Friday, February 25, 2011

Tri-Chocolate Brownies

Tri-Chocolate Brownies - made February 25, 2011 from Brownies to Die For by Bev Shaffer (book #48)

The only thing better than 2 kinds of chocolate in a brownie is 3 kinds of chocolate.  And the only thing better than that is some gianduja added in. Gianduja is a creamy chocolate hazelnut mixture or spread.  The one people are probably most familiar with is Nutella. Some folks use nutella like peanut butter and spread it on bread.  I like to bake with it (naturally).  The creamy texture in a fudgy brownie adds more flavor and texture to an otherwise plain brownie.

I took this basic brownie recipe and added a thin layer of the crema gianduja I bought from the little Italian grocery store on Lygon St in Melbourne's Little Italy. I layered half the brownie batter in the pan first, then the gianduja then the rest of the batter, covering the gianduja layer completely.  I needed a quick recipe to bring on a trip this weekend and of the dozens/hundreds of brownie recipes I have, I figured this one would do.  My palate is rather jaded when it comes to brownies.  People always ask me what my favorite recipe is or which one is the best or fudgiest.  I don't know that I have a favorite - that implies choosing one over another and I don't like to limit myself, haha.  I like certain types of brownies (fudgy as opposed to cakey, chocolaty as opposed to sweet) but I also love playing around with different variations of them and adding ingredients I like such as dulce de leche, caramel, and/or gianduja.  I'm on a gianduja kick at the moment so I'm looking for other desserts I could try that uses it.

One note on the directions - it says to cool the melted chocolates for 15 minutes then "whisk" in the softened butter.  I don't think butter can be successfully whisked in anywhere, especially in a somewhat solid form.  So I actually added the butter to the chocolates to be melted together.  I didn't wait 15 minutes after melting them but added the rest of the ingredients immediately.  Yes, living dangerously I am.

Overall, this was a decent brownie recipe.  It has more of a dark chocolate taste and is nicely fudgy.  The gianduja flavor didn't come out as much as I had hoped but it's still there.  Next time I may add some directly to the batter and mix it in then be a little more generous with the gianduja layer itself.  Some toasted chopped hazelnuts on top would also bring out more of the hazelnut flavor but I didn't have any on hand.  Next time....

2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup semisweet chocolate chips

1.    Heat oven to 350⁰F.  Lightly grease an 8” square pan.  Sprinkle bottom with cocoa powder, tapping out any excess.
2.    Combine the bittersweet and unsweetened chocolates in a double boiler set over simmering water.  Stir often, over low heat, until mixture is melted and smooth.
3.    Remove top of double boiler from heat, carefully wipe bottom, and set mixture aside to cool for 15 minutes.
4.    Whisk in the butter, sugar and vanilla until blended (note: I added the butter to be melted with the chocolates).  Whisk in eggs, beating until smooth.  Gently add in flour and salt just until mixture is combined.  Stir in chocolate chips.  Spread into prepared pan.  Bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted near the center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached.  Cool pan completely on a wire rack.  Cut into squares.

Makes about 1 ½ dozen

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Dulce de Leche Duos

Dulce de Leche Duos - made February 24, 2011 from Baking From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan (book #47)

I love this baking book, no two ways about it.  The sometimes lengthy directions are mainly geared for novices so I tend to skim them and do my own thing but if you're a beginning baker, this is a great recipe book to talk you through the steps of baking each recipe.  Nearly every recipe I've tried from it has turned out and they're straightforward to make and taste great.  Don't let the size of the book intimidate you.  As far as I'm concerned, the more recipes, the more pages and the more pictures it has, the better.  This one book alone could probably keep me busy baking for a year, not only trying new recipes but going back to the ones I've already made from it that have turned out well.

This is another sandiwch cookie recipe and has dulce de leche as the star ingredient, both mixed in the cookie dough itself and as the filling for the sandwich cookies.  I used up the last of the dulce de leche that my friend Jenny brought me from South America for the cookie dough itself so I substituted nutella for the sandwich filling.  Dulce de Leche and chocolate hazelnut?  There's a duo I can get behind.

The dough for this is pretty soft, even after I froze it for a couple of hours.  I ended up giving up using my small ice cream scoop for the dough rounds since it was a little too soft to be scooped properly.  So I used two small spoons to shape them in roughly spherical shapes. Follow the sandwich cookie rule and make each one small and approximately the same size (which is a little harder to do without an ice cream scoop). It bakes like a chocolate chip cookie with crisp edges and chewy middles so it's a little fragile when used as a sandwich cookie (be careful when you handle them to spread the filling and sandwich them).  It tastes great as a standalone cookie even without the filling but do try some with the filling, whether you use dulce de leche, nutella or something else.  Just make sure that whichever filling you use, it's a soft, spreadable consistency.  I had to warm up the nutella slightly as it was too firm to spread over a fragile cookie.  15 seconds in the microwave and a good stir and it worked fine.

