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Stella’s Stuffed Grape Leaves

Out of all of my mother’s wonderful dishes, the one I long for most in this present moment is stuffed grape leaves. While living in Europe, I have had more time to reflect on my family history. My great-grandmother Stella was a caring Romanian woman with Northern Greek ancestry who taught my mother how to make stuffed grape leaves, or dolmades, and for that I am very thankful. Every time my mother cooked this dish for my family growing up, she would recall her grandmother’s detailed instructions and serve it to us with love. Having learned this recipe from my mother, I hope to pass this culinary treasure on to my own family in the future. Stuffed grape leaves cannot be forgotten; they must be enjoyed by future generations.

Dolmades embody a pop of multiple flavors that fuse together to make a wonderfully hearty dish. Lying within the grape leaves is a ground beef, onion, and rice mixture that is seasoned with dill and parsley, sporting an herbaceous kick and soft texture. The meat flavor does not stand alone, though, as the tender grape leaves provide a sharp note of acidity. Sold in a vinegar brine, the tangy grape leaves are complemented well by the citrusy and grassy dill in the filling. Tying the dish together is a smooth lemon yogurt sauce that enhances the acidity of the grape leaves, making every bite fresh and captivating. Wrapped individually with much patience, stuffed grape leaves are a savory and zesty delicacy that I never fail to enjoy.

Gazing into a pot of steaming, dark green stuffed grape leaves makes me feel connected to my great-grandmother Stella. Although I met her when I was a baby, she unfortunately passed away when I was very young, so I do not hold vivid memories of spending time with her. This saddens me, but the phenomena of legacy brings me comfort. My mother deeply resembles Stella in both appearance and generosity. My great-grandmother expressed love and affection through cooking for her family, just like my mother does. From what I have been told, it was always a priority of hers to ensure that her husband, children, and grandchildren were well fed and genuinely enjoying whatever they were eating. Holidays and celebrations were opportunities for her to prepare a variety of dishes and express her talents in the kitchen. I often see my mother reflect this behavior, since she herself views food as a creative outlet.

As I think about my Greek roots, I look forward to spending my Easter Break in Athens. I have never traveled to Greece before, and I cannot wait to immerse myself into its historical beauty. Walking through ruins of Ancient Greece will be surreal, but it will not be the first time I connect with part of my heritage. Eating stuffed grape leaves with my family reminds me of Stella’s ethnic background, and how she channeled it into her home cooking that touched the lives of so many. I wish my great grandmother were in my life right now, and I still get upset by the impossibility of this wish. But family traditions are more alive than one might think. They travel from one family to another, from one time period to the next, from one’s heart to another’s stomach in this case. Through my mother, I see Stella’s wisdom and generosity. The combination of tender rice, savory meat, acidic grape leaves, and vibrant lemon sauce transports me to a place I cannot easily define—or even see—but can certainly feel. Here, I am engulfed by the aromatic scent of stuffed grape leaves alongside my mother and my great-grandmother Stella, feeling safe and appreciated. This is a timeless memory.

Cover Photo Courtesy of deposit photos

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Kremšnite: A Croatian Classic

For the spring semester of my junior year at Boston College, I decided to study abroad in Zagreb, Croatia. Before arriving in late February, I knew very little about Croatian culture, including its cuisine. I wanted to step outside of my comfort zone and explore a country that I had never been to before, as I felt that doing so would broaden my horizons. Although I have been in Zagreb for a very short amount of time, I can already say that the city is invigatoring. As trams zoom through the central square of Zagreb, Croatia, you can see people reuniting, restaurants standing at every corner, and multicolored buildings towering over you. Complementing glorious sightseeing, the most impactful culinary moment I have had during my stay at Zagreb so far was trying kremšnite for the first time, a classic Croatian dessert.

After having lunch with my peers at the European Center for the Study of War and Peace, the location where I take my classes, we were offered a piece of kremšnite for dessert. This dish is best described as a slice of custard with two layers of puff pastry: one layer on top that is delicately sprinkled with powdered sugar and another layer below the custard. I eagerly took the opportunity to eat a piece of kremšnite because it simply looked delicious, with the custard in particular sporting an inviting soft yellow color.

Every aspect of the kremšnite I tasted was outstanding. The custard was simultaneously rich and light textured, melting in my mouth. It had a wonderful vanilla flavor that invoked a great amount of comfort, without being overbearing. Mimicking the vanilla custard’s light texture, the layers of puff pastry introduced a buttery element to the dessert. The subtle hints of butter from the puff pastry contrasted enough with the custard so that the pastry was skillfully balanced in flavor. Finally, the powdered sugar on top tied the whole dessert together, ensuring that every bite was graced by finely-distributed sweetness.

I appreciated how this dessert deviated from the ones I usually eat, like cake or pie. Kind of resembling a thick pudding, the custard was the dessert’s foundation and it held up quite nicely. It was sturdy enough to support the puff pastry, giving each slice a uniform cubic shape. The creaminess of the custard provided the satisfaction that dense desserts like cheesecake give me. Yet, its texture also possessed the airiness of whipped cream. I ended up finishing my piece of kremšnite within minutes, as I was so impressed by its clever use of texture and careful use of flavor.

