Saturday, December 27, 2008

a call for sympathy

As most of you are probably aware, I should be in Cusco, Peru right now acclimating to the altitude and preparing for my trek along the Inca Trail to Machu Piccu. I am not. I am in Atlanta, Georgia. The Atlanta airport to be precise. I need to vent and record the frustrations I have endured over the last 24 hours so if you are not in the mood for a rant, move right along because this is a big one.

Yesterday morning, despite a very late night of packing (3 am), my sister and I woke up early to make our final trip preparations and drive ourselves to the airport. Our troubles actually began on Christmas night. I was driving back from a wonderful Christmas spent with my friend Tiffany and her family in Pennsylvania and should have made it to JFK right about the time my sister landed - or at least by the time she collected her luggage. Unfortunately, at 11 pm on Christmas night the route google maps directed me through Staten Island was a parking lot. I could not figure out how or why so many people needed to be driving on that particular highway on Christmas day. Shouldn't everyone be huddled up at home enjoying the last remnants of holiday cheer? Could there really be this many people driving home in Staten Island? By the time I reached JFK - without incident or mishap - my sister was waiting at the curb. I put the frustration of the drive behind me and exited the airport and tried to follow the new directions on my blackberry to my home. Somehow I made a wrong turn. Then my blackberry's battery died. Then I was stranded somewhere in Queens. I found Atlantic Avenue and decided it sounded familiar and soon I was in Brooklyn and felt like I was at least heading in the right direction toward Manhattan. But I needed help. While my sister attempted to download a trial period gps system to her blackberry I called my dad to see if he could help guide us by using an online map on his end. That did not go well. I was tired and frustrated and sick of traffic. My temper was short and I lost it. A couple of times. My poor dad got the brunt of my frustrations. Ultimately my sister's gps came through and confirmed that I was in fact on the right path and I made the one turn onto Flatbush Avenue that took us to the Manhattan Bridge. We arrived at my apartment close to 1 am. Exchanged our belated Christmas gifts and prepped for our trip. Although I had tossed a considerable amount of stuff onto my loveseat, I hadn't actually packed. Hence the 3 am bedtime.
We got up around 8, enjoyed long showers and finalized our packing - my sister debating which bag to take and me trying to get us into 2 instead of 3 bags. The challenge - sleeping bags. Our plan was to trek the Inca Trail. We were both a little grossed out about using whatever sleeping bag they might rent us. So we packed them in an extra duffel bag. We left for the airport around 1015 am for a 1255 flight. There was some confusion on where to return the rental car at LaGuardia airport but luck found us for the first and last time and we found the rental car place without any real incident or delay.
The real trouble started when we stepped up to the Delta ticket counter to check in for our flight. We were told that our flight was delayed to 2 pm due to "weather in Atlanta". We voiced our concerns over our now tight connection in Atlanta and the woman at the counter assured us 45 minutes was plenty of time and we checked in. As we were checking our bags I paused and asked my sister if she thought we should shift our stuff around and carry one bag on with materials for overnight "just in case". She gave me an exasperated look that told me "I do not want to repack my bag one more time." That morning she had shifted all her gear from her backpack to mine and back in our attempts to consolidate only to discover they were essentially the same size. She was done packing. We bid farewell to our belongings and kept our very small carry on bags filled with all the wrong things.
About here I should pause and explain that I was very proud of my travel booking skills in making all of the arrangements for this trip myself: I booked the flights using my skymiles and managed to get first or business class seats for the two of us for the whole trip with a layover in Atlanta on each end. I booked the flights within Peru, the Inca Trail trek to Machu Piccu and the Amazon jungle eco-lodge stay. I did not purchase any travel insurance. Please do not remind me of this as I tell my story. Please do not tell me I've "learned my lesson the hard way" or "you'll remember to purchase insurance in the future" or any similar sentiment. I KNOW! Please do not ask me if I used a travel agent and please do not remind me to always carry on extra toiletries, a change of clothes, etc. None of this is helpful at this point. I get it. I have made errors of my own. I will not make them in the future.
Yesterday, I truly believed things would work out. I optimistically assumed that if Atlanta was having such bad weather issues then our connecting flight would be delayed as well. I asked multiple people at LGA to help me out and all pushed me away telling me I had 45 minutes and it would work. I assured my sister our vacation was not ruined. Everything would be fine.
Our flight was delayed further to 215 pm. Our connection was still scheduled to leave Atlanta at 515 but once on board the plane we were told it would only take 2 hours to get to Atlanta. Then we were delayed further. There was some sort of "ground stop" from Atlanta that prevented us from leaving New York. We sat on the runway until 330 or so. I stopped looking at my watch at some point because it made me so nervous. The flight crew gave us a phone number to call to check on flight status and I called it incessantly while we sat on the runway. When we finally took off, I thought we still had a chance.
