Tianjin….Again

Tianjin again

I’m sure you’ve all been wondering what hotel breakfasts are like in China.

Ok, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but just in case you’ve been wondering, I’ve got answers for you.

First thing? They’re quite a bit different than American style hotel breakfasts. Yeah, they kind of look the same: gleaming chafing dishes, a tray full of bread, a refrigerator with yogurt in it. But there the resemblance ceases.

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Those trays of orange and green?

First of all, for fresh fruit they had watermelon, which, while not too unusual, isn’t exactly standard breakfast fare in the West. On the other side, they had a tray of sliced cucumber–again, not exactly standard.

For main dishes, instead of the ubiquitous breakfast cereal to be found in America, they had fried rice, scrambled egg and tomato, meat-filled dumplings, boiled greens, and fried cucumbers. (Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture of that angle of the buffet!)

But the really interesting part was the condiments.

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You see that right–that’s all kinds of different fermented vegetables + soybeans.

I think Americans might just keel over and die if they were expected to eat that for breakfast. Other, than, of course, people like my mother, who cheerfully (mostly) eats sauerkraut every morning for breakfast. I’m pretty sure she skips the kimchi and fermented banana peppers, though.

Anyways, enough food. I’m sure your stomachs are all growling now with that kind of description.

We also saw this weird house in Tianjin (apparently one of the things it’s famous for) made completely out of pottery. It’s called the China House or something.

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Looks a little poky, doesn’t it?

It made me think of fairy tales–can’t you just imagine an evil witch living in who lures children to her with all her fancy baubles on the outside of her house?

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It was busy, too.

Think Hansel and Gretel, but with pretty blue vases instead of food. And I assure you, it looked even more strange in person.

After that, we went to church in this beautiful historic building, which had too many trees in the way to take a good picture of. But I tried.

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St. Joseph’s Cathedral

Apparently every brick was imported from France to make this building–I’m not sure why Chinese bricks wouldn’t have worked just as well, though.

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The interior (slightly crooked, of course)

And, like all western-style things built in China, it was painted a somewhat gaudy combination on the inside, though maybe this one is more attributable to the French. It’s been a while since I’ve studied my architecture, but I seem to remember something about Baroque and pre-Baroque architecture looking something like this in France, only fancier.

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Domes and vaulting.

The blue and yellow did help to keep it light and airy feeling inside.

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The organ!

And, of course, they had a pipe organ. Unfortunately, however, they seemed to have nobody to play the organ, so they settled for an electronic keyboard at the front of the church. It seems to me, though, that if you have a pipe organ in a place like China where there are extremely few, you ought to try to find someone to play it or teach others to play it. Hopefully they will in the future.

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The dome from outside.

And that was our visit to Tianjin–a lovely city, with a breath of refreshing Western-style architecture (yes, I can mix my metaphors so horribly. You try to do it better!).

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Why I Am Not a Food Blogger

Food. We all eat it every day. At least, I hope we all do. And sometimes, when I’m really stuck in a rut and have absolutely no desire to eat Chinese food again because I simply cannot do more cabbage with eggs, I read food bloggers and salivate over all the delicious American food that I haven’t eaten in months. Roast beef with mashed potatoes? Bring it on, I say! (Or hamburgers, or bean burritos, or anything American that Chinese people don’t eat. It all sounds good.)

So today I’m here to show you how to cook one of my most boring meals: breakfast. This is my way of winnowing down who’s really my true friends–because if you’re still here after this most boring of blog posts, you are dedicated. Breakfast is boring for me because we always have eggs, and while eggs are fine, they get a little old after you have them every single day. But when you don’t want to eat gruel for breakfast (which is what the Chinese eat), you have to eat something. And eggs are acceptably American.

So, though I’m sure you know how to make a simple fried egg, here’s how to make eggs that you can eat every day for breakfast, even when you feel like you’ve become the most boring breakfaster on earth. And why someone would want to write a blog post about how boring their breakfast is beats me. I think I better give up my food blogger career already.

Anyways, to be a good food blogger, you have to take beautiful pictures of food that looks like something someone would want to eat. So here are my essentials: eggs and butter.

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See my lovely clean counter space with all the great natural lighting? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

What? You don’t nosh on eggs-in-the-shell? Especially not eggs-in-the-shell with some ancient honey and random junk in the background? But they’re so pretty and brown, and the butter’s nice and yellow!

Anyways,  before you start the eggs, it’s a good idea to start baking some bread at the same time so you can eat hot rolls with your breakfast, as it takes away the monotony a little. So pull your already-prepared bread dough out of the fridge where it’s been souring for the last couple days and plop it on the pan of your toaster oven. I know you’re super prepared like that.

