Baking! Taking a breath between trips…

As some of you, my dear readers, know, I love baking. Like, real home-made style baking. Not competing with an endless list of ingredients to make the recipes ultra-complicated, not spending hours to create something so beautiful that it makes you sad when you have to break it to eat it, but I love putting together something simple that is tasty and worth trying again. I think that these are the key words that describe my goals: simple and tasty.

Today, I had some friends coming over, so I wanted to make something quick and easy to surprise them with a light lunch. I have made an uncountable amount of variations of this pie, but this time, it turned out to be a cheesy ham pie. I tossed together a salad to go with it, and my friends loved it so much that even though they know that this blog is mostly about traveling, they suggested that I’d post this one here. I love sharing recipes, so here we go. If any of you feel like sharing your favorite recipes, please do post them as comments here, I’d love to try them!


IMG-20160806-WA0022

CHEESY HAM PIE

This pie will be big enough to fill a rather large pie plate (10.6 inches circumference). Make sure to use a non-sticky pie plate or butter the pie plate to make sure that the crust doesn’t stick to it.

For the crust you’ll need:

1.7 cups flour (plus some when you spread the crust into the pan)

1 tsp baking powder

½ cup grated cheese (strong flavor! Swiss cheeses have good ones)

5.3 ounces cold butter

¼ cup cold water (or a couple of tablespoons less)

Mix the flour, baking powder, and grated cheese in a bowl. Add the cold, diced butter and use your fingers and thumbs to pinch and rub the butter and flour together. Quickly mix the cold water in with a fork or spoon.

Pour the mix onto the pie plate and use the extra flour to keep the crust dough from sticking to your fingers when you spread it across the pie plate and up against the edges. When ready, poke the crust dough with a fork. Set aside to wait.

For the filling:

1 onion

4.4 ounces diced ham

7 ounces cottage cheese (also shredded mozzarella works well)

0.6 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

2 eggs

0.8 cups cream

½ cup chopped parsley (chives works well too!)

2 tsp horseradish paste (can be left out as well)

a pinch of black pepper

a pinch of Cajun

a pinch of white pepper

a pinch of garlic powder

½ cup shredded cheese (strong flavor is preferred)

Dice the onion and sauté it quickly on a skillet. Once it’s done, put it in a big bowl. Chop the parsley and add it as well as the other ingredients in the bowl. Mix well. Then pour the mix on the crust and top with shredded cheese.

Bake in the oven (350F) for 30-35 mins until golden brown. If needed, add an aluminum foil on top of the pie to prevent the crust from getting a darker brown color.

IMG-20160806-WA0020

Enjoy! 🙂

Advertisements

Beijing – thousands of years of culture

IMG_0311

Thick smog. Serene Temples. Black bicycles. Exotic hutongs. Shiny pearls. New SUVs. Culinary surprises. Divine foot massages. Large squares. What does your Beijing look like?

A while ago I had a chance to visit Beijing, China. It had been a dream of mine to see the Forbidden City, Great Wall of China, Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, Summer Palace, Badaling, and the Beijing Zoo. Most of the places were real tourist attractions, but as I had always heard about them since I was little, my mind was set on visiting them. I wasn’t sure how well my search of tranquility would go in a city that has millions of inhabitants, but it was worth a shot to go there and see. Even though I did a lot of shopping and socialized with other foreigners quite a bit, little did I know how much peace I would found from China’s massive capital and the surrounding areas. Here are some of the places in which the peace of mind was the easiest to reach:

Meditating in the Summer Palace

The gardens of the Summer Palace were heavenly. It’s no wonder that this area was chosen as a UNESCO World Heritage site as it is very attractive. The Kunming Lake and Longevity Hill dominate the landscape. The pavilions, temples and bridges form a harmonious entirety against the background they create.

IMG_0276

I was lucky to be there around the time when there weren’t too many tourists around, so I spent the whole day in the area, walking around, taking in the beauty of the place and meditating in the gardens.

