Desserts of Austria

Despite being a bit shy in vegetables, Austria makes up for it in desserts. Every region seems to have its own thing going on, and everyone we asked had a different favorite dessert. We were not disappointed in the variety.

We start with the Mozart candy. Sightseeing around Vienna, it’s almost impossible to avoid these chocolate balls wrapped with Mozart’s face.

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Called ‘Mozartkugel’ – Morazart balls, they are a 1890’s development by an Austrian confectioner. They became popular and now many companies make them, as this page shows. The Mirabell ones are available everywhere and they’re.. ok. Not super, but not terrible. Were we to go for another round, we’d try a different brand.


Next up are Manner Wafers! Almost as unavoidable as the Mozart balls, and seemingly more beloved. They’re in every grocery store and they’re sold from single packs of four wafers all the way up to 16 packs and up. Our hosts in Wels (near Linz) told us that every household keeps a stash of these on hand for random occasions and also just every-day snacking. They’re very good indeed. Our picture of them, is not.

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You can see the bottom of the wafer wrapper in the top of the photo. For an actual photo type thing, go here. I really liked the manner cookies – not too sweet and just the right touch of hazelnut.


Past the supermarket shelves, Austria has a whole slew of ‘tortes’ – cakes, usually a little bit fancy. The one everyone said we should absolutely try was the Sachertorte. It’s chocolate cake, thin layers of apricot jam in the middle, and a smooth coating of dark chocolate. We had one in Prague, of all places. In a Starbucks. For shame. And really, it would have probably been better in Vienna, the Starbucks version was acceptable but not spectacular.

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This cake is generally extremely popular. It was so popular it launched a hotel for the creator – the Sacher Hotel. There was a bit of a legal spat about the rights to the ‘Original Sacher Torte’ name and trademark, but it seems to have been worked out and you can get one at either of the Sacher Hotels, the Sacher Cafes, and a few other places. There are also quite acceptable and delicious variants found in bakeries all over Vienna.


Last, and certainly not least, is the Linzer Torte, named after the city of Linz. Natalie had read up on this and knew we needed to try it. Apparently, there is the one highly suggested home of the Linzer Torte – Konditorei Jindrak. Like the Sacher Torte however, there are many variants available, all of them probably quite delicious. We got to the Jindrak Bakery just as it was closing, so we snatched our cake and went on our way. Around us, the rest of the town closed slowly – except for the pubs and restaurants.

IMG_20170908_180703 We tried two varieties – the original, pictured above. And.. IMG_20170908_180141the cookie variety! It’s cuter and looks more edible but it falls apart faster, and the original torte-style seems the better of the two.

The cake, in either of its forms, is a crumbly mass of dough covered in a fruity jam and spiced with cinnamon and lemon zest. The toppings are refreshing in the face of the somewhat heavy dough. As a warning – this is a very crumbly cake. The cookie version was almost impossible to eat without a massive trail of crumbs. Definitely a sit-down dessert. However, we found it worth the effort of keeping intact. It’s sugary but not overly sweet, and the tang and spice of the jam and lemon zest really perk it up. The Linzertorte holds claim to being the oldest cake recipe in the word, having a record dating back to the 1600s. We’re glad it’s still being made!

 

Food of Prague

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Walking the streets of Prague at night is a lovely experience. It’s dark with lights floating the air, illuminating the street from two meters up, or reflecting down from the lit up buildings. As pedestrians (mostly tourists in the old town) wander between restaurants and bars and shops, you will likely see someone carrying a strangely large ice cream cone.

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This is the filled variant of the Trdelník. The “ter del nik”, with the accent on the last syllable, is a cinnamon-roll like dough wrapped around a thick wooden rod and slowly turned over a fire until it’s crispy and brown on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside. Oh, and it’s lightly coated in sugar just as it comes off the fire giving it a sweet glaze.

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It’s not particularly a Czech thing, except in that Prague had the most Trdelnik shops in any of the cities we visited. The bread baked on a stick concept is as old as the greeks and a version of this is available in many European countries. For tourists though, Prague is the current center of the roll.

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It doesn’t really matter where it came from or what name it goes by, the Trdelnik is delicious. There are some shops that make it better than others so it’s worth trying a few. Of the ones we tried, most of them were just the right mix of crispy and chewy. They’re big enough to share, but ours disappeared pretty quickly – they’re best eaten hot after all.

