Monday, August 25, 2014

ThrowBAKE Monday

See what I did with the title there? It's basically the epitome of my cleverness. As you should have gathered by now, I'll be blogging (finally) about a baking project (at last) from way back when. No, seriously, it's from April. That's so many months, I don't even know how long that is! Anyway, get excited because this is something new, something exciting, something trendy. That's right: cake pops! My first foray into the world of cake pops. Are you excited yet? You should be.

To set the stage, I was invited to my future cousin-in-law's bachelorette party. I say future because at the time it was future but by the time I'm writing this, they're married sooooooo....whatever. Bachelorette party! And what is better at a bachelorette party than cake pops! And what better time to start them is the night before the party/weekend? That's what I thought too. So, the night before I had to leave for the party, I was up late making cake pops. Which I've never made before. But how hard could they be? I got all the ingredients and I decided that since the color theme of the weekend was blue and yellow that I would make sky blue cake pops with yellow polka dots. See? Nothing crazy. I'm keeping it simple. I even used boxed cake mix and canned frosting rather than make it myself. I'm getting reasonable in my old age.

So cake pops are actually quite easy (in theory). You bake the cake. Let it cool. Crumble it into a zillion pieces. Mix in frosting (about 3/4 of the can). Roll into balls. Put in sticks. Dip in chocolate. Decorate as needed. Easy. I decided to go with chocolate cake (I believe I used Duncan Hines double fudge cake because, of course) and cream cheese frosting. I was hoping to avoid it getting too sweet with all of the chocolate and everything. Baking the cake was a piece of...cake...yeahhhhhh...I couldn't resist that pun but now I don't know where to go from here. I'll just pretend that never happened. You know what's really fun? Crumbling cake with your bare hands. Seriously, I enjoyed it and spent about half an hour doing it while watching an episode of 30 Rock. Next, I mixed in the frosting. I found that the best way to do this was to squish it all together with the backside of a big metal spoon. It was surprisingly good at incorporating the frosting into every bit of the crumbs. Then I rolled them into balls and tossed them into the freezer to harden up a bit.

Here's where things got a little tricky. Dipping in chocolate. I melted my chocolate wafers and the chocolate was really thick. Definitely wasn't going to make dipping easy at all. I read somewhere that you can add some vegetable oil to thin it out a bit and thus began the process of microwaving and stirring and trying to find the right consistency. Also, I should point out that by now it was awfully late. Anyway, I started out with dipping the lollipop stick in the chocolate so that it would be like glue inside the cake pop, stuck the stick into the cake ball, and then gently rolled the ball in the chocolate and let the excess drip off. Doesn't that sound so pleasant and easy? It wasn't. The chocolate was still really thick and sometimes the cake balls would fall of the stick and get stuck in the chocolate. Sometimes the chocolate would drip all the way down the stick. Sometimes the cake pop would hold on just fine until I stuck it into the blocks of styrofoam (which I legitimately have no idea why I had) and then the cake ball would sadly slide halfway down the lollipop stick. Needless to say, it was a little frustrating to have such inconsistency. Plus it was late. Plus I kept running out of chocolate. Plus it was never the right consistency. But whatever, eventually, all the cake pops were coated in chocolate.

Now to decorate them! And keep in mind, all I'm doing is yellow polka dots! Yeah, no. Not happening. I polka dotted two of them and decided they looked stupid so I stopped. They just came out spikey and weird and I didn't like it. Blue cake pops it is! Late night Jen makes the best decisions. Zak got in on the decorating a little bit and made one that said "Hi!" and another with a happy face and a third with a penis (not pictured) because ya know, it's a bachelorette party! Our beautiful work is displayed below for your judgement:

But now that they were all done, how did they taste? Awesome. They were really delicious, albeit a bit sweet for me. But it's cake with frosting and coated in chocolate so it's hard for it to not be sweet. The girls at the party demolished them though. They were a great drunk bachelorette party food. And it was funny because as frustrating as they were, when people were asking me how I made them, my first response was "oh, it's really easy..." Funny how memory works, isn't it?

