So Christmas is always, in my experience, an emotional roller coaster. And I don’t like roller coasters. Or emotions, really.
But what I do like is cake. Or, pie. Or, cookie/pie/cake hybrids. Which is why for Christmas this year, I made a Gateau Basque.
Actually, we’re not very big on sweets in thePoeLog household. Neither one of us has much of a sweet tooth. We don’t really do much baking either, other than an annual batch of Kris Kringle Christmas cookies.
But, when we were in San Sebastian staying at the fabulous Hotel Maria Cristina, they had this gateau on the desert table at the amazing breakfast buffet each morning.
Gateau Basque is like an adult version of a cherry Pop Tart. It’s an almond crust pie stuffed with cherry jam inside. And, it’s awesome. I immediately regretted not discovering it earlier, but as I said, we don’t really seek out the sweet stuff when we travel or eat out.
I wasn’t even sure what it was called, but when we got home, I did a Google search for “Spanish cherry pie.” I knew when I saw the picture for the Gateau Basque that that was what I’d had.
There are a millionrecipes for Gateau Basque out there, including ones that include a cream custard filling. But, I stuck with my original favorite, which I knew had an almond flavor and cherry filling. So I combined a couple of different recipes, making sure to include almond flour and leaving out the lemon zest I found in many of the recipes.
First, I hand mixed the dry ingredients, including 1 ½ cups of flour, ½ cup of almond flour, ¾ teaspoon of baking powder, and ½ teaspoon of salt.
Then I creamed 1 cup of sugar with 10 tablespoons of room temperature butter in the KitchenAid at medium speed until smooth (about 3 minutes). I added 1 large egg and ½ a teaspoon each of vanilla and almond extract and mix for another couple of minutes.
I then lowered the speed on the mixer and gently added the dry ingredients until they were fully incorporated. Divide the dough into two sections, and roll out two round crusts in between 2 pieces plastic wrap or wax paper. They should be about 8 ½ inches to fit in the bottom of a spring form pan. I made one of them slightly thicker than the other, with the plan to use the slightly thicker one on the bottom.
I stored the two pieces of crust on a cookie sheet in the fridge overnight. Recipes vary, but most suggest chilling the dough for at least 3 hours, or up to 3 days.
When you’re ready to make the pie, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line the bottom of the spring form pan with a sheet of parchment paper (to avoid sticking).
Place one chilled crust on the bottom of the pan, pressing any excess crust up onto the sides. Heads up: the chilled crusts are a bit crumbly and prone to breakage. Don’t worry, just smooth out any cracks with some wet fingers.
Spread an entire 8 oz jar of cherry jam or preserves on the crust. Leave a little bit of the edges bare. The goal is to not have sticky cherry jam cooked onto the sides of your spring form. Now place the second layer of the crust on top of the cherry layer, pressing the edges of the two crusts together.
Brush the top of the dough with a glaze of egg and a little water. Use the tines of a fork to scratch a light cross hatch pattern across the top.
Bake the pie for 40 minutes, or until the top is golden brown. Let cool for about 5 minutes before opening the spring form and sliding the pie out. Eat plain, with cream, or, with salt ice cream, which is how we had it at Christmas dinner this year. It has a nice, slightly hard, cookie-like crust that makes it easy to travel with, as well.
Share it with family, even if they’re driving you crazy after four days of forced closeness. Or, eat it alone while hiding from said family in the bathroom. Eat it for dessert. Eat it for breakfast. Eat it with coffee on a rainy/icy/miserable day like today. Do not, however, eat it on an emotional roller coaster. Far too messy on so many levels.
“This Gehry guy really seems to know what he’s doing,” I said out loud, albeit, a bit breathlessly. I’m pretty sure the bellhop heard me on that one.
The swirling riot of metallic ribbons of fuschia, gold and silver that make up the roof of the Hotel Marques de Riscal will do that to a girl.
You would think after seeing Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, I’d have been a bit more jaded, a bit more prepared for the impact of a Gehry-designed building. I mean, how many times can one swoon at the site of some curved titanium?
