Lessons in Baking

Hi all! My hope is that a happy Friday is in the works all around. Summer is in full swing, and I hope to hear about ALL of you exploring the infinite corners of life. In fact, I think it’s time I start following more blogs, so that I can hear more about such adventures. Honestly, I am so amazed, inspired and impressed by so many of the bloggers out there. Please, teach me your ways!

Today’s (again, belated) entry is going to discuss something that few of us budding food connoisseurs wanna touch: making mistakes. Oof. I know. But yesterday, a mistake was made, and lessons were learned. I think that part of becoming a better chef – nay, human being – is coming to terms with mistakes and admitting when you’re wrong. I used to be extremely uncomfortable with that, but I’m getting better and finding that it’s even a bit…fun? Is that the right word? Or at least funny. Really, though, you gotta see this.

Well first, here’s some background: I pursue a healthy diet to the best of my ability, especially being mindful of sugar. I never liked sugar much growing up, though I didn’t much care for anything that wasn’t plain pasta or tofu (yes, tofu – as if I weren’t weird enough, I know). Things diversified when I started to playe water polo in high school and made cheeseburgers a regular staple, eating at least 3-5 a week. As I got older, I started to realize that I was headed for the arteries of the Super Size Me guy and needed to slow my roll. The minute I started being healthy was the minute I started to explore and enjoy all types of food and started to learn to cook. The price it came with was loving “all types of food”. Needless to say, sweets are now included in that 🙂

Anyway, I tried to bridge the best of both worlds yesterday by making a decadent muffin that was low-carb and sugar-free. I ended up having the compromise the low-carb part, not having almond flour. No matter, I can still make it sugar free, right?

WRONG.

What resulted was a doughy, tasteless mass that looked like a kid’s Play-Doh sculpture and tasted like one even moreso.
photo 3

If you’re curious, here’s what I did:

Haley’s Radioactive Pumpkin Nuggets (not for human consumption)

Preparation Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 40 minutes

Serves: 12 unfortunate souls

Difficulty: A blindfolded marmoset could conduct a better meal

3 cups of all-purpose flour
1/2 cup of oatmeal
1 15 oz can of pumpkin puree (hey, at least I used BPA-free)
1 tablespoon flax meal
2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
2/3 can of Light Coconut Milk
1/2 banana
1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
More Truvia that you can imagine (at least 10 tablespoons)
Honey to drizzle on top (only to find out that it makes it taste no better)

1. Defeated after finding out I had no almond flour, I reluctantly mixed the regular flour, oatmeal, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

2. I decided to go for it and put the equivalent of 1 1/2 cups of brown sugar of Truvia into the dry mix. Yeah, I don’t care if my food tastes good, as long as it’s healthy, right? Fatal mistake number one.

3. In a separate bowl, I mixed the flax meal with 2 tablespoons of water water to make an “egg” – yes, I was planning on making the recipe vegan for you veg-folks out there, since I love you all so despite being the opposite.

4. In this fake-egg mix, I dumped the 1/2 mashed banana, coconut milk, and pumpkin puree and mixed them. I was also going to through in 1/3 cup of melted coconut oil. I forgot. Fatal mistake number two.

5. I combined the wet and dry ingredients in my stand mixer and overmixed the life out of them for about 3 minutes. Fatal mistake number three.

6. I put them in the oven for 20 minutes at 350. Gross. I smothered them with honey and did another 20 minutes at 350. Still gross. 350 was fatal mistake number 4.

Oh, you know, just cooking uranium.
Oh, you know, just cooking uranium.

7. I try one. Within seconds, all 12 are in the trash. Facepalm.

This brings me, at last, to my thoughts for you, that is if you’re interested in cooking. What have we learned today?

1. Do some serious, serious practice and/or research when you are trying to replace sugar in recipes. In some savory recipes, like curry, it’s completely fine, as sugar is totally unnecessary and even contradictory to the traditional way a dish is prepared. In some dishes, however, it’s best to either keep the sugar or simply reduce it. Sometimes, with sweets at least, you just have to go all-out and not try and make it some healthy thing. An indulgence should be an indulgence.

2. Be very careful when baking without fat, as this gets rid of a whole lot of flavor in the dish. Muffins, in particular, will be more “bread-y”, which you may or may not want.

3. Pay VERY close attention to how long you’re mixing! It is usually only necessary to mix cookie or muffin mix for like 10-15 strokes (a few seconds) rather than meticulously circling through it for two minutes like I did. Thank you, Betty Crocker, for correcting me on this. Too much mixing will create an extremely dense muffin that is tough, almost rubbery , on the outside.

4. This may depend on the ingredient list, but maybe try baking muffins for 20-25 at 375 or 400, rather than 350. 40 minutes at 350 does not a good muffin make – I could be wrong, though.

In spite of the demise that my experiment met, I am nonetheless glad I experimented. I know I have a long way to go and MANY years before I become a good chef, but this is all part of the process. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get a hankering for pumpkin muffins again come fall-time and give this recipe a rematch. Heavily, heavily modified, of course.

With that, I’ll leave you with a thought of the day that actually goes with the topic:

Never let fear of failure be the reason you don’t do something.

