Monday, August 31, 2009

Homemade pizza and biscuits

E and I don't bake often but two of the things we come back to over and over again are homemade pizza and biscuits.

Homemade pizza dough is so super easy and is amazing! If you haven't ever made it before, you must. You'll never ever go back. This time of year, with our garden exploding with tomatoes, yellow squash, zucchini and basil, it seems a shame to not use them in a truly fantastic dinner. Veggie pizza is just the ticket.
To make your basic dough, start with a big bowl and add 2 T sugar. Then add 1 cup warm water (not scalding!) and mix together quickly. Then sprinkle one package of yeast onto the water and use a spoon to help it dissolve. These packages are 1/4 oz. and I use whatever is on sale. Then add 1 T salt, mix and finally 3 cups of floor and a drizzle of olive oil. Mix in bowl until mostly holding together, then kneed entire ball about 3-6 times (really, it is easy and fast!). Then coat outside of dough ball with more olive oil, but back in the bowl, cover and let rise for 2-4 hours.

I know this sounds super complex, but I can make homemade dough in less than ten minutes, clean up included. Yes, you need to let is rise for a bit, so for some, this might be better served as a weekend dish. Once the dough has risen, I cut it in half (this recipe is for two pizzas), flour a surface, and use my rolling pin to make it ultra thin. (The thinner the better). Also, set your oven for as hot as it will go. Ours, luckily, goes all the way up to 550!

Then, go ahead and top your uncooked crust with whatever you see fit. E and I have made a lot of homemade pizzas over the years and we've found the red sauce isn't our favorite, instead, we like to use blue cheese salad dressing! It is amazing! Might sound weird, but it is totally good. Then top with cheese and veggies or whatever. Our favorite pizza of all time is blue cheese dressing, mozzarella cheese, some feta sprinkled on top, and all the veggies listed above. It is to die for.

We bake our pizza on a pizza stone (which we always preheat with the oven), which gives the crust a really nice crispy texture, but if you don't have one, a cookie sheet will work too. I think you'll find all of this work is worth the effort. E and I are a little bit of pizza snobs, and we think that the pizza we make in our own kitchen is better than even our favorite wood burning pizza oven restaurant. We never time our pizzas, just put them in on the hot stone and watch them. When the top is browned and crispy, we use a spatula to lift the side and made sure the bottom is also looking done, nothing is worse than a doughy pizza crust.

The other thing that we love to bake at home are biscuits. I am in no way a biscuit pro, like I am a pizza dough pro, so I can't claim to know the best recipe, or any methods. E is the true biscuit master, and he is still searching for the perfect recipe. I know a few tips he's told me about over the years, never overwork the biscuit dough, always place the biscuits on the cookie sheet so they are touching just slightly, and buttermilk makes a tastier biscuit than plain milk.

That said, E has been working on his perfect recipe for years, and it is always fun to wake up on a Sunday morning and for him to say he thinks he wants to make homemade biscuits. This Sunday, we slathered honey butter on the hot flaky biscuits, something we had picked up the day before at the downtown farmer's market. This, with a hot cup of tea, makes any day perfect.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Leaving Banff , Calgary and Canada

As always, E and I had a very hard time saying goodbye to the Canadian Rockies. It is always so hard to leave a location you love. After we checked out of the Banff Springs Hotel we took the mini hike around the abandoned ghost town of Bankhead. Upper and Lower Bankhead was a coal mining town; the industry was booming, and with trains coming into Banff regularly, they needed coal. The town grew, but by the 1930s the Canadian National Parks decided to outlaw mining within the park, and the town was disassembled.

However, Bankhead isn't totally gone. There are still quite a few mostly intact buildings, huge piles of coal, and lots of really interesting informative signs that the park has placed there that made the walk one of our favorites.

