Friday, March 31, 2017

Baking misadventures with The Food Lab's Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookies

I've long wanted to make J. Kenji Lopez-Alt's Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookies, and after Miss Nomad Foodie put in a request for Mommy to bake some cookies, I decided to pull out the ingredients. I browned butter. I weighed flour. I chopped chocolate. Then, when I returned to the kitchen after a brief absence, I found Miss Nomad Foodie standing by the sink, with the bowl of dry ingredients in hand, "look Mommy! I making cookies!" She had added water to the flour.

"I sorry Mommy, I helping you."

In the end, I added a cup of ground oats to soak up some of the excess moisture. The flavor was good, but the cookies came out with a fluffy, cakey texture - as if I had used margarine. Oh well.

I'm sure I'll try again soon enough. Perhaps Buzzfeed's version or Seven Spoon's version. One thing that I forgot to mention was that, inspired by Dorie Greenspan's newest chocolate chip cookie variation, I added a 1/2 teaspoon each of cinnamon and nutmeg.

Monday, March 13, 2017

La Whale boulangerie (Taipei, Taiwan)

Once a month I am in a neighborhood of the Da-an district, and often I stop by this bakery that is catercorner to the parking lot I use. Prominently displayed in the shop is a plaque proclaiming the baker as a finalist in the 2012 Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie (World Bakery Cup) for Artistic Design, and certainly his viennoiseries have more flair than those in the typical bakeries around Taipei.

Clockwise, from the top: chocolate cinnamon roll with pistachio decoration, pain au adzuki bean (similar to pain aux raisins) with dried strawberry and pistachio topping, and what seems to be a brioche with coconut filling.

That said, while I enjoy picking up a few pastries when I'm in the neighborhood, I don't ever think back on a particular item and savor it's memory. They're pretty and tasty, but not memorable.

La Whale Boulangerie 阿崴烘焙工坊
Address: No. 3, Lane 193, Section 2, Fuxing S Rd, Da’an District, Taipei City, 106
Phone: 02 2325 2218

Friday, March 10, 2017

China Airlines Family Couch Review

While travel bloggers were all aflutter in 2014 about the redesigned Business and Premium Economy products, complete with tea-tasting area and cocktail bar, on China Airline's new Boeing 777-300ER, as a mother of two young kids, I was most interested in their Family Couch product in Economy class.

I originally wrote this review in 2015 (but never published it), and continue to stand by it - this is now my preferred way to make the annual trip from Taipei to Los Angeles and back.

The Family Couch technology was licensed from Air New Zealand, where it is known as the Skycouch. In the first 10 rows of Economy, on the right hand side behind the exit row seats, are special seats that can be converted into a single lie-flat sofa bed by raising the footrests and armrests 90 degrees, and then adding a mattress pad. The Family Couch, in theory, allows passengers (up to two adults with one small child, or one adult with up to two small children) to lie down horizontally across the seat cushions and extended footrests. There are special seat belt attachments so that one can be safely strapped in while lying down.

Every summer, I make the trek with my kids, ages 5 and 2, across the Pacific between Taipei and Los Angeles. Paying a $200 surcharge each way to give my kids space to stretch out and sleep over a long-haul flight versus buying three pricey business class seats (and with two really young kids, I know that even with business class seats they would all end up in my seat anyway since those are spaced too far apart for their liking) sounded like a great deal. I hoped with the extra space, and me being close by, my kids would sleep well by themselves, thereby giving me more comfort. Plus, since this was a new product, when purchasing the tickets we paid a promotional rate of $190 (a 5% discount) for each leg.

When we arrived at Taiwan Taoyuan Airport, the check-in area was a zoo due to multiple flights sharing close departure times. Signs directing passengers to the correct check-in counter were obscured by the long lines. The agent in charge of managing crowds seemed new because she didn't know where to direct me, either. Eventually, we managed to check in and rushed to our departure gate.

