Gretchen McKay

Scary Food: One Girl’s Bug is Another’s Big Yum

We all like to scare ourselves silly at Halloween. But usually, the goose bumps are a reaction to a frightening event we see or hear, not something dished up on a dinner plate.

Here I am, though, in the awful position of trying offal at Teutonia Mannerchor in Pittsburgh’s North Side.

The blood tongue sandwich at Teutonia Mannerchor/Steve Mellon

An auxillary member, I’ve eaten the German club’s food many times at special events and lunches, and count its homemade spaetzel and schnitzel among the city’s best ethnic dishes. But on this particular afternoon, I’m staring down a dish offered on the bar’s board menu that’s grossed me out for years: a blood tongue sandwich.

“You gotta love a food that tastes you back,” my editor had kidded me when I told him, in a shaky voice, I was going to swallow my fear and try it.

Thankfully, the freckled lunch meat that arrived on my table, nestled between two pieces of rye, wasn’t wearing taste buds. Slicing it ultra-thin, though, couldn’t disguise the fact the cured pork tongue from Usinger’s in Milwaukee was dotted with small white chunks of . . . something. (Diced smoked ham fat with the beef blood, I later discovered.) Like many darker lunch meats, it also smelled slightly earthy.

“You kind of have to grow up with it,” conceded my waitress, Alice Weinbrenner, when she set the sandwich ($4.75, including potato chips) in front of me. It’s popular with the mostly older men’s and women’s choirs who practice at the club Wednesday evenings.

And if you didn’t? I suggest washing it down with a squirt of yellow mustard or a pint of Spaten. Or in my case, both.

Obviously, a sense of adventure can determine what gives one diner the creeps and another a hearty appetite. Also at play are cultural traditions and religious beliefs, along with what foodstuffs are available for the taking. Disgusted by the deluge of stink bugs this year? Roasted, the shield-shaped bugs end up in tacos in Mexico (they’re rich in vitamin B2). They also make a nice pate, according to Julieta Ramos-Elorduy, who includes a recipe for such in “Creepy Crawly Cuisine.”

Insects might be a regular part of the diet for many cultures in Africa, Asia and Latin America. But no way I’m eating a creepy-crawly that smells like rotten sneakers. Nor could I bring myself to try the watermelon- and banana-flavored bug suckers ($2.25 to $4.25) found on the counter at Reyna’s Mexican grocery in the Strip District (the delicious choices include scorpion, ant and cricket). With a lot of cajoling from videographer Steve Mellon, however, I managed to force a BBQ Larvet into my mouth, along with a salt-n-vinegar Crick-ette (each $3.50). And then promptly spit them out.

Scorpion lollipop/Steve Mellon

Fried to an almost powdery crisp, neither the mealworms (the larvae of a grain-eating beetle) nor the crickets held much taste other than salt. The texture, though, isn’t for the squeamish. Though the larvet quickly dissolved, it still was a worm. And I ended up with tiny, icky cricket legs stuck in my teeth.

I had better luck at Jerome Bettis’ Grille 36, where Chef Marc Seeberger is testing the limits on taste with a “soon to be famous” deep-fried cheeseburger ($9.99) You don’t have to be a health nut to be scared of this sandwich, which is chilled for two days before being dipped — pickles, secret sauce and roll included — in a tempura batter and then fried for 31/2 minutes.

Calories and fat?

“Too many,” admitted Chef Seeberger, laughing.

I have to admit it, though, my one bite was delicious: imagine if a beignet and a burger had a baby. Considering the havoc it’s sure to wreak on your arteries, though, this is definitely a dish for sharing.

Conversely, you can keep all to yourself the Polish duck blood soup, or czarnina, at the landmark Bloomfield Bridge Tavern in Bloomfield ($4.95).

Talk about your acquired tastes: Gamey and slightly sour, the broth — made with sauerkraut juice and prunes — turns from clear to a purplish-black when you give it a stir. (The dish derives its name from the Polish word for black, czarny.) And stir you do, because the soup’s homemade kluski noodles look so darn delicious. Alas, they do little to soften the taste of duck blood — three quackers’ worth per batch.

Bloomfield Bridge Tavern's czarnina, duck blood soup/Steve Mellon

I’m not alone in thinking it takes an adventurous soul to slurp this stuff up; when I meet him outside the tavern in the parking lot, owner Steve Frankowski warns me it’s the only item on the menu he doesn’t recommend to non-Polish eaters like me. (Old-timers have loved it ever since his father, Stanley, put it on the menu 25 years ago next month.) And the recipe comes from his Aunt Barbara on his father’s side!

That said, enough customers are fans that the tavern sells out of the soup every time his brother Karl cooks up a pot.

Having grown up with sweeter versions served at home, some diners stir a teaspoon or two of sugar into the bowl. But not Mr. Frankowski.

“We’re traditionalists here,” he said.

What’s for dinner: Coconut shrimp with pineapple puree

Coconut Shrimp with Pineapple Puree

Coconut shrimp is usually pan- or deep-fried, which adds unwanted calories. This easy recipe from celebrity chef Rocco Dispirito, served with a spicy-sweet sauce, is baked so it has just 178 calories per serving. My kids are dippers, so I doubled the amount of pineapple; to add even more heat, I quadrupled the chili sauce.

  • 1/4 cup unsweetened coconut, divided
  • 3/4 cup whole-wheat panko bread crumbs (available in the Asian section)
  • 1/4 cup whole-wheat flour
  • 3 egg whites
  • 1 teaspoon coconut extract
  • 8 ounces large shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 8-ounce can unsweetened crushed pineapple in juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili garlic sauce

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Spread the coconut out on the prepared baking sheet and bake, stirring occasionally, until it is pale golden brown, about 7 minutes. Allow to cool.

Place 3 tablespoons of the toasted coconut in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until finely chopped. In a small bowl, combine the pulsed coconut with the panko. Reserve the remaining 1 tablespoon coconut.

Raise the oven temperature to 450 degrees. Place a wire rack on a baking sheet and set it aside.

Place the flour in a shallow dish. In a medium bowl, whip the egg whites with a whisk until they are extremely foamy but not quite holding peaks; whisk or mix the coconut extract into the egg white. Dredge the shrimp in the flour, shaking off any excess. Add the shrimp to the egg whites and toss to coat completely. Then add the shrimp, a few at a time, to the coconut-panko mixture and coat completely.

Place the breaded shrimp on the wire rack and season generously with salt and pepper. Bake until the breading is golden and crispy and the shrimp are cooked through, about 8 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a blender, puree the pineapple (with its juice) with the chili garlic sauce until smooth. Season with salt and pepper.

Sprinkle the remaining 1 tablespoon coconut over the shrimp. Serve with the pineapple-chili sauce for dipping.

Serves 4.

“Now Eat This” by Rocco Dispirito (Random House, March 2010, $22)

What’s for dinner: Korean beef stew with napa cabbage and pickles

Dill pickles and chopped jalapenos give this easy stew its unique, tangy flavor. It also makes good use of napa cabbage, a crinkled, elongated cabbage that’s sweeter than regular cabbage and a main ingredient in kim chi, the national dish of Korea. I couldn’t find fresh mung bean sprouts at my local grocery store, so I substituted canned.

Reinventing the Classics by the editors of Food & Wine
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 3 pounds trimmed beef chuck, cut into 3-inch pieces
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1 quart beef stock or low-sodium broth
  • 2 medium red onions, quartered through the core
  • 6 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
  • 2 large jalapenos, halved, seeded and sliced 1/2-inch thick
  • 2 cups mung bean sprouts
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 4 cups coarsely chopped napa (Chinese) cabbage
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced sour dill pickles
  • Steamed short-grain rice, toasted sesame oil and 3 thinly sliced scallions, for serving

In a very large skillet, heat vegetable oil. Season meat with salt and pepper and sear pieces over moderately high heat until richly browned all over. Transfer to a large slow cooker, turn it to high and cover.

Wipe out skillet and return to burner. Add soy sauce, sugar, wine and stock and bring to boil. Pour mixture into slow cooker. Add onions, cover and cook for 2 hours. Add garlic and jalapenos to stew, cover and cook for 1 hour longer, until meat is very tender.

Meanwhile, bring a medium saucepan of water to boil. Add bean sprouts and blanch for 30 seconds; drain. Put cornstarch in a bowl and whisk in 1/2 cup of liquid from the cooker.

With a slotted spoon, remove and discard onions from stew. Transfer meat to a large bowl. Whisk the cornstarch mixture into the stew, cover and let simmer for 2 minutes. With 2 forks, very coarsely shred meat. Return meat to cooker, add cabbage and pickles, cover and let cook until cabbage is wilted, 5 minutes. Turn cooker off.