This is a tasty little cookie, not too sweet, despite the dulce de leche in the batter.  It's not crisp all the way through like most cookies used for sandwich cookies but not cakey soft like whoopie pies.  Rather, it's a nice middle ground between the two.  You neither want to underbake it (too soft) or overbake it (too crisp/brittle).  Instead, Goldilocks it to "just right" with golden brown edges while the middle is still a lighter tan color.

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup store-bought dulce de leche, plus more for filling
¾ cup packed light brown sugar
½ cup sugar
2 large eggs

1.    Preheat the oven to 350⁰F.  Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
2.    Whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt.
3.    In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the butter at medium speed until soft.  Add the ¾ cup dulce de leche and both sugars and continue to beat until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating for 1 minute after each addition.  Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients, mixing only until just combined.
4.    Spoon the dough onto the baking sheets, using a heaping teaspoon of dough for each cookie and leaving 2 inches between them.
5.    Bake the cookies for 10 to 12 minutes, turning around halfway for even browning.  The cookies should be honey brown with a light sugar crust, but they will still be soft, so remove the sheets from the oven but let cookies sit for another minute or two on the baking sheet.  Then, using a wide metal spatula, transfer the cookies to a rack to cool to room temperature.
6.    Repeat with the remaining dough, making sure you cool the baking sheets before using them again.
7.    When the cookies are completely cool, spread the flat bottoms of half the cookies with a small amount of dulce de leche, and sandwich with the flat sides of the remaining cookies.

ETA: Every Saturday I try to participate in a "Sweets for a Saturday" post on a blog Lisa started up.  Go check it out - it's worth it:

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

White Chocolate Butterscotch Cookies

 White Chocolate Butterscotch Cookies - made February 22, 2011 from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook (book #46)

When I first saw the title of this, I almost skipped right by it.  I wasn't sure how I felt about combining white chocolate and butterscotch together in a cookie.  It doesn't contain real chocolate - how good could it be?  But a closer look at the recipe showed the butterscotch flavor doesn't come from butterscotch chips as I had first assumed but rather from the dark brown sugar flavoring the dough.  Essentially it's a chocolate chip cookie with white chocolate instead of milk or semisweet chocolate chips.  Which is exactly what I had been looking for as I had brought back some white chocolate bars from New Zealand to make cookies with.  I like butterscotch but a little bit of butterscotch flavor can go a long way and make something too sweet.  This had a more subtle butterscotch flavor and was quite good.  Don't substitute light brown sugar for the dark brown sugar - it's the dark brown sugar that gives it the butterscotch-iness.

Side note on white chocolate - white chocolate is a misnomer as good-quality white chocolate isn't white but more like a cream color from the cocoa butter.  If it's white, it's vanilla or fake but it isn't white chocolate.  White chocolate isn't chocolate either but I've already expressed my dismay over that in prior posts.

I also had my doubts about this recipe at first because it mostly used shortening rather than butter and I'm not a fan of shortening.  But I've had good success with Martha Stewart's recipes before so I had to give it a try.  I'm glad I did because this actually makes a pretty good cookie.  Because it's got more shortening than butter, it doesn't spread as much so it makes cookies of a nice thickness.  It also has a bit more crunch than an all-butter cookie and there's just enough butter in it that you can taste it rather than the shortening.  Thumbs up all around.

1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
¾ cup vegetable shortening
1 ¼ cups packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
8 ounces best-quality white chocolate, chopped into ¼” pieces

1.     Preheat the oven to 350F.  Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.
2.     In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt; set aside.
3.     In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, shortening and brown sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.  Beat in the egg and the vanilla until combined.  With the mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture in two batches, beating until just combined.  Stir in the white chocolate.
4.     Drop 2 tablespoons of dough at a time about 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets.  Bake, rotating sheets halfway through, until lightly golden brown around  the edges, about 15 minutes.  Let cookies cool on sheets for 2 minutes, then transfer parchment and cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.

Cookies can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days.
Lark's Country Heart

Please say a prayer for New Zealand

I can't help but comment on the devastating earthquake that hit Christchurch just yesterday.  I was there a week and a half ago and can't believe what happened to that poor city.  When I was there, they were still trying to recover from the 7.1 quake that hit last September and many buildings were undergoing repairs and lined with scaffolding for restoration.  And now the 6.3 quake that just hit is unbelievable.  My heart goes out to everyone who was affected by this - please say a prayer for those folks.  I live in earthquake country and lived through the 1989 Loma Prieta quake so I know how devastating something like this is, especially since, by their very nature, earthquakes come unexpectedly and can literally rock everything in your world.  No matter how prepared you think you are, no one can be prepared for this kind of devastation.

