Archive for November, 2009

Ashley + Dan’s European Vacation: Part III – Florence

Hope everyone had fantastic Thanksgiving weekends!   I enjoyed a relaxing few days with Dan’s family in Philadelphia.  Good company, lots of yummy food and baked goodies and a little nephew to play with.  Fun!

Now back to reality, and back to Ashley + Dan’s European Vacation!

When our time in Nice was up, Dan and I headed over to la gare to catch our train to FLORENCE!

The ride took us along the scenic Mediterranean coast and up to Milan where we were to board our connecting train to Firenze! However, there was a slight complication when our first train was late, causing us to miss the second, and the cranky man behind the ticket service counter did not speak English.  We do not speak Italian.

Never one to be foiled, I held up my ticket from Nice, declared “retardo” – which was a wild guess for the Italian translation of “late” based on my fading high school knowledge of French – and waved my hands around a bit.  Somehow, I was miraculously understood – and for future reference, “retardo” actually does mean “late”!  We got switched to the next train out and all was well.  Patience and perseverance, my friends.

Let me just say that arriving in cities at sunset is the only way to go.

View of the Pont Vecchio, a quick hop, skip and a jump away from our bed and breakfast.

Speaking of our bed and breakfast, it was the coolest EVER.  Typically, B + B’s make me think cozy and quaint, but this one was super modern and high-tech.  Touch pad locks let us into the building and our room and contemporary black and white design elements decorated the space.  Check out our temporary home.

The B + B was comprised of four bedrooms and a living space on the third floor of an old building tucked down an alley behind a small piazza. It was like a little secret hideaway.  The owners, Giacomo and Francesca, were ridiculously gracious and made our dinner and musuem reservations each day.  And a very nice young man served us breakfast every morning.  We were well taken care of.  If I am every lucky enough to return to Florence, I will most definitely be staying here.  You should too!

Before I continue, I must tell you up front that Florence is superbly enchanting.  I am officially and obsessively in LOVE.  I mean, it was the birthplace of the Renaissance!  How could it not be alluring?!  There is character in every building and piazza.  There is fantastic art to be seen.  And the food – GAH! – the FOOD!  Totally incredible.  It’s like the city was built on romance.

Let’s take a tour!

Since I already brought it up with the sunset pic above, we’ll start with the Pont Vecchio.  It’s a little bridge that connects the left and right banks of Florence and offers visitors insanely beautiful views down the Arno River throughout the day…

…and into the night.

Had to show another one of those.  Too beautiful!  And here’s what the Pont Vecchio looks like when you’re not standing on it.

All those things jutting out are tiny jewelry and souvenir shops.  Not my thing, but I did find this adorable.

There’s a little gate thing on the Pont Vecchio and tons of locks are fixed to it.  Each lock has a couple’s name on it.  You know, like “Amanda + Zach 4 Ever.”  Awwwww.  I’m a sucker for love!

Ok, can we talk art history for a bit?

Now I’m not typically one to swoon over old cathedrals, but the Duomo had me at buongiorno.

The Duomo, also known as the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore or the Florence Cathedral, is one of the largest cathedrals in Italy and took nearly two centuries to construct – beginning in 1296!  It was designed primarily by Arnolfo di Cambio, an Italian architect and sculptor.

I got a little trigger happy snapping pics of it’s awesome green and red marble façade.  SO.  COOL.

The Duomo dome is the largest brick dome ever constructed and was completely groundbreaking at the time it was built – it was the first ever to not have support from the ground!

Designed by Filippo Brunelleschi after he won a competition for the commission – they held a lot of those back then.

Dan and I also took on the feat of climbing 463 stairs – in cramped, hot conditions – to get to the top of that dome.  But it was well worth the effort.

That tall structure is the Bell Tower, or Giotto‘s Campanile.

So high up!  I am scared of heights.  But I acted brave for the sake of obtaining approximately 248 photos of Florence rooftops.

