Category Archives: Travel

Proper care and maintenance of your pie

After thoroughly detailing what I define as pie, the next logical step is to talk about how to care for and handle a pie after its made.

I have some hard rules and then some general guidelines for dealing with pie in the time between when it comes out of the oven and when it gets to my pie hole.  Breaking the hard rules, I feel, always reduces the quality and enjoyment derived from eating pie, while disregarding the general guidelines may or may not reduced quality and enjoyment depending on the pie and situation.  Reduce does not mean negate here: I will still enjoy a pie even if all the rules and guidelines have been broken, but I try my hardest to follow the rules and guidelines to optimize quality and enjoyment.  These rules and guidelines apply to fruit and custard pies, though I’ll address how they relate to meat/savory pies.  And there really aren’t that many…

So first, The Rules

Eat pie when its fresh.  And by fresh, I mean between 4 or 6 to 24 hours from removal from the oven.  This is the optimum pie window.  4 to 6 hours is required cooling time, and 24 hours marks the point past which crust degradation usually becomes too great.  Once a pie (fruit or custard) comes out of the oven, it needs to cool enough that the filling sets.  When a pie comes out of the oven, the filling is very runny, but the thickener or custard should be completely cooked.  As the filling cools, if there is enough thickener or protein and it is completely cooked, the filling will solidify.  Depending on the ambient temperature, this usually takes around 4 to 6 hours, maybe 2 hours if its the middle of winter and you set your thermostat as low as we do.  Exceptions include meat/savory pies.  Meat pies should still be eaten fresh from the oven, but when I make savory pies, I usually partially or fully cook the filling and gravy such that when the pie comes out of the oven, it can be eaten after a much shorter amount of cooling time (doesn’t requires as much solidifying).  Maybe 20-30 minutes, instead of hours.  Just long enough for the filling to be cool enough to eat.  If you wait any longer than that and the filling cools below good eating temperature, then we eat the pie at room temperature because the next two rules start to confound things.  The 24 hour cut off depends more on ambient humidity than temperature, so this cut off might shrink in a humid summer, but it doesn’t get humid in Canberra ever so I haven’t had to deal with this in a few years.

Do not place in the refrigerator.  Just don’t do it!  Refrigeration will soften a crust.  I know some people swear by refrigeration to keep pie crust from getting too soft in very humid climates, and I agree that this will work, but as I mentioned, I haven’t had to worry about humidity related to baking in a few years.  I also acknowledge that it isn’t always feasible to time pie eating so precisely with baking, and if a meat and/or custard pie isn’t going to get eaten right away, not everyone is as happy as I am to gamble leaving meat and/or custard at optimum microbe breeding temperature for hours (I rarely cook meat anymore, so, in my experience I think that if the pie is consumed within 24 hours, pie going off shouldn’t be an issue; I don’t worry about it, but it is always a possibility).  So there are good reasons to refrigerate a pie, but a refrigerated pie crust will be less flaky that a freshly baked pie crust.  I go to extra lengths to manage the bake and consumption timing as well a proportions, so I can avoid refrigeration and not compromise the pie crust.

Do not microwave.  Microwaving is worse for pie crust texture than refrigeration.  The motivation behind microwaving a pie is usually to manage filling temperature, since a fruit filling that has a nice texture at room temperature can get too thick or gummy when too cold or not everyone likes room temperature savory filling.  But if a pie isn’t refrigerating and room temperature savory filling is tolerable, I don’t think microwaving, and the concomitant crust softening, is needed.

All of these Rules impact crust texture, and to me, crust texture is a pivotal part of good pie: the contrast between soft filling and flaky, crisp crust is such a beautiful part of pie!  Waiting too long before eating and refrigerating or microwaving pie will soften the crust.  A little soft, I can handle; too soft and the texture of the filling and crust become too close to each other and the contrast is lost.  The solution is to eat the pie, and eat all of it, as soon as the filling is set.

And then, The Guidelines

Try not to over accessorize, especially with fruit pie.  Ice cream, caramel sauce, crumbly nut toppings; they’re too much.  Many fruits, plain custard, pumpkin, they are delicate flavors and are easily overwhelmed by the strong flavors of such embellishments.  I will occasionally break this Guideline by putting unsweetened, whipped cream on top of pecan or pumpkin pie, just a little to help cut the sweetness of the pie, but that’s it.  Otherwise, the delicacy of the filling, which should be the main flavor, could be compromised.  Liquid-y toppings can soften pie crust; and crunchy toppings can hide true crust texture (good or not).

