Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Homemade Chocolate Cake!

And this is why I LOVE Cook's Illustrated. Their cake recipes are truly fabulous - like this cocoa and esspresso based chocolate cake. My brother-in-law has a serious sweet tooth (which he rarely indulges) so I decided to bake him the mother of all chocolate cakes for his birthday - add some crushed heath bar in the middle and on top and you got yourself a party!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Paranormal St. Charles

I love Ghost Tours. I've been to one in Nashville and to one amazing tour of New Orleans a few years ago when Shalyn and I went for vacation. So, when Elena and I were discussing possible Paris activies, I suggested that we find out if there is a Ghost Tour of Paris (there is). It was expensive though and seemed to be more of a pub crawl so we passed on that tour. Elena, however, remembered that discussion and recently sent out an invitation for a Ghost Tour of St. Charles. My sisters, Caroline and Leanne, our friends Leah and Lesley and I all joined Elena in the historic district of St. Charles for dinner and chills.

We ate at the "Old Mother in Law" restaraunt and enjoyed their complimentary blueberry muffins. Once our waiter found out we were attending the evening Ghost Tour, he regaled our table with ghost stories about the old restaraunt. Apparently, a boy closely resembling a Little Lord Fauntleroy who enjoys haunting the restaraunt because there is "always something going on".

We met up with our tour guide, Michael , in front of the City Hall on Main Street at 9:30 pm.

Our guide was quite the character. He is a long time resident of the area and has spent some time researching the area surrounding Main street. He has a Ph.D. in communicatons and has a side gig as a magician - so I would take many of his claims with a grain of salt.

Above, is a concerstone of a building contructed by the "Oddfellows". Supposedly, every building contructed by this organization that has been torn down has contained a body in the building.

Above is the only "orb" I was able to capture on the tour. This was the site of the St. Charles gallows...creeeeeeeepy....not really.

Caroline and I enjoy watching Paranormal State on A&E - so she was excited to carry around an EMF detector.

We, of course, never actually saw anything, nor did we expect to. The element that makes for a good ghost tour, then, is the storytelling ability of your tour guide. Our guide, I think, was more concerned about coming off as credible, than providing some good stories. So, while we had a good time I would recommend trying out some other tours in the area - like Alton, Illinois or Lemp Mansion - both of which we will be trying in the coming months. Regardless, it was a fun Saturday night!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Attention home bakers...

For those out there in blogland who enjoy baking as much as I do, I would like to call your attention to this post from my new favorite (and very funny) blog - Joe Pastry. His recent post on how to make pie/tart crust was a revelation. It is as if he were standing in my kitchen and watching me as I tried to make my first and last pie. Anyways, I now have new hope and will be experimenting with pies in the coming weeks! "Hurrah!" shout my friends and family - I hope.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Sweet Saturday

St. Louis enjoyed an unseasonably cool weekend. It was 70 degrees, no humidity and gorgeous - there was no way my friends and I were going to fritter away this opportunity. Elena suggested that we visit Winding Brook Estate Lavender farm in Eureka, Missouri.

Leah, Elena and myself found ourselves within the rows of Lavender "harvesting" the stalks.

The only piece of advice the owners gave us before we left to pick Lavender was to look for the most "colorful" ones. I suppose that stands to reason, as the bloomier the stalks were the more fragrant they became.

I wish you all could have smelled that air.

The bees were pretty fond of that sweet smelling air as well since there were hundreds of them.

Below is a nice little butterfly I chased around for about 10 minutes, I think.

Harvesting Lavender takes more time than you would think. Leah was determined to get as much as she could fit!

Afterwards, we poked around the small giftshop and spent waaaay more money on things Lavender than I thought would be possible.

All of that "harvesting" left us pretty hungry, so we treated ourselves to Lavender infused desserts. Pictured above, is all that is left of a Lavender/Lemon bar. I bought some Lavender buds to use in some baking - I think this will be fun to experiment with.

