Corn Dogs and Meh at the New Mexico State Fair

So we went to the State Fair and for like three weeks leading up to the fair we were like CORN DOGS FUNNEL CAKES DEEP FRIED THINGS ON STICKS — MAKE IT HAPPEN, FAIR. And then we got to the fair and yes, there were many yummy smells coming from many food booths all over the place. Promising!

It was about 85 degrees, I think. Which might not sound too hot, but out on the asphalt and NO SHADE of the fairgrounds, it quickly became a blistering stuffed animal & carnie infested hellscape.

You know what sounds good in that environment? A/C and a nap. A cold beverage. Ice cream, snow cones.  You know what doesn’t sound good in that environment? Hot, deep-fried foods.

BUT WE WERE ON A MISSION. A mission to eat and love some fried fair foods (preferably on sticks).  So we stood in various lines and picked up a foot-long corn dog, some drinks, and a funnel cake.

Then we sat down in the shadeless noonday sun in the midst of the carnival crowds of sweating, dragging, weary people and we ate our hot, fried foods, dripping sweat into our mustard.

CORN DOG
Foot-long hand-dipped corn dog, NM State Fair

So the corn dog was $6 and the bottle of water was $3. We also got a cold bottle of Pepsi, also $3. (Which is more expensive than the drinks at Disneyland, which I hadn’t thought possible.)  The funnel cake my daughter picked out (with whipped cream and Hershey syrup) was NINE FREAKING DOLLARS.

Everything was fine. Good, even. But was it exciting or special? Not really.

Something else we had, which was a finalist or something in the “Unique Foods” competition, were the deep fried green chile cheese curds. Which really, sounds like the quintessential NM State Fair food, does it not? And they are served with ranch for dipping, naturally, like every other savory deep fried thing.

And they were fine. Good, even. The problem I had with them was the lack of green chile. There was a slight green chile flavor, but at the NM State Fair, where we are celebrating things New Mexico, if something says “green chile” I want BAM! GREEN CHILE!

So, yeah.

State Fair Cheese Curds
Deep Fried Green Chile Cheese Curds, NM State Fair

Maybe my expectations were too high. I had been watching Carnival Eats for weeks leading up this day, just to prepare myself. But I found the foods to be uninspired and just OK. Oh and way too expensive.

Overall, we had a fine time at the fair. We rode some rides and played some games, ate some foods, and felt somehow violated in ways we couldn’t pinpoint by a few carnies, so it was a typical fair experience.

But I’m just now getting over the sticker shock of the prices for everything ($5 apiece for rides/games was the norm).

My favorite part of the fair was not the food or midway at all — it was the buildings of prize-winning art, textiles, and giant vegetables. Mostly because they were interesting to look at, but also partly because they were air conditioned and didn’t cost another $15 each time we walked through a door.

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Pie Town Festival – Pie Town, NM

Pie Town is a tiny little community located about 20 miles west of Datil, New Mexico. The town was named after a baker in the 1920s that made pies. Pies so good, the town was named after it. So you can bet when I heard this town was holding its annual Pie Festival, I was going to attend. Always held the second Saturday in September, the event is a fundraiser held by the Pie Town Community Council, a volunteer organization that provides a variety of services for the town. The event features crafts for sale, an open air flea market, pie eating and baking contests, horned toad races, the crowning of the Pie Queen, a dance, and most importantly… pie for sale.

Check here for EatingNewMexico’s 6 Tips for a Successful Pie Fest

Early Saturday morning I, along with my seven-year-old nephew and a friend, made the trek to Pie Town. The plan was to ensure that we made it to the event in time to sign my nephew up for the pie eating contest, and to meet up with this blog’s very own zymbologistbob, who had been wanting to go to the festival for 14 some years, and a couple of his pie-friendly friends. The two-and-half-hour drive from Albuquerque to Pie Town was gorgeous. After a stop at the Very Large Array outside of Magdalena, New Mexico, we arrived.

The festival is held in Jackson Park, along Highway 60 and across the street from the Pie-O-Neer bakery. There was plenty of parking available along the road, and the place was packed. Apparently, for such a small town, this festival is quite popular. Because, pie. Throughout the day, we met people from Oregon, Arizona, and California.