It was interesting that the National Park ordered Bankhead to be destroyed, but many partial buildings still remain.
E enjoying checking out some old mining structures in Lower Bankhead.
We loved these forgotten steps to the old Holy Trinity Church. So beautiful.
Finally, we took a drive around Vermillion Lakes looking for interesting birds and then decided to head to our final destination in downtown Calgary.

Our drive to Calgary was fine, and our downtown hotel was what we were expecting. It is hard to leave the nicest hotel you've ever stayed at in your life and check into one of the cheapest all in one day. The evening in Calgary was uneventful, because we were right downtown, most shops were closed, so after an hour walk we decided to just watch TV in our room.

The next morning we decided to go to Prince Island Park and were so happy with what we found. A very active downtown culture, people out biking and rollerskating. The park, and actual island on the Bow River, was just beautiful. Black squirrels scurried across the grass and families enjoyed the summer weather. E and I walked around for awhile and then ended our day at the River Cafe.

We were so happy that we had made brunch reservations, the restaurant was hopping, and the bright sunlight filled the dining room. We sat near a window and enjoyed one of our favorite meals from the entire trip. We started out with house made granola, seriously, I've never had granola like this. It was fantastic. Then I ordered my favorite, Eggs Benedict, but this variation was Elk Bacon Benedict with house cured elk and brown butter hollandaise. Best eggs Benedict I've ever had, hands down. And I'm a Benedict connoisseur!

We left extremely happy and ready to be back home, after all, we were missing our three kitties.

Interesting modern sculptures in downtown Calgary.
View of downtown from Prince Island Park. Such a perfect day.
One of my new favorite restaurants. Everything was organic and local. Yum!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Violet visits Canada

I took a break from blogging today to finish something else I've been wanting to do -Violet's Canadian photo album.

Violet has joined E and I on most of our international trips, and her albums are a lot of fun. They get a ton of wonderful response from my doll friends, and so I spent the day finishing the album for her. Here is the link.

And stay tuned for the last of the Canada trip account, it is coming! If you like Violet's album, make sure to check out my other doll albums, including lots of Violet's travel albums, and Violet's blog (links on the right).

Violet and I enjoy the shores of Maligne Lake.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Back to Banff for the Banff Springs Hotel!

Banff Springs Hotel in August 2009
Banff Springs Hotel is 1929
On Thursday we left Jasper, took the amazing Icefields Parkway back down to Banff National Park. After a few scenic stops, and a quick stop in the town of Lake Louise for a late lunch at our favorite bakery, we continued towards the town of Banff, and the most spectacular hotel in the world - the historic Banff Springs.

We arrived at the Banff Springs right at 4:00 for our two day stay, we wanted to enjoy every moment we had there. Out of sheer luck we got upgraded from a mountain view room (views of pine trees) to a canyon view room which offers views of several peaks, the outdoor patios and the impressive Bow River!

E and I have stayed in some nice hotels before (usually we stay on the cheap), but this was easily the nicest hotel we've ever stayed in. The service was awesome, the room was much larger than expected and all the furnishings, decorations, wall art, etc. were top notch.

Our room was not huge, but a lot bigger than expected. We loved it!
And our little bathroom. Please don't mind the partial reflection of yours truly.
So, a historic side note - The Banff Springs Hotel was built in 1888 and rebuilt after a fire in the 1920s. The entire building is made of beautiful stone and is very reminiscent of a castle. The hotel was first built by the railroads trying to encourage travelers along the rail lines, an subsequently, at the hotel itself. From the very beginning, the hotel was a success.

The old fashioned castle-like style the hotel was built in meant it was prefect for E and I to explore. Promptly after checking out our room and the beautiful view from our window, we grabbed our cameras, a map of the hotel, and explored everywhere. This hotel was huge! Ballroom after ballroom, historical space one after another. Circular steep staircases, stone floors, and lots of areas that the lights were turned off, but E and I checked out anyway.

