Thanksgiving in Big Bend, Pt. 2

Though day one of our Big Bend vacation was one of our trip highlights, days two and three certainly did not disappoint.

On our second day, after a foggy, relaxed morning at the campsite drinking coffee and eating pumpkin pie, we headed down the mountain to explore the valley below on our first ever desert hike.

A moderate hike to a series of prominent volcanic dike formations, the Chimneys Trail is well-known for Indian rock art marks at the base of its iconic, chimney pinnacles. Surrounded by various types of cacti and other short, brushy desert plants we were unfamiliar with, the first bit of this hike was interesting, but in all honestly, I was over this hike halfway before it was done. Once we made it to chimneys and explored the petroglyphs and evidence of camp settlements, we high tailed it back to our car and ventured on to the more exciting part of our day.

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From the desert we headed along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive for more beautiful views and a visit to the Santa Elena Canyon. Towering 1,500 feet over the Rio Grande, the Santa Elena Canyon is one of the most dramatic canyons in the park, and was a breathtaking site to see. We’d originally planned to take a rafting trip down the river through the canyon, but not wanting to jam pack our schedule, we decided to save that trip for our next visit. Now after seeing just a glimpse of the canyon’s beauty, that’s a rafting trip I can hardly wait to take.

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On our third and final full day in the park, we woke before the sun and set off for one of the most challenging and rewarding hikes I have ever done. The South Rim Trail,  a strenuous 14.5 mile loop along the south rim of the Chisos Mountains, was well worth the 2,000 foot elevation gain, steep and never-ending switchbacks, and a nerve-racking bear encounter.

Starting off brushy and dry in the basin of the Chisos, the hike soon turned green as we quickly ascended a couple thousand feet into the mountains. Next to cacti we saw Pines, as well as Firs, Aspens, and Maples. The first couple of hours our feet saw red dirt, and then suddenly the bright colors of Fall.

Finally, when we thought our knees could no longer take it,  we made it to the mountain ridge where we were rewarded with panoramic views of the mountains and the Chihuahuan Desert. Fighting with the fog, we took our time on this part of hike, resting and eating lunch, and peeking through the clouds into the world below. Then, just before we descended the mountain, the sun finally won, offering us front row seats to Big Bend’s most stunning vistas.

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Though the second half of the hike was just as pretty as the first, I barely remember it as I was just ready to get off the mountain. With a bad knee, hiking downhill is much worse than going up, and if we’re being totally honest, we both just couldn’t wait for a burger and an icy cold beer.

The last mile of the hike I felt exhausted, yet energized, as I powered my way back to the car proud of what I had just accomplished. After a visit to our campsite and a quick decision that we were too tired to cook, we headed to the Chisos Mountain Lodge and ended our adventure with that well deserved burger and beer.

We went to bed that night exhausted and sore, and woke the next day surprisingly rested. Trying to extend our trip just a little bit longer, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of pancakes and bacon, and then eventually, knowing we had to go home, packed up camp and made our way back to Austin.

Though I was tired on Monday and still a little sore from our hikes, our short trip to Big Bend was well worth it. Each year our Thanksgiving celebrations seem to get a little more unique, and I am totally okay with that. A plate of turkey and stuffing is just as good in the great outdoors, if not even just a little bit better…

 

 

 

 

Thanksgiving in Big Bend, Pt. 1

 

The first time I ever experienced a major holiday away from home was our first year living in Boston.

Though my heart longed to spend that Thanksgiving with my family, knowing we’d  soon be heading home for Christmas, we instead went to New York where we spent the holiday with some of Jacob’s relatives.

That Thanksgiving was a bit unusual for me as we celebrated as a party of 10 or so,  instead of a party of 50, but it was quiet, and relaxing, and truly one of my most memorable holidays.

Living in a big city at that time, I was quite used to cooking in a kitchen the size of a closet, so spending a long weekend in a spacious, country home was a dream. I still remember vividly making my first totally from scratch green bean casserole, and some amazing brussels sprouts dish I prepared from one of Jacob’s aunt’s magazines.

I spent most of that day in the kitchen with his aunt, laughing and talking and getting to know her more closely. By the end of that day I no longer felt so homesick, and settled in that night grateful for family, when the rest of mine was so far away.