To give even just a small sense of the impact of this, here's the picture of the Christchurch Cathedral I took less than 11 days ago:

Here's what that beautiful building looks like now

(picture taken from - Photo: Twitter - @tesswoolcock)

There are worse images of the destruction - suffice to say this one's bad enough and I hope New Zealand can recover and come back stronger than ever.  It's a beautiful country and I met wonderful people there.  If anyone has the strength to come back from something like this, it's the Kiwis.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Chocolate-Chip-Filled Melting Moments

Chocolate-Chip-Filled Melting Moments - made February 19, 2011 from The Essential Chocolate Chip Cookbook by Elinor Klivans (book #45)

In the foreword of this recipe, it says these cookies are a specialty in Australia and New Zealand so naturally this caught my eye.  I don't actually remember seeing these anywhere I went on my trip and I like to think I visited an inordinate amount of bakeries and cafe shops while I was there, to take pictures of the food displays, if not to eat.  But that doesn't stop me from wanting to try this recipe in honor of my trip so I did.

Before I even made this recipe I figured this would have a tender crumb, not just from the title but because of the ingredients used.  Cake flour and cornstarch will make a cookie with a tender and airy crumb.  Likewise powdered sugar instead of granulated sugar will contribute a more delicate texture.  The relatively low baking temperature and longer baking time is also more reminiscent of how meringues are baked which also tend to have a more airy texture.  Make these as small as you can.  Since they're sandwich cookies, you're literally eating 2 cookies as 1.  You don't want them too big or they'll be too overwhelming to eat, especially if you're practicing portion control.  I thought I had made mine small since I used my smaller ice cream scoop but they still puffed and spread to a slightly bigger size.  Sandwich cookies also look cuter when they're smaller if you need something for an afternoon tea.

These weren't airy like meringues but are still lighter in texture and crisp/crunchy in a good way.  I did think they were a trifle too sweet for me though so next time I might cut back on the powdered sugar or else substitute cocoa powder for some of the powdered sugar and make them Chocolate Melting Moments instead.  You might notice from the picture that I didn't add the mini chocolate chips to the filling and just made a straight vanilla butter filling.  That was deliberate as I was giving these cookies to my cousin whose son doesn't like chocolate and to my parents who prefer cookies without chocolate chips (I know, I know, I don't get it either).  So it's probably really ironic that the one recipe I tried from a book called The Essential Chocolate Chip Cookbook, I didn't add any chocolate chips to.  Oh well.

½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup cake flour
¾ cup cornstarch
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
¾ cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter at room temperature
¾ cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips

1.    Position a rack in the middle of the oven.  Preheat the oven to 300⁰F.  Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
2.    Sift both flours, the cornstarch, baking powder, and salt into a medium bowl and set aside.
3.    In a large bowl, using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the butter and powdered sugar until smooth and lightened slightly in color, about 1 minute.  Stop the mixer and scrape the sides of the bowl as needed during mixing.  Add the vanilla and mix until blended.  On low speed, add the flour mixture, mixing just until it is incorporated and a smooth dough forms.
4.    For each cookie, roll a level tablespoon of dough between the palms of your hands into a smooth ball.  Place the cookies on the prepared baking sheets, 2 inches apart.  Use a fork to gently flatten the cookies to 1 ¼” disks, similar to traditional peanut butter cookie “cross hatches”.
5.    Bake the cookies one sheet at a time until the tops feel firm and the cookie bottoms are lightly browned, about 30 minutes; the tops of the cookies should not color.  (I baked these for a little over 25 minutes as the bottoms were already lightly golden brown.) Cool the cookies on the baking sheets for 10 minutes, then use a wide metal spatula to transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.
6.   Make the filling: In a medium bowl, use a wooden spoon to stir the butter, powdered sugar, and vanilla together until smooth.  Stir in the chocolate chips.
7.   Turn half of the cooled cookies bottom side up and use a thin metal spatula to spread a rounded teaspoon of filling over each one.  Place the remaining cookies right side up on the filling and press gently.
8.   The cookies can be stored in a tightly covered container at room temperature for up to 5 days.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Chocolate Crackles

Chocolate Crackles - originally made April 14, 2008 from Martha Stewart's Cookies

I'm going off-script a bit by not adding to my baking challenge but there are some recipes that I want to get on my blog so I can access it at any time. It's also time to go "back to my roots" and make baking the forefront of my blog again.