There was one hallway, called the Spanish Walk, that was so Harry Potter-esk, it was a long hallway lit with only dim lights. Even in the middle of the day the Spanish Walk was dark and mysterious. Each time E and I walked down it, we could jokingly cast silly Harry Potter spells at each other, or tried to scare each other.

Other areas of the castle (everyone there refers to the hotel as a castle) reminded us a lot of Resident Evil, a haunted mansion game E and I love where you have to solve mysteries. In one hallway in the hotel we saw a clock missing its hands. We kept saying we needed to find the hands to advance in the game. All in all, it was a really fun time.

Grand Staircase leading out of the main lobby.
This is the Spanish Walk, doesn't it remind you of Hogwarts? It became a lot creeper when the sun went down and we explored it around midnight.
1. One of the winding stone staircases
2. The neat lights in the lobby
3. Canada Pacific Railroad logo on the outside of the hotel
4. Portion of the hotel, so neat!

This is a lobby in one of the dozens of woman's bathrooms! Only in nice hotels do you get a huge lobby and a beautiful historic stained glass in the bathroom.
Beautiful ballroom. One of the most historically significant locations in the hotel.
1. Another stone stairway. Maybe it leads to the Charms classroom?
2. Sun room where tea used to be served in the 1920s. Now you can rent it for weddings.

Another big beautiful ballroom, all decorated almost 100 years ago. So impressive.
At one point I went up to the top floor and tried to get as high as I could in one of the historic towers. I took this photo out of one of the windows near the top!
That night we went to one of the smallest on site restaurants the hotel offers - Grapes. This wine bar, that also has a menu, only has seven tables and is located in the hotel's historic writing room. E and I ordered fondue, which is something we'd been seeing everywhere on menus, but waited for the Banff Springs to order. I also asked for a virgin cocktail of some sort, and the waitress brought out the most fabulous cucumber pomegranate mojito that I've ever had! She said the chefs press the cucumber juice fresh for each drink, I'm not sure if that is true, but it was divine.

The fondue was also out of this world! E and I talked about the flavor combination and thick cheesy goodness for the rest of the trip. The fondue was served in a big earthen pot placed on a heating element. A big basket of cubed bread and a tray of veggies accompanied it. After we had devoured the huge pot of cheese, we thought briefly about ordering the chocolate fondue for dessert, but decided against it. E said if he ate any more he "might blow."

The next day we had the entire day to spend at the hotel, and as some of you remember, we were planning on getting a day pass to the Willow Stream Spa. We woke early and had a quick breakfast, then went quickly to the spa. I was totally wishing I could have afforded to get a treatment there (the massages started at $250!), but was quite excited about the day pass, nonetheless.

Inside the spa everything was just as fancy. The locker rooms were large and comfortable. Soft robes, slippers and lockers were provided. There was a big cozy solarium with views of the canyon below, where guests could have coffee, tea, cookies, fruit, or other tasty snacks. Down the winding staircase there were the treatment rooms, sauna, steam room and an eucalyptus inhalation room - plus, what we had been waiting for! This room! A large warm mineral bath (with fancy European minerals) and three waterfall tubs behind. We were instructed to first get into the waterfall tubs, starting with the hottest and moving to the coolest, and then move to the mineral bath.

E and I did as suggested, starting in the hottest waterfall tub and letting the waterfall fall over our neck and shoulders. Then we moved to the medium temperate waterfall tub, and finally to the cool one (which felt downright cold after being in the medium water!). Finally we moved to the mineral pool where we put our heads under water and listened to the underwater music playing. Again, E and I talked about Harry Potter, this room totally reminded us of the Prefect's Bathroom. Even the underwater music added to the effect.

Outside there was a hot tub and lounge chairs for spa guests. The weather was, again, perfect, so after warming up in the hot tub or mineral pool, we cooled off in the fresh mountain air on a lounge chair. E and I spent the entire day going from one pool to anther, relaxing, talking, and reading by the big windows in the solarium.

