Sunday, August 30, 2009

Last Stop, Buffa.... I mean, Niagara Falls

We left Columbus and headed back to Cleveland so we could get one last look before moving on to our final stop before heading home, Buffalo, NY.

We chose Buffalo for two reasons:   Although having driven by Buffalo many times, neither of us had ever visited the city before, and it would give us a comfortable 6 hour drive home instead of trying to go straight through from Columbus.  We passed Cleveland and drove along Lake Erie, catching a glimpse of it occasionally.  We drove through a bit of Pennsylvania, and into upstate New York.  It's a peaceful and pretty drive, the scenery getting a bit more hilly, and apple orchards and vineyards dotting the landscape.

We made our way to Buffalo, and at first we were kind of excited.  It reminded me in many ways of Worcester, kind of a diamond in the rough as far as cities go.  We spotted some decent architecture - Steve nearly jumped out of the car when he saw a Louis Sullivan (his favorite architect) building, and we were there pretty early in the day - about 3:30 PM, plenty of time to go sightseeing.

Then things started to go wrong.  First, we got to our hotel and couldn't figure out where to park to unload the luggage.  Couldn't even find the entrance at first.  So we pulled over and Steve went walking around what we thought was the front of the building to get a luggage cart.  His first clue that this was not such a good idea was when he noticed the front of the hotel, housing a well-known chain restaurant, was locked up tighter than Fort Knox, big signs plastered all around "Restaurant Only Accessible From Inside Hotel".  Several homeless people approached him, looking for money.  Well, yeah, that can happen anywhere.  But every step he took into the hotel just felt wrong - then they tell him "parking available" meant three blocks away.  When we finally made our way into the hotel, the carpet was stained and dirty.  Our room was actually pretty decent, except for the Zenith television.  ("They don't even make Zenith tv's anymore!" I was told by one who knows his televisions).  Steve wasn't so sure about this place, so before I could tell him MY opinion, he headed down to the car to get the AAA books to see about going elsewhere.  His final straw was when the elevator got stuck.  My final straw had already been broken, when some woman waddled up to our car as I sat inside with my daughter, squatted and urinated on the sidewalk in front of us.

I'm pretty sympathetic.  I felt bad for her - your dignity has got to have flown the coop if you do something like that.   And even for Buffalo - like I said, we're from the Worcester area, and we see a side of Worcester that people passing through don't.  Your first impression of Worcester probably won't be a good one - it looks a bit unkempt, dirty, there is a homeless problem, a lot of urban youth pretending to be something they're not, and there are quite a few vacant businesses.  But there's also great architecture, history, museums, some truly beautiful neighborhoods, parks, friendly people, art, culture, ethnic diversity and some interesting businesses, including some of the best restaurants I've ever eaten at.  I didn't want to write off Buffalo based on a first impression, because I hate when people look down their noses at Worcester.

But apparently, a Zenith tv was too much to handle.

So we hit the road, and decided to head up to Niagara Falls in the hopes of finding a decent place to say.  And there, on the horizon, was a multi-colored beacon of hope.

The Seneca Casino.  We would have crossed over into Canada, but alas we don't have passports yet and you need 'em now.  So we called, booked a room (for $20 less than the one in Buffalo) and went inside.

We're not gamblers by any stretch, even if we had not had a four year old with us.  We just wanted a safe place to sleep, where we could grab a bite to eat.  The hotel portion turned out to be beautiful, really.  Nice woodwork, beautiful marble bath with a walk-in shower, nice furniture.  And a pretty decent view form the 22nd floor...
We decided to stretch our legs and walk down to the falls.  The actual city of Niagara Falls is all but dead - boarded up and empty.  But ten minutes from the hotel we arrived at a park that leads to the falls themselves.
It was clean and well-maintained, for the most part.
Lots of walking trails, and just past this statue....
You can start to hear the thunder of falling water nearby.  We walked a bit further, over a bridge and onto an island, and you start to see water, just starting to pick up speed.
If it weren't for the noise, getting louder and louder, you'd think you were at some little river.
But no....
And behind you is this...
It's amazing how close you can get.  In fact, Steve grabbed our girl's hand and wouldn't let go until we were far away from the edge.
And here's why!

Sheesh, I needed someone to hold my hand!  I get goosebumps thinking about standing there, that close to the falls.

Across the way (say hello to Canada!) was a cool sight - the old Niagara Power Station, below.
And we watched one of the Maid of The Mist tours at the base of the falls, and, in the upper right of this photo, shrouded in mist, the Cave of The Winds tourists also watching the Maid of The Mist tour below.

