American Flag Cake

In celebration of July 4th, I found a recipe on the Food52 website (https://food52.com/recipes/28811-american-flag-cake) for baking a cake that, when sliced, looks like the U.S. flag. Though it seemed a little daunting, I decided to do it. My finished product didn’t come out quite as clean cut as theirs, but the reaction from my family was definitely worth baking all day for. And I mean all day—with one 9″ pan to make 5 cakes (I wanted to make it 9″ but couldn’t find disposable pans at that size), I was literally mixing, baking, cooling, cutting and icing for over 9 hours. I may not be the most skilled baker but I’ve got heart.

 

I rode 462 miles across Iowa and all I got was this weird tan

Overhead shot of feet on carpet with tans that outline the Keen sandals i wore
The result of wearing Keen Newport sandals under the extremely strong sun for 7 consecutive days bike riding.

I’ve had some past technical issues with this blog which is why I haven’t posted since almost a year ago, but it seems appropriate to recommence now with a special post about a bike ride I took across the state of Iowa one month ago called RAGBRAI.

RAGBRAI is an acronym and registered trademark for the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, and it’s largest bike-touring event in the world. It took place this year from July 19-25, starting at the Missouri River in Sioux City, IA and ending at the Mississippi River in Davenport, IA. The last time the ride started in Sioux City was in 1973, and there was much celebration of having them back in town after being gone so long. The ride itself spans 7 days, but riders can opt to participate as many days as they choose. I believe the ridership was somewhere around 10,000, but on certain days, it swelled up to about 20,000 with day/partial riders. Partial riders are people who chose to only ride one day, or less than the entire week’s tour.

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My intention of this entry is not to give a history lesson into what RAGBRAI is or how it functions—you can visit their site or go to Wikipedia to learn that. Instead, I want to try and convey a fraction of the excitement and emotions I, and many others felt, taking part in this unbelievable, unforgettable experience.

There is so much I want to write about this trip that I don’t even know where to start or finish. I’ll begin by saying that RAGBRAI was my first time in Iowa, which is one of the reasons I wanted to do this—what better way to visit a state than riding your bike across it, stopping at quaint little towns along the way. How I actually got involved in it was completely by chance. I was telecommuting on a freelance project back in November 2014, working with a writer name George, and our only communication was by phone and email. During one of our conversations, he told me about RAGBRAI and how he had been wanting to do it for years. He was planning (or hoping) to do the 2015 ride in July—he and his friend, Michael, were going to sign up and he proposed the idea of me joining them. At the time, I had only started to begin riding my bike on a regular basis and the thought of riding across Iowa was a little too ambitious for me. And let me just state for the record—IOWA IS NOT FLAT. There are many, many rolling hills that may look like nothing when driving in a car, but on a bike, they can break even strong cyclists.

Fast forward to March 2015, I had then been riding my bike all throughout winter and was gaining confidence in my ability to persevere through the elements, especially wind, as difficult as it was at times. I started to feel and believe that I could actually do this ride in July if I kept up with training. So months after my freelance project had ended and I lost touch with George, I reached out to him to see if he and his friend Michael were still planning the trip. Turns out that they were, and I joined their team Abiding Dudes (yes, a homage to the Big Lebowski).

Team photo of Abiding Dudes the night before the ride. Saturday, July 18, 2015. Sioux City, IA
Team photo of Abiding Dudes the night before the ride. Saturday, July 18, 2015. Sioux City, IA
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White russian on the right sleeve and bowling ball on the left.

We officially commenced training in April, as that’s when RAGBRAI had recommended starting it—according to their suggested training guide. The goal was to train about 500 miles prior to the event to ensure you would make it through the entire tour. Fortunately (and unfortunately), I was not working full-time during the period leading up to the ride and was able to log over 1,100 hours of training. Even though every mile I trained was well worth it, in hindsight, for people that work full-time and have families, I’m not quite sure how they could fit in 100 hours of riding per week.

2015 RAGBRAI Training Plan chart
2015 RAGBRAI Training Plan

I knew this ride would be momentous in so many ways, and it did not disappoint. We went, what I like to call, the ‘purist’ route, camping out almost every night (instead of staying at hotels or people in the host towns). The reason I call it that is because I believe in order to fully experience RAGBRAI, you need to at least do the entire week riding 65+ miles a day, then carry a 50lb bag to a crowded camp site, find a spot to set up camp, take a shower in a gym locker room with strangers, find dinner in town, and then come back to your tent to sleep, only to start the day over again at 5am—all over the course of a week. My teammates and I did this 6 out of the 7 nights (one of the nights we stayed with a host family), and I couldn’t believe how far I had pushed myself outside of my comfort zone. I had never camped in my life, and the only practice I had of assembling a tent was in my small apartment a couple of weeks before the ride. But by the end of the trip, I could set up camp and break it down more efficiently than I thought I ever would. And taking a shower with strangers—after sweating for 8+ hours, getting dirt kicked up on you, using porta potties with no toilet paper—was more than welcome if it meant being clean.