Spoon steamed rice into bowls. Ladle stew over and around rice. Top with bean sprouts, a drizzle of sesame oil and the sliced scallions and serve.

Serves 6.

“Reinventing the Classics” (Food & Wine Books, 2010, $29.95)

What’s for dinner: Italian-sausage stuffed apples

It’s apple season, but alas, one can eat only so many desserts. This recipe transforms fall’s favorite fruit into a hearty main dish. I used sweet-sour Jonagolds, but any large baking apple will do. Be careful not to scoop too much of the flesh out when hollowing the apple. To serve as a side dish, cut the apples in half after baking, and drizzle with a little maple syrup.

Italian-sausage stuffed apples

  • 6 ounces coarse country bread, crusts removed
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 8 Rome Beauty, Stayman, Winesap, Jonagold or other good baking apples
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 10 ounces Italian sweet fennel sausage, casings removed
  • 3 to 4 slices imported provolone cheese, finely diced
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Pull the bread into large pieces and place in a bowl. Pour in milk and let stand while you prepare the apples.

Cut a 1/2-inch slice off the stem end of each apple. With a melon baller or grapefruit spoon, scoop the core from each apple, being careful not to pierce the blossom end. Continue to scoop the apple flesh to form a hollow cavity with sturdy sides. Rub cavities with lemon juice.

Squeeze as much milk as possible from bread, place in a bowl and add sausage, cheese, egg and parsley. Mix well, then season with salt and pepper and mix again.

Spoon sausage mixture into the apple cavities, mounding the tops. Place the apples in a baking dish large enough to hold them in a single layer. Pour water into the dish to a depth of about 1/4 inch.

Bake for about 45 minutes, or until the apples are tender when pierced with a sharp knife. Serve immediately.

Serves 8.

“An Apple Harvest” by Frank Browning and Sharon Silva (Ten Speed, 2010, $16.99)

Throwing a party for the bride, mom-to-be and more

Ready to party? You’re in good company.

This is the time of year when people crawl out from under their rocks and start thinking about how to best celebrate some of life’s major milestones.

The latest crop of soon-to-be high school and college grads await their diplomas. Scores of expectant moms are counting down the weeks to Baby on their swollen fingers (July being the busiest birthing month).

Somewhere between those two is wedding season, which kicks off around Memorial Day and peaks in June.

Countless graduation parties and wedding and baby showers are in the works. And that, in turn, means there’s a heck of a lot of hosts and hostesses wondering what the heck they’ve gotten themselves into.

Decisions, decisions. From the guest list to the decorations to planning the perfect food and figuring out how to keep teenagers from sneaking a taste of that yummy-sounding rum punch you can’t wait to try … it can be overwhelming, to say the least.

But you don’t have to drive yourself nuts.

Earlier this month, I hosted a bridal shower for my oldest sister Kathy’s daughter. Laura is the first of my parents’ 20 grandkids to get married, so I tread — quite happily — into virgin territory. The experience reinforced my belief that the secret to staying sane when entertaining large groups boils down to two things. First, choose a theme. Then, delegate to family and friends.

I know — themes are hokey, best suited to kids’ birthday parties. Yet choosing a single idea on which to hang your party hat is an easy way to coordinate the myriad details: the menu, the decorations, the music, the invitations. And that takes sooo much pressure off.

Every bride (and host), of course, is different. I took my cue from Laura and fiance Matt’s honeymoon plans. They’ll spend their first week as a married couple in Jamaica, so a Caribbean bridal shower seemed apropos, with a taste-of-the-islands buffet, tropical decor and a showpiece shower cake that screamed — in a laid-back, island kind of way — “Married life’s a beach!”

A Caribbean-themed bridal shower gives a taste of the islands.

A quick search through some favorite cookbooks turned up recipes for a terrific mango salsa and coconut shrimp. Two new books dished up a pair of fiery, island-style entrees that would whet the bride’s appetite for sunny Ocho Rios: shredded spicy pork tacos and wet-rub jerk chicken. Because rum is Jamaica’s national drink, I’d also fill the punch bowl with a fruity planter’s punch.

On shower day, another sister, Kristin, and I covered the dining room table with a bright floral tablecloth she bought at Target to which Laura’s bridesmaids attached a hula grass skirt. For the centerpiece, we filled a giant vase with sugar (to simulate sand), added a fat candle and carefully placed inside shells Kristin had picked off the beach in North Carolina. Guests were greeted at the door with leis and umbrella-decorated cups of rum punch.

The real eye candy was the tiered shower cake on the sideboard. Which brings us to our second point about allowing people to pitch in and help: The smart hostess recognizes her limitations, and asks those who know what they’re doing to do. My weakness is baking. But my neighbor Alice Leich, a pastry chef with Parkhurst Dining Services, is a whiz at turning flour, sugar and butter into edible works of art. I asked if she’d do it for me.

Nothing says "beach" like a cake with a tiki hut on top

I’ll admit to a few nervous minutes waiting for the cake to be delivered the morning of the party (did I get the date right?). I also didn’t know what, exactly, Alice had designed other than the fact the white cake would have orange-flavored icing under a coat of colored fondant. Turns out, hiring a professional cake maker was genius on both our parts.

The cake rose from the fondant-covered wooden platform like a sand castle on the beach. Only this one you wanted to eat. A bright-blue bottom “ocean” layer was embellished with fat yellow fishies, while from the middle “beach” layer edible palm trees sprang at jaunty angles. On top was a thatched-roofed tiki hut. With a bright red heart on the door.

My niece took one look and squealed with delight, “Oh, Aunt Gretchen!”

Planter’s Punch

PG tested

Rum-based Planter’s Punch is a traditional drink of welcome in the Caribbean. I served mine in a punch bowl, and kept it cool with homemade pineapple juice ice cubes studded with fresh mint.

  • 2 ounces dark rum
  • 2 ounces orange juice
  • 2 ounces pineapple juice
  • 1/2 ounce lime juice
  • Dash grenadine
  • Orange slices and cherry for garnish

Combine rum and 3 juices in a shaker with ice. Shake well, and strain into an ice-filled Collins glass. Top with grenadine. Garnish with an orange slice and a maraschino cherry.

For a thirsty crowd, multiply the recipe by number of servings and serve in a pitcher with ice.

drinkoftheweek.com

Wet Jamaican Jerk Seasoning

PG tested

I wasn’t sure how much heat my guests could tolerate (Scotch bonnets are among your hotter chile peppers) so I substituted a mixture of serrano and habanero chilies.

  • 2 bunches (12 to 18) scallions, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 4 Scotch bonnet peppers, minced
  • 8 medium cloves garlic
  • 5 tablespoons ground allspice
  • 3 tablespoons dried thyme
  • 2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
  • 2 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 2 tablespoons white distilled vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons pineapple juice
  • 1 tablespoon dark molasses
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 large limes, juiced

Place all ingredients in a food processor fitted with a steel chopping blade. Process mixture until smooth, 11 to 15 seconds. If mixture appears too dry, add more lime juice. Place in a stainless steel, glass or ceramic container with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate. Will keep refrigerated up to 3 weeks.

When using wet jerk marinade, make shallow slits in the meat and rub marinade onto them. Allow meat to marinate at least 5 hours, or overnight. For hamburger the slits aren’t necessary but overnight curing is.

Makes about 3 cups.

“Damn Good Food: 157 Recipes from Hell’s Kitchen” by Mitch Omer and Ann Bauer (Borealis, 2009, $27.95)

Mango Salsa

PG tested

Sweet mango gives this easy salsa recipe a tropical feel. If you can’t find ripe fruit, don’t feel bad substituting frozen mango chunks. I did, to great success. Serve with fresh tortilla chips, on top of tacos or stuffed inside a burrito.

  • 1 large ripe mango, peeled and cubed
  • 2 small carrots, peeled and diced
  • 2 celery stalks, diced
  • 1 orange, peeled and cut into cubes
  • 1 fresh green chili, finely chopped (more if you like it really hot)
  • Handful of fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients and refrigerate for 30 minutes before serving.

Serves 4 to 6.

“World Food Cafe: Global Vegetarian Cooking” by Chris & Carolyn Caldicott (Soma, 2002)

Lime-Cilantro Dressing

PG tested

With or without the chiles, this dressing is great for light tender greens. You could also serve it on a mix of romaine and tomatoes, or with thinly sliced cucumbers.

