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Cookie recipes for shipping to friends

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After the 2016 election, I wanted to do something for friends to brighten their day. I posted a callout on social media asking for eight people who would like homemade desserts shipped straight to their door.

There were no rules aside from 1. The desserts would come on a surprise date anytime within the calendar year and 2. The recipients had no say in their desserts (aside from allergies taken into consideration).

Throughout 2017, cookies of all varieties traveled to eight friends in Bloomington, IN; Austin, TX; San Francisco, CA; Saint John, IN; Richmond, VA and Carbondale, IL. I finally sent the last box just this past December – more than a year after the original callout. Thankfully surprise baked goods taste just as delicious in the summer as they do in the winter.

Stack of olive oil shortbread with rosemary and chocolate chips

The research

I had never shipped baked goods before this challenge. But the best part of existing in the twenty-first century is that if you’re interested in doing something, you can always find advice from someone on the internet who has done it before.

My go-to baking mavens Molly Yeh and Joy the Baker each had advice in their cookbooks of all places:

  1. Wrap each treat individually to ensure freshness
  2. Bake something sturdy enough to endure transit
  3. Pick something which will last several days

Close-up of a stack of vanilla rainbow sprinkle cookies

Three stacks of vanilla rainbow sprinkle cookies

Here’s extra criteria I considered while picking recipes. Sadly, keeping these things in mind eliminated many options except shortbread and cookies:

  1. No icing
  2. Nothing dipped in chocolate – in case it melts in transit
  3. No cupcakes – because an un-iced cupcake is just a muffin*
  4. Nothing fruity or prone to spoil – “Happy baked goods! Enjoy the mold!” No, thank you.
  5. Include at least two kinds so if one doesn’t hold up, there’s always another option

*Muffins are delightful, and I don’t make them as much as I should. But the best muffins are soft muffins. And if I was going to ship something soft, I figured I might as well ship a Nature Valley granola bar since I feared anything soft would just turn to crumbs.

olive oil shortbread with rosemary and chocolate chips

The very scientific methodology

I baked the cookies on a Saturday or Sunday evening and individually wrapped them after cooling on these delightful space savers. Then I packed a gallon-sized ziploc bag (or two) with 12-18 cookies total. I then tucked the bags in boxes as big as shoe boxes so they would jostle as little as possible while in transit. Finally, I shipped the cookies first thing Monday morning, and they usually arrived no later than Friday depending on the destination.

The results

It should come as no surprise that the best part of sending cookies to my friends were the messages they sent after the cookies arrived. I assume hearing the cookies were nearly gone made me just as happy as my friends were when they found cookies on their doorstep (I did have to test the batches too after all!). 2017 was a long year, but knowing I made someone’s day made me even more excited than usual to get in the kitchen!

If you’re interested in sending cookies to your friends, here are the treats I shipped on several occasions with no complaints from the recipients:

Smitten Kitchen’s olive oil shortbread with rosemary and chocolate chips

Joy the Baker’s Vanilla bean confetti cookies

American Girl doll’s chocolate chip cookies – My family and I usually tell anyone we don’t know very well this recipe is Grandma’s secret recipe 😉

Gluten free

Gluten free almond flour chocolate chip cookies

Erin Jeanne McDowell’s flourless cocoa cookies

the bottom of a stack of rainbow sprinkle vanilla cookies

If you have any questions about shipping your own desserts, email me at emmagrdina(at)gmail(dot)com!

xo

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Holiday baking recommendations

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The first snowfall has landed in D.C. and the rest of the country too judging by all of the Instagram Stories I just watched. Is there anything as magical as living in a snow globe?

I’m torn between baking up a storm and watching holiday movies all day. Alas, I used up all the eggs in a frittata this morning (a rare activity reserved for weekend mornings when I can pull myself out of bed early enough), and I’m not about to leave the house anytime soon for said eggs. Holiday movies it is!