Our first stop was to sign my nephew up for the pie eating contest (and myself, but that’s another post). There were about 20 to 30 stands set up around the park with people selling different items. Some were crafters and others were selling tools and used DVDs and such. There were also several food vendors, selling burritos, Navajo fry bread and other treats. But there were only three pie stands among the town. I was a bit surprised, as I expected for a pie festival, there would be more pie stands. That said, the town is incredibly small, and perhaps for the citizens-to-pie ratio, three stands was more than enough. And truth be told, there was more than enough pie available from those vendors.

After touring the stands, we made our way to the Pie-O-Neer bakery. After all, we were here for pie. The place was packed and the line was almost to the door. We each ordered something different (after some indecisiveness with my nephew who couldn’t decide if eating pie would make him too full for the pie eating contest). I had a slice of pecan pie, while my nephew enjoyed blueberry pie. My friend got a slice of the famous green chile apple pie.

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The pecan pie was lovely, it was light, and wasn’t too sugary. The crust was nice and buttery. My nephew said he greatly enjoyed his blueberry pie and was very impressed by the stars on the pie crust. But the green chile apple pie was by far my favorite (I took a bite of my friend’s). It had a hot bite to it, but it the chile flavor wasn’t overwhelming. In case you missed out on the festival this year you can always make your own green chile cheese apple pie with this recipe – previously posted here on EatingNewMexico.

Topped off with pie after our long drive, we went back to the festival grounds. While my nephew played on the swing sets and slides, we waited for the crowning of the Pie Town Pie Queen. I was curious if there were campaigns run ahead of time for the crown, or it if was based off of the best baked pie. Unfortunately, those questions were never answered, as I missed the big crowning. All of the events were announced by a woman with a bullhorn, and by the time I realized it, the crowning was over. Zymbologistbob was upset he didn’t take the title, but I reassured him there is always next year.

While we waited for the pie eating contest, zymbologistbob and his friends enjoyed pie from the Pie Town Café stand. Zymbologistbob had a slice of tart cherry, and his friends each had a blackberry and blueberry. It was the Pie Town Pie Festival after all, so after a bit more wandering they found themselves at the pie stand for the Pie Town Cafe and each shared a mini pecan and strawberry rhubarb pie. It was decided that the strawberry rhubarb was some of the best z-bob ever had.

Pie Town - Sharing the Pie
Pie Town – Sharing the Pie

Next up was the PIE EATING CONTEST, which gets its own page here: Pie Town Pie Eating Contest

After the contest (and subsequent clean up as there was whipped cream and pie remnants everywhere) it was time to enjoy the horned toad races.

As I have never experienced such a race, I had questions. Could you bet on the toads before the race? Were there little lizard stalls so you could see which one looked like a winner? Was there illegal drugging of horned toads going on to ensure a victory? Were there grasshopper jockeys? Luckily, these questions were quickly answered. No, no, no, and sadly no.

Everyone gathered on the basketball courts around a chalk circle. Each of the horned toads were marked on their stomachs with number and the owners were marked with the same number on their hands. The owners were asked to sit outside the circle to encourage their horned toads to victory. The toads were all placed into a bucket and then dumped out in the middle of the circle. The first toad to cross the chalk line was the victor.

Pie Town Horned Toad Race -- bucket o toads.
Pie Town Horned Toad Race — bucket o toads.
Pie Town - Make Friends With Your Toad
Make friends with your toad so you can cheer him/her on to victory!
Pie Town - Horny Toad Races
Pie Town Horned Toad Race — what pies and horned toads have to do with one another, I don’t know. But, horny toads!

There looked to be an early victor, Taco, who ran to the edge of the circle, but then seemed to get confused and just ran around the edge. He was upset by a wee little horned toad. The word “race” might give the impression that this is a fast-paced event, but it took the better part of 15 minutes for a horned toad to finally cross the not-too-distant finish line.

After all that excitement, there wasn’t much left to do. The Pie Festival had other activities into the evening, including a dance where the winning pies from the baking contest would be announced. But as I was responsible for a seven-year-old that I had hopped up on sugar, it seemed best to wind up our day at the Pie Festival. We went back to the Pie-o-Neer to purchase pies for the road, but the majority of them were sold out. So we went to the Pie Town Café and purchased several red chile and apple cinnamon mini pies for gifts. I’m told they were delicious (although I was also told they tasted more like Hot Tamale candy than red chile). We then hit the road back to Albuquerque, after a pleasant day filled with pie, horned toads, more pie, and fun.

