28 November 2016

Persimmon Date Walnut Bread

It's fall! Today it really feels like it; the temperature in Istanbul dropped about 10 (Celsius) degrees overnight. So now it's cold and grey but cold fall weather means fall baking! Fall also means persimmons which I love.

Homemade orange blossom water from Lebanon!

We only get one kind of persimmon here, the hachiya persimmon. For me the trickiest part about working with these persimmons is making sure to not smash them while getting them home! Hachiya persimmons aren't at their full ripeness until they're so soft they feel like they've rotted.

Thank goodness this recipe calls for persimmon puree because there's no way a fruit this soft and delicate is getting sliced nicely! Other than chopping the dates this was a super fast and easy recipe. I ended up using mini loaf pans to bake it and shared it around with my friends-I think this is the most popular thing I've ever made! Everyone went nuts for it. It is really good; it tastes like autumn.

Pitting and chopping the dates takes forever, they're so blasted sticky. Between that and the molasses I'm not sure I'll ever de-stick my counter. Brown sugar as we know it in America doesn't exist here so I have to make my own; which I can do thanks to the gift of molasses from a friend in Germany (as regular molasses also doesn't exist here) and the food processor E&M lent me that I kind of never returned. Oops.

The other great thing about fall baking? It warms up the apartment! My building has central heat which is annoying on several levels but it only works in two rooms and the window in my kitchen doesn't quite close so it's always cold in there.

Between the bread's resounding popularity, how blasted easy it is to make, and the warm and cozy feeling I get with the baking aromas wafting out of the oven...yeah I'll be making this again!

Persimmon Date Walnut Bread (adapted from The Little Epicurean)
Makes one 9 inch loaf pan or five mini loaves

3 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp fleur de sal*
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 heaping tsp cinnamon
several dashes of ground clove
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup caster sugar
1 cup melted butter
1 tsp vanilla (I used Tahitian)
4 eggs, room temp and slightly beaten
1/4 cup orange blossom water*
2 cups persimmon puree (about 4 hachiya persimmons)
2 cups toasted, chopped walnuts
2 cups chopped dates


1. Preheat oven to 350 F
2. Whisk together all the dry ingredients (flour, salts, baking powder, cinnamon, clove, and sugars).
3. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and add the melted butter, beaten eggs, and persimmon puree. Whisk until combined. Fold in the walnuts and dates.
4. Pour into greased loaf pan(s) and bake for about 45-50 minutes.

18 November 2016

I Accidentally Climbed the Caucasus Mountains

After a much better night of sleep in our new, cushy hotel, KMac and I were up and ready for a tour of the Kakheti region. We'd arranged with the hotel to use their car (and driver) to see some of the sights. We really hoped they'd told him the places we suggested because he spoke no English, we obviously no Georgian, and my Russian is not only crap, it's become some sort of weird Russo-Serbian mutant.

After driving for about an hour we pulled up to the Khareba winery. It wasn't on our list but as far as I'm concerned, a wine tasting is an auspicious way to start out any tour! Khareba is one of the country's largest producers. Don't mistake size for quality though. The wine was fine, I've certainly had much worse, but it's not special.We really enjoyed the tour though and bought a couple bottles to take back to the hotel along with a few bottles of locally pressed grape seed oil.

Before we knew how bad it was going to be
Back on the road we drove closer and closer to the Caucasus Mountains. It wasn't too long before our driver gestured at a structure at the top of one of the peeks. "Monastery" he said to which we made agreeing noises. Monasteries were on our list so we were feeling pretty good about this as long, I joked to KMac, as we didn't have to walk up the bloody mountain to get there.

Me and my big mouth. Our driver dropped us off at the base and told us (in Russian) that he'd wait over there for us. Exchanging trepedacious looks, KMac and I got out. We walked around a small parking lot area not really knowing what to do and started following the road up the mountain. Why pave a nice road if they weren't going to allow vehicles?

The Nekresi Monastery

Qvevri still in the ground from the monastery's wine making

We walked for about 20 minutes and stopped for a breather, a long one, and to assess if we wanted to keep going or not. Then we heard an engine and saw a tour bus as it drove down the mountain. No private cars allowed but tour buses were? A good excuse for a long breather we looked up the Nekresi Monastery on TripAdvisor and learned that apparently there were buses which (for a small fee) would drive you up and down the mountain. Sigh. Now we had another decision to make; walk down and get the bus (which apparently only runs when full) or keep going. We pushed on.

