a flurry of snowflakes that seemed to be blowing around more for effect than adding to the four inches of serious snow that had piled up during the night. Though we were meeting Claire and Miguel for breakfast Tom and I decided to go down to the hostel kitchen for some free coffee and tea and to check out ( perhaps for future reference) the all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast.
Which turned out to be an all-you-can-eat- so -long- as -you-cook-it-yourself- pancake breakfast: on the counter were bowls of batter, two griddles, and sundry pancake supplies: chocolate chips, syrup, jam, etc. There were several hostelers eating or in the midst of making their pancakes, which we had to admit did look like some prime pancakes: big, fluffy, perfectly circular, golden brown. Must have been some quality batter and class griddles. ( I definitely credit Dan with the excellence of the operation. He seemed the type to make everything in his care into a work of art.). As soon as we entered the kitchen Tom and I were aware of a sublte but major difference between the dynamic of this hostel and that of the albergues along the Camino and it was this: here we were half a dozen strangers in one room and everyone was politely going about their own business. In an albergue two pilgrims couldn’t have been in the same room without immediately connecting.
Of course Tom remedied that situation right away and started asking people their vital statistics and whipping up conversation among the group. We ended up meeting a middle-aged couple (though quite a bit lower middle-aged than us) who turned out not to be exactly a couple, but a guy from New York and a gal from New Jersey who meet up for a weekend in Chicago every year around Christmas time (A “Same Time Next Year”situ? Eh, who knows? Still, if you wanted to stay in Chicago under the radar this would be the place to stay!). We also chatted with a 19-year old German boy who was touring the states with New Orleans as his next stop. He said he liked America but wished he'd planned the trip for two years from now when he'd be twenty-one and could legally drink. (I wanted to tell him that maybe in rertrospect he'd see that perhaps he was better off navigating our wonderful country sober).
Claire and Miguel walked from their apartment and arrived at our hostel at around 9:15, which meant that we'd now be part of the brunch crowd, having passed the 9:00 Saturday deadline for being part of the breakfast crowd. It's far preferable to be part of the breakfast crowd on a weekend morning in Bucktown, as the brunch crowd is, well a crowd!
Though the weather was biting cold - 18 degrees, wind chill of 4 - we walked to Claire and Miguel's (and, apparently every one else's) favorite brunch spot, a little place called Toast, about a (freezing!) half mile from the hostel. Still it was a visually lovely walk, snow falling on the already snow-covered neighborhood...snow-covered, but by no means snow-bound! I swear this city springs to life in the snow! As soon as the first flakes start sticking the plows hit the streets and the residents hit the sidewalks with their shovels. I got a kick out of all the little kids out shovelling the sidewalks, pushing those shovels along at little-kid speed! And the city sidewalks seemed busy enough, full of people bundled and booted up and out and about their usual Saturday morning business. Except that for the first time ever, much to our wonder and surprise, when we arrived at Toast there was no line out the door! We were actually able to get a seat right away! Miguel offered the observation that it must be the freezing weather that kept all but the hard-core brunchers home this morning; though it turned out that utimately the weather didn't keep the brunchers away, just delayed them a bit; by the time we left we had to squeeze by the usual line out the door.
A little personal historical note on Toast: last time we visited, while we were milling around outside Toast waiting with all the other prospective brunchers for a table I recognized the actress [and native Chicagoan] Marley Maitlin, whom I loved in "Children of a Lesser God", "What the Bleep Do We Know?" and "Desperate Housewives". She was with a young man whom I guessed to be her son. While I tried not to stare too much, I guess I sort of did. I just couldn't get over how petite and pretty she was in person. Every time she noticed me noticing her I smiled, though I realized I must be overdoing it when she finally shot me a pleading look that said, "Please stop staring at me, you crazy lady!" So I did.