Remember the coffee.  I love coffee, and there is something magical about the combination of coffee and baked goods.  Oh, those grain-based carbohydrates, how I love them with a cup of black coffee!  I break this Guideline a lot since I don’t sleep well if I drink coffee after 2 pm but I still consume a lot of pie after 2 pm.  In those cases, I prioritize sleep over maximum pie enjoyment.  But if breakfast still falls within the optimum pie window, I happily will finish a pie the next day with my morning coffee.  That’s why breakfast pie is the best!

And that’s it.  How to keep crust and filling at their best and maximize pie enjoyment (if you enjoy the things about pie that I enjoy, that is).  We’re right in the middle of the amazing summer fruit season here.  Mangoes from the northern parts of Australia, and locally, stone fruit.  Cherries, peaches, plums, nectarines.  Its very exciting, especially when considering pie.  I made my first ever peach pies in the last two years and my first ever cherry pie last year.  I’d never made either before because peaches and cherries are expensive in Minnesota and good peaches especially are really hard to find.  I was so, so amazed by the first peach I ate right from the tree!

My Great Grandma Katie was famous for making cherry pie, but I’d never made cherry pie before, fresh or otherwise, until last year.  Unfortunately, I only had the chance to make the one cherry pie, and the filling didn’t turn out as spectacularly was it could have (too runny, not enough cherry flavor).  So this year, its time to try again with more thickener and tarter cherries.  Pie on!

Where we ate: November 2016 edition

We just returned from a trip back to the States.  We spend two weeks in Minnesota sandwiched around a weekend in Iowa, then a week in San Francisco split between staying in the Union Square area, Nob Hill, and San Carlos down the peninsula.

In Minnesota, we went to some of our favorite places and some new places that have opened since we left.  In San Francisco, I was too tired to really hunt for good food, so we ate what was convenient and/or recommended by our friends, but it was all tasty in the end.

In Minnesota and Iowa:

In San Francisco:

I think that’s everything.  It was a crazy trip.  I’m exhausted and happy to be back in Canberra.  For not particularly focusing much on food, I’d say we had a pretty killer food trip.  AND to finish the trip off perfectly, my Asian vegetarian meals on our United flight from SFO to SYD were excellent (much better than the Asian vegetarian meals I got on our outbound flight from SYD to SFO, weird).

Sydney and the Blue Mountains

In December 2015, Bearface came to Australia to do some motorcycle touring and spend the holidays with us.  We spend most of Christmas Day at Hyams Beach on Jervis Bay, home of (debatedly) the whitest sand in the world (definitely the whitest I’ve seen), then drove to Sydney.  We stayed in Sydney for a week until New Years to watch the Sydney New Years fireworks, then on New Years Day, we drove to Blackheath in the Blue Mountains for the weekend.  Here are some pictures I took from those adventures.

Every one of my visits to Sydney includes a walk through the Royal Botanic Gardens.  This time, we actually went on one of the free guided tours and learned heaps of stuff and saw heaps of stuff we never would have known about from just walking around unguided.

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Green leaves at the Royal Botanic Gardens

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Little white flowers growing in the puddle in the middle of a giant flower

We went to Bondi Beach and walked the whole coastal track from Bondi to Coogee.  It was crazy windy and unseasonably cold but beautiful!  Pretty Boy wants to go to Bondi every time we’re in Sydney, and I’d be happy to walk the coastal track again and again.

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Bearface, Pretty Boy, and me at Bondi and the start of our walk

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This was about half way along the track, looking back at Tamarama Beach and Waverley Cemetery; we started somewhere on the other side of that far point

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Sydney’s high end real estate along Gordons Bay

Something we’d never done in Sydney before, Pretty Boy and I took a ferry from North Sydney to Watsons Bay and walked around the South Head entrance to Sydney Harbour.  We also had tasty fish and chips from Doyle’s on the Wharf Take Away.

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Downtown Sydney, the Harbour Bridge, and Watsons Bay seen from the top of Gap Bluff

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Watsons Bay wharf

Snapped this quick shot of Pretty Boy while we were waiting for a table at bill’s in Surrey Hills.