Oh, and when you’re taking pictures of your food, you want it to be the center of attention. No giant white space in the background, now!

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Lovely little things, ain’t they!

And since of course you’re super prepared and starting breakfast an hour ahead of time (like I always am), you heat up your toaster oven and set the rolls on top to rise a little. And if you’re not super prepared, hockey pucks really aren’t bad. I know from experience.

Anyways, back to your eggs. Once you’re sure you have them (it’s always a good idea to check and see if you’re out), but some butter in a pan and heat it up.

Food photography tip number three: random yellow areas in the whiteness of your tile backsplash just bring out the beautiful yellow color of your eggs. Photoshop some in if you don’t have any.

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Don’t you just want to eat that, right there? 

Once you have your butter deliciously hot and bubbly, add in your eggs. And take a picture of  a giant blurry hand. Because nothing says “I want to eat that NOW” like a picture of a giant hand. Not even yellow caulk.

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Do you know just how hard it is to take a picture of yourself cracking an egg? Let’s just put it in the “impossible” category. So you can look at my blurry hand with a blurry egg.

Then you snuggle your eggs real close together so they don’t feel all lonely-like, and take a picture of them nestling themselves up in their cozy bed of butter.

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Now THAT’S better.

Then, because you were busy taking pictures, turn ’em over on to their little yellow bellies a little late so their yolks are already nearly cooked through. That way you don’t have to feel bad about leaving them too long on the other side because hey, they were already ruined.

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Oh, but I almost forgot. While you cook your eggs, don’t get so busy taking picture that you forget to throw your rolls into your toaster oven to start rising cooking.

Photography pro tip 5 (or is it 4? I lost count somewhere back there): take a blurry picture through your spotless oven door, because cameras only show the dirt worse. That way you might get a little incentive to clean that oven.

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And make sure the angle’s a little crooked. It adds interest to the picture.

Once you’ve finished all your multitasking of frantically rushing back and forth and making sure all the dirt is where it should be, turn off the heat (under the eggs, silly), and put some cheese on top of your eggs.

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Just like that.

Then cover them with your perfectly clean lid that you wash at least twice a day in warm soapy water, and let the residual heat work its magic.

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It’s magic, I tell you!

Just don’t let them sit too long or your carefully curated yolks that you forgot about earlier will be hard and nasty. Ask me how I know.

Anyhow, while your eggs are sitting and waiting and feeling lonely, your rolls probably need to be turned around so they’re not burnt on one side and raw on the other (the joys of cooking in a toaster oven!). So you take them out of the oven. This is another place where a giant hand picture is appropriate. Because it’d be weird to have rolls coming out of the oven on their own.

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Of course you use a hotpad! And make sure your hand looks like a claw in the pictures, too.

And you start the wrestling match, because toaster oven sheets are notoriously sticky.

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Fork vs. Roll. Roll usually wins.

Then, once you get tired of fruitlessly digging under the rolls while simultaneously trying not to burn yourself,  you throw them back in for another 2-3 minutes, until they’re nicely browned on all sides.

Then you dig in to your lovely delicious breakfast of eggs and rolls. On your perfectly clean, curated dining room table.

And to make sure your pictures turn out just stunning, you should add a little color to stand out, like some yellow pineapple. Brown rolls, brown/yellow eggs, yellow pineapple. Not too similar at all!

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I take such delicious looking pictures of food. I’m sure you want to dig in right now!

So there you have it–how to make everyone want to come over and eat your food. Take stunning pictures of it gorgeously arrayed in all its approachable glory, talk it up like it’s something unique that’s never been done before, and make sure you add a contrasting color. And voila–hordes of people just longing to take a bite will magically appear.

Have I convinced you? Or will you now resist any and every dinner invitation given by yours truly? (Jared’s comment: “I’m sure you’ll get lots of people seconding your title.”)

The Return of Tourism

Last weekend we finally traveled some in China. And just in case you want to know–if you’re visiting China as a tourist, Xi’an is a great place to start. It’s a beautiful city–way prettier than Beijing!

We left Saturday afternoon at around 4:00 p.m and took a high speed train that went 300 km an hour. It  was amazing how quickly it got us there–1080 km and 6 hours later, we were in Xi’an.

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The inside of the train

Sadly, however, SOMEONE was stupid and left her Kindle behind. So for 6 hours or so, I had nothing to do but take pictures of the dark windows, which led to (I regret to say it) train window selfies. Yeah, I know. Pretty lame. But what’s a girl to do when she has nothing to read?

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I like to call this one “Girl with a Camera.” Sounds more artistic that way.
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And this one makes me look slightly ethereal and like I’m on fire. . .

