Archive for March, 2010

Cake decorating classes, advanced, part 2,3,4

March 31st, 2010
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We spent the entire month making the components for a fondant cake, so I decided to roll that into one blog, since it wasn't as intensive and varied as the previous courses. Week two and three were spent making animal sculptures and flora/fauna for a jungle themed cake. Week four was spent putting the whole three tiered cake together.

My cake

My cake

3D ANIMALS

The cake gals showed us a photo from their portfolio. It was of a jungle themed cake. This is what we are to work towards.

The goal

The goal

The body of the animal is a rice crispy treat, molded into an oval. That saves weight, because fondant is heavy. It will be less likely to sink into the cake. It also saves money, because fondant is pricey.

Based on the reactions I've gotten from friends who ate my cake, a lot of people think fondant is too sweet, but I'm guessing they'd be more OK with biting into a rice crispy treat - if they choose to even eat the sculptures. The whole thing is skewered onto a dowel or a wooden chopstick, so that you can poke it into the cake to help it stand.

The fondant always comes white, so you have to color it using gel paste. You knead it and work quickly or else it gets dry and cracks. It's a somewhat intuitive process to put together the animals, but still not as easy as it looks.

Making tiger

Making tiger

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My tiger

My zebra

My zebra

Attaching elephant ears with toothpick

Attaching elephant ears with toothpick

My elephant

My elephant

The flowers are made from cookie cutters, then given some shape and dimension using various fondant tools. They're dried in eggshells to help them hold their shape.

Curling the petals

Curling the petals

Shaping the whole flower

Shaping the whole flower

Dry for a week or two

Dry for a week or two

In class number four, the teachers brought out three cakes. Two were six inch rounds, the third was an ten inch round. We iced the cakes, hammered them together, and topped them with the decorations. Again, a little more to it than I expected.

Six support dowels

Six support dowels

Firstly, we used two cardboard bases for the bottom cake because it's so heavy. Secondly, the smaller cakes are supported by a six inch round cardboard, too. Thirdly, there are six dowels cut to exactly the height of the big cake, inserted to support the weight of the six inch cakes above.

Hammering in dowels for stability

Hammering in dowels for stability

Lastly, there are two huge dowels with pencil-sharp points, driven through the entire cake and out through the bottom cardboard. That's to prevent it from slipping around in transit. Nothing else has made me care more about fixing our potholes.

Back of my cake

Back of my cake

The sculptures and big flowers are adhered to the cake using buttercream frosting. The smaller flowers, with water. Transport with the sculptures off or else they'll start wobbling and leaning and making holes in the cake.

I like my flowers the best

I like my flowers the best

It's hard to get it right. The smaller the cake, the more ruffles there are at the bottom, and it takes a bit of practice to learn how to make it all smooth. Hence, you see my yellow cake is all wrinkled at the base.

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The pros do it all in minutes, but to give you an idea, it took us novices almost three hours to cover the cakes with fondant and then put the decorations on. I finished first, but here are some photos of other people's cakes in progress, that I photographed before I left:

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Joy's

Joy's

Eat and enjoy!

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***

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Snuba diving at Pacific Beach Hotel

March 29th, 2010
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Does anyone remember the old commercials for the Pacific Beach Hotel? Some jingle about it being "one fun place"? I don't remember the era- 70's? 80's? I keep having that in my mind as I think about a recent experience at the hotel's famed Oceanarium.

Photo courtesy: Pacific Beach Hotel

Photo courtesy: Pacific Beach Hotel

The Oceanarium is a three-story aquarium built in 1979. It holds 280,000 gallons of water, in which swim about 500 fish from more than 70 different species. If you've eaten at the restaurant of the same name, you know the hotel's team of divers feed the fish regularly, and sometimes hold signs up wishing customers happy birthday, happy anniversary, etc.

Me

Me

For decades, I've always thought it would be so incredibly cool to dive in that tank. So when Japan-based Marine Express Inc. started selling tickets to the public to do exactly that, I knew I had to get in on it.

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Marine Express will take up to two people down for 15 minutes to snuba. That's a combination of snorkeling and SCUBA diving. You breathe through a regulator that's hooked up to oxygen floating around on a little white raft on the surface. You don't use a SCUBA air tank. You do not need lessons or certifications, though it might have helped that I'm NAUI certified, because it's basically the same idea.

