Sunday, December 27, 2009

County Comes to Town….A Visit to New York City

There’s no better time to visit New York than at Christmas. Everyone seems to be in a happy mood – at an accelerated pace, but happy just the same.

It’s been five years since we were in the city…enough time to forget what a pain it is to drive there. We managed to switch lanes at the last moment, when the Lincoln Tunnel “green” sign on our lane turned to a blaring red “X”, and, after searching several levels of the Port Authority Parking Garage, ditched the car and set out on foot.

I couldn’t help but notice the contrasts between home in Lancaster County and this day in New York City. New York assaults all your senses at once – the horns, the rapid movement of scores of people walking and cars bumper-to-bumper, the smell of a dozen different kinds of food – and most memorable this time of year – the smell of chestnuts roasting on street corners.

Lancaster County is certainly known for its smells too - the most memorable being the fertilizer that is spread on the fields, especially in the spring. Certainly a visitor to both NYC and Lancaster couldn’t help but notice the aromas. And the chimes from the church across from our inn is very much a part of the experience of Terre Hill.
Instead of the brick walkways of downtown Lancaster, we walked across metal grids, beneath which could be heard the roar of subway cars below the streets of New York. And there in front of us were two horses (hey, we have lots of those in Lancaster!). These belonged to the mounted police but were no less majestic and well-mannered than the ones pulling a buggy.

There is an “energy” about both places….Lancaster’s large vistas of farmland give one a sense of peach and calm. It makes you feel small compared to all that is around you. NYC’s energy is infectious and also makes you feel small in comparison – the vistas are mostly vertical, rather than horizontal, with buildings soaring into the sky.

There is a mix of cultures in both places – the Amish and Mennonites blending with the “English” in Lancaster. In New York there’s a diversity of cultures coming together. Because New York and Lancaster County are big tourist attractions, you are likely to hear several languages on any street corner in either place.

There is a juxtaposition of old and new – from the dazzling electronic billboards at Times Square – (there used to be just a few, now they are everywhere) to the classic art-deco architecture. There are brand new shiny skyscrapers next to century-old churches. The bike-riding couriers fight for space on the street with a limo that would easily seat twenty.

In Lancaster, the Amish travel by horse and buggy, and use the same roads as modern vehicles. And both the Mennonites and Amish use the shiny new roller blades. Stores along Route 30 offer the latest in everything from fashions to electronics.

We walked past the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, stepped in to sniff the aromas of what Dean and Deluca had cooking, admired the tree in Rockefeller Center and waved to the skaters. Times Square was very busy – but in less than two weeks this will seem quiet compared to the million people that will jam this intersection to welcome the new year.

Lancaster, too, has its busy places – the hustle and bustle of Route 30, the excitement of the new downtown Convention Center, Gallery Row and all of the places whose business it is to produce food – from hand-twisted pretzels to chocolate to ice cream. Amish and Mennonites love to skate on the ponds and streams. There is skating all winter at Clipper Stadium as well.

We ate lunch at Tony’s (Times Square) at 2:30 and were lucky to get the last of the tables. Everyone here seemed to be celebrating – there were big tables filled with folks and their shopping bags. Downstairs I passed a little girl dressed in a green velvet dress with white fur trim, and a waiter carrying a huge tray filled with glassware and then piled with linens, all balanced on one hand and carried way high above everyone’s heads.

The restaurant was a study in efficiency as waiters hoisted the table next to us and carried it over our heads down to the front of the restaurant…no matter, a new one soon appeared, was reset, and ready for the next customers. Drawings of Broadway actors and actresses lined the walls, next to a huge menu board. I loved my dish of Tony’s Chicken – a chicken cutlet in a balsamic sauce with tomatoes and basil and, I am sure, lots of garlic. Bruce’s Chicken Parmesan was probably the best we’ve had since eating in Little Italy. The pasta was perfect and the sauce and bread to die for. I would have been happy to sit all afternoon and drink wine – as we were quite possibly the only two people in the restaurant without an alcoholic drink in our hands. There is no better place in America to eat Italian food than in New York City.

Lancaster County also has its share of special foods – showcased at the immense smorgasbords offering Pennsylvania Dutch fare. The sight is not unlike what we found in NYC, with big tables of families and friends gathered together….sans the alcohol.

We walked past the theaters where we had seen so many Broadways shows, past Spiderman (opening in February), Minnie Mouse, two of the Muppets, and two people being interviewed on the street by a TV reporter. Lancaster, too, has its own grand lady of the theatre, The Fulton, where we’ve enjoyed wonderful performances. We also have Sight and Sound, a huge new theatre dedicated to Christian stories.

Looking at the perfect blue sky and the helicopter overhead, I couldn’t help but think of that day in September nine years ago when people were going to work and sightseeing….and then the world stopped. We, too, had a tragic day in 2006 when a gunman opened fire on a one-room schoolhouse in southern Lancaster County. Citizens of both places will never forget, nor will the world that watched these events.

This day was a study in contrasts and similarities. Both destinations are special treasures – found only in America.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Twas Three Weeks Before Christmas

It is December 6th and twelve kinds of cookies are made and packed away – we are about halfway through the Christmas Cookie Marathon. This is a special time in my kitchen shared with my husband. Though it is normally not his territory, he has honed his skills as dough-roller-outer extraordinaire. With Christmas tunes in the background and flour in the air, I’m a happy camper. It is a time to relax and work and share some laughter after a busy fall at the inn. And, since many of my cookies must be packed and shipped by December 15, we start baking the weekend after Thanksgiving.