This is another good, not-too-fancy cookie recipe from Martha Stewart.  This is the half of the book whose recipes I can make without it being a production.  Chocolate Crackles can also be known as Earthquakes, Tremblors and Crinkles.  Essentially they're fudgy chocolate cookies rolled in granulated sugar then powdered sugar before baking.  The granulated sugar adds a bit of crunchy texture while the powdered sugar is the perfect foil to the fudginess of the chocolate cookie.  It's important to chill/freeze the cookie dough balls first to prevent  too much spread and to make them easier to roll in the sugars.  Time the cookies in the oven since it's hard to tell when chocolate cookies are done simply by appearance.  Because it's better to underbake chocolate cookies, I'd advise waiting until these cookies are almost completely cool before eating them.  If you eat them when they're too warm, they're just liquid fudge.  They actually taste better once they cool and the chocolate has set.

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup unsweetened Dutch process cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon coarse salt
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 ½ cups packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/3 cup whole milk
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup confectioners’ sugar

1.     Melt chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water, stirring.  Set aside and let cool.  Sift together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt in a bowl.
2.     With an electric mixer, beat butter and brown sugar on medium speed until pale and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes.  Mix in eggs and vanilla, and then the melted chocolate.  Reduce speed to low; mix in flour mixture in two batches, alternating with the milk.  Divide dough into four equal pieces.  Wrap each in plastic; refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours.
3.     Preheat oven to 350˚F.  Divide each piece into sixteen 1” balls.  Roll in granulated sugar to coat, then in confectioners’ sugar to coat.  Space 2 inches apart on baking sheets lined with parchment paper.
4.     Bake until surfaces crack, about 14 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through.  Let cool on sheets on wire racks.  Cookies can be stored in airtight containers at room temperature up to 3 days.

Linked to Lady Behind the Curtain link party

AU & NZ travel tips

Before I leave the blogging of Australia and New Zealand completely, some people have mentioned it's the trip they want to take as well so I thought I'd share some travel tips in case you do decide to go.  Some of these are specific to the countries I visited and the tour I was on but others can be generalized to travel in general.

If you're going on a tour, choose the right itinerary - it's better to go from roughing it to being pampered, not the other way around.  When you start the tour, you'll be much fresher and more willing and able to put up with tougher conditions than at the end of several weeks away from home.  I thought our itinerary was perfect as we did the Outback in the first week then went on to the cities.  I don't think I could've dealt with it the other way: enjoy the beauty of New Zealand, the comfort of Sydney and Melbourne then deal with the heat and the flies of the Outback.  Uh-uh.

Factor in the cost of internet, food and excursions - I underestimated how expensive Australia was going to be, especially against a weaker US dollar.  If you're doing a tour, book your excursions in advance.  The tour company charges an extra $10 per person per additional excursion if you wait until the tour to decide.  It might be nice to have the flexibility by not booking in advance but be prepared to pay extra for that flexibility.  I also spent more than I thought I would on internet access, mostly to keep up with email, facebook and my blog but that was a personal choice.  In some of the cities you can get internet access fairly cheaply at internet cafes.  The hotels are the most convenient but also the most expensive.

Bring cash - limit credit card and ATM usage to avoid extra fees.  Before the trip, we were advised to bring a combination of cash, credit cards and ATM cards.  I only brought cash and 2 credit cards.  I like to use my American Express wherever possible but not everyone takes Amex so I also brought a Visa card.  I didn't bring my ATM card but I did bring as much cash as I wanted to spend.  Bringing the ATM card would've meant more cash at my disposal but also more bank fees.  I'm not a believer in paying bank fees so I'd rather take the risk of bringing more cash than not.  But that's a personal choice and I was very careful to distribute my money so I wasn't carrying it all at once on me and the rest was locked up.  I didn't use my credit card except for buying the rings in Christchurch and the plane ride back to Queenstown from Milford Sound.  Otherwise I paid for everything with the cash I brought with me.  The advantage of that is complete control over what I'm spending plus also control over what I'm buying.  It's very, very easy to buy stuff on the tour/when you're traveling but I'm willing to bet much of it I'd regret later and not know what to do with once I got home (like the Indiana Jones hat I wanted to buy in the Outback, lol).  Also, cash is king - travelers checks seem obsolete and I'm glad I didn't bring any.

Plenty of currency exchange places - don't change money at the airport if they don't have competitive rates; change at places that don't charge a fee or minimizes future fees.  Change whatever amount you think you're going to reasonably spend in the country and avoid changing too many times since you may be charged the commission fee every time you change money.

Bring a water bottle; you can drink tap water in AU and NZ - you can save yourself a lot of money by bringing a water bottle or hanging onto the first one you buy.  The tap water in the hotels we stayed at was drinkable and I just kept replenishing my water bottles as we went.  If you like cold water, it's better to bring 2 medium or small-sized water bottles than 1 giant one as those are likely to fit better in the mini fridge in the hotel rooms.

