniques. As well as feeling good about knowing some skiing basics, I feel much more confident about trying other athletic activities now too. Taking off the ski boots at the end of the day felt amazing as my normal shoes felt like slippers… After a fun day skiing we went to the Matterhorn and had a drink and something to eat, and I was absolutely exhausted!

My time in Vermont was very relaxed. It was lovely to drink delicious milk bought from the farm in the next town, to go to the supermarket and the food co-op. It was lovely to take Loomis into the woods or on walks at lunchtimes when I was in the house, and it was lovely to meet other people who worked at the mountain. Every day I was woken up by Loomis sniffing my face and the skiiers getting ready to be at the mountain for lift-opening time, and we went to bed early too as the light faded. There’s no doubt about it, it’s a pretty nice lifestyle!

Thanksgiving

Yesterday (Wednesday) was cold, wet and rainy, so we had a lazy morning and went to see The Hunger Games at the cinema at the Promenade. We polished off a box of Junior Mints (which are like peppermint cremes) almost before the trailers were over. After the film it started to snow and we went to The Green Pepper which was “The Authentic Burrito Joint!”. There was only one woman working there and she was VERY friendly – apparently there hadn’t been a lot of people in because of the cold weather. You did the ordering on touch screens, and took your receipt to the counter to collect your food once it was ready. The food was excellent, very natural and fresh. There were also Jarrito sodas which were super sugary and brightly coloured – a bit of a contrast to the rest of the offering! We spent some time playing pool and started a game of Risk, which turned out to be one of those ones destined to go on forever. When dinner interrupted we happily abandoned it for the beef with (the much-sought-after!) kaffir lime leaves that Diane’s mam had prepared – it was delicious of course. Jamie the cockatiel also came out to meet us, and his fascination with socks and other bits of fabric was well-demonstrated for the visitors. He even whistled us a tune alongside his usual cheeping.

It’s Thanksgiving today, and as I type the kitchen is a hive of activity. We’re not planning to eat for another five hours or so, but there’s a lot to be done. Diane’s sister and her family are coming over, as well as her grammie and grandpa, so it’s going to be a very busy day for everyone! Loomis has been taken on a mountain bike ride with Diane and Josh in a bid to wear him out before all the exciting people come over, but this has been known to fail in the past!

Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh is about 5 hours due West of Diane’s place, and we had a fairly uneventful drive across the state. Loomis spent some of the time peeping over our shoulders (mostly when we slowed down or changed direction) and the rest sleeping on his bed in the back of the car. We stopped to get diesel a an hour or so in, and I picked up some Junior Mints for the drive. After another short stop at a rest stop (and a fast-food experience) we started to approach Pittsburgh. The most striking thing about Pittsburgh for me was how much it was really very like Newcastle and the North East of England. The city of Pittsburgh is situated on at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers, which become the Ohio, and the riverbanks have a lot of industry, such as glass, steel and coke and coal. It wasn’t clear how much of it was still in use, but the cokeworks were certainly working and the smell was unmistakeable. Josh doesn’t live in central Pittsburgh, but in Glassport, which was named after the glass industry which used to thrive there. As such, I didn’t see much of the city proper until later.

Industrial Beginnings
Industrial Beginnings

On our first morning we all went for a walk with Loomis and explored a trail near Josh’s place. There was a little frost on the ground, and Loomis enjoyed exploring this new place – he even found a deer to chase. When going out to the woods Loomis wears a neon orange vest to distinguish him from a bouncing deer, just in case any hunting is going on. We went off to the zoo which was very good value for money and practically deserted due to the time of year. There were plenty of animals, with the stars of the show for me being the African elephants and the gorillas – there was a baby gorilla too which was very cute. Other highlights included the play area and the farm zone, which featured a llama with an incredible underbite. The best part of the zoo for me was definitely the aquarium. There were a LOT of exhibits, and many things I hadn’t seen before including a black sea anemone with a round eyeball on top. Further research has revealed that the eyeball is NOT an eyeball at all

