Culinary Adventures: Chinese Five Spice Cupcakes

Chinese five spice cupcakes with ginger frosting: A fun Eastern twist on the classic carrot cake, perfect for Chinese New Year.

Some friends of ours throw an annual Chinese New Year party every year, complete with all kinds of dumplings and delicious Chinese food. I wanted to bring something unique to add to the buffet table, and after a little internet searching came up with this Chinese five spice cupcakes recipe from SavorySpiceShop.com. It basically takes the classic carrot cake recipe and adds the twist of Chinese five spice and crushed pineapple. The pineapple didn’t add a strong flavor, but gave it a subtle tangy sweetness that complimented the five spice very well.

Ingredients:

  • For cupcakes:

  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 3/4 tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. Chinese five spice
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup crushed pineapple, drained
  • 3 x eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 cups shredded carrots (about 3-4 medium sized carrots)

**For the shredded carrots I took the easy route and used a bag of julienned carrots and chopped them up into smaller pieces. You don’t want the carrot shreds to be too large, otherwise they may not cook all the way through.

Directions:

For cupcakes: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 12-cup muffin pan with paper cupcake liners. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and Chinese five spice. In another large bowl, whisk together vegetable oil, crushed pineapple, eggs, sugar, vanilla extract and carrots. Then slowly add the flour mixture and beat with an electric hand mixer until just combined, about 2 min. Fill the muffin cups ¾ full with batter. Bake until the Chinese five spice cupcakes are set, about 20 to 22 min. When they can be handled safely, remove them from the muffin tins and let cool completely on wire racks before frosting.

Chinese five spice cupcakes
Chinese five spice cupcakes
Chinese five spice cupcakes
Chinese five spice cupcakes
  • For frosting:

  • 1 x 8oz packet cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 tsp. ground ginger (see my note below)
  • 3 cups powdered sugar

**I used the ground ginger as the recipe stated, and found that I couldn’t taste it at all after it was blended in. I added about a tablespoon or so of pureed ginger (found in the refrigerated produce area next to the fresh herbs–it comes in a tube) and it really made the frosting perfect.

For frosting: In a large bowl, add the cream cheese, butter, vanilla and ground ginger. Blend the ingredients with an electric hand mixer until a creamy consistency is reached, while slowly adding the powdered sugar.

I piped the frosting onto the Chinese five spice cupcakes using a large decorating tip, and topped them with red sugar sprinkles and a fortune cookie. The fortune cookies looked and tasted great, but towards the end of the evening they began to absorb the moisture from the frosting and lost their crispness.

Chinese five spice cupcakes
Chinese five spice cupcakes
Chinese five spice cupcakes
Chinese five spice cupcakes

 

Overall I think this Chinese five spice cupcakes recipe is a keeper. Happy Chinese New Year!

Chinese New Year

 

How To Use a Squat Toilet

If you travel to a small town in Southeast Asia or anywhere off the beaten western tourist path, you’ll eventually encounter a squat toilet.

(Travel tip excerpt from our Thailand trip post)

We encountered  several squat toilets throughout our Thailand travels. Ladies, I know it looks a little intimidating. In case you are super confused right now, I’m going to tell you what to do:

1. Face the back of the stall (don’t turn around like you would with a western toilet, I tried that and things got a little…splashy).

2. Put your feet on the flat sides of the squat toilet that look like maxipad wings

3. Gather up all your skirts into a wad (this is where long flowy hippy skirts can be a help or hinderance, depending on how you look at it), pull down your underwear and squat. Hold your underwear out of the way so it doesn’t get sprayed.

4. Do your business. Hopefully you brought your own toilet paper–don’t expect any in Thai public restrooms. Some restrooms have someone selling it for 5 baht outside the bathroom. Don’t flush the toilet paper, put it in the waste basket.

5. Flush the squat toilet manually by dipping the bucket into the water trough next to the toilet and pouring it into the toilet until it is clear.

