On Baking Bread

Having fully honed the arts of vodka infusing and cheese making, I’ve set my sights on the next step of my culinary journey. Infusing vodka was like going to college. Making cheese was like getting married. Baking bread… now this was going to be the BIG step – I was going to have a bun in my oven.

And indeed, since wetting my feet in the bread baking field, I have experienced a set of emotions I can only imagine as being similar to the journey of parenthood – nicely and neatly condensed into one long day and one tight little bread pan.

Baking bread is an exercise in patience and anxiety-management. As someone who is certainly not ready to have children, the experience of panification (as the French would say) makes me think I may never be cut out for it. If making a single loaf of bread leaves me feeling exhausted, worried, and mildly miffed, Lord knows what having to care for an actual child would do to me.

Still, it’s been insightful.

I figured there are few things on this earth more basic than making a loaf of bread. People have been doing it for thousands of years. Many a woman in my family has baked bread successfully before me, so it should be pretty straightforward and intuitive, right?

But immediately from conception I’m overwhelmed with questions and fears. Instant yeast, active dry yeast, natural yeast – which one is best for my bread? Whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, or bread flour? Do I use an electric mixer, or is that too impersonal? Every decision suddenly carries the weight of the world. Trying to grasp some of the knowledge of those who have baked bread before me, I read books and search the internet for tried and true answers to these questions.

What to Expect When You’re Baking

Finally I decide to stick with the basics – a family recipe. If all the women in my family can churn out a decent loaf of bread, so can I. All-purpose flour, active dry yeast, and I’m going to do this by hand because I want to be the kind of baker that gets close and personal; I want to have a connection to the bread and not let something else do all the work for me.

As I start the process of incorporating all the ingredients, I find myself repeatedly asking “is this normal?” Then the anxiety creeps in. Is my dough ball too moist? Is it too dry? Did I knead it enough? Did I knead it too much? Is the yeast working in there? I fret and fret and knead and knead. I’m kneading so hard and for so long that my hands are burning and my breathing is labored, but finally, miraculously, I find the strength to do one more quarter turn and one more giant push with my palm… and everything comes together and it looks alright – the bread equivalent of 10 fingers and 10 toes. Nothing is glaringly amiss; it’s (hopefully) alive; I love it immediately and assign all sorts of hopes for it for the future. But I’m tired and it needs rest, and so we begin the first rising.

Just a little gentle kneading…

I put the dough in a clear bowl (so I can see everything) and cover it gently with plastic wrap so that nothing icky can sneak in. Over the next 1-3 hours I try to resist the urge to hover over the bowl or lift the plastic wrap to touch the dough. I usually don’t succeed. I sequester myself in the other room for as long as I can before checking on it and fret some more in the meantime. “Look how big you’re getting,” I’ll remark to it every 10 minutes or so while secretly worrying whether it actually is growing, and how much longer it needs to stay there. I touch it some more and then worry that my touch somehow did some damage.

Incubating.

After a few hours of staring nervously at the dough, I buck up and make the judgment call that it’s ready for some more kneading. I take the dough out of its bowl and admire it for a long time. “You look just like my aunt’s dough,” I’ll tell it while gently kneading it. “You’re going to be perfect, I just know it.” As I massage my pudgy little dough ball, I contemplate what shape I want it to take. A baguette? Nah, too snobbish. A sandwich loaf? No no, too blah. I contemplate forming it into something unique, like a sunflower or panda, but I do want my bread to fit in.

Freaks

Finally I decide I’d like it to be a nice, big boule stuffed with spinach and mozzarella; beautiful and perfectly round on the outside, but full of flavor and excitement on the inside. As I start to form it, the bread sometimes refuses to cooperate. It won’t stretch, it won’t stick when I fold in the other ingredients, but still I push on. No one said this would be easy. We argue a bit, but finally the dough settles and realizes what I’m doing is good for it. I tuck it in for another rest, lovingly folding the ends of a dish towel under its newly formed shape. This time I give it more space, but still I check on it, peek at it lovingly, sing hushed lullabyes to it under my breath.

Hush little bread loaf don’t you cry…

Before I know it, the second rising is over and it’s time for the final stage. Time for me to let go and let the oven work its ways with my precious loaf. I give it a pep talk as the oven warms up for its arrival. “You can do this; the oven may make you crispy and hard on the outside… that’s a good thing, just don’t let it make you tough on the inside too. And if you ever need me, please let me know. I don’t want to have to hear from the smoke alarm that you’re going down in flames.”

I try not to be emotional as I slip it into the oven. I wish it luck, close the door, say a few Hail Marys and let go. A few minutes go by and I haven’t heard much from my bread. I know it probably doesn’t need me right now, so I wait a few more. As time goes on, I start to worry and decide to just check on it from the oven window. Peering in…ugh, I can’t see with all the steam. Let me open the oven door just a crack, I’m sure it’s doing fine, but… maybe it needs more basting or more spraying. I open the oven and steam comes pouring out. “Stooooooooop,” the bread loaf seems to scream to me, “close the door, I’m cooking in here!” OK, OK, I’ll just give you a few sprays with the water bottle and be out of your way! Spritz Spritz. Alright, alright, I’m leaving… you let me know when you need anything.

Bun in the oven.

I close the door and wait and pace. It’s out of my hands now, I did the best I could. Over the next half hour, I try to help out only when I feel I’m needed. A few sprays here and there, I help it move from the hot oven to somewhere it can cool down and settle, I let the natural progression of things shape its flavors. Finally, all has calmed down; I feel older and wiser, and I look at the bread with educated eyes. My boule is not too shabby on the outside and beautiful on the inside, and I know many people will be dying to get their mouths around it. “I did OK,” I think to myself.

“We did OK.”