E enjoys the view from the lounge chairs on the patio of the spa.
The mineral pool inside and E in the background soaking in the hottest waterfall pool.
1. View again, I could never get tired of looking at wonderful historic buildings.
2. One of the waterfall pools. So relaxing.

E enjoying a cold glass of cucumber mint water in the solarium, in a big overstuffed chair.
1. Amazing view from the solarium, this was almost the same view from our hotel room!
2. Me, floating in the mineral pool and enjoying the underwater music.

Around 2:30 we dried off and joined the hotel's historian on a "tour of the castle". This awesome tour of all the public places really showed off the amazing history this building has. We learned that in the Riverview Lounge, the huge windows had been made in Checkoslovakia, loaded on a steam ship, transferred to a train, all before arriving at the Banff Springs 120 years ago.

That evening E and I decided to go back into the town of Banff and enjoy dinner at a fantastic restaurant we had enjoyed earlier in the week. We sat outside and watched the changing light on Rundle Peak, and enjoyed yet another fantastic dinner.

Once back at the hotel, we checked back into the Willow Stream Spa and spent the rest of the evening enjoying the almost empty facility.

The next morning we had a great buffet breakfast in the hotel before finally packing up, and saying goodbye to the Banff Springs. We had had a wonderful time.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Jasper National Park

After we passed over the Continental divide we dropped down into Jasper National Park and continued on our stellar drive towards the town of Jasper. Jasper National Park is about the length of Banff National Park, but a lot fatter. It is a huge park, measuring in at 4200 square miles, nearly 1000 square miles larger than Yellowstone National Park.

We entered the park the way most people do, along the amazing Icefields Parkway. We stopped at lots more interesting stops and viewpoints finally closing our drive at Athabasca Falls near the town of Jasper. This site is where the Athabasca River is forced through a narrow gorge and down a 75 foot drop. Although the fall isn't huge, the force of the water is amazing.

I played with the shutter speed on my camera trying to get a nice blurred photo of Athabasca Falls. Turned out pretty good!
At the end of the day we finally arrived to our very comfy hotel in the town of Jasper and promptly decided to go out to dinner. The town site of Jasper is the style E and I really enjoy: views of the Rockies everywhere you turn, a laid back easy main street and lots of outdoorsy types walking around. After dinner E and I decided on a scoop of ice cream, he choose the very Canadian flavor of Maple Walnut.

The next day was beautiful! Stunning! The weather was glorious, clear and beautiful and warm, but not hot. We drove out along the Maligne Lake Highway towards Maligne Lake. The drive was breathtaking. We followed the very eager Maligne River the entire way. This river in a lot of ways reminded me of Yosemite's Merced River. Maligne River was blue, fast, clear and cold.

This photo I took along the Maligne Lake Highway. Just look at those mountains: lovely.
Maligne River cuts through a small canyon at six different points, creating beautiful waterfalls each time.
Once we arrived at Maligne Lake I was in heaven. This lake, the largest glacially fed lake in all of the Canadian Rockies, was just as blue as lakes in other areas, but because it was in Jasper, vs. Banff, it was a lot less crowded. We decided to take a canoe out here too, but instead of only an hour we splurged and purchased a two hour rental.

We left the historic 1928 boathouse and headed up the lake near the North West shore. We were such pro paddlers after our hour earlier in the week, we made good time and soon left the crowds behind. We slowed to talk or take photos, but for about an hour we paddled non stop. Near the top of the hour we decided to check some little lake inlets and scope out the beauty of the forest from the canoe. We found one little inlet that was stunning. Near the back of it a little river danced over small stones ready to join Maligne Lake. Here the forest was so quiet and special. E and I wished we had rented the canoe for the entire day, we could easily see getting off here and enjoying lunch on the beach.

All too soon it was time to turn around and paddle back to the boat house. The forest glided by and E and I were so impressed with our awesome paddling. Back at the boat house we looked at a Maligne Lake map, thinking that we'd made it a great distance, but were stunned to realize that we had barley paddled 1/12 of the length of the lake, this lake was just too large! I think we did paddle at least three miles, however, so we can still think that we rock.

