Friday, March 20, 2020

The Best and Easiest Muffin Recipe

Time to Share my favorite muffin recipe. I love this recipe so much and have been meaning to share it here forever but somehow never got to it. With COVID-19 though, I am stuck in the house and it dawned on me: the muffin recipe - now is the time!

But first the backstory, cause there's always a backstory, right? I have had this recipe since the 1990s, when I was a poor college student living in Varna, Bulgaria. Monumental changes were under way in the whole region. The communism experiment was over and it was time to try something else. Bulgaria, like most of the countries in the area, was fighting its way to democracy and free market economy, or as close as we could get to those things. Grappling with the changes was very hard for many. People didn't have much and lived very modestly.

My best friend Nassia and I were renting a room in the apartment of an elderly lady, Baba Radka. She was a widow and rented out two of the bedrooms in her apartment to students to supplement her retirement income. The apartment was old but it was a five-minute walk from my college and right by the Sea Garden (a beautiful large park along the Black Sea in Varna), so while it was not at all fancy, it was certainly convenient. Baba Radka would bake this thing on occasion and the whole apartment would smell like baked apples, cinnamon and nuts. It smelled like heaven to me. She would sometimes give Nassia and me a piece each. The pieces always seemed tiny to me but OMG, so delicious! I would sit there and eat it as slowly as I could, savoring every crumb until it was all gone. She didn't let us use her kitchen, so we had no way of making our own but I did ask her for the recipe and she gave it to me. At first I made it brownie-style like Baba Radka but over the years decided that making individual muffins using the same recipe was easier and more practical.

I have made those muffins a million times with whatever fruit, yogurt and nuts I could get in the different places where we lived. I love how simple and versatile it is. You don't have to have anything special to make them. You don't even have to have a blender. You can easily mix the ingredients by hand. You can adjust the recipe to your dietary needs/preferences. You can make it vegan by replacing regular yogurt with soy or coconut yogurt. You can use different fruit and/or nuts. I haven't tried to make it sugar-free or gluten-free but the recipe is so simple that I bet it would work. You may need to play with it a little bit but the possibilities are really endless.

OK let's get to it. Here is the basic recipe:

Fruit, Yogurt and Nut Muffins

1 cup sugar
1 cup plain yogurt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup oil
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup chopped/grated nuts
1 cup chopped/grated fruit

Add ingredients gradually and mix well as you add each.

Pour into muffin tins. Bake @ 350 F (about 180 C) for about 30-35 min.

Notes - I have experimented with this recipe a lot. Here are some suggestions that may be helpful:
  • I generally use regular sugar but brown sugar works just as well.
  • I use plain yogurt but you can use flavored too. If you use flavored, you may want to lower the amount of sugar by however much sugar is in the yogurt or you'll end up with sweeter muffins. I personally don't like them too sweet. If your yogurt is very thick, as is the case with the yogurt we buy here in Saudi Arabia, you may need to add a little liquid (water or fruit juice) to get the right consistency or you'll end up with muffins that are too dry.
  • I use sunflower oil. I have tried other oils but keep coming back to sunflower as I like it's flavor best.
  • Nuts - I use walnuts most of the time but have tried almonds, hazelnuts, pumpkin, sunflower and apricot seeds. I bet pecans, peanuts, cashews and pine nuts would work well too. If you are allergic, you may need to skip the nuts and experiment with the consistency.
  • Fruit: lots of options here. Apples are popular in my house but I have made them with peaches, apricots, mangoes, cherries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, bananas and other fruit and they turn out great. One thing to remember is some fruits are juicier than others, so you may have to add some flower or water/juice to get the right muffin consistency.
  • As mentioned earlier, you can totally make this in a brownie pan and cut it up after baking. I just prefer muffin-style because that's easier to serve, eat, take to work/school, store, freeze, etc.  
  • And yes, you can freeze them. I never make a single batch. My usual is a double batch but I sometimes make a triple batch, leave one third out and freeze the remainder, then defrost them as we run out. I like them warm, so I often heat them in the microwave (about 15 seconds each).
  • They make a great portable healthy snack and are my go to for fundraisers. They are always a hit and I get multiple recipe requests after I make them.
Here are some pictures of some I just made. We didn't have apples in the house because COVID-19 but we did have a few overripe bananas and some frozen sour cherries. One kid liked the idea of banana muffins and the other wanted sour cherry, so I decided to make a double batch and split it before adding the fruit. This is what it looked like:

The Ingredients
The contraption I use to grate the walnuts. Bought it at IKEA.