IMG_0270

The Qilin Statue was an interesting detail that caught my eye. It was cast during the reign of Emperor Qianlong. Qilin was an auspicious animal that appeared in Chinese legends. It had the power to punish evil and repel the wicked. The animal took an interesting form, one that combined the head of a dragon, the tail of a lion, the hooves of an ox, and the horns of a deer with scales all over its body.

Meeting pandas at the Beijing Zoo

The giant pandas at the Beijing Zoo were the very reason why I wanted to visit the place as it is rated among the top five places to see pandas in China. Usually I find zoos quite disturbing as the animals are often confined in small spaces and express their stress by applying redundant, meaningless behaviors, but these pandas seemed to be doing well.

IMG_0247

The Panda Hall covers the area of 2.5 acres, and seems to manage to account for the housing of such large animals as well as offer aesthetic surroundings for them. The inside of the hall replicates the style of traditional Chinese gardens and is shaped in the pattern of a Tai Chi diagram. I loved to see these cute, furry fellows and learn more about their natural habitat and the dangers threatening to eradicate it, so even though I may not be able to call it a Zen-like experience, it was fun anyway!

Feeling the history in the Ming Tombs

The thirteen tombs of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) are located about 30 miles northwest from Beijing. The area is scenic as it lies at the foot of Tianshou Mountain. In the scenic area, each mausoleum has its own independent unit. Only a few of them are open to the public.

IMG_0080

The Sacred Way is the approach to the Changling Tomb. It is built from north to south and considered to be the road leading to heaven. The Emperors, known as the Son of the Heaven, were thought to leave their empire through this road. The road is lined with stone statues. Human figures and animals have symbolic meanings.

IMG_0071

In the other end of the Sacred Way there is the Great Red Gate. This road is an excellent place for taking a moment to relax, think and meditate if there aren’t large groups of tourists passing by.IMG_0092

Changling Tomb is the tomb of the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty. It is the largest and the most completely preserved of these tombs. It is a beautiful building with lots to see, and with the mindful attitude, it is easy to sense the past centuries that tell their stories in this attraction.

IMG_0094

Climbing the Great Wall

Another UNESCO World Heritage site in Beijing, the Great Wall, is the place to listen to the stories from the past. A lot of them are violent and full of anger, but some of them are also stories of perseverance, bravery, and love. The Great Wall stretches approximately 13,170 miles from east to west of China. Some sections of it are in ruins or have disappeared, but the parts of it that I saw are among some of the most beautiful and impressive places that I have ever visited.

IMG_0041

Walking along the Wall can be a good exercise as it is quite steep at some places. The poor condition of some steps may make it seem even dangerous, but especially if you follow (eavesdrop…) a group with a guide, the information they tell is so fascinating that the challenges are worth it.

IMG_0054

The views are breathtaking, and the winding wall offers plenty of spots for stopping, sitting down and taking in the magnitude of the structure. After seeing this amazing wall and practicing mindfulness on top of it, your way of looking at your life may be a little different. The serene feeling can last a long time, and even carry over to your everyday life.

IMG_0070

Istanbul – a controversial gem

Are you looking for a city that will definitely take your thoughts away from your normal life? Are you ready to experience something that will leave you content but confused in a way? Are you willing to jump in a roller coaster that will give you serenity and peace of mind, then grab it out of your reach, and then return it, spinning you around over and over again? If the answer is yes, you are ready for Istanbul, Turkey.

IMG_0444

The amount of people all around you is astonishing. Locals, tourists, people from all over the world. The hustle and bustle of the old bazaar deafens your ears, but not annoyingly. Even if you didn’t need any, the symphony of fragrances coming from spices that merchants offer makes you want to buy a little bit of everything. The visually dazzling architecture of the mosques and old churches makes you speechless. The warm weather caresses your senses while you gaze over the glistening blue strait below you, sun almost blinding your eyes. The almost-overbearing overload of stimuli welcomes you to Istanbul.