I thought it might be helpful to wrap up the (semi-holiday, always delicious) recipes I recommend to friends in one neat list. I’ve tried and loved most of the recipes listed below with the exception of the chai cookies, Italian wedding cookies and the peanut butter blossoms. But I’m including them here a. because they look delicious and b. because I’ve made recipes from these bakers before, and everything has turned out wonderfully. I’m sure these will be no different!

The recipes are separated into categories based on how I tend to categorize treats this time of year: Sharing, Shipping, Last-minute baking, and Lazy weekend recipes.

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Sharing – Treats which are too decadent to keep to yourself and deserve to be shared

Shortbread cookies with royal icing

Smitten Kitchen’s Chocolate peanut butter tart – Tarts always sound intimidating to me, but this one is a lot less scary if you think of it like a giant Reese’s cup.

Small batch cookie dough dip

Shipping – Snacks to send to friends in all corners of the world

Criteria for shippable cookies includes, but is not limited to: must hold up to being jostled around, nothing dipped lest it melt en route and nothing iced with soft buttercream.

Joy the Baker’s vanilla bean confetti cookies

Masala-Chai chocolate chip cookies

Gluten-free Italian wedding cookies

Last-minute baking – Recipes to make when you remember you’ve got a cookie swap in less than 24 hours

Shortbread cookies – Skip the icing, and just bring shortbread! No one will know anything’s missing.

Classic peanut butter blossoms

Gluten-free almond flour chocolate chip cookies

Lazy weekend recipes – For when you’ve got extra time on your hands

Molly Yeh’s basil marscarpone buttercream frosted chocolate cake

Joy the Baker’s cream cheese cinnamon rolls

Hi-hat chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter frosting

Is this round-up helpful? Is there a recipe you think I should add to the list? Let me know in the comments!

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If my family was dessert: My mom

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(These cupcakes are the peanut butter hi-hat cupcakes from Sally’s Baking Addiction.)

Chocolate muffins

I will never forget that I was the first Grdina in my family to get a C on her report card.

I was finishing my math homework (for the class I might as well have been failing by my family’s standards) while waiting for a Jonathan Safran Foer reading at a Borders in downtown Chicago when my mom snapped, “The reason you got that C is because I wasn’t home when you were younger.”

My mom returned to teaching full-time a few years after I was born. Her going back to school meant many things for our family. But for me, it meant more time with my dad helping him around the house and running errands around town just he and I.

I remember our days full of activities: running errands around town but always making time for the candy store, handing my dad paint brushes while he was on the ladder, and making chocolate chip cookies together while anxiously waiting for my sisters to return from school and rejoin our fun.

Iced peanut butter cupcakes from the side

While my mom might chock up my first C to her not being home to encourage studying, what I hope she has now come to realize – after a very full, very fun sixty years on earth – is that by returning to work  and later pursuing her Master’s all while raising the three of us, my mom modeled for all of us exactly the kind of woman we hope we will become.

It is because of her that my sisters and I  stumbled through dance classes, played volleyball and soccer, tried out for nearly every school play, participated in Speech and Debate, wrote for the college paper, studied abroad and more. She is the one to thank (or blame? 😉 ) for our stubborn personalities and thinking we can conquer anything, obstacles and the patriarchy be damned!

She and my dad both encouraged us to try everything and to never stop learning. To always carry a book on your person and to be kind to everyone because you never know what someone else is going through.

Open cupcake

By going after her own dreams both big and small, my mom showed us how to do everything with big love – to embrace the lows for we will overcome them stronger in the end and to cherish the highs for you never know how long they will last.

Anyone who has spent just five minutes with her has seen this for themselves and can attest to how fun she is. I was scolded at a Jonathan Safran Foer lecture, for heaven’s sake! 

At the last wedding we attended, the table mates we hardly knew at the evening’s beginning told me as they left that she made the whole party more fun! And they said this despite the fact we toasted our deceased aunt not once but three times, which is most definitely a blog post for another time.

Iced peanut butter cupcakes

Many years before D.C. and I.U. and Munster High School but always sitting at our big round kitchen table, I remember answering a worksheet which asked many things, one of which was, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

When I asked my mom (see, I remember you helping me with homework!) she replied, “A strong, independent woman who contributes to society.”