6 Tips for a Successful Pie Fest

Tips for a Successful Family Outing to the Pie Festival

  1. The Pie Town Pie Festival has a website with a list of activities and times. While the sign up for the pie eating contests begin at 9 a.m., there’s no reason to get there right on time to sign up. You can sign up right up until contest time assuming there is enough pie to go around.
  2. The best time to get to the Pie Festival is between 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. The main activities begin at noon, and it doesn’t take more than an hour to tour all of the vendor booths and to get your first slice of pie.
  3. Speaking of pie, it’s better to buy your full pies for the road sooner, rather than later. We debated whether or not to buy pies right away. We decided to wait and many of the popular pies were sold out by the time we were ready to head home.
  4. There are a few activities for the kids to do beyond the junior pie eating contest, but you’ll need to keep an eye on them the entire time. The festival is held at a park, so there’s a swing set, a slide and a jungle gym. The slide is one of the biggest I’ve seen, and judging by the amount of kids I saw face-planted at the bottom, it’s a very fast slide. There was nothing unusual about the swing set, but there was a large number of people who walked way too close to swinging kids and almost ended up with black eyes. Pie can lull you into a dangerous state of not paying attention, apparently. There’s also a giant pie of dirt where organizers hide little toys for the kids to find. However, they left behind an adult sized metal shovel for the kids to dig with. Put together a bunch of kids and an adult sized shovel — trouble and concussions are bound to happen.
  5. If you have access to horned toads, don’t forget to bring your speediest and most well-trained for the afternoon horned toad races.
  6. Pie Town is a very small town. There isn’t a gas station, so be sure to fill up in neighboring towns, like Datil or Magdalena.

I hope these tips can help you have a very successful and stress-free Pie Town Pie Festival 2015.

Pie Town – Pie Eating Contest

Ever since my seven-year-old nephew, Little Trickster, learned he would be returning to the Pie Festival in Pie Town, New Mexico, he talked about nothing but winning the children’s pie eating contest. Turns out, last year he lost due to a hand raising technicality. A similar travesty was the fate of Sir Leopold Chestnut, SECOND PLACE winner of the 1903 Summer Olympics prune and custard pie eating contest. Both were sadly unaware that after they finished their pie, they were to raise their hand to be declared the winner. At least this year Little Trickster could learn from his folly. Chestnut, shunned by his peers, never competed again.

Little Trickster had been studying up on how to win this year’s contest. On the two-and-a-half-hour journey from Albuquerque to Pie Town, between singing verses of popular Disney songs, he spoke non-stop about the rules of the contest as well as the best techniques to take the crown. Each contestant was given an appropriately sized fruit pie by age division. All but the youngest contestants had to keep their hands behind their backs during the challenge and could not use them to eat said pie.

The best technique, said Little Trickster, was to move the pie closest to the edge of the table. After the stuffing was inhaled, it was best to use your teeth to flip over the pie tin and drop the pie on the table. It was much easier to eat the rest of the pie this way. He called it the alligator technique. A bit of a misnomer as we all know alligators prefer tarts to pies, unlike their fatter cousin the crocodile.

“You need to listen to me,” said Little Trickster, “so both you and I can be winners in our contests.”

Wait, what?

I knew my nephew was entering the pie eating contest, but I had no plans of entering the adult pie eating contest. I envisioned my first time at the festival perusing pie stands and craft tables. I had not planned on entering a pie eating contest. But Little Trickster, being adorable, was insistent. And I, being both a sucker and partaker in pies, was talked into entering the contest.

Upon our arrival to the Pie Festival, I went to the pavilion and paid the $1 fee to sign Little Trickster up for his age group and then paid $5 to sign myself up for the adult division. We were each given ribbons that showed the judges that we were participants.

In hindsight, it would have been a great deal to concede the contest and walk away with a $25 pie for $5.

At 1 p.m., the pie eating contestants gathered around the row of tables in the middle of the Pie Festival open area. The audience surrounded the pies and contestants (outside the “Splash Zone”) to cheer on their friends. Much attention was paid to the Splash Zone in fear of pie in the sky debris.