Back on land we went to a little cafe right on the shore and ordered soup and sandwiches. We ate outside, with the most perfect view, and enjoyed lunch.

I loved this chalkboard sign inside the boathouse. We decided to rent the canoe for two hours, but next time we're packing lunch and going for the entire day!
This is a photo of me during a brief rest on our intensive paddle down Maligne Lake.
And look at how perfect the boat house is. This is the view from our lunch spot! Yes, amazing.
This video I took while on Maligne Lake. Anyone who knows me, knows I take pretty awesome videos ;).

Later in the day we decided to take another scenic drive to Mount Edith Cavell, one of the largest and most beautiful mountains in Jasper. We arrived late in the day and the mountain appeared before us. Huge Angel Glacier perched high on the mountain, and Cavell Glacier slowly melted far below. E and I decided to take the short 1 mile loop trail at the base of Mount Edith Cavell, where we got lots of awesome views of both glaciers, came face to face with Cavell pond at the rim of Cavell Glacier where we watched icebergs floating. Also, the waterfall below Angel Glacier took your breath away, all in all, Mount Edith Cavell was spectacular.

Mount Edith Cavell came into view quickly after we took a sharp turn in the road. I was so impressed, I took this photo from the car.
E standing on the moraine near the base of Mount Edith. Notice Cavell Glacier and Cavell pond (with icebergs!) behind him.
Angel Glacier (at the top of the photo), the beautiful waterfall flowing from it, and Cavell Pond with floating bergs.
Another awesome video made by me. E thinks I'm a total dork, especially at the end, but it at least shows off how pretty Mount Edith Cavell was.

The next day we said goodbye to Jasper, turned around, and made the long trek along the Icefields Parkway to Banff. Along the way we stopped a few times and enjoyed all the fantastic views and Sunwapa Falls. Here in Jasper, like Banff, the pine trees go on forever, the lakes are bluer than we thought imaginable, and we just adored it.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Banff National Park

After our very quick and easy flight into Canada E and I were thrilled that the drive from Calgary to Banff National Park was only 1.5 hours. We arrived in the park expecting to be awe struck, and we were, beyond belief. One thing both E and I were really looking forward to was the feeling of being totally small in a huge forest. Canada has that.

Pine forests swept as far as the eye could see, a deep thick carpet of green, rolling over mountains and climbing the tallest of peaks. Where the forest didn't cover, the peaks of the Canadian Rockies sparkled. We arrived at sunset, so around each new bend in the road E and I gasped as we saw another peak shine with pink and orange light.

Our first three nights in Canada we stayed in the town of Lake Louise. The town itself is tiny, only two roads, but it was a perfect place for E and I to start. The town had all we needed, an incredible bakery that E and I ate at nearly every day for breakfast and lunch, and some fun dinner spots, including an old train station where the trains still whizzed by while you were eating.

However, it wasn't the town that brought us here, it was the mountains. On the first night we drove up to the actual lake of Lake Louise and were completely and utterly blown away by its beauty. Bright turquoise waters, that don't even look real when you're standing in front of them, swept back to a huge peak and a glacier.

At each new location that we visited, E and I were just as memorized. We took a lake side hike at Moraine Lake and were beyond stunned by the natural color of the water, but also the ten sharp peaks riming the lake.

The sky on the first few days wasn't very easy to photograph, but this gives you an idea of the beauty of Moraine Lake.
On the second day, E and I decided to take a canoe out on Lake Louise, the sun had come out and the lake was calm and perfect. As we paddled away from the historic boat house I realized this was heaven. Sitting on the beautiful blue waters with the man I loved, looking at the most spectacular scenery the world has to offer. E on the other hand was worried about my paddling methods. He said I was "spazzy" with my paddle. Well after a few quick pointers, were were off, gliding perfectly across the lake towards the other end, so we could see the amazing glacier up close.