Istanbul is an amazing city that has a lot to offer but I still don’t know how to feel about it. There are parts that I absolutely love and parts that I can definitely do without – however, no point in focusing on the latter in this post, right? The city may not necessarily be the coolest place to visit due to the current political unrest, but when the opportunity presented itself, I had to take it and go see the city that stretches itself on two continents. The fact that a part of it is in Asia and a part in Europe was very fascinating to me as I had always wanted to visit a city that offers such an experience. Here is my take on the things that I love in the city.

The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii)

This place is hard to miss. The cascading domes and six slender minarets of the Blue Mosque dominate the skyline of Istanbul. The Blue Mosque is an absolute must for a tourist, but to get in, avoid the prayer times (unless you are a Muslim and go there to pray, of course). The architecture of this place is fantastic, and the way the small blue mosaic tiles have been used to decorate the mosque is so very skilled that it is almost a surreal experience to be there.

It is a quiet place, lots of light, beautiful arches high above you. If you have time to stop and take in the beauty of this place, you will notice the serenity that surrounds you. The calm atmosphere of the mosque creates a great contrast to the fuss of everyday life on the streets that will reach you immediately once you exit the mosque.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia, The Church of the Holy Wisdom, is located near the Blue Mosque. The former Byzantine church and an Ottoman mosque is now a museum.

IMG_0422

It is a very interesting place, not peaceful in the same way as the Blue Mosque, but very impressive regarding the age and the history of the building. The size of it is astonishing, so getting a good grasp of it requires some time.

IMG_0411

However, currently some parts of it are under renovation, so it is not as breathtaking as it could be.

Topkapi Palace

The palace is practically in front of Hagia Sophia and near the Blue Mosque. The place gives a great insight into how Sultans of the Ottoman Empire viewed the world. The beautiful collection of the jewelry is a must see if you visit the palace.

IMG_8310

When I was there, the place was quite crowded, and as my search for peace of mind doesn’t mix that well with loud crowds, the thing I enjoyed the most about the Topkapi Palace was its garden. I sat there for quite a long time reading about the history of the place and enjoying the sunshine and warmth.

Anadolu Kavagi

As you can guess, now we are getting to the parts (in addition to the Blue Mosque) that I loved the most in Istanbul. The boat trip along the Bosphorus is in itself an experience. The beautiful mansions are surrounded by lush gardens, and just like anywhere else in Istanbul, history of East and West surrounds you.

I was lucky enough to take the boat ride on a sunny, warm day, so the trip was a very relaxing one. It was possible to buy some Turkish yogurt onboard, so I enjoyed a nice snack along the way as I listened a tour guide (of some other group) talk about the buildings that we passed.

IMG_0485

Anadoly Kavagi itself is a quiet, small village. The souvenir shops there are worth a visit if you want to bring something traditional to your loved ones (I did and everybody loved them!). If you plan to take a hike up to the Yoros Castle, like I did, make sure you are wearing shoes that are suitable for a hike and take a water bottle with you as the climb up is quite steep. No matter how long it takes for you to get on top of the hill, the views from there make up for the time and effort.

IMG_8377

The Bosphorus Strait is absolutely stunning. The castle itself isn’t much to see, but the views, oh yeah. You won’t regret the climb. I could have stayed up there for hours, just admiring the blue water below me, but I had reserved a table from a nearby restaurant, so my appetite had an appointment with local fish dishes. The meal itself would have been alright at its best but the views from the corner table in their terrace made it excellent. Loved the view. Found my Zen.

Restaurant Juno in Nisantasi

This little place is the place to go to if you want a delicious meal in a friendly place that is affordable and cozy. I can’t compliment it enough, even the music they played there matched the place so well that even if I wouldn’t listen to it elsewhere, I definitely loved it there. I didn’t go there for dinner just once but twice during my three night stay, because I loved it so much. Their appetizer platter is something to try. It has plenty of small appetizers and the white wine the waiter suggest matched it perfectly. The music was fun to listen to, and the way to waiters took time to talk about the area and their restaurant was adorable. They seemed to be genuinely interested in their customers, so whether it was true or not, it left a nice impression. My appetite found its Zen.

