Monthly Archives: February 2014

Climbing beyond the clouds; On trusting someone else with your pack

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Before we left for our trip to Kalinga in the Cordilleras, I told my husband that I will be completely dependent on him. He answered, “No worries. It feels good to have you dependent on me for at least once in our life.”

True to his word,  my husband did everything. He just asked me to pick out this number of pants and shirts. That’s all I did. He bought our bus tickets. He packed our bags. He pre-cooked the food we brought to the community. He arranged for our guide.

This is something that I’ve never done before. I am used to being self-sufficient. But for this particular trip, I didn’t know what to pack, I didn’t know what to expect. I had to work right up to the last minute before we left to catch the bus. I had no idea how we’re getting there, what exactly is going to happen. This is not me. Or at least, not the me I was before. I would have researched the trip to death, pre-arranged everything that can be arranged from miles away and tried to iron everything out so that the trip would go smoothly from one point to the next.

This time is different. I have someone I can completely trust. I know that my husband will do everything he can to make the trip as comfortable and enjoyable for me as possible. He will go out of his way. He will put me first before anyone and everything else – including himself.

Now, I have a really bad back. I visit my chiropractor at least once a month to keep the pain at bay and try to ensure that it wouldn’t get worse. That being said, I couldn’t have possibly reached the community atop the mountain if I had a pack to carry. Worse, I can just imagine how much my back would be screaming at me if I lugged stuff as we traced the sides of mountains and trekked up steep inclines. Here’s me without a pack, negotiating the narrow path.

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Looking back, I now realize that the trip wasn’t just about me relying on my husband.  It was about us trusting the good in others. The trip wouldn’t have been as wonderful if it weren’t for the nameless people who, one after the other went out of their way to make the trip a little better for us.

It was about talking to random strangers, sitting on the floor and shelling dried beans while passing the time, taking a glimpse into their lives for just a little while. It was about sitting on a log beside a mother, listening to her stories about her children – all scholars, she proudly tells me. I learned how two were teachers but had to look for better paying jobs and are now working at the BJMP in Valenzuela. It was about trusting a young guide who would unobtrusively keep an eye on us, making sure we don’t fall. Knowing just when we’re about to run out of breath and suggest a quick stop.

The pack that I’ve been carrying, the one filled with worries and work-related concerns, got lighter with every story we shared, with every smile I received and returned.  I felt these just leave my pack, one by one, ride the wind, go back to Manila and wait for me there. That wonder is not something that I could have done by myself. Without knowing it, I needed these strangers, random people, who didn’t feel strangers nor random at all, to help lighten my pack.

Bakefest: 48 Cupcakes, 4 Flavors

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Bake away

Bake away

This is by far the most challenging baking project I’ve thrown at myself. I volunteered to handle the dessert for our family (read: extended) get together in celebration of 4 birthdays this month.

So why challenging? It’s just family, no guests. Should be a breeze, right?

Well, the thing is, we are a family in love with food. Boy, do we love to eat. We prepare food like there’s no tomorrow and inhale our meal as if it were our last. To add pressure, we are picky and very opinionated eaters. Lola Ma is the best home cook in the world. She has such a discerning and discriminating palate, even some of the dishes my Titas prepare fail to meet her standards. For my Titas, there’s Tita Leng who makes the meanest ribs and can prepare several otherwise time consuming viands in a matter of a couple of hours. And the portions are never just enough. They’re more than enough to feed an army. Then there’s Tita Vi whose palate is bested only by Lola Ma. She can turn a simple pork steak to a real gastronomic experience. I even have a cousin whose specialties are mashed potatoes and sisig. Another cooks great grilled salmon belly. As for the rest of the family, let’s just say they won’t think twice of voicing out their opinions about food. And we’ve all sampled huge quantities of food to know how pastel de lengua or biringhe or even leche flan should taste like.

That being said, there we were, with the huge challenge of baking dessert for a family of foodies. Of course, it’s “we” and not “I”. I can always count on the husband to volunteer.

His first suggestion was to bake a gigantic sheet cake, layered, with frosting and the works. Huge enough for the four birthday celebrators to blow their candles at the same time. On the upside, only one kind of batter and frosting. On the downside, we have a teeny tiny oven. This meant we had to bake it in batches. Also, one batter meant one epic fail if the batter turned out awry. Plus, we wanted a little more variation.

We settled with cupcakes. Four flavors, one for each celebrator. Twenty one people were eating. At least two cupcakes per person. The quantity wasn’t a problem. We’re baking in batches of 12 anyway. The next question was, what flavors? After much research and recalling of my earlier cupcake projects, we settled with the easier ones. Lemon cupcakes with lemon cream cheese frosting, peanut butter and jelly cupcakes (the recipe considered them muffins, actually) with dark chocolate butter cream frosting, moist chocolate cupcakes with mint butter cream frosting, and red velvet cupcakes with vanilla cream cheese frosting.

Baking the cupcakes themselves went much faster than we expected. We whipped up four batches in about an hour and 10 minutes. Of course, there was two of us and two cupcake pans, meaning two batters prepared almost simultaneously and batches going into the oven one after the other. The frosting took much longer because I only had one set of equipment and let’s face it, beautifying stuff is not really up my alley. Here are the results:

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I used up all my red food coloring and couldn’t find any so we came up with blue velvet cupcakes. Unfortunately, I added too much food coloring. The cupcakes left blue stains on teeth and lips. Fortunately, they tasted really velvety so my family ate them all nonetheless. All the flavors of a red velvet cupcake were there. The texture was nailed. The cream cheese frosting complemented the cupcake perfectly. Taste-wise, these turned out great. I used the same recipe for the red velvet cupcakes I brought to our Christmas party last year and they turned out perfect. This recipe is definitely a keeper. I strongly recommend it if you’re looking for a reliable and simple red velvet cupcake recipe. Let’s just tone down the food coloring next time, ayt?

