Tea for Thirty

16 Apr

I’m always looking for excuses to try new recipes. One of the best excuses I’ve found is playing host to friends at my apartment. I usually make my events potlucks rather than full-fledged meals, largely because I like baking more than any other form of cooking. And even though the point of a potluck is technically to share responsibility for making the food, I always end up making at least three things for a potluck at my house.

I love giving my events themes to help inspire creative menu planning. Most recently, I declared that my next party would have a tea party theme. My family has gone to various high teas over the years, and it’s always felt like a very special occasion. From the dainty teacups to the delicate cakes to the tea itself, there’s just something lovely about the art of high tea. And so, a few weeks ago, I found myself surrounded by thirty friends, lots of tea, and a very large assortment of tea-time foods.

A sample of our spread

A sample of our spread. A selection of chocolate cookies, scones, blood orange cake, goat cheese sugar cookies, and the lemon blueberry cake.

Between the food I made and the food my friends brought, we truly had a feast. I personally made 5 recipes, inspired by what you’d find on a traditional tea service menu: goat cheese and red pepper finger sandwiches, dark chocolate chip scones, zucchini carrot bread, goat cheese sugar cookies, and a lemon blueberry layer cake with cream cheese frosting. Add in the dishes my friends made, and we had everything from gluten-free chocolate doughnuts to eggplant dip to a blood orange loaf cake. There was tea too, of course, though I’ll admit I personally spent more time planning out my food menu than I spent on the drink menu!

Someday I hope to own teacups like this beautiful service at a Chinatown, NYC tea salon. Until then... cups!

Someday I hope to own teacups like this beautiful service at a Chinatown tea salon in NYC

In my dream world, I’d own dozens of beautiful teacups and intricate, tiered serving platters, and I would have decked out my tables with beautiful floral centerpieces. In my real world, my friends drank their tea out of paper cups and I decorated my table with a ceramic teapot I bought at a Daiso $1.50 store. But still, the theme was fun to plan around, and I’d call the party a success. I’m already scheming for my next themed potluck… you’ll have to stay tuned to see what I do next!


Here are links to a few of the recipes used for the party. Enjoy!

  • These goat cheese cookies do not taste like cheese at all, but they are the softest sugar cookies you’ll ever have. Absolutely delicious.
  • I’ve been wanting to make a lemon blueberry layer cake ever since I had one during tea in St. Louis many years ago. This recipe turned out wonderfully, and it really wasn’t that hard to make. My finished cake was a bit lopsided, but taste trumps appearance in my book.
  • I spent some time debating which scones to make. I ended up choosing this dark chocolate chip scone recipe and was really glad I did. They were a big hit with my guests… and my coworkers certainly didn’t mind eating the leftovers the following day.
  • I’m not a big sandwich person in my everyday life, but a tea party has to have finger sandwiches! So I made these goat cheese and red pepper sandwiches. Very easy to make, and a great flavor combination.
  • This last cake wasn’t actually on my own recipe list, but it was such a hit that I have to share it with you. A friend found this blood orange loaf cake on Pinterest and decided to try it out for my party. It’s utterly scrumptious.


A peek at the inside of the lemon blueberry layer cake

A peek inside of the lemon blueberry layer cake


A Year Abroad

8 Apr
In front of Las Ventas in Madrid. It's a bullfighting ring, but I never actually saw a fight there -  just went to the museum!

In front of Las Ventas in Madrid. It’s a bullfighting ring, but I never actually saw a fight there – just went to the museum!

For many U.S. students, a semester abroad is a big part of their college experience.  But a mere 50 years ago, studying abroad was much less common, and a much more daring undertaking. One of my favorite professors recently co-wrote a memoir about studying abroad in the 1960s. The first half of Crossing Cultures contains my professor’s story about studying abroad in France, and the second half was penned by a French woman who spent a year abroad in the U.S. around the same time. Each woman shares about being in a foreign land, learning about a different culture and making life-long friends with the people she met while abroad.