-H

Life After Travel and ROTW: Rainbow Curry

As I stepped into the crisp and bustling night air of Los Angeles nearly two weeks ago, I couldn’t help but look around and drink in my surroundings. I saw the familiar panorama of buildings, all built no earlier than the 20th century. I saw signs in one language, one that is as familiar as my own reflection. I was face-to-face with my stepdad (who kindly picked us up from the airport), whom I hadn’t seen in 12 days. It felt like it had been months. Indeed, it was a moment that I took to register the fact that I am no longer in Italy. I can’t even believe it.

There is something about an amazing trip that is eternal, and I’m not just talking about the pictures. It is the heightened sense that you get for the world and the beauty that other places have – whether through the nature, people, food, or traditions. This stays with you forever. Often times, you end up appreciating your own home more, or in ways you didn’t before. This is a little more fleeting, but still important. Unfortunately, these trips are not without their rites of passage, and every great trip seems to end with a few days of bittersweet reminiscence. I won’t use the term “depression”, because you can’t go on a bike tour through a gorgeous country while surrounded by indulgence on every side and be “depressed”, but it’s easy to confuse the two feelings. Combine leaving Italy with a stressful going-home experience (on top of normal jet lag), and you’re looking at a solid day or 2 of this feeling…maybe a couple weeks.

I guess the point of this entry is to show that if you are currently feeling melancholy after an amazing vacation, you’re not alone. But I’m here to tell you that this too shall pass, and as long as you keep yourself occupied now that you’re back, you will feel better in no time! One of the biggest tips I have in addition to keeping busy is sharing stories of your trip with others. I know it seems counterintuitive, but sharing with others will make increase the longevity of the trip, make others happy, and give you good feelings. Finally, even if it’s super far away, start planning your next trip or special outing! No matter what, there is always more to do, always new places to explore.

To be honest, I am JUST now getting out of this feeling and starting to really appreciate the home I have. Yes, I know you’re probably thinking that I’m crazy for not initially being stoked on coming back to Laguna Beach, but rest assured that do I appreciate it – I simply enjoyed my trip a little too much 🙂

Though I am focused on being back in the comfort of home, I decided to be adventurous with a new recipe today. Unlike last week’s, it is largely of my own design. Granted, I looked around tirelessly for a curry recipe that encompassed all the ingredients I had on hand, and this recipe borrows from them all in some way. It turned out to be a yummy, but very mild curry. Spice aficionados, my apologies for getting your hopes up! Here it is:

Haley’s Rainbow Curry

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 25 minutes

Total Time: 35 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Diet Compliance: Low-carb (without potatoes), paleo, vegetarian (if you can tolerate animal products), gluten-free

Difficulty: Easy

Ingredients

Why "Rainbow", you ask? Just look at this spread!
Why “Rainbow”, you ask? Just look at this spread!
  • 2 13.5-ounce cans of coconut milk (tip: try and get the kind without guar gum, such as that from Natural Value)
  • 1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 medium carrot, slided into 1/4-inch thick rounds
  • 1/2 cup broccoli
  • 1 small potato of choice (I chose Okinawan purple potato found at the Asian market)
  • 1 small red bell pepper, sliced
  • 1/2 small onion, chopped
  • 5 sprigs of Thai or regular basil (I used regular; Thai is better)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce (Red Boat is the healthiest and best)
  • 1/4 cup yellow curry powder or paste
  • 3 kaffir lime leaves or zest of one lime (I used the zest)
  • cinnamon to taste

Instructions

1. As a first step, make sure you have all of your vegetables prepared and sitting on the table.

[no picture available; I was too dumb to do this]

2. In a large saucepan, mix the coconut milk and curry paste or powder to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. After it starts boiling, stir until smooth – about 2 minutes.

Smooth operator!
Smooth operator!

3. While still boiling, add the chicken broth, carrot, broccoli, red bell pepper, onion, potato, basil, lime, and fish sauce. Stir. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium-low heat.

4. Cover the pan and cook until the vegetables are tender – 20 to 25 minutes.

Jacuzzi time for the broccoli family!
Jacuzzi time for the broccoli family!

5. After cooking, ladle the curry into bowls over rice, noodles, chicken, or just plan. Garnish with cinnamon.

I solemnly swear to get out of the habit of "eating-then-snapping".
I solemnly swear to get out of the habit of “eating-then-snapping”.

…And there you have it! This is a fairly easy recipe and stores well in the fridge for a couple of days. Again, it is extremely mild tasting, so the (rare) coconut-loving child can have a feast!

Also, if I can maintain the patience to do this, I will start making these nutrition labels (I called them “calorie-thingies” earlier) for each of my recipes. Last recipe didn’t count, because taralli should be saved for I-really-don’t-give-a-dang moments only. This label, I know, is not super comprehensive…let me get there ;-). Note especially that the amount of saturated fat is not listed – trust me, there’s a fair amount in this recipe, being made of coconut and all, so bear that in mind if you are watching your sat-fat for whatever reason (talk to the paleo folks about that!!).

NutritionLabel

Thought of the Day: Get into a routine of regular exercise early in your life. Later on, you’ll be glad you did.

-H

Recipe of the Week: Taralli

Buona serra! Guys, can you tell that I’m trying to extend my recent Italian vacation as long as I possibly can? 😉 In my defense, this truly is a simple, yummy, and extremely versatile recipe, and I’m hoping that you like it.