We were nearly alone on the lake, although the weather was perfect and the wind was quiet, almost all the other canoes were not out, which made being in the middle of Lake Louise even more special.

The little historic boat house sitting next to the lake and the red canoes - makings for a perfect day.
I know I posted a photo very similar to this below, but it really shows how alone we were, enjoying all that the Canadian Rockies had to offer. (Notice the tip of our canoe at the bottom of the photo!)
In addition to our awesome canoe trip (seriously, it was a major highlight of our entire time there), we drove the Bow Valley Parkway which is a small highway that connects the towns of Banff and Lake Louise. We stopped an numerous spots to take photos of the forests that reached as far as the eye could see and the beautiful peaks surrounding us. We hiked a few small trails, looked for animals and even had an incredible dinner in the town of Banff one evening.

The Bow River was wide, fast, cold and blue. It wound through all of Banff National Park, and was just stunning. Also, notice the carpet of pines going on and on forever. Amazing.
One of the hikes we took was called Johnston Falls, the trail followed the very narrow and deep Johnston Canyon up to the waterfall. The trail was a bit to busy for our liking, but the scenery was impressive.
We saw these birds everywhere! They were called Clark's Nutcrackers, and I just loved them. Very much like magpies or the steller jays of Yosemite.
We also took the Lake Louise Gondola ride (really just a chair lift in one of the park's ski resorts) and spotted a grizzly bear! The gondola advertised themselves as "famous for grizzly bears" but so did every other joint in town. E and I weren't expecting much, but at the top of the lift, while we relaxed and enjoyed the view, other visitors were pointing to a nearby hillside - "a bear!". Sure enough, a small grizzly was enjoying the berries on a nearby hillside. He slowly made his way down the hill as we watched, and out of sight. However, he had walked right near where the chairlift was running. E and I decided to hop back on the lift in hopes of seeing him below us, and we were lucky! He was there! Still munching on berries. Very special sighting!

Here is the view from the top of the Lake Louise Gondola. You can see Lake Louise far far below along with the Victoria Glacier behind it.
And here is the bear! So cute!
On the last day in Banff National Park we drove the #1 of the 10 best drives worldwide: the Icefields Parkway to Jasper National Park. This drive left Lake Louise and wound through the mountains for 234 km before reaching the town of Jasper. Along the way we passed some of the most spectacular scenery yet - more amazing peaks, lakes as blue as a dream, and the ice fields themselves, which is a network of a dozen glaciers all forming the Columbia Icefield. One glacier, Athabasca, we could walk right up to and touch. E was in heaven. This moon-like landscape of the high mountains that were filled with glaciers was something neither of us had ever seen. It was amazing and quite cold.

As we passed over the Continental divide we dropped down into Jasper National Park and continued on our stellar drive towards the town of Jasper. I'll write about Jasper tomorrow, it was just as glorious!

This was taken from one of 20 or so viewpoints E and stopped at along the Icefields Parkway. We took all day to drive it and enjoy the dazzling scenery.
Peyto Lake was among our favorite view points. The blue color of all these lakes comes from the fact that they are glacially feed lakes, glacial lakes have a component called 'rock flour' floating in them that gives them the intense turquoise color.
Another view point, this is a river basin. This is also the place I spotted the bear poo from the photo below!
Athabasca Glacier at the highest point along the Icefields Parkway. Spectacular.
E at the base of the glacier where it is melting due to being summer. Notice the deep blue color of the ice. We dipped our fingers into the water at E's feet, never have I felt water so cold than fresh from a glacier.
I thought a lot about how to organize my trip into posts, and I decided to separate by places we stayed, first being Banff National Park (we stayed in the town of Lake Louise). Tomorrow I'll post about Jasper National Park, then about the Banff Springs Hotel, and finally about our single night in Calgary.
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