Find your Zen in Oregon – Part 2 Waterfalls: The Silver Falls State Park

Do you have something planned for the evening but wonder what you could do to also make the most out of the day? Do you feel like getting some fresh air? Does a stroll in the nature fill up your energy reserves? Even though Eugene is filled with beautiful parks (at least two of them will be featured later in the blog), during this time of the year they aren’t quite enough to give plenty to do for several hours. Taking a drive to the Silver Falls State Park will, however, hit the spot when you are looking for an experience that will offer both stunning views and an opportunity to recharge for example from a tough work week.

The Silver Falls State Park, a scenic treasure, is located in Sublimity, about an hour and a half drive north from Eugene or an hour and twenty minutes south from Portland. There are ten larger waterfalls in the park, but three of them are easy to access, offer a great walk, and are extremely beautiful. One of the things I love the most about this park is that apart from the busiest summer months, it is rarely overly populated. There have been times when I have hiked there for hours and only seen a handful of people.

IMG_2143

The North Falls is easily accessible, only 0.3 mile hike from the car park. The falls is interesting as the alcove that has formed under the overhanging lip of the falls is particularly deep. That means that you can walk behind the waterfall without getting wet. At the same time, it makes the falls a little less impressive from that perspective.

IMG_2142

The North Falls is the third tallest waterfall in the state park (136 feet). It also is the least crowded of the three that are featured here, so if you are looking for solitude, this one may be the right choice. The walk to the falls through the forest is pretty. However, if you just want to get a glimpse of the falls on your way to the other waterfalls, there is a more distant roadside lookout point that allows you to see the falls in the middle of the dense forest that surrounds it.

IMG_2074

The South Falls, many may think, is the most stunning of these three waterfalls in the park. It really is worth a visit, as it takes only a couple of minutes to walk from the parking lot to the falls. The classical shape of the waterfall, the ledge that it rushes over, the plunge pool below the 177ft drop, and the wooden footbridge a little ways downstream make this a very traditional waterfall.

IMG_2077

The trail that leads behind the waterfall descends quite a bit so be prepared for a little workout! The mist lifted up in the air by the waterfall may give your hairdo a little treatment, but it’s a small price to pay for the experience. The serene feeling triggered by the waterfall is magnificent! In my opinion, this is the waterfall to go to if you are looking for a spectacular view with the least physical effort. If you find a good spot to sit and admire it, it is easy to get lost in your thoughts for quite a long time just because it is so mesmerizing.

IMG_2081

If you want to see the Lower South Falls, i.e. the third fall, it’s a little longer stroll away. If you walk to it from the plunge pool of the South Falls, don’t cross the footbridge but just continue 0.8 miles down the trail. This trail is quite leveled and doesn’t have but one steeper climb, so if you aren’t after a workout, it is the easiest if you just use the same route back. However, if you intend to do a full loop but aren’t planning to work up a sweat, start the loop from the top of the South Falls and walk along the ridge. From the parking lot to the Lower South Falls it is about 1.2-mile hike. This direction is way easier as it slowly descends down to the gorge and the climb back up is shorter than in the other direction over the ridge. If you plan to make it a full workout, do the full loop in the opposite direction. The climb up to the ridge will definitely give your calves and thighs some exercise!

IMG_2090

Lower South Falls is my absolute favorite of the waterfalls in the Silver Falls State Park! With its 93 feet drop it is not as high as the South Falls, but it has the similar classical shape in a wider form.

IMG_2092

Just like the other waterfalls, you can walk behind this one as well, however, at this spot the current of the river seems faster. The water rushes down over the ledge creating a veil that separates you from the rest of the world and creates a perfect moment for focusing only on the flow of the water. The veil formed by water drops, too many to count, is so beautiful that it leaves you speechless.

