Wednesday, October 17, 2018

TMB Day 4: Resting and Digesting in Courmayeur

Day Four
July 20, 2018

Starting point: Courmayeur, Italy
Ending point: Courmayeur, Italy
Distance: 0 miles
Height gain: 0 feet
High point: 3rd floor of Hotel Edelweiss
Lunch: Le Vieux Pommier
Accommodation: Hotel Edelweiss

An inconspicuous sign at the top of the Col de la Seigne on Day 3 indicated that we had walked from France into Italy.  On the TMB trail, it was not immediately noticeable that we had crossed a national border besides the fact that people started saying "Buongiorno" rather than "Bonjour," but the moment we sat down to eat our first meal at the Rifugio Elisabetta was the moment we realized that we were definitely in Italia!  The Italians do not mess around with food - they are dead serious about what they put on the table.  As if we weren't already dying of happiness from the polenta, pizza, and cured meat plate from Day 3, the following "rest day" in Courmayeur turned into a gastronomic exploration into the cuisine of the Aosta Valley.  Courmayeur is a small Alpine resort town in northwest Italy, nestling at the foot of Mont Blanc in a region known as the Aosta Valley.  It ain't Rome, Venice, or Florence, but this town is somewhat of a hidden treasure with a vibrant local culture all its own.  We were really grateful to have a full day to relax and basically eat our way through Courmayeur after three very tough first days on the TMB.  Despite being a very small town, Courmayeur has so much to offer, with its intimate alpine atmosphere, its charming cobblestone streets, and those quaint yet exotic Fiat Panda Four-by-Four's.   In between snoozing and feasting, we learned so much about Italian culture in the just-over one day that we spent there.  

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Once Upon A Mooncake...

We both grew up with the tradition of eating Cantonese-style mooncakes (月餅) around this time each year, to symbolize the Mid-Autumn Festival.  Like all other Lunar-calendar-based holidays, the Mid-Autumn Festival falls on a different day every year.  The only reliable cue of its arrival is the appearance of mooncakes for sale at the Asian grocery stores.  I'm not sure how our parents decided on which ones to buy - there were so many different kinds, and they all look equally gorgeous to me. But one thing is for sure: our parents never bothered (or dared) to make these themselves. So, when Wes told me that he wanted to attempt this task, I knew that it would be a beast. He knew too, but when does this guy ever back down from a complicated cooking challenge?

Mooncakes consist of a thin, tender pastry skin enveloping a sweet, dense filling, and may contain one or more whole salted egg yolks in their center as the symbol of the full moon. They're intricately imprinted with floral patterns and characters representing longevity, harmony, etc.  I must be getting old, but I think that the ones from the store are extremely sweet, quite oily, and full of suspicious preservatives.  I figured that making them ourselves would give us control over all of those elements and some creative freedom. I have always fantasized of matcha-flavored mooncakes, so we experimented with that. I also do not like to eat the chalky and overly salty egg yolks, so I developed a recipe for a faux egg yolk using kabocha squash, which uncannily bears the same color.

This process was not without bumps in the road.  Sometimes, potholes.  It was almost impossible to find golden syrup. The black sesame filling did not come together. We hadn't thought of pre-soaking the red beans overnight.  We needed to find a spray bottle.  The coconut oil that we bought was not correct (should have bought virgin coconut oil, not filtered).  The kitchen scale was running low on batteries.  Conversions, fractions, division, multiplication, subtraction, plain old addition, and keeping track of all of those measurements... my brain was going to explode.  Our first batch turned out great-looking, but bad-tasting.  Our second batch turned out bad-looking, but great-tasting.  And our final batch turned out just right, thank the Lord.

And so begins the weeklong saga of stumbling our way through learning how to make our own mooncakes.