Both authors wrote with emotion, personality and depth. They also both did a fantastic job saving correspondence, tickets and diaries from their years abroad, so the book contains a lot of personal artifacts in addition to their anecdotes. They talk about normal touristy things, of course, but also about how they felt, and how their thinking evolved over the course of their time in another country. The resulting book isn’t just about travel: it’s about the self-awareness and self-growth that comes with spending time in another culture.

The book is in English and French, side-by-side.

Beyond basic logistics like crossing the ocean on a boat rather than a plane, I found quite a few differences between my professor’s experience abroad, and my own semester I spent in Spain.  Altogether, her’s was a rather different sort of adventure, with less communication to the folks back home as well as less knowledge going into her trip. She didn’t have the luxury of looking up directions on Google Street View, searching online for student groups, or calling home every couple days via Skype.

As I read my professor’s stories,  I was also struck by the loose structure of her study abroad program. Or, really, the lack of structure altogether. My semester in Spain was organized by my U.S. university. We had homestay families, organized outings, and a full-time staff member who handled a lot of behind-the-scenes logistics. My European friends on Erasmus exchanges laughed at us, telling me that U.S. students were “babied” by their universities. And actually, I completely agree. While it was nice to have things arranged for me, my professor had a truer sense of adventure, and likely a more authentic experience. Once she got to France she was entirely on her own: no one to help her if she had a problem finding housing, no one setting up her class schedule, no gaggle of Americans to speak to in English.

The entrance to my friend's "cave," dubbed the "Party Cave" by students on my program. It was more or less my friend's version of a basement to hang out in.

The entrance to my friend’s “cave,” dubbed the “Party Cave” by students on my program. It was more or less my friend’s version of a basement to hang out in.

My professor’s experiences had a profound impact on her life. She became a French instructor, and part of her responsibilities included leading students on a summer program in France’s Loire Valley. I had the privilege of going with her one summer, and very much appreciated how much she encouraged us to get beyond our group housing, beyond our school schedule, and just explore for ourselves. She purposely built in days where we had nothing “official” to do so we could properly wander and learn from the world around us. She encouraged us to make friends with the locals nearby, even when that meant coming home absurdly late or wandering off to someone’s “party cave” (see picture at right). So even though we technically had a structured program, we had as much freedom as she could give us to make discoveries for ourselves.

I had a wonderful time that summer and learned so much. From my classes, from my local friends, from my professor. And that great experience in France inspired me to try really, really hard to make local friends when I spent a semester in Spain a couple years later. An effort that, luckily, truly paid off and made my experience in Spain so much richer than it might have been otherwise.

Just one more observation about Crossing Cultures: it makes me so happy to see that both authors are still in touch with the friends they made during their adventures in the 60s. I treasure the friends I made while abroad, and can only hope we’re still in touch 50 years from now.

Below are some photos from my time abroad. If you’re interested in learning more about the book Crossing Cultures, you can check it out on Amazon, or through Lulu.


Traces of History

30 Mar
A very bad photo taken by yours truly at the University of Texas' Ransom Center

A very bad photo taken by yours truly at the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center

Last weekend I saw one of the Gutenberg Bibles. I only knew it was a Gutenberg Bible because a placard told me so. Otherwise, it bore no signal of its importance. Just looking at its pages gave me no sign that it was one of the first substantial books ever printed with moveable type.

Last weekend I also saw what’s called the “first photograph.” It was barely visible, the actual image faded since its production over 180 years ago. I only knew it was the so-called first photograph because it was in a special exhibit with information cards that told me all about it. Otherwise, it just looked like a reflective surface in a decorative frame.

Sometimes, historical things just look like things. To the naked eye, neither of these objects looked particularly important. Sure, they looked old. But there are lots of old things out there, and only some are bestowed with a particularly significant meaning. For all the old books out there, a very small fraction are protected by layers of glass and temperature-controlled technology. To really appreciate these sorts of objects, you have to think about what they mean, not just what they look like. We’re quite used to books and photographs in today’s world, so why should an old book or photo catch our eye?

With all the books around us today, it’s easy to forget that at one point in time, the Gutenberg Bible was proof of astounding innovation. Moveable type, and the inventions that followed, made it possible for more people to have more books. It improved literacy, and changed the future of education. It changed how stories were passed down between generations.