A Disney Moment: Lilo and Stitch

I remember seeing Lilo and Stitch in theaters when it first came out. It was actually somewhat notable in that it was in the pre-Pixar-rip-your-heart-out era. (And before you say anything, I know Toy Story 2 came out before that but it didn’t crush my soul as much on the first viewing as it does now.) I just remember sitting in the theater and crying my eyes out because I couldn’t figure out what loophole they were going to find to keep Lilo and Stitch together and to keep Lilo and her sister together! I just couldn’t see the way out for these characters! Maybe it was my age or something but it’s the first time I remember really crying at an animated film as an adult-ish person. All that said, this movie doesn’t hold up to that memory that I have.

It certainly has its touching moments and there’s some great messaging about unconventional families but there are some visual and storytelling hurdles that the movie doesn’t quite overcome. The whole Ugly Duckling comparison is extremely heavy-handed, the Elvis bits just feel stupid on the rewatch, and OH MY GOD, LILO’S SISTER’S LEGS! No human’s legs look like that! She has no ankles and her thighs are tree trunks. I’m not even sure she has knees. It’s more than I could handle. This surprised us by not ranking the highest in the group of five and instead landed at 2/5. Soon you shall see why. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Disney Dining Service Reviews! [Part 2]

This is part 2 of my Disney Dining Service reviews. If you haven't read part 1, you may do so here. Resuming reviews!

It’s a really good thing we left a little room for someone to exceed our expectations. Because James from Cocoa Beach, Florida did just that. He blew it out of the water. Our next meal was at Artist Point at Wilderness Lodge and it was awesome. We’ve only been to Artist Point once before and the running joke is that I loved my meal there but can’t for the life of me remember what I ate. In fact, even as I write this, I don’t remember what I ate as an appetizer. Crazy. All I ever remember is that Artist Point is delicious. But enough about the food, this is about the service! We arrived early for our reservation so we had some cocktails in the bar area. We checked in but were still drinking our cocktails and were told that we could sit as long as we like and could come over when we were ready. That was super nice because it’s sad when one needs to rush a drink. We still ended up taking our cocktails to the table but we took our sweet time going about it. Once we arrived, we were introduced to James who was extremely talkative. But oddly, not in a bad way. I’m usually extremely turned off by waiters that talk a lot because I’m shy and awkward and I just want my food, dammit. But somehow, I was not at all bothered by how much James was talking. He described most of the menu in great detail (including pointing out which dishes are most popular and have been on the menu since the restaurant opened) and made some good recommendations. He also was able to explain the wines quite well and deftly answered my sister’s question about where in Washington a particular wine was from. He really seemed to know his stuff front and back. He brought out the wine for me to taste (I tasted the wine again! I’m like a star of wine tasting this trip!) but he refrained from pouring our glasses of wine until we were through with our cocktails and kept our white wine chilled in the meantime. Good move. Also a good move and what we call a touch of the “above and beyond-ness” was the fact that as he was describing the menu, he was constantly moving around the table. He didn’t describe the menu to just one person. Take notice the next time you have about four people at your table and you’ll see that the waiter rarely moves as he describes the menu and/or specials. It was a very nice maneuver. At this point, we were starting to get excited about the service. Our appetizers arrived and we all got different ones (quite an unusual occurrence for us) and I noticed that when Zak accidentally used his steak knife on his appetizer, it was quickly replaced with a new knife immediately following that course. Also, James noted that Zak had not eaten one of the side veggies or garnishes (I forget which) in his appetizer and he explained what exactly it was to Zak and encouraged him to give it a try. That was great because it was clear that Zak didn’t know what it was (and frankly, we didn’t know either) but as a result of the waiter paying attention, Zak tried something new and liked it. 
After our appetizers, James came back with a couple of bonuses: Mickey straws
for our waters (because come on, who doesn’t love a Mickey straw??) and small, espresso-sized portions of the famous smoked Portobello mushroom soup. My sister had ordered this as her appetizer and I’ll admit I was a bit jealous because it was really good. So when that soup came out, I was beyond thrilled. Also, even though Zak refers to mushrooms as terrorists, James managed to talk him into giving it a taste. Now we hit the point where James basically won the game: he cleaned our table after the appetizer! That almost never happens! Table Zamboni win! We were dealing with some next-level service here. James continued to amaze us when my sister left for the restroom and he picked up her napkin and folded it neatly on the arm of the chair. He also replaced Zak’s napkin after our entrée when he left for the restroom (which was good because Zak and I both ordered surf and turf and the lobster was a pretty messy endeavor). He didn’t rush us at all and waited until we were all done eating to clear our plates. He also took some time to inform us (albeit incorrectly) of the park hours for that night. This whole meal was the perfect blend of high class service and Disney friendliness and I cannot rave about it enough. If Sara in France was a 10, James was about a 14. He was that good. I only even took notes on his above and beyond actions because all of my usual standards were met. The wine was poured perfectly, the pacing was great, and he was conscientious of when to clear our plates and when to interact with us. Also, the food was, once again, absolutely amazing. Best meal. Best service. Game, set, match. High five to Olaf.