Once we got there, we were in for a bit of a problem. It was 10:00 at night, and we had no idea where anything was. I’ll skip all the boring details of how many people we asked for directions and how we had printed out directions to the WRONG hostel that we didn’t have reservations for and so ended up there at 11:00 at night, but yes. We survived.

In the morning, we went to church, which was amazing, and wandered around Xi’an for a little while. We stumbled across this really neat street which we had been meaning to visit anyways–it’s called Muslim Street, because I guess it’s where the Muslims in Xi’an sold their food and stuff–and walked around for about an hour and a half. It sort of turned into a maze by the end and we weren’t sure how to get out!.

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As you can see, there were hordes of people!
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A bread stall

Some of them tried to charge us exorbitant amounts (Jared thought they must be unionized or something), but we made it out of there without losing too much money.

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See that bread in the very back? The man tried to charge us 30 kuai for it! By contrast, the ones in the front were only 5.
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On the right of the picture is the grill they use to grill their meat (usually lamb) on a stick.
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Jared with his favorite thing.

This meat on a stick might just be one of the best reasons to come to China. It’s so flavorful and tasty that you’ll always want to make your meat this way. Or maybe move to China just to get it.

As we walked further along, we kept hearing these strange pounding noises. Looking around, we spotted these men with giant hammers pounding something (we never did quite figure out what it was or why it needed pounding). It looks like some sort of candy, but it was too expensive, so we didn’t try it.

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The giant rope thing is like taffy, I think–the kind you have to pull to get to the right consistency. That kid is clearly not impressed.
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Because a goat’s head makes everything better!
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Does he look Chinese yet?

This hat has a funny story. We were walking down the street and Jared picked it up to try it on (it’s just like the ones that the Chinese policemen wear). He asked the lady how much it was, and she said 80 Yuan. That was too expensive, so we started walking away, and she kept calling numbers after us–50? 40? 30? 25? She was really desperate! We still didn’t buy it, though.

You’re probably about pictured out, so I’ll leave you with a picture of a Chinese person cooking soup. He may need to update his equipment soon, I think.

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Yes, that’s fire.

Have I convinced you to come to Xi’an? If not, stay tuned for more pictures and commentary (though I can’t promise it will be more interesting than this post was.)

In Which I Bore You with Mindless Drivel about Dishes

Somehow, this week has been crazy. Jared got sick (for three whole days! poor thing was miserable), we got a “holiday” for New Year’s Day, which really meant that the cruel and unusual method of “let’s see how much of your weekend we can take away from you” was strongly played with makeup classes on Sunday, and then it was back to the usual of procrastinating on doing dishes because SOMEONE was convinced that bringing cookies to her classes was a good idea. Well, it was. But cookie-making also involves dish-making, and dish-making involves dish-doing, and dish-doing involves putting away those dishes, and yeah. I haven’t even gotten past the dish-making part, so I’m inwardly shuddering whenever I walk into my kitchen and see all the remnants of the shallots in the sink along with whatever’s left of the cookies.

So, obviously that means it’s time for a blog post, so all you who are like “just do the dishes as soon as you make them and then you won’t have any problem” can totally say that in your head as you don’t understand why I a) don’t like doing dishes and b) don’t follow the wonderful advice that you just gave me. But there’s just something about making cookies before an 8:00 a.m. class that robs me of the will to dish (what, you don’t think that’s a verb? Don’t know what you’re talking about). And then you get back, and the cookie dough has hardened on the pan. So, of course, you just leave it.

Anyways, I’m starting to run on just like my little brother Seth (sorry Seth), so I’ll stop with the drivel and present you with pictures of a sunrise, courtesy of my 8:00 a.m. class. It’s funny how when the days start getting longer the sunrise starts getting later at the same time. Oh, and yes, the sun rises in China just like it does in America. I think it’s even the same sun!

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It’s not much of a sunrise. . .

 

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But at least I got the camera straight in this one!

Now excuse me while I go heat up some water for my dishes. There’s no time like the present, right?

 

 

How Do You Cook a Turkey in a Toaster Oven? or, Thanksgiving in China

Short answer: You don’t.

Long answer: You boil it instead.

Even longer answer: Don’t buy a turkey in China. They’re too expensive.

Yes, that’s right. For Thanksgiving, we didn’t eat turkey. We had chicken instead. And it was boiled chicken.

Now, before you throw up your hands and gasp in horror at the un-Americanness of our Thanksgiving, we did have all the other trappings. Stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, rolls–we had no worries of starvation.