Photo by Kentaro Abiko

Photo by Kentaro Abiko

Another benefit of diving in this tank, versus the great outdoors, is that you don't have to worry about currents and bad weather. There's plenty of tame fish plus two friendly sting rays (Small Boy and Dot), and they'll come up to you to nibble at lettuce that the guide gives you before you go down.

Donovan and lettuce. Photo by Kentaro Abiko

Donovan and lettuce. Photo by Kentaro Abiko

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I decided to take my cousin's son, Donovan, for his birthday present. He just turned nine, though the minimum age for a dive is eight years old. They'll allow children ages four to seven to snorkel at the surface of the water, but it's still the same price.

The top of the tank

The top of the tank

Marine Express started the snuba dives in January, and the guides are PADI certified as well as CPR certified. They can take up to two dozen customers a day. "Most people are nervous, but by the end of the dive, they come out smiling," says Kentaro Abiko, general manager of Marine Express and our guide today. The most common problem he sees is people not being able to pop their ears from the pressure.

Marine Express GM Kentaro Abiko

Marine Express GM Kentaro Abiko

We showed up a half hour before our dive, so that we could watch a brief instructional DVD and get suited up. The company provides a short wetsuit, booties, gloves, mask, weight belts, fish food, and if you so desire, crazy hats to wear in the water. We so desired. I am the crab, Donovan is the fish, our guide - Kentaro - is the shell. Though I really think his shell looks more like a fro-yo swirl, or Carmen Miranda-meets-SeaWorld.

The raft at the top

The raft at the top

Then, we jumped into the water and slowly sank 20 feet to the bottom. The water is not cold, and it is actually sea water from right outside. To keep the water clean and clear, there is a pump leading to the ocean that constantly cycles in fresh ocean water.

Fish immediately came pecking at me. I had four lettuce leaves tucked into the regulator strap, and they fearlessly started nibbling away. So cool.

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As I continued drifting downward, I passed the two rays. I reached out and touched one. He slithered by like Samuel L. Jackson in Shaft.

Our families had come to watch (and eat), so I immediately went to the window to see where they were. Everyone starting looking and pointing. If you don't know, the Oceanarium Restaurant has a hugely popular Friday lunch buffet special for seniors, so everyone looks alike. I had to look very hard to figure out which table of local Chinese retirees was my table. Likewise, some of them did not recognize me with the crab on my head and later said they thought I was just a very friendly diver.

Photo by Kentaro Abiko

Photo by Kentaro Abiko

After I fed the fish and looked for my family, I decided to swim around the tank. I inspected the back wall and swam through the bubbles because that has always looked like fun. I made my way from one end of the tank to the other to enjoy the view from the inside.

At some point, Donovan finally came down. Kentaro is really good with kids and helped Donovan get over his initial butterflies, and his confusion about how to clear his ears from the pressure. Kentaro took our photos in the water and let us write little messages to our friends outside on his Etch-A-Sketch board.

More smiling and waving to the people outside. I found Olivia. I read her lips as she called my name. She blew me a kiss. I caught it.

And then we were done. We floated to the top, got out, and rinsed off in the showers in the locker room. (The company also provides towels.) Then we went downstairs to have lunch. Donovan said he loved it. Birthday accomplished!

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I've eaten at the Oceanarium Restaurant before. I always point out the sting rays to Olivia. This time, I could look at it and say I've been in there- and my, was it fun!

To make reservations, call Marine Express, Inc. at (808) 921-6190.

http://www.marineexpress777.com/

marineexpress777@aol.com

Cost: $75 for a half hour dive, $30 for a CD of underwater photos that the guide takes of you.

Kamaaina and hotel guest discount: you get the CD free.

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***

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Kauai getaway, day 3

March 27th, 2010
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I didn't want to leave. There was only enough time on the last day to wake up leisurely, have breakfast downstairs at Makana Terrance, and pack. Claus piloted us back to Oahu at noon.

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As we drove back to Lihue, Claus and I reviewed the vacation. I deemed it the best vacation I've taken since Olivia was born. What was nice about it? In 48 hours, I was able to reconnect with 1) myself, 2) my husband. I got to remember what life was like BC: Before Child.