  • 3/4 cup vegetable or olive oil, or a mixture of the two
  • 1/3 cup fresh lime juice (from 2 limes)
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated lime zest (colored rind only)
  • 1/2 cup (packed) roughly chopped cilantro
  • Fresh hot green chiles to taste (I used 2 serranos, but you could also use jalapeno), stemmed and roughly chopped
  • Salt

Combine the oil, lime juice, lime zest, cilantro, chile and a scant teaspoon salt in a blender jar and blend until smooth. Taste and add more salt if you think it needs it, keeping in mind that dressings should be highly seasoned. Pour into a jar, secure the lid and refrigerate until ready to use. Shake well immediately before use.

Makes 1 1/4 cups dressing.

“Mexican Everyday” by Rick Bayless (Norton, 2005)

Spicy Shredded Pork Tacos

PG tested

This recipe takes some time because it requires hand-shredding the meat, but it’s so worth the effort. Fresh citrus juice and ground cinnamon add a rich flavor of the islands. My kids had barely finished the leftovers (it’s even better the next day) when they starting bugging me to make some more. For my crowd of 30, I doubled the ingredients.

  • 2 tablespoons dry adobo, homemade or store-bought
  • 4-pound boneless pork shoulder, cut into 5 or 6 pieces, each about 2 inches wide
  • Juice of 1 grapefruit
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more as needed
  • 4 Mexican chorizos (about 1 pound), removed from casings
  • 2 medium yellow onions, finely diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon each dried oregano, ground cumin, ground cinnamon and ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • Kosher or fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 18 corn or flour tortillas

Marinate the pork: Rub the dry adobo into the slices of pork, seasoning all sides well. Put in a roasting pan large enough to hold in a single layer. Pour citrus juices over pork and turn to coat all sides. Refrigerate at least 2 hours, or as long as overnight; turn the pork in the marinade occasionally.

Make the filling: Remove pork from marinade and pat dry; discard marinade. Heat oil in a Dutch oven or large casserole over medium-high heat. Lay only as many of the pork slices in the pot as will fit comfortably and cook, turning the pieces as necessary, until browned on all sides. Transfer pork pieces to plate as they brown and add remaining pieces to the pan, replenishing oil if necessary.

Add chorizo to pot and cook, stirring to break up any big pieces, until browned, about 5 minutes. Add onions and garlic, stirring to pick up any brown bits from the bottom of pot. Add spices and toss in the bay leaves. Stir in canned tomatoes and season with salt and pepper to taste. Return pork to pot, turning to coat with sauce. Bring to a boil, then adjust heat so sauce is simmering, and cover pot. Cook until pork falls apart easily when poked with a fork, 11/2 to 2 hours. Skim fat off the top of sauce occasionally as pork cooks.

Remove pork to a large plate. Coarsely shred pork with 2 forks and stir back into sauce. Check seasoning and add salt and pepper if necessary. Pork can be prepared up to 2 days in advance. Let cool completely and refrigerate. Rewarm pork over low heat, adding a small amount of water if necessary to make sauce smooth.

To serve: Wrap tortillas in aluminum foil and place in a 350-degree preheated oven until warmed through and softened, about 15 minutes. Place a heaping tablespoon (or 2) of the filling on each tortilla and roll up. Serve hot with your favorite salsa.

Makes 18 tortillas, plus 6 main course servings.

“Daisy: Morning, Noon and Night: Bringing Your Family Together with Everyday Latin Dishes” by Daisy Martinez with Chris Styler (Atria, 2010, $30)

CARIBBEAN BRIDAL SHOWER CAKE

I’m not much of a baker so I asked my friend Alice Leich, a pastry chef with Parkhurst Dining Services, to make my niece’s shower cake for me. Using a recipe from “The Cake Bible,” she cleverly shaped the different-sized cake layers (9 in all) into a tiered beach scene, with brightly colored fondant: fish swimming in the ocean on the bottom, sandy beach in the middle, tiki hut on top. Of course, it would taste just as delicious as a two-layer cake.

  • 1/2 cup egg whites, at room temperature
  • 1 cup milk, at room temperature, divided
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons vanilla
  • 3 cups sifted cake flour
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Grease and flour two 9-inch-by-1 1/2-inch round cake pans, or grease and line bottoms with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl lightly combine the egg whites, 1/4 cup milk, and vanilla.

In a large mixer bowl combine the dry ingredients and mix on low speed for 30 seconds to blend. Add the soft butter and remaining 3/4 cup milk. Mix on low speed until the dry ingredients are moistened. Increase to medium speed and beat for 1 1/2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the egg mixture in 3 parts, beating for 20 seconds after each addition. Scrape down the sides.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pans and smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake 25 to 35 minutes or until a tester inserted near the center comes out clean and the cake springs back when pressed lightly in the center. The cakes should start to shrink from the sides of the pans only after removal from the oven.

Let the cakes cool in the pans on racks for 10 minutes. Loosen the sides with a small knife and invert onto greased wire racks. Invert again so the top is up, and cool completely before wrapping airtight.

“The Cake Bible” by Rose Levy Beranbaum (Morrow, 1988)

Italian Meringue Buttercream

The filling for my niece’s Caribbean Bridal Shower Cake was flavored with vanilla, Grand Marnier and orange zest. Pastry chef Alice Leich also brushed the cake before it was filled with a simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water brought to a boil) flavored with Grand Marnier; syrups add moisture and flavor to the finished cake.

  • 1 cup fresh egg whites
  • 2 1/2 cups sugar, divided
  • 1/2 cup water
  • Dash lemon juice
  • 1 pound, 10 ounces unsalted butter, softened

Place egg whites in a mixer bowl fitted with a whisk attachment.

Reserve 1/3 cup sugar. Combine the remaining sugar, water, and lemon juice in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Wash the sides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in water to remove any sugar crystals.

When the syrup temperature reaches 200 degrees, start beating the egg whites on medium high. When the whites become foamy, stream in the reserved 1/3 cup sugar. Continue to beat to stiff peaks.

When the syrup temperature reaches 240 degrees, remove the saucepan from the heat and stream the syrup into the meringue, continuing to beat on medium speed.

Balancing cooking the syrup and beating the egg whites can be intimidating when working with the small quantities that can be accommodated in a home mixer. If the egg whites reach stiff peak before the syrup is ready, turn the mixer to a low speed until the syrup is ready to use. If the syrup temperature climbs above 240 degrees, simply add a little water to bring the temperature down, then continue to heat until the temperature climbs back up to 240.

Continue whipping the meringue until just slightly warm, then add the butter and whip until smooth.

Flavor to taste with extracts, liqueurs, purees, curds, or melted bittersweet chocolate.

Buttercream may be stored at room temperature for several days or in the refrigerator or freezer for longer periods. After storage, it must be mixed on low speed at room temperature with a paddle attachment to refresh its creamy texture.

Alice Leich

May the Force Be With You in Sedona

SEDONA, Ariz. — You needn’t be a desert rat to fall instantly in love with the rugged, red-rock monoliths that define this enchanting city of artists in northern Arizona’s Upper Sonoran Desert. Nor do you have to be a New Ager, although if you believe in the mystical power of vortexes — there are 15 of these swirling centers of energy within 10 miles of downtown — you’ll fit right into this hot spot for every imaginable spiritual and metaphysical activity.

Thankfully, you don’t even need good weather for a visit you’ll never forget. Even in a freezing rain, with its famous peaks obscured by gray storm clouds and with normally bustling streets void of people, Sedona is a stunner.

We would have preferred the brilliant sunshine and azure skies one associates with the desert. Especially since neither my husband nor I had thought to pack winter coats or warm shoes for our quick trip to Phoenix. (To a Pittsburgher, at least dumb ones like me, Arizona in January = balmy temperatures = another round of margaritas by the pool.)

Even the most fervent prayers, though, can’t change the weather or extend a vacation. If we wanted to see this geological wonder, it was now or never. Grabbing our sweaters, we got into our cheap rental Chevy and made the 120-mile drive north to the mouth of Oak Creek Canyon.

You can look at all the pictures you want of Sedona’s famous rock formations — and look we did in our official guide on the two-hour drive through some of the scrubbiest, and occasionally uninhabitable, terrain I’ve ever seen. (Bet there’s an interesting story behind names such as Horse Thief Basin and Big Bug Creek!) Yet until you actually lay eyes on the peaks, worn by water and wind over millions of years, you simply can’t appreciate the majestic beauty. With their multicolored layers and wild buttes jutting into the sky, they look like a prehistoric form of modern art.

Sedona, Arizona, is famous for its rock formations

Locals take this fantastic scenery pretty seriously. So seriously, the McDonald’s on Route 89A is the only one in the world to wear turquoise arches; officials thought the traditional yellow would clash with the surrounding red rocks.

