Best Gifts for (Green) Travelers

6 12 2010

It’s that time of year again, and since I’ve developed a reputation as being sort of an expert in the realm of gift guides (yes, apparently that is a realm), I’ve applied my expertise yet again to a few guides. First up: The Soup to Nuts Eco-Getaway a la Check out everything your favorite traveler needs to make his or her trip a little greener (and more fun/fashionable/delicious). I’m personally loving the Ahava gift set, mostly for the cute retro bag.

Good Luck Foods and Traditions for 2010

2 01 2010

I’m back from a lovely holiday in California. It was sunny and comfortable and full of family and laughter. And food. Lots of food. Remember all those holiday cookies? Mom didn’t make those, but about a million others, and I certainly did my share of indulging. My sister Kristen made our favorite cookies (made only, oddly, at holiday time): Almond Crescents. This was a Gaga recipe, and for kicks I did a little digging, but was unable to find any information on a traditional almond crescent cookie, at least one that looked like ours.

However, since I seem to be so focused on food these days, I thought I’d share this fun little tidbit I found on Delish: Good Luck Foods for New Year’s Day. It’s a little international inspiration for starting a new year off right. My favorite is the Spanish tradition of eating 12 grapes at midnight, but mainly because it came out of a surplus of grapes one wine harvest.

Some other fun non-food traditions I found:

  • In Venezuela, it’s tradition to enact on New Year’s Eve what you want for the year. If travel is the thing, go out carrying a suitcase, or, even better, if love is what you’re after, you should wear red underwear on New Year’s Eve. Check out this Venezuelan video.
  • In Italy the red underwear is for luck (noticing a trend) and items are thrown out of windows out midnight as a sort of “out with the old…” thing. Sounds like fun, if you watch out for flying nightstands.
  • In Suriname it’s all about loud noises (think horns honking and drums banging) and the burning of effigies to symbolize a fresh start.

And here in New York we have the thrilling tradition of freezing to death and bumping into millions of strangers while we wait for a shiny ball to drop. (And then there are the smart ones of us who just find a warm place to watch thew whole fun spectacle on TV.) It seems there is a little insanity in every culture when it comes to ushering in the New year.

Recipe: Pizelle (Italian Waffle Cookies)

18 12 2009

I’ve been giving some more thought to all those international holiday cookies. Another on that list is one of my family’s favorite traditional cookies: the waffle cookie. Pizzelle is said to be the oldest, most prevalent cookie in Italy. It’s a thin wafer cookie made on a special cookie iron, which gives it the look of a very thin waffle.

Pizelle is the primary cookie in myriad festivals throughout Italy, as well as at weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and all holidays. In short, they are so tasty that Italians look for any excuse to eat them.

The name itself simply means “little pizza” (pizza in Italian means “round” or “flat”), but it’s also known as ferratelle (after ferro, the heated iron on which the cookies are baked). The first pizzelle makers were made of iron,and were held over the open fire by long handles. Most bore the family crest and were passed down through the generations.  Today, pizelle irons are made with aluminum alloy and tend toward electric, with floral or snowflake patterns.

The basic recipe is based with eggs flour and sugar, but beyond this, pizzelles are flavored with anything from vanilla to anise to rum. The Russo family version uses orange flavoring:


6 eggs

1 ½ cups sugar

1 cup oil

Juice of 1 orange

½ bottle orange extract

1 ½ cups flour

1 ½ tsp baking powder

Beat eggs, then add sugar, oil, juice and extract. Sift flour, salt and baking powder and add slowly to the egg mixture, mixing well. The batter should be thick enough to drop from a spoon in a ribbon within two to three seconds. If too stiff, add a few drops of water, or if too thin add more flour slowly.

Substitution options for the orange flavoring

1)      2 tsp Vanilla extract and 2 tsp anise extract.

2)      1 ½ tsp anise extract, plus the zest from 1 orange and the zest from 1 lemon

3)      1 shot whiskey, 1 tsp anise extract, 1 tsp vanilla

Before each use, coat your iron with vegetable oil or melted shortening and then heat for a few minutes prior to cooking. Fante’s Kitchen Wares Shop sells both types of irons, and in the old tradition allows for the possibility of personalizing them with an etching.

Christmas Cookies Around the World

15 12 2009

A round-up. The season is in full swing and I’m getting more and more excited for my impending trip home to California. My father informed me this morning that he has already stocked up on Peppermint Stick ice cream, my all-time favorite ice cream flavor and a holiday tradition, one, I’ve found to my dismay,  that does not exist in New York I’ve visited countless markets to reach the sad conclusion that the seasonal flavor is not sold here).

And so this week I’ve been thinking about all the yumminess that is the holiday season, namely peppermint stick ice cream, and all the cookies my father and I would turn out year after year, far more cookies than even our massive brood could eat. And so, in honor of our cookie tradition, I thought I’d take a look at some of the Christmas cookie traditions around the world.