Waking up at dawn every day and riding so many miles may sound daunting but it was the only thing you had to do everyday. That’s it. There was no commuting on crowded trains, no checking email (especially since service was very limited), no texting, no deadlines or meetings, just riding your bike through beautiful scenery, stopping to eat and drink whenever you needed and wanted, and enjoying the entire experience.

It’s impossible to pinpoint one favorite moment during this trip. From the towns we passed through, the delicious food we ate, to the endless corn fields and thousands of people and towns we encountered, I couldn’t have imagined all of it, nor will I ever forget it.

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As the annual RAGBRAI tradition goes, riders dip their back tire in the Missouri River to signify the beginning of the ride and departure from western Iowa.
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For riders who do the entire 7 days and have earned bragging rights, they get to dip their front tire in the Mississippi, signifying the end of the ride and arrival to eastern Iowa.
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RAGBRAI swag: Bike license plate, luggage tag, patch memento, route map
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RAGBRAI swag: Rider’s bracelet (completely worn after the ride), list of each city/town we rode through, bike bracelet, participant guide.
The route map for our first day: Sunday, July 19, 2015
The route map for our first day: Sunday, July 19, 2015. Notice the nearly 4,000 feet of climb!
The route map for our first day: Sunday, July 19, 2015
The route map for our last day: Saturday, July 25, 2015

I took the below video at the top of a hill because I wanted to capture the scenic landscape and the riders going downhill. I wanted to remember that moment and how I felt experiencing this. Watching the video, it might seem as though no one is having a good time. There aren’t many people smiling, and it appears they’re just trying to get from point A to B. That may be true for some (maybe those who have done it before), but I guarantee you there were many of us, including me, who were filled with so much excitement that we were actually doing this. The months of training and planning were finally coming to fruition and it was surreal. Yes, the rides were tough at times, many times, but to know that when you woke up all you had to do was ride your bike, eat food, rest, and have a good time, all of a sudden it doesn’t seem so hard.

Some of the people, food, landmarks and towns we came across.

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The University of Iowa rents out a land from a local Iowan to give riders a place to relax along the route.

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Ft. Dodge was the second host city where we stayed on Monday, July 20th.
Ft. Dodge was the second host city, where we stayed on Monday, July 20th.
Steamboat Rock was the first town we hit after leaving the campgrounds in Eldora on Day 4 - Wednesday, July 22nd.
Steamboat Rock was the first town we hit after leaving the campgrounds in Eldora on Day 4 – Wednesday, July 22nd.
You'd think growing up in NYC, large, towering structures wouldn't intimidate me, but these grain towers sure did.
You’d think growing up in NYC, large, towering structures wouldn’t intimidate me, but these grain towers sure did.
Can you image City Hall and the New York Public Library sharing one roof?
Can you image City Hall and the New York Public Library sharing one roof?
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Every town we went to welcomed the riders with open arms and celebrated RAGBRAI in their own creative way.

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A lot of people were stopping to photograph these Minion haystacks. The funny thing was that these were 1 of about 5 that I saw on the ride.
A lot of people were stopping to photograph these Minion haystacks. The funny thing was that these were 1 of about 5 that I saw on the ride.
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Google set up charging stations at meet towns where people, including myself and my teammates, would trustingly leave our phones to charge while we found food and relaxed. They were always there when we returned, though I was constantly worried they wouldn’t be! (Meet towns are towns located half way through each day’s route. They have the official bike vendors/sponsors and most food offerings/porta potties, celebratory events, etc.)
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The Mayor of Lisbon, IA, Beryl O’Connor came out on the rainy day to greet us and other riders to town.
This poor guy was pooped. I found him in the high school in Coralville (we mostly camped on high school grounds in the various towns and used their showers).
This poor guy was pooped. I found him in the high school in Coralville (we mostly camped on high school grounds in the various towns and used their facilities, including outlets).
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Ironically, the big celebration was not the last day of the ride in Davenport. Instead, it was the last night of the ride, Friday, July 24th in Coralville, IA. Coralville has been a repeat host for RAGBRAI.
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After a long 7 days, we finally celebrated with our own white russians.

