Archive for the ‘Reading & Kutztown’ Category

HAPPY FASTNACHT DAY

February 12, 2013

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In honor of these fried-dough and sugar treats, here is a photo from the Pennsylvania Bakery in Camp Hill.

Fastnacht is German for “eve of the fast” and stems from the Christian tradition of making “fat cakes” before abstaining from sugar and fat during Lent. German immigrants, many of whom settled in Pennsylvania Dutch country, first brought the tradition to the United States.

Traditional fastnachts use flour made from potatoes and are deep-fried in lard (though many cooks now substitute vegetable or canola oil), then dipped in molasses and dusted with sugar. The tradition is not unlike Pancake Day, Fat Tuesday, or Pascki Day in Polish communities, but I like the local PA folklore that surround the fastnacht, like the notion that the oil they are fried in has magical powers or that the person who eats the last one will end up an old maid or bachelor.

Bakeries all over southeastern Pennsylvania will open their doors earlier than usual today, with the expectation of selling thousands of fastnachts by mid-day. Churches, fire houses, and schools also sell their own variations. Even though the ingredients are always they same, everyone has fixed ideas about what makes a perfect specimen. Here is a story I wrote for Coca-Cola’s website, which offers a little more history on the fastnacht, plus an accompanying (and decidedly non-traditional) recipe for mini-chocolate cake doughnuts.

It’s a blissful day for the doughnut-loving consumer.

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Pennsylvania’s unique B&Bs

January 15, 2013

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Pennsylvania has more than its share of interesting bed & breakfast inns. At the 1870 Wedgwood Inn (pictured above) in New Hope, the innkeepers proudly point out a trap door leading to a tunnel that was once part of the Philadelphia-Quaker Underground Railroad network before leading guests to their elegant, Victorian-era rooms. At Hamanassett in the Brandywine Valley, guests can play pool amid antique dolls and games and learn how to prepare Azerbaijani cuisine in the former home of the quartermaster general serving Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.

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Landhaven (pictured above and below) in Barto may win the title of the state’s quirkiest B&B with Four Seasons-worthy bathrooms in the middle of nowhere. Once a general store and post office for tiny Huffs Church, Landhaven is now a five-room inn with pastoral views and rooms with luxury touches that you might expect at a five-star hotel but not necessarily in an unincorporated community in rural Berks County. While the inn has been open since the late 1990s, it is perhaps best known for hosting intimate live music performances in a large room filled with Windsor chairs, watchmaker’s cabinets, and 19th century U.S. postal guides. Donna Land, who has worked as a recipe tester and consultant for Campbell Soup and other companies, runs the place with her husband Ed, a former news film and videotape editor who may be the only B&B owner to have won two Emmy awards and claim custom decorative blacksmithing as a favorite hobby. They have fixed up the rooms with handmade quilts, period furnishings, and antique fixtures that Ed has salvaged and restored. The concerts, which include local and national acts, are the marquee attraction for many guests, who love the casual BYO environment and boxed dinners for under $10 (the Lands also serve iced tea and cookies gratis). John Jorgenson, guitarist for Elton John, is a regular performer, and upcoming acts in winter include folk singer Tracy Grammer and blues legend Chris Smither.

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There’s not much do in Barto, though the hiking trails of Green Lane Reservoir are nearby, and Donna will direct you to a wonderful rock and mineral shop, Bey’s, down the road. Crystal Cave is about 20 miles away, and the inn sits pretty much smack in the middle of the antiques markets of Reading and Allentown. As Valentine’s Day approaches, I can’t think of a better way of celebrating than with a concert followed by a peaceful night’s stay at this unique B&B find.

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Apple picking time at Hopewell Furnace

September 14, 2012

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, about 15 miles east of Reading, was one of the country’s first iron producers, casting cannons for the Colonial Army during the Revolutionary War and once responsible for 15 percent of the entire world’s iron supply. Gen. George Washington’s troops came within three miles of the furnace, and its workers rushed to bury several “great guns” on the property to save them from possible capture by the Redcoats.