Before I go any further, I’ll need to address some FAQs/PAQs (potentially askable questions) that I hope are helpful. I was going to make a separate entry, but I’m not exactly rollin’ in the fanmail. Here we go:

Q: How do I make a comment on your blog?

A: Click on the little grey icon in the top right corner of each post that looks like a round speech balloon. It will then take you to the page where you can comment and read others’ comments.

Q: Now that Italy’s over, what’s next for IC?

A: DON’T REMIND ME! :-‘( But to answer your question, IC will still live long and prosper. As traveling is a true passion of mine, I will continue to document the places I travel in the same detail I did Italy. If I’m only there for a short period of time, I will probably do “X in 24 Hours”-type posts, which are always fun! I’m also passionate about food, so in addition, I will try and post at least one recipe and/or restaurant review per week. Who knows, maybe I’ll have an occasional philosophical post here and there. All-in-all, I will never post less than once a week and I will make every effort to make each entry applicable to the populace (rather than just a long-winded, pointless rant).

Q: Can I use your pictures/other material for my own purposes?

A: Sure, why not. It’d be kind weird to take it and pass it off as your own, but otherwise I’m not some artist or remotely well-known person, so go nuts.

OKAY! Now that we’ve gotten that stuff out of the way, let’s take a journey through the wonderful world of taralli.

Readers of IC have become familiar with taralli through reading about my obsession with it. Like most pugliese cusine, the ingredients are simple, but the flavor is strong. These tiny, crunchy, bagel-like biscuits are commonly served with an aperitivo or with bread before dinner. While they are often tinged only with the light flavor of olive oil, they are often made with finocchio (fennel), peperoncino, or even primitivo wine!

Traditional Pugliese Taralli

(Adapted from Italian Connection)

Prep Time: 1 hours, 10 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 1 hours, 40 minutes

Yield: About 25 taralli

Ingredients

  • 1 cup all purpose flour for crunchy taralli; cut with “00” flour as needed for softer taralli (I used 1/4 cup “00”)
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 1/2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1 tbsp water (if dough is too dry)
  • 1-2 tsp fennel seeds or cracked black pepper
Look at that fancy salt!
Look at that fancy salt!

Instructions

  1. In a large bowl, mix the flour and salt.
  2. Add the oil and wine, and mix with a fork until the dough forms into a rough mass.
Does this count as "rough"?
Does this count as “rough”?

3. Dump the dough onto a wooden board and knead it for about 5 minutes, until it is smooth.

TA-DA!
TA-DA!

4. Knead the spices into the dough (or divide the dough and add spice to ½ of the dough) – knead well to distribute the spice.

5. Cover the dough and let it rest, along with your arms, for 15-30 minutes.
6. Pinch walnut-sized pieces of dough, roll first between your hands, and then against the wooden cutting board, so that the dough forms a thin rope, about ½ inch (1 cm) in diameter and 4” long (10 cm).

image-3 image-4

7. Shape each rope into a ring, and seal the edges together by pressing lightly, then set aside the taralli rings on a wooden board and cover with a towel.

image-5

8. In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to boil.

We moved the party over here!
We moved the party over here!

9. Put 6-10 of the taralli into the boiling water, and when they float to the surface – this will only take 30-60 seconds – remove them with a slotted spoon and place them on a cloth to dry and cool.

The texture they have after boiling
The texture they have after boiling

Tip: Try not to plop one tarallo on top of another when dropping them into the pot, and if they stick to the bottom, give them a gentle nudge with the slotted spoon.
10. Put the cooled taralli on baking sheets and bake in a preheated oven at 375°F (200°C) for about 25 minutes, until golden.

Ahhhh che bello!

11. Remove and cool on racks on racks on racks.

So how did they turn out? Pretty decent, I’d say. They’re a little “airier” than the taralli we bought in Italy, but they are quite flavorful (particularly of fennel) and just as addicting. If I were to redo the recipe again, I’d probably add some other flavors – maybe even go bold with chocolate!

Thought of the day: Before you complain about having to help someone, think about how much better you’ll feel after you do it.

The Fabulous Misadventures of J&H

I don’t want to write this entry with the intent of complaining. I mean, come on. One does not simply travel through Southern Italy, surrounded by amazing people, other-wordly food, and incredible scenery and go, “Yeah man, that SUCKED.” Despite my scribblings the past two weeks, there are not even words to describe how amazing our trip was. That, my friends, is why I feel comfortable writing about yesterday’s going-home experience. It’s almost comical. Like, they should make a movie about it, it was that bad.

I will briefly recount the day we had yesterday, mostly courtesy of Alitalia Airlines.

The day started at 3:00 am at the Masseria San Domenico. With dreams of melanzana ripiene and spumone still in my head from the night’s dinner, we woke up and said our final goodbyes to the gorgeous resort that had housed or last Italian hurrahs. Goodbye, thalassotherapy pool! Goodbye, 200-year-old olive trees! Goodbye, out-of-place room in the hotel bar that looks like a British hunting lounge!

A car picked us up at 4:00 to head to the Bari airport. Tired as we were, and as Mercedez-Benzy as the “taxi” was, sleep didn’t happen, so we both settled for intermittent, meditative rest to prep for the day ahead. But oh, did we miscalculate the prep we truly needed.