6. Wash your hands…there might not be soap so a travel size hand sanitizer is also a recommendation for your purse.

It got easy after a few times. Just imagine peeing in the woods but aiming in a very specific spot. As for sanitation, not having to sit on a public toilet seat was kind of nice, and I’ll take the squat toilet over an outhouse or pit toilet any day.

 

How to use a squat toilet
Squat Toilet in Chanthaburi, Thailand

 

Our Most Romantic Getaways

Our most romantic getaways: In honor of Valentine’s Day we’d like to share our most romantic trips, and what we think makes a great couples’ getaway

 

I’ll try to keep the cheese-factor to a minimum on this post. But Valentine’s Day is this week, and I thought I’d share our most romantic vacations and what made them romantic. Every couple needs getaways. A chance to leave your day-to-day life, have a new adventure together, and focus on quality time with each other without the stress and distractions of home and work. Here are our best romantic getaways to give you some ideas to plan yours:

1. Camping at Sol Duc, Olympic National Park

Camping at Sol Duc Campground Olympic National Park
Camping at Sol Duc Campground

So, this is our number one most romantic getaway because we got engaged on this trip. However, it was a really perfect romantic weekend in general and I couldn’t have asked for a better engagement.

Sol Duc is deep within Olympic National Park, many miles from any civilization of any kind. We got kind of a late start getting the ferry over there in the afternoon, and lucked out with one of the last open camp sites (the campground is first come, first served). We were originally there to celebrate our 7 year dating anniversary.

It was July, and the weather was perfect. We built a campfire, had hot dogs and baked beans and champagne for dinner.

romantic getaways Sol Duc Campground Olympic National Park
Paddy getting the campfire going
romantic getaways camping with champagne
Popping open the champagne and plastic coffee mugs

The next day we hiked Sol Duc Falls and the appropriately titled “Lover’s Lane” trail through the rainforest. There were a lot of people at the falls, but we only saw one other couple the entire time we were on the 6 mile Lover’s Lane trail that looped back to the campground. It was a gorgeous hike, and so peaceful in the rainforest. We pretty much had the forest all to ourselves.

Sol Duc Falls Olympic National Park romantic getaways
Sol Duc Falls
Lover's Lane trail Olympic National Park romantic getaways
Lover’s Lane trail

When we got back to the campground, we relaxed in the tent awhile after the long hike and then made dinner again and sat around the campfire watching the stars. Paddy got down on one knee by the campfire and proposed with an Irish claddagh ring that he had spontaneously purchased at the Sol Duc gift shop the day before. It was a total surprise and one of the best days of my life.

Our gift shop engagement rings
Our gift shop engagement rings

Aside from our engagement, what made this trip romantic was the peacefulness of the forest and campground, being so far from civilization (aside from the nearby campground store and Sol Duc Hot Springs cabin resort), and spending some alone time hiking in the rainforest with barely anyone else around. We are considering going back for our 5 year wedding anniversary this summer.

**Note: Sol Duc is first come-first served and very popular in the summer. On weekends in July and August arriving Thursday night or early Friday morning is recommended to get a camp spot. The ranger at the entrance station at the beginning of the road to Sol Duc can give you an idea of how many spots are left before you drive all the way down there. Rain gear highly recommended at any time of the year.

2. Our honeymoon in Tahiti and French Polynesia

Obviously, our honeymoon is going to be on this list. I have a couple more detailed posts about this trip if you are considering visiting French Polynesia, so I will keep this short.

Our honeymoon was full of adventure on the islands of Tahiti, Taha’a, and Bora Bora. Of all the adventures we had, the most romantic were definitely the little beach bungalow on the tiny motu island off of Taha’a, and the overwater bungalow at the Intercontinental Resort in Bora Bora.