In comparison to Scottsdale’s cosmopolitan glamour and Phoenix’s breathtaking sprawl, Sedona feels downright sleepy; it takes all of 10 minutes to drive through town — and that’s if you dawdle. Still, 3 million tourists make the trek each year to drink in the view and commune with nature.

Souvenir shops, great views

With those kinds of numbers, I would expect the Uptown area, with its eclectic mix of kitschy souvenir shops, expensive cowboy boots and gorgeous views (when the clouds lifted) of Snoopy Rock on one side and Merry-Go-Round formations on the other, to work harder at being quaint. Then we happened upon the cobbled streets and intimate courtyards of Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village. This collection of Spanish-style stucco buildings, constructed in the 1970s, does a terrific job of evoking a tiny Mexican village. It’s filled with more than 40 specialty shops, many of them exclusive galleries displaying the work of local sculptors, jewelry makers, painters and ceramic artists.

At a tiny store called Feliz Navidad, I found a wonderful glass ornament by artist Kebbin Carson in the shape of one of my favorite things from the Arizona desert: a cowboy (Saguaro) cactus. Around the corner at the Inner Eye Gallery, I scooped up a bronze wine bottle charm in the shape of a flower handcrafted by metal artist Sandra Sullivan. My husband, meanwhile, was charmed by the colorful desert landscapes at Point of Sedona Gallery.

We both were fans of Oak Creek Brewery, where we ate fried dill pickles at the polished wood bar and warmed our chilled bones with a pint of locally crafted amber lager.

Thanks to the lousy weather and a tight budget, we weren’t able to take one of the popular hot-air balloon rides across Sedona’s red rock area (prices start at about $200 per person). We also passed on horseback riding along the banks of the Verde River and what probably would have been an exciting jeep tour up a historic dirt road toward the sandstone cliffs of Mogollon Rim. There simply wasn’t enough time.

Downtown Sedona

Nor was there time (or on my husband’s part, an openmindedness) for a personal vortex tour — though I briefly considered getting my palm or aura read by one of Sedona’s 20 certified psychic readers. Ever since the late ’80s, when psychic Dick Sutphen declared the vortex energy in Sedona was greater than anywhere else in the country, New Age pilgrims have had a presence in town.

The force was still with us. While shopping for dangly turquoise earrings for our twin daughters, a shop owner informed us that rainy, winter days were the perfect time to enjoy the fireplace at Enchantment, a luxury resort/spa in the heart of nearby Boynton Canyon. Purchases in hand, off we went on Highway 89A through West Sedona with our photocopied map and great expectations.

Maybe it was the unexpected arrival of snowflakes, or the fact the clouds had finally dissipated, revealing two of the city’s most famous rock formations: the aptly named Coffee Pot Rock and Capitol Butte; the drive couldn’t have been prettier. As we negotiated the narrow mountain roads, driving farther and farther into the woods (had we been pranked?) one spectacular formation after another exploded into view. I made my husband stop several times so I could take pictures.

Enchantment itself, which is surrounded by the Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness in Coconino National Forest, was, well, enchanting. And that was before the prickly pear margaritas and deep-fried “beaver tail” cactus at its cafe overlooking the rocks, Tii Gavo.

“Do you ever get tired of looking at this?” I asked the guard who stopped us at the entrance to the resort so he could copy our license plate number.

Getting back on the road to Scottsdale was another matter. We decided to take the scenic route along Upper Red Rock Loop Road, which would offer us a view of Cathedral Rock, one of the most photographed formations in the area and site of a power vortex. Big mistake.

Not only did we end up getting lost, but a few miles down the road the pavement abruptly gave way to red dirt, which due to rain was rapidly turning into red mud. The rental car agent’s stern warning not to drive our four-cylinder, two-wheel-drive economy sedan in the mountains no longer seemed like a sales ploy to upgrade. My husband cursed as the car lost traction and threatened to slide sideways into a ditch.

I peered at the map in the back of our official guide, trying to figure out where we’d gone wrong. It didn’t take long for a (danger) light to go off in my head.

“Well,” I told my husband with a nervous laugh. “I guess that’s why the road goes from black to red.” He was not so easily amused.

So much to see, so little time

By the time we hit the blessed hard pavement of Route 260, it was closing in on 4:30. But we still had one more planned stop in the Verde Valley — and it was at least 20 miles away. Time to put the pedal to the metal, with just a two-minute pause to take pictures of the totally bizarre but somehow irresistible 39-foot statue of Mother Earth in front of the Mago Retreat Visitor Center outside Cottonwood. (“Do we turn left at the huge Jesus?” my husband asked when he spied it on the horizon.)

We’d flirted with the idea of stopping at Montezuma Castle, one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in North America, on our way to Sedona. We were in such a hurry to get there, however, that we tacked it onto the return half of our trip. In hindsight, that was another dumb decision.

Constructed by southern Sinagua farmers in the 1100s, the 20-room castle was among four sites President Theodore Roosevelt designated in 1906 as our nation’s first National Monuments. Five stories tall, it’s nestled rather ingeniously inside a limestone cliff some 100 feet above the ground. In pictures, it looks like an ancient apartment building. I say “in pictures” because the closest we got to the castle was the entrance to the national park. And that was at 4:58 p.m., or exactly 2 minutes before closing.

As luck would have it, a park ranger was just pulling up to the metal gate; but no amount of sweet talking could persuade the guy to let us slip by for a quick look-see.

“It’s a mile down the road, and then another third of a mile hike to the entrance,” he scolded me, fishing a brochure out of his truck. “You really should have gotten here by 4.” I had to settle for picking up a rock from the road and tucking it in my pocket.

Yet even the most by-the-rules park ranger can’t close a door without opening a window. Ten minutes later, I was pulling the lever on a nickle slot at Cliff Castle Casino in nearby Camp Verde, which if you believe the marquee, is Arizona’s No. 1 casino 10 years running. It’s operated by the Yavapai-Apache Nation.

Never a lucky gambler, I ended up losing my $5. My husband, who wagered only 4 quarters, walked out with 50 bucks.

Guess who bought dinner when we pulled into our resort in Scottsdale two hours later?

If you go: Sedona, Ariz

Getting there: Sedona is about 120 miles north of Phoenix, or an easy two-hour drive through some of Arizona’s most beautiful scenery. Both USAirways and Southwest offer daily direct flights between Pittsburgh and Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport; with enough advance booking, a round-trip ticket costs about $300. If you’d rather arrive by air, there’s a daily shuttle between Phoenix and Sedona, but be forewarned: It takes 21/2 hours and includes several stops. Cost is $85 round trip or $45 one way, and reservations are required. Info: 1-928-282-2066 or www.sedona-phoenix-shuttle.com.

Where to stay: We did a day trip from Phoenix, but overnighters have plenty of lodging options in Sedona. Accommodations run the gamut from inexpensive chain hotels, such as Days Inn (starting at $69) to luxurious, ultra-private four-diamond properties like Enchantment Resort in the heart of Boynton Canyon, where we ate fried cactus and sipped prickly pear margaritas at Tii Gavo. Sedona also boasts a variety of time-share resorts, condos, campsites and more than 20 bed-and-breakfasts (http://bbsedona.net or 1-800-915-4442).

What do to: Famous for its massive red sandstone formations, Sedona is a mecca for hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders; you can also take jeep and helicopter tours, Native American history tours and hot-air balloon rides. For sedentary types, it offers one-of-a-kind shops and award-winning restaurants (Oak Creek Brewery at Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village pours a mean selection of microbrews). Sedona also has an active cultural arts scene, with 40-plus art galleries (Sedona Gallery Association hosts a gallery tour the first Friday of each month from 5 to 8 p.m.), annual arts festivals and the oldest arts center in northern Arizona (the Sedona Arts Center was established in 1958). More unusual are Sedona’s many “new age” metaphysical and spiritual activities (www.sedonaspiritual.com), including spirit-guided tours to the region’s vortexes, aura photos and psychic readings. The scenery alone, though, is probably enough to cleanse the soul.

Info: www.visitsedona.com or 1-928-204-1123

Amazing Amalfi Coast

POSITANO, Italy — Here’s what you expect on a visit to the Campania region in southern Italy. Fresh pasta that’s literally to die for. Equally delicious red wine that, no matter how much you drink of it, never gives you a headache. Scenery so gorgeous along the dizzying, winding Amalfi Coast that you have to pinch yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming.

But endless trekking up sets of steps that start just a few yards from the sea and keep climbing, flight after exhausting flight, some 1,200 feet up the mountain? Even after stuffing yourself silly with ungodly quantities of pizza Margherita and gelato, who’s looking to exercise on vacation?