Studying abroad was something I always wanted to do, but I never knew exactly how it would turn out for me. Since I had never traveled to the Balkans before, Croatia was a country I did not even consider going to before stumbling across the BC in Croatia: War, Peace & Reconciliation program online. Due to my lack of prior familiarity with Croatian culture, I tried to not set too many expectations for my semester abroad. Although far away from home, I have felt safe and fulfilled in Zagreb so far. While being intellectually challenged by my classes, my mind has also opened up to an entirely new set of customs and practices in this eastern European country. I am learning something new about Croatia every day, and enjoying every second of it. What better way to kick off my semester than trying a tasty dessert like kremšnite? Living in a foreign country for over three months is certainly intimidating, but being received by the splendor of your host country’s cuisine is a great feeling. I will always remember kremšnite as a staple among Croatian sweets and as a dessert that broadened my culinary horizons. I am ready to undertake the inevitable ups and downs of the remainder of my stay here in Zagreb, as I know that moments like the one in which I first tried kremšnite are forthcoming.

Cover photo courtesy of KitchenNostalgia

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Mata Family’s Homemade Mac n’ Cheese

Few foods generate as much nostalgia for me as mac n’ cheese. The tenderness of the noodles and the creaminess of the sauce always transport me back to elementary school dinners, where my mom would make Kraft mac n’ cheese to my younger brother and I’s delight. Although I have always enjoyed eating mac n’ cheese, it wasn’t until about five years ago that I started preparing it from scratch for Thanksgiving. During my childhood, no one in my Ecuadorian family ever considered incorporating this dish into our Thanksgiving menu. I found this odd at one point, since we always prepared American classics like turkey, mashed potatoes, and sweet potato casserole. After researching several mac n’ cheese recipes on the Food Network website, I finally suggested that this delicacy become a new Thanksgiving staple in my household. Since then, mac n’ cheese has sparked multiple smiles and intense satisfaction among my close friends and family members every year on the fourth Thursday of November.

I believe that the key to crafting a perfect holiday mac n’ cheese is starting with a roux. A roux is a thickening agent that combines flour and butter to form the base of sauces. Hence, I begin cooking mac n’ cheese by melting butter in a saucepan on low heat and gradually adding spoonfuls of flour, mixing the contents of the pan continuously with a whisk. Once the roux has turned into a paste, I add heavy whipping cream and stir vigorously until all clumps of flour have evenly disintegrated into the mixture. Next, I generously season the thick heavy cream with salt, white pepper, garlic powder, and a hint of paprika or chili powder for a subtle kick. I then add multiple types of cheese to the seasoned sauce. Shredded cheddar is a must, given its strong flavor and memorable contribution to mac n’ cheese’s orangey-yellow color. Integrating the cheddar cheese never fails to excite me because it brightens up the sauce’s initial plain white shade. In the past, I have also stirred in gruyere, parmesan, gouda, and even pepper jack cheese for an additional savory bite. The sauce is ready to firmly stick to the pre-boiled macaroni noodles once its consistency is not excessively thick, but also not runny: When poured over the macaroni noodles in a baking dish, the cheese sauce ought to smoothly descend from the saucepan at a medium speed, indicating proper thickness.

Before beginning to make the bread crumb topping, I allow the sauce-coated macaroni noodles to cool down, after which I sprinkle more shredded cheddar cheese on top. After forming a layer of shredded cheddar cheese on top of the noodles, I combine panko bread crumbs, melted butter, salt, pepper, parmesan cheese, and red pepper flakes to create the topping in question. After finalizing this mixture, I ensure that every inch of the baking dish’s top layer is covered by seasoned bread crumbs and parmesan cheese. Following this final addition, I enter the mac n’ cheese in the oven, leaving it in at 350 degrees until the shredded cheddar and parmesan cheese on top have fully melted and the bread crumbs have turned golden brown. Although numerous peeks at the oven are somewhat required to prevent burning, the finished product is such a glorious sight that my hard work invariably feels worthwhile. 

Serving this mac n’ cheese every Thanksgiving dinner always attracts a plethora of compliments, given how delightfully creamy the noodles are and how perfectly crunchy the bread crumbs are. The flavors of the cheeses blend together seamlessly, allowing one to appreciate the savory punch that freshly shredded cheese provides to the dish, in comparison to the artificial cheese found in the Kraft product I grew up consuming. Apart from watching my close friends’ and relatives’ faces light up while eating this mac n’ cheese, I myself enter a state of elevated happiness when I indulge in it. Every single bite of this mac n’ cheese reminds me of the culinary sophistication I can accomplish by taking the time to make it. Further, I think about how this Thanksgiving side dish continues the satisfaction I used to feel when eating Kraft mac n’ cheese, though its flavor and texture profiles are astronomically more impressive. Overall, my loved ones and I are highly content that this form of mac n’ cheese graced our collective Thanksgiving experience, since it successfully builds on the wonder of a beloved store-bought product.