Spinach Mozzarella Stuffed Bread

  • 3 1/2 cups all-purpose or bread flour, plus more as needed
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 1 cup or more water
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 pound frozen spinach
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  1. Combine the flour, salt, and yeast in a large bowl and mix well. Add the water a little at a time and knead with hands and until the dough forms a ball, adding a tablespoon more water at a time until it becomes smooth; if the dough begins sticking to the side of the bowl, you’ve added too much water. No harm done: add 1/4 cup or so of flour and keep going. You’re looking for a moist, slightly shaggy but well-defined ball. If the dough is too dry, add water 1 tablespoon at a time. Turn the dough ball onto a well-floured surface and knead for a few minutes.
  2. Return the dough to the bowl and cover with a plastic bag or plastic wrap and let sit for at least an hour at room temperature.
  3. While the dough rises, heat the frozen spinach in a large saucepan with the olive oil and garlic until warm.
  4. When the hour is up, use a small strainer or your fingers to dust a little flour onto a counter or tabletop. Using your hands, push the dough into the shape of a large rectangle. Brush with olive oil and add a thin layer of the spinach mixture. Top with 1 cup mozzarella cheese. Fold the right side of the dough into the middle and fold the left side on top of that (making a tri-fold, like you would fold a letter to fit into an envelope). Heat the oven to 400°F while you let the bread rise (covered with a towel) for another hour or two.
  5. When you are ready to bake, slash the top of the loaf once or twice with a razor blade or sharp knife. If the dough has risen on a cloth, slide or turn it onto floured baking sheets or gently move it onto a lightly floured peel, plank of wood, or flexible cutting board, then slide the bread directly onto a pizza stone. Or you can bake on lightly oiled baking sheets. Turn the heat down to 375°F.
  6. Bake until the crust is golden brown and the internal temperature of the bread is at least 210°F (it can be lower if you plan to reheat the bread later) or the loaves sound hollow when tapped. Remove, spray with a bit of water if you would like a shinier crust, and cool on a wire rack.

What I Ate (These Past 3 Months) Wednesday

Throughout my 6 years of French lessons, in between insulting our jaded American attitudes and telling us that no one in France would ever actually be able to understand our terrible accents, my bitter instructor would pause daily to impart on us some examples of how Europeans exceed us in all areas of life.

If it wasn’t terrible enough that the French somehow manage to maintain the smallest waist-lines in the developed world on a steady diet of butter, cheese, and pastries, one tidbit that burrowed its way into my small American mind and made itself a bitter home was the knowledge that all French workers get 7 weeks paid summer vacation that they can take all at one time.

Yes, while most of us full-time workers here in the U.S. are sitting in our window-less cubicles, counting down the days to that 1-week vacay we begged our bosses for this year, most of France is gayly sunbathing their perfect, topless bodies on the beaches of the French Riviera while stuffing their faces full of soft cheese and macarons… and will be doing so for the next 5-11 weeks. What the eff? The world is a cruel, cruel place, mes amis.

Clearly my 1/4 french heritage has been having an affect on me, because summer hiatuses seem to have become a theme of this little blog. Last year I flat out took the summer off, this year I seem to have taken an early spring leave of just under 3 months…

And lot has happened in 3 months. Since I last posted, the weather has shot from a consistent 40 degrees straight up to 90, flowers have bloomed, pollen has infuriated my sinuses, the “S*** ______ Say” meme has died, and giffs have somehow become popular again through #whatshouldwecallme-type blogs. Yes, we’ve come a long way in 3 months.

When someone asks me what I’m making for my next blog post.

Expectation:

Reality:

But just as the French still manage to vacation and eat their hearts out at the same time, just because I haven’t been bloggin’ doesn’t mean I’ve been skipping out on making yummy meals (without the help of an iron, I might add)…

…And since I’m so back-logged, what better way to play catch-up than to join in the fun that is Peas and Crayon’s “What I Ate Wednesday”!

So without further ado, here’s what I cooked (and ate) while “en vacances” (as the French would say)…

Peas and Crayon’s own Quinoa Fried Rice

Skillet Penne With Cherry Tomatoes, Basil, Cannelloni Beans, and Mozzarella

Toasted Coconut Cake Pops (my own creation!)

Decorated Marshmallow Peeps

Cadbury Deviled Eggs

Real Deviled Eggs

“Slutty” Brownies

Vegetarian Paella (From a bargain aisle cookbook) ;)

Spinach, Tempeh, and Rice Pilaf (my own concoction!)

Turnip Cake Pad Thai

I grew up in a small town in New Jersey… and by small, I mean tiny; the borders of my town encompassed roughly 1 whole square mile and my graduating class had about 85 people in it. I guess you could say I was pretty lucky, because even though my town had more hair salons than people to occupy them, I still managed to find some of the silliest, craziest, most adventurous people I’ve ever had the pleasure to call my friends.

By the time my senior year of high school rolled around, we had formed a clique cult 14+ members large. We even had a name for ourselves (the SMC), a mascot (a stuffed pink rat named Ratzo), pet names (Choch/Larks), a handshake. It was all very complex and mysterious…

…and by mysterious, I mean mildly embarrassing, because when I look back, it’s clear just how obnoxious we were…

Since our one-horse town had little to offer other than a Kosher Dunkin Donuts, we started inventing things to do…

Like having food fights at Applebees…

 

and going team bowling, dressed as ninjas versus pirates (and getting kicked out for bowling more than one ball at the same time)…

having wayyyyy too many dance parties….

…and craming 12 people into a 4 person tent, even though most of us had beds to sleep in less than a 5 minute walk away.

More than any of those silly things, I look back on that amazing year as a time where I got to live deeply with a group of friends, most of whom I had known since childhood, and who would become as close as family to me.

Fortunately, if my senior year of highschool was a hit sitcom, my life here in Boston would be the spinoff; two of my very bestest friends from that crazy group live here in Boston (one as my roommate!) and many more have come to visit us over the past couple of years. From trips to Cape Cod to Dorchester Saint Paddy’s Day shenanigans, we’ve managed to continue the adventures right here in our new home; a home that, this time, brought us together by choice instead of chance.