Borrow transformer from the hotels - prior to my trip I kept agonizing whether to bring my laptop and a transformer.  I could've saved myself the agony had I known how easy it was to borrow a transformer at the hotels.  It allowed me to use my laptop more often than I thought I would, upload my pictures and keep fairly current on my blog without completely draining my battery.  The only time I couldn't borrow a transformer was in Auckland as they had run out of the ones suitable for US plugs.  I did bring my own adapter/converter but used that mainly to charge my camera batteries, kindle, ipod and electric toothbrush.  Ironically the one time I used the hotel's transformer to charge my electric toothbrush instead of my own adapter is when it seemed to short my toothbrush and now it's all wacky on me when I got home.  But that was the only mishap.

Don't buy the biggest suitcases - too big, too heavy.  I can't emphasize this enough, especially when you're making multiple stops on your travels.  Since most airlines charge per suitcase, many people think they should buy the largest suitcase available so that they only have to bring one.  Don't bother.  Airlines also restrict you by weight and the larger suitcases are also heavy even before you pack them so you risk an overweight fee.  I bought a medium size suitcase for this trip as my large suitcase seemed too large.  Best decision I ever made.  I packed it only 2/3 full and was able to carry it myself all along the way, even as I bought presents to bring home.  Pretty handy when you want to porter your own bag and you have to pack and re-pack it every 1-3 days.  If you can't lift your own suitcase, it's either too big or too heavy.  Don't bring it.

Take half of what you think you need and just do laundry at the hotels.  I was 90% successful at this.  I packed for 2/3 of the trip and did laundry halfway through the trip.  I probably could've brought even less but I was pretty happy with how things turned out since I only had to worry about laundry once and I wore almost everything I brought.  Don't take more than 3 pairs of shoes: tennis shoes, comfortable walking shoes you can wear for hours and a pair of dressier shoes for shorter walks.  You can get away with less but don't bring more.  You won't need it and there's nothing more frustrating than lugging stuff with you that you don't use or need.

Above all else, go with the mindset prepared to have a good time.  It sounds obvious to say this but all travelers should be reminded you're traveling for various reasons, not the least of which is I hope to enjoy a different place than home.  Don't make unfavorable comparisons to home - if you like home, stay there.  Otherwise be open to new things when you travel.  At the beginning of this trip, I thought I'd hold a koala (which I did) but I hadn't imagined I would ride (or eat) a camel, go on a hot air balloon ride, or ride in a tiny, tiny plane to flightsee in New Zealand.  Beyond that, be flexible.  No amount of careful planning will anticipate every contingency.  Sometimes the weather sucks, sometimes you get seasick, sometimes the bus driver hits a wallaby (ugh), sometimes another bus driver doesn't know what he's doing and leaves you to fend for yourself which is a waste of your time and money.  Yeah, that can get annoying but roll with it.  Nothing will ruin your vacation unless you let it.  Don't let it.  I had a marvelous time and am so glad I finally went on this trip.  I've learned much and the world felt just a little bit smaller as I saw more of it.  And that's a good thing.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

New Zealand - Auckland

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The morning after the Maori hangi, we drove from Rotorua to Auckland.  Along the way, we did a "comfort stop" (aka anyone need to use the bathroom?) at a tourist info center.  Can I tell you this country takes its sheep seriously?  I thought these were funny so I had to take a picture.  Yes, that's a real building.

Upon arriving in Auckland, it was still too early to check into our hotel so our bus driver took us around for a city tour, including a stop at Mission Bay which was a beach.  Unfortunately our good weather mojo was washed away in the mist and rain so it was hard to take pictures or see many of the sights.  All I can tell you is New Zealand has approximately 4.4M people and 25% of them live in Auckland so it's pretty much like most cities except for  the 48 (dormant and hopefully to remain that way) volcanoes.

It was our last night of the tour and we gathered for dinner at the Bluestone Room and had the room to ourselves.  We'd all been together for 3 weeks and it was sadly time to say goodbye as half the group was going on to Fiji and the other half was going home.  One of the couples, Chuck and Marilyn, who I found hysterically funny for much of the tour, got the wonderful idea of giving Erica a "team shirt" embroidered with the team name Erica had given us on the bus ride to Auckland: Whaka Manuka.  Manuka is a type of honey in New Zealand, prized for its medicinal purposes.  The "wh" in Maori is pronounced as "ph" so you sound it out :).

Erica, our endlessly patient and wonderful tour guide

There's not much else I can tell you about Auckland as we were literally there less than 24 hours.  Thursday morning brought the bus to take us to the airport.  I got in a bit of walking before the pickup time but I have to admit I was ready to go home by then so I was happy to get on the bus.  We were all ready before the scheduled pickup time so our bus driver was kind enough to take us to the top of Mt Eden with our extra time and I got my final look at the beautiful city scenes of Auckland.