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The 12 Grapes of New Year’s Eve: A Symbol of Luck

The approaching holiday season reminds me of a tradition that my family celebrates every New Year’s Eve: eating twelve grapes as the clock approaches midnight. While at social gatherings with close friends, my family always fills up champagne glasses with grapes and distributes them to people, inciting the excitement that underlies this custom. I once considered this family tradition odd, even a little superstitious, but now through reflection I view it in a new light.

My parents always told me that eating each of the twelve grapes symbolizes good luck for every month of the year, so it is imperative that you do so while people are counting down the seconds before the ball drops, the clock strikes twelve, and the metaphorical “fresh start” begins. Now that I am older, I understand that grapes symbolize good fortune in some ways. Both red and green grapes, in their crispest form, are one of the most pleasantly sweet types of fruit. Upon biting into them, their juices burst in your mouth, quenching hunger and thirst simultaneously. All of these wonderful qualities make grapes improve my mood. It really is the small things that can significantly shift your appreciation for life. Beginning the new year with a positive state of mind is probably the biggest guarantee that you will accomplish your goals, or at least put forth your best effort to do so. What can possibly produce better luck than eating grapes on New Year’s Eve?

Apart from its tasty benefits, eating twelve  grapes before midnight every 31st of December builds togetherness among friends and family, fostering happy beginnings as we enter the new year. Bags of produce are opened, stems are emptied, and grapes are counted in a rushed but exhilarated manner. Passing along the fruit-filled champagne glasses is also a collaborative effort, as it is very important that every partygoer partakes in this tradition. Amidst this chaos, my family usually takes a moment to reflect on our blessings, which prepares us to receive the new year with gratitude. Furthermore, with glasses in our hands, we FaceTime family members that are not able to celebrate the holiday with us. This usually involves calling relatives in Ecuador, whom we miss dearly and want to wish a Happy New Year.

11:59 p.m. approaches and everyone starts popping grapes into their mouths. As I look around at this time, I see people pause briefly for each grape that they ingest, wishing for something. Some may think that grapes are just grapes, and they do not promote good luck at all. However, witnessing earnest hope on family and friends’ faces while they’re eating grapes at a New Year’s Eve party really broadens my perspective about the power of collective belief and the wonder associated with hoping for good fortune upon entering the new year. Putting power into the grapes is an act of faith itself, as all of our hopes for the future reside in these small and crisp pockets of sweetness.

Once the clock strikes midnight at the gatherings I attend, everyone starts hugging each other and wishing their family members and friends a Happy New Year. With their palettes permeated by the sweetness of grapes, people bask in the joy of celebration with those they love and cherish. This spectacle is beautiful to watch, but even more enjoyable to partake in. Every New Year, I make a mental note to not only be grateful for the people in my life, but also for the drive within myself to pursue my goals. In some strange and yet beautiful way, frantically eating grapes before midnight approaches on New Year’s Eve orients my thoughts toward this thankful outlook. Perhaps this culinary tradition is considered lucky because it yields a force that motivates individuals to channel their inner determination. People might subconsciously honor this tradition because it sparks improvement and growth within them at the beginning of every year, which is a gift never wasted when entering new chapters in their lives.

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Fridays are for Pad Thai

After academically strenuous weeks, there is nothing more enjoyable than treating yourself to irresistible take-out. Thai cuisine particularly awakens my taste buds, never failing to satisfy a (weekly) craving for spicy food. At the beginning of my freshman year, I explored the UberEats app and searched for a restaurant that delivered one of my favorite dishes: Pad Thai. After carefully reviewing my options, I decided to order the Blazing Pad Thai from Four Spoons Thai Inspired Cuisine & Bar in Newton, Mass.. Since then, I have been hooked on this culinary whirlwind of a dish, ordering it almost every Friday evening.

My routine on Friday night is to plan out my assignments for the weekend, lie down on my bed, pull up UberEats on my phone, and order the Blazing Pad Thai with shrimp from Four Spoons. I am then immediately notified that the delivery will take about 45 minutes and I wait, impatiently though excitedly, for my meal to arrive. Once the container of Pad Thai finally sits on my desk, I open it and steam rises, overcoming my dorm room with the smell of garlic and chiles. Twirling my fork into the rice noodles and taking the first bite always gives me a rush, as the delicate and starchy noodles absorb the Four Spoons special sauce so beautifully. Every component of this dish ties together perfectly, creating an array of flavor and texture. The noodles and tangy sauce are stir-fried with eggs, chives, and Thai basil. The scrambled eggs melt in your mouth, the chives establish a strong onion flavor, and the Thai basil incorporates a fragrant pop. Topped with fresh bean sprouts and salty crushed peanuts, the dish employs a multifaceted crunchiness that complements the noodles’ soft texture. The pieces of shrimp mixed with the other ingredients are tender and juicy. What makes the sauce one of Four Spoons’ specialties must be its pungently aromatic taste, since the chiles and paprika consistently create a wonderful explosion in my mouth.