A few minutes, and our next breather later, we ran across a group of German-speaking tourists coming down. KMac asked if we had much farther to go and after laughing they told we weren't even half way yet. Not even half way?! I was terrified. I was going to die. My heart was going to explode and I was going to die; but for some reason we decided to keep going!

So onward we trudged. Each time we came to another sharp bend in the road I prayed that we were at the peek and each time I was disappointed. Finally many, many breathers-and about an hour later-we reached the Nekresi Monastery. Was it worth it? Eh.

The views were stunning and the buildings all still in very good repair but I wouldn't have climbed a mountain for that. If you go, be aware that to the right of the entrance is a small booth that sells tickets for the mini bus. Take the mini bus.

Gremi Castle and church

A little afraid that our driver might have given us up for dead, we caught the bus down slightly afraid of what our next stop might be. We arrived at Gremi Castle which was both on our list and mercifully set on only a small hill. A small but nice complex, Gremi includes a large church and adjacent "castle" slash tower which is now a museum.

Church from the tower
In the museum, also small but nice, we had the pleasure of getting a bot of a guided tour of local history from one of the workers who spoke excellent English. After our tour we climbed up into the tower, which wasn't nearly as stair-scary as I thought it would be, in order to take in the amazing views. There are not enough songs to Georgia's beauty; it's a stunning country.

Back in the car and a short drive later we arrived at the Alaverdi Monastery. Also on our list I was hoping we could kill two birds with one stone here: a church for KMac and wine tasting for me. I'd read a lot about the wines coming out of Alaverdi Monastery and was hoping to try them. We got the church but weren't able to do a wine tasting. For which I would later be glad.

The church at the monastery is huge. We sneaked quietly into the back as there was a liturgy on but I didn't stay long. Incense + me = insta-migraine.

The last stop on our tour was the Alexander Chavchavadze museum in Tsinandali. This one did include a wine tasting! The museum is definitely worth a visit to see the house if nothing else. We were also lucky enough to be there for a temporary exhibition by an Italian artist who repurposes old wine barrels to make furniture, art, toys, etc. That was really cool and now I need to build a special wine room in my future home to house not only my future wine collection but also furniture made out of old barrels.

The drive back to Sighnaghi was particularly painful for me. I'd hoped that the car sickness during the original drive up could be attributed to all that wine and no food I'd had that day; sadly no. I wanted to die. When we finally got back to Sighnaghi and I got a few deep breaths of the clear, high elevation air I was good to go.

For dinner that evening we tracked down Okro's Winery (it's hidden up behind the Hotel Signagi) where we had a nice tour and tasting from one of the family members and stayed for dinner. We tried four of Okro's wines but my hands down favorite was their Mtsvane. We even didn't hate their chacha. Unlike most distilleries, Okro's makes theirs from wine instead of pressing the must left after pressing grapes for wine.

Even though our day was a little more adventurous than I'd planned it was a good day and a great way to remember Kakheti before heading back to Tbilisi.

14 November 2016

Kakheti, Georgia - More Adventure Than I Wanted Part 1

In September I went on an amazing* trip to Georgia with my friend KMac and somehow totally forgot to write about it!

We arrived in Tbilisi separately, and quite late; me at around midnight and KMac at about 3 AM. Just as the flight attendants were giving everyone the death glare to turn off their phones on my flight I received a message from KMac saying "Don't take a cab! You'll be met at the airport!". And sure enough, after waiting what felt like an hour for my bag I entered the arrivals terminal where I was greeted by a Georgian Orthodox priest.

That was definitely a first for me.

We would see a lot of Father N. during this trip but for the time being I was grateful for the lift.

After a good sleep in, KMac and I stretched our legs on Rustaveli Avenue on our way to meet the team behind Exotic Wine Travels. We'd connected through social media and it turned out we were going to be in Tbilisi at the same time; me just starting to learn about Georgian wines and them promoting their fantastic book, Uncorking the Caucasus.

We met them at Vino Underground, a great wine bar owned by a group of Georgia's leading natural wine makers where we proceeded to enjoy three, or was it four? amazing bottles of Georgian wine. Unfortunately between then and catching our ride with Father N to Sighnaghi, neither KMac nor I had time to eat. Combine that with major car sickness from the windy mountainous drive and I wanted to die. I don't think I've been that car sick since the drive from Sarajevo to Belgrade.