New Zealand - Maori "hangi"

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On the one night we were in Rotorua, we went to a Maori hangi.  A hangi is the Maori word for feast.  We were picked up at the hotel and bussed to a nearby village that they had set up to recreate a traditional Maori village.  It was about 20 minutes or so from our hotel but the time flew by because the bus driver who picked us up was the funniest guy I've ever seen.  He taught us the Maori greeting "Kia Ora" (pronounced kee-ora) and then proceeded to give us equivalent of the same greeting and what it meant in 61 languages.  At least he said it was 61 - he went through enough different ones to convince me.  Not only that but his accent in every single language was nearly perfect.  His Australian of "G'day" and his Tagalog of "Mabuhay" were spot on as well as his renditions in Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Thai, Malaysian, Russian, French, British (complete with Brit accent), from all of the Nordic countries, India, and many, many more were impressive and hilarious.

On the bus ride, we had to pick a "chief" to represent us.  Amongst the Maori, back in the day, when a tribe approached another tribe, the receiving tribe had to determine if they came in peace or war.  The receiving tribe would send a band of warriors to "greet" them although the greeting was more like a ferocious war dance meant to intimidate any strange tribe thinking to come in anything other than peace.  The chief can only be a man (sorry, ladies) and it was up to him to face the Maori warriors and either accept the peace offering or not.

When we arrived at the village along with 3 other busloads of tourists and a chief from each bus, after the war dance, one of the four anointed chiefs chose the peace pipe (or whatever it was, I didn't get a close look at it) and we were allowed into the Maori village.  Inside the village, they had huts set up and did talks and demonstrations about various aspects of the Maori culture, from cooking to what their tattoos symbolized to the physical tests their warriors had to undergo to prove their fitness and worthiness.

Once those demos were over, we were invited into a building with a stage where the Maori performed various songs, including a love song our tour guide, Erica, had taught us a few days ago.  Their voices were very pure and sweet and I enjoyed the performances even though I couldn't understand the words.  They also did their cultural dances so we could get an idea of what they're like.  It reminded me of Polynesian and Hawaiian dancing and singing.

The dinner that night was made in the traditional Maori way.  I can't remember what they called it but, somewhat similar to a Hawaiian luau, they filled a deep hole in the earth with hot stones, placed layers of food inside it with the food that takes the longest to cook on the bottom and the vegetables in a wire basket on top.

Dinner was a buffet and, like the one at Walter Peak, we were told table by table when we could go up.  The food was plentiful and pretty tasty.  Besides the chickens pictured above, there was also lamb which some people thought was duck but the Maori server explained they don't eat duck and that it was definitely lamb.  There was also a lot of steamed vegetables, namely carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc.  Dessert was a large fruit bowl of mixed fruit, pavlova and some kind of steamed bread that someone said was a date bread but I tried a piece and didn't find any dates in it so either they pureed it in or it was something else.

All in all, it was an enjoyable evening.  One thing that struck me as I left was the stark contrast between the aborigines of Australia and the Maori of New Zealand.  The latter was very proud of their heritage and wore it on the outside of their skin (literally).  The whole evening was a very well done production for the tourists to explain and honor their culture and their culture is a very big, integrated part of New Zealand in general.  Unfortunately I didn't get the same impression in Australia of their indigenous people.  Sadly, their experience is more like those of the American Indians who were mistreated and confined to reservations.  The aborigines we saw in Alice Springs seemed volatile and unhappy and lived mostly in the Outback rather than the more climate-friendly cities like Melbourne and Sydney.  We were told by some of the locals that those aborigines we saw in Alice Springs were likely outcasts from their tribe as they didn't do anything but "laze around and drink".  I can only hope that's a gross stereotype and it's truly unfortunate that those are the only aborigines I saw.  In Alice Springs, I witnessed 2 separate occasions of aborigines screaming at each other in public with very high emotional outbursts.  A stark contrast from the smiling Maoris who generously shared their culture with tourists night after night.

At the end of the evening, the Maori men performed the haka which is the Maori war dance that they do at the beginning of every rugby game.  The other big takeaway from my New Zealand sojourn is it would be an understatement to say this country takes its rugby seriously.  Their team is the All Blacks (which has no racial connotation whatsoever).  Kiwis are justifiably proud of the All Blacks who hold some kind of impressive record for number of wins (sorry, sports fans, I don't watch rugby and couldn't tell you) and to have any association with them and their name is an honor.  I know nothing about rugby but in the brief time I was in Kiwi-land, I can tell you Dan Carter is on his way to being the winning-est goalie ever.  Or something like that.  (I can feel rugby fans as well as Erica cringing at my ignorance.)