Tahiti Bora Bora honeymoon romantic getaways
On a boat outside the overwater bungalows at the Intercontinental Bora Bora. Photo by Bora Bora Photo Lagoon
Snorkeling in Bora Bora honeymoon romantic getaways
Snorkeling in Bora Bora. Photo by Bora Bora photo lagoon
Our overwater bungalow at the Intercontinental Bora Bora honeymoon
Our overwater bungalow at the Intercontinental Bora Bora

While the overwater bungalow in Bora Bora was phenomenal and what we looked forward to the most while planning our honeymoon, I think that the romance factor was actually a bit higher in the tiny beach bungalow on the Taha’a motu. It was very secluded, with only (9?) bungalows, gourmet meals every night cooked by the French couple who owned the place, and a lovely European continental breakfast each morning. We read books, kayaked around the lagoon, swam in the lagoon right in front of our bungalow, took a tour to the main island of Taha’a for the day, and spent a good amount of time just sitting and watching the sea from our porch.

Remote motu beach Tahaa romantic getaways
Remote Robinson Crusoe experience on the Taha’a motu
honeymoon champagne Tahaa Tahiti romantic getaways
honeymoon champagne waiting for us on our porch at arrival
Our bungalow on the Tahaa motu Tahiti honeymoon romantic getaways
Our bungalow on the Taha’a motu
Our bungalow on the Taha'a motu Tahiti honeymoon romantic getaways
Our bungalow on the Taha’a motu
Tahiti honeymoon romantic getaways
Nothing to listen to at night but the lapping waves and the chirping geckos.

It was an amazing honeymoon, and we couldn’t have asked for anything better.

 

3. Tulum, Mexico

We spent a week in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico shortly after we got engaged in 2009. It was September, and scorching hot. We wouldn’t go back in September again. However, because it was the low season there were no crowds in Isla Mujeres (the island we spent three nights on), or in Tulum.

Tulum was the most romantic, for sure. We stayed in a tiny rustic bungalow that had no electricity in the day time, right on the best beach we’ve ever been to. The sand was like powdered sugar and the water was electric blue. No coral in the water made for soft sand and perfect swimming. The best part: most of the time we had this beach entirely to ourselves.

romantic getaways secluded Tulum beach Mexico
Tulum beach
romantic getaways secluded Tulum beach Mexico
Relaxing at Tulum Beach near our bungalow
romantic getaways secluded Tulum beach Mexico
Tulum Beach
Our bungalow on Tulum beach romantic getaways
Our bungalow on Tulum beach
romantic getaways secluded Tulum beach Mexico
Solitude in Tulum on an evening beach stroll

We ate dinner most nights at the little on-site restaurant, where the Argentinian owner cooked us whatever he got fresh that day. It was fantastic. We’ve been aching to go back, but it appears that this place is no longer in business. There are many other little places like it on Tulum Beach though, so I’m sure we’ll find somewhere else great. Someday, but not again in September.

 

4. Cannon Beach, Oregon

Cannon Beach is one of our all-time favorite winter romantic getaways. We’ve never gone in the summer–high prices and kids and crowds keep us at bay. We’re a bit more into the woods and mountains and rainforest in the summer.

Aside from the stunningly beautiful beach, there are quite a few good restaurants and little shops all within walking distance of most hotels. Seaside is just a short drive away, as are other locations on the coast for day tripping.

romantic-getaways Cannon Beach, Oregon
Cannon Beach, Oregon
romantic-getaways Cannon Beach, Oregon
Cannon Beach, OR

Our favorite hotel is the Hallmark Inn, and our favorite room type is the Southwest View King with a fireplace and deck with a direct view of Haystack Rock. You can hear the ocean at night even with the deck door closed, staying cozy warm by the fireplace. There are other rooms available as well with views, some with jacuzzi tubs.

romantic-getaways Cannon Beach, Oregon
View from room, Cannon Beach, OR
romantic-getaways Cannon Beach, Oregon
Cannon Beach, OR
romantic-getaways Cannon Beach, Oregon
Cannon Beach, OR

Our favorite restaurant there for a nice, romantic gourmet meal is Newmans at 988. The food and service are phenomenal, and the restaurant is located in an old house. We’ve had a couple romantic getaways at Cannon Beach, it’s one of our all-time favorite spots.

