As American as apple pie

So as I was tossing apples for a pie, I started thinking about this post.

Then free-association kicked in and went something like this: Apples. Ideas. Ideas. Apples. Ideas are like apples. Apples are like ideas. Ok, not really. Apple pie. How did that jingle go? Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Cheverolet. Cheverolet? Ugh. Wait. Corvettes are Cheverolets. Cool! What's so American about apple pie anyway? It preceded us by thousands of years. Maybe apples are like ideas. Can America really be summed up by those four things? They aren't very inspiring. How are ideas inspired? Inception. Where do dreams come from? Probably not all designed by brain hackers. Good movie. It would suck not to be able to go home. Home sweet home. These apples are really sweet. Need to buy organic sugar...

Later, I attempted to make a coherent post out of this mind muck.
In summary, this is what my stream of consciousness yielded:

I'm an all-American girl.
I really, really am.

The more time I spend in Europe, the more obvious this little cliche becomes.

Europe is beyond awesome. The diversity of its history, culture, and natural beauty is truly mind-blowing. The expansive world-views of the people I come across is fascinating, enlightening, humbling. And the food...don't even get me started on the food. There isn't a morning that I don't wake up excited about my life here.


As I watch the corny airplane video on the long approach to O'Hare and see the Chicago skyline growing  larger on the horizon, I start getting a little teary-eyed. Although it's mostly boring instructions on how to successfully navigate the immigration holding pen, the closing montage of people from all walks of life saying "Welcome" like, 100 times, literally gives me goosebumps.

By the time they get to the end, every hair on the back of my neck is standing up and I have chills down to my fingertips...

"Welcome to the United States of America."

My heart is practically bursting out of my chest.
It gets me every time.
In fact, I'm getting all teary-eyed and goosebumpy just writing this.

Sadly, I'm told the actual customs officers aren't nearly as cordial in reality as the actors who portray them in the video. This absolutely breaks my heart.

So every time I go through Passport Control (which is a lot these days) I've started asking whether they really say that to visitors. And while they are staring through me like human neural-scanners trying to determine whether I have some illicit motivation for distracting them or am just being a smart ass, I tell them I'm asking for my friend Edi. Yes, that Edi. An awesome kid who lives on a small island in Croatia whose dream of coming to visit America very specifically includes hearing those exact words. I tell them it's important. That it's not just marketing crap. I tell them that people really do love to hear it. That I love to hear it. That it means something. And I thank them in advance for remembering, just in case Edi ever makes it over for that visit. Then I move on before I start bawling my head off.

Why am I so proud to be American?

This is a question I ask myself a lot lately, contextualized by the irony of me seeking life elsewhere. There are many reasons, but ultimately they all boil down to one thing.


Of all the forces that make for a better world,
none is so indispensable, none so powerful, as hope.

I love this quote. And I love that no single person is credited with authoring it. It could have been said by anyone. It holds true for everyone. This is American ideolody at its core.

In the timeline of history, we are infantile in our 200+ years of existance compared to thousands. But whereas other countries are often defined by the past, I believe America is better defined by the future and the infinite potential, not only to envision and imagine, but also to chose and to change.

Endless and achievable possibilities. "Achievable" being the operative word which marks that tangible point in time and space where dreams and reality can begin to converge. The inception of hope.

Americans are famous for our belief that no matter who we are, where we came from, what we have or what we have to overcome, we are individually and collectively empowered to create and control our destinies. Of course, this means that the accountability for our lot in life pretty much lies in our own hands, thus making us responsible for our happiness rather than a government, monarchy, religious leader or some other such blame-magnet.

Personally, I'm ok with that.

Americans are also stereotypically known throughout the world to have an overdeveloped sense of ego. I'm told it is perceived to be a somewhat unsavory arrogance, this drive that propels people to have more, do more, be more. To be dissatisfied with the status quo. To question authority. To challenge the system. To defy limitations. To pursue happiness. To dream, perchance to dare.