When I sit down and peacefully dig into Four Spoons’ Blazing Pad Thai on Friday nights, I am reminded that crafting spicy dishes that are not overwhelmingly hot is difficult. At first, the chiles in the sauce might make you break a sweat, but the neutralizing bean sprouts and sponge-like shrimp pieces even out the heat. The peanuts, chives, and eggs complement the spiciness with rich, savory accents. Basil ties the whole dish together, with its strong flavor reflecting that of licorice in the best way possible.

At the end of each academic semester, I am usually ready to return home to Florida, however, I recognize that I will not be able to order the Blazing Pad Thai at the other end of the east coast. Although this reality saddens me, it emphasizes the uniqueness of this meal and reminds me that I love this dish because of its originality and specific execution. There are not many food establishments that I regularly order from via UberEats as a college student, yet Four Spoons has been a staple for about two years now. Whether I am digging into Blazing Pad Thai by myself or surrounded by friends, it is always an honor to encounter true culinary talent when my soul needs it most. Over holiday breaks, I miss Four Spoons’ Blazing Pad Thai, which contributes to the anticipation of returning once breaks are over.

Freshman year was a pivotal time in my life, away from the comforts of home, including the food I was used to. Discovering Blazing Pad Thai from Four Spoons prompted a new culinary tradition in my life, paving the way for years of appreciation for a dish that seldom fails to fulfill my longing for skillfully prepared spicy food.

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Tapas Reflect Barcelona’s Captivating Essence

Traveling to Spain always attracted me growing up as I have Spanish heritage on both sides of my family and because the country itself exudes vibrancy, cultural richness, and culinary excellence. My Aunt “Lulu” and younger cousin Marcel are based in Barcelona, so I frequently pictured how enjoyable it would be to visit them and explore the city with their guidance and recommendations. I was never able to see this dream become a reality until summer 2016 when my parents gifted me a month-long trip to Barcelona for my fifteenth birthday. To say I was excited would have been an understatement. To visualize the wonder of a city for so many years is one thing, but to know that you are actually going to see it for the first time with loved ones is utterly thrilling and almost overwhelming. Traveling alone for the first time on an eight-hour flight intimidated me, but certainly did not overcome the joy I felt about immersing myself in Barcelona.

Barcelona is obviously the best place in the world to try tapas, and eating this type of cuisine was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my trip. Native to Spain, they are a culinary staple in the country and are served in numerous restaurants there. Tapas are small plates of savory foods, like snacks, which can be served either warm or cold. They come in many different forms, each bursting with flavor and leaving one wanting to try more. Looking back, it strikes me that so many of the specific tapas that I tried during that marvelous summer reflect unique elements and characteristics of Barcelona as a city.

Perhaps the most recurring tapa that I consumed while in the region of Catalonia was jamón serrano, or serrano ham, a dry-cured meat. Frequently served in extremely thin slices on top of crispy baguette pieces, serrano ham’s deep salty essence is a reminder of Barcelona’s rich history. The aging process for serrano ham can sometimes take years for optimal taste, highlighting the sense of tradition and dedication that goes into crafting this intense yet delicate expression of pork. 

The Barcelona Cathedral was one of the sites that I encountered while roaming the streets of Barcelona with my aunt and cousin, and it took my breath away upon a simple gaze. This building is a Roman Catholic, Gothic cathedral that was built between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. The distinctive style of architecture embodied by the Barcelona Cathedral reminds one that the (roughly) 800 years for which this building has been standing have only enhanced the impressive nature of its unique, intricate design. Similarly, serrano ham’s extensive dry curing process proves essential for developing its concentrated flavor.

Patatas bravas is another tapas dish that I savored during my visit and which reflected the city of Barcelona itself. Patatas bravas are fried potatoes with a spicy garlic aioli drizzled on top. The potatoes are crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, brought to life by the explosive tang of the bravas sauce. Eating patatas bravas in Barcelona means allowing spice to introduce another dimension of culinary delight to potatoes, which can be boring to eat if not accompanied or seasoned properly. The bravas sauce’s bright color, a combination of pink and orange, encapsulates the energized tones of red, orange, and yellow spread throughout Barcelona’s landscape. Exploring Barcelona means walking past countless buildings that consistently display these colors, radiating even more when hit by the summer sun. Dim colors rarely catch one’s eye when roaming the city, but rather a scenery of crimson, tangerine, and pastel yellow inspire one to revel in the beauty of travel and culinary appreciation. Patatas bravas show that a blank canvas (like potatoes) can be enlightened by a daring kick (spicy garlic aioli), much like the colorfully vibrant city of Barcelona.