Either one could have been cool, but we were nervous about doing it with a little kid.

We headed back to the hotel, ate dinner where I had a wonderful piece of salmon and "ranch" mashed potatoes (had ranch dressing seasoning in them - they were good!).  We headed up to our room, and soon were all tucked into our beds.

Then at 10:00, we heard strange noises outside.  Car backfiring? Gunshots?  Nah! Sounded more like fireworks.

And it was!  We were treated to a nice fireworks display above the falls!  A perfect end to a (nearly) perfect vacation!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Blueberry Muffins From Outer Space...sort of

A few weeks ago, we went to Tougas Farm and did this...

There hadn't been a whole lot of good blueberry picking weather, but the sun and summer heat finally made their way to New England about three days before we went blueberry picking.

Growing up, we always went and picked wild blueberries that grew along the shore of a pond near where I grew up.  You had to walk about a half mile into the woods, then off the path, over fallen trees and brush, as critters scampered and snakes slithered out of the way and mosquitoes attacked.  It was an uphill walk...both ways.

This was much easier! In fact, once we got to our appointed blueberry picking place, I doubt we moved move than 5 feet in either direction - the blueberries were huge, ripe and plentiful.  And in about an hour, we had this...
Ten pounds, in fact!  And what better way to go through ten pounds of blueberries than to, once again, try to recapture and recreate that mythical legend from my childhood:

The Jordan Marsh Blueberry Muffin.

Sigh.  Sweeter than my first kiss...

Jordan Marsh was a department store here in the northeast, the most notable one was probably at Downtown Crossing in Boston.  But I grew up in the sticks, so the big city to us was Framingham and Natick, about 20 miles west of Boston, and a half hour drive from my hometown.  My sister, Susan, and my mom were shoppers at birth, so every weekend we would head to "the mall".  Natick Mall was a big rectangular indoor mall, two anchor stores - Filene's and Sears - on either end of an indoor concourse lined with smaller stores, including my favorite, Spencer Gifts, and my sister's favorite, Cherry, Webb & Touraine.  Shopper's World was an outdoor mall just up the street, two levels of stores with an outdoor common in the middle, and a huge domed building at one end.  That would be Jordan Marsh.
Macy's eventually bought the Jordan Marsh chain, and in the 1990's the old Shoppers' World was torn down to make room for the all too common glorified strip mall, with lots of big box retailers and chain restaurants.  Gone with it are many memories I had of the old one, such as Santa and his (live) reindeer making their annual appearance, the Easter bunny, who always brought with him a petting zoo of baby goats, sheep, ducks and chickens or the traveling aquarium, including dolphin show set up in the middle of the outdour area.  My sister gravitated towards Jordan Marsh, of course, for the shopping - these days you would compare it to somewhere between Macy's and Nordstrom's.  My favorite stops were at the Windsor Button Shop, packed with crafts, needlepoint and cross-stitch kits, yard, and of course, buttons and other sewing supplies, or the deli where we always stopped for lunch, where I tasted pastrami and lox for the first time (um, that would be on two different visits!), and frankly, I didn't care what I got for lunch so long as it came with one of those yummy half-sour pickles, right from the barrel.

But no matter how much we ate, there was always room for one more stop, and that was at the bakery inside Jordan Marsh.  You could smell it as you approached it, freshly baked goods all lined up in a display case.  It was impossible NOT to hear your stomach growl as you passed by on your way to housewares.  They had other breads, muffins and cookies, but I don't think we ever bought anything other than the Blueberry Muffins.

They were huge!  Rich, golden and cakelike on the inside, studded with blueberries, and the tops golden and crispy thanks to the generous sprinkling of sugar.  We would always by a half dozen, tucked away in a cardboard box, secured with white cotton string, to bring home.  But the aroma would follow us out to the car, and by the time we were passing through the tollbooth to get on the Mass Pike a half mile away, we would tear open the box and dig in.  A lot of people have memories that involve the back seat of a car...mine just happened to also involve Jordan Marsh Blueberry Muffins.  Yes, they were THAT good!

But the big spaceship that sprouted a beloved retail mall is long gone.  And in its wake, it left everyone who ever knew it with a lot of nostalgia...and a passion for blueberry muffins.
THE blueberry muffins.