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Last year marked another interesting holiday. Back to a small celebration, we spent Thanksgiving here in Austin with our pup, my parents, and their small dog L.E. A table of four felt so small, but it was a memorable experience to be able to cook my first full Thanksgiving meal and host my own family.

The turkey was flavorful and moist, the pumpkin pie was divine, and again, the peace and quiet was amazing.

Growing accustomed to these small and peaceful Thanksgiving celebrations, this year, we decided to have our most untraditional Thanksgiving yet, spending it in the desert for a long weekend of camping.

Still wanting a somewhat traditional holiday, I decided to cook a full Thanksgiving spread before we left town to enjoy on Thanksgiving day. Having roasted a 12 pound bird (for only two people), preparing stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, a casserole, and a pie, I had big expectations about our Thanksgiving meal, and even bigger ideas about what this blog post would look like.

I envisioned pictures of our plates with jagged mountain peaks in the background; shots of the cheese course centered on the picnic table surrounded by cups of wine. I thought i’d show artistic photos of our tent and the campfire, and then talk about how fun and manageable it was to celebrate a holiday in the great outdoors.

This is not how this post is going to go.

Instead of  this romanticized, idealistic Thanksgiving I had envisioned, we spent the holiday in Mexico, where we had our most memorable Thanksgiving yet.

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Settled in Southwest Texas, Big Bend National park features sweeping desert landscapes, dramatic canyons, rugged mountains, and shares 118 miles of its park boundary with Chihuahua and Coahuila Mexico. Knowing that there was a border crossing located within the park, we knew that stepping over into Mexico was something we wanted to do during our trip, we just didn’t expect our time there to be all that is was.

An isolated and primitive outpost amidst a vast wilderness, 150 miles from any major town on either side of the border lies Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico.

Once a town of around 300, because of the border closure in 2002 (due to the events of 9/11), by 2006, the population of Boquillas dropped to around only 90 residents. Eleven years later in 2013, the border reopened, helping to revive Boquillas’ population, which is now home to about 200 people.

Besides for two small restaurants and one bar, there’s not much to see or do here, but wanting this tiny tourist town to succeed, the Mexican government has done what they can, providing supplies to fix older buildings, and paint to freshen up the look of the place. And finally, in 2015, solar panels were installed so that residents could enjoy reliable electricity…

Our journey to Boquillas started at the U.S. Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry where we learned the rules about crossing over into Mexico (don’t bring back alcohol, rocks, etc…) From there, we hopped an “international ferry” and were transported 15 yards away across a knee deep river. After politely saying no to a man with a burro offering us a ride, we walked the quarter of a mile into town and started our adventure in Mexico.

Once arriving to town and checking in with customs, we decided on one of the two restaurant choices (both I believe are owned by the same family, serve the same food,  and are are literally just across the dusty road from each other), and grabbed a spot outside in the shade to enjoy the views and excitement.

For lunch we had tacos with teeny fried flour tortillas and a plate of tamales, and washed it all down with a couple of potent margaritas. We enjoyed live entertainment, AKA a man with a very out of tune guitar, made friends with strangers (who just happened to originally be from Austin), and enjoyed the company of a lively local.

Esteban was the man who originally offered us a ride on his burro, and after spending lunch talking with him, I was disappointed we didn’t accept. Over a peach juice and a couple of Carta Blancas, Esteban told us about his time in Boquillas (he has lived there his entire life), about his mountain guiding services, and about how he walks four days through the desert each year to the nearest town for some extra work.

In the midst of all the hatred we’ve seen towards immigrants and minorities this election season, Esteban was a breath of fresh air. His authenticity and kindness was refreshing, and our time spent with him was one of the best parts of our day.

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After buying a copper scorpion from Esteban and bidding him farewell, we left with our new Texan friends and their guide to take a short tour of the town. We saw the small church and school, water supply tank, and solar panels before finding ourselves in the town’s only cantina where we enjoyed more good conversation over a couple of shots of Sotol. Coming from an unmarked bottle behind the counter, similar to tequila, Sotol is distilled from the dasylirion wheeleri plant native the Northern Mexico. It was smooth, tasty, and was probably safer to drink than the water. Even if the bottle did look a little sketchy…

After an hour or so of getting to know our new friends and a round of Carta Blancas, we hurried our way back across the river, just barely in time for the border closing, and continued our random Thanksgiving day at some hot springs nearby.