Apparently, in my case at least, there is no cap on being awe-stricken by a building. And as the Spanish sun reflected the colors of the roof onto the ground beneath my feet, I was again amazed by architecture.
The Hotel Marques de Riscal was the whole crazy origins of this trip to Spain. As a Starwood Luxury Property, we would stumble across pictures of it on Starwood’s website. It seemed incongruous to see this crazy modern property nestled in the center of a tiny old Spanish town.
It went into the “maybe someday” file.
But as we started talking about our trip to Spain, we decided we wanted to go somewhere off the beaten path. Someplace neither of us had been and that we would see together for the first time.
Our three-day visit to the Rioja wine route in Spain has made us experts at making wine.
Prior to this trip, my personal sommelier XFE and I felt fully confident that after watching two seasons of Moonshiners, several tours of distilleries (including Jameson in Ireland) and quite a few breweries (mostly in Colorado), and probably a total of a hundred wineries on three continents, we were conversant in the basics of turning a grain or fruit into a fermented adult beverage.
When planning our trip to the Rioja region, we ran into a wrinkle that we’ve actually run into before. Spain (like other parts of Europe) requires advance bookings for visits to their wineries. Fine. But in most cases, you can’t just go in for a tasting. You have to do a tour of the facilities.
Now, as I mentioned, we go on a lot of winery visits. We go out to Virginia wineries twice a year to taste the latest vintages and stock our wine closet. We’ve been to Napa and Sonoma. We’ve been to Northern Italy. We’ve been to the Barossa region of Australia. We’ve done many, many tours. This is not our first wine rodeo.
So being required to go on tour after tour after tour where there’s actually only a tiny bit of variance in the process (hmmm, you use American oak barrels instead of French oak? Wow.) just so we can have a tiny taste of two of your least popular wines? It’s excessive. In no instance were the wines served as good as wines we subsequently bought and tasted.
My suggestion? I’d rather hear more about the wine itself. What notes should I look for? Which specific ones are available for sale in the US (since the wineries won’t ship)? How long should we store it if we buy it? How is this one different from this one? That kind of stuff.
Nevertheless, we made reservations for tours at four facilities: Bodega Lopez de Heredia in Haro; Bodega Baigorri in Samaniego; Marques de Riscal in Elciego; and Bodega Ysios in Laguardia. Our mid-November trip was around two-to-six weeks after harvest and bottling (depending on the facility), so things were definitely quiet and reservations were easy to arrange.
We started our trip with a pleasant morning drive to Haro, about an hour and a half south of Bilbao. The countryside was beautiful, with steep cliffs of iron on each side of the road and early morning fog burning off.
Haro is one of those small old Spanish towns that has one road entering it, and Lopez de Heredia was one of the first spots right off the road. You couldn’t miss it. Well, and the modern decanter shaped tasting room building also gave it away.
You see, the big thing in the Rioja region is to have some fancy-schmancy architect build your facility or tasting room. In the case of Lopez de Heredia, the tasting room was designed by an Iraqui-British architect, Zaha Hadid.
The tasting room is the only nod to modernity at Lopez de Heredia. They are extremely proud of their adherence to the old ways of doing things, using many of the traditional methods they’ve honed over the last 130-plus years to make their Vina Tondonia. They make their own barrels and have an onsite cooperage, a source of great pride for our lovely young tour guide. And, in case you were wondering, they use American oak.
We also got a peek at some of their very creepy underground storage vaults where bottles of wine were just coated with cobwebs and dust. You could not make out a single label. In many cases, you couldn’t even tell that they were bottles. Our tour guide explained that killing the spiders would be environmentally insensitive since they provide a necessary service of eating other pests. The amount of post-harvest wine gnats floating in the air would seem to suggest—to me at least—that the spiders were not holding up their end of the deal, and just maybe, we could break out a feather duster and tidy up a bit.