Today, Hopewell Furnace is a preserved iron plantation run by the National Park Service and a very worthy stop on anyone’s Pennsylvania history tour. Besides the blast furnace, there’s a restored blacksmith’s shop, a company store, the ironmaster’s house, and several workers’ cottages — all nestled in a peaceful forested valley.

This month is my favorite time of year to visit. The property includes a four-acre apple orchard and the Park Service lets visitors pick as much as they want for $1 a pound (buckets and pole pickers provided). Though the original apple trees from the 1780s are gone, there are 35 different varieties, many with historical roots, including Spitzenburg’s, which may have been Thomas Jefferson’s favorite and Smokehouse, a variety traced to 1837 when it was grown next to a smokehouse in Lancaster County. By mid-October the fruit is gone, so get here soon. Hopewell Furnace is within French Creek State Park and links up with several trails within the park.

5 Ways to Celebrate the Pretzel

May 31, 2012

Philadelphians eat about twelve times as many pretzels as the average consumer does. It’s not surprising — soft pretzels are one of Pennsylvania’s greatest products, though they often get overshadowed by the glitzier cheesesteak and Italian hoagie.
Pretzels (scandalously) didn’t make Parade magazine’s recent Memorial Day list of all-American classic foods, but I miss them desperately when I am out of the area (those mall kiosks just aren’t the same). Here are some favorite stops along the state’s unique pretzel network. I’ll save the sublime ice cream and pretzel cone combo for another post.

• The Sturgis empire. Julius’ side runs America’s first commercial pretzel bakery in Lititz, where visitors can check out the original 19th-century ovens and learn how to twist dough. Brother Tom’s side operates the factory and outlet store about 25 miles away in Shillington. Here, you can sample all types of pretzels, from cinnamon-dusted to spicy jalapeno and buy huge tins at a discount (but there are no tours).

Philly Soft Pretzel Factory. This 14-year-old franchise has won a slew of awards, and its storefronts are everywhere from Chalfont to Reading. Plus, it had the audacity to invent the cheesesteak pretzel. So wrong, but so good.

• Hanover, Pa. The factory tour of Snyder’s of Hanover is a must – a front-row look at the conveyor belts and mammoth machines needed to mass-produce salty snack foods — but the smaller, more personal Revonah (Hanover spelled backwards) is also worth a stop.

• Don’t let the humble name fool you. Gettysburg’s lively Pub on the Square sells a terrific appetizer simply called Pretzel Twists. Served hot with marinara sauce and dusted with garlic, it’s a perfect way to carb-load after a day of biking or walking the battlefields.

• Sweet pretzels in Amish country. Pretzel purists may object to this one, but there’s something about the butter/sugar combo they slather on the dough that is heavenly. I don’t even know the name of the small shop that sells them, but it’s next to one of the biggest tourist attractions in the area: Plain & Fancy Farm.

Organic oasis near Kutztown

May 20, 2012

This is not your basic manicured garden tour. A visit to the Rodale Experimental Farm is a fascinating, sometimes muddy and bug-laden, window into a working sustainable organic farm.

Hats are a must. Boots are good idea.

Here’s the backstory: In 1947, a man named J.I. Rodale started the Soil and Health Foundation on his small farm near Kutztown to promote his theory that healthy soil, not chemical fertilizer, is the basis for growing healthy food. Five decades and one publishing empire later, these 333 acres near Kutztown are home to a research farm and educational center that is open to the public for $5 self-guided tours and workshops on composting, soil biology, and other topics.

Tours start in an old red schoolhouse, where books on gardening and cooking and locally made honey and jams are for sale. From here, the sometimes-paved paths wind past wide garden beds, compost windrows, bank barns, owl hollows, and patchwork-quilt fields of corn, alfalfa, wheat, and soybeans. In summer, an unfathomable number of bugs and butterflies – plus the occasional herd of cows — will cross your path. I have yet to take one of the $12 Saturday guided tours, but I hear they are thorough and inspiring.

A tip: Don’t rely on your car’s GPS to find this farm. Map it out or call for specific directions before you leave. It’s not exactly on the beaten path, though it isn’t far from two great refreshment stops: Premise Maid Candies for ice cream and Brenda’s Eatery (15380 Kutztown Rd.) for Pennsylvania Dutch cooking.