I found an extensive  list, and was not surprised to discover that the best cookie of all time, the alfajor of South America (about which, I just discovered, I’m not the only one to write an ode, of sorts), was present on it. I found nine recipes for my favorite cookie, so perhaps I’ll have to attempt  a second go at making them. Some others on the list:

  • Pepparkakor (Sweden):  a ginger-flavored cookie, traditionally cut into heart shapes. One recipe calls these Sugar and Spice cookies, and is very similar to a Russo-family recipe of the same name. Ours, however, are sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar, and it was always my happy duty to sprinkle the cooled cookies.
  • Kourabiedes (Greece): each of these powdered sugar-covered cookies is garnished with a clove to add a savory element and recall the wise men and their spices.
  • Zimtsterne (Germany): You don’t get much prettier than these star-shaped cinnamon-nut meringues, also called erstesternen.
  • Nanaimo Bars (Canada): decadent (no bake!) bars with three decadent layers: a crumb base, topped by custard buttercream and finished off with smooth chocolate.
  • Galletas Maria (Costa Rica):I’m not a particular fan of coconut, but the peanut butter in these may just be enough to win me over. They’re named, according to the Food Network, for a grand duchess of Russia (how this correlates to their popularity in South America and Spain is not a question I can answer).

More holiday cookie traditions

Christmas cookie hub

Cool Travel Gifts

27 11 2009

In the spirit of gifting, USA Today has a cool article chock full of gifts for travelers. Some highlights I like:

  • Passport cover – I say take it a step further with a travel wallet where the receiver can keep passport, money, and any important documents. I’ve been coveting this one by British artist Edward Mokton ever since I saw dear Liz with it in Argentina. Something about the fun little cartoon is just sweet, plus not quite knowing where you’re going is the best kind of travel in my opinion.
  • Small notebook laptop. The HP minis are pretty cute and portable, and starting at $299 relatively affordable to boot. With the more and more planes having internet, it’s a good idea, though isn’t travel supposed to be about unplugging?
  • They also suggest checking out travel supplier Magellan’s for finds from a case to keep all their electronics organized to a talking translator.
  • is another traveler fave, and far more fashionable than old Magellan’s.
  • And lastly, I’m a particular fan of the digital luggage scale, great for over-packers like myself, especially as the airlines make it more and more difficult (and expensive) to bring everything you need and/or want to on a big trip.

Shameless Self-Promotion: Gift Guides!

11 11 2009

After months of holiday shopping—and finding millions of things I want (and millions of things you couldn’t pay me to have)—the Hearst holiday gift guides are here. And I’m pretty proud of how great they look. Gifts for everyone!

There are thousands (literally) of gifts for everyone on your list. Check them out!

Marie Claire gift guides for The Working Girl, The Men You Love, Stocking Stuffers, Charitable Gifts, The Domestic Diva, and more…

Redbook gift guides: Gifts for Best Friends, Great Gifts for Difficult People, Kid Glossary, Unforgettable Gifts, Gifts that Give Twice…

Esquire: Gifts She’ll Never Forget, Gifts That Will Get You Laid, Toys No One Else Will Get Them, Worst Gifts!…

The Daily Green: The Complete Green Outfit, Green Gadgets, Gifts Outside the Box, Safe Toys…

Good Housekeeping: Housewarming Gifts, Gifts for Teens, Stocking Stuffers…

Country Living: Go-To Gifts, One-of-a-Kind Gifts, Gifts for the Hostess, Gifts for the Farmer’s Market Foodie…

Seventeen: Gifts for Moms, Dads, Twilight Lovers and more…

Cosmopolitan: $20 Gifts That Look Way More Expensive, Gifts for People Who Have Everything…

Historic Haunts (and Hauntings)

2 11 2009

I did not dress up for Halloween this year. Not surprising given my dearth of creativity when it comes to costume ideas (and general dislike of the tradition as a result). What I did celebrate, however, was my favorite part of the holiday, the focus on ghosts and hauntings. While I’m not so much obsessed with ghosts, the whole historic aspect of it I find thrilling. Last Halloween, I did a pub crawl of some of New York’s favorite haunted hot spots.

This year, I’m thinking of some of the other haunted places to visit. Every major city, it seems, has its own host of ghosts, and every place worth its salt as a travel destination has a tour to explore them. I’ve been on ghost tours in San Francisco and Edinburgh and New Orleans, to name a few. They are often cheesy but always fun, and the beauty of them lies not so much in the scary factor (for me at least) but for the glimpses of history they provide.