We landed at 530 pm. I called the number as we taxied down the runway and was told our plane had left the gate. I looked out my window at all the planes slowly moving around the tarmac and wondered which might be our missed flight. We hurried off the plane with the crazy, wild hope that somehow the phone was wrong. The gate agent told us to go to gate T2. We were at a different terminal. Atlanta airport is huge. We ran. We ran through the massive crowd of people, weaving and dodging through the slow moving people and trying to avoid the rolling bags. I glanced over my shoulder as I ran to make sure I didn't lose my sister. I ran down a flight of stairs to the inter-terminal shuttle and held the doors of the departing train for my sister yelling out an apology to the other passengers about delayed flights. We ran up the two long, long escalators and continued running through terminal T. At which point I became aware of the puffy vest, fleece jacket, t-shirt, long sleeve t-shirt, and undershirt I was wearing and the sweat trickling down my back. Adrenaline was receding, reality was sinking in and my breathing grew short. I slowed down to a fast walk as I noticed my sister's bright red face and knew mine looked the same. We reached gate T2 only to see a different destination posted. The gate agent confirmed, our flight already left. I didn't cry.
I asked for the location of the customer service desk and walked at a slightly slower pace with my sister back in the direction we had just come from. Disappointment sunk in deeper as we reached the long, long line at customer service. I pulled out my cell phone and called Delta. The woman was friendly but the only thing she could do was book us on a flight the next morning through Mexico City. It was still first class and we would have a 5 hour layover in Mexico City. Optimistcally, I told my sister maybe we will get a good Mexican meal out of the stopover and tried to stay positive as I formulated a plan for rebooking our vacation.
We discovered - as expected - our bags would remain out of our control and were reassured the bags would go on our same flight. We found a place to sit in the noisy airport and called our mom to help us adapt. She looked up hotel rates for Atlanta while I started calling our hotel in Lima and the airline in Peru. I needed to get to Cusco by the 28th to start the trek on the 29th. After call after call of nothing available, I called American Express Travel. They were amazing. For a crazy amount of money that far exceeded my original flight cost, he managed to get us a flight to Cusco on the 30th. That meant we wouldn't make the trek. After three months of training, the only trekking I was getting was my unnecessary run through the Atlanta airport. Hardly enjoyable. I emailed the trekking company the bad news. I called my Lima hotel and luckily they agreed to push my pre-paid reservation to tonight.
We took a cab to a nearby hotel and continued to field calls and send emails to try and rearrange everything that was now thrown off track as cell phones and blackberries lost power. Before leaving the airport my sister bought a blackberry charger, two toothbrushes and some deoderant all for more money than warranted. The hotel supplied toothpaste and a couple of combs as well as a pizza recommendation. We devoured that pizza racing toward the last slice, trying to eat away our frustrations. I didn't cry.
I slept restlessly, worried about further problems and fearful we wouldn't be able to salvage this vacation. We woke up early, I showered, pulled my underwear and socks on inside out to pretend they are clean and donned yesterday's clothing. At least I had the foresight to pack my medications and a contact case filled with solution. We ate an adequate breakfast compliments of the hotel and waited for the 730 shuttle that arrived 15 minutes late. I was anxious but with no bags to check I felt we were fine for our 917 flight. The shuttle dropped us at another terminal and explained he couldn't drive to the Delta terminal. I didn't believe him but we had no choice but to race through the airport to the Delta side. What we found waiting for us were excessively long lines. My sister waited in one while I tried the kiosk check-in. It wouldn't work. Anxious, we waited. And complained. A woman in line in front of us kept telling us we were fine but I had not idea what the security line looked like and there was only one person working the desk for the 50 or so people in line ahead of us. The place was a mad house. Eventually two other ticket agents stepped up to the counter but the line continued to stall. The woman in front of us offered unhelpful "better luck next time" pep talks and brushed off my complaints of lost deposits. But allowed us to step in line ahead of her.
But it was too late.
We reached the ticket counter at approximately 820 am. The woman told us she could not print boarding passes within an hour of an international flight. We missed the deadline by about 5 minutes. FIVE MINUTES!!!! A deadline I was not aware of. I checked my email confirmation of the flight from Delta. No warning of this. None of the agents directing people toward kiosks to avoid the lengthy line warned of this deadline. NO ONE was helpful. I nearly lost it. I was furious. I didn't yell but I could feel something breaking inside me. The woman apologized and was very nice but continued to tell us the only thing she could do was rebook us. She put us on the same direct flight to Lima that we missed yesterday departing at 515 pm. She couldn't print our boarding passes because that had to wait until 6 hours before the flight. She apologized and offered us drink tickets. I tried to explain we don't drink so that isn't helpful but the concept didn't sink in. She said it is also good for headphones. BUT I HAVE HEADPHONES I wanted to scream. Instead we just took the vouchers along with the news that we were no longer flying business or 1st class. We didn't even get seat assignments. We had to just wait until 6 hours before our flight to figure that out.