Finally, around 7:00 pm when the sky grew dark, we drove the hour back to our campsite to enjoy our Thanksgiving meal. After quickly reheating the food I worked so hard to prepare, I took one lame picture of my plate in the dark, and then crawled into the tent for bed before 9:00. By the time Jacob had returned from cleaning the dishes, I was sound asleep, dreaming of tacos, and our Thanksgiving adventure in Mexico.

Back to the Basics: Homemade Whipped Cream and Pie Dough

There is no dessert more classic at Thanksgiving than a pie, and no better topping for a pie than whipped cream. As many of us will soon be indulging in our favorite holiday desserts, I thought I would share a couple of recipes to help put your pies over the top.

It never fails to surprise me how many people can’t (or don’t…or won’t) make their own whipped cream. It’s one of the easiest recipes I’ve ever made and only requires ONE ingredient. It tastes much better than store bought whipped cream, and though I haven’t compared the prices, a container of heavy whipping cream is pretty cheap. If you can make a pie, I promise you, you can make homemade whipped cream.

While really, all that’s necessary is heavy whipping cream, it’s common to sprinkle in a little sugar to sweeten up the taste. Sometimes, I switch it up a bit and use maple syrup instead of sugar, or maybe add some vanilla or a splash of bourbon, but really, a classic sugar/cream whipped cream is hard to beat.

If you have a stand mixer, this is seriously the easiest recipe in the world. Just put your cream and sugar in your mixing bowl, turn your mixer on high, and in about two to three minutes, you’ll have yourself a glorious bowl of whipped cream. If you don’t have a stand mixer, a hand mixer works great as well. It might take a few minutes longer, and it’ll help if you freeze your bowl and beaters for about 15 minutes before you start, but that is still a pretty simple recipe if you ask me.

If you are whipping by hand, you rock! You deserve a big spoonful of cream (and maybe a shot of bourbon) once you are done. If you choose this route, you’ll certainly want to stick your bowl and beaters in the freezer for a few minutes before you start. It’ll help you out and cool you down while you work.

whipped-cream


Homemade Whipped Cream

yields 1 1/2 – 2 cups whipped cream

Ingredients 

2 tbsp sugar

1 c heavy whipping cream

Directions

Whisk together cream and sugar in a mixing bowl until soft peaks form.


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Though slightly harder and a little more work, homemade pie dough is another simple recipe that every cook should know how to make. You have to plan a bit ahead on this one as your dough needs time to chill, but if truly in a hurry, a freezer usually helps to do the trick. Most recipes will ask you to chill your dough in the refrigerator for a minimum of one hour (I recommend this as well), but I’ve been in a cinch a time or two where chilling my dough in the freezer for 30 minutes worked.

Unlike whipped cream, there’s a bit of a deeper science to creating a great pie dough, so I will let the professionals walk you through this one. For galettes and tarts, I enjoy Bon Appétit’s Basic Tart Dough, and for flaky pies, I favor Smitten Kitchen’s All Butter, Really Flaky Pie Dough all the way. If you are into graham cracker crusts, ole Deb Perelman also has a great recipe for that. It’s my favorite for cheesecakes and pumpkin pies!

As you prepare your desserts this holiday season, I encourage you to give your own whipped cream and pie crust a try. Intimated by the dough? Start small with the cream. It’ll put your dish over the top and leave your guests hungry for more. If you feel a bit nervous about making your own pie dough, Christmas is still a month away. That leaves you plenty of time to practice!

Bon appétit and happy Thanksgiving!

Bourbon Pumpkin Cheesecake (Pie)

 

As November comes to an end I reflect on all that I have to be thankful for. Which really, is a lot. I’ve realized this month how fortunate I really am. Too often I stress about the things that I don’t have, when really, I should be glad for the things that I do.

This Thanksgiving I was particularly thankful to celebrate with family. I felt a constant pang of sadness last year during the holiday as it was my first time celebrating away from home. Fortunately for us, our closest family members are only three hours away. So this year we packed our bags and headed South. We spent four wonderful nights in Chappaqua, New York, with our family the Shiners. Jacob’s aunt and uncle (my aunt and uncle-in-law?) were the best of hosts. They made our weekend escape feel like a grand getaway. Even though we were only miles away from NYC, we spent most of our time at home. Exactly where I wanted to be. Sometimes it’s just nice to sit around and do nothing, you know?