I panicked after seeing there wasn’t nearly enough room for such a long-winded answer (which comes as no surprise to anyone who has seen firsthand how chatty our family is). I suspected everyone else would write something tangible like “teacher” or “artist.” And yet I squeezed “a strong, independent woman who contributes to society” in between the lines and placed my worksheet in my folder for the next day.

Sliced hi hat cupcake

To the most fearless and fun woman I know whose mottos include, “Glitterize it” and “What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine,” you are, without a doubt, peanut butter hi-hat cupcakes: chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter frosting dipped in chocolate. Chocolate cupcakes are the great equalizer. They’re fitting for every event and always the life of the party. 

And if the whipped peanut butter frosting wasn’t enough, these cupcakes have a hard chocolate shell on top. Which sums up my mom’s third life motto: “More is more.”

My only regret is that I didn’t order edible glitter. Alas, there’s always your sixty-first.

Sixtieth cake topper on a cupcake

I have no idea what happened to that worksheet or how my classmates responded, but the lesson has stuck with me: I can go after anything I want no matter where it will take me.

By simply being, my mother encourages me everyday to cultivate my relationship with myself, to never underestimate the healing power of a good manicure, and that I can do more than I believe is possible.

This post is late by logistical birthday standards, but its publishing the last day of birthday month is a fitting end to an amazing start to her sixtieth year! Birthdays always last the full month, anyways. For these lessons and a million more, we will never come close to repaying you, Mom. You’re the best in the world. Happy belated birthday!

(These cupcakes are the peanut butter hi-hat cupcakes from Sally’s Baking Addiction.)

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If my family was dessert: my sister Genevieve

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Champagne cake

My oldest sister is five years older than me to the day. Happy birthday, Genevieve!

I put off Part Two of the series If My Family was Dessert for a long time. What dessert could possibly represent the beautiful, smart young woman who has blown out more than twenty years worth of birthday candles with me?

What flavors capture crying at every Christmas movie we watch no matter how many times we’ve seen it? Is Promptly Replies to Emails No Matter How Bizarre My Request Is a boxed cake mix? And in what aisle can I find the seasoning that personifies the sister who would wake us up for school by saying Mac and cheese was on the breakfast menu?

Berry cake with mumm napa champagne

To the sister who is equal parts kindness, humility and fun, you are without a doubt champagne cake! This golden butter cake with champagne ganache nestled between each layer and topped with a chocolate glaze is the definition of sophistication with a side of whimsy. As are many older sisters, the directions are somehow both sensitive and demanding in a way that makes complete sense by the end.

The ganache combines champagne, vanilla and brandy with melted bittersweet and semi-sweet chocolate chips. After spreading the layers and sides with ganache, a chocolate glaze coats the top and sides. You can see your face in the glaze’s reflection! (Certainly there’s a metaphor here.)

By time I got to try this rich layer cake (three days after I started making it), I realized the directions were right all along and as is almost always the case with Big Sister Advice, I’m glad I listened to the directions yadda yadda you were right all along there I said it.

Chocolate layer cake pre-glazePost-double glaze

Genevieve is the rare kind of person who brings out the best in people simply by being in the room. She never settles for less than the best and she challenges those around her to do the same with grace and compassion.

I admire her ability to navigate change and look to her when I need anything from words of encouragement to a make-up recommendation, because chances are, she’s been there before or already bought that lipstick and is about to save me some moolah.

Layer of vanilla cake with chocolate ganache

When I was younger and less gracious than I’d like to admit I am now, I didn’t like sharing a birthday. As the youngest sister, I often feel like I’m playing catch up to my older two sisters. When I finally reached teenagehood at 13, my sister became an adult. (It doesn’t help that my sisters always move up the qualifying age for being an “official teenager.” Now that I’ve reached twenty-six, I think you’re not truly a teenager until you’re twenty-seven.) When I turned sweet 16, my sister turned 21, so on and so forth.

But now that I’m nearly a real teenager, I no longer look at the five years between us as space to catch-up. Having sisters is all sorts of wonderful, and I’m incredibly fortunate to have two of the best to look up to as incredible models who have navigated several paces ahead of me and regularly reassure me everything will turn out fine.