I chose to use our delayed departure time to try and rearrange our tours. My cell phone cannot make international calls and the phone card my mom tried to order for me the night before did not go through for some reason. I tried to find a place to buy a calling card in the airport and the machine refused to take both my credit cards and nearly ate a $20 bill until I hit it and it spit it back out. But no calling card to contact the hotel in Cusco to cancel tonight's pre-paid stay. My brother cancelled it online for me and I lost all but about $25 of the two night's of pre-paid rooms. Meanwhile I was emailing the woman with whom I booked our trek. She apologized that the deposit of over $400 was non-refundable but explained that our ticket to Machu Piccu and train ticket back to Cusco were both still good. She scrambled for us and managed to find us a hotel in Cusco on the 30th, booked a bus and train to Aguas Calientes (near Machu Piccu) for the 31st and we will still get to see Machu Piccu on the 1st. She also booked our hotel in Aguas Calientes for us. This took hours of emailing back and forth. Oh, and it took more out of pocket money.
Meanwhile, I scrambled to figure out what to do in Lima for two unplanned days. A city everyone said is big and dirty and not worth seeing. I found a travel agent open on a Saturday with an US toll free number. She was cooperative and friendly but often difficult to understand what with me in a noisy airport on a 3 year old cell phone that is not as easy to hear people on as it should be and sometimes spotty reception, not to mention the accent. But she was extremely helpful and emailed us hotel and tour options and we are now booked there as well. For more out of pocket money of course.
While I was making all of these arrangements, we sat in a relatively quiet corner on a cold marble bench where we had access to an outlet to plug in our phone chargers (I had to purchase one as well). We had an mediocre lunch at the airport and went back to the ticket line around 11 am. My sister waited in the line that looked like it could take a minimum of 2 hours to wind through to the front while I optimistically tried the kiosk. By some sort of miracle, it worked. It had our itinerary and was letting us check in. But it needed our passports scanned so I had to call my sister mid-transaction to pull her through the masses to me. I was balancing my own passport, my wallet, my cell phone and a hot chocolate when my cell phone rang. It was our Lima travel agent. My sister arrived and took over the process of printing our boarding passes as I tried to write down the woman's email address. It was chaos. And the kiosk did not allow us to select seats on our flight. Not a promising sign.
We made it through security with little effort and made our way to yet another lenghy line for customer service. I had already made two unfruitful calls to Delta this morning that only resulted in 10 minutes of hold music on loop with the same announcements over and over and the voice activated system getting confused by all the ruckus happening in the background and not understanding me yelling "REPRESENTATIVE" and "INTERNATIONAL" or "YES" to its queries. While I waited in line I continued to juggle travel agents and listen to my bank account drain out yet more cash. My sister ran down to the gate on the off-chance someone could assign us a seat there. No go. As we waited in line we listened to other frustrated and stranded passengers as they called customer service, waited in line and tried to explain the options to their traveling companions. A family of four in front of us was trying to get to the Cayman Islands and the adult daughter tried to explain the various options which I believe didn't get them there until Monday and mostly routed them to Miami for another day. The couple behind us each tried reaching representatives on separate phones in a race to get off hold. We swapped horror stories and my sister and I agreed that the airport could use a group therapy room for disgruntled passengers to vent their frustrations. We also thought a punching bag room would be useful.
By the time I reached the counter I was resigned to bad news. I gave a disclaimer to the woman at the counter that I was beyond frustrated and that while I realized none of the problems I was about to explain to her were her fault, I needed to be heard and asked her to listen. She did. And she was sympathetic. She confirmed that we are on tonight's flight and that we were not on standby and agreed to find us seats. I explained the downgrade from business class and she looked and found 1 seat in first class. We agreed to take one with a bulk head seat. We decided it was better than neither of us getting it although my sister was disappointed we wouldn't be sitting together. The woman at the counter was beyond friendly. She sympathized and agreed a punching bag room would be great and suggested a padded sumo wrestling room would be even better. She had a wonderful British (?) accent that was soft and soothing and reassuring. Without any demands from us she first handed over meal vouchers to us and then $100 flight vouchers. When I asked if there was any way we could get into the Crown Room even though only one of us was now flying first class, she made a call and worked it out so that was possible. She made us feel so much better. She was exactly what we needed.
What we did not need was a phone call from Delta not 20 minutes later just as we were settling into the Crown Room informing us our flight has been delayed from 515 to 630. Oh, the irony. If only last night's flight had been delayed to 630, then this whole mess would only have been a fear and not the realization of a nightmare vacation run into ruin.
It is only 3:15 pm now. That means three more hours of anxious waiting and hoping no further problems are encountered. Like I said before, I have had plenty of regrets but ultimately none of my regrets would put me in any other spot than where I am sitting right now other than the thought of "why didn't I book the earliest possible flight from LaGuardia to Atlanta". If I had built in a 4-5 hour layover rather than a 2 hour layover, we would be in Cusco right now, breathing in the thin air and taking in the beauty instead of avoiding calculating all the money lost and adding in all the new money being spent and worrying about the status of the currently delayed flight to Lima.
Oh, the irony of that post-dated post greeting everyone from Peru. I will be deleting the others I drafted. It is just too painful to see all that optimism from where I am currently sitting. I hope you are all ending 2008 on a better note than I am. This was not my favorite year anyway.