And across from the entrance to the Duomo is the Baptistry, which is older than the Duomo itself!

I just realized that Dan is in that picture.  He looks like a GIANT, no?!

The Baptistry is most famous for its bronze doors that are comprised of relief sculptures of biblical scenes designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti.  He also competed to get that commission.

Not too far away from the Duomo is the Piazza della Signoria, the historically political center of Florence.

That alcove on the left under the arches is the Loggia dei Lanzi – a bunch of Renaissance sculptures in there.

My favorite to see was The Rape of the Sabine Woman – I love being up close and personal to pieces that I learned about back in the day!

Just behind the Loggia dei Lanzi is the Uffizi, one of the oldest art museums in the world.

Renaissance art as far as the eye can see in there!  Love it.

We also saw the very famous David by Michaelangelo – it is HUGE!  Seventeen feet tall!  I mean, how many times did I study that sculpture in college and I never once bothered to look at the dimensions?  Blown away.

Of course, after seeing food markets in Barcelona and Nice, we made it a point to seek one out in Florence.  Enter Mercato Centrale.

Fresh pasta!

Mini wine bottles!  I LOVE mini things.

See blurry Dan in the background?  He was buying beer.

And the Excessive Gelato Consumption continued, most notably at Vivoli.

Best gelato in Florence.  Mmm – hazelnut creaminess.

I don’t have pics of any of the meals I ate, but it is worth noting that my goal in Florence was to eat as much pasta as possible!  I had lasagna – which was interestingly tomato-sauce-less, but absolutely delicious – and flat, long noodles and twisty ones and melt-in-your-mouth-amazingly-yummy gnocchi with pesto.  All the pastas were homemade and SO crazy tasty.

Last, but certainly not least, we have The Dogs of Florence.

And that was the end of our unforgettable European vacation.  It was the best trip of my life and I am so grateful to have been able to share it with Dan.  He’s a super fun travel buddy!

Hope you all had fun coming along for the ride!  Adiós, au revoir and arrivederci!

Sticky Tahini Date Cookies


So glad you guys are having fun with my European vacation posts!  I love reminiscing on good times, so am happy to share.  However, before I turn into a travel guide, I thought I’d break it up a bit by going back to my roots and giving you a new treat to bake!

I’ve been eating a lot of hummus of late.  I eat it at home.  I eat it at work.  I eat it down the street from my apartment at a restaurant called – yep – Hummus Place – which is excellent and cheap for any fellow New Yorkers out there!  Hummus with carrots.  Hummus with chips.  Did you know that hummus, avocado and tomato sandwiches are the best things ever?  No?  Well, now you do.

With all the hummus eating going on, I thought I’d try to make my own.  All I needed to add to my pantry was a jar of tahini.  Bought that, made the hummus, ate the hummus, ’twas tasty.

Then I had a nearly full jar of tahini to finish.

You may have noticed by now that any leftover ingredients in my apartment are destined to be featured in a baked good – ahem…Pumpkin BrowniesBanana Coconut Bars…ahem.  So obviously I was off to make tahini cookies.  Isn’t that what you would do?  Since I was recently drooling over giant Barcelona dates, it was only fitting that I toss juicy Medjools into the mix as well.


Here’s my recipe for Sticky Tahini Date Cookies, adapted from this recipe:

1/2 cup tahini

1/2 cup honey

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup chopped Medjool dates

1 1/2 cups oats, coarsely processed

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 350*F.  Grease cookie sheets – don’t forget these are sticky cookies!  In a large bowl, combine tahini, honey, vanilla extract and Medjool dates until smooth.  In a separate bowl, mix together oats, cinnamon, salt, baking soda and walnuts.  Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients and mix until well-blended.  Drop spoonfuls of batter onto prepared cookie sheets.  Bake for 10 minutes. Cool on the cookie sheets for a couple minutes before removing to cool completely.  Makes 15 cookies.