So of course, after the great triumph comes the fall. Obviously, we knew we weren’t going to get service that would be as good as James. So we weren’t even hoping for that. What we were hoping for though, was competent service. We didn’t get that either. Our final stop was a late night dinner at California Grill at the top of the Contemporary resort. This restaurant recently underwent a renovation and this was our first time back since. My mom and sister loved this restaurant in the past but I’ve always been a bit lukewarm on the menu. It just doesn’t hold that much excitement for me. However, when Zak and I went there the last time, the service was fantastic. Definitely had the essence of “above and beyond-ness”. This visit did not. First, let me talk about the renovation a bit. A big part of the redesign was adding a second observation deck for fireworks viewing. That’s nice. However, they also removed some of the sound absorbing qualities of the restaurant itself and effectively the bar/lounge area melts into the restaurant area which melts into the kitchen area. And the whole thing is loud. Really loud. We don’t like the loud. It wasn’t this loud before. We also didn’t really like the new décor. It felt like it lowered the class level of the restaurant and the patrons tended
to be dressed accordingly. Unfortunate. However, we did get a nice window table which is great for firework watching. So we sat down and immediately we had some waiter issues. He mumbled. So for a loud restaurant, he was pretty hard to understand. He also only explained the menu to me. I mean literally he’d point to my menu and say “This is very popular” or “This one is new on the menu” without actually saying what dish he was talking about. As a result, the rest of the table couldn’t really follow his comments. We already missed James and his flitting around our table. Our waiter did offer to bring out a couple of wines for us to try because I said that we wanted a Cabernet Sauvignon but were having some trouble deciding. I thought that was very considerate until he brought out a Malbec and a Cabernet Sauvignon. Umm, those are decidedly not the same type of wine. Also, I thought it was a little odd that he brought out only a small sample of each. The last time I was there and Zak and I were having trouble deciding, the waiter brought out 4 tasting glasses for each of us so we could both try. Now, that was obviously exceptional but it’s odd that he designed it so only one person could taste the wines. So anyway, between the Cab and the Malbec, I picked the Cab. Obviously. Because that’s what we wanted in the first place. Rage. Our waiter also did not ask about or explain the dining plan to us. Which actually would have been nice since we weren’t sure if the sushi counted as an appetizer under the dining plan. The bread guy literally threw the basket of bread on the table without describing what the breads were and actually knocked over the candle on the table in the process. This was not an auspicious start to the meal.
Oh yeah, and the first butter he delivered didn’t have any sea salt on it. We asked for more butter and there was the sea salt which changed the flavor completely. The next faux pas was that while Zak was in the restroom, the appetizers arrived. A good waiter would have noticed that and would have held the appetizers until he returned. Instead, we were forced to start eating without him or endure cold appetizers. He also noticeably did not pick up Zak’s napkin and fold it neatly on the arm of the chair while he was gone. My expectations have gotten pretty high, people. After the appetizer, our waiter actually asked my mom and sister to pass their dirty plates over to him. Now, there was plenty of room behind each of them for him to stand and fetch their plates. Unacceptable at a restaurant like this. Maybe acceptable at a Friday’s but not at a fancy restaurant. After the appetizers, we were informed that the fireworks would be starting in about 20 minutes so would we like our entrees to be served before or after the fireworks? We weren’t inclined to wait 30 minutes between appetizer and entrée so we opted for before the fireworks. The problem with this was that we were still eating during the fireworks and Zak effectively had his plate taken before he was actually done. Maybe it’s our fault for wanting to eat overlapping the fireworks but our waiter really should have asked if Zak was done with his meal. Also, the steaks were undercooked. I tried to get Zak to send it back but he didn’t want to deal with that. He really should have though. His bison was definitely rare and not medium. As the plates were being cleared following the entrée, our waiter actually asked my sister to pass him the bread basket. Which was in the middle of the table. That he absolutely could have reached. And when I say “asked” I do not mean that he asked politely. I don’t remember the exact phrasing but the essence of it was “Could ya give me that?” Again, probably not the exact sentence but there was definitely no “please” or “thank you” or apology for not picking it up himself. We were feeling a bit of rage at this point. And that’s when things started to border on comical. Because as he was clearing the table, he took a half full glass of water and actually laid it down on his tray. This all happened behind my back so all I saw was my sister’s horrified look and Zak being unable to contain his concern and actually starting to say “no no no, don’t do that!” Meanwhile, my mom was pretty sure that she was going to have water spilled down her back. She didn’t but that was some pretty high drama. The next comical piece was my mom’s bread plate. The table was entirely cleared after the entrée, except for her bread plate and knife. And then the desserts came and the bread plate remained. And then the desserts were cleared and the bread plate stood its ground. We left the table and the bread plate was still on the table. How hard is it to clear a bread plate? Every time our waiter walked by and did not take that plate we would burst out laughing. Furthermore, he also had the gall to point out where on the check we are supposed to leave the tip. I understand that sometimes on the dining plan people fail to tip properly but I thought it was telling that he was the only one who felt the need to point it out. All in all, it was an extremely disappointing service. The food was pretty disappointing too (although mine was quite good) and I don’t think we’ll be back for a while. Plus the angle of watching the fireworks is better from Narcoossee’s anyway. So by far this was the worst service which made us sad because this was our last nice dinner of the trip. [Ok, so maybe the picture below isn't at all from that day or that dining experience but look how sad they look after riding Kali River Rapids!]