Top of the sliced open cake

There are many joys of sharing a birthday, but the number one by far is that we never celebrate alone. Happy birthday, birthday buddy! I’m raising a glass of champagne to you from D.C. and toasting to everything the upcoming year has in store for us – champagne cakes included!

(I used the champagne cake recipe from the cookbook Sweet by Valerie Gordon. Champagne ganache is found here. Milk chocolate glaze here.)

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Fourth of July flag cake (and that time I dropped a four layer cake)

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Have you ever started a project with a bad feeling? I know it sounds so corny, but from the moment I started this cake on Friday night, I had a bad feeling about it. I can’t describe it exactly, but I just knew things were not going to end well.

I usually get nervous at some point during the baking process (Will it rise ok? Did I mix it too much? Is this thing even going to taste good?), so I chocked up my nerves to a weird week and tried to move on.

When I set out to make this flag cake, I wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but I didn’t think I’d go so far as accidentally dropping it.

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Let me set the scene for you: I made the layers Friday night, so I woke up early Saturday to ice the cake and shoot photos so I’d have time to enjoy the weekend (aka I was rushing. Which I should know by now never ends well).

In order to get my favorite light, I shoot photos on a very small end table near our windows which you can see in these pictures. I’m able to move the table around and take pictures around it without there ever being an issue.

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As I was assembling this bad boy, it was as easy as I remembered it being when I made this cake last year. The flag makes it look 10x more difficult than it is, I swear. The design is made by cutting out the middle of the blue layer(s) and doing the same to the red and white, but keeping the middles and discarding the edges as shown above. I used a spaceship mug because why buy a circular cookie cutter when drinking glasses work so well? 😉 Then the red and white replace the inside blue layers. Like Russian nesting dolls! That’s it. Easy peasy.

So here I was cutting the pieces, sneaking bites of frosting and icing, when after I finished icing and cut a slice, the sun shifted and cast a nasty shadow. I set the slice aside (but not the cake what was I thinking?!) and moved the cake and end table to the other side of the living room to check out the lighting there. It was even worse. And this! This, my friends, is when things got ugly. I decided to move the cake back. Should’ve been easy enough right?

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I lifted the tiny end table with the cake on top when halfway through carrying it back to its original spot (mind you, our apartment is small so this is not the hoof it might sound like it is. Although I would like to lie and tell you I had to jump through fiery hoops down the hallway and a flight of moving stairs to make this whole thing sound more impressive.) when the end table leg caught on our leather loveseat. The cake stand nudged a little toward the edge. It sounded like the world’s most ominous game piece moving across a game board and in that moment I knew.

I knew I could not salvage what had already begun. Instead, I remember my gasps growing increasingly louder and faster as my mind raced and I tried to back out of the situation. Do I keep moving forward? Put the thing down? Scoot to the side? All logical ideas! Yet all I did was tilt the table further. And thud.

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Have you ever heard a cake drop? I can’t think of a single time before now where I witnessed an entire cake fall to the floor. (Is it too late to add this to my bucket list just so I can cross it off?) The best analogy I can think of is that a cake falling straight onto carpet (carpet. Ugh, kill me now.) sounds a lot like the thump of a human body meeting a hotel bed.

For a hot second, you expect yourself to bounce back. Surely this can’t be that anti-climactic, I always think to myself when I throw myself on top of the sheets. But then you realize you’re face down on a hotel bed going nowhere. Much like a dropped cake.

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The whole premise of my original blog post was going to be, “See! This cake’s presentation looks intimidating, but it’s so easy to make!” Now, the whole premise is, “If you make this cake, don’t drop it and you’ll already one up me!”

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I was also planning on outing myself that this particular Fourth of July-themed cake is from a box mix and pre-made frosting! When the first step of a recipe is, “Make six layers” I’m all for allowing ourselves some leeway and doing what we can to skip a few steps.