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Aspiring model in the making (not an advertisement for Ray-Bans… promise)

Even after multiple visits, we are still finding new things to do in Sydney and loving it just as much every time.

After Sydney, to get to Blackheath, we drove the long way around, taking the Bell Line of Road.  In Bilpin along the way, we stopped at Pie in the Sky Roadhouse for sweet and savory pie and picked up some local fruit from a fruit seller.  We also stopped at the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden in Mount Tomah.  I love all botanic gardens, and this one did not disappoint.  I am so keen to go back and spend more time there.

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The botanic garden nestled in the Blue Mountains

When we were staying in Blackheath, Pretty Boy and I went on a major hike recommended in my Lonely Planet Guide.  Here is a map of the route we took.  We started at Perrys Lookdown, north of Blackheath, and hiked straight down the valley wall to the base of the valley, about a 300 m descent.  Along the bottom of the valley was the Grose River, magical Blue Gum Forest, and Acacia Flat camping area.  We passed a few other hikers on the way down and met some people camping at Acacia Flat.  After marveling at the Blue Gum Forest and wading in the creek, we decided to keep hiking in the valley, instead of going back up the way we came down.  We hiked along Govetts Creek to Junction Rock then took the Rodriguez Pass walking track up to Govetts Leap Lookout.  Along the way, we stopped and swam (in our underwear!) in a pool in the creek next to which we were hiking.  Ugh, I still remember how freezing that water was!  But it was refreshing on our tired legs and washed off the sticky sweat so I think it helped us get the rest of the way out of the valley.  We were tuckered after the serious climb up the side of the valley (400 m total ascent, 300 m of which were tackled on staircases at the very end) and had planned on having Bearface pick us up at the lookout, but that didn’t work out, so we walked back to the AirBnB cottage we were staying at via the Barrow Lookout, Braeside walk, and the city streets.

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Fern tree un-ferning in front of Pretty Boy on our way down to the Blue Gum Forest

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We saw amazing plants and rocks in the valley

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Bridal veil or Govetts leap falls being blown away in the wind; this was at the last bit of trail before Govetts Leap Lookout; doesn’t even do the ascent justice

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Partway up to Govetts Leap Lookout, looking across the valley that we were hiking in all day

Looking back at the falls while ascending

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Gazing out at the ground (and elevation) we covered

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Pretty patterns cast by the light in our AirBnB cottage

An exhausting, amazing adventure!  It was one of the most physically demanding hikes Pretty Boy and I have ever done, but I loved it and hope to get back to the Blue Mountains again for more.  And all that hard work made our dinner that night at Vesta Blackheath so, so extra delicious.  I sat with my back to an old iron chiminea that had a fire burning in it the whole night and positively melted with exhaustion in the glorious heat.

On our way back to Canberra, we drove through Katoomba and stopped at Scenic World to see the Three Sisters.  Touristy Scenic World was very different from the rough wilderness of our hike in Blackheath, but the Blue Mountains are beautiful from either setting.

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Three Sisters, limestone rock formations on the left of the valley

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Water falls around Scenic World

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Goofing around on the walking trails at Scenic World

We did so many things on that trip!  But these were the highlights of the pictures I took.  The Blue Mountains are only a 3 hours drive from Canberra so I have no excuses for not getting back there more often.

Lantau Peak and Dragon’s Back hikes

When Pretty Boy and I were in Hong Kong in November 2015, we did two big hikes: Lantau Peak at sunrise and Dragon’s Back.  Here are some pictures I took while on those adventures.

In the wee, wee morning at the beginning of our journey to Lantau Peak at sunrise, it took us some time to find a taxi at 3 am in Tung Chung, but we finally did.  We took the taxi to the Pak Kung Au bus stop where the trail is supposed to start.  As the taxi sped away, we sure hoped we could find the trail head.  The first bus wasn’t due for another 3 hours if we couldn’t…

lantau peak 1

Hoping we can find the trail head

We did find the trail and started the hike.  No pictures from the first few hours because it was still dark, but eventually, the sky started to lighten.  We weren’t yet at the summit, so we started powering up the steps, hoping to make it to the peak in time to see the sunrise.

the sky lightens

The sky starts to lighten

running out of time

The lighter it got, the more apparent it became that we were in a cloud

We didn’t make it to the very top in time for sunrise, but luckily strategically, we started on the east side of the peak, so the sunrise was at our backs rather than hidden behind the peak, and we saw when the sun rose over the low dense clouds, though it was still partially obscured by the cloud in which we were.