At Heredia, we tasted crianzas, reservas and gran reservas – terms which refer to how long the wines have been aged. They were all very, very good and were bargain priced, although that did us no good since they don’t ship to the U.S. Heredia, like other wineries in Rioja, uses a U.S. distributor, which means you can’t get all of their wines, and the staff at the wineries don’t know which ones you can get. Quite frustrating. We ended up buying a bottle to drink, and a small dessert wine to take home.
Haro has 19 or so wineries, but we had only made reservations at Heredia, which had been recommended by the guy at our favorite local wine store. There was, however, a tasting room right next door to Heredia that we had read about during our research – Bodegas Roda. As promised, it was small and to the point. You could taste Roda wines and even their olive oil, which we did.
We then headed down the street to Bodegas Torre Muga, which is a very large and modern operation that, quite wisely, has a wine bar where you can sit and try a flight of wines without going through the tour business. It was here that we made a very odd discovery: although the Rioja region is deservedly known for its wonderful reds, the whites were just as good, if not sometimes better. This was true at Muga, which had a wonderful blanco that we fell in love with.(They also had some of the best buttery crackers there, which I. Tore. Up.)
Tomorrow: Wine bankruptcies, the role of gravity in winemaking, and why you should not choose a winery based on a cool, architecturally interesting building.
Bilbao. The name itself fills the mouth. I’ll admit, at first, I kept messing it up. Pronouncing it like the last name of a certain famous movie boxer. I could not quite get my tongue around it. For the record, it’s Bihl. Bow. As in, take a bow.
And indeed, the resilient Spanish city by the bay should take a bow.
Bilbao has rebuilt itself several times, usually after being wiped out by a war. Surrounded by iron ore and located on the Biscay Bay, the city focused on its industrial growth, particularly exporting iron to Great Britain, and shipbuilding.
Several factors in the 1980s, including labor disputes and terrorism from Basque separatist group ETA, caused the city to switch to a more services-focused path of economic growth. It’s now home to major companies, particularly in the banking sector. And the whole city has been undergoing an urban renewal, kicked off by the opening of the Frank Gehry-designed Bilbao Guggenheim Museum in 1997.
(Interesting side note: earlier this week, ETA announced that they are ready to disband after more than 45 years of fighting for Basque independence. I’m pretty sure our visit had something to do with that).
Bilbao was the first stop on our Spanish vacation and was a good introduction to the Basque region. We were attracted to the city by the fact that 1) there was an international airport nearby, so it was easy for both of us travelling from different directions to get to; 2) the Guggenheim Museum; 3) it was off the beaten path. But what really clinched the deal was the fact that there was a soccer game at the same time we were planning to be there.
The airport: XFE was already in the south of Spain for work, and I was flying over to meet him. The Bilbao airport itself is pretty lackluster and a bit depressing. It was small, particularly for an international airport serving 3.9 million customers, and it didn’t have any shops or restaurants. It was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who also designed one of the wineries we went to later in the week. Overall, it was very modern, but in a cold, concrete-gray kind of way.
But, it was easy to get in and out of, so that’s a bonus.
The Guggenheim: We figured going to northern Spain in November was a risk, weather-wise. We expected cold, rainy and gloomy, so we thought it would make a perfect excuse to spend a day in a museum. It was indeed chilly and drizzly the day we went to the Guggenheim, but the inside was comfortable, and because it was November, blessedly free of masses of tourists (the Guggenheim had 4 million visitors in its first three years). If anything, the gray skies made a fantastic contrasting backdrop to the gold, undulating exterior made of sandstone, titanium and glass.
The museum is pretty massive with a total of 256,000 square feet, but it doesn’t feel that big. It was well laid out and focused on modern art. A couple of our favorites were the Jenny Holzer installation piece of large LED columns with phrases in English and Basque, and a current exhibit of works by Austrian painter Egon Schiele.
But the real star of the show is the building. It is breathtaking. We stayed at the Hotel Miro, which is spitting distance from the museum and had a waterfront room with views of the museum so we could see it day and night. It never got old.
