A PERFECT MEZZE MEAL

I just loved this email from Toast Bakery Cafe—it’s so very laid-back L.A.:

“Hello Susan, 

thank you so much for reaching out to us. What a great idea! We would love to be featured in your blog post. I’m sure that it would be a comfort to our customers at home to have a reminder of Toast!

our jalapeño spread:

Cilantro

Mint

Jalapeño 

Garlic

Fresh squeezed lemon juice 

Salt 

Grounded Cumin 

Grounded Coriander  

Citric salt if available 

Olive oil

Please let me know if you have any questions.” 

Question: Are you kidding?  What are proportions? How does one combine? Where’s the recipe?

THE BACKSTORY

During this period of shelter-in-place, I miss going out for Sunday brunch, especially In Los Angeles. I miss sitting in the sunshine, dog at my feet, friends at the table, watching pretty people, drinking lusty black coffee and eating something that feels like a celebration. 

In the spirit of rememberence-of-things-past and let’s-look-forward-to-the-future, I thought it would be fun to feature a special brunch that could wow family and friends when life begins again.

Thus we get to Toast Bakery Cafe.

Toast is trendy to the max. It’s so hip as to have separate menus for vegans, regular folk and dogs.

I happen to love the concept and presentation of their ultra-cool House Breakfast for 2. 

Essentially the breakfast is a take on a Middle East mezze meal—which is a collection of small and tasty dishes all served at once and  shared with table mates. 

For their speciality House Breakfast, Toast fills small bowls with an assortment of spreads and dips, adds a basket of bakery rolls and serves the mini mezze with eggs, fruit salad and a cilantro/jalapeño sauce.

It’s the sauce served with the eggs that earned my attention and the subject of the requested recipe above. As you can see the recipe lacks direction by recipe standards. (I would chop equal amounts of cilantro and mint in a blender, add enough lemon juice and oil to give the mixture a spreading texture and use the remaining ingredients to season to taste. This may not produce a replica of Toast’s sauce, but it should be good.) On the other hand, the presentation of Toast’s House Breakfast rocks with Hollywood pizzaz and is super easy to copy.

Another version of the mezze approach comes from Ta-eem Grill, a popular kosher restaurant also in Los Angeles. Fill larger bowls with assorted goodies and serve with pita. A mezze meal works well to break the monotony of family dinners in these trying times.

 

As to what to put in the bowls, click on any of names below for recipes:

SMOKED SALMON PATE 

 

 

FARMSHOP AVOCADO HUMMUS 

 

BLUES CITY DELI OLIVE SALAD 

 

LEMON FETA HUMUS 

 

PIMENTO CHEESE SPREAD 

 

 

 

THE SOUTHERN GRIND COFFEE HOUSE’S BUTTERCREAM SUGAR COOKIES

Not just a pretty face, the buttercream sugar cookies sold at The Southern Grind Coffee House are as divine to devour as they are beautiful to behold.

The Southern Grind sells a wealth of products at two locations in Orange Beach, Alabama. Among the goodie—coffee of course, homemade sweets and a generous menu of breakfast and lunch comfort foods. Non-edibles include such delights as gifts, art and home accessories. Although the shops bulge with enchantments, my favorite of all the offerings remain the shops’ buttercream sugar cookies. 

 

Keep in mind that the cookies’ crunchy buttery base is good enough to eat unadorned, but turns into the spectacular when dressed for a party in The Southern Grind’s meltingly soft, marvelously sweet icing. Also note that although The Southern Grind cookies charm with their sea-side designs, you can change the shape and coloring to create perfect treats to celebrate a slew of special occasions including Easter, Christmas and the Fourth of July. Oh my. So pretty! So good! So useful!

Ever generous, Jim McPhillips, owner of The Southern Grind, shared his recipe with us. (I’ve rewritten it just in case the photo is too small to read and I’ve added a little information after checking with Jim.)

