Monday, May 26, 2014

Austin Eats and Drinks

I recently traveled to Austin, TX with a bunch of friends to meet back up with one of our friends who had moved to Texas last year.  We traveled from Connecticut, Washington, and Virginia, so it was kind of a big deal to get us all together at the same place and time. It was great to get together and eat, drink, shop and talk.  I've been to Austin before and love the laid-back, artsy vibe of the place.  I had not, however, been to the South Congress (SoCo) neighborhood, which is where we stayed this time.  We were only there for 2 and a half days, but I could have spent the whole time just exploring this neighborhood, I loved it so much!

First, a shout out to the folks at  Verde Camp, where we stayed.  Great accommodations (despite the large bird population that kept me up at night -- owls -- and early mornings -- I think they were mourning doves) and friendly proprietors, who live across the street from our bungalows.  Because we were seven people, we kind of took over the place, with three of us staying in the Cloud House (which slept 3), and the other four splitting up between the other two bungalows, which slept 2 each. I highly recommend staying there if you are traveling to Austin.

Part of the camp (the Cloud House, where I stayed, is on the right). Loving the sign and cactus!

Cloud House

Fire Pit (we didn't light any fires, though), and the third house our group stayed in the background/right.

This is the inside of the Cloud House. Isn't it cute? You can see a bit of the loft and on the left you can see the (closed) door to the bathroom and the (open) doorway that leads into the bedroom.

As I admitted in my last post, I didn't take a whole lot of food pictures, so you'll have to take my word for it, but the food was great! The first night we went to Guero's Taco Bar, which was within walking distance of Verde Camp.  Of course, I got a taco palate, especially when the server told me that I could order one of each of the tacos I was considering: the Al Pastor and the Chicken Al Carbon.  Both were delicious!  Wish I could have explored the menu even more, but I will definitely make it back there next time I'm in town.

 (photo from Jo's website)

We were also within walking distance of a great coffee shop (really a take out counter, because there is no interior space to sit inside, although there is covered seating outside) with fabulous baked goods. Jo's Coffee Good Food had great coffee, but also offered other drinks, such as the refreshing concoction called a Laura Palmer (it's not listed on their regular menu).  It's an iced tea drink that is pink, and refreshing and delicious!  I also tried one of their breakfast tacos and enjoyed every bite, despite the grackle that tried to make off with it.  Scared the crap out of my friend, though.  :-)

We didn't do a whole lot of barbeque, either, but did make it to a place in downtown Austin called Lamberts Downtown Barbeque. I got the Brown Sugar and Coffee Rubbed Natural Brisket with sides of collard greens and their jicama and carrot slaw (I also tasted their ranch style baked beans, which they brought by mistake but let me keep), which I really enjoyed -- great flavor, nice smoke ring, even the fat had great flavor!

This is our group of ladies after a delicious lunch!

(photo from Doc's website))

While  Doc's Bar & Grill had your "typical" bar food, they also had great salads.  My friends enjoyed the Blackened Fish Salad, while I really liked the Sunset Valley Salad (grilled chicken, sliced oranges, Granny Smith apples, avocado, onions, and cilantro on house green with a sesame dressing). Their drinks were really good, too.  We all fell in love with the "Austin Sipper" (I don't remember what was in it) and I had a lovely pecan-infused smoked whiskey on the rocks that really hit the spot at the end of the day.
Airstream Location
 (photo from Hey Cupcake!'s website)

I am a big fan of food truck cuisine: so fun, so mobile.  :-)  So, when we saw the  Hey Cupcake! cupcake trailer right on the corner near where we were staying, I had to indulge!  We got the half-dozen mini cupcakes to share, plus the John Lemon -- because I'm a sucker for lemon.  They were very good (and I'm kind of a snob when it comes to baked goods, especially cupcakes, which can be done so poorly or get over-hyped for just being average).  Anyway, the John Lemon was really good, as were the chocolate cupcakes, the strawberry, the red velvet and the carrot cake.  The only one I was only lukewarm about was the Vanilla Dream -- way too sweet for my taste.

Of course, we made time for shopping and two great shops were within walking distance.

  Parts and Labour

My Photo
(photo from Parts & Labour's blog)

I loved this store! Lots of funky clothes, t-shirts, jewelry and gift items all made by Texas-based artists and crafters.  I bought some fun coasters and a cute kitchen towel with a print of (of course) a food truck.  Wish I had more time to browse through the jewelry, but my friends had moved on to other stores, so I had to catch up.


Cowboy Boots
(image from Allen Boots' website)

Of course, it wouldn't be a trip to Texas if we didn't go boot shopping, and  Allens Boots had an amazing selection of high-quality boots.  I worked up a sweat trying on so many pairs!  Alas, it was not meant to be for me, but one of our group did find a beautiful pair. The staff there is great (and with boots literally stacked to the ceiling, you will need their help at some point). This place is not to be missed!

We did manage to do a couple of things that didn't involve eating, shopping or drinking.  Austin boasts a number of parks and outdoor areas to enjoy that big blue sky.  Barton Springs Pool, located within Zilker Park, is a pool fed by natural springs right in the city, just a 10 minute drive from Verde Camp.  Very reasonable (I think I paid a $4 entry fee for the day) and it is a great way to relax.  The day we went, they were doing some improvements to the grounds, so where you could normally lay out on the grass, it was roped off, so it got kind of crowded, because everyone was relegated to the concrete walkway and the rock outcroppings, but it was still really nice!

So lovely and cool on a warm day!