To this I can only say, "Absofreakinlutely."

So when Dad asks me why...why, when both my parents' families worked so hard to come and build a life here, why would I turn around and go right back to a place they chose to leave? If I'm so bloody proud to be American, why am I living in Europe? Why? Why? Why?

The answer instinctively wells up from the bottom of my heart and reverberates in my soul like the echo of a thousand whispers:

Because I can.

My father's family didn't want to leave Italy. They left because they had to. My mother's family endured years of separation, parents from children, husbands from wives, as they slowly immigrated from the Philippines, saving for one plane ticket at a time. They didn't have the luxuries of frequent flyer miles, Facebook or Skype to maintain their connections to home. It is because they left everything behind that I can enjoy everything that lies ahead.

My homage to their bravery, their tenacity and their dignity is to do what they couldn't: to live a simple, peaceful, quiet life in il bel paese. Not because I don't have a choice. But because I do.

Andrea and I talk a lot about the differences between here and there. The cultures, the politics, the societal norms - they are vast and many and always provide fodder for a healthy debate. The dark side of relentlessly passionate ambition is that it's hard to know when enough is enough. When is it ok to sit back and enjoy where you are and what you have, here and now? When should you stop seeking something better and simply be happy with your life?

Admittedly my definition of happiness was severely out of whack for a quite while (I'll let my eBay store serve as further elaboration on that particular point), and I credit my time spent living and working abroad with helping me find a healthier balance between craving and contentment.

But the choice of where I fall on that continuum on any given day is mine, and mine alone. That is beyond priceless.

So for as much as I love living in Europe,
I never lose sight of the fact that what I really love is being an American living in Europe.

This is not to say that I'm not terribly embarrassed by the narrow-minded attitude of emperialistic entitlement that characterizes the "Ugly American" traveler or that I wholeheartedly (or even half-heartedly) support the actions of some of our leaders.

But America is not and cannot be defined by its leaders or even by its people. Nor is it a place that can be defined or contained by its boundaries and borders.

America is a collection of ideas, values, and dreams. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Fortunately, all of the above are portable.
And it for this reason that I can feel at home no matter where in the world I am.

I don't live in America.
America lives in me.

May I offer you a slice of pie?

Crunchy Caramel Apple Pie
This awesome recipe comes courtesy of Lenore DeMaria & the Crocodile.

9" or 10" pastry crust for a deep dish pie (someday I'll make my own, but not today)
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
6 cups apples, peeled and thinly sliced (I use Fuji, but dying to try HoneyCrisp)
crumb topping (recipe below)
1/2 cup chopped pecans (or candied walnuts for a super sweet treat)
1/4 cup caramel topping

Crumb Topping
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup quick-cooking rolled oats
1/2 cup butter

First, the topping: Stir together the brown sugar, flour and oats. Cut in the butter until you have a bowl of coarse crumbs. Set aside - ideally out of reach if you share my tendency to taste-test the entire batch.

Then, the pie: Pre-heat oven to 375. In a large bowl stir together the sugar, flour, cinnamon and salt. Add the apple slices and gently toss until coated. (Free-association is optional, but pleasantly cathartic.)Transfer the apple mixture into the pie shell and sprinkle crumb topping on top.

Put the pie on a cookie sheet so the drippings don't jack up your oven. Cover the edges with aluminum foil and bake at 375 for 25 minutes. Your kitchen should be smelling like Heaven right about now. Ditch the foil and bake for another 25-30 minutes.

Remove pie from oven, sprinkle with chopped nuts and drizzle with caramel. Cool on a rack and enjoy this gooey bunch of deliciousness warm or at room temperature.

Don't forget to count your blessings.

Note: Unless you are a baking wizzard (or I am just a moron) you may find yourself with a hot mess that lacks the consistency you seek. It took me seven years. But don't stress. It's still delicious. Just serve it in a bowl instead of on a plate and be thankful that this is the worst thing that happened to you today.