As an aside, traveling with two kids at the Taiwan Taoyuan Airport is easy because passengers with young children are directed to the priority/express lines through security and emigration. If only service was this family-friendly in the U.S.! And, while I didn't use them on this trip, the airport has some very nice nursing rooms with comfortable areas to relax, hot and cold drinking water dispensers, changing tables, and at the time I visited several years ago, complimentary diapers! The airport also features a Hello Kitty-themed lounge and gate.

In any case, I appreciated the express service through security and emigration as arrived at the gate to find boarding well underway. Boarding was quick and smooth. The airplane interior, in my opinion, looks much better in person than in photos - much more elegant than I expected. 

The Family Couch section is in the front rows of the Economy Cabin, just behind the exit row, on the right side of the plane.
Our seats were in Row 41. Per Seat Guru, Economy Class seats are 17-inches wide and have a 32-inch seat pitch and a 120-degree recline. Regardless of the official numbers, I definitely noticed a lot more space between my knees and the seat in front of me compared to domestic U.S. flights, so I'm sure taller passengers (I'm 5'4") would appreciate the legroom. 

The seats also featured an 11.1" touchscreen in the seat back. I noticed that the entertainment offerings had expanded dramatically from the past, with both preschooler-appropriate offerings as well as options that would be appealing to older kids. Nothing is more frustrating than a flight where the "family" entertainment options are only appropriate for grade-school kids.

The tray tables also had a unique half-fold design, so that it could folded down at half-length during snack time to allow additional space to maneuver. Both configurations have indentations to hold a cup. My tip to help prevent spills in-flight is to bring your own sippy cups and ask the flight attendants to serve drinks in there.

Pre-flight nursing session, and the unique half-fold tray tables.
At some point, the flight attended walked by and deposited, without explanation, a vinyl case with various seatbelt attachments and what appeared to be a blanket in a plastic bag. As I was still trying to get my kids settled and stuff put away, I didn't want to deal with an additional blanket but later realized it was the mattress pad. The mattress pad was really more of a thin picnic blanket, with corduroy fabric on one side and a smooth fabric on the other. Nevertheless, it was perfectly fine in unifying the sleeping space (and covering up nooks and crannies for crumbs to fall into...easier to brush off!). While the China Airlines website advertised a "toy for young traveler" for those traveling in Family Couch, we did not receive it.

(Note: on subsequent trips, we have received a travel-appropriate toy such as a memory card game; the toys seem aimed at young elementary school and kindergartener-aged children.)

The Family Couch "mattress pad."
My kids were soon buckled up and occupied with their Melissa & Doug Water Wow "coloring" boards, which I presented to them on the trip - best in-flight toy ever

Travel must-have: Melissa & Doug Water Wow Activity Books
We had a very smooth flight. I always order special meals so that we can be served first (and use the toilets before lines form after meal service!), and on this flight I had ordered a fruit plate for my eldest (a picky eater who loves fruit), a child meal for my youngest, and an Oriental vegetarian meal for myself. The meals were reasonably healthy and tasty, and I was glad that I finally figured out the best combination of meals to order that satisfied my kids.

Oriental Vegetarian meal on China Airlines

Child meal on China Airlines
After dinner, I set up the Family Couch, which was pretty straightforward. The flight attendant came over at this point and was helpful in pointing out the location of the anchor point for one of the seatbelt extensions. I really appreciated the extra space at this point, as my kids were able to spread out while watching the favorite programs (what little girl doesn't love "Frozen"?).

Stretched out comfortably and enjoying in-flight entertainment.
Soon enough the kids wanted to sleep and they were able to stretch out quite comfortably, and fall asleep relatively quickly. Unfortunately, I had to return the seats to the regular configuration just before the plane made its final descent, but still having the flat seat cushions and arm rests that rotated fully up was quite helpful. I myself played with my seat configuration, sometimes extending it fully, which was nice if I wanted to sit cross-legged, or just partially raised to use as a leg rest. For most of the flight, only the leg rests of my kids' seats were fully extended, and that was enough space for them.