From NJ to Boston...still the bestest of friends.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t get nostalgic for our lil’ ol’ town in New Jersey sometimes. Usually my nostalgia takes the form of hunger, since the things I miss about New Jersey are bagels, fat sandwiches, pizza, and Thai food. Yep, I’ve never had better Thai food than I’ve had in my tiny little town in New Jersey, and the reasons for that can be summarized in 4 words — turnip cake pad thai.

Sound strange? Fear not, my friend. Turnip cakes are square little pillowy morsels of soft, fried, sweet goodness. There’s no real adequate way to describe them other than starchy, soft, and friggin’ amazing. They’re usually found on dim sum carts and appetizer menus of Chinese food places; the only place I’ve ever known to put them into Pad Thai is our little Thai restaurant in Nowhereville, New Jersey.

My (subpar) version of turnip cake

Whatever possessed me to order something as bizarre sounding as Turnip Cake Pad Thai, I’ll never know, but the dish has become practically legendary among my group of friends. It’s just that good.

Because it can be found nowhere else on the planet, it’s been one of my long-term cooking goals to recreate this dish in my own kitchen. This weekend I tried and (sort of) succeeded, so it’s going to have to be a goal I keep working at. For now, I’ve managed to make a passable version, and since I have two gigantic daikon radishes still sitting in my fridge, I’m going to have to make it again.

Pad Thai itself is a relatively easy dish, but turnip cake takes blood, sweat, tears, and miracles. Well, maybe just sweat and proper equipment. My turnip cake mostly likely failed because I was using this make-shift contraption to steam it:

In the end, I ended up forgoing the steaming in favor of this recipe’s favored approach of just straight up pan frying it. The results were okay, but not the same as the turnip cake I’m used to… big, juicy, soft rectangles *cue choir of angels*

I also didn’t stop to take great photos because I was freakin’ hungry after hours of slavin’ over my favorite dish in the kitchen. Hopefully when I get the recipe to a place I’m happy to, I’ll take some nicer photos to show off the goods. For now, enjoy this recipe for Pad Thai, which is freakin’ a-mazing (turnip cake recipe to come!).

Pad Thai (adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)
NOTE:  For a thicker sauce, double the first 6 ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon tamarind concentrate, mixed in 2/3 cup hot water
  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar (more to taste)
  • 3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 4 tablespoons peanut oil or vegetable oil
  • 8 ounces dried rice stick noodles , about 1/8 inch wide (the width of linguine)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/4 teaspoon table salt
  • 3 cloves garlic , pressed through garlic press or minced (1 tablespoon)
  • 1 medium shallot , minced (about 3 tablespoons)
  • 2 tablespoons Thai salted preserved radish (optional)
  • 6 tablespoons chopped unsalted roasted peanuts
  • 3 cups bean sprouts (6 ounces) [omit if, like me, you friggin' hate bean sprouts]
  • 5 medium scallions , green parts only, sliced thin on sharp bias
  • 1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves (optional)
  • OPTIONAL ADDITIONS FOR CARNIVOROUS AND VEGETARIAN CHEFS ALIKE: 2 tablespoons dried shrimp, chopped fine + 12 ounces medium shrimp (31/35 count), peeled and deveined OR 12 ounces tofu OR 12 ounces turnip cake
  • Lime wedges
  1. Mix the tamarind concentrate with 2/3 cup hot water, stir fish sauce, rice vinegar, sugar, cayenne, and 2 tablespoons oil into tamarind liquid and set aside.
  2. Cover rice sticks with hot tap water in large bowl; soak until softened, pliable, and limp but not fully tender, about 20 minutes. Drain noodles and set aside. Beat eggs and 1/8 teaspoon salt in small bowl; set aside.
  3. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in 12-inch skillet (preferably nonstick) over high heat until just beginning to smoke, about 2 minutes. Add shrimp or tofu if desired and sprinkle with remaining 1/8 teaspoon salt; cook, tossing occasionally, until shrimp or tofu are opaque and browned about the edges, about 3 minutes. Transfer shrimp/tofu to plate and set aside.
  4. Off heat, add remaining tablespoon oil to skillet and swirl to coat; add garlic and shallot, set skillet over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, until light golden brown, about 1 1/2 minutes; add eggs to skillet and stir vigorously with wooden spoon until scrambled and barely moist, about 20 seconds. Add noodles, dried shrimp, and salted radish (if using) to eggs; toss with 2 wooden spoons to combine. Pour fish sauce mixture over noodles, increase heat to high, and cook, tossing constantly, until noodles are evenly coated. Scatter 1/4 cup peanuts, bean sprouts, all but 1/4 cup scallions, and cooked shrimp over noodles; continue to cook, tossing constantly, until noodles are tender, about 2 1/2 minutes (if not yet tender add 2 tablespoons water to skillet and continue to cook until tender).
  5. Transfer noodles to serving platter, sprinkle with remaining scallions, 2 tablespoons peanuts, and cilantro; serve immediately, passing lime wedges separately.

How I Did Disney in $70 a Day

**UPDATE, August 2: Thank you to everyone who commented with your awesome ideas on how to save money at Disney World. The giveaway is now closed and I chose 2 winners at random…. congratulations to Aubrey and Ashley J — check your e-mail for a confirmation from me so I can get those gift cards to you! I can’t thank everyone enough for all the great tips. New readers: if my tips don’t apply to you, check out all the advice in the comment section…something for everyone over there!