Austin is also known for the bats that roost under the Congress Avenue Bridge, so we had to try and see it.  Here is a picture of what it CAN look like: 

(Image from blogger Army Galpal, who clearly had a better sighting than we did.  Check out her blog post on it and for more on Austin)

Unfortunately, the night we went, it turned out to be kind of a bust, because they didn't fly out till it was pretty dark (making them hard to see), and even then, it was only, like, five or six at a time.  Apparently, there were a number of pregnant females that stayed under the bridge, or so we were told by someone who we assumed knew about such things.  Anyway, sat in a park that is located underneath the bridge right next to the river, and had fun just sitting and talking while we waited for the bats, so it wasn't really a waste of time. The point of the trip was to hang out with friends, which is exactly what we did.

So if you are ever lucky enough to find yourself in Austin, you should definitely check out the South Congress neighborhood.  I loved it!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Banana Coconut Cake Supreme

Wow! I know that I hadn't blogged in a while, but my last post was March 30.  Sorry guys!! April was really a blur, and May hasn't shaped up to be any less hectic, but I resolve to do better by you!  It might mean that I do something a little different -- sometimes not doing actual recipes but maybe blogging about great food I've eaten.  Like in Austin, TX, where I just was for a girls' weekend.  Of course, being the idiot that I am, I took very few pictures, and really only one of food, but I will put something together on that and make the best of it.

Anyway, I started this one about banana cake so long ago, but I don't even remember what my inspiration was.  Possibly overripe bananas, but I really shouldn't assume that, because I am ok just putting those in the freezer to save for smoothies and such.  My best guess is that it might have been buttermilk that I needed to use up.  Anywhoooo....

This recipe is a lesson in reading comments BEFORE making something you find on-line (I am horribly guilty of reading comments AFTER, which does no one any good at all).  So, assuming I needed to use up ripe bananas and/or buttermilk, I found this recipe, which looked delish and fit the bill (Or is it "filled the bill"? One of these days I am going to look up the actual, correct expression) on Food Network.  The comments, however, were not really keen on using the coconut custard as a filling and a frosting (which is how the original recipe made it), so I figured I would go one better: coconut custard filling with cream cheese frosting.  Sounded good to me!

The only thing I really altered was the coconut custard, because I didn't need the full recipe.  The cake turned out really well in general, but if I was making it for myself, I would have added walnuts to the cake batter (black walnuts if I had 'em -- black walnuts and banana are AWESOME!!) and shredded coconut to the custard to up the coconut flavor, but when I make something to share with kids, I always err on the side of caution and just leave nuts out.

Also, don't be intimidated by the idea of a layer cake.  It can take some practice getting the layers to line up right, and the bottom layer should have the top of the cake on the bottom (leaving the flatter part of the cake layer facing up), while the top layer should have the bottom of that layer facing the bottom of the top layer.  I know, it sounds confusing, but just think of it this way: always have the flat bottom parts of each layer facing each other. Granted, it gets tricky when you have more than two layers, but we won't get into that right now.

My best advice is to never, ever skip lining the cake pans. I know it's kind of a pain in the ass, but better to spend a couple extra minutes on the front end than trying to doctor together broken cake layers. Now I always line the cake pans with parchment, because the few times I thought I could get away with it and skip that step, the cakes always stuck.  If only I could learn from my other mistakes so well…  ;-)

This cake is pretty easy to make, even if there are a few components to it.  The cake layers and the custard can be made a day ahead of time, which makes it a little easier to tackle.

 As you can see, everyone liked the results:

Banana Coconut Cake Supreme

(adapted from a recipe on Food Network)

Banana Coconut Cake:

Make the cake from the linked recipe

Coconut Custard: 1 can coconut milk
1/4 cup milk
3 eggs
1/3 cup sugar
scant 1/4 cup cornstarch (1/4 cup minus 1 tablespoon)

Whisk together the sugar and cornstarch until there are no lumps, then add the eggs and milk. Whisk until combined.  In a small saucepan (one or two quarts) heat the coconut milk until small bubbles appear around the edges of the milk in the pan (use medium/low heat).  Slowly (about 1/8 of a cup at a time) add the egg/sugar/cornstarch mixture, whisking well after each addition (fancy cooking term: this is called "tempering" the eggs so that they get heated slowly and get fully incorporated with the other ingredients and don't turn into scrambled eggs).

Keep whisking and cooking the custard over low heat until it has thickened. I tried to get a picture of it, but it's hard to do one-handed:

Once the custard has thickened, pour into a bowl, top with plastic wrap (this keeps the custard from forming a "skin"), and allow to cool completely.  You can make this ahead and chill in the fridge up to 3 days.

Cream Cheese Frosting:

Again, I just made this straight up, no alterations.

Now, the trick is in the assembly.  I took one layer and put it on the platter, then spread all of the coconut custard on, then put the second layer on top of that. Then I chilled it for 20 minutes.

As you can see, much plastic wrap gave its life to make this thing. :-) 

Then I did a "crumb coat" of frosting (where you put a thin layer of frosting all around to keep crumbs from mixing in with the rest of the frosting). Like this:

If you do a crumb coat, put it in the fridge to set up for a few minutes (10 should be enough), then continue to frost the rest of the cake.

1/4 cup toasted coconut (for decoration) (To toast coconut, preheat oven to 350 degrees F, then put coconut a small baking sheet in a shallow layer. Stir occasionally, about every 5-7 minutes, until the coconut is a light tan)

I then took some of the coconut and decorated the edge of the cake:


Happy Baking!!