Heading over to Barcelona, I did not expect the Spanish tapas dishes I tried to visibly and flavorfully capture elements of the city’s physical appearance and history. Apart from treasuring time spent with family members that live an eight-hour plane ride away, I learned during my trip to Spain that cultural foods like tapas do more than just utilize specific native ingredients. They magnify the splendor and essence of the city they originate from.

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Plantains Breed Delicious Creativity

According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, one of Ecuador’s top exports is bananas. In fact, Ecuador was the world’s largest exporter of bananas in 2019. When reflecting on Ecuadorian cuisine and its significance to me, I cannot help but fixate on one ingredient that graces a multitude of dishes: the plantain. Plantains are a type of banana characterized by their starchiness and firm texture. From maduros to patacones to bolones to tigrillos to chifles, plantains can be prepared in so many different, scrumptious ways. Ecuador is the South American country where my family is from, meaning that I have been there multiple times in my life and enjoyed the food of my culture alongside close relatives. Throughout the course of several years, my appreciation for plantains has drastically increased because of the creativity which Ecuadorians implement when crafting plantain-based delicacies. The particular delicacies which I most enjoy when visiting Ecuador are the bolón and tigrillo mixto from Café de Tere in Guayaquil, Ecuador. They are mouth-watering dishes that I look forward to eating with my loved ones every single time I travel to Ecuador. I cannot leave the country without doing so; it’s that simple.

Eating at Café de Tere is always a planned event that my grandmother and uncle help facilitate. We typically select a specific day to eat there, and on that day they drive me to this esteemed restaurant where we never fail to exchange laughs and smiles while recounting old, humorous memories over a spectacular breakfast. Upon arriving and parking, we head over to the ordering area outside and wait in line until our turn arrives. Café de Tere is such a popular culinary destination in Guayaquil that long lines are seldom unexpected. Routinely, I analyze the horizontal and bright yellow menu above my head, though I know exactly what my order will be once the cashier calls us forward: a bolón and a tigrillo mixto paired with orange juice. After placing our order, we make our way to an empty table outside and excitedly anticipate the arrival of our food.

Perhaps one of the reasons why I deeply savor plantains in the form of bolones and tigrillos has nothing to do with the dishes themselves, but the memories associated with eating them at Café de Tere with my grandmother and uncle. The restaurant’s outdoor setting allows us to relish in the blissful heat and breeze of Guayaquil. Before our food and drinks are even placed on our table, we have the opportunity to catch up with one another. We observe how busy the restaurant is and discuss how Café de Tere grew from a small business to an Ecuadorian empire; it’s inspiring to reflect on how well-prepared, culturally authentic food knows no limits when it comes to success. Café de Tere’s beautifully chaotic environment allows one to enjoy their food even more, given the restaurant’s bustling and community-based nature. Café de Tere’s sunshine yellow aura increases one’s excitement to eat plantains—the menu’s fundamental ingredient.

Eventually, our tray of food is brought to the table and my eyes meet the bolón and tigrillo mixto I ordered. Bolones are made by boiling plantains until they are tender and then mashing them to form balls or dumplings, which are then fried for a crispy exterior. White crumbly cheese is typically added to the plantain mash, which makes for velvety bolones once they are finished cooking. When I take the first bite, I experience the crunchiness of the outside and then immediately taste the simultaneously sweet and savory flavor of plantains. The smoothness of the mash merges wonderfully with the gooey consistency of the cheese, almost melting in my mouth. The cheese itself provides the dish with a pinch of saltiness, which contrasts with the aforementioned sweetness of plantains. The tigrillo mixto accompanies the bolón in a heavenly decadent fashion. 

Tigrillo mixto can be described as a deconstructed bolón, since it takes on a different form though it shares a few of the same ingredients. Tigrillo mixto also involves the mashing of boiled plantains and the inclusion of white crumbly cheese, though it is not served in the shape of a ball. Specifically, butter is heated on a pan and the plantain mash is added to that pan. Afterwards, the white crumbly cheese is stirred into the plantain mash. Once the cheese has softened, whisked eggs are incorporated. The eggs, once delicately scrambled, create a creamy and irresistible plantain mixture. Pieces of fried pork belly provide the finishing touch to tigrillo mixto. I transfer a morsel of this plantain, cheese, pork belly, and egg scramble from the plate to my mouth with a fork, watching the cheese expand before my eyes. The fried pork belly counteracts the creaminess of the cooked egg yolks with salty and crispy accents. Tender, scrambled egg whites establish another dimension of texture to tigrillo mixto, complementing the smoothness of plantains. The acidity of the orange juice wonderfully cuts through the starchiness of plantains.

I understand why bananas, and hence, plantains, are one of Ecuador’s highest exports: people from all over the world must crave the creativity and depth of flavor that plantains make possible in dishes like the bolón and tigrillo mixto. Plantains have the undeniable ability to reward gastronomic imagination and to spark a variety of ideas that exquisitely come to fruition. For those who value the combination of tradition and ingenuity in food like me, I cannot think of a better ingredient to appreciate than plantains. 