Hello from Peru!

Actually, I'm not yet in Peru. But when you read this I will have spent one night in Lima and will be preparing to board a small plane to Cusco where my sister and I will spend a couple of days acclimating to the 11,000 foot+ altitude before our trek to Machu Piccu.
I'm sure we are having a great time and will be taking lots of photos to share. In the meantime, enjoy the rest of your long weekend and the post-holiday naps.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Merry Merry

[this is a photo from Christmas a couple of years ago - I'm decked out in my Christmas pjs and my sweet dog Malcolm is sporting his jingle bells. He loves being the "jingle dog" for the holidays. And this is probably my favorite picture of th two of us as he is actually looking directly at the camera!]
Whatever you are celebrating this week - Hanukkah, Christmas, Boxing Day, days getting longer (Hooray! We're over the winter solstice hump!), a day or two off work, end of the year, etc. - please accept this meager offering as my fondest well wishes for the season and a giant thank you for reading my blog despite my erratic posting habits. My work list of things to do is still quite lengthy - okay, there are only two tasks but both are time consuming! - and my prepare for Christmas list still has some odds and ends to fill out (including wrapping) and I also still have one or two things to do to prep for my trip to Peru on Friday . . . but, that being said, I know it will all come together. I suddenly feel I can see an end and it involves me wearing pajamas and spending time with good friends who are willing to adopt me for Christmas even as I miss my family who feels very far away right now.