I’ve heard it described many ways — like a giant ship in a nod to Bilbao’s maritime past, like a giant fish with scales made up of titanium, like a flowing river reflecting back into the River Nervion it hovers over. It was all of that and more. It was one of those buildings that somehow stirs an emotion in you.
The Hotel Miro was great, both in location (city center) and amenities. It’s very modern and small, and had a great breakfast including pour-your-own mimosas. It was close to the museum, shopping and the soccer stadium.
The beaten path: Bilbao was quite a surprise to us, but a very pleasant one. Neither one of us knew anyone who had ever been there, so we had no idea what to expect. But the city is a beautiful mix of old and new buildings with wide European avenues lined with trees and lots of pedestrian-only streets and bridges. There’s a fairly new metro system, but we never needed it during our two-day stay.
Thanks to the great location of our hotel, we walked everywhere. Our first night in town, we fought off jetlag by strolling over to the Gran Via and the Plaza Eliptica for a couple of hours of shopping. All the major Spanish chains were well represented, including Zara, Mango and Maje.
On Sunday afternoon, we made like Spainards and strolled through the lovely Dona Casida Itturizar Park on our way to the soccer game. It was a gorgeous fall day, and everyone was out, pushing strollers, chasing kids and walking dogs. Usually, in that amazing way that European women have, all three at the same time and looking stylish while doing it.
We didn’t really make any dinner plans, but more often than not found ourselves eating pinxtos at the casual English-themed bar next to the hotel. There was a post-soccer/all-day-drinking feast at a donner kabob place near the hotel. At the time, I was sure it was the best restaurant in all of Spain.
Which brings us to our final deciding factor: the soccer game.
When we first started planning our trip, we looked up the schedules for three soccer teams in Northern Spain: Sevilla, San Sebastian and Bilbao. Only one was playing on the weekend we would be there: Athletico Bilbao.
Spain, like all of Europe, is crazy about soccer. It’s like a holiday when the home team is in town, and Bilbao was no exception. They regularly reach full capacity in their 40,000 seat San Mames, known affectionately as the Cathedral. (Don’t worry, they’re building an even larger new 53,000 seat stadium right next to the old one to open sometime in 2013 – the 100th anniversary of the original stadium).
It’s an understatement to say we were very concerned about our ability to get tickets to the game.
We contacted our concierge to get tickets but were told they weren’t released until the week of the game. His recommendation was that we stand in line at the stadium to buy them the day before the game. Not a very appealing option.
Instead, we took our chances with an online ticket broker, Viagogo, and had them delivered to our hotel. It was a nerve-wracking four weeks while we waited to see if the tickets would indeed show up, but they were waiting for us when we checked in at the Hotel Miro and the seats were fantastic. Front row. They were very expensive, but worth it.
Not surprisingly, the people of Bilbao make a whole day of the soccer game. We saw people heading towards the 4 pm game at around 10 am. We left our hotel at around 11:30 and headed to Calle Licenciado Poza for pinxtos and drinks.
The entire neighborhood was draped in red and white Athletico bunting and every bar was flying the Athletico flag. We stopped at bar after bar—everything ranging from super chic steel and chrome numbers, to older establishments with plexiglass protecting their pintxos—and the whole vibe was very festive. Since they don’t serve beer or alcohol at the stadium (a widespread European rule that I’m not particularly fond of), things get pretty tipsy on the streets beforehand.
That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of families out and about. We particularly enjoyed one kid who sat next to us and just inhaled two bowls of the tiniest little garlicky snails we’d ever seen. They were miniscule, but this kid was pulling them out of their tiny shells like he was a machine.
We bought our traditional (and overpriced) team garb from a small shop right outside the stadium. We try to go to a soccer game every time we go to Europe and now have a pretty impressive collection of scarves (for me) and baseball hats (for XFE). I also might have accosted a group of young American students I happened to overhear on our way in as if they were our long-lost relatives. What can I say? I was carried away by the many glasses of 1 Euro tintos and the excitement of game day.