The sugar, the plain yogurt and the baking soda. Adding the oil and the flour seemed boring, so no pictures.

Adding the cinnamon.

Adding the walnuts.
 Time to split the batter in two and add the fruit:

Adding the mushed bananas.

Adding the sour cherries, which were juicier, so I had to play a little with the consistency.

A tale of two batters.
Ready to bake.

I ended up with 19 banana and 21 cherry muffins (they couldn't all fit on the trays). I personally liked the sour cherry ones better because there was a slight tartness to them which made the flavor more interesting. The banana ones tasted kinda bland to me by comparison but both kinds are good. 40 muffins last about a week in our house.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Happy Holidays from Saudi Arabia!

This is just a quick note to wish everyone wonderful holidays. It has been a while and I will be back with a full update but the short version of it is that we are all in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia now. 

Warmest wishes for peace and love from our yet-to-be-unpacked home to yours!

Friday, May 17, 2019

NW Bulgaria Trip Part IV–Vidin

This is Part IV if the series of posts about our trip to NW Bulgaria. Here are the links for Part I, Part II and Part III.

Our third stop on this trip was Vidin, which is a port town on the Danube in the extreme Northwest of the country. The Danube is the natural border between Bulgaria Romania in this area. There is a bridge connecting the two countries here (it is one of two, the second being at Russe). Vidin is also very close to the Bulgarian border with Serbia.

Vidin is an ancient place that started out as a Celtic settlement by the name of Dunonia, then evolved into a Roman fortified town called Bononia. It became an important center in the Roman province Upper Moesia, encompassing parts of modern day Serbia and Bulgaria. The area was then settled by Slavs, who changed its name to Bdin. Eventually, the Slavs formed an union with the Bulgars (or Old Bulgarians, who were nomadic warriors and came from Central Asia via the Caspian and Volga regions) and founded Bulgaria in 681. In the Middle Ages, Vidin was an important Bulgarian city, a bishop seat and a center of a large province though it did at some point accept Serbian suzerainity and was briefly occupied by Magyar (Hungarian) crusaders before falling to the Ottomans in 1396.

We arrived around noon and checked into our hotel, Anna-Kristina, which we were told was the best in town. We got an apartment with a queen-size bed and a fold-out couch. It was on the top floor, overlooking the park along the Danube, which was nice, however, it had a low, attic-type ceiling sloping down along two walls. This might not be an issue for other visitors but we are tall and it was a little uncomfortable because we were left with a very small area where we could actually stand up without having to stoop over. Otherwise we liked the place – the location was good and there was a decent restaurant in the hotel which was handy in the evening because it started raining.

We decided to take a walk in the park along the Danube on our way to the Baba Vida Fort and the old synagogue. The weather was a little overcast but nice, so we walked until we saw the old synagogue.

It was built in 1894 and used to be the second largest Jewish temple in the country (after the one in Sofia) before WWII. Even though Bulgaria was an ally of Nazi Germany during WWII, it defied Germany’s order to send its Jewish citizens (about 50,000 of them at the time) to the concentration camps. It did, however, send about 11,000 Jews from then Bulgaria-controlled areas of Northern Greece and Macedonia to the death camps where most of them perished. After WWII, most of Vidin’s Jewish population immigrated to Israel. The synagogue was seized by the communist government. There were plans for its restoration but they never went anywhere. After all these years of neglect, the building is gutted and in ruins. I had seen pictures of it and knew it was in bad shape but wanted to see it.

Even though it is falling apart, you can tell it was gorgeous once. It was bitter-sweet to think about all the weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvah’s and other special occasions the Jewish community celebrated in this building, all the times it was filled with excitement and emotion. And so sad to see it crumbling. I understand there are plans to restore it and make some sort of a multi-purpose community center from it, which would be nice but there have been more than one similar plans for the building, so I hope this one comes to fruition.