Off topic, but look out the window – isn’t my block cute?

These. are. so. GOOD!  Like surprisingly delicious!  You can definitely taste the sesame seed flavor, and it’s totally enhanced by the cinnamon and vanilla.  I’m already imagining all the things you could add to these cookies – other dried fruits or nuts, flax seed, more spices.  And they’re so nutritious!  Make them now!

Have you ever used tahini when baking something sweet?


Ashley + Dan’s European Vacation: Part II – Nice

Barcelona was fantastically fun, but after the constant go-go-go, Dan and I were really looking forward to being lazy relaxing for a couple of days in…NICE!

We took a late flight and were greeted with this view from our hotel room.


Which in the morning, looked like this.


I kid you not!  That is what we got to ogle at everyday!  I had to pinch myself every so often to make sure it was real.  Gorgeous.

There aren’t many “sites” to see in Nice, and that was fine by us.  Nothing to do and no where to be.  It truly felt like we had not a care in the world!  Our days were basically filled with (1) sleeping, (2) eating, (3) walking around town, (4) reading and (5) doing crosswords.  Yes, we are crossword nerds.  Here’s Dan diligently working on one in our room.


We spent the majority of our time outside the hotel exploring Old Nice.  It’s just how you’d imagine an area called “Old” Nice to be – brimming with narrow streets and worn buildings and tiny restaurants and adorable boutiques.  Some of it is touristy, but most is just gushing with charm.


That’s Dan in the Adidas shirt.  He didn’t stand out at all.


Cookies in one of the bakery windows!


Our lunches – mmm…crêpes and croque monsieurs – each day were enjoyed at bistros in the Place Rosetti, a cute little square lined with restaurants and filled with tables and chairs for patrons to eat en plein air.



Dinners – mmm…goat cheese and ratatouille risotto – were had on the Cours Saleya.




That was the Cours Saleya by night – a long strip full of diners pouring out of restaurant doors and vendors selling jewelry and art work.  But during the day, the Cours Saleya is a wonderful flower and food market.  Tons of fresh fruit and vegetables, spices, cheeses, bread, etc.  Smaller than La Boqueria, but no less festive!




Remember the ginormous date?  Look at this teeny strawberry!


Since we’re on the topic of food, I will not hide that fact that Nice is where Dan and I began our Excessive Gelato Consumption.  Now I normally avoid dairy for tummy pleasantry reasons, but how often am I on the continent that created gelato?  For the remainder of the trip, we enjoyed it each and every day.  At times, twice a day.  At other times, twice in a ROW!  Umm…we were on vacation?

Our favorite gelato stop was Glacier Fennochio.


Lots and lots of interesting flavors like honey and pine nuts, milk flower and almond, spiced bread, and iced chestnut.  But good ole chocolat was my favorite – SO deliciously rich.  Like nothing I had ever had.  Which makes sense, according to the sign out front.


“Allways imitated never reached.”  Agreed.

Oh, Nice wasn’t all about eating ourselves into extreme bliss.  A little exercise was involved as well.  At least for Dan.  He’s a swimmer and jumped at the chance to take a dip in the Mediterranean .  I read on the beach and took pictures of the rocky shore while he did his fishy thing.


Our hotel!  It’s the red and cream colored building on the left.


Closer up.


Très français.

Some other fun things we saw include Nice Port…


…a big fountain…




…and a group of children happily riding a carousel with “Sexual Healing” playing in the background.  Pretty standard.


Don’t you worry, we didn’t forget about our European dog capturing project in Nice.  That city is teeming with them!  Multiple dogs everywhere you turn.  We couldn’t keep up!  But that doesn’t mean we didn’t try.  Here’s a sampling of The Dogs of Nice.




This one’s my favorite.


I like this one too.


And I’ll leave you with a setting sun over the French Riviera coastline.


Two down, one to go!  Florence is coming up!  Au revoir!