I've seen fistfights between little old ladies at church, each one claiming to hold the secret recipe.  Well, maybe I exaggerate slightly, but everyone claims to have THE recipe, and it makes its appearance in every community fundraiser cookbook around here.  It's kind of funny to listen to the debate..

Beulah:  "You CRUSH half the blueberries before mixing them into the batter..."

Myrtle:  "That's STUPID, Beulah! You'd have purple muffins! I never ate a purple muffin from Jahden Mah-sh.."

Or perhaps...

Myrtle: "It's buttah..."

Beulah:  "Thats RIDICULOUS, Myrtle!  Everyone knows it's shortening..."

Loretta:  "I think it's a combination of buttah and shortening..."

Myrtle: "Oh hush up, Loretta.  You probably smash up half your blueberries, too..."

Truth is, I probably wouldn't know a true Jordan Marsh Blueberry Muffin if it walked up to me and slapped me in the face, but one thing's for sure.  With every blueberry I buy or pick, the memories come back, and it's the first thing I want to make with my newly acquired berries.
So as some of our sun-sweet blueberry loot was settling into its new home in my freezer,  we took some of the fresh ones and flipped through a spiral-bound church fundraiser cookbook until we found this:

Jordan Marsh Blueberry Muffins
2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 cup milk
2 1/2 cups blueberries, dusted with flour
Additional 2 tsp. sugar (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
In a small bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt; set aside.
Cream together butter and sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy.
Blend in eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition.
Blend in vanilla and milk.
Stir in flour mixture until just blended, then fold in blueberries.
Line muffin tins with paper liners.  Spoon in batter, filling each cup nearly full. Sprinkle with sugar, if desired.
Bake for 30 minutes, then let cool on  wire rack for at least 30 minutes before removing from pan.

Here's they are before baking.  The batter is so thick and rich, you just know these are going to be good!
And just out of the oven...Mmmm! They sure smelled like real Jordan Marsh Muffins!

My final verdict?  The first bite or two certainly did make me think of those good ol' days, and for a moment I thought these were it.  But something was missing.  I just can't decide if it was something  to do with the recipe, of perhaps it was lacking the other memories associated with our weekly trips to Shoppers' World, to the magical dome with the out of this world blueberry muffins.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Maple Walnut Zucchini Bars

I have two "Eureka!" recipes trapped in my head at the moment.   Somewhere along the line something inspired me and I become obsessed with creating it, yet it remains ever so slightly elusive.

This is one of them, realized.
Well, sort of.....

 Inspired by something I found in my cupboard...
And an abundance of zucchini!

I think I bought this maple flavoring to make maple walnut fudge a couple years ago, but otherwise I really haven't thought of a use for it.  I love maple flavor, so I use my beloved pure maple syrup when the mood hits, but in all honestly the maple flavor tends to "burn off" in baked goods.  So, I guess that's why they invented this give cakes, cookies and fudge that little extra maple "oomph".

Meanwhile, my zucchini appears to be growing overnight.  I wouldn't say I'm inundated with it, like some folks are, but I sure am running out of ideas.    I was pondering the zucchini brownie recipes over at Allrecipes, when it hit me.

How about a fudgy-brownie like bar, but not chocolate.  Rather, a blondie...a maple blondie..a maple WALNUT blondie....with chunks of white chocolate...and zucchini.

Well, as usual, my first try did not yield the results I was hoping for - I need to brush up on the science of baking.  The texture was more cake-like than brownie-like, and it's probably because I was so afraid of ending up with a goopy mess that I went ahead and increased the flour and added some baking powder.  I poured the batter into my originally chosen 8" x 8" baking dish - knew it didn't look right, as the batter was way too thick - so I scraped it into am 8 1/2" by 11" pan.  It was a step in the right direction! 

While not exactly "brownies", they're not quite thick enough to be "cake".   But I ended up with something that falls somewhere in between.

Here's what I came up with:

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup butter, melted
3/4 cup light brown sugar
2 eggs
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
1 tsp. artificial maple flavoring
1 cup shredded zucchini
1 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup white chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350*F.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt; set aside.
In another bowl, beat butter and brown sugar until well-blended.  Beat in eggs, one at a time, then maple flavoring and maple syrup until blended.
Stir in flour mixture until just blended.
Squeeze excess liquid out of zucchini, then add the zucchini to the batter and stir in.  Stir in walnuts and white chocolate chips.
Pour into greased 8 1/2" x 11" baking dish.  Bake for 30 minutes, or until tester inserted near center comes out clean.  Let cool on baking rack.  Cut into squares.
All in all, a success!  The maple flavor is there, and so is the aroma.  I still have that fudgy-like version in my mind, but for now I'm pretty happy with these!  I was thinking of adding a maple glaze or drizzle, but these are pretty sweet as is, so I skipped it.