Anyway, when discussing with Claire and Miguel what we'd like to do during our visit it came out that all any of us really felt like doing was trying as many different restaurants as we could fit in and staying inside the rest of the time. Sounded good to me. So, like bears preparing for a long cold winter, we'd eat and hibernate our way through the weekend , starting here at Toast where each of us ordered some variation of egg : a spinach goat cheese omlette for Claire, eggs Benedict for Miguel, Tom ordered the Denver omlette and I ordered the only thing I ever order for breakfast: two sunny-side up eggs whose yolks I break and mix with the side potatoes (can't seem to pull myself out of the rut, no matter how tempting the other options!). However, the vison of those hostel pancakes still dancing in my head, I did also order a round of pancakes for us to share for dessert. All I can add is that Toast does deserve its reputation as a great brunch (or breakfast if you arrive before 9:00) destination.
During the course of brunch Miguel and Claire confessed to a hankering for some of my cherry almond streusel pie so we decided to schedule a supply-run, by bus, to The Jewel, their local supermarket. Isn't "The Jewel" a great name for a supermarket? Sounds like a place that must carry all kinds of rare delicacies. Unfortunately, the one delicacy I needed to make my pie, canned sour cherries, was not to be found at The Jewel. I had to settle for frozen sweet cherries.
After The Jewel we headed back to Claire's apartment where I made my pie then sat around with the others drinking tea and watching the snow and some old episodes of "Breaking Bad". (Ah, "Breaking Bad"! I could write a treatise on that show. A couple blogs from now I will!)
Eventually it was time to bundle back up and venture back out into the cold for our dinner destination, a downtown Chicago restaurant and brewery called Revolution Brewing where the handles of the beer taps are shaped like raised fists and the beers have names like "Anti-Hero IPA", "Eugene Porter", and (groan!) "Fistmas Ale". The others sampled the brews while I stuck with my diet Coke. The food was sooo good!: Claire, being a vegetarian, had a tempeh Reuben while Miguel had a real (that is, corned beef) Reuben; Tom ordered the Beef Wellington (mostly just to find our what it was - turns out it was a piece of pot roast capped with puff pastry) with mashed potatoes, while I had the most excellent burger - cooked rare as can be and piled with carmelized onions, but so big I could only eat half of it.
Earlier in the day we'd made the command decision that, cold weather or not, we really couldn't be in Chicago at Christmas time without at least stopping by the Christkindlmarket. This is an outdoor Christmas crafts market in Daley Square modeled after the Christkindlmarkt in Nuremberg, Germany. After we'd walked a few rounds of the market, mingled with the crowd, looked at the Chistmas lights, and breathed in the yummy aromas of the hot food and hot spiced wine, we headed back to Claire's apartment to dig into the cherry almond struesel pie. Having had to settle for using frozen sweet cherries instead of canned sour cherries, I felt the pie turned out well enough, though in truth it it lacked the je ne sais quoi that makes that pie such a standout. For one thing, the color was off: it resembled a blueberry pie more than a cherry pie. In fact, I couldn't swear it didn't taste more like blueberry pie! But in the end we ate it and it was good enough covered with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. But it was a bit off. Here's the receipe for cherry almond struesel pie as it should be (My adaptation of a recipe from the Elegant Meals From Inexpensive Meats cookbook):
2 cans of tart red cherries
2 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca
1 cup sugar
1/4 tsp cinnamon
9-inch unbaked pie shell
Almond Streusel (recipe follows)
1. Drain one can of cherries then mix it with other can of cherries undrained, (in other words, use only the juice from one can), tapioca, sugar, and cinnamon. Let stand for 15 minutes. Spread in pie shell. Spoon streusel mixture evenly over the cherries.
2. Bake in a 375 degree oven for 45 to 50 minutes, until filling is bubbly all over and topping is well browned.
Almond Streusel: Cut 1/2 cup butter or margarine into a mixture of 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar and 3/4 cup flour until mixture is crumbly. mix in 1/2 cup slivered almonds.