First up were the kiddos age 0 – 5. I’m not quite sure how a 0-year-old would eat a pie, but hey, there you go. The little kids were given mini-pies and the contest was on. A winner was declared, and two runner-ups. Each were given ribbons. The parents next to me were rather upset and kept talking about cheating from the winner (their kid got second). Seemed a bit silly to me as it was all for fun — it’s not like it was the pie eating Superbowl. [Editor’s note: fun or not, pie eating contest rules regarding hands on the table is a disqualification-level action. It is a safety matter, fingers are libel to be chewed off in the heat of the competition.]

Next up was Little Trickster’s division, ages 7 – 12. There were 19 participants. Their pies were larger than the mini pies, but still not a full-size pie. Little Trickster was down to business. Right off, he asked the judge if he was supposed to raise his hand when he was done. Once he got the affirmative, and the other kids were all lined up, the contest started. Little Trickster face-planted into his pie and tore that pie up! He used his teeth to flip the pie over using the Alligator Technique. There was whipped cream everywhere — on his nose, on his forehead, even in his hair. He mowed through that pie as fast as he could. (In related news, whipped cream is apparently an excellent conditioner.)

Pie Town - Pie Eating Contest Little T
Little Trickster going for gold

Unfortunately, those older kids were way faster. Out of the 19 participants, Little Trickster got 4th place. I was very proud of his placing and he seemed to be in good spirits, which can’t be that surprising as it’s hard to be sad after eating pie.

Then it was my turn. Little Trickster came up to me and helped me tie my plastic apron. “Since, I didn’t win, you’re going to have to win this,” he said.

Wait, what?

I was just doing this for fun (and pie) but mostly just to placate the now berry-stained kid. Suddenly there was all this added pressure on me to win? Really, my only goal was to not end up like that kid in “Stand By Me.” (No, not the dead one, the one in the pie eating contest, though I didn’t particularly want to end up like the dead one either. I have to remember to chew.)

“Don’t worry,” said Little Trickster. “I’ll coach you. I already asked the judge if I could stay with you and cheer you on.” There were 24 participants in the adult division, and the trash talking starting early. A man from Portland told the rest of us we were going down. A woman from Arizona giggled and said this was her first time. A woman from California let us know she had won three years ago. Ooh, a seasoned veteran.

We lined up around the tables and placed our hands behind our backs. Little Trickster ran around to eye the competition and shout out instructions. He told me to kneel to be closer to the pie.

“REMEMBER THE ALLIGATOR!” he shouted.

The judges placed the pies in front of us. Unfortunately, these weren’t mini pies, or even medium. These were daunting, huge, full-sized strawberry rhubarb pies. Pies that were covered in whipped cream (much like most of the previous contestants).

And not with a shot, but a splat, the contest was on. I shoved my face into that pie and started chewing. And chewing and chewing. And I stopped and realized I was only through the whipped cream. I went back to chewing. I finally hit the filling. It was delicious. I could hear my friends cheering me on. I could hear Little Trickster yelling out instructions. “Do the alligator! Stick your whole face in that pie!” I got through half the pie and drug the tin over to the edge of the table with my teeth. I flipped it and dumped the pie on the table.

Trickster demonstrates the Alligator Technique.
Trickster demonstrates the Alligator Technique.
Pie Town - Pie Eating Contest Trickster in Action
It still looks pretty tasty.

I started working on the crust (which was just as tasty as the pie). I stopped to look up to see where everyone else was at. One girl had given up, and looked rather green. Most of the other contestants had way less pie to get through than I did.

“Put your face back in there!” Little Trickster shouted. I took another bite and looked up again. Little Trickster threatened me with bodily harm if I didn’t win. And I couldn’t help it. I spit out my pie laughing. Poor Portland guy. He was across from me and wasn’t too happy. I tried to chew again but the cheers and coaching was just too much. I just kept giggling. Finally a winner was declared, and then the second and third place winners. My adventure was over. Out of the 24 contestants, I came in 23. Thank goodness for the one green-looking girl.

Pie Town - Trickster After the Fact
I gave it my best shot. 🙂

Little Trickster came over to comfort me. “It’s okay,” he said, “we’ll do better next year.”

Wait, what?