What do you know: we arrive in Bari, still without our coffee, and our 6:30 am flight to Rome is canceled. No problem, the lady at the front counter said: a 7:30 flight is available. Enjoy your middle seats at the very last row of the plane! Cool, we said. But remember, 7:30 am in Italy means 8:00. Try 8:20. No big deal, we didn’t have a Rome to Frankfurt flight at 10:15 that we needed to be on or anything…

We arrived in Rome at around 9:20. The back of the plane was a great place to be at that time, because it forced us to get some HIIT-training done the minute we got off the plane. To the counter in Rome we went, to see if we could make our flight to Frankfurt despite cutting it close…

No chance. We left the Alitalia counter and went to Lufthansa. Here comes one of those pinnacle moments in comedy, the kind that become “famous scenes”. When we explained what had happened to the counter clerk, he informed us that because we missed our Rome-Frankfurt flight, we were also going to miss our Frankfurt-LAX flight. If we wanted to fly business class our of Frankfurt the next day, however, that was no big deal at all. We just needed $6,000 – per person. For a seat that folds into a bed. And maybe the privilege of asking for extra rolls with dinner.

We were relegated to booking a flight to Munich and flying from Munich to LAX on economy. For now, we thought, the battle has been lost, but not the war. We would go on to try and get business class multiple times from other sources.

Guys, I am in no way trying to offend anyone or come off as snooty when I talk about economy class. I fly economy class EVERYWHERE, including when I went to Europe in 2011 for study abroad. But flying economy after having flown business, living in unbelievable excess for a week, getting almost no sleep, and expecting to fly business going home is kind of a recipe for first-world-problem disaster. I admit that it’s ridiculous. I admit that it’s absurd. But there’s a reason I call the 11.5 hours we spent on the way home yesterday a “Spartan journey”…

Anyway, the fun didn’t end when we found the line to security. We were in it for about an hour. I kid you not, from the looks of the line, it rivaled that of the Vatican. It was absolutely soul-crushing. Had I not been so frustrated, I would have taken a picture. We got through it, found our gate, and once again had a delayed departure to Munich.

On the bright side, the Munich airport is SWEET! One could have a lot of activities there with enough time. We proceeded to talk to about 3 people from different Lufthansa desks, telling them our situation and attempting to get our business class seats back for the ride home. We came to find out that because there was an emergency landing in Rome and crazy weather throughout Germany, our flight was THOROUGHLY booked with waiting lists out the wazoo. One Lufthansa clerk, who was actually the most helpful, even told us that flying in economy was going to be “terrible”. I admired her honesty.

Our final attempt to get back into business occurred at the gate desk. We were on the waiting list and remained there. And that was that. To economy class we went, and stayed.

So…was it that bad? Actually, no. We both had books (mine: “Unnatural Creatures”, a series of stories compiled by Neil Gaiman) and access to the same TV as business class. The biggest difference is the sleeping/space situation. I will admit that compared to business class, this is absolutely miserable. We also didn’t get little “care packages” with toothbrushes and eye covers and stuff, so I smelled and looked like a homeless cat when I got off the plane.

When we finally arrived in LA, we were the last bags of the carriage and moved ever-so-slowly through customs. It was probably about the 9th line we’d been in that day, so when it was finally done, I felt this Shawshank-esque sensation of not knowing what life was like outside lines. I told my mom that I probably have some killer sick delts from carrying around my 30-pound backpack all day, though.

So, what about this story is of interest and use to you? I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps you are amused, or perhaps you will take away the following lessons…

  • Travel, no matter how enjoyable, serene, or incredible, is inevitably composed of uncertainty, whether elongated or brief. Accept the fact that no amount of planning will get rid of the laws of randomness and uncertainty.
  • DO NOT RELY ON ALITALIA. Italy is an all-around amazing country and I will be back again and again and again. However, I’d sooner give up taralli than patronize their national airline again. Okay, maybe I’m being a little grumpy. But seriously, they’re sketch. If you can, book any Alitalia flight you take at least 2 hours before you actually have to.
  • In general, don’t be afraid of leaving long layovers for yourself. This was critical for us. We effectively had little time in between our flights, which meant that things like eating, resting, and using the bathroom came secondary to us getting places on time. I’m not saying you need to waste days in the airport, but be comfortable spending 2-3 hours in between flights just in case you have a delay along the way.
  • Finally, have moments to just sit and laugh about any misfortune you do face. One of the things that got my mom and I through the stress of our adventure was the time we took to make fun of ourselves and the situation. After all, we were lucky to get on a flight to the U.S. in general, and were even luckier to get home safe. Sure, our necks hurt and our stomachs are still turning from the “chicken” we had for dinner (and breakfast), but we’re here. We’re home. We’re happy.

That being said, do I have a thought of the day for this entry? I don’t know. I guess I’ll give one that encompasses everything I wrote above:

Expect the unexpected.

Trite, but true.