We continued on our way until we got to the Baba Vida Fort. It was built on the bank of the Danube on top of the remains of the old Roman Bononia settlement. The construction began sometime in the second half of the 10th century. According to legend, a powerful Bulgarian ruler lived in the area. He had three daughters, Kula and Gamza and Vida. Before he died he divided his kingdom in three – Vida got Vidin and the lands in the north to the Carpathian, Kula was given Zaecar and the Timok valley, while Gamza received the lands west up to the Morava. Kula and Gamza didn’t luck out in marriage - one married a drunk, while the other a warlord. Vida rejected all marriage proposals that came her way and remained single. She built the castle and lived in it for the rest of her life. It bears her name: Baba Vida (Grandma Vida).

The fort is surrounded by a moat, which was empty when we were there but we were told that it’s sometimes filled with water from the Danube. It had two concentric walls and nine towers, three of which are preserved.

We walked around it a little bit and spent some time on the bank of the Danube.

Unfortunately, it started to rain, so we had to go back to the hotel. Max was really bummed out because he wanted to spend some quality time skipping stones in the Danube, so we promised him to make a little bit of time for that the following day on the way out of town. We had dinner in the hotel restaurant which was quite good. The region is famous for its good wines, so we tried some of them and they did not disappoint.

We left Vidin after breakfast the next day and headed for Vratsa. We decided to take the longer but more scenic route, via Lom along the Danube - we had to keep our skipping promise to Max, after all. We found a place on the river where we could stop and do just that. There was a little wind from the North, which was less than optimal for stone skipping as there were some waves coming our way but Max enjoyed it nonetheless.

Monday, May 6, 2019

NW Bulgaria Trip Part III–Belogradchik

This is Part III in a five-part series about our recent trip to NW Bulgaria. Here are Part I and Part II.

Our second stop was Belogradchik, another small town in NW Bulgaria famous for its interesting rock formations, a Roman/Medieval fort and the caves in the area. Belogradchik is a popular destination for Bulgarians and foreigners and I had wanted to see it for a long time but somehow I never made it that way, so I was really looking forward to finally seeing it. We stayed at Villa Rose, which was recommended by a colleague. It’s a three-bedroom private home that the owners are renting but it’s one of the nicest places we have found in Bulgaria. It is spacious, well-appointed, has a nice, private yard with a couple of patios (one of which has a lovely view of the rocks), a small dipping pool (not heated). It got a little chilly overnight but there was a nice fireplace hooked up to a heating system which kept us nice and toasty. The kitchen was roomy and comfortable and had everything you would need to prepare a meal but there was a nice restaurant around the corner (Pri Ivan), so we didn’t need to cook.

We got there a little after lunch, dropped off our stuff at the house and walked over to Pri Ivan. We had a quick-ish meal and headed to the Venetsa (the wreath) Cave. A friend had recommended it saying it was the most beautiful cave in Bulgaria and I had seen articles online making that claim too, so I thought we had to see it. I have only seen a few caves in Bulgaria, so I can't say if it's truly the most beautiful but it is cool and it does indeed have onyx stalactites and stalagmites, which is pretty amazing. It is not very big and it was developed and open to the public fairly recently (in 2015), so it has a new lighting system with changing color lights, which makes the stalactites and stalagmites look neat. I liked it but Nia complained because there were some really low and narrow passages and navigating them was a little tricky. I’d say it’s worth seeing, especially if you are a caving enthusiast. Here are a few pictures from it:
We headed back to Belogradchik with the intention of seeing the fort. We decided to see the cave first because I had checked the hours and realized it closes an hour earlier than the fort. The fort was supposed to close at 6 pm. We wanted to get there in time to see the sunset. We got there at 5:20 and were told that the fort does indeed close at 6 but they don't allow people in after 5, which was a total bummer because we were leaving for our next destination (Vidin) the next morning. We were really disappointed that we won't get to see the fort but the cashier lady pointed to a road that she said went to an area where we could see the rocks. We headed that way and found an area where there were metal ladders, allowing us to climb up on the rocks from where we could see some of the other rock formations. It wasn't the fort and it wasn't sunset yet but the views were still amazing. 

The cashier at the fort also recommended a restaurant called Mislen Kamyk, which she said had the best sunset views of the rocks. We went there and there was one table on the veranda overlooking the rocks but everyone on the veranda was smoking and it was rather unpleasant, so we left. The view was not bad though:

We ended up back at Pri Ivan for dinner, after which we walked home. Max took a dip in the little pool, undeterred by the cold water and Paul and I had some local rose at one of the patios overlooking the rocks. It got chilly after sunset, so we moved inside and enjoyed a little quiet time by the fireplace before going to bed.