We did, however, feel slightly (only slightly? make that very) crazy at attempting to have fifteen people over to our small apartment and our table that seats six or so. For lack of a better option, we turned to plundering. The spoils from our neighbor’s apartment included another toaster oven, serving dishes, another table, chairs, and some pots and pans for less crazy cooking. I could feel my Viking heritage coming through strongly! (Disclaimer–all the things we used for Thanksgiving were borrowed WITH consent!)

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Setting up the tables

So while Jared set things up (didn’t he do a nice job?), I baked sweet potatoes and squashes, boiled chickens, made pies, and tried to figure out how to make a second pie when you only have one pie pan. (Our plundering failed to reveal that little detail. )

Note–our tables were in the other room, so all my cooking had to be done on our coffee table. Let’s just say I’d have back problems if I had to do anything on that for more than the two hours before Thanksgiving.

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That, folks, was nearly the extent of my counter space. 

Then Jared was put in charge of making sure the sweet potatoes got thoroughly marshmallowed and were sweet enough.

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Attacking his task with vigor. Don’t faint–he washed his hands first.

So by the time students showed up, they only had to roll out the bread (which they were thrilled by) and help mash the potatoes and put everything on the table. They loved watching the bread bake and puff up, since in China they only ever steam their bread.

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All the food. Wasn’t that a feast?

One thing I didn’t get a picture of was my first ever pecan (actually walnut) pie. It turned out deliciously, for not having any corn syrup or pecans. Everyone loved it.

We did go slightly non-traditional and eat with chopsticks because we had more of those than forks and knives. I think our Chinese friends felt more comfortable with that anyways!

Happy Thanksgiving from China! (I was behind the camera).

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All the people! Apparently two fingers is a Chinese thing?

What did you do for Thanksgiving? Was it as crazy as trying to fit 16 people into a tiny apartment for a feast

7 Things I’m Missing in China

Life in China so far has been wonderful. It’s amazing how nice having a place of your own, even when it’s up four flights of bare concrete stairs, can be. And Jared’s really loving his desk (as different from MY desk–generally covered with papers). We’re both beginning to feel at home. We have great friends, a wonderful church, and a lot of great food close by. That said, there are still some comforts of home that I, at least, miss.

1. A piano.

And preferably, a pianist to go with it. (Just kidding–though a live-in accompanist would be nice.)

Can you say “essential for sanity?” There’s something about having an instrument out in the open, waiting to be played on. I don’t know how I’m surviving right now without a piano. Jared says that surely the school has one–but it’s just not the same.  One of these days, I will have my own piano, I promise!

2. Real hot (drinkable!) water in the kitchen sink

It’s gotten to the point where when I watch videos of people drinking water straight from the tap or doing dishes in warm water, I’m shocked. I want to tell them it’s dangerous to drink the water, and then I remember–in America, it’s okay to do things like that. You’d think 20 years of drinking straight from the sink would stick with me far more than two months of not being able to, but hey. I’m weird that way, apparently.

And just for the record, dishes do not get as clean in cold water as they do in hot. Ask me how I know.

3. A dishwasher

I know, I know–who needs a dishwasher if you actually have hot water in the kitchen sink? But it’s so much easier to put silverware and stuff into the dishwasher and run it. You guys who have these things are so spoiled.

4.  A bathtub

There’s something so relaxing about being able to sit in a tub of warm water. For now, we’ll have to be content with our “shower bathroom,” but one of these days I’m actually going to live in a house with a bathtub in it.

At least I don’t have to SCRUB the bathtub right now–there’s a bright side to everything, right?

5. Books. Actual, physical books.

Kindles are nice–they allow you to read practically anything, most of it for very little money–but they don’t have the same feel as a real book that you can turn the pages of and see sitting on the shelf and feel the weight of it. It’s just not the same.

6. A full-sized oven.

There are so many things you can cook  in a toaster oven; sadly, all of them are small things. Cookies, squash, pizza–all bake fine. But roast beef? Not a chance. I’m not sure how we’re going to get anything even approximating a roast turkey cooked for Thanksgiving (besides the fact that turkey is not a Chinese bird).  Any suggestions?

7. A study for Jared

What Jared wants more than anything is a room all to himself, with books, a window, and a desk for him to write at. Perfect lighting too, of course.

 

What are all you cushy readers back in America wishing for?

 

Joining 7 Quick Takes at This Ain’t the Lyceum.

The Dangers of Dishes

I own one of the world’s worst superpowers. And by “worst” I don’t mean that it’s ineffectual,  like it only takes care of half the bad guys at a time. No, this superpower is one that doesn’t solve problems–it makes them. Dishes, to be exact.  I’m extremely good at making dirty dishes. Put me in the kitchen with some food to cook,  and I’ll have it covered in dishes before you can say “Don’t forget the baking powder!” I can make more dishes that practically anyone else I know–except for my mother. She has me beaten by a long shot. (Sorry mom, but it probably has something to do with having around 5 times more people in the house to cook for than I do.) It must be something hereditary.

