Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Regional Cookie Highlight: Almond Macaroons

Photographs by Nicole Holt

Traveling to a new place exposes you to many things that are familiar, yet slightly different and therefore exotic. I've written about my love of exploring grocery stores for this reason, but today I'd like to take a more focused look at the exotic familiar.

Cookies are something with which most of us become familiar during childhood. Usually a sweet after meal snack or a between meal snack, the cookie, at least for me, instantly brings nostalgic comfort.

When I started to travel extensively, I noticed that the varieties of cookies that were familiar to me in my childhood aren't always available. Variations of the chocolate chip cookie are widespread, but snickerdoodles are often rare or even unheard of. What I did find was a wide variety of cookies that I'd never seen or even heard of before. Wonderful cookies with names like pfefferneusse, Jaffa Cakes, black and whites and Tim Tams.

Shortly after moving to the Boston area, my wife and I stopped in at Darwin's, a coffee shop in Cambridge, MA, to get some coffee and the dessert case caught our eyes. In particular, there was flat cookie half covered in chocolate labeled as an almond macaroon. Up to this point we had both only known macaroons as a rounded coconut based cookie that generally wasn't flat.

Purchasing this single cookie on a whim exposed us to the world of almond macaroons, which has kept us on the lookout for new examples to tempt our taste buds ever since.

On a recent Saturday morning, we rode our bikes through Somerville and Cambridge, MA, to collect a few examples. We only made it to two bakeries before the heat persuaded us to pursue cooler activities, but many bakeries in the Boston area make this specialty.

Our first stop was Lyndell's, an old bakery with reasonable prices and a wonderful habit of using copious amounts of their not-too-sweet butter cream. Stepping into Lyndell's is like visiting a bakery that your grandparents frequented while growing up. There's a good reason for this feeling as Lyndell's has been here since 1887.

Lyndell's is the home of the almond disk ($1.25 each or $14 for a dozen), a soft cake based cookie with a crunchy base that has a very distinct almond flavor. On top of this cookie, a generous portion of lightly vanilla flavored butter cream is held together by a thin layer of dark chocolate.

The almond disks are roughly shaped as they are made by hand, and they are clearly not one of the mass produced cookies that have become all too familiar. As corny as it may sound, they look as if they are made with love.

The sweetness of the cookie is balanced nicely by the large amount of butter cream atop it. Eating one is a decadent experience, yet the cookie is not dense. The Lyndell's almond disk must be kept refrigerated, which makes it a bit difficult to transport long distances or in hot weather, but its well worth the effort to track down when you are in the area.

The original Lyndell's that we visited in Somerville is at 720 Broadway but they also have a location in the tourist friendly North End of Boston at 227 Hanover Street.

Hi-Rise Bread Company bakes a very different type of almond macaroon ($1.00) that is just as delicious, just in a different way.

This is a chocolate-less cookie with a crunchy exterior, moist interior and a slight dusting of powdered sugar on top. With an assertive almond flavor, Hi-Rise's almond macaroon is simply a pleasure. The single almond atop each cookie is a nice touch, never allowing you to forget what kind of cookie you have before you.

The macaroon's dry texture makes it a natural accompaniment to an iced coffee in the summer or a hot coffee in the colder months. Both of these drink options are available onsite, though we haven't yet tried their coffee. A sign out front did boast of their cold brewed iced coffee, and I take this as a good omen.

We visited the Hi-Rise near tourist friendly Brattle Square and Harvard Square in Cambridge at 56 Brattle Street, but there is also another Cambridge location at 208 Concord Avenue.

Our quest for the best almond macaroon is far from over, but with Lyndell's and Hi-Rise, the bar has been set quite high. If you know of any bakeries in the Boston area that are producing excellent almond macaroons, please let me know. The next time you are in the Boston area, be sure to try an almond disk or almond macaroon.

I'll continue to keep an eye out for interesting cookies wherever I go. If your area has a local specialty cookie please let me know in the comments section below as I never know where my travels will take me next.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Product Review: The Tugo, A Cup Holder For Your Luggage

If you’ve ever tried to walk quickly from your favorite airport coffee shop to your gate while balancing your carry-on luggage and your hot coffee, then you know how challenging it can be to avoid spilling hot coffee all over yourself.

In a misguided attempt to avoid this balancing act, I once tried putting my nearly full cup of coffee in the water bottle pouch on the side of my backpack. When I reached my gate a few minutes later, I realized that a fair amount of my coffee had spilt onto my backpack and some had gotten onto my clothes.

After that experience I resigned myself to live with this limitation. Fortunately, I would not suffer forever as someone with more ingenuity than I noticed this problem and decided that the lack of cup holders on luggage needed to be remedied. Behold the fruit of that ingenuity: the tugo.

Photograph by Nicole Holt

The tugo is a flexible cup holder that can easily attach between the handle posts of most rolling luggage. The tugo holds all standard disposable coffee cups, some reusable coffee mugs and most 16-20 oz fountain drink cups. The design lets the cup hang freely between to anchor points and tries to use gravity to keep the cup upright, which should free up a generally make life easier. We’ll get to the “tries” part in a moment.

I first heard about this product on Twitter and the tugo sounded like the product for which I had been looking for some time. A few twitter and e-mail exchanges later with the makers of the tugo resulted in the generous offer to send me one for review; I gracefully accepted this offer.

Upon receiving my tugo, I noticed that the packaging was slick and well thought out. The side had an opening so that you could see the color of your tugo before purchase. The tugo is currently only available in black, but the tugo website,, pictures a red model which appears to be the prototype. The only flaw with the packaging that I found was that the images used to illustrate the operation of the tugo were backwards as if they had been flipped 180 degrees. Regardless of this error, the images are clear enough to facilitate the operation of the tugo.