 

THE SOUTHERN GRIND COFFEE HOUSE BUTTERCREAM SUGAR COOKIES

Yield: This recipe makes about  24 round cookies. The number depends on the size of the cutters and the way the dough is cut. 

1 cup butter

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 egg

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

2-1/4 cups all purpose flour

Cream butter and sugar. Add egg, almond extract and salt and beat until well blended. Add flour a little at a time and beat until just blended. Gather dough into a ball. Wrap in plastic and chill before rolling. 

Heat oven to 375°F. 

Roll dough about 1/4-inch thick and cut into desired shapes. Place cut dough on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake in a preheated 375°F oven until cookies are light golden brown around edges, 6 to 9 minutes. Cool completely before icing.

BUTTERCREAM ICING

1/2 cup salted butter, softened

1/2 cup shortening

About 4 cups sifted powdered sugar

2 to 3 tablespoons milk

1 teaspoon vanilla 

Food coloring 

Candy decoration, optional

Combine butter and shortening and beat until well blended. Add 2 cups powdered sugar and beat until mixture is smooth. Add milk and vanilla, beat until well blended. Add another 2 cups sugar and beat until smooth and well blended (Beat in more milk or powdered sugar if necessary to have a proper consistency for piping.) Add food color as desired. Pipe icing in a decorative pattern on top of cool cookies.  Add candy for decoration if desired. 

Other favorite things in Gulf Shores/Orange Beach, Alabama

THE BEACH

BOOZE  Click HERE for some of the best recipes.

OYSTERS Murder Point if you can get them.

and 

THE LODGE AT GULF STATE PARK

Located directly on the beach, within Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, this new kid on the block sets a high bar not only for State Park stays, but also upscale Alabama Gulf Coast accommodations. 

The property includes all of the amenities of a trio of different type accommodations. It’s a Hilton hotel that offers the brand’s exceptional service, room amenities and meeting spaces. It’s a state-owned lodge, with a casual, welcoming attitude focusing on nature, outdoor activities and environmental as well as sustainable issues. And it’s a luxury beachfront resort with all the enhancements instrumental to a fun-packed, waterside vacation.

Opened in 2018 to replace the original Lodge, built in 1974 and destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, the hotel/lodge/resort features 350 rooms including 20 suites; five dining options; an assortment of open-air or window-filled public spaces designed to maximize light and form a union between indoors and out.

For more information click below: 

THE SOUTHERN GRIND COFFEE HOUSE 

THE LODGE AT GULF STATE PARK

MURDER POINT OYSTERS 

 

 

CHOCOLATE BUTTERMILK CAKE–THE BEST

When I was teaching cooking classes a million years ago, I made a chocolate buttermilk cake in class that I loved above all other chocolate cakes. It was not too pretty being in one layer and served from the pan, but so good and easy to make that I adapted the recipe for my kids’ cookbook. 

Trouble is, when serving the cake, I always ate too much (weight ballooned), so I put the recipe aside and moved on to desserts that were not so addictive.

Lo and behold, several years ago a good friend told me that the cake is her go to cake for every birthday gathering. Also, I ran into a former student who said that she bakes the cake for all of her dinner parties. 

Inspired by their comments, I dusted off the recipe and made several versions (baking the cake in different size pans) for various casual Sunday-night supper parties. 

Surprisingly, each version— the cake baked in a bread-loaf pan, an 8-inch square pan and doubled from kids’ recipe to bake in a  9 X 13 -inch pan—produced slight differences in texture and even flavor. I liked them all (never will I admit to how much I ate). 

Here’s the recipe for the cake baked in a 9 X 13-inch pan.

Just FYI, depending on how it is cut, the cake will serve 20—or 3 others and me.

CHOCOLATE BUTTERMILK CAKE

Yield: About 20 servings.

For cake:

2 tablespoons shortening to grease pan  

1 cup butter 

5 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

1 cup water

2 cups granulated sugar

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup buttermilk

2 teaspoons vanilla

2 eggs

Grease a 13 x 9 x 2-inch pan and set aside. Preheat oven to 350°F.