Important: THANK YOU Christian and grandparents for watching Olivia!!!

Sure, I have babysitting help most mornings, but I've become accustomed to working during that short three or four hour period. I shuffle personal paperwork (bills and such), I write the occasional freelance article, I cook and clean. There isn't really time to waste. I know if I sit idle, it'll be at the end of the day when I don't function at higher capacities. I have to get things done early in the day.

The middle of my day is spent with Olivia. Sometimes we run errands together. Sometimes we go to the park, pool, beach, or play dates. I am used to constantly looking after someone. It was a really nice break to not have to, for an extended period of time.

Ironically, or perhaps not really, we spent a lot of time wishing for a break exactly like this, and then the minute we arrived on Kauai, we can't stop talking about her. Every hour or so, I'd announce that I missed her.

We kept repeating little phrases that she says, or pointing out things she'd like (like the Kauai Grill's hibiscus door), which then led to sharing a related story about her ("Oh, I forgot to tell you that she was picking a hibiscus the other day and..."), which led to us wondering what she was doing right about now.

I want the restaurant doors!

I know it makes sense since she's the biggest part of our lives now, but it's just a little funny is all. Actually, Paul Drewes warned me about this a long time ago. Yes, Paul. You told me this would happen.

But you know, you also spend decades with your childless self, so to neglect that part of you for so long feels imbalanced after a while. I'm thrilled to make my child my life, but now and then, I miss me. I miss doing things I liked to do, I miss being with people I liked to be with, I miss my old life. I miss hanging out with my husband.

That's what I feel I got back on this trip. That's why we told ourselves we want to make it an annual event!

***

You can also reach me at Diane@DianeAko.com

Kauai getaway, day 2- dinner

March 26th, 2010
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Dinner at Kauai Grill gets its own blog because it was so fabulous. Firstly, there is the reputation of the chef that precedes it. The very young Chef Colin Hazama is up for a James Beard award, and it's an honor to just be nominated. So we knew the food had to be pretty spectacular.

Chef and me

Chef and me

Kauai Grill

Kauai Grill

I want the restaurant doors!

I want the restaurant doors!

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I enjoyed dinner immensely. My favorite was the foie gras and the ice cream, Claus' was the foie gras and the octopus. Honestly, it's all superb. If you bring your appetite, you might be able to eat everything I list here, but if not, cut out two side dishes or appetizers. The chef was kind enough to send out a couple starters, and of course, our eyes were bigger than our stomachs because everything on the menu sounded so good.

Roasted foie gras with carmelized mango and ginger - excellent!

Roasted foie gras with carmelized mango and ginger - excellent!

Bigeye ahi with rice cracker crust, with citrus chili sauce

Bigeye ahi with rice cracker crust, with citrus chili sauce

Peppercorn octopus - eat this!

Peppercorn octopus - eat this!

Crispy poached eggs with caviar and vodka briosche

Crispy poached eggs with caviar and vodka briosche

Roasted baby beets with Kunana Farm goat cheese and mac nuts

Roasted baby beets with Kunana Farm goat cheese and mac nuts

Entree: steamed lobster calamansi with jalapeno spetzle and vegetables

My entree: steamed lobster calamansi with jalapeno spetzle and vegetables

His entree: seared sirloin of Wagyu veef, ginger mushrooms, and soy caramel sauce

His entree: seared sirloin of Wagyu beef, ginger mushrooms, and soy caramel sauce

Sides: Roasted maitake mushrooms with sesame and lime

Sides: Roasted maitake mushrooms with sesame and lime

Sides: Creamed spinach with herbs

Sides: Creamed spinach with herbs

Fruit salad with white pepper ice cream- awesome

Fruit salad with white pepper ice cream- awesome

It's a good thing the restaurant was only steps away from our room, because we ate so much we fell into a blissful food coma after dinner!

www.stregisprinceville.com

***

You can also reach me at Diane@DianeAko.com

Kauai getaway, day 2- ziplining

March 25th, 2010
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Most of this day was spent zipping and dipping in the jungles, with a tour company called Princeville Ranch Adventures. They also offer a kayaking tour, but we chose their most popular, called the Zip n' Dip. "This tour offers the most zips on Kauai and the ultimate zip called King Kong! A combination of 9 exciting zip lines, a suspension bridge and an hour at a deep hidden swimming hole, where you’ll enjoy a picnic, swimming, jumping and floating on inner tubes. It’s the experience of a lifetime!" gushes the website description.