I don’t know what it is about food, but some of my earliest memories are in the kitchen, helping Mom. Most center on the holidays – with the bustle of preparations for large crowds and the excitement of the coming gathering. She was always patient with me – for I was not, and probably will never be, a “tidy” cook or baker. We had an extensive family and, with three brothers, there was no meal too big, no desserts too rich, and certainly no such thing as too many cookies.
Ah, yes, the cookies - this yearly tradition of making cookies at Christmastime started a long time ago…
I always loved to give home-made gifts – sometimes it was crafts, sometimes chocolates (when I was in high school I enrolled my boyfriend and myself in a chocolate-making course). I was never sure if he was all that interested in the chocolate, but we had a lot of fun and he liked to eat the creations. Over time, I settled on just giving cookies every Christmas. I would stay up late many nights and lug in big platters of cookies to every job I ever had. It became my “thing” to do for the holidays.

Soon friends were sharing their family favorites. Over the years, I’ve compiled my tried-and-true recipes, but I always like to add a new cookie just to keep it interesting.

Two years ago I decided to try my hand at making marshmallows. Gourmet printed a recipe for Toasted-Coconut Marshmallow Squares – this seemed the perfect little stocking stuffer gift for my Mom – a real marshmallow lover.

I’ve adjusted the recipe slightly – doubling the amount of coconut. You’ll see why later.

I think this would be a great recipe to make with kids – especially the final process. This year I made the recipe with my mom. She pronounced it too “fussy” but I think it’s fun, and there’s no denying that these are not the boring white cubes that arrive in those plastic bags. You will need a candy thermometer and will have best results if you make these on a dry day.

Toasted-Coconut Marshmallow Squares

4 cups unsweetened dried coconut
3 (3/4 oz) envelopes unflavored gelatin
1 cup water, divided
1 ½ cups sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
¼ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
½ teaspoon coconut extract

Preheat oven to 350 and toast coconut in baking pan until golden – about 7 minutes. You’ll want to stir it frequently – it tends to brown around the edges first.

Spray a 9-inch baking pan or use a silicone one. I like the silicone – you can bend it to get the squares out. Sprinkle with ½ cup toasted coconut.

Sprinkle gelatin over ½ up cold water in mixer bowl – mix a little and let sit while you make the syrup.

Heat sugar, corn syrup, salt and remaining ½ cup water in a small heavy saucepan over low heat, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Bring to a boil over medium heat without stirring, washing any sugar crystals down the side of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in cold water. Ok, I don’t do the pastry brush thing – I just boil it. Put the thermometer in and boil until it registers 240. Remove pan from the heat and let stand until the bubbles dissipate.

This is when the recipe turns into a science experiment. With mixer at low speed, pour hot syrup into gelatin in a thin stream down the side of the bowl, increase speed to high and beat until very thick – about 15 minutes. Add vanilla and coconut extracts and beat 1 minute more.

Spoon marshmallows over toasted coconut in baking pan and press evenly with dampened fingertip to smooth top, then sprinkle with ½ cup toasted coconut and press in – I find that wearing food-grade gloves helps.

Let stand for 2 hours or until firm. This is a good time to get the kids – they’ll like this part.

Run a sharp knife around the edge of the pan and cut into the tiniest pieces you can. Put remaining toasted coconut in a bowl. Dredge the pieces in the coconut and watch them grow. This is why you want the pieces really tiny lest they become the blob that ate Lancaster County. The first year I could not believe that a small 9 x 9 pan would yield enough marshmallows for everyone in Terre Hill.

Even if you don’t like marshmallow, you owe it to yourself to try a small square. These are really heavenly.


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Lions and Tigers and Christmas in Lancaster County

Recently I had a chance to go on a lion hunt in Lancaster County. And they were joined by zebras and tigers and bears too. Find that hard to believe? I was in the storage rooms of the Millennium Theatre of Sight and Sound – a Christian Theatre in Strasburg. I had gone to the offices of the theatre for training – The Artist's Inn will be listed on their website for lodging. We can also order tickets for all shows and behind-the-scenes tours at a discounted rate.

If you’ve never been to Sight and Sound, you’re in for a real surprise. It is big, seating 2,000 people, and is the dream of Glenn and Shirley Eshelman. Built upon the site of their former theatre (it burned when a spark from a welder’s torch caught fire backstage), it opened in 1998. Performances feature live animals and animated ones that look and act so real you’ll have a hard time telling them apart. The original theatre began in what is now called Living Waters Theatre – a smaller 600-seat theatre on Route 896 next to the Millennium Theatre.

The buildings to support the theatre include animal quarters and production facilities for elaborate sets. Everything is locally made and every detail, from the minute you walk in the front door, to the last act of the show, is both professional and well organized.

We visited on a day that the theatre was closed and employees were decorating for the Christmas season. Even the bows for the 30-foot high tree were lined up, waiting to take their place …not unlike the actors awaiting their cue.

My favorite show has always been Noah, but there’s nothing like the Miracle of Christmas at the Millennium Theatre or the Voices of Christmas at the Living Waters Threatre to put you in a holiday mood.

There’s a lot of excitement this year as a new show opens on March 6 – the story of Joseph. Don’t wait too long to get your tickets – whether it’s for the Christmas season, Joseph, or a back-stage tour….we know you’ll enjoy the shows and tours – just as so many guests of The Artist's Inn already have.