Jazz Age Lawn Party

 

This year marked the 9th anniversary of the Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governor’s Island, and my first time attending. The event, a prohibition era inspired celebration, was first conceived by composer Michael Arnella of (Michael Arnella and his Dreamland Orchestra) as a small gathering, and originally produced by Governor’s Island. However, after three years, Michael Arnella took the reigns and grew it into one of New York City’s most memorable and enjoyable annual summer events.

For $37.50, you gain general admission where you’re welcome to picnic on the lawn in style. But the celebration is more than just a throwback party which takes place two weekends a year. Michael Arnella, as well as all of the performers and vendors, pay homage to the era by being as accurate as possible in their delivery and execution of everything from the music they play to the food they serve. And while dressing in the period attire isn’t mandatory, floating through a sea of people who look like they’re headed to a speak easy, makes the pretend prohibition era feel that much more real and magical.

Jazz Age Lawn Party 2014 Waiting on Line to enter the main event area    Jazz Age Lawn Party 2014 Entrance to event

Jazz Age Lawn Party 2014: HBO's Boardwalk Empire sponsored stage with performers    Jazz Age Lawn Party 2014 pink entry bracelet

 

Cup & Spoon – WOW District: Chicago

Cup & Spoon interior. Photo courtesy of Facebook.com/CupandSpoonChicago
Cup & Spoon interior.
Photo courtesy of Facebook.com/CupandSpoonChicago

I recently visited my close friend from Portfolio School (Creative Circus), Rose Quasarano, in Chicago, where she now lives. Like many people I graduated the Circus with, Rosie made a huge leap from being an advertising creative in as an Associate Creative Director at a well-respected agency, to being an entrepreneur diving headfirst into the unknown of owning and running her own coffee shop. Ironically, though, the industry she left to pioneer her entrepreneurial dream, armed her with an arsenal of resources and connections to help her get started.

What began as a life long dream turned into a pop-up shop (at NOSH in Wicker Park/Logan Square Farmer’s Market), then a Kickstarter campaign and finally a brick and mortar business called Cup & Spoon, which now stands at 2415 W North Ave in the WOW district (West Of Western) of Chicago. I was honored when Rosie asked me to design her logo, and in doing so  joined a few other Circus alumni whose talent and admiration for Rosie helped nurture her ambition to open this shop (Designer Kiki Karpus and writer RC Jones both generously donated their talent to offer perks for C&S’s Kickstarter campaign). Like many small businesses, Cup & Spoon strongly believes in supporting the community in which it’s based, and sources their brew and sweet treats locally. But what really makes them special is Rosie’s continued connection to artists. Cup & Spoon shares a building with Dreambox Gallery, a contemporary art venue based in Chicago since 2003. Together they formed WOW Frequency, which showcases emerging and established artists in Chicago right inside the coffee shop.

If you’re ever in the area (next to Humboldt Park) and are in the mood for coffee or tea, or if you just want to taste one of Chicago’s best pop tarts (Interurban Cafe & Pastry Shop’s pop tarts, which are sold at C&S, were dubbed by Chicago Magazine as one of the best pop tarts in the city), I guarantee you’ll be happy you stopped here.

Cup & Spoon WOW Frequency Launch Party.
Cup & Spoon WOW Frequency Launch Party. Photo courtesy of Facebook.com/CupandSpoonChicago
Today Ennis set up his easel at Cup & Spoon to work on his latest painting. It's awesome to watch him create. Photo courtesy of Facebook.com/CupandSpoonChicago.
Today Ennis set up his easel at Cup & Spoon to work on his latest painting. It’s awesome to watch him create. Photo courtesy of Facebook.com/CupandSpoonChicago.
Pop Tarts sold at Cup & Spoon. Flavors: Apple Cinnamon, Plum Caramel, Strawberry Vanilla & Blueberry Orange. Photo courtesy of Facebook.com/CupandSpoonChicago
Pop Tarts sold at Cup & Spoon. Flavors: Apple Cinnamon, Plum Caramel, Strawberry Vanilla & Blueberry Orange. Photo courtesy of Facebook.com/CupandSpoonChicago
Me at Logan Square Farmer's Market, holding a cardboard cutout of the logo.
Me at Logan Square Farmer’s Market, holding a cardboard cutout of the logo.