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I've heard about ziplining and was curious to try it for myself. This was my first chance to do so, since there are none on Oahu. It was fun!

Me

Me

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We checked in at 9 a.m., and were met by ridiculously good-looking tour guides Jason and Laura, who kept us safe and entertained the entire half-day we were with them. Twelve of us (the tour max) jumped into trucks and drove through some cow pastures to arrive at the top of the mountain.

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Claus

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There, the guides gave us a lesson in how to zipline, and got us started. There really wasn't much to it- just run off the platform and trust that the cables will hold you. The first one, named Manini, is only 25 feet above the ground. It's a good test to see if you can handle it. You're clipped to a half-inch galvanized aircraft cable that can support thousands of pounds, and just for safety sake, no riders can be more than 280 pounds anyway.

A few people - those afraid of heights - clung on to the lanyard for dear life at first, but by the end, it seemed everyone was literally hanging loose. The lines have fun names like Ironwood, Okole Hau, and Pau Hana, and the longest run (also the only double zipline), King Kong, was 660 feet.

Most of the rides lasted half a minute, at a speed of about 30 miles per hour. You could go faster if you balled yourself up to decrease wind resistance. Sometimes I had to do that or I wouldn't make it to the end, and then I would have slid back into the middle and a guide would have had to retrieve me. Not that I would have minded dangling there and appreciating the awesome view over the trees.

King Kong

King Kong

What I remember most about ziplining was the speed. Thirty mph doesn't seem like a lot, because you're usually doing that in a car. When you're just flying along like a bird, 30 feels pretty fast. As I think about the first four runs, I only remember a blur of green and the joy of controlled hurtling. I had to remember to look around on the last few runs to take in the view, which again, is so spectacular.

Lunch provided for you

Lunch provided for you

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Near the end, we stopped for lunch by a pool, which we could also swim in, had the weather been warmer. Hey, it's not just me. We had east coasters on the tour who were also reluctant to get wet, and you'd think 70 degrees would be nothing compared to the winter they've been getting. The inner tubes went unused for our group.

The guides handle a couple tours a day, and the company ends up taking out about 75 people a day in the slow season (now). In the summer, that doubles.

Our group

Our group

The tour is four and a half hours, so I was expecting a massive hike. However, it's not really a hike, it's mostly spent waiting in line to zip. You therefore don't have to be intimidated by what sounds like the potential for a lot of exercise. You will be literally flying high, and likely, loving it.

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http://adventureskauai.com/

THE NORTH SHORE

After the ziplining, we decided to drive to the end of the road, to Ke'e Beach. It's been years since we've been up here on a leisurely personal jaunt, so it was fun to revisit some sights.

St. Regis is at the tip of this peninsula

St. Regis is at the tip of this peninsula

Hanalei taro farm

Hanalei taro farm

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At the dry cave

There are two caves along the road that everyone stops to look at. One is Maniniholo Dry Cave, which goes back about 300 yards. Bring a flashlight if you remember, so you can better peer at the cave walls. It's just cool to be wandering around a cave.

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The other one we visited is Waiakanaloa Wet Cave, at the end of the road just before Ke'e Beach.  This cave is filled with algae and too creepy to want to swim in (because you can't see the floor), even if there wasn't a no swimming sign due to leptospirosis. There are guppies in the shallow, and the water is cold. I've read that scuba divers explored it 100 yards in and reported no sign of life. Just stand there and enjoy the view.

Wet cave

Wet cave

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NAP TIME

We then returned to the hotel to do... nothing! We took a nap and watched TV, which in and of itself felt like a real treat to do in the middle of the day.

Our view

Our view

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But then, the resort was kind enough to send a bottle of champagne and chocolates, so we obliged by getting tipsy, eating chocolates, and enjoying the ocean view. I so appreciate that I actually got to talk to my husband, or just sit in silence next to him and listen to the waves crash, and not have to look around every five minutes to make sure someone is staying out of trouble. Total decadence.

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www.stregisprinceville.com

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You can also reach me at Diane@DianeAko.com