Put butter, cocoa and water in a large saucepan. Set pan over high heat and bring mixture to a rapid boil, stirring constantly. 

Remove pan from heat. Without stirring add the following ingredients to mixture in pan: sugar, flour, baking soda, salt, buttermilk, vanilla and eggs. With an electric mixer, beat mixture for 2 minutes, occasional scraping sides of pan with a rubber spatula. 

Pour batter into greased pan. 

Set pan in center of preheated 350°F oven and bake until cake test done, 30 to 40 minutes. (see NOTE below).

Remove cake from oven and set aside while making icing.

For icing: 

1/2 cup butter

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

About 1/2 cup buttermilk

About 4 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted

1 teaspoon vanilla

Put butter, cocoa and 1/2 cup buttermilk in a medium saucepan. Set pan over medium heat and bring mixture just to a boil, stirring constantly.  Remove pan from heat, add 4 cups sugar and vanilla and beat with electric mixer until icing is smooth and well blended. The icing should be a bit loose and slightly runny.  If the icing is too thick, add a little more buttermilk; if too runny, add more sugar. 

Immediately pour the icing over the hot cake in the pan and spread to cover cake top. Let cake cool and icing set before cutting. 

NOTE: To test if cake is done, gently touch the surface of the center of the cake with your fingertip. If done, the cake will spring back with out leaving an indentation. OR insert a skewer or toothpick in center and, if done, the pick will come out of the cake clean, without streaks of batter.  

For other favorite chocolate recipes, click on name below:

Zingerman’s Hot Cocoa Cake 

 

Peter Merriman’s Chocolate Lover’s Torte

 

 

Patty Padawer Best Ever Brownies 

 

 

 

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA DESERT: ODD, OFFBEAT AND WEIRDLY WONDERFUL

Strange. Delightful. Bizarre. Wonderful. Wacky. Weird. All adjectives apply. Prepare for the unusual. Prepare for a road trip through the Southern California Desert to a world of majestic nature and eccentric communities with off-the grid living and post-apocalyptic-style art.  

Located about equal distance from San Diego and L.A.—sandwiched between Joshua Tree National Park and the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park—the destinations will raise your consciousness and spark your imagination. Prepare to be amazed when you visit any of the following:

The Salton Sea 

Located directly on the San Andreas Fault, the 350-something square-mile Salton Sea, the largest lake in California, was formed by accident in 1905 when flood waters escaped a nearby canal and sent the Colorado River into what was then a dry lake bed called the Salton Sink. Seeing opportunity to create a vacation playground, developers enhanced the lake with all sorts of amenities including restaurants, marinas and yacht clubs. At its peak in the 1950s, the Salton Sea attracted more visitors than Yosemite. Then two freakish tropical storms in late 70s flooded the area and the lake began its steep decline.

Today the Salton Sea is a mess with water that is so saline and toxic as to kill the fish and birds who eat them. Beaches reek with pulverized fish bones. Dry-bed dust pollutes the air.

The State of California is trying to address problems, without much luck, yet the lake remains a fascinating place for a drive-by visit as well as a reminder of once-upon-a-time glory and tragic decay. 

Around the Salton Sea

Bombay Beach

I was told that that the name Bombay Beach came from the bombs that were tested in the area by the U.S. military. Can’t verify the truth, but the tiny town that sits on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea seems to be all that remains from some destructive war. 

Despite its appearances, not all is desolate.

Artists, trying to draw attention to the disaster of the Salton Sea, are buying the ramshackle houses and turning them into installations and venues for exhibitions, performances and other cultural gatherings. Each spring the town hosts an ultra-hip, tongue-in-cheek Bombay Beach Biennale open to locals, friends and insiders in the art community.

Installation by Ken Scharf

 

“Drive-in”, by Stefan Ashkenazy, Shean Dale Taylor and Arwen Byrd

 

“Lodestar,” by Randy Polumbo

 

Bombay Beach Installation

At other times of the year, one can wander though town viewing the installations (some interesting, some provocative, some totally creepy) and stop for drinks and a hamburger at the Ski Inn, the town’s last remaining bar/restaurant. 