Baking like Grandma

I was fortunate to grow up with both of my grandmothers alive during my childhood, and enjoyed diverse cooking between the two of them (Italian and Jewish). And while they both made amazing dinners, especially for the holidays, my Jewish grandmother was favored more by my sister and I as a baker. Anytime you walked into her home, you’d know to go straight to the kitchen to see what was newly baked and sitting on the table waiting to be devoured. Of all the sweets she baked, I think her lemon iced lemon cake was by far my absolute favorite. And it’s likely why I have a penchant for it til’ this day. But aside from the smell of bread or cake baking, there was always another familiar scent that occupied her kitchen. I never knew what exactly it was and just associated it with the baking process.

When my grandmother passed away a few years ago, my family made sure one of the things we didn’t discard was the tool she possessed for over 50 years which helped bring her creations to life – a chrome Sunbeam Model 11 Mixmaster.

Sunbeam Model 11 Mixmaster - 1956

It sat undisturbed somewhere, packed away for a few years, complete with the glass bowls it came with it. I can’t recall if it was used since my grandmother’s passing prior to this Christmas but the minute I turned it on, that familiar smell buried deep in my brain woke up. It was then I realized that the scent which accompanied all of her baking came from the mixer. This model mixer, manufactured in 1955/56, still functions perfectly after all these years. I was able to make a cake with it, and while I did I admired this machine as it churned away, thinking about the hundreds of desserts my grandmother lovingly made for her family. I think the motor needs a replacement as it gets pretty hot on the higher speeds, but until it completely conks out I continue using it and thinking of the woman to whom it once belonged.

 

Cakes: Stomach-sized art

I posted an entry a while ago about business cards, and how they’ve become so creative and inventive that they’re almost like little pieces of portable art. Well, cakes are no different. Pastry chefs have taken cake baking, or, now as it’s called, cake art, to a whole new level.

Although it isn’t quite Halloween yet, I can’t help but feel some excitement for all that comes with the changing seasons. Here are a few cakes that would make great Halloween decorations all their own.

Weight Watchers New ‘Point’ System

As much as I love ice cream, I know it’s not good for me. So when I indulge in it (the good stuff, like Ben and Jerry’s or Haagen Daz), I try to do so sparingly. But for all those other times when I’m craving it, I try to buy something low-fat, like Weight Watchers’ Dark Chocolate Raspberry Ice Cream Bars. When I first tried one of these, I liked it a lot and continued buying them for the last 2 or so months. But eventually, like everything one consumes too much of, you start to get tired of it. That’s when I saw the English Toffee Crunch Bars in the freezer and decided to give them a shot. I like toffee and it seemed like a good alternative to the dark chocolate overload.

I don’t follow WW myself, but I’m aware of their popular Points System, where everything you eat is assigned a point. Which is why I was surprised to learn that the English Toffee Crunch bars had 3 points and not just 1. See, while I was enjoying my ice cream, letting it melt into oblivion, I felt something scratch the side of my mouth. When I pulled the stick out, I noticed that the end of the wood (the part that was in the ice cream) had a small chunk missing. I was certain it didn’t fall off in my mouth (or that I didn’t bite it off), and upon closer inspection it appeared that the missing piece had burnt off, leaving what almost looked like a small, and pointy, hook.

I’m not quite sure how this happened (it was likely something mechanical and not a pyro maniac), and I haven’t contacted WW about it (though maybe I should). I thought perhaps this was their new Point System, where you lose weight by not being able to eat because you have a large gash inside your mouth. That actually sounds a lot easier to manage than adding and subtracting points. Hey, if that’s their new marketing ploy, maybe I will reconsider joining WW after all.

Burnt stick from WW English Toffee Crunch Bar

Gastronomy

thumbnails of food imagery

gas·tron·o·my noun \-mē\

: the art or science of good eating
: culinary customs or style
Merriam-Webster

The number of times I saw this word used in Europe over the course of 4 weeks: At least 7

The number of times I saw this word used in the U.S. over the course of my entire life: Maybe once

If I didn’t know any better, I would say that the word gastronomy sounds somewhat snobbish, reserved for high-end, reservation-only establishments. What’s the need to seem so intellectual when it comes to food? Afterall, [Food Network’s show] Good Eats sounds more tangible and interesting than Gastronomy, (even though the show does do a successful job of delving into the ‘science’ of good eating.) But I realize now that what may seem pretentious here in the states is the norm in Europe. Over there, I’ve seen the term refer to anything from sweets sold at a small shop to pinxtos (‘tapas’ in Basque) served at  four-star restaurants. We might love our food here, but there, they really love their food. It’s their way of life. A reason to get together and celebrate And when you go there, it’s impossible not to feel the same way.

Whenever I ate something that I really wanted to remember, I took a photo of it. Now, when I look back at all of those pictures, I can recall the salivary anticipation and almost remember how it tasted.