Most recently, I visited New Hope, one of Pennsylvania’s oldest (and arguably quirkiest) towns, where they have their cadre of spooks and spirits who add a little local color to an already colorful place. On a ghost tour of the town we learned about Joseph Pickett, a painter who only received acclaim following his 1918 death, after his wife had auctioned off much of his work. The quirky Mr. Pickett is said to have shown those who made fun of his work but painting one of his landscapes on the outside of his home. While the building has been painted over today, his ghost is said to remain. This is the sort of local color I love, and the ideal ghost story, one that unearths a bit of a place’s history in relation to its sights.

For more fun “haunts” check out Budget Travel’s list of haunted walking tours.

Dia de Los Muertos Traditions – Experience Them

29 10 2009

I love the idea of learning about cultural traditions, but even better is actually experiencing them. Today Matador Travel had a great article on five places to experience Dia de los Muertos. Two of those, it turns out, happen to be in California. In San Francisco, the festivities abound, with, among others, a special San Francisco Symphony performance on Nov 1, and a Mission District procession on Nov 2.

Meanwhile, here in New York, we’ve got our own celebrations going on. The recently re-opened El Museo del Barrio will be celebrating all day Saturday with concerts, talks, food tastings and much more. This year New York, next year Pátzcuaro.

Halloween Traditions

27 10 2009

I am not a Halloween person. I have very little creativity when it comes to thinking up clever costumes and even less artistic ability when it comes to creating them. I inherited this from my mother, who loathes Halloween and had a great way of talking me into costumes that were easy to acquire, but incredibly random. (The highlights: I was a 6-year-old Jane Fonda because I already had a leotard, tights and leg-warmers and at 10 I was an electrical engineer because my father worked at PG&E and could bring home a hard hat.)

But costume or no costume, I love the holiday, and not just for the excuse to eat candy. Halloween is rooted in ancient cultural traditions, and I find the history rather fascinating. There’s Dia de los Muertos, of course, the Day of the Dead (or rather “days”—it traditionally lasts for three), perhaps best known for the colorfully dressed figurines with skull faces, but there is much more that goes into the rituals of this fascinating celebration of the the dead, which has its roots in Aztec and Mayan traditions.

Then there’s Samhain, the Celtic celebration of the dead, based around the idea that dead souls return on this one night when the veil between the two worlds is thin. Many of the Samhain traditions gave birth to our modern American Halloween traditions. For the full story check out the History Channel’s comprehensive website, complete with fun videos of New York’s parades and costumes of the Twenties.

A Few of My Favorite Peeps

14 04 2009

Another Easter come and gone, and this sweet-loving girl is finding herself in a self-induced “no-one-around-to-indulge-with-me-so-I’ll-eat-it-all-myself” candy coma. Because Easter isn’t Easter without some Jolly Rancher jelly beans and Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs.

Then leave it to my mother to really pack a doozy. The other day I came home to find an Easter tradition in my mailbox: anyone who’s been to a mall in California has been to the mainstay See’s Candies, and anyone who’s spent an Easter in California has experienced See’s eggs, or at least they should have. Like the Reese’s eggs, these are the traditional See’s truffles, all grown up and Easter-ified. In our family it was tradition to get the variety pack and cut them up so everyone could have a bit of each, but Mom sent me a full-size of my favorite. The Bordeaux is a milk chocolate (sprinkle-covered) “brown sugar butter cream” filled truffle that is sinfully sweet with an odd little bit of crunch to it.

But all this sweet talk merely a lead-in to the fact that on Easter I find there are far too many sweet pleasures to bother myself with sugar-coated marshmallows. The peep might be a cute diversion, but give me See’s or Reese’s any day over that neon puffy creation. This year, however, I became a fan of the peep, not so much to eat as to look at. I discovered National Geographic’s “Peeps in Places” contest, in which readers were invited to send in their photos of peeps in their favorite travel destinations, resulting in a series of whimsical, comical and all-around amusing pictures of the little marshmallow guys in, well, places. I love it because it’s reminiscent of one of my all-time favorite movies, Amelie, in which the young French heroine cheers up her depressed father by sending postcards of his garden gnome, who she’s sent around the world with a flight attendant friend. Perhaps a random reference, but anyone who hasn’t seen it should.

At any rate, this year—especially since I’m swearing off sugar for at least a week—it’s all about the (in my opinion, inedible) peeps and, of course, the places they go. Check out the photo pool here. 15,000 and counting. Too bad I didn’t know of this last week: I could have taken my peeps to the beach after all. But surely peeps in paradise wouldn’t have held a candle to Cowboy Peep, Tired, Poor, Hungry Masses Peeps or Vincent van Peep.  Guess I’ll just have to wait patiently for the winner to be announced. They sure could hurry it up though…

This peep's looking at San Francisco from Twin Peaks. He must be looking for a See's Candy store... Photo by elmoizme.

This peep's looking at San Francisco from Twin Peaks. He must be looking for a See's Candy store... Photo by elmoizme.