To the naked eye, this looks like just another old book.

To the naked eye, this looks like just another old book.

Looking at the Gutenberg Bible, it sure didn’t look like much. But when you take a couple of steps back in your head, and think about what that book means  – it’s hard to not feel a sense of awe. That book represents so many changes to society, and so much wonder. The mere fact that the book was printed so long ago in 1454 or 1455 makes it pretty impressive. Then add on the layer that it took 3-5 years to print this single copy. Then the fact that there’s only 21 complete copies around today. Suddenly the book feels much more meaningful. Then take another few steps back, and reflect on how much this book changed society, forever. And suddenly, that weathered, leather-bound book in front of you shouts “revolution!” from its pages.

In 500 years, maybe someone will stand in front of a glass-protected copy of one of the first things produced by a 3D printer. And perhaps there will be placards explaining how the 3D printer worked, and why it changed society. Maybe there will be stories about 3D printers bringing clothes and food and medicine to the masses, improving health and nutrition all over the world. And a 20-something girl will find herself staring at the printer, wondering what it must have been like to live in an age where the mere act of instantaneous object-printing was something to celebrate. And she’ll take a step back, reflect a bit, and think about the traces of history before her eyes.

Carnaval in Sitges (Picture Prattle)

16 Mar
Carnaval in Sitges

Carnaval in Sitges, Spain

When most people hear the word “Carnaval” they probably think of Brazil. In fact, Carnaval is celebrated the world over, and traditions  vary from continent to continent, city to city. What you see in Africa may be very different from what you see in Europe. And then of course there’s Mardi Gras, celebrated fondly in U.S. cities like New Orleans and St. Louis.

In 2008, I was studying abroad in Spain for a semester. My program was based in Madrid, but we spent a couple weeks in Barcelona at the very beginning of the program to give us a taste of another Spanish region. One of my goals for the semester was to take any cultural opportunity that came my way. So it was a no-brainer, of course, when someone suggested that we should head to a town called Sitges for a huge Carnaval celebration. We were told to expect parades, costumes and a giant party. Forget the cultural undertones for a minute, and let’s be real: it really doesn’t take much convincing to get a bunch of college students to go to a party in the streets. But really, we had no idea what we were in for. We cobbled together costumes and mapped out our route.

The train we took to Sitges was so packed, we barely had room to stand. When we got off the train, we entered a different world. Sitges is a beach town to the southwest of Barcelona whose economy depends on tourists. But Carnaval season is a special one, and the influx of people greater than ever. Tourists, Barcelona-area locals and Spaniards from other parts of the country meld together to form a massive fiesta in the streets. There are tons of parades, parties, and special festivals throughout the Carnaval season. We went to the biggest parade of the season, and it was quite the scene. Costumed people everywhere, massive crowds, noisy partiers. The parade seemed to last forever: float after float after float. Each float had some sort of theme, and the people on the float dressed accordingly. But the themes were all over the place, from an Irish Pub to barn animals. Costumes were very elaborate, with feathers and headdresses and coordinated shoes. Many of the floats even had their own bars so float-riders could stay “hydrated.” Never seen that on a Rose Parade float!

After a couple of hours of watching the parade and wandering along the parade route, we decided to hit up some bars. Sitges is known for its nightlife, so we had no shortage of options. We ambled from bar to bar for a bit. Then, based on a tip from someone we met in the bathroom, we went off in search of a nightclub located in a former movie theater. When we walked inside, we realized that we’d just entered an official after-party for parade participants. We felt like we’d hit the motherlode of Sitges fiestas. But the best part of all of it? The song playing when we entered the room was a Spanish cover of “Achy Breaky Heart.” Yes, that exists

At some point we decided it was time to head back to Barcelona, and made our way to the train station.  The train getting home was just as packed as the train we took to get there. One of the girls in our party even lost her shoe in the mad dash to get on the train and snag a spot. When we got back into Barcelona, we shuffled to our hotel and called it a night. But what a night it was!

Buttery Goodness

7 Mar

From Brown Eyed Baker’s take on Gooey Butter Cake. Makes you just want to grab that cake from your screen, doesn’t it?