Bandelier Cliff Dwellings & Valles Caldera

Dwelling in the Cliffs — Our daytrip to Bandelier National Monument and Valles Caldera

In order to keep from moving up a weight class (or two), Team EatingNewMexico decided to take Labor Day weekend off from our culinary exploits and get in some much needed hiking. We chose to brave the crowds and drive to Bandelier National Monument, a beautiful, federally protected preserve about two hours north of Albuquerque. Bandelier is famous for the cliff dwellings, village ruins, petroglyphs, kivas, and other artifacts of the Ancestral Pueblo people, who occupied the area approximately 500-900 years ago.

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If you’ve been to Bandelier in the past, but it’s been a while, you should know that the rules have changed when it comes to driving and parking at the monument. Unless you’re an early bird (arriving before 9:00 a.m.) or a late-comer (arriving after 3:00 p.m.), you won’t be allowed to drive yourself to the park. Visitors arriving between 9:00 and 3:00 have to park in the town of White Rock and take the shuttle bus into Bandelier. White Rock is about 12 miles away from the park entrance, and the bus ride takes around 20-25 minutes.

The Visitor’s Center and shuttle bus terminal in White Rock were well marked and very easy to find. We arrived in White Rock around 10:30 AM, and in spite of the Labor Day crowds, there was ample parking available. The Visitor’s Center had a helpful and friendly staff, and clean restrooms. There was a shuttle leaving every 20 minutes, so we had plenty of time to hit the restroom, change into our hiking boots, and liberally apply sunscreen before we jumped on the bus.

Since it was Labor Day weekend, the park was crowded and the full-sized buses filled up to “standing room only” very quickly. Upon boarding the bus, the driver informed us that there would be two stops. The first stop would be at the Frey Trailhead / Juniper Campground, which would allow visitors to make a 1.5 mile hike to the Bandelier Visitor’s Center along a well-marked trail. The second stop would be at the Visitor’s Center, for those unwilling or unable to make the hike.

When we arrived at the Frey Trailhead, we expected a mass exodus from the extremely crowded bus; however, only three people chose to make the hike: me, Zia, and Zia’s eight year-old daughter. We thought that was a little odd, but at the same time enjoyed a bit of self-righteousness at being the only ones who dared to hike in rather than be bussed in…or did everyone else know something that we didn’t???

The Frey Trail

As it turns out, leaving the bus to hike in via the Frey Trail was a great idea. The trail is well marked and provides good, even footing. The only significant terrain is over the last half-mile, as the trail descends through a series of switchbacks into the valley floor where the Visitor’s Center and old Tyuonyi (Que-WEH-nee) Pueblo ruins are located. During the descent, we were rewarded with a beautiful view of the valley floor and the surrounding high ground. We felt very fortunate that we had this view and experience all to ourselves, as we were the sole hikers on the trail.

Looking down at Frijole Canyon
Looking down from Frey Trail on Frijoles Canyon and Tyuonyi (Que-weh-nee) Pueblo Ruins.

Bandelier Visitor’s Center

The hike in from the Frey Trailhead left us feeling a little hot and parched (we did pack along some water bottles, but we were ready for something a little colder, preferably something with bubbles poured over ice, like, preferably a Dr. Pepper). The Visitor’s Center at Bandelier offered us a short hiatus from the hot sun. There were restrooms, air conditioning, and a friendly staff on hand ready to answer our questions. We paid our park fee ($12 per car, or since we didn’t have a car, per “group of people that would fit in a car”) with a credit card, but in order to purchase a village map ($1), we needed cash. Neither of us had any cash, but the staff was happy to provide us with a “Loaner Map,” which we returned at the end of our visit.

Adjacent to the Visitor’s Center is a Gift Shop and Snack Bar. The snack bar offers an ok variety of pre- and post-hike fare. There are trail mixes, candy, chips, beverages (bottled and fountain), as well as some over-the-counter cooked foods like hot dogs! (They’re “Nathan’s” hot dogs, too. And yes, we shared one!) Even though we had packed along our own water and trail mixes for the hike, the Visitor’s Center Snack Bar was a nice respite from the heat, and it allowed us to recharge from the hike in.

Next, we set off on the Main Loop Trail, a paved 1.2-mile roundtrip route that leads to the Tyuonyi ruins, the cliff dwellings, the Long House, and eventually on to another trail, which leads to the Alcove House site.