The red prototype is used in the video located at tugo video and clearly shows a coffee cup swinging freely in the tugo when in the luggage is in use.

I opened the package and removed the tugo. While it is made of a rugged rubber-like material, it didn’t have the same stretch as rubber. Its material and build reminded me of a fan belt. That may sound strange, but, like a fan belt, the tugo is built tough and built to last; I was very impressed.

I was ready to put the tugo to the test. Not long after I found myself in an airport and in need of coffee. I purchased a12 oz decaf and attached the tugo onto the rolling carry-on that I borrowed from my wife just for this purpose.

Once I tightened the straps, I placed my coffee in the tugo and tilted the carry on forward. The coffee immediately began to slosh out of the opening, so I stopped to examine the setup. Due to the angle at which the handle sat and the lack of flexibility caused by the robust material used in the tugo, the cup was permanently angled forward. With the cup opening in the direction of movement, it didn’t take much tilt to have coffee spilling out and onto the floor.

Ah, but this lack of flexibility works both ways. By turning the cup around so that the opening faced the bag, the coffee would always be tilted back slightly, which would prevent spills. With this detail sorted out the tugo got the job done, even though it didn’t do it as intended.

Please note that if your bag isn’t well balanced and prone to tipping over, use of the tugo will result in coffee going everywhere.

Despite the fact that the tugo doesn’t flex as much as the red prototype, it still works and would make an excellent travel accessory for the right type of traveler.

If you travel frequently with a rolling case and love coffee (or know someone who does) then the tugo is well worth considering. Business travelers are a natural for the tugo, and flight attendants and pilots may find this useful as well.

The tugo can be purchased for $10 from select retailers as well as directly from

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Pressed Pennies: The 51 Cent Souvenir

Photographs by Nicole Holt

When I was growing up, creating pressed coins was merely a way to pass time while visiting my parent's friends in a remote California town. We'd place an assortment of coins on the nearby train tracks, go back to the house and wait to hear the train bell which let us know that our mutated currency was nearly done. At the time I had no idea that people actually collected pressed coins.

It was years after removing these smashed coins from the sides of the tracks that I would learn of the more controlled method of pressing coins between steel rollers which imparted embossed designs into the finished product. Surprisingly enough, this is a fairly old technique, dating back at least as far as the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.

Once I became aware of the pressed penny machines, it seemed like I couldn't turn around without seeing one of them. For 50 cents plus a penny, the machine squish the penny into an oblong shape and emboss it with a design inspired by the destination. Occasionally I would take part of this activity, inserting my coins, pressing a button, watching the gears turn and and enjoying the little clink at the end as it popped out my freshly squeezed souvenir.

As with most things in one's childhood, I quickly forgot about all the pennies that I had smashed until about 5 years ago when I started dating the woman who is now my wife. She started collecting pressed pennies from the places we visited, and we started keeping an eye out for the machines wherever we went. Slowly the pile of smashed coins began to grow, full of the places that we've shared.

Some of these coins have special meaning such as the three pictured below. We found my wife's engagement ring in Seattle, we moved to the greater Boston area and we spent our honeymoon in Savannah.

We are casual collectors of elongated coins, but there are people who take this hobby much more seriously. eBay is full of people selling elongated coins, and people also trade full sets of coins from a given machine, which are generally offer 4 different designs.

Discussion groups like the one at The Elongated Collector popped to connect those that share the passion for mutating coins for 50 cents. Websites selling coins such as and were established to sell coins from far off places. Disneyland even emptied it's Penny Arcade and filled it with machines to press coins.

I can see the appeal of collecting these with gusto, but I am happy with the casual nature that my wife and I have with collecting elongated coins.

The next time you see one of those elongated coin machines begging for your loose change on your travels, consider trying it out. You'll have a tiny piece of art to remind you of your journey, and it might even spark an obsession.

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Book Review: Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn

Photograph by Nicole Holt

Travels with Myself and Another: A Memoir by Martha Gellhorn is a wonderful collection of self described "travel horror stories" collected in times when travel wasn't as common or easy as it is today.

Martha Gellhorn was a journalist with an insatiable thirst for travel and adventure. With the aid of her sporadically kept journals and letters that she sent to her mother while traveling, she recreates some of her most memorable trips that were more trying than most. I think that the majority of people who travel will agree that it's the things that don't go as you plan while traveling that are the most memorable.

The author was privileged enough to travel to mysterious places like China, Russia and Africa while they were still mysterious and very difficult to visit. The book recounts adventures during WWII to the 1960's, and Ms. Gellhorn is able to show us a different time in the history of travel from working as a war correspondent in the Caribbean searching for submarines or researching the hippy subculture in Israel.

As a world traveler, I found this book relatable, and I especially found myself drawn to the story about visiting Soviet Russia since I had visited Russia in the not too distant past. While travelers no longer have to worry about the KGB, it appears to be just as difficult to visit Russia today as it was back then. Difficulties obtaining a visa, worrying about getting stuck in customs and not knowing who to trust are still common place. The knowledge that some things truly never change is oddly comforting.

While I did enjoy this book, I did not find it to be flawless. At times the author wrote passages entirely in French. I understand that there are some things that lose a great deal of their character when translated into English, but I neither speak nor read French so these passages came off to me as inside jokes of which I could not be part.

The author's style, which rambles on from time to time, takes a bit of getting used to, but it added somewhat to the stories, so it is forgivable.

Frequent travelers will find that Travels with Myself and Another: A Memoir rings true today even though its stories take place in a different age of travel. These stories will surely bring me comfort the next time I find myself in one of those unenviable travel positions; "At least I'm not Martha" I will think, and I will be thankful.

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