IMG_2097

The gorge that the river runs through is really stunning as well. It is a place where time stops ticking. It is easy to be connected with the nature around you and imagine how it looked like 100 years ago. It is also easy to picture it staying the same for decades if not centuries.

IMG_2101

These waterfalls are all places where finding the peace of mind is almost deceivingly easy. The gigantic trees, the river, the grove on top of the ridge, and the waterfalls – it is hard to picture that there would be more beautiful places in Oregon than these. The views put your mind at ease very quickly if you are willing to let go of your worries. However, that’s how the magic of Oregon works; it offers soothing but at the same time mind-blowing experiences in all corners of it.

Find your taste buds in Oregon – Eugene Part 1

Do your taste buds feel neglected or even shriveled and withered? Are you in need of a culinary experience that is absolutely mind-blowing? Do you like trying out different restaurants to find the perfect combo for a dinner? Here’s my suggestion for a dinner date that is fun, doesn’t restrict you to one place for all evening, and definitely triggers lots of conversation! Welcome to find your taste buds in Eugene, Oregon!

This dinner tour is not about fancy places that will max your credit card and leave you longing for more food. This is about small restaurants that make you smile even if your day has been long and tough and you have only had a minute to freshen up. They invite you to come as you are, because the focus is on food. Delicious food. Tasty food. Food that looks good, smells intoxicating, and tastes divine.

A perfect place to start the evening is Toshi’s Ramen. They serve, hands down, the best ramen in Eugene! The broth is really tasty without being overly salty or pungent, and there are a lot of options to choose from. The place is known for their authentic Japanese ramen (the owner is Japanese, but that’s not why I decided to choose this place for the first stop in this dinner tour. The real deal, this time, are their gyozas, or pot-stickers as some may call them.

Toshi's Ramen(Photo provided by Toshi’s Ramen at http://www.facebook.com)

The gyozas are to die for. They are prepared exactly right, and the combination of flavors is perfect. The waiters and waitresses are really friendly and teach you how to make the right kind of a dipping sauce to match the desires of your palate. I have seen a lot of people get just one order of them, but after sharing the plate of 6 gyozas they have ordered another one. The place is so popular that it can get crowded sometimes, so having to wait for your order for 20 minutes is not rare. A laid-back attitude and a flexible timetable is a must.

After the mind-blowing appetizers the tour continues to the neighboring city, Springfield. Just across the city line, there is a small strip mall that is a home for this hidden gem. Bai Khao is one of the most authentic Thai restaurants in Oregon. It is a small family business that serves such delicious meals that you just keep going back, again and again.

My absolute favorite on the menu is Spicy Basil. It is made so well that it gives your taste buds a foodgasm. When you add their amazingly delicious Thai Iced Tea to the combination, the balance between spicy and sweet is perfect. The smell of the sauce mixed with rice caresses your nostrils when you lift a forkful to your mouth. The Thai Iced Tea also softens the kick that the food has, so it serves multiple purposes. Another great option is Pad Thai which is really tasty even though not as much a masterpiece as the Spicy Basil. The atmosphere at the restaurant is homey and the owners make you feel welcomed. The place is busy not overly crowded, so it offers a great spot for a deep conversation.

Thai food

(Photo provided by http://www.thaifoodoregon.com)

When the appetizers and main courses have hit the spot, it’s time to have some dessert in a different location. What brings you to the perfect taste bud Zen moment is Yogurt Extreme that serves all possible flavors of frozen yogurt. Their frozen yogurt is the best of all the ones I have tried all over the world. Famous Italian gelato is left far behind when these smooth, velvety delights are discussed. There are two locations in Eugene, and even though both of them offer a changing selection of flavors, the Willamette location is a more certain spot to have some of their famous vanilla custard. It is fantastic, the flavor just dances on your tongue embracing your taste buds with its cool touch. The Willamette location is also more convenient with ample free parking lot, whereas in the Campus location you may have to drive around the block several times before getting a parking spot.