 

I think that all of our getaways and adventures include “romance” but the above four are the top four romantic adventures in our memories. I think the ingredients to great romantic getaways are solitude/alone time, a beautiful natural setting, and an element of adventure. After 13 years together, we both believe that adventure and learning and growing together is one of the cornerstones of a great relationship. You don’t have to go to Morocco or spend a fortune to have an adventure together. Adventures could include a dance class, a great hike, or trying Ethiopian food for the first time. Take time away from daily life, make time for each other, and have some fun.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

 

 

Traveling with Motion Sickness

Travel tips for people who get motion sickness

 

Motion sickness is a plague upon my life. Growing up, my Dad cleaned a lot of barf up off the side of the family station wagon on our summer road trips through the Cascade Mountains. I thought it was something I’d outgrow eventually. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Motion sickness gets worse with age. For anyone who likes to travel like I do, it can be a pretty severe handicap and ruin an otherwise great adventure.

I am determined to have many adventures involving moving boats, planes, trains, and automobiles. I have accepted that I will never be able to be on a ship or small to medium ocean-going boat for extended periods of time. I would not attempt a fishing trip, but I may take a cruise to Alaska someday. The smaller the craft, the worse it is. I even get seasick floating in an inner-tube on a wavy lake.

If you’re someone who has suffered from motion sickness your whole life like I have, I probably don’t have to tell you that reading in a moving vehicle is a bad idea. However, here are some tips based on things I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way)

1. If you are in a country where you feel comfortable renting a car, do it and be the driver

motion sickness winding roads in Ireland
Driving on a narrow road on the Dingle Peninsula, Ireland

The number of countries I feel comfortable renting a car in are few, and mostly in Europe. Driving in a foreign country can be pretty stressful and scary, but if the only reason you aren’t sure about renting a car is the cost, you should go for it. Not only will you see so much more at your own pace, but you can be the driver and guarantee that you won’t be miserable the whole time through those windy coastal roads and mountain passes. It might be more expensive, but think about the overall trip experience.

In Ireland, we went on one tour bus day trip to Northern Ireland from Dublin, which was a long day on a bus. I spent most of the day being car sick despite taking Dramamine, and having to decide constantly which was worse–being nauseous or sleeping and missing the awesome scenery on the windy coastal roads. In hind sight, we should have skipped it and gone on a day trip closer to Dublin. We rented a car to explore the rest of the country, and had a fantastic rest of the trip.

2. Only sign up for short boat rides, and ALWAYS take motion sickness medicine at least an hour beforehand, even if it will make you sleepy.

Long-tail boat ride in Thailand motion sickness
Long-tail boat ride in Thailand

I’ve made the wrong decision a few times on whether or not to take a “less-drowsy” Dramamine before going on a snorkel trip, and have resolved never to go without medicine again. Bear in mind that motion sickness medicine has to have time to kick in. Be sure to take it at least an hour before you get on the boat. And regardless of your preparations, most of the time anti- motion sickness medicine will only be so effective in a small, rocking boat. Try not to plan for a long boat trip or one that involves a lot of floating instead of speeding forward, you might seriously regret it.

3. Show up early for public transportation with open seating.

If you are taking a bus or a train, show up early and try to be in the front of the line for boarding. That way you can be sure to get a window seat or seat at the front of the bus, and avoid any seats facing backwards. If you don’t make it before the crowd despite your best efforts, and the only seats left are facing backwards, try to explain to anyone in a forward facing seat nearby that you will get sick if you sit in the backward seat. They might have the same problem, but there might be someone who doesn’t get motion sick willing to switch. It’s awkward, but not as awkward as throwing up on the train. And trust me, if it’s a long ride and you’re sitting backwards, you will barf.

Bus in Thailand motion sickness
Bus in Thailand

 

 4. Bring music, and zone out on the passing scenery on a bus or train trip.

If you don’t plan on sleeping on your bus or train trip (sleeping not advised if you need to be alert to when your stop is or if there is a likelihood of purse/baggage theft), bring an ipod or phone with a good amount of music to listen to. Keep your brain alert and focus on the passing scenery outside. Do not focus on anything inside the vehicle.