So, now that I can put this one to rest for a while, now I can concentrate on that OTHER recipe inspired by this....

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ye Olde Stone Church

I've lived in this central Massachusetts area for nearly fifteen years now.  Before that, I pretty much lived in the same small town for thirty years, so when I got here I had a lot of fun driving around and checking out the scenery.
This was one of the first things I saw that made me say "Oh cool!!"

This is the Old Stone Church, located in the nearby town of West Boylston, on the shores of the Wachusett Reservoir.
It was a beautiful, sunny day, around the time that This Stop Willoughby encouraged us to share some of our "cheap thrills", a day trip that would cost no more that $20.  The first thing that popped into my mind was The Old Stone Church.   I often drive by and see people fishing or having a picnic, but until this day I had never even stopped my car.  I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to do so, and later share with you folks!

This is the view as you head down the path towards the church.
I always tell my husband, the firefighter with a degree in architecture, that I don't know architecture, but I know what I like.  And this is a perfect example of what I like.  I call it "castle-y" - classic, stone buildings, I suppose you'd call them gothic.
To me, it's the type of design that will never go out of style.
The stained glass windows are long gone, but you can still go inside, and one your way in, you'll look up to read this.
The church is the last remaining building of what once was the main drag of the town.  Mills, factories, houses and farms were cleared to make way for the reservoir, but the church was left.  Well, supposedly...I've also heard it was disassembled and rebuilt after the reservoir was created, but I like the other, somewhat more romantic and mystical version of the story.
While the outside, windowless as it may be, is beautiful enough for scores of area brides and grooms to choose to have their wedding photos taken her, the inside is pretty rustic.
I didn't get a shot of the floor, and maybe that's a good thing - it's dirt and gravel, with a few cigarette butts and trash scattered around, although volunteers are here frequently to help maintain it.
On the side that faces the reservoir is a huge American flag - it was placed there in 2001, shortly after 9-11.  At night, spotlights light up the area and you can see the flag from across the water.  It's a very touching sight, and even during daylight hours it stirs the emotions.
The reservoir itself is huge - the church sits on what is really just a small inlet.  The bulk of the reservoir is beyond the causeway you see here on the horizon.  There have been bald eagles sighted all around the reservoir (but not by me....yet!), and nearby are some thick woods where each year several moose are spotted.  I have seen two or three of those suckers!
Nearby is a small, local airport.  A flying club meets there and you can actually pop in a get a ride in a glider - one plane will tow the glider up into the air, release it and the glider will gently float around until it makes it's way back to the airstrip.  Today, it was just a single plane out for a ride.
There's a nearby picnic area...
...and a hot dog vendor sets up shop there regularly.
But I think I'd rather bring my own picnic lunch, spread out a blanket and enjoy the scenery near the shore.

Ten minutes from my house, yet it seems like a million miles away, this little hidden gem in small town Massachusetts.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Planes Planes Everywhere....

Before our daughter came along, we did the majority of our traveling with our longtime friends, Mike and Tracy.  The four of us, aside from being good friends and having a lot in common, traveled very well together for two main reasons:
1.)  We all love food - as long as vacation included a few good meals, we were happy.
2.)  We made a point of having each one of us browse through the AAA guide or look on-line to pick one attraction or activity that each individual really wanted to see, and add it to the itinerary.
As a family, we do that now.  Each trip, of course, has to include child-friendly stops, but we also try to include something for Mom and something for Dad.
This was Dad's.
My husband, although never having served in any branch of the military, has a thing for military aircraft, so naturally we go to a lot of air shows (which in our neck of the woods, have been put on hold until 2012) and any type of air/space museum.  After checking off the two in Washington, DC two years ago, the next one on our list was the National Air Force Museum just outside of Dayton, OH.  

And, since we just happened to be in Ohio, we dedicated our last full day in Ohio to having Steve fulfill his dream.... 
 The museum is a huge facility, basically a couple of hangars, jam-packed with planes.  Now, I don't know a P-51 from a XB-70, so there's no way I can identify all of these planes for you, nor do I have enough space to post the 650 photos we took (we, meaning mostly hubby).  Plus, the lighting in most of the museum is shadowy, at best, so many of my photos are dark.  But as usual, even though my interest in aviation ends at "Oh, that looks cool", I found that if you open your mind and your eyes, chances are there's something to interest everyone.