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Where Leadership and Almond Croissants Unite

It was a regularly scheduled Thursday night Zoom meeting for the Emerging Leader Program (ELP) at Boston College when almond croissants appeared on the horizon of our conversation. ELP is an organization for freshmen that helps build leadership skills through service and education. The program is overseen by Boston College’s wonderful Assistant Director for Leadership Development, Katherine Waxstein (affectionately known as “Kat”), while alternating groups of ten sophomore facilitators help guide and advise the first-year students. For the last eight months, I have had the privilege of serving as a sophomore facilitator for ELP. One of the features of ELP I most appreciate is its implementation of constant and intentional reflection, which never fails to spark meaningful discussions.

Every Thursday night from 6-8 p.m. this past year, the Leadership Team has gathered on Zoom to discuss programming updates, forthcoming events, and the general implications of our roles. We start every meeting by sharing our “highs and lows,” the best and worst moments/experiences that stood out to us from that week. This activity provides us with the extremely beneficial opportunity to catch up with each other, which allows us all to be on the same page and work effectively together. During one fateful Thursday meeting in the fall semester, Kat shared a high that irreversibly impacted me: she mentioned that every weekend, she visits a bakery in Boston where she orders an almond croissant. Eating an almond croissant at this bakery, she told us, has become an enjoyable ritual of her adult life. At that point in time, I had not yet eaten an almond croissant, but I internalized her words and decided that I eventually wanted to.

When I returned home to south Florida for winter break, I was ready to indulge in the flavorful array of food that my hometown had to offer. My mom eventually brought my attention to a new bakery that opened in town, Bonjour French Bakery and Cafe, tremendously praising its authentic French sweets. Trusting my mom’s judgement, I drove to Bonjour, where I was greeted by a cozy, vibrant, and welcoming French atmosphere. From cheesecake to crème brûlée to lemon pie, the desserts on display were an abundantly glorious sight. The time had come for me to choose what I wanted to try from this esteemed bakery, and I was at a loss: every single baked good looked fresh and visually stunning, like it was made with love. When my eyes lingered on the almond croissants, though, I immediately knew what my taste buds were going to encounter. I purchased one almond croissant to-go, and quickly headed home to take my first bite. Remembering Kat’s high from several weeks prior, I was ready to finally experience what she so thoroughly savored.

Photo Courtesy of Playing with Flour.

Based on mere appearance, the almond croissant was a joyous sight. The dough sported a striking golden shade, completely risen so that you could see each layer build upon the other. Powdered sugar elegantly accentuated the croissant’s color, mimicking the finest snow. The toasted almond topping tied every element of the croissant together, reminding me of its fundamental ingredient. Actually tasting the almond croissant, however, completely transcended the state of awe I was in solely based on its presentation. The crust had a buttery and almost savory flavor, accompanied by a crisp and flaky texture. Within the crust lived a delicately-risen dough, layered with care and flaunting deep buttery notes. Perhaps my favorite element of this croissant, though, was its creamy and decadent filling: almond paste. Evenly distributed across the entire croissant’s interior, the almond paste was smooth, rich, and balanced. The nutty flavor paired beautifully with its sweet undertones, both of which contrasted pleasantly with the saltiness of the croissant itself. The toasted almonds on top skillfully reinforced the flavors of the almond croissant, and introduced a pleasant crunch. Overall, the pastry was a magnificently scrumptious medley of almond flavor, bolstered by harmonious textures and subtly sweet accents.

Even though leadership and almond croissants seem like totally unconnected entities, they actually share several characteristics. As a participant and facilitator for ELP, I have learned that leadership is multilayered. It is much more than taking the initiative in a group project or speaking up first when presented with a question; leadership is about serving others, being a role model, staying true to your values, and holding yourself accountable to growth. In a similar fashion, almond croissants are certainly not just plain croissants with a few almonds sprinkled on top. The almond paste filling and the powdered sugar topping elevate this baked good to a point at which earthiness and sweetness delightfully merge. Leaders––like almond croissants––are multidimensional. 

Not only have almond croissants become one of my favorite hometown treats, but they have also taught me something valuable about life. Food offers more than just satisfaction for your stomach, or time to share with your family. Although these are important things, it is also imperative to recognize just how reflective food can be of personal endeavors. Since I have started college, leadership has become a passion of mine. Growing in this area involves motivating and guiding others to be the best versions of themselves, which has not only developed my own confidence but the confidence of those around me. Leadership is comforting, yet challenging; serious, but also light-hearted. It can be demanding, but exponentially rewarding. Leadership–in all its complexity–has grown close to my heart, likely contributing to my decision of purchasing an almond croissant at Bonjour Bakery and Cafe back home in Weston, Fla. Kat’s “high” inspired me to indulge in a baked good that proved to be tremendously fulfilling and enlightening, much like leadership itself.

Cover Photo Courtesy of Jeanie and Lulu’s Kitchen.

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Pumpkin vs. Apple Pie: A Battle?