For those who keep sweaters in their ovens

In a mad fit of domestic bliss, I felt like making brownies today. Yay!

But we don't have an oven.

Unless you think this counts...

Technically this makes me no more handicapped than people like my friend Stacey who keeps sweaters in her oven.

I find it ironic that the one and only commonality she shares with Carrie Bradshaw is the quintessentially definitive trait of a character who, if she existed on any level of reality, would in all certainty be her nemesis. Well, that and I'm pretty sure that if ever either of them were ever afflicted with a rabid craving for brownies, they would satisfy theirs at the nearest overpriced coffee shop.

Sadly, this is not an option for me.

I've recently discovered (at at most inopportune moment of Stage One Chai Withdrawl) that the only two, TWO, Starbucks that exist in all of Holland are at the airport and Nike headquarters. And God only knows what's in a brownie at a Dutch "coffee shop".

Actually, I'm pretty sure Stace knows as well.

In my despair, I turned to Jennfier at Sweet on Veg.  Her adorable website always puts me in a good mood and I desperately needed a good shot of bliss. As if by divine intervention, I spotted a yummalicious recipe for Katrine Volynsky's raw vegan brownies which, Hallelujah and Aaaay-men, don't need baking.

Behold! Salvation is close at hand.

No-Bake Vegan Brownies (a.k.a. bRAWnies)
Makes 4-6 servings*
Time: 30 minutes

1 cup walnuts
3/4 cup plump raisins (make sure they're fresh - if they're dry they won't stick)
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1/8 teaspoon alcohol free vanilla extract
1/3 cup raw chocolate powder or finally ground cacao beans
1/2 teaspoon coconut butter*
1 teaspoon grated raw cacao butter*
* if you don't have these handy, Nutella or any nut butter (peanut, almond, etc) will work fabulously

Guilt-Free Lemon Date Frosting
1/2 cup lemon juice (I use 2-3 fresh lemons but the bottled stuff works in a pinch)
1/2 cup soaked dates

*FYI - these quantities will not yield Starbucks-super-sized squares so if that's what you're looking for, you might want to double the batch. In a glass baking pan of 18x26cm (7x10in) they end up being about 2cm (1in) thick, which is actually fine because they're really dense.

Anyway, moving on...

Soak the dates for at least 30 minutes. For those of us who aren't accustomed to raw food preps, that means stick 'em in a bowl of water.

Next, process walnuts, raisins, chocolate powder, and raw cacao butter (or Nutella) in a food processor. This will yield a gravel-like crumble of nutty chocolate bliss. Resist the urge to start taste-testing.

Now, add the add vanilla, maple syrup, and coconut butter and blend until batter forms into a ball. The first time I made these I ended up with a big bunch of nutty chocolate gravel that bore no resemblance whatsoever to a ball. Turns out the raisins were too dry. If this happens to you as well, you can try adding a little more maple syrup to bind it all together. Or add more Nutella. Nutella fixes everything.

Either way, spread the batter into a glass pan about 1 inch high. If you end up with a pan full of gravel like I did, just spread it evenly and start at one end to mash it down into an even layer until it looks solid and somewhat cuttable.

Place in freezer for at least 15 minutes.

Once the dates are gorgeously mushy, blend them with the lemon juice until it's all smooth and creamy.

I swear this is the yummiest icing I've ever tasted and it's only got two ingredients - both of which are fruit. Crazy good and good for you. Super score.

Supposedly these guys will keep in refrigerator for up to 3 days. This I cannot attest to. They barely lasted 5 minutes in our house.

Update 6.16.11
If you'd like to see what these are supposed to look like, you can take a peek here.


It's snowing leaves

It's absolutely beautiful here at this time of year, kind of what I'd imagine Vermont or Maine to be like right now. As I write this, it's "snowing leaves" as my friend Sarah would say.