In this magical cliffside village high above the Tyrrhenian Sea, though, negotiating scalinatelle is as much a part of the experience as shopping for hand-painted ceramics and leather sandals, or lingering over dessert with tiny glasses of limoncello, the region’s signature (and highly alcoholic) lemon liqueur. Besides, your calves eventually stop aching, once they get used to the daily workout.

While my husband was new to Italy, I’d been there as a college student. That visit, part of a summer backpacking trip across Europe following a semester abroad in Germany, had focused on more famous cities farther north: Pisa, Florence and Rome. Tiny Positano, until the 1950s a quiet fishing village, lacked the medieval churches and important museums 20-somethings seek out on a Grand Tour.

Watching the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” five years ago, though, I was captivated by the town’s Moorish-style, pastel-colored houses, which cling to the rocks high above the Mediterranean. Was there a more beautiful or romantic spot on Earth?

Positano’s high season runs from April through the end of September. But the weather was still lovely when we went in mid-October, when the crowds had disappeared and rates at hotels and other rentals dropped dramatically. Through Boston-based Parker Villas, we booked a villa just a few yards from Chiesa Nuova, a Baroque-style church that sits at the top of town. The Spaggia Grande, or main beach, would be hundreds of steps downhill, along with Positano’s busy central Piazza dei Mulini. But who’s complaining: Our terrace overlooked the Li Galli islands, mythologized as the home of the sirens in Homer’s Odyssey.

Arriving late on a drizzly Saturday following a 90-minute drive from Naples airport, we didn’t have the time (or energy) to do much initial exploring. Luckily, we didn’t need much of either to find our first of many good meals — gnocchi and pizza Margherita at Saraceno D’Oro, a family-run trattoria within walking distance of our flat. Sixteen exhausting hours of travel immediately melted away. It’s here we also enjoyed our first taste of limoncello, made locally with the grapefruit-sized lemons that grow, along with olive and fig trees, on countless terraces on the Amalfi Coast.

Nestled on a small curving bay, Positano’s pebbly beach draws thousands of sunbathers in summer. In October, the artists who paint vibrant landscapes on the esplanade bordering some of the town’s toniest restaurants are a main attraction. That and its many boutiques and ceramics stores. Our first full day in town, though, we succumbed like native Positanesi to il dolce far niente, or the sweet art of doing nothing.

After cups of latte and cheese-and-ham “toast” in Bar-Pasticceria La Zagara’s lemon-tree garden, we simply wandered the town’s picturesque streets and walkways, peeking inside the centuries-old Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta, whose green-and-yellow majolica dome dominates the landscape, and admiring the handmade jewelry and pencil etchings hanging for sale in a covered walkway across from Palazzo Murat, an 18th-century palace-turned-luxury-hotel just steps from the beach.

Later, over tall glasses of Birra Peroni at Bar Internazionale at the top of town, we watched with dropped jaws as polizia directed a never-ending stream of giant buses, scooters, cars and peloton bicyclists along the narrow roadway leading in and out of the city center. (When a tour bus comes along, everyone has to pull off to the side and stop on the shoulder.) Dinner next door at Trattoria Grottino Azzurro, a favorite local hangout, introduced us to ravioli con zucca (pumpkin) and Bresaola rucola e Parmigiano (dried beef with baby rocket and parmesan). All in all, a pretty good day.

Rested, we were now ready to explore the rest of the Amalfi Coast in our teeny Lancia Musa rental. Our first day trip was to Amalfi, where we toured Museo della Carta, a 15th-century paper mill, and the historic Duomo, or cathedral, that dominates its main square and is said to house St. Andrew’s bones. We also experienced some Italian kitsch at Grotta Dello Smeraldo, a tourist trap in Conca dei Marini. While its emerald-green water was impressive, the five-minute boat ride — the high point of which was a Nativity scene lying 2 meters under the water — was not. (Looky, looky, Americano, sang our handsome gondolier, Marco. It’s a miracle!) Oh, well. At least he was good natured about it.

We also visited the tiny fishing town of Cetera, although because it was a Monday much of town was boarded up. We consoled ourselves with a cappuccino at Bar Miramare overlooking the beach, before heading to the docks to watch fishermen clean and repair their nets.

My husband probably would have been content to spend the week drinking wine and sampling the regional food of the coastline: fresh buffalo mozzarella, lemons, zucchini, fish, olive oil and sauce made with San Marzano plum tomatoes. But who knew when we’d be back? Other excursions, then, included a daylong visit to the ancient city of Pompeii, buried under ash and pumice when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. We also spent a day exploring the island of Capri, a scenic 75-minute boat ride from Positano.

Friends had warned us against spending money on one of Capri’s biggest tourist attractions, the Grotta Azzurra, known the world round for its magnificent blue water. Yet we were still curious to see what made this posh Italian resort for the rich and famous attract more than 1 million visitors each year.

If Positano is defined by staircases and Amalfi by its history, Capri is largely about waiting: For the funicular railway that carries day-trippers some 450 feet above the harbor to Capri Town. For the municipal bus that shuttles them from the town’s center to Anacapri, the island’s second city. For the rickety seggiovia, or chairlift, that climbs almost 2,000 feet from Piazza Vittoria to the peak of Monte Solaro, the highest point on Capri. (Actually, that precarious 12-minute ride in the sky was worth waiting for. The views are stunning.) And then for the overcrowded boat that sped us back to Positano.

Had we found Capri as captivating as our guidebook made it out to be, maybe we wouldn’t have minded standing in line. But mostly, its shops off the Piazzetta were too expensive, its scenery no prettier than the rest of the Amalfi Coast.

We had a much better time exploring the “lost” village of Nocelle, high in the crags of the Lattari Mountains some 1,500 feet above Positano. Not realizing the local bus would take us clear to the top, we disembarked halfway up when everyone else got off in Montepertuso — then watched in despair as the bus continued chugging up the mountain. What the heck. At least we could walk along a road instead of up stairs. Forty-five sweaty minutes later, we were standing in Nocelle’s doll-sized piazza, drinking in its panoramic views. Then, after recharging the batteries with a slice of Torte Caprese at Ristorante Santa Croce, we headed back down a steep stairway of 1,700 steps through olive and lemon groves.

Having walked for five-plus hours, we rewarded ourselves by splurging on a drink at the glamorous Le Sirenuse, ranked by Travel and Leisure as the 21st-best hotel in Europe. The 28 euros (about $35) we paid for two signature Bellinis was worth every penny; the view of the sun setting over Positano from its terrace was pure magic.

Almost as heavenly was the pizza napoletana marinara served at Sant’Andrea Restaurant and Pizzeria at the foot of the Duomo’s steps in Amalfi. We liked it so much, in fact, we returned there for lunch on the last day of vacation before heading up into the clouds to Ravello, host to one of Italy’s most famous music festivals. Along with two important Romanesque churches, this picturesque village 1,150 feet above the sea is home to the 13th-century Villa Rufolo, a group of buildings in Arabesque style with flower-bedded terraces overlooking the Bay of Salerno.

In the weeks since leaving Italy, I have spent many hours pining for Positano. Luckily, I can feed my addiction via a Webcam (www.campaniameteo.it/webcampositano.asp) that captures, in real time, a view of town from the balcony of Le Sirenuse. Granted, I’m usually sipping a cup of cafeteria coffee while I’m drinking it in instead of a fancy cocktail, but the magic is still there.

As John Steinbeck so famously wrote when he lived there in the 1950s, “Positano bites deep.”

If you go: Amalfi Coast

Getting there: As with most major tourist destinations in Europe, the best time to find cheap airline tickets to Italy is during the late fall or winter months. Any number of airlines offer flights to Naples, a good jumping off point for exploring the Amalfi Coast. Most, though, will require a change of planes in Rome. Preferring a direct flight from New York’s JFK, we took a chance on a relatively new airline, EuroFly USA (euroflyusa.com; 1-800-459-0581). As message boards predicted, our flight was delayed for more than an hour both ways, and the flight home was especially brutal, thanks to a double whammy of broken seats and busted TV controls. (The only thing we could watch during the eight-hour trip was “Kung Fu Panda” in Italian.) But we couldn’t beat the round-trip price: $884 per person. From Naples, it was just a 1 1/2-hour drive to Positano.