**UPDATE, July 24: With the overwhelming response to this post, I am hosting a giveaway of TWO $25 DISNEY GIFT CARDS that can be used online, in stores, or at the parks. To enter, leave a comment telling me what YOU do to save money on Orlando theme parks, or, if you’ve never been, HELPFUL feedback on this post. On August 1st, I will pick two lucky winners! If you have previously commented you can drop me an e-mail and I’ll add you to the list!**

Since this is a food blog, I obviously don’t normally post about travel but, like food, it is another of my many passions! One of my favorite pastimes is finding ways to make travel as cheap as possible, and over the years I have picked up some great hints and tips! This past winter, my best friend and I went to Orlando to visit many of the area parks down there. We planned our trip very last minute, but we worked hard and put in a lot of research. The results were pretty awesome; we managed to each have a perfect vacation in Orlando for under $100 a day. Previously I would have thought this impossible, but when great information falls into your lap, you should always use it and, more importantly, share it. So for all of you upcoming mouseketeers out there, consider this when planning your next Orlando vacation:

Disney (and Orlando in general) is one of those places where visitors throw away thousands of dollars in potential savings for the convenience of getting one, simple, all-inclusive Disney sanctioned package. The theme parks do a pretty good job of making the prospect of not picking out an “authorized” vacation package scary and daunting. Even though Disney is one of the most popular tourist destinations on Earth, the amount of information about traveling “under the radar” is limited. It can leave even the most seasoned traveler asking questions like:

“If I don’t stay at a hotel on site, how will I get around? If I don’t buy my tickets directly from Disney, will I still be able to get in? Where will I eat in the area, should I just get a dining plan? Any “deal” when it comes to Disney World must be a hoax, no one does Disney for cheap, right? I can trust Disney, right?”

Well, let me break the news to you… you can’t. You can’t trust Disney. You wouldn’t walk into a casino and say that the house is on your side, would you? Like a casino, theme parks are trying see how much you’re willing to shell out for the thrills. There is no way to “win” against them, they will always be getting some of your money, but you can certainly lessen the blow by putting in just a little bit more effort. Here’s how: 

When my best friend and I decided to trek down to Orlando for a much needed vacation, we committed to only letting the theme parks take our money for park admission and possibly parking. We weren’t going to sleep on site, eat on site, rent lockers, buy souvenirs (we failed on this last part), or any of the Disney jazz they try to sign you up for. Even though I spent the better part of 6 months traversing around Europe, planning an unsanctioned trip to Disney was one of the hardest trips I’ve ever had to plan. There’s just not a wealth of information out there geared toward people like us who don’t have families, are first timers, and probably won’t be returning year after year. A lot of the stuff we ended up doing to save money made me feel like we were “fighting dirty” against the theme parks, so I exercise you to use caution if you use any of my methods. They worked out perfectly for us, but results can vary. The following should be considered just a collection of “ideas” to consider when traveling down to Orlando, use your own discretion in following them.

1. Travel in the off-season.
If you don’t have kids, there’s pretty much no reason you should be visiting Disney during the peak season in the summer. I can’t see anything redeeming about it — everything is infinitely more expensive, lines are hours in length, and it’s sweltering hot. You really get a lot more value from your vacation by choosing to travel in November, December, or January (but not during the week between Christmas and New Years). Research your dates thoroughly and don’t assume that just because costs are inexpensive, you’re getting a good deal — as one commenter pointed out, prices for hotels in September might be cheap, but it’s also hurricane season and rain is abundant. Long weekends are also prone to big crowds, but in general it’s a pretty safe bet that attendance will be lowest in the “winter.”

December in Orlando: tank tops and water rides… life is rough.

We chose the second week in December and waited on very few lines, got premium parking spots, and really great deals on hotels and flights. Choosing when to go is probably the biggest factor in cheapening your vacation.

Taking it a step further, avoid the most popular parks on the busiest days, even in the off season. You can buy all sorts of guides and subscribe to numerous sites that have “insider information” about this, but it’s pretty basic logic…

  • Crowds are usually lowest during the middle of the week (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday) and highest on the weekends.
  • The parks that immediately pop into your head when you think of Orlando are the most popular: Disney’s Magic Kingdom, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, Epcot (to some extent)
  • The parks that are the least popular are the ones your probably forgot existed: Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Busch Gardens
  • Universal, Sea World, Disney Hollywood are somewhere in the middle.
  • Pair the least popular days of your vacation to the most popular parks to avoid the crowds.

This gets a little tougher when you consider that tickets are cheaper if you buy a block of days to Disney or Universal (3-day tickets to Disney are cheaper than individual day tickets), so just do the best you can. If you can avoid Magic Kingdom on a Saturday, you’ve already done yourself a great service in enhancing the value of your vacation by avoiding crowds and packing more into your day.

Once you’re inside the park you can download an app to your smartphone (for free) that will tell you the wait times for rides. This information is also posted throughout the park, but it sure is handy to have it in your pocket. Look for lulls in the lines for big rides around noon when everyone is settling in for a break. If you’re an adult child like me and insist on riding The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh before you leave the park, rides geared toward younger children seem to catch a break in the evening when families have taken their tuckered out kids home for the day.

2. Don’t stay on-site at a theme park hotel.
Use Priceline’s Price Negotiater to find a hotel and spend the time to bid slowly! There’s a lot of great information out there about how to effectively bid for travel. Peruse the web boards at Biddingfortravel.com and see what other people are paying for area hotels. My requirement was essentially a bed, a bathroom, and no bugs. I looked at hostels, too (hostelworld.com) but I wasn’t ready to settle on a face-value price just yet. I started my bid at something ridiculous like $15 a night at the one star level in any areas near Disney or Universal. I increased my bid, dollar by dollar, until finally something caught at $22 a night. I didn’t have high hopes for the quality of the hotel, but it turned out to be pretty awesome.

We booked a one-star national hotel chain in Kissimmee. No frills, no bugs, two beds, a TV… comfortable enough, and had a heated pool, a free shuttle to Disney, and was within walking distance of restaurants, stores, and coffee shops. It even came with a free breakfast, which was really just oatmeal packets and juice, but hey, free is free, and it meant one less meal we had to shell out our own money for.