We all liked Belogradchik and Villa Rose and wouldn't mind going back some day to see the fort.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

NW Bulgaria Trip Part II–The Chiprovtski Kilim Festival

This is Part II of a five-part series of posts about a trip we took recently. Here is a link to Part I.

Our first stop was the small town of Chiprovtsi, famous for the colorful hand-woven carpets (kilimi in Bulgarian) they make there and the annual Chiprovski kilim festival. Carpet-weaving is ingrained in the culture of the small town. Every family is (or was) involved in some aspect of it, whether it’s raising sheep, spinning yarn, dying it, or weaving, and each home had a loom but then that was the case in every home in Bulgaria back in the day because every woman wove household items for her family. I am not from Chiprovtsi but my grandmother used to weave. She had a covered area, adjacent to their house, where she set up her loom every summer and wove scrap rugs. Her rugs were not as fancy as the Chiprovtsi ones but they were practical and she used them throughout their house. I loved watching my grandmother weave and over time she taught me how to do it.  At first, when I was really little, I would just watch, then she let me push the shuttle with the yarn from side to side. Eventually, I got to sit at the loom and weave. I wasn't really good but I knew the basics. It was something girls her generation were expected to learn and even though things were changing and neither my mom nor I had to weave, she thought it wouldn't hurt us to know.

In 2014 the tradition of carpet weaving  in Chiprovtsi was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, which has caused a surge in the popularity, demand and prices of Chiprovski kilimi. The interesting thing about these carpets is that they don’t have a nap (loops of yarn sticking out) and their designs are just as beautiful on the right side as they are on the wrong (they actually don’t have a wrong side – they are the double sided but the two sides are mirror images of each other.) I had heard about the Chiprovski kilimi growing up and had seen them in people’s homes but I am not really a carpet person, so I was not interested in them until I came back to Bulgaria in 2017. Living outside the country for more than 20 years has made me appreciate some of the things I had taken for granted as a child and now I find myself thinking about things I may want to buy before we leave Bulgaria. At some point I decided I wanted a Chiprovski kilim. Going to the festival in Chiprovtzi made sense because it would allow me to see the greatest variety and if I were to fall in love with one and it was not insanely expensive, well, maybe it was meant to be. The festival fell on Orthodox Easter weekend this year and we figured this is probably one of the last chances we have to take a trip in Bulgaria as a family before Paul and Nia leave for Saudi. Plus, we had a four-day weekend, so we decided to go for it.

Chiprovtsi is located in a picturesque valley surrounded by snow-covered peaks in the Western Balkan range. We got there about 10 am, parked close to the center of town and were greeted by this sign. It says Chiprovtzi in Bulgarian with the “o” shaped like one of the most popular carpet motifs, the Kanatitza (Max is sitting on it in the picture below), a symbol of eternity or eternal life, providing protection from evil and good fortune.

We took a walk around looking at the carpets. Here are the ones I liked the most. Below to the left is a “Chicken” design and to the right “Makasa.”

 "Fall vine" below

Another “chicken” kilim but with a different border to the left below and a “spring vine” to the right. I really liked the "spring vine" - the colors were really vibrant and it was large-ish (maybe 5’ x 6’). I asked for the price and the seller lady said it was $1,700, which seemed steep. I asked why and she said that they were about to increase their prices again as it was hard for them to find weavers at that price. She said that particular carpet took two women two months to weave. When she put it that way, it seemed fair for the weavers but I still couldn’t make up my mind. I needed to think about it but got their contact information (, in case you are interested). They have a store in Sofia and make custom carpets – you specify the size, designs and colors and it takes about 2 months. It’s not cheap, for sure, but I can still order one and make it unique. Something to ponder and save for, perhaps.

I also really liked the “Bakamski” design in red and black (the folded one) below but it wasn't for sale.

There was traditional music and dancing in the square:

If you couldn’t afford a whole carpet, you could buy Chiprovski kilim souvenirs:

There was also an area, where you could see the old ladies of the town demonstrating the different parts of the process of making a kilim.

We were told there was a nice museum in town, so we headed that way. There were gorgeous antique carpets displayed along the way.
And there were many more inside the museum.

In the end, I left Chiprovtzi without a carpet. I did buy some souvenirs for friends and relatives but just couldn’t pull the trigger on the rug. I will go to their store in Sofia though and and see if I can buy one on the spot or order a custom.  

