Monday, May 24, 2010

Keep Austin weird!

A respite from real life!

Hilarity begins at take-off. Rollicking high spirits roll down the aisle of our Jet Blue flight to Austin. T-shirts in the airport shops sport the message Keep Austin Weird!"

We've arrived to do our part! Everyone around us gets a contact high. The car rental lady and the women trailing after us ask, “Can we go where you’re going?”

We feel warmly welcomed to the "Live Music Capital of the World" as a professional photographer offers to use my camera to snap our photo in front of guitar art.

We four, along with our hostess Trish who recently relocated to Austin, are my BFFs and charter members of our Emergency Book Club.

Individual crises over the years bonded us into a core support group and we have laughed, cried and partied together for what seems like a lifetime.

Three solid days of spring rain can't dampen our high spirits. Nor does the horror that one of us was burglarized and had all her jewelry stolen yesterday. Even now, one of us faces surgery and another has tough stuff going on in business. But, isn’t that just the way life is--a combination of sweet and sour?

Rumi’s poem The Guesthouse (the poem I'm learning by heart this week translated by Coleman Barks), says it all:

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival. . .

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight. . .

We are . . .Oh, so ready for those delights!

I get to be designated driver in our rental car as we graze our way through our list of fine and funky Texas hangouts. The first night we are elegant and tasteful at a Mexico City-style restaurant, the Fonda San Miguel.

But, by the next day some of Austin’s wackiness begins to rub off during our visit to the wildly eclectic South Congress district. We order a huge selection of dishes. The most decadent and memorable is Carrot Cake French Toast (with a gooey cinnamon cream cheese sauce) at the South Congress CafĂ©.

People-watching through the window makes it so easy to understand how hometown girl Sandra Bullock might choose someone as edgy and colorful as Jesse James. He would look downright normal in this neighborhood of tattoos, big bikes and vintage clothing stores. Across the street we spot a array of Airstream trailers that sell cupcakes and all kinds of really fascinating snacks. We sample several while tapping our toes to live country music.

Our stash of foodie finds in our trunk, we slide an audio tour of Austin into our CD player and are guided past stately mansions, the capital building and intriguing nightclubs. Passing the Driskill, the historic hotel where LBJ dined on his first date with Lady Bird, we pause for refreshments. Copper ceilings, leather couches and cow heads on the wall.

As dusk approaches, Trish mentions the famous Austin bats that in Springtime fly out by the thousands from under the Central Bridge at sundown. The bats have more sense than the trio you see in this photo heading out without umbrellas for a good view. Turns out the bats stayed in, and fifteen minutes later our adventurers hurry back, drenched, while best pal Mary and I snap photos from our cozy front seat.

What’s for dinner on our last night? Having explored all day we decide to make the original Whole Foods (the flagship store) our last stop and load carts full of little tastes for a picnic dinner around the kitchen table.

Champagne, breads and cheeses, salads, more cupcakes and conversation until Trish begs for rest and heads to bed. An hour later she and Deb wake us all with shrieks of laughter. We rush to hear what happened and join the fun. They tell us how Trish, turning her back to Deb, proceeded to cover her face with a bright green mask. She then mentioned conversationally, “I’ve been drinking an interesting new green vitamin shake lately. . .”

As she turned to face Deb, they exploded with laughter and thus our party begins all over again. It takes forever for us to settle down and fall asleep again.

Today , heading for the airport we have time for one last stop—Walton’s Fancy and Staple one of several Austin restaurants in which Sandra Bullock’s sister, a passionate baker, is a partner. This is our last visit for now with our divine hostess Trish, at right with her matching umbrella.

We are relaxed, recharged, and already making plans for a rerun.


These are so easy and so good because they have miniature chocolate chips inside. I adapted the recipe from Cupcakes from the Cake Mix Doctor by Anne Byrn.

24 paper liners for cupcake pans (2 1/2inch size)

1 package (18.25 oz) plain German chocolate cake mix (the kind with pudding in the mix)

1 cup reduced fat sour cream

½ cup water

½ cup vegetable oil

1 bottle (1 oz) red food color

3 large eggs

1 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips


1 (16 ounce) container cream cheese frosting

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and place rack in the middle of the oven. Line 24 cupcake cups with paper liners.