The self-guided tour takes you chronologically through the history of military aviation.  Actually, even earlier than that, for Wilbur and Orville Wright lived in Ohio, so the first exhibits are models of their aircraft.  After that, it turns mostly military, starting with World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and all the way up through the Gulf Wars.  All along the way are volunteers, 99% of whom are veterans (who I just love talking to), eager to give you directions through the sprawling museum, advise you of upcoming tours or events, or just plain tell you a little of their own story.

This is one of those museums that, even if you have no real interest in the subject matter, you have to appreciate the sheer number of exhibits.  There was a "Women In Flight" exhibit, a Holocaust exhibit, a replica of the air traffic control tower at LAX, and naturally, a lot of educational exhibits based upon any war the U.S. was involved with that included aviation, including the Cold War years.

Did I mention there were a lot of planes?

One of the volunteer guides told us that they are slowing transitioning to making many of the plane exhibits a little more interesting...
There were several like this one, telling a story, and it really made it more interesting for us novices!
"Mommy?  Why is the Daddy yelling at the boy?"
"Because he crashed the airplane, honey."

They are even in the process of restoring the Memphis Belle, however she's not available for viewing right now.  If you happen to visit on a Friday, though, you can sign up for a tour to see the restoration in progress.  We were there on a Tuesday. :(

There were some interesting little touches, too. - like this quilt commemorating the USAF.  It was huge! And very beautiful.

Well into the WWII section, I happened across something that caught my interest.

During WWII, my Dad served in the Army, initially being sent to northern Africa in 1943, then transferring to the 988th Signal Corp and heading into in the China-Burma-India Theater.  Growing up, I never really knew what that part of the war was all about - my high school history teacher talked about Pearl Harbor and Nazi Germany, and that was it.  My Dad isn't the type of guy to talk about it, other than to share stories of the time a black panther ran across their path in the jungle,  or that his friend had died there, not in combat, but rather when his truck lost its brakes and plummeted over the edge of a cliff.   All I knew were those stories, and the fact that my Dad never ate rice again after coming home in 1945.

Oh!  And that General Joseph Stilwell once yelled at my Dad.  Cool, huh? :)

ANYWAY, I could - and should - dedicate a lengthy blog post to my Dad someday, but meanwhile, at the Air Force Museum I was happy to see this exhibit on CBI:
Now of course, this is an Air Force museum, not Army, but I thought these pictures were really neat!  Look at the elephant helping out!

My Dad mentioned seeing, of course, the panther, a tiger, and they used a lot of mules, also, to traverse the area that was not yet suited for trucks.   But no elephants.  Although, in books I've read it does mention that they were used a lot to clear the jungle.

It was neat seeing pictures of the places he had been, and getting a little more insight into what it must have been like for him there.

Meanwhile, Steve was skipping through the museum like a kid at Disney, because he had managed to snag the last three seats on the bus ride to "The Presidential and Experimental Hanger".   Well, ok, I thought to myself, it will be cool to see some of the Air Force One planes and experimental aircraft.  We eventually boarded a bus - with no air conditioning and windows that wouldn't open, to make the short trip to the active part of the base where these exhibits were.  I couldn't take any pictures outside because it is an active AFB, and photography is prohibited.  I have to admit, it was pretty cool!  You can - literally - reach out and touch these planes, while in the main museum they are safely tucked away behind barriers, surrounded by "Do Not Touch" signs.

Not so, here.

They even remind you to watch your head!
And here it is....the moment Steve had been waiting for.
This is the XB-70, one of the world's most exotic airplanes.

Aw heck, you read about it - I'll probably mess it up!

The only downside was it's crammed into such a small area, with so many other aircraft, that we couldn't get a good picture of it.  But Steve was happy to finally see it in real life.

In the other hanger was the Presidential exhibit, including the "Air Force One" planes of JFK, FDR and a small one belonging to Eisenhower.  You can actually walk through JFK's and FDR's  but everything's encased in plexiglass leaving a 17" passageway at some points.  Translation: If you tend to get claustrophobic, you might want to stay outside the plane!

We took the bus back to the main museum, shopped in the gift shop then headed back to Columbus.  On the way out, we noticed a little memorial park, and ironically the thing that caught my eye was this.
Again, not Army, but still nice to see another acknowledgement of China Burma India. :)

Oh, and the other great thing about this museum - it's free!