[What We Paid: At $22 a night for 4 nights (plus tax) we paid a total of $107.52 for our lodging (split between the two of us) came to $53.76 a person … about $13.50 a day per person.]

3. Rent a car, but rent it with discounts.
We came to the conclusion pretty early on that even with the free shuttle to Disney, we were going to need to rent a car if we wanted to visit all the parks. Orlando has unreliable public transportation and the theme parks are spread out over many miles. We knew this part was going to be a challenge because we’re both under 25 and most rental companies have steep daily fees for young drivers. I did A LOT of research to help us find the cheapest possible rate. Fortunately, there are many great internet forums that post corporate account codes (read: these are actual company accounts, not simply coupon codes) that you can enter online when reserving a car to get discounts and waive fees (particularly young driver fees). I picked one I knew we would be able to get away with, the University of California’s alumni discount code for Enterprise car rental.

Not the car we rented.

You can find such codes at fatwallet.com, and there’s a pretty good list of corporate accounts and the perks of using each one. When we first picked up our compact car, they had not waived the young driver fee, but when I showed them our receipt and said the fee was supposed to be waived, they didn’t ask questions and just took off the extra expense.

[What We Paid: 5 day car rentel from Enterprise with discounts = $105.39 TOTAL or about $21 a day (split between 2 people = $10.50 per person per day)]

As for gas, we really didn’t use that much. I’d say it came out to about:

[What We Paid: $20 worth of gas and tolls, between two of us over 5 days was about $2 per day per person]

3. If you can avoid parking at Disney, do it.
Unfortunately, throughout the 5 days we were there, we paid for parking almost every day. This was one area where I didn’t do a ton of research before we went (and I regret that), but there are actually a lot of easy options for avoiding paying the steep parking fees at theme parks. As I mentioned, our hotel did have a daily shuttle to the main gate of the Disney World parks where you can get on the monorail; we only used it one day, but it saved us $15 in parking. As far as I could tell, anyone can hop on one of these shuttles and you don’t need to show proof of a reservation. If you’re staying at a hotel that does NOT offer a shuttle to the park you want to visit, look around and see if the nearby hotels do — you can probably just hop on their bus.

Another option is to park at Downtown Disney, which is free, and catch a Disney bus to and from the resorts.  We kind of missed out on that opportunity, but it is possible to completely avoid paying for parking during the course of your stay.

I couldn’t find much information about avoiding parking at the International Drive theme parks (Universal, Sea World, etc.,) other than staying at a nearby hotel, but if you happen to know someone who lives in the area, drop off is free at Universal (you have to pay for Disney).

$15 gets you premium parking…only about 3 miles from the actual park.

[What We Paid: Since we didn’t do our research on this one, we paid $15 a day over 4 days = $60, split between the two of us over the course of our trip amounted to about $6 per person a day]

4. Bring your own food and water to the parks.
All of the area theme parks allow you to bring in your own food and beverages. The first thing we did when we got to Orlando was hit up the grocery store and load up on groceries. For 5 days we bought:

  • 1 double loaf of bread = $4
  • 1 gallon carton of goldfish = $8
  • 1 palate of bottled water = $6
  • 1 jar goober grape = $5
  • 1 crate of clementines = $10
  • 1 giant bag of carrots = $4
  • 1 bag of Sunchips = $5

We took plastic knives from the deli section for spreading our sandwiches and my friend was smart and brought an entire box of ziplock bags for us to pack our lunches and dinners in. As I also mentioned, breakfast was free at our hotel, and we sometimes stocked up on extra muffins and oatmeal packets for use later that day. 

If all else fails, steal snacks from strollers.

We weren’t perfect. We bought coffee some days and ate dinner out one night. Sometimes we splurged on park snacks like butterbeer at Harry Potter World in Universal. But in theory, it was do-able to eat all your own meals for around $10 a day per person. When we did eat at Universal, we used coupons from a packet you can pick up once you’re through the gates at one of the gift shoppes. It actually had really great deals for City Walk and helped bring “park prices” down to normal.

[What We Paid: our total grocery bill was about $42, split between the two of us over 5 days amounted to about $8.40 per person per day]

5. Don’t be fooled into buying your park tickets ahead of time.
Park tickets are probably the toughest area to save money on. No matter what you do, you’re going to end up paying for them, and the system is not setup to benefit those who are visiting the park for only a few days. At Disney, Universal, and other area theme parks, the more days you commit to spending in the park, the cheaper your cost per a day becomes. The price per a day for a one day ticket to Disney is nearly 4 times that of a weekly ticket. It just ‘aint fair.

I’ve highly edited this section of my post because (as you may see from the comments), it has received a lot of feedback and I don’t want anyone to be misled. Before I launch into how we got our tickets, here are some easy ways to find discounts (many courtesy of those who have left comments):

  • If you are a AAA member or know someone who is, discounted tickets are available for almost all of Orlando’s parks. These tickets are usually for multiple day passes and you must purchase them through your local AAA office.
  • Buy an Orlando Entertainment book, which can offer about $20 off tickets.
  • Discounts are available for U.S. military personnel and their families. Many large employers also have discounts available, but chances are if you work for them, you already know about it. Still, it never hurts to ask your HR rep. if they have any connections!
  • If you’re staying off site, ask at your hotel! Talking to the locals is a great way to find out if anyone has connections, knows reputable places to get discounts, or has a trusted source. I firmly believe many people miss out on potentially great resources right in front of them because they never take the time to stop and ask.
  • If you’re visiting Sea World and purchase tickets through their website, your ticket should be valid for TWO days. Here’s the trick: at the end of your first visit you need to go to guest services and ask for a return voucher. This is a very good option if you have an awkward half day with nothing to do before your flights and don’t want to pay for a full day’s admission somewhere else.