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The boo boos seemed to have been centered on the peanut butter and jelly cupcakes. First, the peanut butter had weird solid formations and we didn’t trust it in terms of food safety. After searching the fridge, we found some almond butter and went with it. Second, almond butter is a lot less sweet than peanut butter and I wasn’t sure how it would work with raspberry jelly. To add oomph to the cupcake, we put Speculoos surprises in the middle rather than fruit jelly. I figured this would make the cupcakes nuttier while keeping the surprise in the bite. Third, as I said, we were multitasking and were probably tired and sleepy by the time we were baking this last batch. (Yes, we started at 12 midnight. And it was almost 1 am by then.) I only realized belatedly that the egg was added to the dry ingredients without mixing the dry and the wet ingredients first. So we had some crumbly dough first before we added the other wet ingredients. I’m not sure if this was the reason why the cupcakes turned out very soft and crumbly. See the crumbly cupcake in the picture? That’s the one. On hindsight, maybe we should have thrown everything together nonetheless and mixed them up all at the same time. Lastly, the dark chocolate butter cream frosting turned out well but I’m still on the lookout for the best chocolate frosting. All things considered, they were the first ones to go. The cupcakes were nuttier than I expected. The Speculoos was a pleasant surprise. And the almond butter seemed to be providential. It added a complexity to the cupcake as it was a nut butter we aren’t used to having here in the Philippines. Tita Vi even exclaimed, “Masarap!” and that makes this batch a winner.

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The chocolate cupcake recipe is definitely spot on. I think I finally found the perfect chocolate cake base! This batch out turned out very moist but not crumbly. The cupcakes had a very pronounced chocolate flavor thanks to the cup of coffee added to the batter. The cupcakes paired well with the mint flavored frosting. The husband thought of jazzing them up with choco mint and spearmint which was a really great idea. The choco mint leaves dried much faster than the spearmint. They were all shriveled by mid afternoon while the spearmint leaves were still fresh. Note to self, study on ways to keep decorative flowers and leaves fresh longer. This didn’t deter my family though. I had several cousins come up to me telling me this was their favorite.

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Now for the star of the show. Yellow angels. Citrusy sweet. Tangy but smooth. Sunshine in a cup(cake). These cupcakes were serious about being lemon cupcakes. There’s no mistaking the lemon flavor. The sugar perfectly took the sharpness away from the lemon but not overpowered it. The lemon butter cream frosting added another layer of the flavors. The balance resulted in a rounded taste that was lemony, sweet, creamy and just perfect. And the best part, the highlight of my day – Lola said these were masarap! She liked them best! Even better than the chocolate cupcakes! Hearing Lola declare something we baked as masarap took me straight to lemon heaven lounging on cream cheese clouds.

Credits:
Averie Cooks for the red velvet cupcakes and vanilla cream cheese frosting, lemon cupcakes with lemon cream cheese frosting, and the original peanut butter and jelly muffins recipe. Believe me, guys, she can be trusted. All her recipes turned out great for me.
Foodess and Add a Pinch for the chocolate cupcake recipe.
Sally’s Baking Addiction for the dark chocolate frosting and my go-to vanilla frosting.

P.S. All photos taken with a standard Samsung Note camera. Should have my DSLR fixed soon.

Climbing Beyond the Clouds

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(That’s me and our guide. Photo taken by Mars with a Blackberry cellphone camera.)

Mars has always subscribed to the flow of the universe; it is never wrong even when everything looks bad from our perspective. There are bigger things beyond whatever plans that I try to painstakingly lay down but go awry anyway. Sometimes I need to be reminded of this. Sometimes I need to reconnect.

Our trip to Kalinga holds meaning to me at different levels. It marks our celebration for Mars’ birthday. It is one of the trips that we enter as a couple, just the two of us, and we leave stronger – as a couple. It has always been our goal to travel across the Philippines together. To discover things together and in the process discover who we are as a couple, who we are individually. It was a break from the daily grind where a million things vie for our attention all at once. It allowed us to focus on ourselves and on each other.

It was the time for me to leave everything behind and soak in the universe. Sure, I often travel for work but these journeys are always too short, too hurried (and harried) and too packed for me to connect with the pocket of the universe I am visiting. This trip to Kalinga was different. It was for us. It was for me.

It was a loose end finally tied. I’ve long decided to have a tattoo. I’ve long decided that I will only get a tattoo from Apo Fang Od. But for the longest time, I couldn’t decide on a design that I will not outgrow nor regret having. Now, I know. I found what would endure forever. I have decided more than a year ago. This is just the physical manifestation. Things all came together perfectly during this trip – with a satisfying tak tak tak tak. Here now is the fulfilment of that decision.

I will try to write about our trip to Kalinga in several parts, as I digest everything that this trip meant and means to me now. I will take it slowly to let the experience brew to the dark, strong, exquisite cup of Kalinga coffee that Apo Fang Od’s daughter in law welcomed us with. But I will also treat this as urgently as I can. Just like my tattoo, I want to capture the trip while it is still fresh, inflamed in my mind, before it melds and fades into the skin of my everyday life.