Ashley + Dan’s European Vacation: Part I – Barcelona

Over the past few weeks, I have received several requests from travel-intrigued peeps to post about my recent vacation to Europe.  Yes, yes, I know it has nothing to do with Sweet + Natural baking, but I love talking about it as much as possible to anyone who will listen never want to let my readers down, so I had to do it!  Among historical sites and charming culture, I assure you there will be pretty food to drool over.  And…drumroll please…Dan’s pictorial debut on the blog!  Major excitement, right?

So today I present to you the first in a three part series entitled Ashley + Dan’s European Vacation.  This time we take on BARCELONA!

It’s always fun for me to visit a big European metropolis like Barcelona because I am totally captivated by the juxtaposition of ancient and new.  Sure, New York’s got its cobblestone streets and old brick buildings, but we’re talking decades old vs. centuries old!  Europe just oozes history.  I love it.

Case in point, check out the facades you pass while on a typical stroll around the streets of Barcelona.




And check out the streets themselves.


Cool, huh?  Dan may or may not have disowned me while I was awkwardly crouching down taking that pic.  That was a main thoroughfare with loads of foot traffic, not a side alley.  I do what I want!

Now I was an art history major in college, so obviously made a point to soak up every little bit of Barcelona art that I could.  I was particularly enamored by all of the very distinct Gaudí architecture – it’s everywhere and it’s awesome.



One of my absolute favorite Gaudí sites was Park Güell.  It’s a big garden complex designed by the artist himself with lots of cool tile sculptures throughout.  Unfortunately,  it was crazy HOT the day we visited and you have to climb a giant hill to get to the park.  So there was a little cranky action going on once we arrived.  Luckily, that was cured with a picnic lunch and Dan everyone was happy again!  So we took some fun pictures.








Gaudí’s Park Güell tile work is the ultimate representation of Barcelona in my mind.  Love it.

Another fav was the Museu Picasso.  The museum is in old townhouses down a narrow street and displays works by Picasso alongside biographical notes in chronological order of his life.


Super duper cool.  Like way cool.  But no pics allowed inside, so you’ll have to take my word for it or go there yourself!

Oh, and I saw a Cardinals fan in line!  Go STL!


That black blob on the left is an unidentified part of Dan’s body.  I was stealthily pretending to take a picture of him but, in reality, capturing the red shirted man.  Hehehe.

And last, but not least, for our aesthetic enjoyment, the Barcelona Head by Roy Lichtenstein!  Just chillin’ near the beach.  You know.



I am a lucky girl to have a boyfriend who loves good food as much as I do.  It is definitely a priority of ours to seek it out while traveling.  So it is quite obvious that one of the most exciting things we did in Barcelona was visit La Boqueria.

Since when did Superman wear a fanny pack?!  I never got that memo.

If you love food, do not leave Barcelona without stopping by this glorious market!  Fruit, veggies, cheese, bread, etc. as far as the eye can see!






Look at these massive Medjool dates!



They tasted like heaven.  I am a changed woman.

We had such fun strolling up and down the aisles and picking out a selection of items for our picnic lunch – indeed, the very picnic lunch that worked miracles on that hot, hot day mentioned above.  To prove that miracle did occur, here is Dan – pictured for the first time ever on Sweet + Natural! – happily indulging in my latest brilliant food combination.


Freshly baked whole wheat sesame seed baguette + freakishy ginormous Medjool date + goat cheese.  Perfection?  Why yes, yes it is.

Ok, here’s a prettier picture of him.  Because he deserves a better entrance than that.


And one of us together for good measure!


We took a lot of reflection portraits on our trip.  Most were just as blurry and off center as this one.  What’s a girl to do with no tripod or trust in foreign strangers to hold her beloved DSLR?

Back to the food.  Since we were just speaking of goat cheese, I feel it necessary to point out that this food item was consumed nearly every day of the trip.  I adore it.  Here’s an especially appetizing plate we feasted upon.