Where to stay: There are hundreds of hotels, bed & breakfasts and apartments in southern Italy with rates that fit every budget. We chose to rent a luxury villa in Positano with a stunning view of the Golfo di Salerno from Boston-based Parker Villas, the largest Italian villa rental company in the United States (parkervillas.com; 1-800-280-2811). It was pricey ($2,200/week), but it was our 25th anniversary. Our friendly travel adviser, Maria Scheri, also helped us book a car at a discounted rate ($470/week) through Auto Europe of Portland, Maine (autoeurope.com; 1-800-223-5555), so we could experience firsthand the famed (and harrowing) drive along the Amalfi Coast. If you’d rather avoid a heart attack, local buses are cheap and plentiful.

Information: italiantourism.com.

An Irish Ramble

DOOLIN, Ireland — No one wants car trouble on vacation, especially when the sun is setting and, thanks to poor planning, you still haven’t found a room for the night. But if you’re going to blow a tire in Ireland, this pretty little seaside village on the northwest coast of County Clare is the place to do it.

My husband and I were on route from Ennis to the Cliffs of Mohr, one of the country’s most spectacular natural wonders, when an oncoming car flew ’round the bend and ran our tiny rented Fiat Punto into a ditch. We were shaken but not all that surprised; Ireland is notorious for its narrow roads and speed-demon drivers, particularly in rural areas. Besides, we’d already knocked the cover off the passenger side mirror the previous morning when an equally crazy driver got too close on the main street through Tipperary.

Still, we didn’t notice any real damage until hours later, after we’d toured the Cliffs jutting some 700 feet over the Atlantic (absolutely stunning!) and then curved our way north along the coast to Doolin, known worldwide as the unofficial capital of Irish traditional music.

Actually, someone noticed it for us.

“Do you have a room?” we called out hopefully to the man standing in front of the Seaview House Bed & Breakfast.

He shook his head. “But you have a flat,” he offered helpfully.

Considering Doolin is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, and the spare was one of those dinky temporary numbers, we panicked; less than 36 hours into a whirlwind, four-day trip across the country, we still had hundreds of miles to go and dozens of sites to see. We couldn’t afford to waste one minute searching for a repair shop.

But the luck of the Irish was with us. The woman who owned the B&B we thumped our way to assured us her friend John, who had a tire shop in the middle of a sheep pasture just up the road, could set us up and was more than happy to rouse him by cell the next morning. So we were able to spend the evening as originally planned, listening to live music while enjoying a pint at two of the town’s three pubs: Gus O’Connor’s Pub, which dates to 1832, and McGann’s.

Much has been made in recent years about the “new Ireland” and how it’s progressed from being one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the wealthiest. The capital city of Dublin, for instance, in which one-fourth of the Republic’s citizens live, is now one of the top destinations in the EU, drawing more than 4 million visitors a year.

But let’s face it: Tourists really go there to experience the old Ireland: lush, sweeping landscapes dotted with medieval ruins and castles; picturesque thatched-roof cottages still warmed by a peat fire; the lively sounds of traditional Irish music; a pint of Guinness at a century-old village pub.

With both sets of grandparents having been born in Ireland, it’s always been my husband’s dream to visit — or “return home,” as he puts it. But it wasn’t until our oldest son, Dan, left to study for six months at the university in Galway that we finally scheduled a B&B trip through Aer Lingus’ Vacation Store (www.aerlingus.com).

Due to work schedules and baby-sitting issues, we wouldn’t have much time: just four and a half days and four nights. So we decided to bypass Dublin and the east coast and focus instead on the rural (read: authentically Irish) towns to the south, west and north. Our itinerary included everything from Kilkenny and Cork, where we could kiss the Blarney Stone, to Galway, Westport and Bundoran, the tiny seaside resort just south of Donegal where my husband’s maternal grandmother was born.

Here’s where we made our first mistake. Even though Ireland is a relatively small country, the map is deceiving; tiny, windy roads means it takes a lot longer to get from point A to point B. Though our first planned stop, the medieval city of Kilkenny, was just 84 miles from Shannon airport, it took us nearly four hours to get there (jet lag, an unfamiliarity with driving on the left side of the road and an hourlong traffic jam in Limerick didn’t help). So, not wanting to spend all our time in the car, we quickly regrouped and scrapped planned trips to Cork and Killarney.

After a quick nap in our luxury room at Newland’s Country House B&B, we headed into town to tour the landmark Kilkenny Castle, built in the 12th century and restored to period splendor in the 1960s. But we got there 15 minutes too late, so had to console ourselves with simply walking its beautiful grounds along the River Nore. (Tip: Most tours end an hour before closing time, so plan accordingly.)

A quick bite at the charming Matt the Millers pub reinforced what our son had been telling us for months: Ireland is amazingly expensive! Soup, salad and two pints of Smithwicks cost us 29.90 euros or about $40.

From there we headed 15 miles south to the scenic village of Inistioge. A favored romantic hideaway for local Irish, this teeny-tiny hamlet boasts a tree-lined square and a stone bridge with nine low arches spanning the Nore. So lovely is the backdrop that two Hollywood movies, “Circle of Friends” and “Widow’s Peak,” were filmed there.

On the way back to Kilkenny, we passed through Thomastown, a market town founded in the 13th century by Welsh mercenary Thomas FitzAnthony.

Quickly fading from lack of sleep, we decided to rejuice with dinner at The Coach House, a mid-1600s coach house-turned restaurant on the banks of the Nore. As we marveled over the antique beamed ceilings and wide-plank pine floors, owner John Casey stopped by to chat. Local legend has it that British military leader Oliver Cromwell — much despised by the Irish — stopped there before his death in 1658. As we ate, we drank in another distinctly Irish phenomenon: a coal fire.

Refreshed by a good night’s sleep, we started early the next morning for the Cliffs of Mohr via the historic towns of Cashel and Cahir in County Tipperary, both known for their medieval fortresses.

On route, we stopped to explore the remnants of an ancient, vine-covered stone church in the middle of a sheep pasture. It was but a taste of the wonders to come: dramatically situated on an outcrop of craggy limestone, the Rock of Cashel rises some 200 feet above the town below. Its origins as a center of power go back to 370 A.D. (St. Patrick visited in 450 A.D.), but in 1101 it was given to the church, which consecrated its imposing Hibernian Romanesque chapel in 1134. It was abandoned in the 18th century.

To the south, the Norman-style Cahir Castle, built in the 13th century and enlarged between the 15th and 17th, sits on a rocky island. One of the largest and best preserved fortresses in Ireland, it features spacious courtyards, spiral staircases and a grand hall.

This being Ireland, there were plenty more castles and ruins I longed to investigate. Time being of the essence, we instead sped toward the Atlantic, with the soaring Galtee Mountains in the distance. Which brings us to our second mistake. Thinking it’d be easier, we’d purchased “town and country” vouchers from Aer Lingus for each night’s stay at a B&B. The agent assured us we’d have our choice of “hundreds” of homes. Turns out most of the B&Bs we came across didn’t accept vouchers. And even when they did, the rooms were priced much lower than the $125 per night we’d forked out in advance. Luckily, the sole B&B in Doolin that accepted vouchers still had a room.

By noon the next morning, after some sweater shopping on Fisher Street and a delightful seaside drive that took us through a bleak, rocky stretch of land known as The Burren, we’d reached the unspoiled village of Ballyvaughan. Then it was just a skip and a jump to Galway, where we picked up our son and headed into its cosmopolitan town center for some lunch and shopping. At the top of my list was a claddagh ring from the oldest jewelers in Ireland (est. 1750), Thomas Dillon’s on Quay Street.

As we drove the long and barren highway from Galway to Sligo, we contemplated what we might find in Bundoran, a popular vacation resort renowned for its surfing. Our guidebook, after all, labeled it “tacky.” But we found its colorful promenade quite lovely, and its residents couldn’t have been more friendly.

We’d planned on overnighting in nearby Sligo, but once again we had trouble finding a B&B that took vouchers. So we continued way past dark to the coastal town of Enniscrone, where the kind proprietor of the Tara Farmhouse B&B promised to wait up for us.

And that leads us to mistake No. 3: Irish pubs don’t serve food after 9:30 p.m., no matter how pathetically you beg.

So after we unpacked our bags, we headed down the road to Ballina, County Mayo’s largest town. A guarda, or cop, directed us to Chungs at Tullios on Pearse Street, where we devoured kung pao chicken while listening to country Musak. It was one of our most surreal moments in Ireland but totally enjoyable.

On our way to Cong the next morning (the setting for John Wayne’s “The Quiet Man”), we passed through the coastal villages of Newport and Westport and meandered across the Partry Mountains, where the butter-yellow gorse bushes were in full bloom.