Friday, April 26, 2019

NW Bulgaria Trip Part I - The Birds, the Bees, … and the Snakes

We had a four-day weekend for Orthodox Easter and we decided to explore Bulgaria’s Northwest, a part of the country none of us (including me) had seen before. Bulgaria’s Northwest is known for its natural beauty but also as the poorest part of the country. After the fall of communism, a lot of the formerly government-owned enterprises folded and there has not been much to replace them, so the area lags economically compared to the rest of the country. People have been leaving smaller towns and villages for larger cities in Bulgaria and overseas in search of work and education opportunities and few have gone back. This, coupled with the low average birth rates is causing serious demographic concerns for the whole country and beyond, which is sad because there is so much to see and do here.

But back to our Easter trip. We started in Sofia and traveled North to Chiprovtzi, Belogradchik, Vidin and Vratsa over four days. I'll be adding separate posts about each of our stops in the next few days.

Today we were driving down a country road when we saw what looked like a snake in the road. On closer inspection, it turned out to be not one but two vipers (пепелянки) and they seemed to be making baby snakes. We slowed down to make sure we didn’t make ex-snakes out of them and I took a few pictures.

Max: “They’re doing it!”

Me: “Wait! What?!!!”

Since when does my 8-year-old know what that even means?!!!

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

On Being a Decent Human Being

I am at a Religious Freedom training in Budapest. Normally, I don’t talk much about my work here but indulge me for a moment, will you?

Religious Freedom is one of the things I cover in Bulgaria. It is an important part of U.S. history and a key tenet of U.S. policy. Now, if you know me, you know that I am not exactly a religious person. But I don’t have to be because religious freedom is about protecting the rights of people to practice any religion or no religion at all.

I have had moments over the years when I have studied various faiths and I find many of them interesting but for whatever reason, no one religion has resonated with me in a big way. Perhaps it has to do with growing up under communism, the political system that beat religion out of many of us. Religion has made a comeback in Bulgaria and different faiths resonate with people.

I work with various religious groups and do my best to help them in their efforts to achieve religious freedom. Occasionally, I hear comments about “the infidels” as these “evil” people. I generally ignore those comments but they don’t sit right with me. Just because someone doesn’t follow a particular faith doesn’t automatically make them a bad person any more than going to a house of worship makes one automatically a good person. Also, just because I don’t believe in an organized religion doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t believe in anything. While I don’t think of myself as religious, I do see myself as spiritual and believe in being a decent human being. To some this may seem simplistic but it’s enough for me. My moral compass is in me, it’s part of me and I personally don’t need to go to a house of worship to feel connected with that fundamental belief (I like visiting temples but it’s mostly for their aesthetic, cultural and historical value). I don’t need someone else to tell me to be a good person. I have felt this way for a long time but today I heard someone else say something along those lines and it really resonated.

As part of our training, my colleagues and I met with Eva Fahidi. She was born in 1925 in Debrecen. Her family was deported to Auschvitz in 1944. Ms. Fahidi was 18 at the time and together with 1,000 other women was transferred from Auschvitz to a forced labor camp in Germany to work in a munitions factory. When she returned to Hungary after WWII, Ms. Fahidi realized that 49 of her relatives were killed in Auschvitz. She was the only person in her family to survive the Holocaust. Just digesting those facts was hard for me. She lived through all that but somehow found the strength to move on after the horrors of the Holocaust. If this doesn’t tell you something about the power of the human spirit, I don’t know what would.

Ms. Fahidi appealed to us to watch the news with open hearts and minds and then follow our hearts and minds. She said she is concerned about the rise of the Right in Germany and worried about the future. “Why can’t people understand they are so similar?!” she wondered, adding that some people in Hungary “get anti-Semitism through their mother’s milk.” She said one of her best friends was Roma. Her message to us was, “Try to be human. Decide to be a good person. Nothing else. It’s difficult but try. In the end it will be worth it.”

Ms. Fahidi has written two memoirs, which don’t seem to be available on amazon but hopefully soon. There are a lot of stories about her in various publications including the New York Times and the Washington Post but the most recent I could find was this piece from Deutche Welle, which talks about Ms. Fahidi’s love of dance and dancing in her 90s as a way to tell her story and promote Holocaust remembrance.

I just loved her attitude and faith in humanity despite the awful trauma she experienced at a young age.

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