-H

ITALIA Day 11: Principesse nel Pallazo

Gee, I dunno guys, today was real rough. It started out with breakfast here:

photo 1 copy 2

With an after-party here:

photo 2 copy 2

as well as here:

Picture reuse! Sowwwwwwyyy...
Picture reuse! Sowwwwwwyyy…

Followed by a walk through here:

image-1 image

With a massage here:

Thalassatherapy pool! You know it's legit when you can't even pronounce the name!
Thalassotherapy pool! You know it’s legit when you can’t even pronounce the name!

image-2

while ending with dinner here:

image copy

…In all seriousness, I almost didn’t even want to write this entry, it was so gloaty! LOL. But since days like these are in short supply, I figure we’d celebrate our last day in Italy with a subdued bang. Today, we are principesse nel pallazzo (princesses in the palace) and are nourishing our souls and bodies with unplanned experiences entirely within our hotel. No schedules, no clocks, no fancy preparation. Besides, wait until you see our travel plans tomorrow! I’ll give you a hint: the day starts at 3:00 am. 🙂

I suppose I’ll conclude this day with an extended thought of the day…

Most of us are busy. We wake up early, have meetings and lunches scheduled, have numerous projects to work on, and even have our evening time off sequestered for pre-set arrangements. What about taking a day off here and there? I don’t mean simply reading for an hour or ending the day with a hot bath – we should be doing those things regularly to help reset our minds. What I’m talking about here is taking a day, a full day, to have no plans. Even to do nothing, if that’s what you wish. It’s amazing how just taking one day like this can reenergize you, and make you stop to think how great it is that you lead the life you have. Do it once, and I promise you won’t regret it.

-H

IC Special Edition: Why You Should Do the Backroads Puglia Trip

You see the types of trips Backroads provides, which range from scaling the misty cliffs of Bhutan to even-paced cycle rides through the flower fields of Holland. In addition to the incredible locations it services, Backroads seeks to provide the ideal touring experience. Note the distinction between “touring” and “tourist”. There is nothing “touristy” about these trips, as you really get to explore the parts that most other travelers would never see on their own. The trip leaders are virtually all renaissance men/women who can work on bikes, speak the local languages, cook, and give history lessons – to name just a few things – and are probably the best part of the whole experience.

On June 2nd, 2013, I had no idea what to expect of my very first Backroads trip in the region of Puglia, Italy, other than what my mother had told me. She has been on three prior to this one (as well as one with another company) and raved about them. So, when I graduated with my Master’s degree, I knew that that was what I wanted to do. My favorite things in the world are traveling and exercising, so this fit the bill perfectly. So, what are my honest thoughts about Backroads?

The overall experience was the trip of a lifetime. I truly felt like I was immersed into the culture of the beautiful Puglia region and felt accustomed to the warmth of the people, the tranquil beauty of the masserie, and freshness of the cuisine. There were times during my trip where I wanted to say: “Is this real life?” Every day was an adventure. Moreover, Backroads made it possible by not only facilitating these adventures, but providing context, education, and 24-hour support to go along with it.

Without our outstanding leaders, however, this trip wouldn’t have been half as amazing – which says a lot, because this trip was spectacular. Caterina, Stasa, and Jane were not only strong riders, postive, and insanely smart people – they were also so, so, so much fun and so helpful. Each of them made a point to connect with everyone and give their all when people needed help. From the shuttles up the major hills to waiting at the hospital when someone got hurt, they went above and beyond the call of duty and made us, the guests, their priority. I would not have wanted anyone else on these trips with us. I understand that the Backroads hiring process is intense, and for good reason – you’re not going to find many Caterinas, Stasas, or Janes in this world.

The local guides were a treat as well. The hilarious and effervescent Mimmo, who overflowed with knowledge of Puglia and its many fine wines, was probably the trip favorite, but everyone we met was kind and enthusiastic about sharing in Pugliese culture. In fact, I’d venture to say that the people of Puglia are the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life. And the hotel staff? Wow, can you say “on it”? Needless to say, Backroads picks lodging well…very well.

Don’t even get me started on the hotels! Il Melograno, Masseria San Martino, and our personal favorite, Masseria San Domenico, were magnificent accommodations and a wonderful setting for the Puglia region. While the internet situations at the first two were frustrating at times, we honestly have no other complaints. A little pain will always accompany beauty.

The ethereal bliss provided by the food cannot properly be put into word. Take note – Backroads feeds you well. Breakfast is always provided, and you only need to pay for one lunch and one dinner on your whole trip. The only item not usually included is wine, but even that is provided occasionally – it is Italy, after all. The food is always fresh, local, and characteristic of the region.

Oh wait, don’t let me forget the biking! We were generously provided with bikes, cyclometers, and helmets. Our bikes were aerospace titanium and equipped with a front pack for easy storage of our cameras, jackets, tissues, snacks, and more. We even have a clear front pocket for our directions. Despite navigating a rather uncharted area of the country, the directions were pretty darn good. It would have been nice to have a GPS system, as the Puglia region is easy to get lost in. However, that was obviously not totally necessary, as we all made it back unharmed and tuckered out from the great rides. While the rides were always challenging, I firmly believe that anyone in moderately good shape would be just fine. Besides, there were so many opportunities to shuttle through the most difficult parts, it was never a problem! I’d rate the difficulty of this trip from an athletic perspective as about a 3/5.

Safety is a priority for Backroads, and we received extensive guidance on remaining safe during our trip. Like I mentioned before, all 3 guides did an excellent job with this. I send my best wishes and love to the one person who received a minor injury on this trip. However, I know that she was in good care by her husband and family and received top-notch attention and assistance from Backroads. All this being said: if you are interested in an active travel trip, please do not let the possibility of injury deter you. This is a risk run with any physical activity, and you are missing out on an amazing experience if you don’t go because of that.