There are certain foods I just can’t explain. I know they’re delicious, I know what’s in them, but my words somehow fail me when it comes to explaining the taste to other people. Gooey Butter Cake is one of those foods. In reality, its name is pretty prescriptive: it’s gooey, it’s cake, and it sure has a lot of butter in it. But beyond that, I can never quite explain to someone else what they’re in for when they go to take a bite.

According to food historians, Gooey Butter Cake was first made by a St. Louis-area baker in the 1930s. It was the product of a mix up: a new baker used the wrong sort of butter. But as with so many recipes and foods, the mess-up proved lucrative. Gooey Butter Cake was a hit, and a new era of buttery goodness was born.

I first fell in love with Gooey Butter Cake during my time in St. Louis, and have eagerly sought it out ever since. Every now and then I think I see it at a bakery…and then realize it’s just lemon bars, which can look awfully like the buttery bars I seek. I did find it once, by chance, in Alabama. The bakery even had multiple flavors! The owner told me that a customer from St. Louis had suggested it to them, and it’d sold well since.

I baked this cake for an Oscars party last weekend. Guests said it was exactly as advertised: gooey, butter, deliciousness!

I baked this one for an Oscars party last weekend. Tasters said it was exactly as advertised: gooey, butter, deliciousness!

Alas, the cake remains hard to find in the wild. So to satisfy my cravings, I started baking it myself a few years ago. I’ve tried a few recipes over time, and have come up with a couple favorites I want to share with you today.

There are 2 main approaches to gooey butter cake: one involves a risen base and corn syrup, the other involves cake mix and cream cheese. Neither one is technically considered “correct.” I’ve seen both kinds for sale in St. Louis, and both kinds on food blogs around the web. I personally prefer the yeast-dependent version, but I’ve also made the cake mix version and gotten rave reviews. So I suggest you peek over the recipes below and choose the one that feels most comfortable to you in terms of ingredients, and most appealing to you in terms of pictures and descriptions. Then grab some butter, and get baking!


  • My favorite yeast-based recipe can be found at both Brown Eyed Baker  and Smitten Kitchen. You have to let the dough rise for a bit so it forms a cake base, then you pour the corn syrup topping over it and bake it altogether
  • The cake mix version I’ve made is derived from the cake at a coffee shop called Kaldi’s. I found the recipe via a  St. Louis newspaper. It’s a quicker approach, and a bit easier, than the yeast version above
  • If you’re more of a cookie person, fear not. These Chocolate Gooey Butter Cookies were really tasty and had a similar gooey texture

Ready Made

Unfortunately I don’t have many suggestions for buying it pre-made. If you happen to find yourself in St. Louis, definitely check out the version at Kaldi’s Coffee Shop. I’ve never tried the cake at Park Avenue Coffee, but I hear great things about their multitude of flavor options. Beyond St. Louis…a friend told me about  a similar dessert at a place called Mastro’s in Newport Beach, CA. I recently noticed a butter cake on California Pizza Kitchen’s menu. And of course, there’s always that Alabama bakery! Which, if my memory serves me right, was Heavenly Creations in Fairhope. And in one of my favorite twists on it, Ample Hills Creamery in Brooklyn mixes Gooey Butter Cake into one of their flavors. It’s divine, so if you find yourself in Brooklyn, check it out. 

What Is It Good For?

23 Feb

Back in September, there was a segment of the Today Show where Hoda and Kathie Lee mocked a baton twirler competing in Miss America. According to them, baton twirling was a silly hobby to take on, and a laughable talent – could you even make a career of it?

Naturally, their comments infuriated the baton twirling community. And after receiving a ton of messages from twirlers across the country, they did an “apology” segment the very next day. They brought in a former competitive twirler who now coaches for a living and once toured with a musical as its twirler-in-residence. They had her do a few tricks, and conceded that perhaps it’s harder than it looks. Then they threw in a few more jabs at the sport, and moved on.