No Thanksgiving food coma is properly induced without a generous slice(s) of pie. Americans eagerly anticipate Thanksgiving every November, and there is no question that food is a heavy, if not a quintessential, factor of the holiday. There’s turkey, stuffing, mac-n-cheese, sweet potato casserole—the dinner table seems endless. While reflecting this year on what I particularly look forward to eating every Thanksgiving day, I kept thinking about the one dessert that seldom fails to make it on the menu: pie. Now which kind is my favorite, you might inquire? That’s my dilemma: I do not know

Of all the things I treasure most about food, variety sits at the top of the list. Pie, specifically, can be prepared in a seemingly unlimited number of ways. When crafting this pastry, no fruit nor filling fails to disappoint—at least in my opinion. However, when deciding what my preferred type of pie is, my mind reaches a deadlock––pumpkin or apple? Both hold special places in my heart and my taste buds. In order to reach a solid conclusion about which one takes the throne, I have to engage in analysis. What qualities do both possess that I so thoroughly enjoy? Why is it so difficult to make a choice? Let’s discuss, shall we?

Image courtesy of Simply Recipes

Pumpkin pie is unmistakably decadent, unquestionably a Thanksgiving favorite. When you dig your fork into a slice of pumpkin pie, it’s quite mesmerizing to see your utensil glide through the smooth filling and gently cut through the flaky crust on the bottom. Upon having your first bite of pumpkin pie, you immediately get a wonderful kick of spice: a splendid mix of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground ginger. Pumpkin pie spice generates a lovely sense of warmth in your stomach, acquainting your taste buds with the pop of flavor that instills life into a dish. The focus of pumpkin pie filling is pumpkin puree, of course. The taste of pumpkin transports you to a state of autumnal paradise, characterized by pleasantly sweet and robust notes of flavor. Key to creating the creamy texture of pumpkin pie filling is sweetened condensed milk. Already delightful by itself, the sweetness of the condensed milk complements the pumpkin’s natural sweetness while also infusing the filling with a wonderfully-rich consistency. The pie crust’s importance need not be overlooked, as it provides a buttery and crisp contrast to the smooth filling, rounding out your eating experience with balanced textures. Indulging in custardy pumpkin pie is always one of the highlights of my Thanksgiving meal, as it never fails to deliver a powerful punch of seasonal deliciousness.

Apple pie offers a different eating experience in several ways. To be frank, apples of any kind are always enjoyable to eat because they present a fantastic combination of natural sweetness, acidity, crispness, and juiciness. These elements are perfectly embodied in apple pie. Apple pie filling is a bit more tedious to make than pumpkin pie filling, but it’s completely worth the effort. Medium-sized apple wedges are seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg, ground ginger, and brown sugar, which collectively add a dimension of spice to the sweetness of the apple slices. The filling is never complete without two key ingredients: lemon juice and flour. These might not automatically come to mind when thinking of apple pie, but they make a significant difference in the final product. Just a tad of lemon juice brilliantly accentuates the acidity of the apple wedges and the spices seasoning them while the flour acts as a thickening agent, merging with the lemon juice and moisture of the apples to create a sturdy sauce that binds the entire filling together. If baked correctly, the apple slices retain their firmness and equally showcase a tender and far-from-crunchy texture. The luscious spice sauce coats the apple wedges evenly, preserving the apples’ inherent sweetness and acidity while skillfully incorporating moisture into the pie. Since apple pie is typically baked with crust on the bottom and on the top, the first bite of apple pie opens with a buttery crunch and gradually moves on to a satisfactory freshness from the apples and warmth from the spices (strikingly similar to pumpkin pie). As a dessert, apple pie represents an unmatched fusion of tanginess and sweetness, of fresh produce and rich flavor.

The reason why it is so difficult for me to make a decision about my preferred form of pie is because pumpkin and apple pie each carry strengths that the other lacks. 

The smooth custard of pumpkin pie is simply not present in apple pie, though the latter offers an expansive variety of texture that pumpkin pie does not. It is virtually impossible to compare pumpkin and apple, as they only share sweetness: pumpkin has a pungent flavor while apples are subtly acidic. Despite their differences, pumpkin and apple pie are both extremely important menu items for me because their very entities radiate comfort and, as stated earlier, warmth. Thanksgiving is a holiday based on togetherness with family and friends, on giving thanks for the blessings that you have been granted, and on appreciating the way that food can symbolize the emotions associated with human connection. Resembling the way that family and friends can provide the comfort and warmth needed to endure these challenging times, pumpkin and apple pie do the same through their shared spices and overall delightfulness. If you asked me now what my favorite Thanksgiving pie is, then (after careful thought) my answer would be simple: both. Though that may seem like an inconclusive response, it is wholly honest. Both pumpkin and apple pie are Thanksgiving essentials in my book, it is impossible for me to make a choice. They are distinct enough to satisfy a craving for variety, yet they share an unmovable place in my family’s Thanksgiving menu. I cannot wait to indulge in both types of pie later this month, surrounded by my loved ones. Why should I have to make a choice in the first place? Why not both?