So with that, we end our service reviewing adventure. Artist Point knocked it out of the park. California Grill had a super fail. Monsieur Paul was a close second and all the rest fell somewhat in the middle. I think I’ll do this again the next time we visit though. It was a lot of fun passing judgment on the professionalism of the service! Ok, and now I'm hungry. Guess it's time to go bake something!

Disney Dining Service Reviews! [Part 1]

Hello all! Today I take a brief hiatus from blogging about baking and instead give a report on my recent trip to Disney World. Enjoy the diversion!

My family goes to Disney World to eat. Admittedly, we like everything else about Disney as well (with the exception of the heat. In Florida. In August.) but really, the star of the trip is usually the dining. Over the years we have tried the majority of the Signature restaurants several times and we are rarely disappointed with our meals. On our last trip though, we found something to be lacking…the service. With Disney’s high standard of customer service, we were shocked to find the restaurant services extremely lacking. With that in mind, on this trip, I made it my mission to review our dining experiences – not for the food, which we know to be excellent, but for the service. The cast of characters on this trip include my mom, my sister, my fiancé, and me. We booked five fancy dinners including Be Our Guest, Yachtsman Steakhouse (a new restaurant for us!), Monsieur Paul, Artist Point, and California Grill (first visit since the remodel). Some of my comments might be outdated practices (e.g. waiting to clear plates until everyone has finished eating), some may be oddly specific (e.g. it is important not to drip wine on the table when it is poured because let’s face it, wine is good to the last drop), and some are just obvious to anyone who has ever eaten at a restaurant (e.g. the tempo of the meal being too fast or too slow for what is ordered). As an added complication to the tale, we were using the Disney Deluxe Dining Plan which entitled us to an appetizer, entrée, dessert, and non-alcoholic beverage at every meal. Ok, that’s enough background! On with the reviews!

Just kidding. One more note: I will be changing the names of most of the servers because anyone can have an off-night. The names of the truly exceptional will be retained and maybe if they like to google their names, they’ll find a good review of their service. Ok, now onwards!

Just kidding again. I'll also include pictures of my entree and Zak's entree even though this is about service, not food. But seriously, yum. So just to get you hungry, you'll get some pictures too. Ok, for real this time, let's go!

Our first stop was Be Our Guest which is the new restaurant in the Magic Kingdom at Beast’s castle. The last time we dined here, we had the best service of our entire trip. So our expectations were pretty high. My sister and I checked in at the castle exactly on time for our 7:20 reservation. My mom and Zak, however, had underestimated how long it takes to get from the hotel to the restaurant so alas, we were THOSE people who got buzzed but didn’t have our whole party.