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Outside of delicious eat-as-you-walk dessert, we got extremely lucky with the other traditional dishes we ate. The restaurant that was recommended to us (U Magistra Kelly) featured a plethora of great food and highly drinkable, cheap, beer.

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There’s one dish I really want to have again, that I haven’t had anywhere else. It’s the pork filled dumplings. In European tradition, a dumpling is a boiled ball of dough. It comes out dense and chewy, a lot like polenta. They don’t have this in Bulgaria though, and we only had one brief encounter with the dumpling in Poland. In Prague we had these beauties – fantastic dough filled with delicious pork.

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To go with the dumplings is the beef goulash, also a traditional north/eastern European dish. It’s thick, savory, and salty. Hard to get wrong and amazing when done right.

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The architecture in Prague is breathtaking, the people are friendly, and the food is delicious. The maze-like streets hold tiny restaurants and shops in every nook and cranny. Asking is the best way to find where to eat, and the dishes you can find are more than worth the trouble. We (our stomachs!) look forward to coming back.

Bondi Beach

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Surfers catch a wave at Bondi Beach

Intro: We’re stuck in Australia for two extra weeks, waiting for Russian visas. Here’s one of the things we did in the meantime!

The kilometer-long sandy stretch at Bondi is probably Australia’s most famous beach. If you’re visiting Sydney, people will tell you it’s a must-see. And with changing rooms, coin lockers, and showers, why just see it? If you visit in the summer, slip on a bathing suit and lounge around in the sand or go for a swim. The ~$4-6 USD round-trip price for transit makes Bondi an awesomely cheap way to pass time if you’re stuck in Sydney with a tight budget.

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A woman casts her flip-flops into the sand.

Bondi has two main types of water recreation: surfing and swimming. Surfing is king here, and most of the beach is open to people with surf- or boogieboards. This is the perfect place to watch surfers of all skills hang ten, from the dude just starting out (you can rent a board at the beach), to the guy that makes every wave caught look effortless. They’ll cluster on the south side of the beach, where a strong rip current dominates.

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The beach’s warning signs and rules. The “open borders” graffiti is probably a reference to Australia’s immigration policies.

The swimmers are a little less lucky; the lifeguards have to herd all non-boarders into one tiny strip of beach about 100 meters across. Marked by two signs, it encompasses swimmers, bodysurfers, and anyone splish-splashing around in the waves. And it gets crowded: hundreds of people cram into this “swim-safe” zone on busy days, making it nearly impossible to move without smacking someone. Lifeguards patrol the edges, herding anyone that strays outside the signposts back into the little box. It’s a bizarre ritual that as a Californian seems hilariously unnecessary; we do none of obsessive management at our beaches and everyone gets by just fine.

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Two guys watch the lifeguards patrolling the waters via boat.

Waves at the beach vary. Some days the waves splash ineffectually on the shore, hardly enough to move you as you stand waist-deep in the clear blue water. Other days the waves are a force to reckon with, dragging at you with every step and knocking down anyone caught unaware. Those are the good days, when a wave caught has enough power to propel you all the way to shore. If there wasn’t a human obstacle course in your way, that is.  Sometimes you bail early to avoid hitting someone. Sometimes you get dragged under and jostled against sand and human legs. And sometimes you just crash into people. You make sure they’re okay, you’re okay, and swim back out for another round.

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The north side of Bondi Beach. See that cluster of people in the water? That’s the swimming area.

You end up ravenous after hours in the water, and the boardwalk next to Bondi doesn’t disappoint. It’s filled with fancy restaurants and bars, interspersed with swim shops in case you’ve forgotten anything. Most were out of our price range as backpackers, but two we fell in love with and are worth mentioning. The first love is a tiny, no-frills Chinese restaurant called “Handmade Noodle and Dumpling Kitchen” at the corner of Campbell and Hall. The food (especially dumplings) is cheap, delicious, and pretty legit—it tastes like my dad’s cooking.

The second love is the San Churro. Okay, it’s not cheap and it’s mostly dessert, but I’ve loved San Churro since my first visit to one back in 2010. They don’t exist anywhere in the Western Hemisphere either, so I’ve had to wait seven years to have their delicious fresh churros and thick Spanish hot chocolate again. We stopped by here every time we visited Bondi, and there’s nothing like huddling over a cup of hot chocolate while still damp from a swim, breathing in the vapors mixed with the salty ocean breeze.