Salvation Mountain

Salvation Mountain rises from the dry desert like some sort of hallucinatory mirage in the middle of nowhere—or rather in Imperial County, just seven miles east of the Salton Sea at the entrance of Slab City.

Leonard Knight (who died in 2014), constructed the mountain and adjoining nooks and crannies with dirt, cement, sand, and adobe mixed with straw and then extravagantly painted the structures with biblical scripture. Knight called the complex, “The Museum.”  The Folk Art Society of America deems it a “folk art site.” But to me, Salvation Mountain is a visual pulpit drawing visitors from around the world, especially those venerating outsider art, folk art, the Bible and/or wildly eccentric man-made creations. 

Slab City

Located near Salvation Mountain, and built on the concrete slabs remaining from the abandoned Fort Dunlap World War II Marine Corps training base, Slab City is an off-the-grid community (without official running water, sewers, electricity, etc.), populated by squatters, artists, survivalists and retirees who decorate their space with assorted reused, recycled and repurposed materials. The city thrives in winter when snowbirds join the squatters, but heat diminishes the population in summer. I visited in 112°F, full sun when the city was at low population. What lingered in the heat took on the ambiance of a surreal homeless camp. Oh, yes, did I mention no air-conditioning. 

House of Dots Slab City

East Jesus

Located a short walk from Slab City, East Jesus has nothing to do with religion, but refers to being in “the middle of nowhere.” A rather rough and tumble place, East Jesus has been described in a number of ways including the charitable: “a sustainable, habitable, ever-changing art installation” and “a working model of an improbable improvised community at the edge of the world” and “a habitable cooperative compound” that is “a refuge for artists, musicians, survivalists, writers, scientists, laymen and other wandering geniuses.”  

Although East Jesus is a member of the California Museum Association, don’t expect anything like a traditional museum. The community—installations—ever changing work of art—or whatever you want to call it, is built with rough and rusty discarded junk-yard objects proving the saying that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

East Jesus welcomes visitors to not only view the art, but also add their own. And the community allows campers for a small fee—if they abide by the rules described in colorful language on their website.

East Jesus Art

Galleta Meadows Estates

As far as I can tell, Galleta Meadows Estates is privately owned land located about a two-hour drive east of San Diego within and around the village of Borrego Springs—itself located, like a donut hole, in the center of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The unfenced and open-to-the public land, surrounded by the State Park,  was bought by the now-deceased Dennis Avery (of Avery labels fortune) for conservation and to showcase a growing menagerie of massive metal sculptures that he commissioned from artist/welder Ricardo Breceda. Today, visitors can find about 138 sculptures that include wicked-looking dinosaurs, giant birds, sheep, wild mustangs, a sea dragon, some sloths with hair and a few humans. The pieces spread over a 10-square mile desert area like gigantic prehistoric beasts roaming at will. Some sculptures are easy to find, being close to the highway. Others seem hidden in desert pockets accessed by dusty, dirt roads. One can purchase a map (from various outlets in Borrego Springs) that pinpoints location of individual sculptures, but I like to drive around and be surprised when a creature pops up in the barren landscape. 

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT

The Salton Sea click HERE.

Salvation Mountain click HERE.

East Jesus click HERE.

Galleta Meadows Estate click HERE.

Southern California Desert Attractions click HERE.

Another weird and wonderful work of California art click HERE.

 

MELROSE UMBRELLA COMPANY AND MEZCALI ME BANANA COCKTAIL

Lucky me. When in Los Angeles, I live just around the corner from the Melrose Umbrella Company.

Melrose Umbrella Co. at 7465 Melrose Ave.

I watched the bar/restaurant open in 2013 and I watched it flourish happily ever after—winning customers for its casual atmosphere and fabulous creative cocktails. 

Here’s the company’s story—as photographed from their menu. 