The map we borrowed proved very useful. Each feature along the trail is marked with a wooden numbered marker, and you can open your map to the corresponding number and read a description and history of what you’re seeing. I highly recommending purchasing or borrowing a map for touring the area.

The Sites

Tyuonyi Pueblo Ruins, Bandelier National Monument
The first major site you come to on the Main Loop Trail is the Tyuonyi Pueblo Ruins.

The first major site along the Main Loop Trail is the Tyuonyi Pueblo Ruins. Passing through this village, it’s easy to let your mind travel back in time to the 12th and 13th century when this Ancestral Pueblo community thrived. According to the map/guidebook, these ruins were once called “Anasazi” ruins, but the name was changed to “Ancestral Pueblo” because Anasazi actually translates to “Ancient Enemy.” The Tyuonyi ruins are laid out in a circle, and once stood 2-3 stories tall. The rooms themselves are very small — each only slightly larger than a king-size bed, and were probably mostly used to store food and supplies. In the center of the circle were 3 kivas (underground pit structures used for religious ceremonies, teaching, and other community functions). One of the kivas has been excavated and maintained while the other two are only slightly visible as indentations in the ground.

Even though there were a lot of visitors while we were there, the trail system throughout the valley is large enough to keep the crowd thinned out. The only place we were near other sightseers was at the cliff dwellings themselves, where there was usually a short queue waiting to ascend one of the ladders and explore the inside of the dwellings.

Little Coyote (Zia's daughter) climbs up into a cavate.
Little Coyote (Zia’s daughter) climbs up into a cavate.

The cliffs in this area (the Pajarito Plateau) are actually hardened volcanic ash (called “tuff”) deposited over a million years ago during a massive volcanic explosion in the nearby mountains. Over time, wind and rain eroded the softer areas of the tuff, creating holes and caverns. The Pueblo people used hand tools to carve out the holes for their dwellings. These are called cavates (CAVE-eights). In some cases, small mud brick structures were built in front of the cavate openings to expand the dwelling.

Cliff Dwellings at Bandelier National Monument
Cliff Dwellings and Cave Painting at Bandelier National Monument

From the outside, we could see many of the centuries-old petroglyphs carved into walls. In the photo above, you can see a cave wall painting that was uncovered during excavation of one of the dwellings. The painting looked like a zig-zag pattern in red and brown hues. On the broad wall of the cliff, we spotted faces, turkeys, suns, and other various petroglyphs. The horizontal rows of smaller holes show where floors & ceilings were located.

Cliff Dwellings at Bandelier National Monument
Cliff Dwellings at Bandelier National Monument. Known as The Long House, this area is a long row of dwellings, some of which were multiple stories tall, and some of which showed evidence of mud brick expansions.

 

Bandelier Cliff Dwellings New Mexico
Bandelier Cliff Dwellings. Petroglyphs are present though hard to make out here. Horizontal lines of smaller shows show evidence of multiple floors. Stone wall ruins in foreground show evidence of expansion.

 

Beyond Long House is a fork in the road. You can either turn left and go back to the Visitor’s Center or turn right and walk about 1/2 mile to the Alcove House. The Alcove House is a large, open cave (aka an alcove!) in the cliff about 140 feet above the valley floor. The trail to Alcove House wanders along the Frijoles Creek basin. It’s well shaded by the trees and offers a nice break from the hot sun alongside the cliff dwellings. To enter the alcove, you ascend a series of narrow stairs carved into the cliff and four well-worn (but plenty sturdy) wooden ladders. While this is nowhere near as scary as it sounds, people with a fear of heights could experience some anxiety about the climb and the descent. However, the view from the alcove is worth the climb.

Frijoles Creek Bandelier
Frijoles Creek, small but lovely (and lots of shade) – Cliff Dwellings in the background

 

Alcove House notice, Bandelier
Alcove House notice, Bandelier: beware!

 

Alcove House Bandelier Going Up
Going Up! Stairway toward Alcove House.
Alcove House, Bandelier
Alcove House from the top of the final ladder. Shade!

 

 

Alcove House Bandelier
Alcove House. Consists of a large alcove, a refurbished (and closed-off) ceremonial Kiva, and a few small caves. Gorgeous views out to Frijoles Canyon.