I’ll admit I’m biased on the topic of twirling, as I competed in baton myself from age 4 all the way up until I left for college. But really, the actual hobby at hand here interests me less than the overall message Kathie Lee and Hoda are sending about the activities we choose to pursue. Why do hobbies have to make you money? Can we only pursue interests that lead to a career? From the outside in, baton twirling may not seem to impact my job – it’s not like my clients request baton performances as part of our presentations on brand strategy. But from the inside out, I know the impact is there, and it’s huge. Twirling gave me confidence, and made me brave enough to get out in front of a packed stadium, all by myself, and perform. It taught me commitment – even in elementary school, I used to practice every single day. And think about it: in baton, you literally have to pick up and keep going if you drop the baton. How much more clear could that perseverance symbolism be? The only other choice is to admit defeat and run away. Who wants that?

Baton twirling may not directly lead to a lucrative career, and there may not be very many baton celebrities out there, but it can certainly build your life skills. Just like so many other hobbies, from soccer to painting. I know very few childhood friends who became professional athletes despite spending hours on the field – why isn’t anyone questioning their choice of hobby? Should they have been inside instead, practicing for the Bar exam at age 9? And it’s not like every singer competing on Miss America becomes a celebrity, either.  Hobbies and pastimes and sports aren’t just about chasing fame or money. They provide the soft skills you don’t always learn in the classroom. They provide an outlet for relaxation. They help you grow into a fuller person.

So Hoda and Kathie Lee, I think you have it all wrong. Sure, I’ve rarely netted anything material from my baton skills, aside from a job teaching little kids when I was in high school. I’m certainly not famous, though many people I went to school with do know me as “the twirler.” But that doesn’t mean all that time I spent practicing and traveling to competitions and performing in parades was for naught. Being a baton twirler shaped me growing up, and shapes who I am today. I may not get to twirl much anymore, but I’ll always be “the twirler.”

The Legend of Pandan (Picture Prattle)

20 Feb

Over President’s Day I hosted a friend who’d been to San Francisco many times before. Since she’d already seen the top tourist attractions, I suggested we head out to a few of the neighborhoods that are farther from the city’s tourist-centric core. What resulted was a food-driven adventure that criss-crossed the city, from ramen in Japantown to knishes in Little Russia to bread pudding in Hayes Valley.

We didn’t just go to restaurants, because my friend and I share more than a love of delicious food: we also share a love of wandering grocery stores, looking for something new and different. We had a blast as we went through San Francisco’s myriad ethnic groceries, examining packages of dried exotic fruits, reminiscing over foreign products we hadn’t seen since trips abroad, and wondering about the relative popularity of these foods in their native lands.

The mystical pandan beverage, discovered in a grocery store in SF

The pandan beverage in its grocery store habitat

For some reason, we became fixated on a green drink labeled “pandan with basil seeds.” It was next to an orange drink labeled “honey with basil seeds.” Floating orbs of basil seeds was an intriguing proposition, regardless of their accompanying ingredients. But basil seeds with “pandan” were even more intriguing than those with honey, because we had absolutely no idea what pandan was. We stood staring at this green drink for a bit, trying to guess whether pandan was an ingredient or a brand name, a fruit or vegetable, etc. We came up with a lot of theories- but truly had no clue. Rather than Googling it right then and there, we decided to try this mysterious pandan without knowing anything about it.  So we bought ourselves a green, orb-filled bottle and went on our merry way.

As it turned out, we didn’t like drinking pandan with basil seeds (it was too sweet for us). But we DID enjoy spending the rest of the day referencing pandan and trying to guess what it was. It was much more fun for pandan to be a mysterious ingredient than it would have been if we’d just turned to Wikipedia back in that grocery store aisle. In an age of Googling everything and apps that decode the world around you, we can forget what it’s like to simply not know the answer to a solvable question. I wouldn’t go so far as to say ignorance can be bliss, but it can certainly be entertaining.

Of course, we did Google pandan later that night. And so we learned that it’s a plant, used in many types of Asian cooking and often taking on a role similar to vanilla. We learned it’s used in all sorts of products, from baked goods to sticky rice. We’d certainly give pandan another try if we encountered it in another form. And though we now know what it is, the memories of the legend of pandan will always live on in our hearts.


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