Fool me once, Betty Crocker! Although as much as I’d like to blame this tumble on the cake’s sticky consistency or the thin frosting which is less than ideal for decorating, I’ve got nothing to blame but myself. This might be the first time I dropped a cake, but I’m certain it won’t be my last.

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I hope my Great Cake Fall of 2017 hasn’t scared you away from trying this cake at home. The time spent decorating and assembling are so worth it to see everyone’s face when you cut into it!

As for me, I’m planning on serving these cake balls this holiday weekend instead.

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p.s. Follow the directions on the box, and you’ll be just fine! For each of the six cakes, I used 3/4 cup of mix and added food coloring until I reached the desired colors. The grocery store only had gel food dye, so don’t fret if you can’t find liquid: the gel works just fine. 

Here are the cake pans I used and highly recommend.

And one last thing: I recommend mixing the dye into the cake mix in a glass mixing cup. That way you can more easily make sure your color is consistently mixed. Good luck!

Have you ever dropped food or a dessert you were cooking all day? I would love to know I’m not alone, so tell me more in the comments!

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Brie, bacon and fig jam panini

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Brie, bacon and fig jam sandwiches stacked.jpg

One of my favorite parts about the summer is long picnics in the park. We’re fortunate to live only a block away from one of the best parks in the city, and every year I look forward to reading a book and eating dinner on a blanket.

Plus people watching while eating dinner feels like dinner and a show. What’s not to love? Not to mention nothing takes your mind off the heat (and feeling like you’re melting) quite like other city dwellers sweating through their clothes alongside you.

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It’s hard to say whether the snacks or the people watching is my favorite part of picnicking.

People watching pro: You learn so much about your city neighbors! If you’re lucky, you’ll overhear some gossip.

People watching con: If you’re not so lucky, you make awkward eye contact with the people on whom you’re eavesdropping and then you feel like a creep. (The more you’re sweating, the more your creepiness increases. I don’t make the rules. I just follow em.)

Snack pro: On the best days, you attract all the neighborhood dogs to your picnic and then feel like a happy dog owner if only for a moment! Plus, you get snacks. Win win!

Snack con: Is there one? Maybe it’s that you make everyone jealous?

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This crunchy baguette sammich is exactly the kind of thing you want to lug to the park to enjoy outside. Jealous side eye be damned! It’s like packing cheese and crackers and leaving the knife at home. (This goes unsaid, but a knife would most certainly increase your creepiness.)

Since we’re all friends here, I have no shame admitting I hardly noticed when fig jam fell out the side and onto my shirt. Like a beautiful love stamp. Proof that this sandwich is so good not even the mess it makes will bother you. But if you can shake the crumbs and jam off a blanket at the end of a meal instead of your shirt, then you’re doing something right! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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Brie, bacon and fig jam panini – Serves 2, 20 minutes total

Ingredients

4 strips of bacon

6 3-in long slices of brie

4 tablespoons of fig jam

1/4 of a baguette cut in half and split open

Directions

  1. Cook the bacon in a skillet. Flip frequently. When crispy, set aside on a paper towel on a plate.
  2. Cut a standard baguette into quarters. Cut one of the quarters in half so you have two small subs. Put the flat part of the baguette on the cutting board so that you can slice it open. Repeat with the other portion.
  3. Spread fig jam on both sides of each baguette.
  4. Layer 3 slices of brie on top of the fig jam. Add the bacon and top with the other piece of baguette.
  5. Put in the George Foreman or cook on the stovetop for 8-10 minutes.

(I ate both sandwiches pictured, but it was a bit much for one person. Hence I highly recommend splitting it with a pal.)

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The restaurants we loved the most in London

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I’m going to come right out and say it: I’m a really embarrassing dinner date when traveling. When we visit new restaurants in DC, I’m not usually compelled to take pictures of the food. When traveling, however, I’m maybe a little too comfortable with the notion that I’ll never see 99.99% of the people at a restaurant ever again so I have no shame whipping out my phone and snapping pictures during meals.