 

My favorite cocktail remains the Mezcali Me Banana; its listed under “cocktails from the past” as it’s been a popular item for a long time.

 

In a spirit of generosity, General Manager Jonny Quintella wrote the recipe for me to pass along to you.

 

Then he revised what he wrote—several times.

As far as I can tell, below is the final interpretation.

But a word of warning when you are making this drink at home and/or ordering it at Melrose Umbrella Company. The drink inspires one to think like Mark Twain who said, “Sometimes too much to drink is barely enough,” but rest assured, the Mezcali Me Banana is as strong as it is luscious. Don’t drink and drive.

 

 

MEZCALI ME BANANA

Yield: One luscious cocktail

Rosemary salt

1-1/2 ounces mezcal

1/2 ounce grapefruit juice

1/4 ounce fresh lime juice

A generous 2 teaspoons prickly pear puree

2 teaspoons Banane du Brésil (banana liqueur)

2 teaspoon light agave

A sprig of rosemary, dipped into any high-proof spirit

Wet the rim of an old-fashioned glass and dip rim in rosemary salt. Fill glass with ice cubes.

Put all remaining ingredients (except rosemary) into cocktail shaker. Shake and strain over ice in glass. Dip rosemary sprig in a high-proof spirit (Umbrella Company uses the J. Wray and Nephew brand) and place on top of glass as a garnish.

 

WHAT AND WHERE TO EAT IN STRASBOURG

I only had a day in Strasbourg, which is a total disgrace for any serious traveler or food lover. I had been before, so I did a quickie catch-up tour of the city by walking around the postcard-perfect Petite France historic quarter, ogling the fairy tale houses stretched along the waterways formed by fingers of the Ill River.

I also checked out the magnificent Strasbourg Cathedral (although skipped the clock show).

That’s it. Enjoyed. Then I cut to the chase. 

Alsace is a region that ping pongs between Germany and France depending on which country won the last war. Influenced by both French and German tastes, Alsace’s cross-culture food specialities are hearty, a bit rustic and filled with unique flavors and Strasburg is the city for one stop sampling. I was especially eager to try the top trifecta of Alsatian specialties: 

TARTE FLAMBÉE or FLAMMEKUECHE,  a flatbread slathered with creme fraiche and topped with a variety of ingredients, most commonly onion, bacon and cheese.

CHOUCROUTE GARNIE, slivered cabbage (sauerkraut) pickled in Riesling and served in a mound surrounded by a variety of sausages, potatoes and slow-cooked pork products.

and 

PÂTÉ DE FOIE GRAS, a dish invented by a Strasbourg cook around 1780 and made from fatted-up (force-fed) geese or ducks.  (I know. Horrible animal abuse. I hate it too. On the other hand, eating pâté de foie gras is a centuries old Alsatian tradition and who am I to deny history.)

With so much to savor, so little time and so many restaurants, I asked several savvy-seeming locals where to eat. I requested a restaurant serving all three dishes, but not a hushed temple of gastronomy or an artisan darling of the hip and trendy. I wanted an unpretentious place seeped in history and popular with locals, where the food is not only authentic, but also delicious and not too expensive.

I took the advice of several rather plump locals and landed at Le Gruber.

Occupying a very beautiful centuries old building, Le Gruber sits in the historic center of Strasbourg and is filled with all of the congenial bustling charm of an old-fashioned Alsatian winstub. The large spacious restaurant is divided into several dining areas, all filled to capacity with paintings, dusty knickknacks and people.

An outdoor terrace provides tables for pretty-day dining. 

Although it may not be the highest rated Strasburg restaurant, I loved the atmosphere and the food. 

As advised, my husband and I ordered three different tarte flambées and shared so that we could taste a variety of toppings.

Keep in mind that this is NOT a pizza. The crust is thin as a dime and crispy around around the edges. Our toppings were all white and not ever over-stacked. Flavor profiles changed depending on the type cheese sprinkled on top. (For a good Flammkuchen recipe click HERE.)