So we waited behind the iron gate of the castle, punished for our sin of checking in without our entire party. On the bright side, we met a fascinating member of the custodial staff who entertained us with discussing Doctor Who and his encounter with John Barrowman (BARROWMAN!). Once the late people arrived, we were escorted into the restaurant. The hostess nicely explained the different rooms in the castle and we were seated in the West Wing. Our waiter greeted us and took our drink orders. We ordered a bottle of wine for the table (Conundrum, a crisp, fruity white) and while we were all pulling out our IDs, he kept trying to push us to order appetizers. I mean, really? We had barely even read the menu yet! We shooed him away until after our drink orders arrived. We placed our orders and as he walked away, we realized that he never actually explained the dining plan to us. This wasn’t a big deal to us because we knew what was included but we also know that they’re supposed to explain the inclusions of the plan to us whether we want them to or not. Strike 1. The next major test is the pouring of the wine. Our waiter gave us nice, healthy pour with no drips. Also, I got to taste the wine which is so rare! Probably because I always look like the youngest there. However, the wine pouring failed during the appetizers. Understandably, it’s hard to split a bottle of wine among four people but what you don’t do is top off three people’s glasses until the bottle is empty and give nothing to the fourth person. We are not a fan of that. So, alas, my mom only got one glass of wine during this meal. She also got the short end of the stick because the appetizer plates were cleared while she was still eating. This may be my biggest pet peeve. Everyone should be done eating so no one feels rushed. The same thing happened to Zak during our entrée.
The waiter then tried to show us the dessert cart while our entrees were still on the table. Talk about being rushed! We actually did not let him describe the desserts until after we were done with our entrees. The moment our plates were cleared though, he was back to give us our desserts. He didn’t even offer dessert drink options (since we hadn’t yet used our non-alcoholic beverage) and we had to ask for the types of tea and coffee that were available. There was also some confusion when the check came because only then did he mention the dining plan which he kept referring to as “coupons” instead of “credits.” Overall, the meal was pretty rushed. We anticipated this a bit because it is a restaurant inside a park and I’m sure most people want to get moving quickly. However, a good waiter would have recognized that we were in no rush after one of our multiple attempts to get him to slow the pace. A couple of side notes: the waiter was quite soft-spoken for a loud restaurant and the room we were in routinely had loud thunder which scared the bejeezus out of my sister every time. Overall, not a great service experience but it was what I’d call ok. Not offensive, not outstanding, just a mid-level start to our vacation.

Next up, we have the Yachtsman Steakhouse at the Yacht Club. This was our first time ever dining at this restaurant. We were very excited though because this was where the best steak is rumored to be. We arrived at 7:00 and were seated at 7:10 so that was quite good. We were waited on by Lulu from Bangkok, Thailand which was fun for us because my great-grandmother’s name was Lulu. And no, that wasn’t her nickname, that was her given name. Our waitress, however, had Lulu as a nickname. Enough about the name though. We also noted that the restaurant was quite loud when we sat down (another pet peeve of ours. Put in some soft wall hangings or some carpets, people!). Lulu was very knowledgeable about the menu and described all of the options very well. When my mom was bouncing between ordering medium rare and medium, Lulu actually suggested “medium rare +” which was exactly what my mom wanted. 
Our wine was served with a wine bottle plate and was poured with a napkin to catch any drips, which is 
always a classy move. Basically a great start. Zak couldn’t decide between two of the sauces so she offered to bring him both and effortlessly switched out his truffle fries for a twice-baked potato. Very accommodating. She even asked if we were celebrating anything special. That is always a nice Disney touch. Unfortunately, now we hit a slight glitch. This time my sister got the short end of the wine pouring stick. She got only a couple of drops in her second glass. The entrees arrived as the appetizer plates were being cleared which didn’t give anyone much time to digest their appetizers. For a steakhouse, that’s kind of a problem. And then Zak’s steak arrived with the wrong potatoes. Lulu graciously allowed him to keep the truffle fries and brought him his twice-baked potato but alas, when Zak cut into his steak, it was basically still moo-ing. His medium steak was very very rare. We suspect that he had accidentally gotten someone else’s meal. 
Unfortunately, it meant that Zak only got to eat potatoes while the rest of us were eating our steaks and his got cooked properly. He was offered a third type of potato for his inconvenience though! Which he (thankfully) declined. After that blip though, the service went back to being quite lovely. Clean, white napkins were placed on our table post-entrée to simulate a clean tablecloth prior to dessert. They had a lovely tea menu and Lulu poured our tea for us quite nicely. She even got us tea to-go cups when we were just too full and tired to finish our tea in the restaurant. So Lulu was pretty great but part of the service is all of the food arriving properly cooked and on time and that’s where we can’t call Lulu the best of the trip. Also, unrelated to the service, we were all very disappointed in our steaks. We had much better steak at other Disney restaurants. So despite the service being adequate, we probably won’t be back anytime soon due to the food.