As a result, you’ll find most of these pictures are grainy at best with a few hidden details that really make me smile – like the woman on the brochure in the picture below or the gentleman looking into the camera who I cropped out of the photo from Aphrodite. In short, I might be shameless about whipping out my phone but not so much so that I have a small photoshoot before diving into a meal.

The following restaurants are the meals we loved the most, the ones I couldn’t bother with a taking more than a picture or two during, quality be damned, because the food looked too good to wait any longer! I hope you have the chance to visit some of these spots should you find yourself in London. I can say without a doubt we will revisit more than one next time we’re in town.

Honest Burger.jpgHonest Burger – We stumbled into Honest Burger after my cookie class on our first full day in London and didn’t wait more than five minutes before nabbing a table at the Portobello Road location. Overhearing all the different languages around us was a complete thrill, and I’d be lying if I said we weren’t both surprised when fries showed up on the plate instead of potato chips.

Dishoom.jpgDishoom – This was our favorite meal of the whole trip! Get the black daal and chai tea and make sure you check out the kitchen in the lower level where you can see all of the naan lined up like soldiers waiting to go in the oven. Funnily enough, Kevin and I got lost on the way there, and thanks to reading Google Maps wrong, I lead us into a closed strip club. Thankfully we didn’t just hang our heads and turn back. I would have loved to eat here more than once if only we hadn’t visited on our last day in town.

Harrods.jpgHarrod’s Food Halls – Kevin said that because of the sheer opulence in every corner and the absence of windows disorienting you at every turn, Harrod’s feels like a casino. To which I have to say it was the most luxurious casino I’ve ever seen!

We visited for the sole purpose of visiting the Food Halls and could have spent hours exploring the meals in each themed room. Pictured above is the produce room (couldn’t you tell from the grapes in the chandelier? 😉 ), but we also explored the dessert room, the meat room, the chocolate room (I repeat: the chocolate room), the seafood room, and a whole list of places we didn’t even see, like the ice cream parlour!

We made the mistake of buying some pies before realizing there is no place to eat them, and some stands won’t heat up the food. So if you drop by, grab a snack on the go or take a sandwich to the park! I highly recommend the chocolate dipped candied oranges from the chocolate room.

Aphrodite.jpgAphrodite – Recommended by our Airbnb host as her favorite local spot, Aphrodite’s friendly staff, dim lighting, and tables so close you might elbow your neighbor all make you feel like you’re dining with friends. We ordered the meat mezze, per our host’s recommendation, and there were eleven plates on our table at one point. Eleven! I’ve never felt more like a gluttonous American than during that meal.

One of the waiters even warned us to lay off the (five) dips so we’d have room for all four courses. If it sounds decadent, it’s because it was. The first course was cold appetizers (hummus, baba ganoush, labneh, etc.) followed by warm appetizers (portobello mushrooms and grilled haloumi atop tomatoes). As if that wasn’t enough, we then tried at least five different kinds of meats and fish and ended the meal with a salad. Everything we tried left me at a loss for words because it was so delicious, but I especially liked the part about the salad last!

Duck and Waffle.jpgDuck and Waffle – Duck and Waffle is the highest restaurant in the city on the fortieth floor. I’m having a hard time finding a more perfect phrase to describe it other than “gastro-club.” We rode a glass elevator straight to the top and some seriously strong beats welcomed us when the doors opened. Stylish youths sat all around the high tops and poufs, and very few of them were taking pictures of the city around us. One can only assume that dining decadently at the top of the city is a regular occurrence for them.

We both ordered the duck and waffle – crispy fried duck breast on a fluffy belgian waffle topped with a fried egg, although I think the bacon wrapped dates were the real star of the show! Don’t let the 40-stories up (I’m afraid of elevators, but the trip seemed to last less than a minute) or the warnings on their site about certain outfits required scare you away. The food was fun to try once while taking in the view, but I think next time we’ll end the day there with just a cocktail.

I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing more from our trip! We had so much fun exploring new places, meeting new people, and trying new foods. I’m already looking forward to the next adventure, if nothing else so I can justify another four course meal 😉

More from the trip: 

Biscuit icing class at Biscuiteers

Everything we loved in Iceland

Sights you should see in London