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A cup of thick Spanish hot chocolate and churros after a day at the beach.

You Gotta Try This: Spiced Poached Figs with Cheese

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Somewhere in the streets of Quito’s old center, lost between a cathedral and an arts market, we found something that smelled like everything you’d want of a winter treat. Pulling back a lid, a vendor released a warm fog scented with sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and fruit from her oversized cauldron. We peered inside and found scores of figs simmering gently in syrup. We had to have one. Or maybe two.

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Okay, we ended up having three. But in our defense, these fig sandwiches are AMAZING! In exchange for $1, the vendor made us a sandwich filled with the poached figs, some slices of fresh cheese, and a few generous spoonfuls of the fig syrup on a crusty sandwich roll. Taking a bite of it blends all of the flavors – the sourness of the figs melts into the slight sharpness of the cheese and the burnt sugar on the syrup melds with the earthiness of the figs, while highlights of cloves and cinnamon dance on your tongue.

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Google searches after the fact revealed that this dish, poached figs with cheese or “Dulce De Higos”, is a national pastime in Ecuador. It’s readily available in nearly every dining establishment, to from the family table to the local restaurant to the country’s hautest eateries. And while it’s served as a sandwich on the street, it also takes the role as an appetizer or dessert in other places. Seriously, if you find yourself in Ecuador, you don’t have an excuse to not try this dish.

For those of you unable to find your way to Ecuador, never fear! Further Googling turned up what appears to be the only recipe for Dulce De Higos on the whole internet (psst, the recipe is in this link). It’s from Ecuadorean food blogger Layla Pujol, so I’m betting it’s pretty legit. It’s also ridiculously simple to make, although a bit time consuming (~3 hours of work spread over 2 days). Some thoughts on the recipe:

  • Panela is a raw semi-processed sugar sold in giant bricks or cones at Latin markets. If you can’t find this, you can substitute light brown (more sugar flavor) or dark brown (more molasses flavor) to your tastes.
  • Fresh figs can be hard to come by, but they’re probably a necessity for this recipe. If you insist on trying this with dry figs, you may want to puree the figs after boiling and create a preserve instead.
  • Layla’s recipe calls for “cinnamon, cloves, and other spices” but doesn’t list how much. I’d start with 2 3-inch cinnamon sticks and 6 to 12 cloves for the recipe’s final volume (4 to 6 cups), which are my estimates from making applesauce and chai tea. A few cardamom pods or star anise might also make great additions.
  • These figs pair best with a fresh but somewhat firm cheese, and Layla’s recipe calls for quesillo or queso fresco. She mentions mozzarella too, but I’d worry about a texture clash since that tends to be more rubbery. If you can’t find queso fresco, a ricotta cheese would also work well. Or you could make your own queso fresco!
  • If you absolutely must have some kind of bread/crust with it, this would probably also make an amazing pie/galette/dumpling filling.

I’m filing this recipe away until we return from our world travels, but if you try it in the meantime let me know how it turns out!

Hostel Chocolate, Part II

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Processing the cacao

We’ve come so far, through Panama and northern Colombia, with nary a moment to think about the roasted and somewhat ground cocoa beans we’ve been carrying. We needed a coffee grinder to turn our current cocoa product into the final product*, chocolate. Since we finally have a breather in Medellín, we went in search of a coffee grinder to continue our Hostel Chocolate adventure.

 

Part 1: The search for a coffee grinder

Colombia is one of the top three coffee exporters and is rewnowned for some high-quality brews, but getting a coffee grinder here is nearly impossible. Good coffee gets exported and the people here mostly drink the pre-ground, freeze-dried coffee, so grinding your own coffee just isn’t a thing. We started our search at big-box stores such as Falabella and Exito, big-box stores like Wal-Mart that sell appliances. While they offered coffee-makers, they had no coffee grinders. The next day we tried three independent coffee shops in the Zona Rosa district—two had no coffee grinders, and the last only had a high-end Japanese glass grinder for $100 USD. Eesh. We asked this last coffee shop where we might be able to find an electric coffee grinder, and they suggested a mall in the next district. So we caught a bus there and hunted around until we found a department store. We asked if they had a coffee grinder and indeed they did! But then we asked how much it was, and they said it wasn’t for sale. The grinder was only available as a free gift with the purchase of a KitchenAid mixer for hundreds of dollars. Defeated, we returned to our hostel.