Sadly, this superpower is not accompanied by actually wanting to WASH said dishes, especially when our apartment (still unheated for now) has only cold water and no dishwasher in the kitchen. I’m just as happy not getting my hands frozen and greasy in icy tap water, thank-you-very-much. Add that to our limited (around two square feet–that’s a generous estimate) counter space, and you find me getting very creative with new ways to stack dishes.

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Don’t worry–these are all clean. It’s the best way to dry them, I’ve found.

So it’s probably a good thing for my sanity that I only possess a few dishes to get dirty as it forces me to wash them more than once a week (not that I would ever go that long without doing dishes–I’m far too holy for that. But don’t ask about the laundry.).

Now, before you start hyperventilating and thinking what a sad life my poor husband leads to be married to a woman who keeps their apartment looking like a pigsty (yes, mud and smells and all!), let me say that even I have some standards of living. Our floors are clean, our bed is made, and yes, even the piles of papers get graded eventually and returned to their respective students. Clutter doesn’t exist (unless you count piles of papers).  It’s just, when there are more exciting things to do like play the violin or write blog posts or even catch up on my long-neglected email inbox (if I haven’t written you back, it’s nothing personal, I promise!), the reward for doing my stack of dishes looks low in comparison.

I suppose it’s time to face it–as much as I was warned, when I was younger and going to all sorts of music lessons every week, of the messiness inherent in the musical personality, I am that person. Apparently it’s because musicians are so highly organized in their brains that they don’t need to be organized elsewhere–I always know exactly where everything is, so it’s a waste of time to label it neatly or spend time putting it back, right? Except, as happened twice this week, when something falls out of my purse and gets lost in the couch cushions. Then I tend to worry about whether I’m organized enough or if my brain is falling to pieces. But I digress.

I saw this video on Facebook today and was intensely gratified that science seems to be coming to the same conclusions that I came to long ago: musicians really are wonderful. Especially if they’re me.

I may not clean like I should (instant dish-doing? Yes please!), but I guess I have enough musician-related good points that they should offset my one superpower. What do you think? Should having a well-organized brain make you more or less organized in real life? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go practice my violin–because I’ve already done the dishes.

 

 

Fall…and Apples….and a Recipe for Tastiness

It’s fall! We’ve had a few days of beautiful weather with no pollution, lots of golden leaves, and fall fruits. And you’ll be glad to know that even though it’s China, trees still turn yellow and gold and red and purple here. I know you were all worried about that.

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The view from our fourth-story balcony. The tree is a Gingko tree, which is supposed to have amazing fall colors. This one looks a little sad, though.

The Chinese seem to value fall and beauty more than people in other countries. There are always Chinese pulling out their phones to take pictures of a beautiful tree or flower. They love beautiful things.

A still- green Gingko tree.
A still- green Gingko tree.

It’s also apple season around here, and every street vendor has baskets full of different varieties of apples. When it’s apple season, you can’t just let all those beautiful apples go to waste or even be eaten raw. So, although I can’t can anything (mason jars don’t seem to exist here and I don’t have any canning equipment anyways), there’s still a time and place to make applesauce and baked apples and other apple-y good things.

But, since I’d already made all those aforementioned things and still had apples, and since I now have a toaster oven to bake things in, I tried to make apple crisp.

So I sliced up my apples and put a little brown sugar and vanilla salt on them. Chinese brown sugar is extra dark and molasses-ey, so it made them extra good. And no, I didn’t put any cinnamon or nutmeg or allspice in–for one thing, I’m too much of a cheapskate to buy cinnamon for 20 Y for a little bottle, even if that is only around $4.00.

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Don’t they look good?

Then, once my apples were ready, I mixed up a little flour, some butter, some regular sugar, and more vanilla salt (salt is pretty essential). I crumbled it on top (which I didn’t take a picture of since I’m a bad food blogger), and stuck it in my teeny weeny toaster oven. Yes, just one of those plates fits at a time.

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See how yellow my butter is? Fresh from New Zealand!

The good part about having a teeny weeny toaster oven is that things cook in half the time. 20 minutes later, Jared and I were sitting down to yummy, salted-caramel flavored apple crisp. It’s really the best sort of apple crisp you’ll ever have. It tasted just like a caramel apple, except even better.

Jared approves!
Jared approves!
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And he wanted to get a picture of the cook too.