But there are other options. Throughout Orlando you will find numerous booths and signs that offer discounts — they’re in hotels, airports, restaurants, even our bus driver had a similar sign. More often than not, these are third-party brokers who resell tickets much like scalpers do for sporting events, at a very discounted cost. These ticket resellers buy 10 day passes to Disney (where the price per a day is about $25) and rent them to individuals on a day-to-day basis for a steeply discounted price, plus a small mark-up fee for their services.

This was our experience, and it worked perfectly for us, but it might not be for everyone. Others have had very different experiences, and the majority of information out there tells you to avoid using third party brokers, probably for good reason. I’m putting it out there just to stand up and say that it worked for me and many comments on this post suggest that it has also worked for others and can work for you too. On the flip-side, many readers have expressed upset that I would validate third-party brokers, and an entire moral debate has been struck up in the comments section. After much consideration, I have decided to keep this part of my post because it has otherwise become a taboo topic in the “Disney World” and very little information exists online about it. Whether I post about it or not, people are going to use brokered tickets, and I think I can offer some advice on how to protect yourself if you choose to, too.

Now please, be careful with this one; it worked out perfectly for us, but there are no guarantees. Do your research first! Our hotel has a kiosk right in the lobby offering these discounted tickets, with the same guy who manned the booth every day. He offered us two days worth of Disney tickets at $30 a day, compared to the $85 we were going to pay by buying a one-day ticket online. After talking to other hotel patrons who had purchased tickets from this guy and had success, we decided to give it a shot.

He was upfront about the risks. While it is not illegal to purchase these tickets, it is against Disney’s policy to share park passes. He made it known to us that there were no guarantees, and that it was entirely possible they would be confiscated and we would have to pay full price. He also let us know that it was not in his interest to deceive us, since a confiscation of the pass meant a severe loss for him. Weighing the options, we agreed that the potential pay-off was worth the possible risk and settled on paying him $20 cash upfront the rest only if the tickets worked out.

A little scary, but since his kiosk was based out of our hotel, I knew I’d be able to track him down the next day if we suddenly got denied from Disney. I also felt protected by the fact that he operated out of my hotel, a national chain. If we got “scammed,” I figured I had numerous options to recoup my losses, and if I couldn’t, well, live and let learn.

When we got to the ticket gates, I had brief reservations. You must go through fingerprint scanners to get into the park and I knew mine would not match those who had previously used the ticket. When I pressed my finger up to the scanner, the computer did indeed confirm I was not a match, but the turnstile opened anyway and there wasn’t even a question from the gate attendant. Other than a little heart racing, we experienced no problems both days we used the tickets; a big risk, but an even bigger reward: we saved about $60 per ticket per day!

We made it in!

If you choose to use this information, please be aware of the risks. The possibility for savings is huge, but it could also end up costing you money too. Park security won’t care to hear your sob story if your ticket doesn’t work out, but If you do choose to go this route, here’s some advice to consider:

  1. Buy from a reseller that you know you’ll see again. In our case, this was the guy who ran the booth in our hotel. Maybe you know someone who has a friend who sells tickets, either way, protect yourself by making sure you can find them again. In most cases, they’ll be wanting to track you down too, to make sure they get their pass back!
  2. Typically they’ll try to sell you the passes that have the fewest days left on them. Ask for newer passes if they have them, which will decrease the risk associated with the ticket.
  3. Get as much information as you can about the ticket, where and when it was purchased, how many people have used it before, and what parks they visited on what days. All this information is stored on the card, so if Disney knows it, you should too.
  4. Feel free to haggle. You can ask not to pay all the money upfront, you can ask for a ticket that hasn’t yet been used.
  5. Always remember you can walk away if you don’t feel comfortable. Until money changes hands, you’re under no obligation to accept a price or a ticket.

[What We Paid: $30 Per Person Per Day]

So there you have it. Adding up our lodging, car rental, gas, food, park tickets, and parking, our grand total comes to: $70.10 per day. With a little research and a bit of bravery, an affordable Disney vacation really is possible!

Highly Alcoholic Butterbeer

Those who have known me for 5 minutes or more will attest that my love affair for all things Harry Potter transcends normal fandom.

This is more than just a “I-stayed-up-until-midnight-to-get-all-of-the-books-on-their-release-date,” sort of love. Sure, I’ve done all the normal fandimonium things — read all the books, saw all the movies, went to every midnight release (in costume).

No, this is much, much more.

I’ve made Harry Potter-themed baked goods. I have a memory box with trading cards, ticket stubs, and HP stationary. I am currently drinking water from a Gryffindor cup. There is a chocolate frog on my bedside table. I named my first dog after a Harry Potter character.

Padfoot, a.k.a Sirius Black

But nothing is more elusive to this muggle’s mind than the perfect pint of butterbeer.

Little is known about this magnificent beverage. HP devotees will travel far and wide to sample the J.K. Rowling approved recipe at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando. Indeed, this winter I was one of them!

My best friend Amanda and I sampling the offerings at the Hog’s Head Bar

Being the natural negativo that I am, I was expecting something hokey that amounted to not much more than glorified cream soda. But oh boy, was I wrong. I mean, it was like a mild cream soda, but it was topped with this thick, rich, creamy, fluff-like topping. Oh man, it was goooooooooood.

Since I’ve recently dabbled in infusing my own vodka and crafting my own cocktails, I knew that the second I returned home from HP World (i.e., paradise), I would be finding a way to make an adult (alcoholic) version of this magical concoction.

But I quickly became dismayed while looking at recipes that involved too many ingredients (really, there’s no need to be infusing butter with cloves), were not the correct color or thickness, or frankly didn’t have enough alcohol.

More specifically, I was most interested in recreating the frothy topping, which my best friend and HP companion quickly compared to liquid fluff. Since she was with me when sampling the real deal, we made it our mission the next time she came to visit to really nail down an out-of-this-world butterbeer cocktail.