All in all is was a wonderful afternoon. The kind you get when old friends get together and there is no rush so everything is just easy, light and relaxing. Great idea Elena!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Day Seven

Our very last day in France we planned to leave the city and visit Chartres Cathedral, located in Chartres! We lugged our suitcases (and I mean lugged) to the Montparnasse station and hopped on the 8 am train to Chartres. It was a very pretty train ride and the small towns we passed by were ridiculously picture perfect. As in sweet little gardens, cottages with red tiles covered in ivy and charming farmhouses in the fields.

Once we arrived at Hotel Jehan De Beuce, we noticed that the hotel actually started on the second floor. Pictured above, you will see what we called "the coffin" - yep, that's my luggage. It was extremely heavy and I knew that there was no way I could carry that up to the hotel without messing myself up (think hot and sweaty). So, I offered my travel companions 10 euro to whoever carried my luggage upstairs. Shalyn, always on the lookout for a deal accepted - and may I add that it was quite the challenge for her!

Once in our rooms, we freshened up and explored the town a little bit. It was so nice to be in such a quiet place. After the fast pace of the last several days, it was heaven.

Due to its strategic location on the Eure river, the town of Chartres has been in existence (in some form) since the time of the Romans. It suffered heavy damage during World War II.

There's that ivy (above) that I love so much. I want my home to covered in it.

Chartres Cathedral is in the center part of the old town, so it is hard to miss. It is also gorgeous and boasts the finest complete collection of medieval stained glass in the world (during the bombings of WWII the townspeople removed the glass from the windows and stored it safely away in basements and such). It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is also considered the finest example of gothic architecture in all of France.

We were thrilled to see it. As you can see in the photo above, the cathedral is undergoing restoration work. Unfortunately, the altar was not open for viewing, so we had to content ourselves with the large photo of it hung from the ceiling.

All that information is courtesy of our wonderful tour guide, Mr. Malcom Miller! He has been offerring English speaking tours of the cathedral for 50 years and is considered Chartres' formost English scholar. His book, Chartres Cathedral, is considered one of the authoritative books on the site.

What was so interesting about our tour, was that Malcom was able to explain much of the stained glass pictures and relate its meaning. He compared the stained glass and sculptures to books for the illiterate. Viewing these objects was the closest a peasant in the 12th century would come to understanding their faith.

In the photo above are the different ancestors of Jesus. The second statue to the left is of Abraham holding Isaac. He has a knife in his hands and Isaac's feet are bound. I point them out only because the statuary found outside of cathedrals all seem to blend in to each other for me. It was really great to see them through the eyes of someone who knew each and every piece and what they represented.

Chartres Cathedral is dedicated to Mary. In the photo above, you see a depiction of her sitting with Jesus after her annunciation.

The Cathedral itself was marvelous and is actually larger than Notre Dame in Paris.

I mentioned earlier that the cathedral is undergoing extensive restoration. I thought I would include a couple of photos demonstrating what a difference it will make when the whole building is done. Above is a restored alcove in the apse of the church. Below you can see the difference between the cleaned stone in the alcove and the unrestored stone in the church.

Chartres Cathedral was built to house this relic - reputed to be a tunic worn by Mary herself. It is called the Sancta Camisa. Above is the relic itself - carbon dating has established that the cloth is roughly 2,000 years old.

After our daytime visit to the Cathedral, we decided to take a walking tour of the town itself. We first visited the Stained Glass Museum, which was lovely.

Chartres Cathedral is located at the top of a very large hill. The town is actually separated in to two sections which are accessible by long flights of stone favorite.

On our way to the lower portion of the town, we quickly ducked in to the rear gardens of the Cathedral to take in the view.

We decided to rest for a few minutes and enjoy the view. It was the hottest day we had yet experienced in France at about 80 degrees. I know, I know, it was 105 or something in St. Louis at the time. Below, Shalyn takes a break on a park bench.