 

Down from the Alcove
Going Down! Descending from Alcove House

 

Overall, we spent about three hours in the valley. After we felt like we’d seen all there was to see (without setting off on a whole new hike), we walked about a mile back to the Visitor’s Center and had another run on the Snack Bar. Here, we decided to hop a bus back to White Rock rather than hike (UP) the Frey Trail back out. We wanted to save some daylight for our next stop…the Valles Caldera!

NOTE: There are many other things to see at Bandelier — other ruins, dwellings, and cave paintings — plus many other long and short trails. See their website for a full list of trails and things to see. Bandelier National Monument – More Info

Valles Caldera

About 30 minutes west of White Rock along Highway 4 is one of the most breathtaking sights I’ve seen in New Mexico, the Valle Grande of the Valles Calder, a 13.7 mile wide volcanic caldera in the Jemez Mountains. (http://www.vallescaldera.gov/) The caldera was formed over a million years ago when the magma chamber of a volcano collapses in on itself after eruption, forming a bowl-shaped (or cauldron, “caldera” shaped) indention. There are areas within the caldera where magma is less than five miles below your feet.

Sadly, since this was a day trip and we still had to drive back to Albuquerque, we didn’t have a lot of time to explore the caldera. We did venture into the Valle Grande by car and we stopped by the visitor’s center to check it out. According to their website, the Valles Caldera offers an array of activities throughout the year, to include horseback riding, fly fishing, mountain biking, and cross-country skiing, just to name a few. I’m sure we will be visiting here again in the future.

Valles Caldera New Mexico
Looking out across the Valles Caldera from Hwy 4. The caldera’s resident elk herds were nowhere to be seen this day.
Valle Grande, Valles Caldera, Bandelier
Looking out across Valle Grande, Valles Caldera, from Hwy 4 pull-off.

 

 

About the Valle Grande
About the Valle Grande

 

Culinary Adventures…

…or lack thereof. Like I said in the beginning, this was never meant to be an eating adventure. While we entertained some great ideas about stopping for dinner in Santa Fe on the way home, in the end, the wishes of the 8-yr-old won out, and we found ourselves enjoying some chili-cheese tots at the Los Alamos Sonic. Not our best “Eating New Mexico” moment, but hey, truth be told, those things are damn good.

Click for More Info:  Bandelier National Monument – More Info

Making French Truffles at Joliesse Chocolates

Joliesse Chocolates
6855 4th St NW | Los Ranchos de Albuquerque

I’ll openly admit at least two of my most major addictions — chocolate and Groupon. This little adventure fed into both of those particular indulgences, and I assure you I would have satisfied each of those cravings again had they not been related.

I got to play chocolatier for day: just as much cheer as being a mouseketeer but without the ears and with messier hands. Joliesse Chocolates is a quaint little coffee and chocolate shop tucked away in an unassuming shopping center off of 4th street in northwest Albuquerque. It’s a charming little place that offers single source coffee drinks named after various Broadway musicals and — most importantly — chocolate wares and chocolate classes. Now don’t get me wrong, I would have happily had a mug of Wicked, their dark chocolate and chile espresso latte, but I was there for another reason. I was there to make chocolate truffles… lots of them.

In the class I learned the how and why of chocolate tempering, how to make a butter ganache, and finally got to get down and dirty by hand forming and decorating some of my own truffles.

For this outing, I dragged along my friend Shannon, who didn’t require any arm twisting. This always seems to be the case when chocolate is involved. Odd. We attended a Tuesday night class, though Sunday nights are also an option for truffle making. The classes are limited to 16 folks, but we were lucky enough to get plenty of attention, as we were in a class of only four. However, it is possible that the supervision was simply present as I really shouldn’t be trusted around that quantity of chocolate.

Class started with a bit of a chocolate history lesson and five different distinct and definitive samplings of chocolates, taking us each though a palleted journey, starting at white and moving darker and darker, then finishing off with the typical food service chocolate chips. One of these things was not like the other. All of the first samples were composed of only cocoa butter, cocoa (except for the white chocolate), sugar, and lecithin. The food service option, however, also had an artificial paraffin-like wax added expressly to replace the expensive cocoa butter present in “real” chocolate. Yummy, wax. Think of that the next time you bite the ears off a cheap chocolate bunny. They were trying to prove a point about quality, and I think they succeeded.