Finally, a word about the group we went with: should you happen to stumble upon this review, please know that it was such a pleasure to meet all of you. I understand that many of you are following my blog (Infinite Corners, infinitecorners.com) and have friends and family doing so as well. This is such an honor to me. You all helped make the trip, so saying goodbye to you all was understandably rough. I’m glad I was wearing sunglasses when I left; full disclosure here: I was crying.
Until my next Backroads journey – shall we say, Thailand?

ITALIA Day 10: Egnazia and Monopoli (I know, creativity abounds in this title)

Buon giorno, ragazzi! Today is a big day for IC. While this entry details our Day 10, we have a special edition entry coming shortly thereafter! And yes, as promised…it’s SAPPY! Sappy, happy, and thought-provoking. Most of all, I hope you’ll get something out of it.

We began the day with a 9-mile ride to and from the nearby Egnazia ruins. I have here a few pictures from Egnazia. It was pretty cool to see, and the ride over was BEAUTIFUL. Just take a look at that glittering sea!!:

The ruins date back to the Bronze age - as far back as 16th century BC. However, much of what is left dates back to the Roman era (2nd century BC).
The ruins date back to the Bronze age – as far back as 16th century BC. However, much of what is left dates back to the Roman era (starting around 2nd century BC).
The "Oriental Cults" buildings contained altars dedicated to priestesses and goddesses. And they even had a fish tank. Cool!
The “Oriental Cults” buildings contained altars dedicated to priestesses and goddesses. And they even had a fish tank. Cool!

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Here remains the floor of a porticoed square. Imagine an ancient Roman market happening up in this biz!
Here remains the floor of a porticoed square. Imagine an ancient Roman market happening up in this biz!
Ahhhh the ocean!
Ahhhh the ocean!
Fields at Egnazia
Fields at Egnazia
What remains of an old basilica
What remains of an old basilica

We broke up the day with facials (ah, girl stuff) and some poolside relaxation. Of course, “poolside relaxation” for me is more like slathering on SPF 100+ and sitting under an umbrella, but it’s still nice (have I mentioned that I’m a vampire?).

Dang it, water...stop looking so pretty and be warmer!
Dang it, water…stop looking so pretty and be warmer!

We then headed into the town of Monopoli again for a thoroughly amusing journey. My friends, I cannot emphasize enough that Italians eat late. When we got into town at around 6:00 pm, we were told by every single restaurant (and we looked at about 12) that they were not open until 8:00 pm and stared at us like we were pazze (crazy). It wasn’t long after venturing through town that we became local celebrities for our earlybird antics. By about an hour in, I had asked 6 people where the nearest ATM was (in Italian) and had earned the nickname “Bancomat!” by an elderly Italian gentleman sitting near the jewelry store. I also think we got to know every street in Monopoli by heart, because we straight up scoured the place. On the bright side, we were able to pass by a neighboring apartment and hear beautiful piano music! We even clapped after he finished his étude; he probably thought we were weird, which we totally are so it’s fine. But seriously, how “Italy” is walking up and hearing someone play piano in the open air?!??! 🙂

We finally found a place RIGHT where we had originally been dropped off. Not only were we let in 30 minutes early, but we received EXCELLENT service and wonderful food that we enjoyed every bite of. Should you find yourself in Monopoli, this is THE place to be. Check it below:

REVIEW – Locanda Indelli

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ambiance – Yes, were the first people in here at 7:30, followed by an older British couple at 8:00. Nobody else entered the restaurant until we were leaving at 9:00 for our taxi. That being said, it was quiet. As you can see above, it was also very upscale, and it almost felt like we were dining inside a beautiful museum. We were big fans of the candle holders covered in brown paper, too. (5/5)

service – Honestly, exquisite. We were let in early, treated like princesses, and comped a few items without even asking. Our waiter was a super nice dude who loved the U.S. and spoke very good English. His name is Andrea – I insist that you ask for him if you come here. (5+/5)

food – Like Ai 2 Ghiottoni of Bari, this place is known for its fresh fish, brought in daily from the ocean we were right next door to. We enjoyed sea bass and mussels, both of which were the best fish we’ve had in Italy, sadly knocking our beloved Homie G to numero due. Dispiace! We also had lightly fried vegetables, pettole (fried dough balls), salad, and fava bean puree (a Pugliese delicacy). And hey, what would all this be without a glass of primitivo? All was quite exquisite and we had no complaints whatsoever. (5/5)

cost – Ehhh, not cheap…but definitely worth it. Once again, we enjoyed quite the spread for a VERY reasonable price. ($$$/$$$$)

We ended our day with gelato out on the patio of our hotel room. I wish the below picture captured how cool our little patio is. The stars were out, the smell of jasmine lingered over us, and we were the only people outside.

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I’m not going to lie…it’s weird to be here without our Backroads group. I miss them all terribly. Oh man, I need to get my tissues out for today’s next entry…

Thought of the day: Good things do not necessarily come to an end. Sometimes they do for a while and just get reincarnated.