I love the smell of wet leaves.


In my determination to embrace Dutch culture (or at least attempt to blend in), I was stuck by a temporary bout of psychosis and decided to try making something uber-Dutch: those groovy little flavor bombs known as bitterballen.

On the way home from IKEA (which I still can't quite get used to pronouncing as "ee-KAY-ah") where we ran into the FranKats preparing for their housewarming party tonight, we ran into Marnix outside the supermarket.

I'm starting to feel very much at home here. If not a little Stepfordized.

He laughed when we told him I wanted to make the bitterballen. Apparently it's far more "Dutch" to just buy them frozen. Classic.

Oh well. I'm far past the point of being dissuaded now.

The awesome thing about bitterballen is their versatility. They can be as simple or complex as you endeavor to make them and you can even give them their own personalities depending on the fillings and the condiments you serve them with. They are far from healthy, but perfect for those rare occasions when you just must get your Freaky-Deaky-Dutch on.

I'm happy to say that these yummy little suckers turned out great with relatively little effort. Much heartier than your average pub fare or (I'm guessing) the frozen ones, seriously delicious. So good, in fact, that I served them up with a couple of Dutch beers for aperitivi one night.

It felt a bit blasphemous, but damn they were tasty.

Classic Dutch Bitterballen
Makes 30-36 groovy little flavor bombs

This recipe is adapted from a few that I've found from various sources. The gooey deliciousness inside is a roux that I'd say is akin to sausage gravy (except I opt for veal over pork), but they can easily be "vegetized" with potatoes, portabella mushrooms or cheese.

The traditional accompaniment is a basic yellow mustard, but feel free to mix it up with your own personal flavor by serving them with other dips, chutneys, or even barbeque sauces. I opted to try a pureed version of this persimmon relish and it was quite good.

Ok, here we go...

4 tablespoons butter
1/2 lb ground beef or veal (I used 1/4 pound of each)
1/4 cup carrot, finely diced
1/2 cup onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed or pressed
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
A grating of fresh nutmeg
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons flat parsley, finely chopped
5 tablespoons flour
1 cup beef broth or milk
1 egg, beaten with 1 tsp. water
1/2 cup dry bread crumbs
Oil for deep frying

Heat one tablespoon of the butter in a large skillet over moderate heat and cook the meat, carrots, garlic and onion until the meat is browned and the carrots are tender. Drain the meat and place in a mixing bowl. Add the salt, pepper, nutmeg, lemon juice, and parsley and stir to combine. Set aside.

Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan over moderate heat. Then stir in the flour to make a roux. Cook this for 2 to 3 minutes, then add the broth or milk. Continue heating, stirring constantly, until the sauce boils and thickens. Combine the sauce with the meat mixture, stirring to combine them thoroughly, and chill this mixture for at least two hours in the refrigerator.

When the mixture has solidified, roll it into 1-inch balls. Roll the balls in the bread crumbs, then in the egg and water mixture, then in the bread crumbs again.

If you happen to own a deep-fryer, you're way ahead of me. If not, fill a pot with about 2 inches of frying oil and heat it to 375 degrees. Test the oil for "doneness" by dropping in a small piece of bread - when the oil is ready, the bread will crisp up immediately. You want to make sure the oil is hot enough or the little buggers will just soak up the oil like little sponges, which is neither good for your palate nor your thighs.

Fry a few at a time until golden, about 2 to 3 minutes. Drain on paper towels and prepare yourself for some awesomeness.

In the Netherlands these are eaten as snack or appetizer, or as the main course with apple sauce and french fries - might as well get as much use out of that fryer as possible, right? Whichever you choose, be sure to serve them immediately, accompanied by the dipping goo of your choice and a hearty Dutch brew.

Be mindful: the insides are crazy hot (think "liquid magma") so pierce them and let them cool off a bit before popping them in your mouth or the molten explosion will totally fry your taste buds!
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