Gobble, Gobble! 

This Thanksgiving may have been one of my favorites yet. I got to spend it just where  I wanted to be: in the kitchen. This was the first year that I was able to actively take part in a Thanksgiving meal. While yes, I always assisted my mother in the kitchen for our own Thanksgiving dinners, this year I actually got to put my culinary creativity to work. I helped with the brussels sprouts hash, made my first green bean casserole completely from scratch, and whipped up this delectable cheesecake (pie). A cheesecake isn’t so much a cake as it is a pie, right? 

I have to admit that I was a little intimidated with this one. Not only was this my first time making this recipe, this was my first time making a cheesecake. I’ve personally never been a fan of homemade cheesecakes. The consistency has never seemed right to me. Well, not to toot my own horn, but after this baby, I am now a believer in homemade cheesecake! I can’t wait to whip up another one. I’m thinking of trying this Ginger Beer Cheesecake recipe next. Who’s comin’ over?!

Although perfect after a big plate of turkey, this cheesecake is sure to be enjoyed all autumn long. In fact, I may break the “autumn = pumpkin” rule and make another for Christmas day. Who ever said pumpkin can’t be enjoyed all year long?

Find this week’s pie recipe here, then be sure to check back later in the week for the last recipe of my pie segment: Maple Walnut Pie – Yum!

Toasted Marshmallow Sweet Potato Pie

Sweet potatoes are a Thanksgiving classic. Mash ‘em with some sugar, pecans, and marshmallows and it’s unclear as to whether you have a side or dessert. Though sweet enough to earn a place among the pies, my turkey just isn’t complete if not accompanied by a huge dollop of sweet potato casserole.

I’ve had sweet potatoes mashed, hashed, and baked, but never before in a pie. Apparently in these parts sweet potato pie is a regular contender on Thanksgiving menus, but before two days ago, I had never tried such a thing.

The verdict: it tastes an awfully lot like pumpkin pie. Really, if I didn’t make it myself I wouldn’t have believed that it was made with sweet potatoes. That’s totally okay with me though as a good pumpkin pie makes me weak in the knees.

Sweet potato or pumpkin?? 

Before I go on telling you anymore about this pie, I have to tell you a little secret. A secret that I am not proud of, but nonetheless, a secret that must be told…

I used store bought crust. *Gasps*

I had every intention to make my own crust, I swear. I had my flour measured out, my butter good and chilled, and my food processor set and ready to go. Then, I stumbled across one little detail in the recipe that sent me digging through the freezer. Unlike other dough that I have made before, this dough required four hours of chilling, unlike the 20 minutes that I was accustomed to. Seeing as how it was already 5:30 on a Saturday night, I had somewhere to be in two hours, and needed the pie first thing in the morning, it looked like frozen piecrust was the only reasonable answer. I guess I could have always found another piecrust recipe to make, but I was really adamant on following the recipe at hand.

I sure do appreciate a good homemade crust, but I’ll tell you what, I can see why so many people are thankful for premade piecrust. It really makes things a piece of cake pie.

Close enough in taste to the familiar pumpkin pie, but just visually different enough, this pie is sure to be a hit at any Thanksgiving meal.

Just be sure not to overbrown your marshmallows like I did…

Although, we all know that near burnt marshmallows are the best anyway, right?

Toasted Marshmallow Sweet Potato Pie

Adapted from the Food Network 

1 disk dough Cream Cheese Crust 
All-purpose flour, for dusting
1 15-ounce can sweet potato puree
1 cup evaporated milk
2/3 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice

1 cup mini marshmallows

Roll out the dough into a 12-inch round on a lightly floured surface. Ease into a 9-inch pie plate; fold the overhang under itself and crimp. Chill 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Prick the bottom of the crust with a fork. Line with foil, fill with pie weights, and bake until the edges are golden, about 20 minutes. Remove the weights and foil and bake 10 more minutes. Cool on a rack.

Whisk the sweet potato, evaporated milk, sugar, eggs and spices in a bowl; pour into the crust. Bake until the center is just barely set, about 1 hour. (Cover the edges with foil if they brown too quickly.) Cool on a rack.