ITALIA Day 9: Hills, Hills, Hills (and Dancing)

GOOD EVENING! (Here, at least). I have to say, I’m feeling pretty impressed with my mom and I, as we finished our 38 miles rather swiftly today. The great part about that is that I am actually posting about today, today! 🙂

So, I knew I had reason to be nervous when we had our route rap 30 minutes earlier than usual this morning. Turns out these were the reasons:

Hill Number 1...just the beginning
Hill Number 1…just the beginning

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Hill 1, continued.
Hill 1, continued.
Oooh, pretty!
Oooh, pretty!
Hill 2. Probably said the F-word 10 times at this point.
Hill 2. Probably said the F-word 10 times at this point.
AHHHHH I'm dying!!!!
AHHHHH I’m dying!!!! (Oh hey, pretty flowers…)
Hill Number 3 of 238912390. Cue the F-word again, but it wasn't as bad as it looks.
Hill Number 3 of 238912390. Cue the F-word again, but it wasn’t as bad as it looks.

Nonetheless, I was able to tackle these beasts again, albeit at a glacial pace.

Our first stop of the morning occurred at a lovely little cafe in the town of Cisternino (panoramic picture to come!).

After enjoying a motivating snack of coffee and gelato, we next headed for the town of Ostuni, where we actually got to see more:

View on the way to Ostuni
View on the way to Ostuni
Ostuni from afar
Ostuni from afar
Ostuni!
…aaaaaand Ostuni!

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LOLLLLL
LOLLLLL

Called La Città Bianca (“The White Town”), Ostuni has been inhabited since ancient times. Many of its buildings are repainted white each year to maintain the name. While there are old buildings everywhere in Europe, the whitewashing of these ones gives this town an even older feel, slightly reminiscent of ancient Roman and Greek influences. Definitely an amazing spot for those interested in Puglia!

Side adventure: we got to see the “Italian Stonehenge”, Dolmen di Montalbano! While small, it was awesome to see a sight that’s been there since 200 BC. Check it!

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We got back to the hotel at around 3:30; I took the liberty of taking more pictures. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this yet, but due to a MORE than welcome oversight, we are here for 2 extra days (leaving EARLY Sunday morning). I know, life sucks. I hate being stuck here:

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(In actuality, my reaction after finding out about our extended stay was as follows:)

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Tonight’s dinner began with an aperitivo at 7:00 in the hotel bar and a luscious dinner in the hotel at 8:00. THE ROOM WAS AMAZING!!!!

Aperitivo time!
Aperitivo time!
Dinner room
Dinner room
One of our guides, the ever-stunning Jane!
One of our guides, the ever-stunning Jane!

I feel like I talk so much about the food here and am never very specific. That’s boring! While it slipped my mind to take pix of everything, I do have a picture of one important Pugliese dish you should familiarize yourself with: taralli!!!

Taralle on the right.
Addictive substance found on the right.

Taralli are everywhere here and, like the gelati, are basically crack-in-a-snack. I make it a point to eat at least 10 at every meal we have (scratch that, that happens accidentally because I’m powerless to taralli) and my mom and I bought 3 bags…for the plane ride home. While made simply out of flour, water, and oil, they are often also made with chocolate, peppers, or, especially in Puglia, primitivo wine!

Our night ended with a special surprise: traditional Pugliese folk music and dancing! Better pictures to come:

The band who rocked out for us
The band who rocked out for us…amazing!

We danced the pizzica pizzica, a kind of tarantella, and were joined by a hilarious German couple who basically showed us how it’s done. Seriously, I need to get my hands of some of these other pictures, because this was a truly awesome way to end the night.

Tomorrow’s gonna be a sappy day for IC. REALLY, REALLY sappy. Get ready for it. Until then, buona notte!

Thought of the day: Put yourself out there. Why have regrets about what you could have done today?

ITALIA Day 8: Say “Formaggio”!

Ahhh, again, it saddens me to be departing the beautiful Masseria San Martino so swiftly! Nonetheless, we had another fun ride today, with gentle rolling hills, more trulli, and gorgeous little neighborhoods.

Because the day’s ride looked like a combination between Days 2 & 3, I’d have to say that the main event today was our lunch at Truddhi, a trulli-resort near Locorotondo. We got to watch Pasquale, an expert cheese-maker, make mozzarella cheese! Check this out:

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Pasquale explaining the process to us
Pasquale explaining the process to us

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Whooaaaaaaa!
Whooaaaaaaa!
Making an elephant out of cheese
Making an elephant out of cheese
End result. Eaten within 10 minutes.
End result. Eaten within 10 minutes.

Of course, then there was the actual food itself (including the mozzarella we saw before our eyes). I’m going to be boring again and say that it was AMAZING, AMAZING, AMAZING. The highlight? Orecchiete (ear-shaped) pasta with a decadent red sauce. Darn it, I should have taken a picture!

Oh, I also have a new best friend: Eddie! I think he’s the son of the people who own the place, and I know he’s the nephew of one of the gals who prepared our lunch. We climbed trees and played with Jeeps.:

"There's a snake up there!"
“There’s a snake up there!”
"I'm wearing my boots today!"
“I’m wearing my boots today!”

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Towards the end of the ride, we found ourselves RIGHT next to the coast!

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I’m sure I’ll have more pictures tomorrow, but it felt so good to feel the ocean air! We are near Torre Canne, a TINY town about 50 km from the port of Brindisi. Apparently there’s amazing gelato here. Update: finally tried gelato here, in the town of Monopoli (mentioned below). I think it has crack in it, because everyone on the trip either went for 2 or wanted 2. I could have had 8…though, I’m that way with food in general.