I don't know if I will get a chance to post again before I leave for Peru on Friday despite my desire to write a thoughtful post on childhood Christmas memories. So, if I don't talk to you before I leave, I will be back in the country on January 6th. Feel free to leave me love notes in my absence by way of comments.

Merry Christmas
and
Happy New Year!!!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Florentines


I have been meaning to try these Italian cookies for years but they always ended up on the cut list as time grew short in the dessert party preparations. I found the recipe on the foodnetwork site - you can find it here.
The first ingredient requested in the recipe are "blanched" almonds.
Blanching is one of those words you hear a lot but don't necessarily know (at least I didn't know what it really meant), so I looked it up in one of my reference cook books to see if I had to do anything special.
I decided since I purchased sliced almonds rather than whole, all I needed to do was chop 1 3/4 cups almonds and not worry about the blanching part.
I put the almonds in my mini-chopper and pulsed until they were finely chopped.
Add the nuts to a large mixing bowl.
(Okay, so I didn't finely chop all of them, but figured this was good enough.)
Add 3 tablespoons flour,
And the finely grated zest of 1 orange 
(mine is not so finely grated since I use a cheese grater)
And add 1/4 teaspoon fine salt
Then stir the mixture together until well combined and set aside.
In a small saucepan, add 3/4 cup sugar,
2 tablespoons heavy cream
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
And 5 tablespoons unsalted butter and cook over medium heat
Stir occasionally and cook until mixture comes to a rolling boil and sugar is completely dissolved. Boil for another minute or two and then remove from heat.
And stir in 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Pour the mixture into the almond mixture and stir just to combine
Set aside until cool enough to handle.
I didn't take this step very seriously, but I highly recommend waiting at least 30 minutes to an hour for the mixture to cool, or else it will be difficult to handle (read: painful).
Once cool, roll rounded teaspoons of batter into balls.
Place the balls on a prepared baking sheet
a warning here - this is the bad example of how not to space the balls
because that batch turned out like this:
Trust me when I tell you to keep the balls on the small side and give them plenty of space
they spread out pretty far.
Bake at 350 degrees until the cookies are thin and an even golden brown color throughout - about 10 - 12 minutes. Cool on the baking sheet for about 5 minutes then transfer to a wire rack to cool.
Once cool, you have the option to drizzle melted chocolate on top
But I didn't get the consistency of the melted chocolate right so I gave up after unsuccessfully trying one or two
Another cautionary tale . . .
(I make the mistakes so you don't have to)
be extra careful when transferring the cookies to a rack to cool (and where you leave the cooling rack), these cookies are extremely fragile
and will shatter all over your floor at the slightest provocation.
After the missteps, I thought they turned out beautifully, and tasted delicious.
Florentines
  • 1 3/4 cups sliced, blanched almonds (about 5 ounces)
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • finely grated zest of 1 orange (about 2 tablespoons)
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine salt
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla

Let's Make Brownie S'mores!!

I have a standard go-to brownie recipe that is not your traditional brownie recipe. The texture is sort of a hybrid between cake and brownies. Since I grew up on these brownies, they are my favorite. But for the dessert party I decided to try something a little bit different, so I turned them into brownie s'mores! I couldn't find a good recipe so I just made the component parts and pulled them together. There is one thing I would do differently if I had it to do over - for one, I would make the graham cracker layer thicker and the brownie layer thinner so the whole s'more can be eaten in one bite - marshmallow, brownie and graham cracker! With that being said, let's learn how to make them.
Graham Cracker Crust
Finely crush 1-2 packages of graham crackers in a food processor
if you don't have a food processor, you can put the graham crackers in a ziplock bag and use a rolling pin to crush them
the food processor, of course, works best
You want the graham crackers to form a very fine dust
Since this was a first go on this improvised recipe I only used 1 package of graham crackers but I suggest using at least 2 or the crust gets overpowered by the brownie
the recipe I improvised from called for 1/2 cup of sugar
but after the fact, I really don't think that is necessary given all the sugar in the rest of the recipe so in the future I would likely skip this step but that is your call
melt 1 to 2 sticks of butter and add it to the graham cracker crumbs until they stick together
pour the crumbs into a baking pan lined with tin foil and sprayed with Pam
Spread the graham crackers out by pressing them firmly into all corners
Again, I think my crust ended up being a bit thin so I would double the thickness shown below
Bake the crust for 10-15 minutes in an oven preheated to 350 degrees then allow to cool
While baking the crust and letting it cool, prepare the brownie layer