I really enjoyed the Family Couch, and think it is an ideal solution for travelers with young kids. Depending upon your children, I think it's an even better option than China Airlines' Business and Premium Economy offerings, since the seats aren't in individual "pods" (my kids like to snuggle with mom!), and of course, it's much cheaper. Despite what the seat placard says, I wouldn't go for the Family Couch option if I was a single traveler or even a couple, because at most one would have 51" to stretch out across. I am really thankful to have this family-friendly option, and this product has definitely become a preferred choice for future flights.

One final point that I would note for travelers seated in exit row seats on the right side immediately in front of the Family Couch section is to expect more jostling. While I certainly stopped my kids from kicking the seats in front, with the extended leg rest, you're bound to feel more nudges from kids tossing and turning in the row behind. On my flight, the entire Family Couch section was filled with young families, so that would be something to keep in mind as a single traveler.

You might also enjoy this post: Top 10 Travel Must Haves for Long Flights with Young Kids (and Babies)

Monday, March 6, 2017

Do: Hua Hin Hills Vineyard Tour & Lunch (Hua Hin, Thailand)

We took the vineyard shuttle bus from their cellar shop in Hua Hin town (in the Villa Market shopping center), which was 300 Baht per person, which the concierge at our hotel had booked a few days before for us. Before we boarded the van, we were given a chilled bottle of sparkling water. We left at 10:30a. The drive was very smooth and pleasant, and took about 45 minutes.

Entrance to the Sala restaurant at Hua Hin Hills Vineyard

Upon arrival at the Vineyard, we were led to a table in the Sala, a modern building that showcased the scenic views beautifully, and presented with chilled glasses of grape juice.
View of the vineyards from balcony seating at the Sala.

About 15 minutes after arrival we were invited to go on a Jeep tour of the vineyard. The menu said it was a charge of 100 Baht per person, but we weren't charged, so perhaps now its complimentary. In any case, we enjoyed seeing the vines up close and hearing about which varietals are grown as well as how they're grown.

Back in the Sala, we enjoyed a delicious lunch. Note that there is a menu book as well a separate tapas menu, which we did not realize until after we'd ordered from the menu.

Marinated chicken coconut milk salad with lotus root and coconut vinaigrette
Spicy minced pork salad wrapped with bacon and apple sauce
Smoked duck breast with Tamarind nam prik
Phad Thai - stir fried rice noodle with river prawn along with two tasting flights, top row (L-R): one of the Shiraz, White Shiraz, and Colombard, and on the bottom row, (L-R): a Chenin Blanc and Muscat.

The Colombard was described as having "citrus aromas with a touch of green apple. Crisp acidity and clean, pure lemon and grapefruit." Mr. Nomad Foodie and I did not care for the White Shiraz.

The Chenin Blanc Late Harvest was described as "nectar-like aromas of dried fruits, orchard apple and white peach" while the Fortified Muscat was described as "lychee and roses" - we preferred the Muscat to the Chenin Blanc.

We also did a tasting flight, and particularly enjoyed the Columbard, Shiraz, and Muscat. If we'd had more time, we would've liked to do a hike or bike around the vineyard - there are marked trails - but the return shuttle was scheduled for 2p. All in all, it was a pleasant day trip.

Related post:
Review: Hyatt Regency Hua Hin

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Honey Oat Pain de Mie, batches 3-5

Each subsequent batch of honey oat pain de mie is more successful than the last. I have experimented with: 1) raising the percentage of whole wheat flour up to 45%, substituted maple syrup for honey (I prefer honey); adding spices (cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg), and adding raisins. I am getting better with timing the rises with my schedule. I am currently using 140-150g of water for each loaf, adding boiling water to the butter and honey. This melts the butter and lowers the temperature of the water.
The shorter loaf is batch #3 , next to batch #4.
Batch #5 is slightly higher than batch #4.