Lucky, we hit the nail on the head with our very first attempt, and in both of our humble opinions, it stands up to the official, Rowling-sanctioned virgin version. We both have slightly different tastes (Amanda loves her stuff SWEET), so the recipe gives a little wiggle room for making it your own.

I’ve now tested this recipe on a half dozen in-the-know participants and it has won top marks across the board. What really sets this recipe apart is the foam topping that makes the butterbeer look like actually frothy beer from a tap. Be careful with this one, it goes down easy, but it packs a punch!

Butterbeer

  • 1 – 2 oz. butterscotch shnapps, depending on how sweet you want it (I prefer 1 oz.)
  • 2 oz. whipped cream flavored vodka
  • 6 oz. cream soda
  • 1 large spoonful marshmallow fluff + just a smidge of butterscotch shnapps
  1. In a tumbler, mix together the ice, schnapps, vodka, and cream soda. Strain into a chilled clear pint glass.
  2. In a small container, use a fork to whip together marshmallow fluff and a smidge of shnapps (a dab of cream soda also helps break it down really well) — keep whipping until liquid and easily pourable (2-3 minutes). Pour on top of butterbeer as the “head.” Enjoy!

Cajun Red Beans and Rice

Dear Beloved Fellow Veggies,

Happy Belated Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day, Carnvial or whatever else you like to call the day of the year where you can gorge yourself on food, drink, and general merriment (beads anyone?) while pretending that you’re not going to do it again for 40 long days.

For those of you who have made it through the weekend without any major feats of debauchery, I tip my (chef’s) hat to you — we’ll see how you’re faring when Saint Patrick’s Day rolls around.

Boston isn’t exactly the place to celebrate Mardi Gras; we’re probably too busy preparing for epic St. Patty’s Day celebrations, which are pretty much unrivaled by all except those in Ireland. Bold statement? No, really, I kid you not. Up until this year, schools and government offices were closed for Saint Patrick’s Day in Boston — it’s just that big of a deal.

So where does the discerning glutton celebrate Mardi Gras in America? Well, if Boston is the place to be for St. Patty’s Day, then NOLA is where it’s at for Mardi Gras, which, from what I hear, New Orleanian’s pretty much celebrate all year long. I mean, let’s look at the facts: heart-attack inducing food laden with red meats and butter? Check! Cheap, strong drinks that you can glug from plastic cups in the streets? Check! Loud music and drunken tidings? Check and check! Yep, sounds like a year-round mardi gras party to me!

Ever since making my pilgrimage to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in December, New Orleans has shot straight to the top of my domestic travel to-do list. Since I am an aforementioned “discerning glutton,” NOLA sounds pretty much as close to paradise as you can get, and lately I’ve been regaled by the tales of my many friends who have visited and loved it. I’ve got the Bayou on the brain, that’s fo’ sho.

My sometimes-sous-chef has roots in NOLA (who dat?!) and is partially responsible for piquing my interest in cajun/creole food. New Orleans cuisine isn’t exactly known for its vegetarian friendliness, so I’ve never really tried my hand at cookin’ cajun, but when my buddy and I were planning our latest culinary quest, we kept pawin’ at the idea of a New Orleans theme.

And so, that weekend, we found out for ourselves that you don’t need to travel all the way to NOLA to feel the Mardi Gras spirit. Sometimes all you need is a bottle of Abita, a strong homemade hurricane, some good music with good company, a few killer kitchen dance moves, a fondness for real bacon, and a big sizzlin’ pot of cajun red beans. And when you pass out in your own bed early that night, over-indulged and slightly tipsy, still laughing from the night’s kitchen escapades, you realize you’ve had yourself as memorable a night as you could ever have in the real NOLA. 

Red beans and ricely yours,
Two Veggies

Yep, I just posted a picture of real bacon on my vegetarian blog. Whatcha gonna do about it?

Red Beans and Rice (adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)

  • 1 pound small red beans (about 2 cups), rinsed and picked over
  • 4 slices bacon (about 4 ounces), chopped fine (use fake bacon + some oil if you’re being a good vegetarian)
  • 1 medium onion , chopped fine (about 1 cup)
  • 1 small green bell pepper , seeded and chopped fine (about 1/2 cup)
  • 1 celery rib , chopped fine (about 1/2 cup)
  • 3 medium garlic cloves , minced or pressed through garlic press (about 1 tablespoon)
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika (see note)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • Ground black pepper
  • 3 cups low-sodium chicken broth (or veggie broth!)
  • 6 cups water
  • 8 ounces andouille sausage, halved lengthwise and cut into 1/4-inch slices (veggie sausage works great!)
  • 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar , plus extra for seasoning
  • 4 cups white rice, for serving
  • 3 scallions, white and green parts, sliced thin
  • Hot sauce (optional)
  1. Dissolve 3 tablespoons salt in 4 quarts cold water in large bowl or container. Add beans and soak at room temperature for at least 8 hours and up to 24 hours. Drain and rinse well.
  2. Heat bacon in large Dutch oven over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until browned and almost fully rendered, 5 to 8 minutes. Add onion, green pepper, and celery; cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables are softened, 6 to 7 minutes. Stir in garlic, thyme, paprika, bay leaves, cayenne pepper, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper; cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in beans, broth, and water; bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat and vigorously simmer, stirring occasionally, until beans are just soft and liquid begins to thicken, 45 to 60 minutes.
  3. Stir in sausage and 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar and cook until liquid is thick and beans are fully tender and creamy, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt, black pepper, and additional red wine vinegar. Serve over rice, sprinkling with scallions and passing hot sauce separately, if desired.

Vegetarian Poutine With Homemade Cheese Curds!

I know I’ve written extensively about my love affair with gravy. One of my favorite vehicles for indulging that passion is with poutine, which for those of you who have never heard of, is a Canadian specialty that’s pretty much just heaven on a plate.