Monday, February 14, 2011

New Zealand - Rotorua

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The next leg of the trip was flying from Queenstown to Rotorua so we left the South Island (which is glacier formed) to go to the North Island which was formed by volcanoes.  Rotorua is also known as Sulphur City because of the smell.  Here the earth's crust is thin so there are natural hot springs and mud pools.

Didn't seem like much to see in Rotorua but we were also there for only 1 night and by this time I was getting pretty tired so I wasn't up for my usual walkabout explorations.  Our first stop after lunch was a place called Mountain Jade where we were given a demo of how jade is carved then let loose in the showroom to shop.  I didn't buy anything as jade wasn't really my thing and also by this time of the tour, I was pretty shopped out.  I'm not much of a souvenir shopper other than getting refrigerator magnets, Christmas ornaments if I can find them and presents to take back home.  I'm afraid the Rotorua stop didn't make much money off of me.

New Zealand - Milford Sound

Monday, February 14, 2011

For our full-day tour, we took a 4-hour bus ride to Milford Sound.  One of our stops along the way was a place called Mirror Lake, where the water is so clear, it's literally like glass that reflects its surroundings perfectly:

I've run out of superlatives and hyperboles to describe the views here.  Needless to say, New Zealand is a beautiful country with many awe-inspiring views.  The best way I can describe in seeing it all is "humbling".  As in you feel pretty small and humble when you look at the mountains, hills, peaks, valleys, and lakes.  And especially Milford Sound.  They told us Milford Sound gets 200 rainy days a year.  We happened to be there on one of the 165 days it doesn't rain and the cruise around the Sound was just gorgeous.  We cruised out of the Sound just to the border of the Tasman Sea and back.  Along the way were some waterfalls.  Apparently, it's also good to see Milford Sound when it is raining because then you see more waterfalls.  The ones we saw were pretty good already though and I even captured a shot of a rainbow in the water.

And if that wasn't enough, after the cruise, most of the tour group went back to Queenstown via another 4-hour bus ride but I opted to go with several other folks for a flight back in a tiny little airplane to see New Zealand from the air.  The plane was even smaller than the puddle jumper I flew in in Belize last year and I experienced what "wing and a prayer" meant as we took off (really, can something that small launch itself into the air??) but the views were worth it.  Not to mention the 40-minute flight was way better than a 4-hour bus ride.

This is some of what you don't see from the ground.  That small of red-roofed buildings in the bottom picture is the Walter Peak Station as we flew over it, nearing Queenstown.

New Zealand - Walter Peak

Sunday, February 13, 2011

As part of our itinerary in Queenstown, the optional excursion was a trip to Walter Peak, a sheep station across the lake.  We took a steamship to chug across the water and get to Walter Peak.  As always, the view was magnificent - that's Walter Peak below.  That's as close up as my camera could zoom from the boat but it's far more majestic in person than any picture can capture.

On the boat ride, I met a couple from England who had been traveling in New Zealand for a month in a camper and were going wherever their fancy took them.  They loved traveling and it was fun talking with them.  They were retired and seemingly had been all over the world.  One of the fun aspects of this trip for me is the number of travelers I'd met, both on my own tour and outside of it, who had been to so many places and loved seeing them all.  Most, if not all, of them were couples who had been  together for some time and that was a wonderful affirmation for me that many relationships and marriages really do last.  It's not something the media ever talks about, dwelling instead of high divorce rates, but many of the couples I met on this trip had been married for decades, not just years.  And they hadn't just been married for forever but they also loved  traveling together.  It was wonderful to see their sheer enjoyment of life and the world.

One we reached Walter Peak, we herded into the building where they served us a buffet dinner.  First course was a creamy vegetable soup which even I could eat since everything was pureed, lol.  Then each table was tapped in an orderly fashion to line up for the buffet where they had fish, salmon, roast beef, lamb, chicken, potatoes, vegetables and later on, dessert, fruit and cheese and crackers.  Overall, it was a pretty nice spread.

After dinner, we all went outside for the sheep shearing demonstration.  Our demonstrator, Lindsay, was just hilarious.  First he did the demo of how his sheep dog herded the sheep and then he sheared an actual sheep.  I took videos of both and tried to post them but blogger isn't letting me upload so I'll have to try again later.  Regardless, the sheepherding was impressive as the dog doesn't bark since that scares the sheep and you don't want to startle or scare sheep who are grazing on the side of a hill.  But he still herds them quite efficiently.  The sheep also move as one when they're being herded.  It was almost cartoonish how synchronized they were in moving as a bunch.