Finally, we made our way into the Cathedral. The atmosphere inside the stadium was electric. European men, I’ve observed, are very, very demonstrative at soccer games. They cheer wildly and cry and throw their hands up in disgust and hug each other. It’s a pretty impressive display. On that particular day, the home team beat the Sevilla visitors 2-0, so it was mostly cheers.
As we marched out of the stadium, carried along by the exuberant crowd into the neighborhood streets, I decided I liked Bilbao very, very much indeed. And then I went into a bar and had another glass of tinto. Somewhere there was a very non-Spanish kebab calling my name.
Hola chicas (y, un solo chico, possiblimente)! Como estamos? I’m great! And back from a fabulous vacation in Northern Spain.
Petunia really wanted to go. She’s Calico, which is kinda close to Catalonian, so she thinks she should go to Spain. In the photo above, she is sitting on my travel binder.
Oh, do you not know about the travel binder? This is a binder with all the emails exchanged with hotels and all the reservations and hotel and restaurant information we might need. Also, multiple maps for getting from point a to point b. Yes, it’s a bit anal. But it has come in handy. For example, the scuba outfitter in Australia had waived our guide fees because they had to move us to a different boat. Of course, the people actually on the boat had no record of this. So, out came the travel binder with all the emails. Done.
We had no problems whatsoever in Spain and we did not need the travel binder. And, since we had GPS, everything went smoothly.
The whole trip was pretty perfect. Even the weather cooperated. I had looked up the weather report for the week (and included it in the itinerary in the travel binder – my anal-abilities really do have no limits). The reports said it was supposed to be rainy and kinda cold every day. Highs only in the mid-50s, supposedly. The only time it rained was the first couple of days in Bilbao. Other than that, perfect weather.
Discovering two new (to me) clothing stores called Cortefiel and Sfera. I picked up a few cute things at each of them. Shopping was how XFE kept me from falling down asleep on my first jet-lagged evening in Bilbao.
Pintxos. Holy tiny deliciousness. These are little bite-sized appetizers, like little open sandwiches and yummy little fried balls of awesomeness. And these things are just laying out at all the bars and you just help yourself. They’re these little works of art. So, so inventive. We pretty much ate them everyday, the entire trip. The very best, in our estimation, were at a place in San Sebastian called La Cuchara de San Telmo. We ate there twice our last day and it was unbelievable.
Two Michelin-star dinners, including a very, very odd one at Miramon Arbelaitz in San Sebastian. It was in a very industrial type area (sorta like Reston), so they do a pretty brisk lunch business. We found the restaurant and went in for our 9 pm reservation. The place was entirely empty. And it stayed that way through our entire tasting dinner. They basically opened the restaurant for us. It was fantastic food at a really good value, but so, so awkward. I just kept wondering why they didn’t just tell us they weren’t taking bookings for that night.
I’ll have some more posts in the coming days, including a description of some of the wine tours in Rioja, the hotels we luxuriated in, and probably some more pintxos.
It’s not every day that one can say they brought home the bacon. Or, even, the ham.
But my main man XFE’s birthday is today (Tuesday). And, well, he loves his cured meats.
Which is fairly surprising considering the Great Northern Italy Food Poisoning Incident (Involving Salami), Spring 2011. I personally still have some hard feelings toward cured meats.
However, when the man who has everything (because he just goes out and buys it for himself) indicates an interest in an 18 pound piece of meat and a stand for carving it, you jump on it.
There was actually quite a bit of research involved. For example, the best Spanish ham to get would have been an Iberico. However, these Iberico, which come from some pretty damn special pigs that only eat acorns, is a bit pricey.
We did not end up with an Iberico. We ended up with a Serrano. Which I brought home last week. Not by metro, obviously. By car service.
Then we watched a video on how the hell to put it in the holder, carve it and store it. And then we did. We ate it (well, at least a few slices off of it). We’re counting on Porktober to make more of a dent.
Maybe we can smuggle an Iberico back when we go to Spain in November. Yep, we’re going to Northern Spain, which is very exciting.