Fries + Cheddar Cheese Curds + Gravy = *Choir of Angels*

My cooking buddy (and fellow poutine worshipper) and I have been on a search for the best poutine in Boston, and sadly we’ve found that only ONE restaurant in the entire city makes their “poutine” with real cheese curds (it’s Saus for all you lil’ Bostonian poutine connoisseurs out there). All the other imposters have frankly been an abomination to the institution that is truly authentic Canadian poutine.

In the many months we’ve been parading around as Boston’s premiere poutine critics, we’ve pretty much seen everything… ricotta masquerading as cheese curds, provolone hiding in the murky depths of lukewarm canned gravy, a complete horror show of cheese melted on kettle chips that laughed in the face of everything poutine stands for.

The horror show, a complete mockery of poutine, courtesy of Jaime K. on Yelp.

Yep, we’ve seen everything… except actual poutine.

Quite honestly the search has left us a little disgruntled and pretty darn disappointed, so at some point we decided we’d track down some cheese curds and just make our own. But after months of extensive internet searches, puzzled looks from shop owners, and countless false leads, we came to the conclusion that all of metro Boston just hates cheese curds. They were nowhere to be found.

I mean really, we’re 6 friggin’ hours from Montreal, where finding poutine is as common as finding a McDonald’s in any city in America. So freakin’ common, in fact, that they actually sell poutine at McDonald’s in Montreal. Come on people, even Ronald McDonald is on board! Somehow the Northeast just still hasn’t gotten the message that cheese curds are freakin’ delicious when slathered gravy and served on top of french fries.

It should be a testament to how deeply I love poutine that in a bought of frustration I ended up making my own cheese curds. At home. By myself. Yep, I ordered cheese making supplies and spent the better part of 12 hours hovering over a vat of milk with a thermometer for the sole goal of eventually making poutine. This recipe has truly been a labor of love months in the making.

There’s no way I can not blog about the process of making my own cheese. It has to be done. At some point. But I’m just too freakin’ excited that my poutine actually happened to do it now. In the meantime, you can follow these directions, like I did. It’s actually very simple to do, albeit a little time consuming.

Proof that I actually did it.

Instead, lets focus on these freakin’ delicious looking photos and the awesome oven fries recipe I found to form the base of such an awesome dish.

Aforementioned cooking buddy is a big, bigggg fan of Cooks Illustrated and has gotten me really into it too. Either of us has yet to find a recipe on Cook’s that has truly failed us, so with a million+ recipes out there for french fries, I figured why not stick to the big guns and consult my new favorite trusty resource.

Crispiness isn’t really an issue to consider when making fries for poutine since the gravy gets the fries nice and wet anyway, eliminating any possible crunch. Oven fries are usually a lot softer and “wetter” than deep fried fries, but they’re a lot less work and a lot bettah fo’ you (if you’re into that sort of thing). Cooks method for oven fries was extremely simple, but pretty darn genius… by soaking the potatoes and not coating the fries directly with oil, my final product was actually pretty comparable to the fried stuff… crispy and and everything! I would absolutely make these fries again, even just with a veggie burger on a regular ol’ weeknight.

I was so very happy with how this poutine turned out… it was better than any poutine I’ve had at a restaurant in the last couple of years AND it was entirely vegetarian. Even though I normally make exceptions for meaty gravy deliciousness, throwing on the veggie gravy really made it feel like mine, which is what cookin’ is all about, right? Hope you enjoy!

Vegetarian Poutine

  • 1 to 2 big handfuls of homemade cheese curds (or if you’re lucky enough to have found them, store-bought ones)
  • 3 medium-sized russet or yukon gold potatoes
  • 5 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • Any other spices you’d like to add to your fries (I used oregano, thyme, rosemary, garlic, cumin, paprika, and chile powder)
  • Ingredients for lentil gravy
    • 1/4 cup butter
    • 1/2 onion chopped
    • 3/4 cup lentils
    • 3 cups vegetable broth
    • 1/4 cup flour
    • 1 tablespoon poultry seasoning
  • 3 scallions, chopped fine, whites and green parts
  1. Adjust oven rack to lowest position; heat oven to 475 degrees. Chop the potatos into 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch matchsticks. Place potatoes in large bowl and cover with hot tap water; soak 10 minutes. Meanwhile, coat 18 by 12-inch heavy-duty rimmed baking sheet with 4 tablespoons oil and sprinkle evenly with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper; set aside.
  2. Drain potatoes. Spread potatoes out on triple layer of paper towels and thoroughly pat dry with additional paper towels. Rinse and wipe out now-empty bowl; return potatoes to bowl and toss with remaining 1 tablespoon oil and any spices you desire. Arrange potatoes in single layer on prepared baking sheet; cover tightly with foil and bake 5 minutes.
  3. Once you put the fries in the oven, start the gravy. In a large skillet, melt the butter and add onion and lentils. Sautee for just a minute or two over high heat. Reduce heat to medium and add vegetable broth and soy sauce. Slowly add flour, stirring well to combine and prevent lumps from forming. Bring to a simmer or a low boil, then reduce heat. Add poultry seasoning, and salt and pepper to taste, stirring consistently. Allow to simmer while you bake the fries (lentils will take about 20 minutes to be cooked throughly).
  4. Once the fries have baked five minutes with the foil on, remove foil and continue to bake until bottoms of potatoes are spotty golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes, rotating baking sheet after 10 minutes. Using metal spatula and tongs, scrape to loosen potatoes from pan, then flip each fry, keeping potatoes in single layer. Continue baking until fries are golden and crisp, 5 to 15 minutes longer, rotating pan as needed if fries are browning unevenly.
  5. Transfer fries to second baking sheet lined with paper towels to drain. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste. Top with cheese curds, then a few ladle-fulls of gravy, followed by a light sprinkling of chopped scallions. Enjoy!