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The next day conditions were finally right for some mountain biking, and I wanted to explore the Strip District which is the place to go in Pittsburgh for food and food-related things. The District is located close to the river and the old rail depot, and so was the first place to receive new supplies from around the country. The drive to Pittsburgh took about half an hour (and showed some great views of the skyscrapers) and we got to the Strip District via downtown Pittsburgh. Once Diane and Josh had dropped me off, I spent about four hours just walking up and down that one street as there was so much to be seen (and tasted!). The first place I went into was a fish market, and I sampled some almost-still-wriggling tuna sashimi, which was absolutely delicious. The market was for retail and wholesale, though at this late stage in the morning it was mainly home cooks who were picking up their fish and crustaceans. At the back of the market were about twenty enormous tanks filled with lobster, snow crabs and fish all creeping and swimming around. This was definitely a cut-price aquarium for some as parents brought their children to look at the various creatures swimming about, before the fishmongers scooped them out to be sold. You can’t get fresher than that. I popped into a couple more shops – including one selling every possible form of kitchen gadget you could imagine – I found a small pottery squished in amongst all the food shops. After speaking to the lady at the desk (a potter herself) she explained that the pottery was co-owned and run by five different artists who had all clubbed together to purchase the shop and equip it with everything it needed. There were certainly five different styles of work on display, and after a tour and a chat with the artists I took home a small blue pot which had a thumbprint in the side – it’s hard to describe but essentially one side looks like a standard pot and the other resembles a doughnut with a dimple instead of a hole. The pot is glazed with a mixture of shiny blue and also a soda glaze which left a metallic (steel-like!) sheen.

Another highlight for me was the confectioner, Mon Aimee. They were clearly gearing up for the holiday season and took the shop-design approach of lots and lots of glass jars with colourful sweeties around the edges and tables piled high with goodies in the middle of the shop. As in all of the other shops I was greeted by the staff, and was immediately drawn to the malted milk balls. These are basically Maltesers with an extra layer of flavoured white chocolate around the edge. They end up being about the size of a 2p piece, and come in every colour.

There were also many, many delis (like Macaroni Co.) and grocery shops to get lost in and I was happy to while away the few hours until it was time for lunch. We all went to Primanti Brothers for lunch, and had enormous sandwiches, which had a generous amount of coleslaw – one thing there is no shortage of in Pittsburgh is cabbage. There are lots of different communities in Pittsburgh, and one of the most obvious influences on the city cuisine-wise is Polish. Most of the Pittsburgh classics are adaptations of Polish cuisine, such as Pierogies and Halushki, not to mention Polish sausages.

On the street parallel to Penn Avenue (the main one in the Strip District) there was a contemporary art/craft space which had been recommended to me at the pottery. It contained studio space – including open studio space – and a shop and gallery. Predictably the work was priced very highly throughout, but the exhibition was very interesting. It was called Enough Violence and had been put together by many different artists using various media such as video, found objects and painting. The weirdest things were definitely the necklace made from gun triggers and the menorah made from guns (complete with candles in the barrels). Everyone there was very welcoming and only too happy to show me around and tell me more about the exhibits.

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The next day we went to the National Aviary which was an excellent experience. It was only about 8 quid to get in and it had three main rooms. We went to the feeding in the tropical room first and fed half-grapes to the huge tropical birds that were stalking around the floor, and then were given mealworms to hold up for the smaller, faster birds to perch on our hands and eat. The worms were in a bit of a hurry to leap off our hands and crawl around on the floor, but the birds hoovered them all up very easily. Then we went to the wetlands area which had pelicans and spoonbills as well as some ducks and some Inca Terns which were full of personality. There was a feeding in that room too, which featured a lot of swooping and catching by the Inca Terns. We also visited the grasslands room which featured two African Grey Parrots who would speak, but were very shy about it unless you were about 10 feet away. The sign next to them suggested training them to say “Go Steelers!” or “Go Pirates!” to cheer on the football and baseball teams. The next day Diane and Josh went mountain biking in the morning while I went to the supermarket with Josh’s mam. The the fruit and veg in American supermarkets for the most part seems both bigger and more regular than at home – very odd. We picked up a few things for dinner and when we got back I made Eve’s pudding and ice cream. We also watched a couple of DVDs about Pittsburgh and the various neighbourhoods. The weather wasn’t very nice so we were happy to have a quiet afternoon and evening in.