As to choucroute garnie, I must say that I am addicted to the dish served at Brasserie Lipp in Paris, but Le Gruber’s was a bit better than the Paris version.

Le Gruber’s pâté de foie gras was make of duck. I like goose better. And I wasn’t crazy about the fruit compote that came on the side, but when spread on crispy toast, the creamy, rich, flavor packed foie gras was a luxury beyond compare.

I drank a dry, crisp local Riesling. (Oh sigh! Heaven.) 

Nearby Riesling Vineyards just after harvest.

My husband enjoyed the local beer. 

Colorful Beer Statue Decorating Le Gruber

For desert we stopped at Salon de the Christian for pastry and ice cream and then strolled over to Pain d’Epices Mireille Oster, a family-owned shop said to sell the best gingerbread in all of Europe. 

All was perfect! If ever I get stuck in my own Groundhog Day—this is the day I want to repeat. 

 

PENCK HOTEL DRESDEN GERMANY

I just stayed in a most interesting hotel. 

The Penck Hotel Dresden (Germany) features art, sculpture and the spirit of artist A.R. Penck. 

A.R. Penck

It’s hard for me to get a handle on Penck (also known by birth name, Ralf Winkler and pseudonyms Mike Hammer, T. M., Mickey Spilane, Y,  and Theodor Marx). The man of many names is also an artist of many talents. He’s been described as a painter, illustrator, sculptor, printmaker, filmmaker, jazz musician (drummer), neo-expressionist, “pioneer of non-conformist artistic self-assertion in the GDR,”  and “a creator working with aesthetic resistance to artistic repression.” Whew! The hotel is easier to explain. 

Located just a few minutes walk from the historic Old Town of Dresden, Germany, Penck hotel sports six floors, 174 rooms and suites- all profusely displaying original Penck art. 

Lobby in the Penck Hotel

Although built in 1995, the hotel was renovated in 2019 and all is sleekly modern and comfortable. Amenities such as a cosy bar and pleasant dining room serving a plentiful buffet breakfast and international as well as Saxon specialties add to the stay, as does the free Wifi and agreeable English-speaking staff. But it’s the unusual design and immersion in art that adds excitement.

Room elements include TVs embedded in large black sculptures, double beds with thick white comforters and bathrooms with yellow tile centered with turquoise polka dots, glass pedestal sinks and large egg shaped bathtub/shower combinations (good looking, but a bit dicey to climb into and out of).

Bedroom Penck Hotel

 

Bathroom Penck Hotel

The whole hotel serves as a museum to Penck. His colorful canvases and sculptures, often described as simplistic stick figures with protruding phalluses, fill walls and halls. Stairways, and corridors wear elements taken from Penck’s designs.

Lobby lighting leads to a bullet-shaped structure accented with  plaques describing the life and work of Penck. Information in both German and English tell us that he was born in Dresden in 1939 and died in Switzerland in 2017 and that he used his career as a social protest.

A plaque also explains that the enormous statue topping a corner of the roof extends a middle finger towards City Hall  where CDU ruled back in the 1990s. (There is no written explanation for the other appendage that is so apparent in the piece.)

I have stayed in other art hotels with great pleasure, but this one is a bit above and beyond. The hotel allows guests a personal and immersive look at  a world-famous Dresden native son, his life and the disturbing times in which he worked. Although it might not be to everyone’s taste, I found the art hotel wildly innovative and strangely attractive as well as welcoming and agreeable.

For more information click here: Penck Hotel Dresden.

Click below to read about other particularly wonderful art-filled hotels: 

21c Museum Hotels

Hotel Saint Louis (St. Louis, MO) 

The Santa Maria Hotel & Golf Resort (Panama City, Panama) 

Mabel Dodge Luhan House (Taos, NM) 

 

THE PANAMA HAT COCKTAIL 

Our pick for today’s happiest of happy hours is the luscious Panama Hat cocktail served at Salsipuedes Restaurant & Bar in the lovely Bristol Panama, a luxurious boutique hotel in Panama City, Panama.