hazy sunrise

Hazy sunrise behind us

By the time we made it to the peak, the clouds were intermittent, so we’d be alternately blasted by sun and enveloped in chilly cloud (made extra chilly by how sweaty we were after racing to the top).  The view was also alternately exposed and obscured by clouds, but we hung out for about an hour watching different parts of Hong Kong and the amazing clouds come and go from view.  At one point, we could see all the way to Hong Kong Island.

the view

Other parts of Lantau Island peaking above the clouds

taking pictures of the view

Taking pano pictures of the view

on top of the world

On top of the world, less than 1 km above sea level

The peak is less than 1 km above sea level (934 m), but its still the tallest peak on Lantau Island and the second tallest in all of Hong Kong, so we felt on top of the world.

sea of clouds

Sea of clouds

tung chung

The city of Tung Chung, where we started our day, between a quick break in the clouds

sun and clouds

sun and clouds

We continued along the trail, down the west side of the peak to Ngong Ping and the Big Buddha.

steep cloudy decent

Steep, cloudy decent

south side of lantau island

South side of Lantau Island

big buddha and wisdom path

The Big Buddha and the Wisdom Path in the distance

We’ve visited Ngong Ping village and the Big Buddha (officially Tian Tan Buddha) every time we’ve been in Hong Kong.  Its one of our favorite places in the world because of the beauty, peaceful vibes, and tofu faa, though the energy was majorly disrupted on our previous visit by hordes of tourists visiting the kitschy tourist attractions that have been built up in Ngong Ping.  We discovered the key for us is to go after hiking to the top of Lantau Peak at sunrise!  The hike put us in a pretty exhausted, mellow mood, and we arrived in Ngong Ping before the cable car, Big Buddha, and all the other attractions opened, so there were essentially no other tourists (just a few devout followers and hard core cyclists).

big buddha

The Big Buddha

my knees hurt just looking at it

That’s were we came down from

temple gardens

Beautiful gardens around the temple in Ngong Ping

We waited around for everything to open at 8 am so we could walk up the stairs, visit the Big Buddha, and have tofu faa. We then took the bus from Ngong Ping back to Tung Chung for a shower and nap.

The positives were discovering a good time (of day) for us to visit the Big Buddha and the amazing views.  The negatives were partial to heavy cloud cover and the amount of trash (and heavy odor of urine) left at the summit.  Results of the hike becoming so popular.  We were at the summit with people who had camped over night there in order to see the sunrise, though they didn’t look happy or warm to us.  I’m definitely glad we did the hike, and I would definitely do it again with an eye on the forecast and some garbage bags for picking up some litter.

I also think approaching the summit from the east was a great idea.  The approach from the west may be faster, but its also steeper, a prospect that terrifies me in the best of conditions.  I couldn’t imagine attempting it in the dark or in a cloud or both.  And if you’re running late (as we often are), the sunrise is still visible from the east.

Later on the same visit to Hong Kong, we went to the Southern District of Hong Kong Island to hike the Dragon’s Back, rated one of the top hikes in all of Asia, and visit Big Wave Bay and Shek O village.  We took all the trains and buses to get us there and back since we were staying in Tung Chung and met Dr. Sam in Wan Chai for dinner afterwards (2 MTR trains and a bus to get there; a bus, the longest trolley ride, and an MTR train to get back), but we love the public transport in Hong Kong!  It was all part of the adventure.

We were in the company of several other hikers on the bus that stopped at the trail head (though we were probably the youngest by half), so we knew we were in the right place.  So different from how we felt starting the Lantau Peak hike.  We hit the trail quickly and left most of the other hikers behind.  The weather wasn’t the best for hiking that day.  The views around us on top of the Dragon’s Back ridge were amazing but hazy, so the pictures aren’t very nice.  And it was crazy windy at the top of the ridge, so we didn’t linger too long.

that's some Miyazaki-type shit right there

Dragon’s Back ridge

After the top of the ridge, the trail wrapped around a peak in the Shek O Country Park and dropped us down in Big Wave Bay.