Ahhhhh, now we’re talkin’: Monsieur Paul. Formally known as Bistro di Paris, it was once one of the fanciest restaurants at Disney, second only to Victoria and Albert’s. In recent years, it’s undergone a transformation that allows it to be a part of the dining plan and slightly toned down its rigid standards. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still quite fancy but it lacks the snooty-ness it once had. The last time we were there, we had a waiter that would. Not. Stop. Talking. I’d take a mouthful of food and he’d ask me a question. He was chatting with us while we ate. It was extremely uncomfortable. So as long as we didn’t have that guy, we were pretty sure our service would be better. We arrived early for our reservation but we were seated almost immediately so we didn’t have to wait at all. Our waitress this time was Sara from Nimes, France. She was extremely personable and explained the dining plan well and succinctly. She chatted with us a bit when we asked where she was from in France but did not overstay her conversational welcome. 
She poured nice, even glasses of wine with the professional drip-napkin and she even smelled the cork herself rather than offering it to one of us to smell. I thought that was a nice touch since my response is usually “it smells like a cork” and gives me no information. It at least gave the illusion that she knew what she was doing, even if she didn’t. Good trick. She also managed to pour us all a second glass of wine while still leaving some in the bottle. So yes, she poured smaller glasses but that’s the best thing to do when you have four people. We all drank an even amount, which was lovely. Another small touch I love is the bread service that serves the bread with a fork and spoon. There’s something so classy about that. I have no idea why they do that but it’s cool. And having three options for bread is always a plus. This place was even classy enough to trade out our utensils with the ones that would be appropriate for our next course. After our appetizer (which was insanely delicious, by the way), we were asked if we were all through with our appetizer before clearing the plates and in fact, we were asked again at the end of our entrée when everyone was clearly done eating. I also loved that our entrees were served by four different waiters so that all of the entrees arrived at exactly the same time. That’s classy. 
And I love it because typically, I always get my food last. In fact, on our last Disney trip, we were consistently waiting for my food to be delivered. That didn’t happen once on this trip which was a surprise and a delight. After our entrée, the table Zamboni came out. By that I mean the blade that they use to clean crumbs off the table but we always call it the table Zamboni. Now that’s nice service. Somewhere around dessert, our empty wine glasses magically vanished. I still don’t know when they were taken away. It was done so seamlessly! The manager came over to talk to us for a bit and check in and was especially interested in why I had a notebook on the table. We explained that while I am certainly no food critic, I would be reviewing the service of the restaurant. I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t always pull out a notebook just to get better service! Finally, in a moment of slightly outdated tradition, Zak was handed the bill as the only male at the table. Technically proper, so I’ll forgive that small bit of sexism. Oh, and I almost forgot: the pacing of the meal was just lovely. There was the exact correct amount of time between courses so we never felt like we were waiting around or that we were rushed. Very nice tempo for the meal. All in all, the service was impeccable. Perfect. However, even though the service was downright flawless, it lacked what my sister and I call the “above and beyond-ness”. We could point to no flaw in the service but at the same time it wasn’t exactly memorable as “Oh my, that was the most amazing service I’ve ever had at a restaurant!” So we didn’t leave there thinking that nobody could possibly ever beat this service but we also didn’t leave wanting for anything more. Excellent job, Sara from Nimes! 

 So ends part 1 but no worries, the best (and worst!) are yet to come! No, really, they'll be coming sometime in the next five minutes.