Brownie Layer 
soften 1 cup of butter
In a medium mixing bowl - or I use my food processor - add the softened butter and 2 cups of sugar
Add 4 eggs
And 2 teaspoons of vanilla
Combine until smooth
Add 1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
and 1/2 teaspoon salt
Mix until smooth
Then add 3-4 tablespoons cocoa
I add the cocoa through the feeding tube of my food processor 
Because I like watching the buttery yellow batter turn chocolatey delicious!
Sometimes I'm not careful enough and I end up with cocoa all over . . .
after adding the cocoa, scrape down the sides, 
and do a little taste test to see if you want to add more cocoa
I added another tablespoon this time 
(it really depends on the type of cocoa you use and personal taste)
then blended it well and tried to resisting licking up all the batter
Pour the batter over the graham cracker crust
Next time, I would only use half the batter to keep this in a bite-size piece 
once the marshmallow is added
Bake in an oven preheated to 350 degrees and bake for 30-40 minutes 
or until a toothpick comes out clean
I would recommend not baking this right before going to bed when there is no chance you will be able sample the brownies . . . it is really hard to fall asleep with freshly baked brownie scent wafting into your bedroom.
This is my favorite part of the brownies, how the top cracks and you get a sneak peak at the cakey insides hidden under the crusty top
mmmmm, I wish I still had some of these around
Marshmallow Topping
Sprinkle gelatin over 1/3 cup cold water in a medium mixer bowl
Allow it to soften about 5 minutes
If you've never done this before, be a bit cautious, initially I dumped the gelatin in and poured the water over top. I wouldn't suggest this as while I was running around doing other things, I allowed it to sit for 5+ minutes and it turned into a pile of goo.
On my second try I added the cold water first and then (as the recipe suggested) sprinkled the gelatin over top and carefully monitored it. Luckily this worked much better and I didn't end up with any goo.
In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, mix 1 cup sugar with 1/4 cup cold water, stirring until sugar dissolves
Cook undisturbed until mixture registers 238 degrees on a candy thermometer - which takes about 10 minutes.
As another warning, after 10 minutes I found the temperature was still pretty low. You may have to tilt the pan to get enough liquid on the thermometer to get an accurate read. After an initially slow ascent, the red line suddenly shot up and I feared I had overcooked it. But it all turned out fine.
Remove the pan from the stove and whisk the sugar syrup and a pinch of salt into the gelatin.
I use the whisk attachment on my hand mixer.
Continue whisking until cool and thick - about 10 minutes
Just be patient as you whisk because the thickening comes along pretty suddenly at the end
Using a spatula, spread the marshmallow evenly over the brownies until covered completely
Allow to stand 30 minutes to an hour to allow the marshmallow to set.
And note how fun it is to make your own marshmallow!
(and how tasty it is to lick the bowl!)

Finishing Touches
After the marshmallow is set, carefully remove the brownies from the pan by lifting it out with the foil and set on a cutting board.
Slice the brownies into smaller squares
(I swiped the knife blade clean after each cut to avoid dropping crumbs on top of the marshmallow)
Initially I put the brownies in cupcake papers, but for reasons that will become clear later, I nixed that idea.
And here is the best part . . . to achieve the toasted s'more effect, I picked up this kitchen torch and let one of my helpers have all the fun toasting the marshmallow tops
Obviously, the papers weren't the best idea with a flame so close by, so we opted to let them stand freely. The only problem with this is they dry out faster. But they tasted delicious . . . if I do say so myself.
Brownie S'mores
  • 1-2 packages graham crackers
  • 1/2 to 1 cup melted butter
  • 1 cup butter softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3-4 tablespoons cocoa
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin (one 1/4 ounce envelope)
  • 1/3 cup plus 1/4 cup cold water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • pinch of salt
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