In the large bowl of an electric mixer beat the cake mix, sour cream, water, oil, red coloring and eggs on low speed for 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula, then beat on medium speed for 2 minutes longer, scraping the sides again if needed.

Fold in the chocolate chips. Spoon about 1/3 cup batter into each lined cup making 22 to 24 cupcakes.

Bake until they spring back when lightly pressed with your finger, 18 to 20 minutes. Remove the pans from the oven and cool on wire racks for 5 minutes. Remove the cupcakes from the tins and let them finish cooling for at least 15minutes before spreading with frosting.

These freeze perfectly, and are wonderful to have on hand.

Friday, May 14, 2010

“Names are ships to carry dreamers . . .”

Do you ever yearn for a taste of paradise?

Ted and I have a saying when the pressures of business get too intense for too long: It’s either Hawaii or the hospital! So, we are here for three nights to gain some perspective on our lives. To change our channel. To do a little dreaming . . .

We are enjoying breakfast on the patio of Orchids Restaurant next to the beach at the Hotel Halekulani or “House Befitting Heaven.”

Our steaming hot popovers remind me of my first trip to Honolulu with my parents many years ago. The original restaurant was just a hint of what it is today. My Mom was so taken with the steamy, custardy goodness of popovers she dove into cookbooks immediately on our return to duplicate them for us at home. They were never quite the same absent the tropical beauty, the fragrance of plumeria, the sound of waves lapping on soft sand.

And, how auspicious that the whole month of May—Mother’s Day or Memorial Day—is the ideal time to be here. May means dryer weather, and lower airfare and more affordable rooms because it’s off-season.

Don Blanding, Poet Laureate of Hawaii, says it all in Names Are Ships excerpted from his book Vagabond House:

Names! The lure in names of places

Stirring thoughts of foreign faces,

Ports and palaces and steamers,

Names are ships to carry dreamers.

Pago-pago, Suva, Java,

Languor, lotuses and lava,

Everything a dreamer wishes,

Buried treasure, flying fishes,

Coconuts and kings and corals,

Pirates, pearls and pagan morals,

Rum and reefs and Christian teaching,

Gin, and jungle parrots screeching. . .

Dreams and names are here on our verandah with an expansive ocean view.

Right after breakfast we’ll be off on an early morning walk along the Waikiki shoreline to the healing stones where we have a personal ritual of visualizing what we want to bring into our lives as we circle the sacred relics three times.

Then back here for a swim in the Halekulani pool.

We will be refreshed and recharged and home too soon! Before we leave, I’ll stock up on the hotel’s own brand of Heavenly Tea, the blend called Jasmine Earl Grey, for a little taste of paradise, and I’ll serve it with . . .


(5 to 8 popovers)

Melted butter for brushing the popover pan

1 cup sifted all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon salt

2 large eggs

1 cup milk

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Generously brush iron popover pans, muffin tins or Pyrex custard cups with melted butter. If using custard cups, arrange them on a cookie sheet for easier handling.

Combine all the other ingredients in the container of an electric blender and blend at high speed for 10 to 15 seconds. Turn off the motor to scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula. Blend at high speed for 10 to 15 seconds longer, until the batter is completely smooth.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Fill the cups half full of batter and place in the preheated oven. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes if using an iron popover pan or muffin tins, or for 40 minutes if using custard cups. They should be well browned and crisp when done. To be sure they are firm and will stay puffed, remove the popovers from the oven and, while they are still in the pan, pierce the side of each one with a sharp knife. This will allow the steam to escape. Return them to the turned-off oven for 2 to 3 minutes to dry the insides.

To prepare in advance: The batter may be mixed and stored in the refrigerator for a day or two, but be sure to reblend it for 10 to 15 seconds just before using. Leftover popovers can be reheated on a baking sheet, not touching at 350 degrees for 5 minutes.