Mountains in Tahiti motion sickness
Mountains in Tahiti

 

5. Always bring a thick plastic bag just in case

When we were in Costa Rica, we had to take a bus from San Jose to La Fortuna, which was a five hour bus ride. Our local friend warned us that it gets busy and to get there early to get a good seat. It gets so packed that people stand in the isles.

I figured I was doing everything right: We got in line early, I got a window seat next to a huge window that opened, I had my ipod, and I was ready to go. My biggest concern was having to pee…there are no bathrooms on the bus either, and I have a small bladder. I didn’t drink any coffee and drank minimal water. On the way out the door to the bus station, I grabbed a thick plastic shopping bag and threw it in my backpack, just in case.

Miraculously, I didn’t need to pee. I was fine for the first 2.5 hours, enjoying my ipod, keeping a grip on my backpack so no one would take it, Dramamine be damned. The scenery was great.

Unfortunately, queasiness set in. I had been too focused on the beautiful scenery to notice that we were ascending and descending a windy mountain pass. I popped a Dramamine but it was too late. I held out for as long as I could until I realized I was going to throw up, no question about it. I made use of the plastic shopping bag I’d brought and spent the rest of the bus ride holding a bag of my vomit, so thankful I had brought it. Fortunately, it didn’t leak.

I now pack extra zip lock bags when I travel….you never know. Better safe than sorry.

The Arenal Volcano in La Fortuna, Costa Rica motion sickness
The Arenal Volcano in La Fortuna, Costa Rica

 

A review of motion sickness medicines:

From everything I’ve tried, I’ve found that there is no such thing as a motion sickness medicine that doesn’t make you at least a little drowsy. Sometimes I want to be drowsy, so I’ll pop an original formula Dramamine on a long plane ride.

Most of the time, I’m having fun and want to be alert to enjoy the adventure–a snorkel trip, scenic 4 x 4 jeep safari through the Tahiti interior, a ferry ride to Phi Phi island in Thailand, or just floating on an air mattress with my besties on a hot summer day in Lake Washington, Seattle. For these activities, the two medications I use the most are Bonine (meclizine) and Less-Drowsy Dramamine (Dimenhydrinate). Both need to be taken at least an hour before your activity.

Motion sickness highly recommended before a 4 x 4 jeep safari!
Motion sickness medicine highly recommended before a 4 x 4 jeep safari!

I asked my doctor if there were any other alternatives in the prescription world. She prescribed Transderm Scop patches (scopolamine). She said you can wear them for three days (applied behind your ear) and that they hand them out to people on cruise ships and are also used by fishermen.

I was stoked. I brought it along to a camping trip on Lake Wenatchee where we planned on floating on a big raft in the lake. You are supposed to put it on three hours before your activity, so I put it on first thing in the morning. I put it on before putting in my contacts, and I later learned that you should not touch your eyes after touching the patch without several thorough hand washings. This is what happened:

transderm scop eye problems motion sickness

The same thing happened to a friend of mine on her trip to Belize but her eye was super swollen and they thought something was really wrong. It went back to normal after she took the patch off.

In addition to the weird eye thing, I lost my appetite, and felt like I was high on painkillers or some sort of downer drug. I was lethargic, and not very social. I didn’t get sick on the raft, but I wasn’t having much fun either. I had a beer after dinner and it made me super sleepy and anti social. I took the patch off and haven’t used one since. I would try it again if I was going to be on a long bus ride through the mountains or on a boat for an extended period of time, but it wasn’t a great experience. It probably effects people differently, so it might be a good solution for you. If you don’t have prescription coverage on your insurance, be warned that they are expensive.

I have another friend who says sucking on ginger or ginger pills helps him, and I’ve heard mixed reviews about that acupressure bracelet thing. I’m too afraid to try them and have them not work. If you’re someone with bad motion sickness problems who has tried that bracelet and it worked, please let me know!