Goat cheese balls on teeny spoons with balsamic pears!  YUM!

There was also mucho wine on the daily.


I’m usually a red girl, but a cool and crisp glass of white on a warm Barcelona night is not to be missed.  Taken on the rooftop bar of our hotel.  Highly recommended!

And I could never forget this really sweet bottle of water.


Designed by Christian Lacroix!  I really wanted to take it home.

Of course, the chocoholic in me took only one day in Barcelona to discover that the city contained a Chocolate Museum.  I am totally serious.  I learned a lot about the history of chocolate production and the meanings it imbued on worldwide culture…


…and thoroughly appreciated an exquisite chocolate replication of Homer Simpson.



B-t-dubs, they give you a chocolate bar with admission.  Educational and delicious!

Lastly, it was in Barcelona that Dan and I declared our Vacation Mission: to photograph as many European dogs as possible.

Let me explain.

Dan and I LOVE dogs.  We love the ones we grew up with.  We share an obsession with Daily Puppy.  And we also have a habit of pointing out dogs to each other whenever we see them on the street.  Ooh – look at that Bernese Mountain Dog! So of course this habit followed us to Europe.  Why not document it?  Thus, here for your viewing pleasure is a taste of The Dogs of Barcelona.




Notice the repeat sneaky picture action in the last one?  Yep, that’s Dan’s White Sox hat.


And my personal favorite…


What better place to take a cat nap with your pup than on La Rambla, one of the busiest streets in Barcelona!

Seriously though, we took a TON of dog pictures.  When I arrived back in the US, I had immediate reactions of reaching for my no-longer-over-the-shoulder camera every time I spotted a pup.  It lasted for days.

So that’s Barcelona in a nutshell!  We saw some other things too – Barcelona Cathedral, Sagrada Família, Columbus Monument, Roman walls, the beach – but this stuff was the best in my opinion.  Hope it was as good for you as it was for me.  Stay tuned for Nice and Florence!

Sweet + Natural’s 1st Birthday!


One year ago today, Sweet + Natural was born.  My baby’s growing up!  I feel so old.

I started this blog out of a desire to keep track of my baking adventures and a desperate need for a creative outlet.  With a vision of what baking could be – always whole grain, always naturally sweetened, always delicious – I staked out my little niche in cyberspace.  And much to my delight, there were people out there – you! – who shared my vision!

This past year has been SO fun and rewarding.  I’ve stretched my culinary imagination, learned about new ingredients, developed my written voice, played with photography and connected with others who have similar interests.

And you wonderful readers have been with me through it all!  Though there have been times when I wasn’t able to post as much as I’d like – I refer to those periods as the Dark (Chocolate) Ages – you kept coming back.  Just know, if I haven’t updated in a while, it’s only because I truly care about each and every post and simply don’t have the time to give one the attention it deserves.  No brownie or cookie of mine will ever receive sub-par treatment, no siree.  Trust me, unless I tell you the blog has been put to rest, I will always be back!  Your comments and e-mails help keep me motivated to get in the kitchen to bake up my next new treat.  So keep ’em coming!  I love hearing from you when you bake up one of my recipes or have a question about ingredients or share a tasty treat of your own.

To celebrate Sweet + Natural‘s first birthday, below are some of my personal favorite baked goodies from the past year.  They all received rave reviews from Dan, my family, friends and/or readers as well so are guaranteed to be scrumptious.  If you’ve made any of my recipes and have your own preferences, please chime in!  Enjoy!

Maple Almond Butter Cookies


Chocolate Carrot Cake + Cream Cheese Frosting


Crumbly Peanut Butter Oat Bars


Maple Banana Cornbread


Walnut Chocolate Chip Spelt Cookies


Spice Pumpkin Honey Muffins


Honey Yogurt Cheesecake Bars with Cinnamon Graham Cracker Crusts


Here’s to another Sweet + Natural year!  Thanks for reading!


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