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Coffee and chocolate shops everywhere, but not a coffee grinder in sight. This store suggested we try the mall, but we had no luck bying a coffee grinder there either.

The next day we stopped by a Juan Valdez for a cup of tea, and lo and behold, they had an electric coffee grinder for $25 USD! It was the last one and a bit dented, so I tried to talk them down in price, but the manager said no to my attempts. All the same, WE HAD OUR COFFEE GRINDER! Thinking I could try making milk chocolate without cacao butter, I grabbed some powdered milk on the way home as well. At the time I didn’t notice it says “fortified with iron”. When I realized it I just figured, “the chocolate will be extra healthy?” Hooray!

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Our ingredients: the bag of somewhat ground, roasted cacao beans and a bag of powdered milk. I accidentally bought the one fortified with iron (hierro), so we’ll see how that affects the chocolate.

 

Part 2: Cacao’s time to grind

That night, I got to grinding the chocolate in hopes of finally completing our chocolate, only to run into the problems of capacity and viscosity. The first problem was capacity—we had roughly 300 g of chocolate, but the machine had capacity for only 50 g at a time.

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~50 g of our starting product in the coffee grinder.

To get the machine to grind the chocolate effectively, I had to grind it for a couple of minutes, open the lid and mix it around, then grind again. I’d repeat this process 2-3 times, so the first batch took about 10 minutes. Despite this, by the end the chocolate had gone from rough grind, to fine powder, then a dark mud, and finally a dense liquid. We had cacao paste, ready for action!

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The product after several minutes of processing. This is about 75% done.

This is when I encountered the second problem of making cacao in a grinder: the  viscosity. Cacao paste has a higher viscosity than ground coffee, so the coffee maker wasn’t designed to handle the extra resistance. The coffee grinder’s motor worked harder, and coupled with the reduced heat dissipation from a paste (instead of the drier ground coffee), the machine soon began to overheat. After the second batch the grinder produced a burning smell, and I had to take breaks within and between the following batches to keep the grinder from dying entirely.

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Attempting to reheat the cacao paste in the pan to grind it more finely. Don’t ask about all the spoons.

With these setbacks, the cacao grinding took about 3 hours in total, and at the end I had a still-slightly grainy paste. I tried to improve the consistency by heating it a pan to grind it again (above), but this turned into a massive mess. Unhopeful, I mashed it into a clean leftovers container** and set it aside to cool overnight.

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The final ground mass of cacao paste. Though blurry, you can see the grainy dots along the surface of the cacao paste.

Not wanting to admit total defeat, I also took one spoonful and dissolved it in some milk made from our powdered milk and sugar, and had myself some chocolate milk. It felt like the spiritual equivalent of making lemons out of lemonade, since we didn’t have high hopes for the cacao paste.

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Chocolate milk: because I refuse to accept that what I’ve made is totally inedible! It was actually pretty good, so at least I’ve made drinking chocolate.

The next day we took a look at the cacao paste and it didn’t look as bad. It had solidified into a dark mass and seemed less grainy, but some areas had white bloom suggesting the fat had separated from the rest of the cacao mass. We were heading to Guatape that day, so I didn’t have time to move forward with the rest of the recipe. But as you’ll find out soon, this was actually a lucky move.

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The solidifed cocoa mass. The whitish parts are bloom, where the fat has separated out. It doesn’t look terribly edible, does it?

Stay tuned for our adventures in Guatape, the land of many (artificial) lakes, and the culinary conclusion of Hostel Chocolate!

  • Natalie

 

Notes:

* A coffee grinder is actually a subpar tool for making chocolate because the ground cacao particles aren’t small enough and result in somewhat grainy chocolate, but it’s the cheap option. Various kinds of ball mills are used to create small-batch and commercial chocolate, running quickly into the hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars category. There are cheap ball mills out there for $150-200 that some people swear by for chocolate-making. But I figured our chance of running into one of those in Colombia was pretty much nil.

** When travelling you’re often short on your standard kitchen gear, so saving food containers from restaurants and takeout is insanely useful. It’s basically +1 item for food storage that you can discard or leave behind when you have to move on. We found the Styrofoam boxes don’t keep well, but plastic ones are wonderful. Even the super flimsy plastic ones (like the one in the final photo above) can be reused a few times.