(Notice the Panama hats suspended from ceiling.)

Panama Hats Ceiling Art

Panama Hats Ceiling Art

Policarpo

Invented by bartender Poli (Policarpo), and named for Panama’s iconic head gear—the cocktail is heads and shoulders above other of the city’s cocktails. It’s refreshing, somewhat sweet and full of flavor. 

But don’t take my word for it. Try one with this recipe, which was given to me by Poli himself. 

 

 

THE PAMAMA HAT

 

Yield: one serving.

Ice cubes

1/2 ounce Seco Herrerano

1/4 ounce Mandarine Napoleon Liqueur (or other Mandarin liqueur)

1/2 ounce simple syrup made with fresh ginger

1/2 ounce fresh lime juice

1/2 ounce fresh mandarin juice (tangerines and clementine are mandarins)

Splash club soda

Orange twist, garnish

Fresh mint, garnish

Put ice cubes in a tall glass, filling glass half full. Add all other ingredients except club soda and garnish. Stir gently. Top with club soda. Garnish with a twist of orange peel and fresh mint.  

SALUD!

 

 

For more about The Bristol Panama, click HERE.

For more about Salsipuedes, click HERE.

For an iconic Spanish pintxo (upscale tapa) to serve with this cocktail, click HERE.  

 

 

 

THE SPA AT GRAND VELAS RIVIERA MAYA, MEXICO AND SPA RECIPES

Drum roll please.  And the grandest of them all—the winner—the best of the best resort spa in all of Mexico is…ta-da: SE Spa at Grand Velas Riviera Maya.

Not that I’ve been to all the pampering places (unfortunately, something I must correct), but have been to enough to know that this one would be really hard to beat. 

Of course I love the facility, the Water Ceremony and the menu of dreamy treatments. In addition, I adored the refreshments offered while waiting for treatments. I’m talking candy here. More about that later, but first, let me tell you about the pure bliss of the spa pampering.

First comes the incredible Water Ceremony (free for guests who book a spa treatment of 50 minutes or more or $80 for those just wanting to use the spa facilities). 

I double dipped, treatment and ceremony and here’s how it went: 

Walkway to Grand Velas Spa

Reception Desk

I arrived 80 minutes before my treatment appointment, signed in and was greeted by my personal spa valet (yep, there is such a person)

Spa Valet

Men and women have separate facilities at Grand Velas Spa and my valet took me to the dressing room to change into a bathing suit and then on to the woman’s (literally totally hot and really cool) Water Ceremony circuit. First stop: the Sensory Pebble walkway which consisted of two long pebble lined corridors, one hot, the other cold. It was suggested that I walk  three rounds to stimulate the feet and legs, but I only managed one—not feeling warm and fuzzy about cold.

Next I plunged into the super sensational Dynamic Pool which was comfortably warm and outfitted with jets to massage shoulders, neck and back (to help circulate blood) and bubble beds (for super relaxing).

I could have lingered forever, but was eventually guided to a hot tub followed by a (quickie) cold plunge.  Then came the sauna infused with cinnamon for relaxing aromatherapy.  So nice! After heating up in the sauna, I cooled down in the aptly named Ice Room (yipes), then heated up again in a steam room followed by a Sensation Shower—a bi-thermal shower alternated hot and cold sprays. Last stop was the warm Clay Room where I slathered my body with clay and my hair with fragrant seaweed and white tea conditioner to be removed after awhile with a hand-held cool shower.

Each room diffused a different scent (lavender, eucalyptus and lemongrass among them) enveloping the body with relaxing aromatherapy. And the alternating hot-and-cold, sweat-and-shiver experiences balanced body temperature, stimulated circulation and detoxified. 

So surrounded by lovely scents, relaxed, detoxified, with body temperature balanced, hair conditioned, skin smoothed and blood circulating to the max I was shown to a relaxation area to await the spa’s signature Organic Kaab Honey Experience.