Cover photo courtesy of Taste of Home

Categories
Essays

A Personal Take on Food Network

As a kid, Food Network was my second Disney Channel. Immediately going for the couch and turning on Food Network was an essential part of my after-school routine years ago. For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to the kitchen. The creativity and care behind cooking intrigue me. In the grand scheme of things, meals are culinary visions that have come to fruition. What’s better than a network that consistently broadcasts these ideations? 

Giada at Home was energizing, yet relaxing. Chopped was an inspiring thriller. Worst Cooks in America was informatively hilarious. Something that I have always appreciated about Food Network is that it does not limit the scope of food. Its shows are hosted by a broad range of people who represent different cuisines and diverse personalities. The channel is a haven for culinary education and caters wonderfully to those who are interested in expanding their skills in the kitchen. My love of food is greatly attributed to my long-founded respect for Food Network. 

Two predominant categories characterize Food Network: one-on-one shows and competition shows. Both of these categories are uniquely valuable and provide viewers with distinct viewing experiences. One-on-ones are typically the most personal. They feature chefs who craft recipes while speaking to the audience, instructing viewers on following specific recipes. Helpful tips, step-by-step instructions, and reassurance permeate these programs. They are largely informational and, in my opinion, mainly meant for viewers watching at home to replicate the dishes they see on screen. Though not as entertaining as competition shows, one-on-one content is probably best for those who are trying to learn new cooking techniques. Barefoot Contessa and Giada at Home, examples of this Food Network genre, are shows in which the chefs/hosts address the audience as if they were friends absorbing their detailed suggestions. 

Photo courtesy of Barefoot Contessa

Competition shows differ tremendously. The dynamic of competitions typically follows a template––contestants are gathered to battle against each other for a grand cash prize. A fundamental component of competition shows are time limits, which elevate the intensity of battle and captivate the audience amidst chaos occurring on screen. Contestants are usually tasked with speedily preparing a dish with some sort of common theme or unifying element, which all participants are to abide by and individually interpret. The hosts of these shows are usually chefs themselves and provide knowledgeable commentary or instruction while the participants are frantically cooking. 

For example, Chopped successfully entices viewers by emphasizing both the harsh time constraints provided and the obscurity of the “mystery basket ingredients” which contestants are required to incorporate into their creations. The main purpose of competition shows on Food Network is to shed light on culinary determination; contestants on these shows sign up for personal reasons, whether it be to validate their careers, garner funds for their restaurants, or learn more about the art of cooking. Competition shows engage audience members by portraying heightened concentration among contestants, spontaneous creativity, and hunger for victory. By watching competition shows, I have learned that properly preparing a dish requires extensive precision. Judges are essential to competition shows, as they ultimately decide the winners of challenges based on performance. With their refined palettes, judges in this genre inevitably pinpoint the flaws or shortcomings that they observe in the participants’ creations. Minor mistakes send contestants home, reminding viewers that cooking is an art: in the kitchen, success mandates care and attentiveness.

Despite their differences, both Food Network styles embody the passion that food entails. On virtually any show on this channel, you find people who love being present in the kitchen so much that they feel compelled to share this profound enjoyment on a large platform. Whether you diligently take notes as Ina Garten explains her grilled cheese’s special ingredient, or you hold your breath as Bobby Flay hurriedly plates his entrée on Iron Chef America, it is obvious that Food Network shows are collectively meant to illuminate the innovative nature of gastronomy. On this channel, food is utilized as a vehicle for creative expression, and it knows absolutely no limits. What kept me so engaged with Food Network as a child, I believe, was the fact that I learned something new every single day. One day, I found out that pasta water is a thickening agent in sauces, another day I was instructed on how to dice an onion. The constant learning that I experienced endowed me with the insight that one never stops gathering knowledge about food. Nifty tips, recipes, and techniques know no boundaries. 

Photo courtesy of Entertainment Weekly

Presently, I do not watch Food Network as often as I used to. I attribute this unfortunate decreased investment to my busy schedule, which involves less time to keep up with what’s new on the channel. However, I still keep up with Worst Cooks in America because of how humorous (and empowering) it is to watch clueless recruits grow as cooks and acquire new skills. 

Reflecting now on the impact that Food Network has had on my life, I can confidently say that the channel has taught me just how influential food is. By that, I mean that food has the power to touch the lives of so many people. The reasons behind food’s vast influence are the various individuals who can approach it their own way. As I alluded to before, assorted cuisines and differing personalities encompass food’s interpretation. Food Network shows represent such a wide array of cooking styles that audience members are bound to find at least one show on the channel that is relevant to their own cooking styles or kitchen experiences. On another note, watching shows that explore unfamiliar cuisines propel viewers to expand their realms of taste and share newfound recipes with family and friends. Tuning into Food Network means immersing yourself into a world of gastronomic spirit and divergent perspectives. Throwing yourself onto a couch and dialing the channel number on your remote is only the beginning: Food Network is a mindset changer.