Leaving Cong, we stumbled upon Asbury Castle, a turreted 13th-century castle that was once a country residence for the Guinness family but is now a luxury hotel (Pierce Brosnan was married there in 2001). An even better surprise was the 13th-century Ross Errilly Friary we spied in the distance near Headford. This medieval Franciscan friary, which stands in serene solitude on the banks of the Black River, is among the best-preserved monastic sites in Ireland — and we had it all to ourselves, save for some sheep grazing in a nearby pasture.

Back in Galway, we celebrated our last night in Ireland with oysters, native salmon and Dingle prawns at Morans Oyster Cottage, a renowned seafood restaurant in nearby Kilcolgan. Afterward, we fraternized with the locals at three of Galway’s most popular pubs, including Taaffes, where the guitar and accordion was only slightly louder than the crowd.

As we headed to Shannon airport the next morning, we made one last stop in the town of Gort, where, with the luck of the Irish, I found the oilcloth Irish cap I’d been searching for my father. (A loaf of brown bread and Irish butter also made their way into my carry-on bag).

Seeing we had an extra half-hour, the salesman sketched out a more scenic route on the back of an envelope via the tiny town of Scariff. We started out with high hopes, but once again we were fooled by the map. Out of time, with more than 800 miles under our belts, we had to settle for the darling town of Tulla.

Next time, we promised ourselves.

Sauce fundraiser benefits Italian earthquake victims

The world reacted in horror when a 6.3 magnitude earthquake rocked the medieval city of L’Aquila in central Italy on April 6, killing more than 300 residents and injuring more than 1,500. The devastation was particularly tough for Josephine Coletti of Ben Avon.

The retired teacher grew up in the village of Opi, one of 12 hamlets that compose Fagnano Alto, a commune 7 miles from the quake’s epicenter and the epicenter of the big aftershock on May 8, which caused more walls to crumble. (That rumble registered 5.8 on the Richter scale.)

Mrs. Coletti is concerned, of course, for her husband Joe’s family, who still live in the region and are on constant alert for the next big aftershock. But her heart also goes out to the 60,000 the earthquake left homeless.

“People are absolutely scared to sleep inside, even if their houses are agibile,” or habitable, she says. That goes for the house she visits at least once a year, which her great-grandfather built more than 150 years ago.

Yet, what can a good Italian girl do to help from the other side of the ocean? Especially now that the headlines have faded from the front pages of U.S. newspapers? Cook, of course — but for a price.

So many friends and neighbors go gaga over her homemade pasta sauces that in May, Mrs. Coletti decided to offer them for sale as a fundraiser for the residents of Fagnano Alto. Not that she’s uncomfortable knocking on doors or writing letters to ask for donations — in the past three months, she’s raised more than $9,000 doing exactly that. But she also understands she’d be able to approach people much more easily if she could offer them something tangible in return.

“It’s easy,” she says. “If you make a contribution, you can choose from my sauces.”

What a selection. There’s her simple-but-classic marinara, of course, which tastes of fresh tomatoes, parsley and extra-virgin olive oil, and an olive-studded puttanesca, a spicy sauce said to have gotten its name from the Neapolitan prostitutes who created the dish. Donors also have their choice of five more sauces, all of which, Mrs. Coletti points out, are made with the best ingredients.

Her vodka sauce, for example, includes top-notch pancetta and butter, while her sun-dried tomato sauce is made with tomatoes she not only picked by hand in Ohio and let ripen on her back porch but also dried in her home dehydrator. Other varieties include an authentic Bolognese meat sauce, which she simmers for four hours; a portabella mushroom sauce made with organic tomatoes; and a tomato-cream sauce that gets its sweet perfume from butter, carrots, celery, onions and San Marzano tomatoes. And heavy cream, of course.

You get six quarts of your choice for a minimum tax-deductible contribution of $200, 1 quart per $50 donation. All proceeds, when they’re distributed later this fall, will benefit the municipality of Fagnano Alto.

All right, so even Mrs. Coletti concedes it’s a bit pricey. But remember: It’s a sauce fundraiser, not a sauce sale. “And every little bit helps,” she says.

To date, she’s raised nearly $5,000 through her sauces in addition to her straight cash donations. But that, she says, “is just a drop in the bucket.” So many of the region’s cultural sites were so badly damaged or destroyed, including Romanesque churches, palazzi and other monuments from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, that it will take millions of dollars to put it all back together, if that’s even possible.

“People are still in post-disaster stress mode because the shakes continue,” says Mrs. Coletti, sighing. “And because at least 13 churches were destroyed, they’re having Mass in a tent.” Raising money through her sauces, then, “makes me feel good.”

The Net Result: Energy saving design cuts Pine home’s utility costs to zero

kurt weber/post-gazette

Shawna and Sherwood Johnson’s custom home on Lake MacLeod in Pine takes your breath away, and not just because of its million-dollar-plus price tag.

Nestled on a 1-acre lot with a view across the water of the Mission-style boathouse, the five-bedroom contemporary designed by FortyEighty Architecture boasts a two-story great room with a millstone fireplace, a gourmet kitchen with granite countertops and — count ’em — two climbing walls for their two young children. The couple, both veterinarians, even have a separate wash room for their mixed-breed dogs, with doors that open onto a pet relief/play area carpeted in artificial K9Grass for easy cleanup.

Talk about living the dream.

What the Johnsons hope visitors will carry away from a free open house (549 MacLeod Drive, 15044) from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and Sunday, however, isn’t envy. It’s a better understanding of the benefits of “green” construction.

A candidate for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, the two-story residence is a showcase for sustainable building practices and products, from the locally sourced ash front door (the work of the late John Metzler of Pittsburgh’s Urban Tree Forge), to the automated clerestory windows that admit natural light without heating up the rooms, to the state-of-the-art geothermal heat pump that uses 50 percent less energy than a conventional heating/cooling system.

To install it, seven wells were drilled 150 feet into the ground. In cold weather, a coagulated refrigerant circulating in the pipes absorbs heat from the earth (usually about 54 degrees) and carries it to the heat pump; when it’s warm, the pump absorbs heat from the air and transfers it to the pipes, where it’s absorbed by the earth.

Constructed by Wexford builder SureGreen with an insulated concrete form foundation, the house also features structural insulated panels under the recycled standing-seam metal roof. In the next week or so, Vox Energy Systems will install 34 3-by-5 foot solar panels that will produce up to 8,400 kilowatt hours of energy a year.

Adding to the home’s energy efficiency is radiant heating under the concrete floors and slatted wood overhangs designed to block the sun in the summer and harness it in the winter.

The end result of all that technology, says builder Tim Shipley, is a net-zero house that creates as much energy as it uses. In fact, the Johnsons might eventually make money selling excess electricity back to the utility company.

With more than 4,300 square feet of living space, calling the house “green” might seem a stretch. Not to Mr. Shipley.

“It’s really the impact on the environment when you’re building and operating it,” he explains. “This house isn’t wasting any energy.”

SureGreen is no stranger to sustainable building, having constructed the WPXI Concept Home at Lake MacLeod in 2006. But this is the first in which the homeowners were leading the way. The Johnsons and their builder focused not just on the mechanics and building materials (all the wood is FSC certified, the paint low- or no-VOC), but also on the site and interior layout. To take full advantage of the sun’s exposure, the house is oriented to east-west with south-facing windows on the main living spaces. They also kept the bedrooms and bathrooms small in exchange for a larger living great room/kitchen area, and placed utility areas on the back of the house.

Not that they sacrificed aesthetics or comfort; Lori Smith of Distinctive Dwellings’ interior design married sleek, straight lines with warm colors from PPG Pittsburgh Paints’ Fallingwater palette and interesting textures. One wall in the master bedroom, for example, is covered in wara juraku, a Japanese textured wall finish of straw, clay, sand and other aggregates. (Though it’s no longer available in the U.S., Artemis Environmental offers an alternative from American Clay Earth Plaster.) In the master bath, Iron Eden of Bloomfield crafted mirror frames and towel racks that look like tree branches.

The eye is similarly delighted in the loft, where two kinds of cork color the floor: tiger on the edges, and black everywhere else. Still to come are resin panels with stranded bamboo inside that will be visible from the second-floor hall. Adding to the light and airy feel (there’s 108 windows in all) is an open, elevated walkway that grants a view of a waterfall on one side and the great room on the other. A three-season room off the den, with custom bookcases and a bar area, opens onto a stone patio with a reflecting pond and waterfall.

“They wanted it very clean and square,” says Ms. Smith. “The only thing round in the house is the balusters.”

That said, they didn’t skimp on whimsy. Cut into the master bedroom wall is a small hole that opens onto a catwalk beneath the windows.

Other details embrace modern technology. Each of the six cubbies in the tiled mudroom has a power outlet for recharging cell phones and laptops, and the garage is wired for a pair of Smart Cars.