I could have stayed in the waiting room for several hours, drinking tea and eating candy, but I was collected for my treatment, which began with a secret ancient Mayan Ritual of healing and concluded with heaven-on-earth massage and tub soak.

I am not going to tell you how divine, pleasurable, fabulous and pampering the treatment was as jealousy can rear its ugly head and there is nothing remotely ugly associated with Grand Velas Spa. Suffice it to say, that the first thing to do when you get to Grand Velas Riviera Maya is book this honey of a treatment.

Although it’s a case of you have to be there to get the full benefit of Grand Velas Spa, here are two ways you can enjoy the spa’s pleasures at home. Grand Velas shared two candy recipes served in the spa’s relaxation/waiting rooms. I have not tested either recipe, but I devoured both candies and can certify  that they promote mind, body and spirit well-being. The Cacao Energy Bites, made with “super foods” are good for the body. The Toffee, enriched with butter, sugar and corn syrup, lusciously feeds the spirt and mind. And both are hot stuff to snack on when you want to chill out (my kind of chill thrill).

CACAO ENERGY BITES

16 dried dates

4 cups cashews

½ cup rolled oats

1/3 cup powdered cocoa

7 tablespoons honey

1 teaspoon coconut oil

1 teaspoon maca root powder

1 teaspoon acai

For toppings: amaranth, chia, hemp seeds and/or grated coconut

Chop the dates and nuts in a food processor until they are crumbly. Add the oats, cocoa, honey, coconut oil, maca root powder and acai mix well.  Pour the mixture into a bowl and mix until all ingredients are well combined. 

Form mixture into balls a little under an inch in diameter and coat with the topping of your choice.

TOFFEE SPA

1-1/2 cups unsalted butter plus additional butter to grease pan

2 cups brown sugar

1/4 cup water

3 tablespoons light corn syrup

1 teaspoon vanilla

8 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped

About 2 cups chopped almonds and/or other nuts, toasted

Butter an 11″ x 17″ baking sheet and place on a heat-proof surface.

Melt the butter in a heavy large saucepan over medium to medium-high heat. Stir in the sugar, water and corn syrup. Stir mixture until the sugar is completely dissolved. Once the mixture comes to a boil, stop stirring. Using a pastry brush dipped in water, wash down the sides of the pan to prevent any undissolved sugar crystals from coming into contact with the syrup. Attach a candy thermometer to the pan (do not allow tip of thermometer to touch the bottom of the pan). Without stirring, continue cooking to 300°F (hard crack stage).

When syrup reaches the hard crack stage, immediately remove from heat and stir in the vanilla. Pour onto the prepared baking sheet. Evenly sprinkle the toffee with chocolate; as soon as the chocolate is melted, spread with a spatula to cover toffee completely. Sprinkle evenly with the toasted nuts.

Cool completely and cut into bite-size pieces.

For more information about the AAA Five Diamond Grand Velas Riviera Maya ultra-luxury resort, click HERE.

For a cocktail recipe from the wonderful Grand Velas in Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico, click HERE. 

 

 

WHITE WINE SANGRIA HEADS-UP TO HAPPY HOUR

Friday feels like a fine time to share recipes for cocktails—-TGIF and all that. This is the first in what I hope to be a regular Friday high-spirited heads-up to happy hour featuring one luscious recipe from a hot/cool bar/restaurant.

We start with White Wine Sangria from Mita’s Restaurant/Bar in Cincinnati.

This gorgeous refreshing and unusual sangria seems the perfect summer drink and the recipe is enough to serve a party—big party.

Chef Jose Salazar

 

 

The sangria is also classic Mita’s, as Prize winning Chef Jose Salazar fills his 130-seat Cincinnati  restaurant with menu items that are Latin American inspired, beautiful, delicious and creative.

Here let me show you his stunning paella:

So here’s the recipe. Happy happy hour. DON’T DRINK AND DRIVE

 

For more information about Mita’s click HERE.

For other amazing cocktails click HERE and HERE  and HERE.