It was late when we finally made it to our guesthouse and we were ready to sleep. I had booked us rooms at the most highly rated guesthouse (the most common type of accommodation outside Tbilisi) in Sighnaghi-David Zandrashvili's Guesthouse. We knew we weren't in for five start treatment but we were a little shocked by what we found. To start, apparently there was a 10 PM curfew that wasn't listed in the house rules online. That curfew would explain why the guesthouse, at capacity, was practically shaking with the loud music, singing, and stomp-dancing of other guests. I settled into room while KMac was shown to hers: downstairs, through the common room, through the dining room, through the kitchen, then outside again, down some unlit stairs that had no handrail, and into another building.


Streets of Sighnaghi

Five minutes later I got a message from KMac: "There's a huge spider in my room! I tried to kill it but it got away!" Not a fan of spiders myself I told her that if she wanted, she was welcome in my (assumingly) spider-free room. No, no, she assured me; but several minutes later I got another message: "Now there's another, completely different spider. I'm on my way!" Between the noise of other guests, paper thin walls, and the loud, creaky bed it was hours before we were able to get to sleep.

We were up early the next morning with two missions: attend orthodox liturgy since there are no Catholic churches in Sighnaghi, and find a new hotel. Luckily we were successful in both endeavors and in the afternoon dragged our suitcases up the hill to the posh, and pricey hotel spa where we stayed three years ago. What a difference.

Sighnaghi city walls

View of Sighnaghi from our hotel

Happily ensconced in our new hotel, and after a brief rest to make up for all the sleep we missed the night before, we headed out to find two of the most important things you could ever want in Georgia: food and wine. For dinner we headed to a restaurant called Wine World. You call a restaurant 'Wine World' and there are certain assumptions, right? As in, lots of wine. No. There were three house wines: red, white, and green. We went with the green which wasn't too bad as long as we thought of it as ice tea instead of wine. The food was killer though. We had mtsvade (grilled pork and onions), lobiani (bread stuffed with slow cooked beans), eggplant with walnut garlic paste, and sulguni cheese stuffed mushrooms baked in a clay dish. So don't go to Wine World for the wine but it's worth it for the food.

We bought a bottle of wine to take back to our hotel and drank it on the hotel sky terrace playing with the astrology star app on KMac's phone. Then it was time for bed to rest up for our tour of Kakheti the next day-a tour that included us accidentally climbing a mountain!

*All trips to Georgia would be amazing but traveling with KMac comes with extra experiences; but more on that later!

11 November 2016

Istanbul Photowalk: Yedikule and Samatya

A couple weeks ago M and I went on another great photowalk with the Istanbul Language Exchange Club. It was unfortunately a very overcast day but that did not stop our enjoyment!

Ruins of a Byzantine hamam


I was particularly excited about this walk because, while I've driven by Yedikule a million times I've never actually been. Built in 1458, Yedikule, which means 'seven towers' in Turkish, takes up a corner of the old Byzantine wall and was used as a fortress, prison, and site of frequent executions. Now it's a park. It's totally where you want to have a picnic.


While bits and pieces of the fort have been restored, like much of the old wall, you can still see some of the original Greek inscriptions and Roman carvings. Near the fortress there is one city gate in particular through which only Roman soldiers were allowed to pass.

From Yedikule, which is near the Bosphorus, we walked farther inland roving through the small, mostly residential streets on our way to Samatya. Like a lot of Istanbul, the houses are a mix of collapsing buildings that were probably at one time amazing and ugly block buildings with the occasional hidden gem tucked away.

Samatya was a lot like those occasional gems-a small, charming neighborhood tucked into a grey, dirty big city. With colorful buildings, lively squares, relaxing cafes, and some of the city's best fish restaurants this neighborhood is worth the trouble of deeper exploration.

As we made our way towards Aksaray we stopped in one of the (surprisingly) many Armenian churches. This one, hidden in a courtyard behind high walls like most of Istanbul's Christian churches, used to be the Armenian Patriarchate. At first our group wasn't even allowed through the gate-we were told that we would scare the children (?!) but they changed their minds and allowed us in. Then after giving us permission to take pictures we were kicked out for taking pictures.

The Sultan's box up on the left

After a less than successful visit there we headed to one of Istanbul's Imperial Mosques which was a much friendlier place. Sadly somehow every single one of the pictures I took inside is blurry. They look like I was snapping the picture and spinning in circles at the same time.

Our last stop was another mosque. Not an imperial mosque this time, a brand new one-so new even that it's still not open. I have never seen a modern mosque like this one and while I think Istanbul has a few too many already, this one is a piece of modern architectural art that I wish were in a more easily accessible part of the city so that more people could appreciate it.

So another great walk during which we got to explore parts of the city we would otherwise never have seen!