Wondering how much air conditioning they’re using, or whether the home security system has been armed? ELAN’s HomeLogic home automation system, installed by MGM Automation, keeps a running count. Accessible from anywhere from any computer, iPhone or smart phone, it opens and closes the windows based on temperature, controls lighting and thermostats, and also manages digital music and Internet streams.

Living in such a super-insulated envelope isn’t without its health risks. So the home also includes a heat recovery ventilator that removes excessive moisture, biological contaminants and other pollutants from the air.

twit-wrthy recps Good recipes boiled down to their Twitter essentials

When you’re strapped for time, or maybe just impatient, the difference between a good dish and a really great one isn’t just the number of ingredients or how long it takes to prepare it. To the Twitter Generation, it’s also how long it takes to read the dang instructions.

Tweets are short and sweet. Shouldn’t recipes be, too?

Microblogger Maureen Evans thinks so, which is why she has packed more than 1,000 bite-sized recipes she’s collected from around the world, plus tips and cooking techniques, into the pocket-sized “Eat Tweet: A Twitter Cookbook.”

In keeping with Twitter’s rule of 140 characters or less per tweet, each dish has been boiled down to its bare essentials and rewritten — without all those pesky vowels or word-defining spaces — in Twitterese: for example, s&p instead of salt and pepper, rmv instead of remove and mozz instead of mozzarella. The result are recipes you can read on your cell phone or scribble onto a scrap of paper in less than 30 seconds.

Or as a quote on the back cover proclaims, “Like Grandma’s favorite cookbooks, only more to the point!”

If your idea of a tweet is the sound a bird makes, you’ll need to spend a few moments learning how to decode recipes (the cookbook includes a chart of symbols and glossary). But after that, whipping up something tasty should be a snap: Pared down from its lengthy original to five short lines and less than a dozen ingredients, even Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon seems completely doable.

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1419. Follow her at twitter.com/gtmckay

PumpkinCurrypgtested

Brwn c. onion/T oil&garlic; +4cpeeldpumpkin 5m.Simmer5m+c Stock; +cancoconut/t currypaste 5m. Srv w lime&cilantro.

“Eat Tweet: A Twitter Cookbook” by Maureen Evans (Artisan, 2010, $14.95)

Translation

I like my curries hot so ended up adding 3 tablespoons of red curry paste. If you can’t find fresh pie pumpkins, substitute any winter squash. To give it crunch, top with chopped peanuts or toasted pumpkin seeds.

Gretchen McKay

  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 clove garlic, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 4 cups peeled, chopped fresh pumpkin (2 small pie pumpkins)
  • 1 cup vegetable stock
  • 14-ounce can coconut milk
  • 1 teaspoon red curry paste, or more to taste
  • Lime wedges and chopped cilantro for serving

Brown onion and chopped garlic in oil over medium heat. Add peeled pumpkin and cook for 5 minutes. Add stock and simmer 5 minutes. Add coconut milk and curry paste and bring sauce to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, stirring occasionally, and simmer for 5 minutes, or until pumpkin has softened. Serve over rice with wedges of lime and chopped cilantro.

Serves 3 to 4.

Scones

PG tested

Mix2c flr/1/2t salt/T bkgpdr/ 3Tsug. Cut+6T buttr.Fold+ c lgtcrm. Form crumbly disk; cut8wedges. Top w sug. Bake17m@400• F.

Translation

These sweet quickbreads are wonderful for breakfast with butter and jam. For dessert, I crumbled one in a bowl and topped it with sliced strawberries.

Gretchen McKay

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup light cream

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Mix flour with salt and baking powder. Cut in butter with 2 knives or a pastry blender. Fold in light cream, and mix until dough starts to form a ball.

Place in a buttered pie pan and form into a disk; dough should be crumbly. Cut into 8 wedges, and sprinkle sugar on top. Place in oven and bake for 17 minutes, or until top is golden brown.

Makes 8 servings.

“Eat Tweet: A Twitter Cookbook” by Maureen Evans (Artisan, 2010, $14.95)

Father and son help bring back the Black Amish apple

NEW WILMINGTON — Like the four generations that proceeded him, Lyle Johnston has spent a lifetime growing what he considers the world’s tastiest apples on the fruit farm his great-great-grandfather Josiah Johnston planted in 1861. In all, he’s got some 50 varieties spread across 17 of the farm’s 147 acres, including sweet-sour Jonagold and aromatic Honeycrisp, a relatively new apple developed at the University of Minnesota that has taken the apple-eating community by storm.

Yet it’s not all about what wins the apple popularity contest. Tucked in among the branches are a few “odd-ball” heirloom varieties that, if not for the efforts of dedicated farmers like Mr. Johnston, 58, and his father, Ralph, might have disappeared from the commercially grown apple landscape. One of the most unusual is a tart, purplish-red apple that speaks, at least in name, to the buggy-riding plain people who settled in this corner of Lawrence County in the mid 1800s.

The Johnstons have been growing Black Amish apples for the last six or seven years, and only on two of the thousands of apple tree branches that hang so heavy with fruit this time of year behind the farm’s store on state Route 18. (That’s right, branches, not trees.) So it’s understandably a small crop: just two pecks this year, or roughly 50 apples.

Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone more enthusiastic about old-time apples than the senior Mr. Johnston, who built the original Apple Castle farm market in 1950 and, at age 88, each day still drives himself the five miles from his apartment in town to work with its honey bees.

“It’s just nice to know you have an apple that might have dropped on Isaac Newton’s head,” he says.

Actually, the English physicist is thought to have been bopped on the head by a Flower of Kent, a pear-shaped cooking apple that is now also largely gone from cultivation. But we get the point. There’s something special about an apple that Johnny Appleseed himself (aka John Chapman) might have planted in one of his nurseries.

Whether Mr. Johnston’s grandson Steven, 25, who’s currently putting a degree in agribusiness management from Penn State to use at Brown’s Orchard near York, Pa., will share his love of “antique” apples when he someday boomerangs home is anyone’s guess. But Slow Food Pittsburgh is certainly a fan, which is why this rare regional apple — Apple Castle is the sole commercial orchard in Western Pennsylvania believed to grow it — is the guest of honor at the fifth Urban Applefest and Apple Pie Baking Contest Oct. 23 at the Union Project in Highland Park. Other featured apples include Northern Spy, Stayman, Cortland and Connell Red, a hardy sweet red apple that was developed in the 1940s in Wisconsin and grown locally in John Daugherty’s Murrysville orchard.

To help conserve and promote heirloom apple varieties in the U.S. and bring them back to consumers’ tables, SFP also is sponsoring the Black Amish for reintroduction next month as part of a national program called Renewing America’s Food Traditions. In November, North Carolina’s Big Horse Creek Farm will send 10 trees grafted onto dwarf root stock to orchards in Pittsburgh.

While apple trees can be grown from seeds, it’s inadvisable if you want fruit that’s a carbon-copy of the original, as modern apples are hybridized; like children, apple trees born from pips only inherit some of their parents’ characteristics. Bringing a long-absent apple variety back to life, then, is a years-long process that takes as much skill as it does effort because each individual leaf bud has to be carefully grafted onto a host branch and then nursed through four or five seasons before you get a crop.

The elder Mr. Johnston, though, has proven himself pretty expert over the years at splicing together a twig with a bud on it, called a scion, and rootstock with a pocket knife, despite hands made shaky by age. One of the two trees on which he’s grafted Black Amish buds — given to him by Davis Huckabee, a retired minister and heirloom apple lover with a big back yard in Salem, Ohio — holds at least two other varieties on its limbs, including the tart Fall Rambo, identified as one of Johnny Appleseed’s favorite varieties.

Not that creating a new apple like Honeycrisp is a walk in rubber muck boots in the park.

“It takes maybe 1,000 crosses to find one with potential,” says Lyle Johnston, as his father demonstrates how to slice a bud from a branch and then make a matching cut in the host tree. He shoots him a look of admiration. “But he’s good.”

Lucky he has a knife of his own in the pocket of his blue jeans, because when asked if the Black Amish is a better apple for eating or baking, he has to jog his taste buds with an on-the-spot taste test.

“I don’t even remember,” he confesses with a sheepish grin, offering me a wedge of the crisp yellow flesh. The answer: it’s slightly tart and very crunchy, or not that far afield from the sweet-sour Jonagolds he calls his favorite. His father, on the other hand, prefers Mother Sweet, an eating apple cultivated in Massachusetts in the 1840s.

But what’s that saying about variety being the spice of life?

Or as Lyle Johnston puts it, “It looks good, it cooks good, it eats good, and I’m glad to have it on my farm.”