Yogurt Extreme(Photo provided by http://www.yogurtextreme.com)

When on a date, I would recommend taking the frozen yogurt to go and driving to the Southside hills for star gazing. Whether you are sitting in a warm car on a cold winter night or in a cool car on a hot summer night with the cool treat in your hand, the happiness in the eyes of your date created by the perfect dinner and the perfect partner makes the sparkling of the stars fade.

Find your Zen in Oregon – Part 1, Waterfalls of Columbia River Gorge

IMG_3465

First you hear the sound. The distant humming turns into a magnificent rumble the closer you get. Then you feel the moisture in the air. The contrast between the loud roar and the soothing, almost rainforest-like feeling the humidity is confusing your senses as you finally walk around the corner and see it. Words escape you. The beauty of Multnomah Falls, the tallest waterfall in Oregon and the second-tallest year round waterfall in the US, is breath-taking.

IMG_3446

So, Multnomah Falls consists of two steps that have the total height of 620 feet. The foot trail from the visitor center leads to the Benson Footbridge that allows visitors to cross the lower cascade 105 feet above it. If you can choose a time when most of the tourists aren’t around, it’s an insanely attractive place to visit. Don’t get me wrong, the whole area is really beautiful all year round, but during summer the viewing area as well as hiking paths near the falls can get quite crowded.

IMG_3456

Waterfalls are, naturally, at their most beautiful during and straight after the rainy season, so winter and spring are excellent times of the year to visit the waterfalls of Oregon. If you get there on a rainy day, the drizzle may create a context for a magic, Zen moment at its best: Stand on the footbridge by yourself, no one else in sight, hear and feel the rain, take a few deep breaths and open your mind to the nature that is surrounding you.

IMG_3426

In the scenic Columbia River Gorge, there are plenty of waterfalls. For instance, the drive from the Vista House to Multnomah Falls offers the possibility to view and hike at least 4 other waterfalls. Of those, my favorite is Wahkeena Falls. It is a little less majestic, and thus, also a little less popular, and therefore offers a better opportunity for relaxation and emptying your mind of the clutter. The hiking route is pleasant and at no point are you too far away from the presence of the waterfall, so it is easy to stay in the moment and let the hum of the water soothe the racing thoughts.

If there was one suggestion I could give to people seeking for peace of mind and mindfulness in nature, it would be “No matter how little time you have, focus on one thing, whether it is a view, a sound, a smell, or the feeling on your skin, and take it in. Absorb it, let it take over, and feel the energy that surrounds you then.” In Oregon, when you go hiking, the abundance of the sensory stimuli is almost overwhelming, but at the same time, the amount of energy that recharges your batteries is also plentiful. The waterfalls in the Gorge are just one example of the natural wonders that Oregon has to offer. If you love being outdoors and are searching for your Zen, Oregon is the state for you.

 

Travel plans

20151129_145156

Even though my journeys across two continents continue, I cannot but dream about other trips as well. So, I decided to make a realistic 5-year travel plan. For this year, the calendar is already booked full as these two trips take the rest of the year, but from 2017 on, the plan is to focus on a couple of longer trips each year and then take plenty of shorter visits in between. I didn’t list European cities in the plan at all, because a lot of those trips are decided with the idea of “if I’ll already be in X, it offers a great opportunity to visit Y as well”.

2016

The Europe City Hopping Tour

Road Trip across the US

2017

Vancouver, BC + Banff National Park (3+ weeks)

Archipelago of Greece (3+ weeks)

Caribbean Cruise (12 nights)

2018

Japan (3+ weeks)

South America Cruise (21 nights)

2019

Madeira (2 weeks)

Australia + New Zealand (2 months)

2020

The Epic American RV Road Trip (currently planned to last for 10 months)

20151105_091904

There are plenty of destinations that I want to explore that are not included in this list, so most likely, it will be updated many times during the next months and years.