The town of Chartres is considered the "Venice" of France. And you can see why - the river that was so important to the existence of the town is still flowing. It was just so pretty.

After some pretty strenuous hikes around town, we ran across this church.

We were hot, sweaty and exhausted. The church of Saint Aignan was the perfect respite.

Caroline found an informational flyer about the church. This church is a baby, having only been built around the 16th century. The roof was made of wood and the paint decorating the interior of the building dated from the 18th century. It was so nice to see a different type of church.

Oh there was just so much history! Look at that medieval building in town - just darling.

After our tour of the town, we trooped back to the hotel and the ladies wanted to take a nap. I am not a napper, however, so I enjoyed a quiet time of my own at the town square reading a book. Once the girls were up and ready to go, we decided to go out for dinner - but this time we were going to fancy it up a bit. One of the ways the tried to controll costs was to stick to the more inexpensive cafes and brasseries in France. On this, our last night in France, we all agreed that we would splurge and eat at a formal restaraunt.

The house specialty was a veal plate. I've had veal before and enjoyed it and Shalyn also decided to go with this treat. The veal looked strange. I ate it and just kept looking at the meat wondering what it was. I mentioned that I thought we were eating intestines or something. Shalyn didn't bat an eyelash and replied that she had eaten tons of haggis when she was in Scotland. I kept eating my veal and then noticed that it actually resembled a cross section of a brain. And then I knew. We quickly looked over the menu again, and noticed that the Fete of Veal we ordered was actually Tete of Veal - which is, of course, brains. Below is Shalyn's initial reaction to finding out we were consuming baby cow brains.

Which was then followed as quickly as possible with some ice cream to wash the taste out.

Elena wanted to visit the Chartres fountains. She was sure they were somewhere, so we wandered the commercial district looking for this mythical place. As it turns out, it was even more special than we expected as there was a special exhibition of giant neon rabbits and large red meerkats.

It's never what you expect, right?

I owe Elena a huge mea culpa. When she had originally suggested a visit to Chartres, I had envisioned a quick day trip. She then mentioned that they have a light show at night and that it would be really neat to stay and see it. Queue visions of every cheesy laser light show you ever saw in the eighties. I cringed and gave her a hard time about changing our plans to stay overnight in Chartres for this "light show". Eventually though, I came around and thought that an overnight stay in a different city would be nice after 6 days in Paris. Oh my goodness, my preconceptions could not have been more wrong. Chartres Illuminated was the highlight of our entire trip.

This art show begins with Chartres Cathedral bathed in light and slowly progressing to images of its stained glass being projected on to the building. The whole show is about 8 minutes and is set to beautiful choral voices. It brought most of us to tears. I wish I could post the show from beginning to end, but my blog know-how ends at posting photos.

The north entrance of the cathedral was also illuminated.

These are the same sculptures that are posted at the beginning of this post. They look absolutely painted, and apparently this closely resembles what the Cathedral sculptures would have looked like before their paint wore off.

Chartres Cathedral was not the only building to enjoy such illumination. The town offered 24 other buildings in various locations. Below, Caroline poses while a series of flowers flow over her.

The photo above, is of St. Peirre church illuminated by a child's drawing. The photo below is the lovely St. Aignan we stumbled upon earlier in the day.

Last but not least, is a couple of photos of the front of the church at various stages of the light show.

This was absolutely worth staying the night in Chartres.

About two days before we left on our trip, my appetite completely disappeared. Friends would ask me if I was excited and I would nod and say something about how it didn't really feel real and that I hoped everything would turn out okay. Not exactly the most enthusiastic response. I think I was so worried about something going wrong (what if we fought? what if someone steals our money? what if it's raining the whole time?) that I had completely stressed myself out. I don't think I could have asked for a better trip or to go with better friends. I am so so glad that I went and I wanted to thank the girls who went with me for creating a memory that will last the rest of my life. I love you!