Top with 1 cup mini marshmallows (or large marshmallows cut in half if you happen to go to four grocery stores and they are all out of mini marshmallows!) and broil or torch until golden brown.

What’s on your Thanksgiving menu this year?

 

A Month of Pie

November. A month of many things. Beards, turkeys, and tasty fall brews. Pilgrims, sweaters, and a maybe a pie or two.

No other dessert says autumn quite like a pie. The plums, pears, apples, cranberries and gourds now filling grocery store bins are calling my name. The harvest is finished and it’s time to get cookin’.

I had my fun with a few pumpkin pie recipes last November, but they were all pretty basic. To be honest, I am a little intimidated by pies. A pie done right can look quite beautiful. Pretty foods just seem to taste better. Though that isn’t always the case, I am naturally drawn to attractive foods. The best apple pie I’ve ever tasted was my aunt’s recipe. With its perfectly crafted dough leaves and sparkling crystals of sugar, it was a work of art. I was inspired. I too wanted to make a pie that beautiful. A pie so beautiful that I wouldn’t want to take a bite, but would be oh so glad once I did. So, I’ve decided to step out of my comfort zone, and enter the world of pie.

I’ve chosen four pie recipes to try my hand at this month. Four may not seem like a lot, but a true homemade pie can take hours. We will see what happens. I could get really enthusiastic about it at some point and have a pie marathon one day…

I can’t promise you that they’ll be pretty, but I do have a feeling that they will taste mighty fine. I can’t promise that though either… Stick with me to find out! I’ll be posting once a week about my pie endeavors. Whether it be a total flop or a glorious success, I’ll let you know.

I’ve decided to stick with some seasonal classics, with a slight twist.  Here’s what you can look forward to:

Caramel Apple-Cherry Pie

Bourbon Pumpkin Cheesecake (Pie)

Sweet Potato-Marshmallow Pie

Maple-Walnut Pie

45 Days Too Late

Was October 14th really my last blog post? Boy have I been slacking…

Where do I begin? So much has happened over the past month and a half. Like…

…We went to Long Island to see my grandma who was in town visiting my great aunts. This is the house that she grew up in. It has some amazing history, but that history deserves a whole blog post to itself. Maybe at a later date…

…My parents came to town!

….And we went to Cape Cod…

…Where we watched the sun set…

…and rise.

…We watched the Head of the Charles Regatta (the second largest regatta in the world)…

…And ate some lobster…

…Then BK came to town, and we ate more lobster…and that was it. Ha, not really. We walked the freedom trail, spent Halloween in Salem, watched a comedy show, walked around the Harvard campus, and much more…

Then we experienced a snow storm in October! What’s up with that?

…Then came Novemeber and we got our first Christmas tree (we went with this little guy due to lack of storage space)…

…Then came Thanksgiving, which we spent in NY with Jacob’s wonderful family.

…Then we celebrated 6 months of marriage in NYC.

Now back to full sentences! I think that sums up the past 45 days in a nutshell. We’ve loved our time spent with family, friends, exploring the East, and transforming our apartment into our home. Yes- I am still working on that last part. I even made an hour and a half trip to NH so that I could go to a Hobby Lobby. I came home with about 8 bags, and am slowly working on some fun crafty projects (I have already completed 4!)

It seems just like last month that we moved here, but here we are in December! Jacob is already finishing up his first semester of graduate school (go Jacob! :), and i’m counting down the days until we get to visit home (just 23 more to go!) We’ve loved our time here, but it hasn’t always been a walk in the park. We miss our family and friends terribly, and miss the ease of Fayetteville. We’ve really had to learn to adapt to life in the city. It’s a hassle to get anything done around here. I swear it takes all day to run one errand.

As mentioned above, Jacob and I recently reached a big (okay, not huge.. but kind of big) milestone in our marriage; we’ve officially been married half of a year! It’s gone by so quickly, but I have loved every (okay, almost every 😉 moment of it. People say the first year of marriage is the hardest, but if our next six months are anything like our first, then I have no idea what “those people” are talking about! I’ve loved adapting to my role as a wife. Strangely enough, I enjoy managing our budget, making grocery lists, and have even found myself picking up At Home magazine over US Weekly at the grocery store check out line. Every day presents its own challenges, but God is faithful, and always provides. For that, we are so thankful.

Until next time…