We arrived at our next hotel, Masseria San Domenico, at around 3:15 pm. Ummmm, is this just going to keep getting better and better?!? Mind you, these are just PART of the grounds:

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At 7:00, we headed out via shuttle for the town of Monopoli. It was bigger than I expected, and a little more touristy, too. But still, cute!

Our gorgeous guide, Stasa!
Our gorgeous guide, Stasa, on the shuttle to Monopoli!

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Since we were let go to have dinner on our own tonight, allow me to review our next restaurant!

REVIEW – Il Punto Cardinale, Monopoli (BR)

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ambiance – “Dinner on your own” is kind of a loose term, as I think about 2/3 of our group ended up coming here. It’s a tucked-away place and not terribly large, with a dark, trendy, yet casual decor. The coolest thing about the restaurant are the bathroom sinks, made of glass mosaic. (3.5/5)

service – If you’re looking for good English, our waitress spoke it perfectly, as did most of the other people in the restaurant. I was not too impressed with the slight impatience and curtness of our waitress, but I’m guessing she just has a different personality. (3.5/5)

food – We were brought an absolutely scrumptious appetizer of what appeared to be lightly fried pizza dough. After that, most of us ordered pizza and I order grilled vegetables and the salad bar. Other than the dough-things, the food was really not all that spectacular. But I won’t be too harsh; we ordered simply. (3.5/5 – gotta give the dough-things their due credit).

cost – Food in Puglia is remarkably cheap compared to that of Rome. If you order just a pizza, or just the salad bar, with maybe a side of grilled vegetables (as I did), you’re looking at a 10€ with coperto; not bad! ($-$$/$$$$)

Tomorrow brings another hill of epic proportions. Sleep and colazione will be my friend.

Thought of the day: The earlier you bring up a problem, the less of a problem it becomes. Is there a graph that shows this relationship?

ITALIA Day 7: Ridin’ in the Rain

“It’s probably gonna rain today.” – Caterina

“Probably gonna? Probably is-a.” – Joe from New York

HELLO FRIENDS!

Y’know, after 41 miles of biking, one is almost guaranteed to have a story to tell. And BOY, do I have a slew of stories to tell.

We woke up to another scrumptious colazione, and then headed out for our ride. And what do you know, it started with a hill.

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And this hill kept going…

…and going…

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for 5 kilometers.

We must thank Jane, who faithfully follows us each day in the Backroads van!
Gotta give it up for Jane, who faithfully follows us each day in the Backroads van!

And yet, eventually the honorable warrior Haley slayed the formidable dragon-hill. Many-a fair maiden and lord awaited my arrival high upon the crest. I was met with fanfare whilst heaving as an elephant would.

All toils and troubles were worth it in the end when we ended up in Alberbello, the land of trulli! What, you may ask, are trulli? These are the little cone-shaped, stone houses that are characteristic of the Puglia region that basically look like Italian hobbit houses. Our visit to Alberobello rejoined us with the amazing Mimmo, who basically owns the place. He seriously knew everyone there, which is awesome. He gave us a cultural visit of the town as well as some good information about trulli. Take a look at this place! I guarantee you’ve never seen anything like it:

MIMMO!!!!!!

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We then got to enjoy a picnic lunch, prepared by the amazing Caterina! And how dope is this: we got to eat in a trullo!

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Post-lunch, 3 other women and I set course for the “long loop”, which was the longest option for riding for the day and adds an extra 9 miles to the route to the next hotel. I have to say, this was by far the most beautiful day of riding thus far:

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It was also one of the most difficult athletic feats I’ve ever made in my life. It rained 75% of the time (otherwise I’d have more pictures) and I probably counted 20 hills. I’ve never ridden a bike half that far, and half of the ride was hilly. Indeed, the women I went with kicked my butt. SERIOUSLY, if I ever become half as good a rider as them, I will be praising the Roman gods.

We ended up at our amazing hotel, the Villa San Martino. It’s a shame we’re only here for a night; I know I say this a lot, but freaking look at this place?!!!!:

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After a quick shower, I realized that everything was worth it, as we made way for the gorgeous, whitewashed old town of Locorotondo, called one of the most beautiful towns in Italy. I think that’s an understatement!:

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Of course, what would an Italian city be without lolscupltz? My mom found a perfect one on top of the church above:

"OH NO YOU DIH-ENT GURL."
“OH NO YOU DIH-ENT GURL.”

Our next adventure was a pasta-making lesson with Antonella, the owner of La Taverna del Duca, where we ate dinner.

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Some of us were apparently experts. 😉

The famous Joe killin' it at pasta-making.
The famous Joe killin’ it at pasta-making.

Me, ehhhh, not so much. But it was fun!

Dinner followed in the main room of the tavern and consisted of delicious Pugliese cusine. Lots of eggplant, incredible pecorino cheese, and some out-of-this-world bean dishes. Oh, and not to mention plenty of PASTA!

Ciao bella!
Caterina – Ciao bella!

Will it rain on Day 8 (Backroads Day 4)? I’m not sure. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.

Thought of the day: When the going gets tough, keep going. You’ll be glad you did.