The food of Medellín’s Zona Rosa: Dessert

Zona Rosa

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People sit in front of a Christmas lights display at a park in Zona Rosa

Zona Rosa is Medellín’s happening tourist spot, with all of the hippest shops, bars, and restaurants. Stroll down one of these streets and you could easily imagine you’re in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or any other major metropolitan hub. And while the prices definitely reflect the area, clocking in around 1.5-3 times that of other places in the city, they’re still highly affordable if you’re coming from a country like the U.S. or Canada.

We spent most of our time in Zona Rosa enjoying the relative comfort of the Panela Hostel 2 and eating amazing food. Because around here we like to eat dessert first, this post will be about the desserts of Zona Rosa. Our second post will cover other meal options. But seriously, you can eat dessert first.

The Dessert Tour

Our first Zona Rosa tour began with my insatiable sweet tooth. Stoytcho and I looked up all of the dessert places nearby by searching for “chocolate” on TripAdvisor and we committed to trying the following:  MeLate Chocolate, Como Pez en el Agua, and Arte Dolce.

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The MeLate storefront

MeLate Chocolate was a true chocolate paradise, with chocolate bonbons, chocolate baked goods, and chocolate drinks. Nearly everything on the menu was touched by chocolate in some way. We ordered the traditional hot chocolate, which was perfect, and a white hot chocolate with lime, which was a bit too sweet for our tastes. Next up was the Encanto, a flourless chocolate cake with berry compote and whipped cream. This was absolutely phenomenal and was probably the best thing we had on the menu while there. And finally, last but not least, the chocolate bonbons filled with maracuyá (passionfruit) jam. Although the chocolate alone was overly sweet and had a mild burnt taste to it, the combination with the fruit filling was lovely.

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Some of the dessert offerings at MeLate
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The Encanto with frutas rojas (berry) compote

Recommendation: For those with a craving for chocolate, this is a one stop shop. Try the traditional hot chocolate and the encanto covered in puree de frutas rojas.

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The storefront of Como Pez en el Agua

Next stop, Como Pez en el Agua! This venue is a full-scale coffee shop and bakery, offering up high-quality tea and coffee alongside gorgeous cakes and pastries. The tea selection is wide and all of it is high quality, and if you get the chance you can also order fruit infusions that taste like fresher, cleaner versions of herbal teas—think berry or wild-rose hip tea if it hadn’t been sitting powdered in a sachet for months before you used it. If you’re a coffee snob, this is the place for you, because for 3000 COP ($1 USD) they’ll freshly grind beans that you bring in and make you either a French press or Chemex cup of coffee. Ironically, we’re tea people in Colombia, so we didn’t try much of the coffee. As for the pastries, we visited a few times and tried the following: the hazelnut Nutella brownie, the mini-cheesecake with wine-poached pear, and the Margarita (a lime-mousse cake). We weren’t wowed by the Margarita as it seemed a bit bland, but the brownie and the cheesecake were both fantastic. CPA also offers brunch until noon, which while we were there included bruchetta with fresh cherry tomato and onion jam. While on the pricier side for the portions, the taste is just right.

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Desserts at Como Pez en el Agua
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The mini cheesecake with wine-poached pear

Recommendation: A perfect place for brunch or afternoon tea, but it may take you a couple tries to find the perfect dessert. Don’t be afraid to ask the staff for recommendations.

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The gelato of Arte Dolce

Arte Dolce was our third stop and turned out to be an amazing little gelato spot with a side of French bakery. The baked goods they offer were fairly limited, though we found the sundried tomato and basil quiche to be excellent when warmed. But where Arte Dolce really shines is the gelato, and in particular the Amarena, a sour liqueur-soaked cherry and cream gelato that sandwiches perfectly between their chocolate crumb coating. You can get it with an extra scoop of ice cream and fresh cream for 12,000 COP (around $4 USD), and it’s definitely a dessert for two.

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One of the baked goods that Arte Dolce offers
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An amarena gelato sandwich with chocolate crumble and an extra scoop of berry gelato.

Recommended: If you’re looking for a cool treat on a hot night, Arte Dolce hits the spot. It’s especially good for those looking for options on the less sweet side, as they offer gelatos such as the Amarena and tangy berry sorbets.