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On Sunday I went to the South Side, another area of Pittsburgh which seems to be being regenerated, much like Newcastle’s quayside. This area had a lot of more modern shops (think big and airy) as well as a few places to eat like The Cheesecake Factory and a Hofbrauhaus. While Diane and Josh went mountain biking and wore out Loomis I took a walk towards downtown and poked my head in the shops that were open. Once again everyone was very friendly. There weren’t many chain shops and I think that really made a difference to the area – everyone working there seemed to care about the business they were working at. There were also lots of murals in the South Side, just as I had seen in the Strip District. On the DVD we had watched they mentioned that the city had commissioned local artists to make these, and that many of the faces seen on the murals were actual Pittsburghers. We picked up an orange bandana for Loomis as he had managed to leave his vest somewhere in the woods. Then we went to the Hofbrauhaus. We had a starter platter and a main course platter between the three of us, and it was more than enough. The sausages were especially delicious, and apparently the beer was good too. Back at the house we used the outdoor hot tub which sent us practically to sleep, before watching the Doctor Who special and eating malted milk balls. Good combination. Loomis had been particularly interested in why we were all sitting in a giant water bowl, but after sticking his chin over the side a few times concluded it was more fun to chase his own tail for a bit.

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Monday took us to the Carnegie Science Center which had four floors of exhibits. My favourite was the robot exhibit, which had lots of robots you could give tasks to. One built drawings on a grid of ball bearings, one “sang”, but the best one was the one you could play air hockey against – I’m not sure if it was even possible to beat it it was so fast. The building is right next to the river and the USS Requin (a submarine) is parked there as a permanent exhibit. You can walk the full length of the sub and press all the buttons and switches to your heart’s content. They also had a sports section where you could practice rock climbing, balancing, shooting hoops wearing glasses that distorted your vision…

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There were many warnings on TV and radio about snow causing problems with travel in Pennsylvania before Thanksgiving, so we decided to leave a day early for Diane’s and avoid the last-minute rush on Wednesday. We woke up to three inches of snow in Pittsburgh, and Loomis was absolutely thrilled with it, bouncing around even when he’d been walked for an hour. He rode in Josh’s car while Diane had me for company. Although it was wet, there was little snow once we got out of hilly Pittsburgh and so we made very good time coming back.

Family time in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and accidental New Jersey

Diane and I went to Philadelphia on Saturday and the first stop was Spataro’s in Reading Terminal Market for a cheesesteak. When we got to the market (indoors) it was packed, and we shoved through the crowds to look for cheesesteaks. One woman had set up a stall in front of the directory and was selling books about cupcakes. She asked us what we were looking for as we were squinting over her head, and she then told us she had written a cheesesteak book before the cupcake one, and in her opinion the best place was Spataro’s.
Queuing at Spataro's
Queuing at Spataro’s
The stall had a big open kitchen, and as we got closer to the place they take your order you get to watch the cheesesteaks being made. We waited in the queue there for about 20 minutes, and after giving our orders (cheesesteak, cheese type, onions or no onions) and our first names, we moved around the corner and waited for them in front of the grill. There were several people working at the huge grill, one was looking after the meat, another was cutting hoagies (like foot-long sub rolls), and another was putting the cheese and onions in place. Once the meat was ready, it was shredded and the pre-cheesed bun was slapped on top. Then it was just one quick movement to scoop up all the meat, close the sandwich, chop it in half and wrap it in paper and foil. Clutching our hot parcels, we headed to a park bench to eat. As we sat outside the museum of We, The People, we watched a mob of boy scouts being worn out by their leaders. A couple even stopped to ask us where we’d gotten our delicious-looking cheesesteaks. The cheesesteaks were indeed delicious – I had mine with the traditional Wiz.

Suitably full up, we headed to the Independence Mall to take in some history, but not before pressing a souvenir penny and trying a bottle of Dr Physick’s Soda Pop (it tasted of Black Cherry and then metal). We took a look at the Liberty Bell though the glass (the queue to see it “in person” was enormous), and found our way to Independence Hall to take the tour. There were lots of facts about the declaration of independence, the constitution and the bill of rights, and it was an interesting tour for a foreigner like me. The tour guide was very funny and kept asking the crowd questions in a game show host voice.

Dr. Physick Cherry Cola, with squashed penny.
Dr. Physick Cherry Cola, with squashed penny.
Independence Square
Independence Square

After spotting a few tourist characters (jaywalking man in tricorner hat being a highlight) we headed back to the car for the hour-long drive home. This turned out to be easier said than done, and we were denied the chance to go West out of Philadelphia, which resulted in a very brief visit to New Jersey as we tried in vain to find a place to turn around. Finally home, we were greeted by Diane’s nieces (9, 18 months) and nephew (3) who wore us out until dinner time.