The sheep shearing itself was very expertly done.  Lindsay used something like the sheep's version of a razor or shaver and once he sat the sheep down, it didn't struggle or even bleat.  During his whole humorous spiel, Lindsay expertly sheared the sheep in a matter of a couple of minutes.  I was surprised how much wool actually came off the sheep.  Seemed like a lot to my untrained eye.  Sheep shearing always reminds me of Little House on the Prairie and the book "Farmer Boy" since there's a chapter on Almanzo helping during shearing time.  Back then they used manual shears and I can only imagine how much more difficult that would've been.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

New Zealand - exploring Queenstown & Bob's Peak

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Today we had a free morning in Queenstown.  Some people signed up for different activities but I preferred to walk around Queenstown and soak up the sights.  The town center itself is fairly small and was mostly shops and eateries so I made several rounds of it and it didn't take up much time.  But it was nice to walk around and be leisurely for a bit.  Most of the tour days are filled with some kind of activity or another but I like to walk around and soak up the atmosphere when I can.  I'm starting to flag on being a tourist.  I don't think I can handle one more souvenir shop full of tsotchkes.  Fortunately I've traveled enough times that I no longer feel the need to buy a bunch of stuff from the places I've visited.  I usually buy a refrigerator magnet from each place I go to but I've been cutting back on that too since we've gone to so many places.  Now I'm focusing more on appreciating each area we go to while we're there and don't feel the need to fill every minute with activity or buy some token memento of it.  I'm taking pictures to capture some of the sights and memories and that's probably the best thing I can do right now.

This afternoon we met as a group and took a gondola ride up Bob's Peak.  After the world's longest gondola in Kuranda, this one was pretty short and not that high.  At the top of the gondola, there were various activities you could sign up (and pay) for such as luge, bungy jumping, and paragliding.  I toyed with the idea of paragliding since I'd never done it before but it was going to be $200 for a brief ride in the air and I couldn't bring myself to do it.  I stayed on the deck and admired the view instead.

The trip itself is actually reasonably priced considering what is included in it and the places we've stayed at but you can spend a lot on extras like the excursions and meals and they do add up.  I'm staying off my credit cards as much as possible, given the foreign transaction fees Amex would charge me.  I did break down though and opted to pay extra for a plane ride tomorrow back from Milford Sound instead of the 4-hour bus ride back, mostly because we fly out over spectacular scenery and I want to see that.  I can't get over the beauty of New Zealand.  It's pretty incredible and makes this is a return destination for me.

Tonight we're taking a steamship to Walters Peak where we'll get a sheep shearing demonstration and dinner then tomorrow is Milford Sound all day.  I've heard the views there are even more spectacular and I'm looking forward to that.

The trip so far has surpassed my expectations and if anyone is considering traveling to this part of the world, I would highly recommend it.  There's so much to see and experience and I'm glad I got the opportunity to do this.

AU & NZ - flora and fauna

I need to insert some pictures of the flowers I've been taking.  In both Australia and New Zealand, we've visited botanical gardens as well as parks and local gardens that have some amazing flowers.  I'm not much of a flower or plant person but I certainly admire their beauty.  Maybe it's just traveling and being in a new place but I've become hyper-aware of the beauty of my surroundings, especially here in New Zealand and want to document some of that beauty.

One of the ladies on the trip, Eileen, got me started on taking pictures of the flora and fauna.  Eileen said what she does with the pictures is print them out on notecard paper stock and use them as notecards.  Coincidentally, she and I even have the same camera so when I started taking closeups of some of the flowers, I liked how they turned out.  I don't know if I'll follow Eileen's lead in making up notecards with the pictures but I like looking at them and remembering how pretty the real things are.

New Zealand - journey from Christchurch to Queenstown

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Today was our first of 2 "long hauls" in New Zealand.  We left Christchurch by 8 am to drive to Queenstown, a journey that would take us more than 9 hours' drive, including stops at the Tin Shed (a store that sells NZ wool products and really was housed in a tin building), McKenzie's for lunch and Mrs. Jones for ice cream and to admire her rose garden.  Although I'm not fond of long drives, the views helped to pass the time pretty well.

Coming out of Christchurch, we drove through the plains of Canterbury which were, well, plain.  I could almost imagine driving down I-5 in California to travel through Central California.  The landscape was pretty flat and well dotted with sheep.  We did pass some small rivers that provided some interest.  And one section where our bus driver told us they did film several scenes from Lord of the Rings there, namely where Eomer had to "muster the Rohirrim".  My inner nerd perked up at that.

After some time, we turned towards the mountains and the views started getting pretty spectacular.  There's something about the majesty of mountain ranges that are both humbling and awe-inspiring.  Not much I can say and the pictures never do the real thing justice but here are a few examples to share:

In Queenstown, we're staying at another Rydges hotel, this one the Rydges Lakeland Resort.  The various Rydges hotels have been pretty good places to stay at with good service and clean rooms.  I have to give top marks for this one just for the views alone.  It's situated facing the water.  Here are some shots from my 8th floor bedroom balcony - imagine waking up to this sight: