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Happy Holidays!

Wishing all of you a wonderful holiday season and merry celebrations.  As I was going through some of my boxes a few weekends ago (I still have not unpacked them all!), I came across some old cookbooks and Food & Wine Magazines I’ve saved for their stellar recipes.  As many of you know, I love to bake during the holidays and serve as the family head chef for the big dinners.  One of my absolute favorite recipes is from a December 1992 F&W Magazine article on holiday parties.  So here’s my small gift to you this year, the ultimate, the delicious, the amazing:




Makes 80 bite-sized brownies

2 pounds milk chocolate chips or chopped milk chocolate

1/4 cup instant coffee granules

2 sticks (1/2 pound) unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 cups sugar

8 eggs

3 tablespoons vanilla extract

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups flour


1. Preheat over to 375°. Lightly grease four 8-inch square foil cake pans.

2. Place the chocolate and coffee in a double boiler over simmering water. Stir occasionally until the chocolate melts.

3. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the butter until fluffy. Gradually beat in the sugar, scraping down the sides as necessary. Beat in the eggs, two at a time, beating until the mixture is pale yellow, about 3 minutes. Stir in the vanilla, cinnamon and salt, then carefully beat in the the melted chocolate and coffee mixture until combined. Beat in the flour; you may have to finish this by hand.

4. Scrape the batter into the prepared pans. Bake for 35 minutes, until puffed, cracked and slightly resistant to the touch. Let cool on a rack, then cover and refrigerate overnight. To serve, cut each cold brownie square in 20 pieces.


Seriously – these are the BEST brownies I have ever had! I hope you enjoy making them and more so, eating them!  They go great with coffee! ;p  And if you really want to kick it up a notch, you can top each brownie with a dollop of chocolate frosting and a chocolate-covered espresso bean. Divine! Happy Holidays everyone!

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!  I hope you are all having a wonderful holiday with your family and friends.  Coming home this month was really good timing, I think.  Most folks are in holiday mode, not a lot of work is getting done, and it seems more than appropriate to just chill out this month than to worry too much about getting settled in and what not.

It’s been awhile since I’ve been home for Christmas.  During the five years in Japan, I was home just once.  It was a lesson learned, as the airports were ridiculous (especially LAX) and most people were too busy with holiday plans to squeeze in a visit.  After that year, I either traveled or simply stayed in Japan and prepared for the New Year.

After I returned from Japan, I spent Christmas of 2007 here in San Diego.  But by the next year, I was off in Vietnam and spent the last two in Hanoi.

My parents love the holiday and they decorate the front yard with lots of lights and winter scenes. We have penguins sledding down the 2nd story balcony, an ensemble of critters riding a holiday ferris wheel, little snowmen lining the grass and a big polar bear wishing you a happy holiday.

The inside of the house is also decked out with fake snow in the living room and lots of Christmas critters, which NiNi finds fun to play with. One day, she determined that the Christmas bear was hungry. And so my parents helped her put some cookies in front of the bear.  When she wasn’t looking, my dad took a bite out of the cookies.  Imagine her surprise when she discovered that the bear could eat!

One of my other favorite things about Christmas is the cooking and baking.  I’ve baked dozens and dozens of cookies this year and tonight we enjoyed the lasagna I usually make for the occasion.  I love being in the kitchen, but have eaten far too many cookies already!  They are too yummy!

But by far, the favorite part of the evening was watching my niece open her presents.  She’s 2 1/2 and very expressive.  Her first present was an zebra print track suit of sorts.  She opened it up and exclaimed, “OOooooh! An outift! I LOVE it!”  And then she held it up and showed us all and did that little wiggle that little kids do when they are happy, excited and can hardly contain themselves.

I’m glad I made it back in time for the festivities.  I hope I started a new tradition of being here instead of missing it all!



A very Sapa Christmas

Well, I’m afraid to say that Christmas is officially over.  I returned to Hanoi in the wee hours of this morning on the overnight train from Sapa.  The ride back to Hanoi was much smoother than the ride up to Sapa.  Coming home, I had both Pete and Duc in a private cabin, and one which was pretty luxurious compared to others.  In 2008, when I traveled back to Hanoi from Sapa, I suffered a horrendous amount of bed bug bites, some of which, after getting severely infected, still scar my legs. Because of this, I’m not a big fan of overnight trains (go figure!).

On the way up to Sapa last Wednesday, though, I had new friend Duc with me, and two strangers in the cabin.  At some point in the evening, I was in dream mode, but had a frightening nightmare which entailed some creepy man trying to move me over to share my bed.  It was all too realistic and relevant to my situation, and so the crazy dream led me to scream in my sleep, startling my fellow cabin mates.  I was a bit embarrassed, but the face and hand gestures of the man on the bed across from me, left me to giggle softly after I had recovered from the nightmare.  See….travel is FUN!!!

Once in Sapa, I was met with blue skies and unusually warm weather.  Normally it’s about 5 degrees Celcius, but we enjoyed about 25 degree weather in the day. After arriving in the early morning and getting settled, we headed out to the valley for a very easy walk through the village.  The Hmong and/or Red Dao ladies love to walk along with you, in hoped that you’ll buy something from them.  They make hand-embroidered purses, sell silver bracelets and other trinkets.  But they also get a chance to practice their English, which is pretty good.

I had a nice chat with Thang (?) who told me she was 26 years old and mother to two children.  That was it for her. Unlike her mother who had ten.  Whoah!  She has one boy and one girl and feels blessed. She could understand difficult English such as, “Are you the oldest or youngest among your brothers and sisters?”  I always enjoy speaking to the locals and learning about their life, I just don’t enjoy the hard sales pitch at the end of the walk!  But it was fun and we all enjoyed the great weather!  Mountain air is soooo refreshing!

Christmas Eve, Duc, Pete and I enjoyed a lovely hot pot for dinner and thought of creative names for Pete’s new company.  When you are trying to find a twist on meanings, it helps to have an internet connection.  We laughed our butts off with some of the phrases we came up with and also some of the new words we learned; synonyms to words we were pondering.

Christmas Day was a lazy one and we took a drive through the mountains and stared over the beautiful valleys.  It was my first time to see the peak of Mt. Fansipan.  I’ve been challenged to climb it, but am told it is more difficult than Mt. Fuji.  Hmm….we’ll have to see how I feel in July or August!

Christmas Day night was the big dinner at the restaurant.  The local minority children arrived just before 6pm and then filed into the restaurant to grab a seat.  This was the part of Christmas I couldn’t wait for.  Pete and Sapa Rooms Boutique Hotel are very involved in the local communities.  In addition to his partnership with Ma Cha school, he also does a Sunday Soup program for the local children and feeds about 80 kids each week on average.  He distributes lots of donated clothing to some of the most rural areas; these are places where most of the kids run naked for lack of anything.

The Christmas program provided all the kids a meal and a present, which was either clothing or school supplies, or a combination of the two.  You can see some photos of the dinner and more HERE.

The day after Christmas, we took the remaining presents into TaPhin village where the Red Dao tribe lives.  The presents went quickly, as it was the mothers and grandmothers who were there to accept…the kids were all having lunch at home when we arrived.  We also spent some time hiking around and then to the medicinal baths.  Being the only chick, I was alone in my little room in a wooden tub, but it was so relaxing and rejuvenating…I really enjoyed the hot herbal water.  Awesome.

The train ride back to Hanoi came all too quickly.  As I’ve written and as you know, Pete is one of my most favorite people ever and I am so delighted I could spend this special holiday with him at his hotel in Sapa and spend a wee bit of time with the local people.  It was a great Christmas and one of my fondest memories of Vietnam to date.  Hope you all had a great holiday!  I’ll look forward to seeing your updates on Facebook!

Now – let’s get ready to ring in the New Year!  Hello 2010!!!


A little Red Dao boy. – There are about 7 ethnic minorities in the Sapa area. It is such an interesting part of Vietnam!  I’m glad I got to take a peek for a weekend and for a very special Christmas!

A time for giving

I spent most of today out and about in town shopping for warm socks, knit hats and mittens.  While the temperatures have dropped a bit in Hanoi, the shopping spree was for small little people who I will meet in Sapa at Christmas time.

I’m headed to the very North of Vietnam for the holiday, spending the occasion with Pete and friends.  Our festivities will include giving warm clothing to young ones who don’t have the proper gear to face the cold winter.  We’ll also serve them a proper dinner and give them as much Christmas cheer as we can!  I’m also going to bring some notebooks and colored pencils, because I think no matter what, kids love to have a toy or a coloring book for fun.

The mall was crowded today, I should have known.  The very random Christmas displays outside the center were the biggest draw.  Children, young girls posing sexy and whole families had their picture taken with big, fake presents and ugly snowmen in the background.  It was the tackiest display I’ve ever seen!

My drive to and from the mall was a good dose of sightseeing in Hanoi.  Honestly, I don’t get out much, and I know all to well the sights on offering on the road between my house and office.  It was good to see some other parts of life in the streets.  You know, the motorbikes with sliced-open pigs thrown over the seat, bus drivers openly peeing in public, and women holding their pantless children over the gutter so they can poop.  Sundays are good for a bit lighter traffic, and some of the traffic lights are even turned off, opening the streets up for a special game of chicken in major intersections.

One of the things I really can’t stand is that when you go into a shop in Vietnam, one of the shop keepers will stay on your heels and follow you around, readjusting anything you touch.  They don’t do this for Vietnamese customers, of course, only we foreign folks because, you know – we just can’t be trusted.  I don’t mind so much when its a nice store, but when I am in the Citimart hunting through a bin of discount underwear, mittens and socks, no adjustment to the merchandise is needed!  I also get a little peeved when other shoppers stop to watch me.  Is it really that exciting to watch me pick out socks?

Anywhoo – I’m excited to power though the next few days and then get on that train to Sapa to celebrate Christmas with one of my favoritest people and put smiles on some very cute and tiny faces. That part will be the best and I can’t wait to share pictures with you!  Merry Christmas!



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