Man Jaywalking in Tricorner Hat
Man Jaywalking in Tricorner Hat
Liberty Bell
Liberty Bell
After breakfast on Sunday we escaped from the house just before the bairns arrived and ran some errands. We gave Loomis a good run around to wear him out before we headed to a small farmers’ market close by. We were on a mission to find lime leaves, which unfortunately failed. Loomis thoroughly investigated everyone we met, and was rewarded at a baked goods stall with a fragment of cookie and a fuss. Though we didn’t get any lime leaves we did find veggies for dinner and I got some apple cider (which is what we would call apple juice) which was very refreshing. I also visited a stand run by a lady who has some alpacas. She was selling wool as well as knitted goods, which were all undyed and very soft. It’s easy to see why their wool commands such a high price! We then went to Best Buy to pick up a cheap phone handset and top-up for me as Diane will be out working again soon, and international texts are stupidly expensive! The salesman was very helpful, and I didn’t have to do any setup myself. As he worked away he was asking lots of questions about British life, and he said it was strange to think we didn’t have Thanksgiving here. I explained about Bonfire Night and he seemed pretty interested in our effigy-burning tradition.

The last stop on the way home was at a farm which has a herd of goats as well as their cows. We bought some raw cows’ milk and some goats’ cream cheese, and Diane made cheesecakes at home while I watched a game of American football with her dad. He was very helpful in explaining what the heck was going on, which was very useful considering the interruptions from adverts and the on-screen graphics. The Philadelphia team (the Eagles) won at home. After that the kids decided to bounce around and tire us out some more, and we played lots of games until dinner time. I was given a tour of the garden by the eldest, which included the pool, the adventure trail, the rocks and the treehouse.

We went to Lost River Caverns, which is a set of limestone caves near Diane’s. It is named as there is a river running through and under them and no one has yet found out where it goes. Our guide told us that in the past various experiments had been done to find out where the river went, including dying it with red food colouring, sending an intern down it and filling it with ping pong balls. None of these shed any light on the final destination of the river. The entrance to the caverns was a wood cabin, which contained a gem shop and jewellery making tools and materials as well as the standard gift shop items.

Lost River Caverns Entrance
Lost River Caverns Entrance
Crystal Chapel
Crystal Chapel

We were the only two people on the tour, and saw the “frozen waterfall”, which is a series of stalactites which appear to be draped over the wall. They are white and shiny with the water running over them, and the lighting makes them look quite spectacular. Apparently candle-lit wedding ceremonies used to be held there, as well as dances and other events. This eventually had to stop as people began to understand the effects of a whole lot of candle smoke in the delicate, no-ventilation cave.

After paying our way out of the cavern we headed to the Promenade, an outdoor shopping arcade. We spent some time in Barnes and Noble, and also went to LL Bean where I also picked up a nice cosy flannel shirt (a staple of the American wardrobe).

Next stop Pittsburgh!

The Start of a New Adventure

I arrived here yesterday after the longest flight I’ve ever taken – it was a fairly smooth flight and everything went well, though I was definitely ready to get off by the time we landed. As I’ve only ever flown with the likes of EasyJet before it was a nice surprise to be given edible food and drinks etc, and the in-flight entertainment system meant I could at least sit and watch the Big Bang Theory and Monsters Inc to pass the time! By the time we were flying over Canada the skies had started to clear, and as we descended I got a great view of the East coast. As we landed in Newark I got my first glimpse of Manhattan and all its skyscrapers, and even spotted the Statue of Liberty on her island, looking very green in the distance.

After an hour in immigration (queuing, being photographed, having prints taken, having my luggage inspected – Jaffa Cakes are suspicious on X-Ray it appears) and picking up my bag I was happy to see that Diane hadn’t given up waiting for me in arrivals, so it was straight out into the car and off to her parents’ house in Pennsylvania. During the drive I was treated to seeing big American trucks and yellow school buses, along with a beautiful sunset as we got to her parents’ house.

Everyone was very relaxed and we spent the evening and morning eating delicious home-made food and fussing Loomis, Diane’s dog. I’m sure he appreciated all the extra attention.