Next up in the grueling “why would anyone want to make their own truffles” courses was the mini session on tempering chocolate. For those of you not in the know, or cool enough to have already have taken this class, tempering is the process of heating and cooling chocolate so that it forms crystal bonds, making it good for dipping, coating, and generating that overall smooth composition that will melt perfectly at body temperature. This provides the wonderful silky smooth melt-in-your-mouth texture. (It also gives you the perfect melt-all-over-your-hands-and-smear-it-all-over-your-friend’s-phone consistency when you’re hand crafting chocolate balls, but more on that later.) The tempering itself consisted of taking already melted chocolate and thinly applying it over a room-temperature marble slab for cooling over and over again, then reintroducing said chocolate to the melted batch and repeating. The cooling of the marble slab created type V (remember Roman numerals?) crystals, which then seed the entire molten batch of chocolate into a tub of decadence.

Tempering the Chocolate
Tempering the Chocolate

After tempering chocolate, the next step was to combine 1 part unsalted butter to 1.7 parts of the chocolate by weight and mix until properly incorporated. Once combined, this becomes our ganache. Hence the alternate name of “butter truffles” for French truffles. We were told that this can also be done with cream, or a mix of cream and butter in order to obtain the desired thickness of the end product.

Spooning Chocolate
Preparing the Chocolate for Trufflizing.

It was at this time we had the option of adding various flavors to our truffles. A host of spices, herbs, and liqueurs were presented. I went with chile, ground pepper, anise, and a pinch of cardamom. My cocoa-compatriot, Shannon, went with what I believe was a mixture of ground anise, rosemary, and cinnamon.

I’m taking this opportunity as I write to try one of her truffles for the first time. (It was terrible, Shannon. Don’t bother trying them. Just give them all to me and I’ll get rid of them for you.) Mine, however, were delicious, and I’m not nice enough to share them with anybody.

After a quick trip to the fridge allowing the ganache to rest and become more workable, it was time to turn our concoction into the actual truffles. This basically meant taking a wad of gooey messy chocolate and trying one’s best to roll them into little balls of yumminess. Think chocolate meatballs.

It is possible that this process resulted in chocolate everywhere. This is probably the only time in my life that I’ve had more chocolate on me than in me. It was oddly satisfying, even if there was chocolate under my fingernails, on my elbow, and apparently a bit freshly adorning my confectionery copilot’s phone. I think it was an improvement. Everyone has had a caramel dipped apple, but I doubt there are too many chocolates rolled iPhones. A tasty collectors item had I ever seen one. The mess is part of the experience, I’ve been assured that it wouldn’t have been as much fun had there been gloves and aprons involved.

Chocolate Class - messy hands
In the world of truffle-making, you have to be willing to make a mess.

Once we had our little chocolate noms formed, we were given the opportunity to roll them about in various coatings including crushed nuts, sesame seeds, gram cracker, more chocolate, or the traditional cocoa power. Truffles came by their name as these little cocoa powder dusted lumpy balls of delight that greatly resembled the freshly dug up dirty mushrooms of the same name, or possibly because the French have run out of words, I’m not really sure. It has only been more recently that truffles were dusted in something other than cocoa powder. Celebrating modern times and given that the lesson of the night was making a royal mess, I did what any rational person would do and used a bit of everything to coat my truffles.

 

Chocolate Class Truffles
Chocolate Happiness at Joliesse Chocolates, Albuquerque

Finally we packed our freshly minted truffles into paper wrapping cups and pristinely placed them in a translucent Chinese takeaway box finished with a golden seal. They looked so elegant, it is hard to believe the amount of chaos it took to birth them. But it wasn’t just a mess that was created, there were also chocolate, laughs, stories, and smiles.

The finished product!
Handmade truffles packed nice and neat @ Joliesse Chocolates

Would I go back? Absolutely. For starters I ended up with a batch of delicious truffles made exactly to my specifications. Even though the shop is way out of my way, they have other chocolate classes, a cozy lounge, and even a bacon & vanilla espresso. I’ve already recommend the class to a smattering of friends in hopes that they too will become a chocolatier for a day.

http://www.lajoliesse.com/

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