trail

Trail through Shek O Country Park

Big Wave Bay apparently has the best surfing in Hong Kong, though they have a shark net at the bay entrance which breaks the waves up and makes them less nice for surfing.  The weather was still cloudy and dreary, but there were a fair few surfers out (even though winter is not the beach season to most Hong Kong residents), and Pretty Boy couldn’t resist.  He rented a board and played in the waves for a bit before we continued on.  We walked down the road to Shek O village, while the clouds finally clear off and the sun came out.

shek o headland

Shek O headland

welcome to shek o

Welcome to Shek O

We really enjoyed walking around and seeing Shek O, but I didn’t take any pictures of it.  It always amazing me that it only takes a few relatively short public transport rides to feel like I’m so far removed from the bustle of Hong Kong and the rest of the world.  Its one of my favorite things about Hong Kong.  After our visit and a really good cup of nai chai at the cafe across the street from the bus stop, we started our long trip back to civilization.

Three smells

In the last day, I have been hit with three different smells that strongly evoked my time in China in 2001-2002.

The first smell was of coal.  It came from the fire we had in our fire pit in our courtyard last night.  We were burning exceptionally hard wood.  Expensive, fancy firewood purchased from the home improvement store.  The hard wood had burned down to hot, hot embers.  And the smell sent me back to wintertime, biking through the undeveloped alleys in Beijing to get to my host family’s apartment.  The alleys smelt of the coal burnt by the people who lived and worked in the rough structures that made up the edges of the alleys, burnt to heat their homes and cook their meals.  I remember the winding alleys, my host grandfather biking to school with me in the morning and picking me up in the afternoon for the first week to guide me through the maze, at first how scary the alleys seemed at night, how later they were so familiar and comfortable and part of my life in Beijing.  How once, I found a (seemingly) coal-dusted Harley Davidson stop tucked back in a corner alley that I rarely traversed.  How that seems like a dream now.

The second smell was of home-brewed rice liquor.  It came from the red wine on Pretty Boy’s breath.  It was cheap red wine that he was drinking with the burritos he was eating for dinner last night.  I’ve smelled many different alcohols on his breath, but there was a sharp, sourness to the smell last night that sent me back to the Miao villages I visited in the Yunnan province in southwest China.  Walking into the villages, we were often met by villagers dressed up in traditional outfits, who meet us with some form of a welcoming ceremony.  I remember walking along lines of people in black fabric, elaborately accented with bright pops of pink, blue, and white.  Large silver pieces.  Singing.  And at the end of the walk into the village, at the end of the line of people, someone standing with an animal horn filled with home-brewed rice liquor that we were offered to drink.  I remember the sourness and the bite of the alcohol and the bits of rice still floating in it.  I remember seeing the murky rice liquor later in a glass, murky but not murky enough to completely obscure the floating bits.  I remember the roughness of the lives the villagers lived.  I remember feeling like, at times, they were putting on a show for the tourist dollars.  I remember, at other times, the food and homes they shared generously with us.  I remember a man laughing at us because we couldn’t shell and eat sunflower seeds as well or as fast as he could.

The third smell was of cold dry morning air spiked with exhaust, wood and coal burning, and food.  It came from the path I bike to the office every morning.  This morning, the air was the coldest and driest it’s been so far this year.  Exhaust came from the cars on the roads that the path crosses.  The burning likely came from some of the houses that line the path because some homes in Canberra still use wood or coal fired furnaces or fireplaces for heat in the winter.  And breakfast.  The combination sent me back to the bustling street on which my school in Beijing was located.  Lanes and lanes of cars and bicycles and pedestrians every morning and afternoon, bundled against the cold, going about their daily lives.  I remember one of the streets somewhere around my school or host family’s apartment was called Xin1 Jie3 Kou3 Wai4.  I remember the grippy, reddish surface of the pedestrian flyovers, like the top of a skateboard.  I remember how everything was a little faded, how everything became gray or dark gray: the cars, the clothes, the road, the buildings.  I remember pulling my hat low and blending into the rush.

It must be so different now.  Almost 15 years later.  I can’t believe it’s been that long.  I don’t know why so many smells triggered memories of my time in China in such quick succession.  Maybe it’s because I was looking at pictures yesterday of my old friend and classmate from China.  Maybe it’s because the smell of the cabinet under my sink often reminds me of my time in China, and after two years of living in our townhouse, I still can’t place why the smell reminds me of China, and I had my head in that cabinet two days ago.  So many of my China memories have faded, but these smells brought back some memories so sharply, memories that I haven’t thought about in a very long time, memories that I am grateful I still have.