The Road to Cactus Cupcakes is Paved with Cookies and Ice Cream

I hate falling behind on the blog, and sometimes debate whether it’s worthwhile to even write a post that is a few weeks in the past. In this case, I decided it was worthwhile. Let’s step into the way-back machine and pick things up on Friday morning, July 3rd.

So many amazing flavors at McConnell's Ice Cream! It was hard to decide.

So many amazing flavors at McConnell’s Ice Cream! It was hard to decide.

Maggie, Ben and I had just wrapped up an epic two days of feasting and exploring in San Francisco, and we packed up our stuff Friday morning for a road trip down the coast. We needed to be in LA for Saturday’s morning’s family gathering – July 4th BBQ and also a celebration of a cousin’s 80th birthday. We are very close with this group of cousins and were looking forward to the party.

But first, we wanted to do some exploring. The road trip idea was initiated by me, as I have wondered what other cities between here and Los Angeles might be potential landing spots for the bakery I hope to open someday. That is, if I don’t stay in San Francisco. I don’t know what I’m going to do, where I’m going to do it, or even when. But this seemed like a fun opportunity to get the ball rolling.

As anyone could have predicted, despite budgeting fourteen hours for the journey and factoring in traffic (of which we ran into very little), we still didn’t have enough time anywhere. It was a lot of “let’s get this to eat” and then back in the car we went. I still got a little sense of some of these places. A few I’d been to before, and others I hadn’t. I know I need some walking around time to soak it up, before I can definitely rule any location in or out. I did spend enough time, though, to know many of these stops are worth another look.

STOP #1: Santa Cruz

Ben was a great Yelp-led tour guide, when it came to locating places we hadn’t already planned on visiting. In Santa Cruz, it was the Pacific Cookie Company and Marianne’s Ice Cream.

Pacific Cookie Company's no-frills cookie counter.

Pacific Cookie Company’s no-frills cookie counter.

There was quite a selection at Pacific, and while Maggie went off to a little coffee shop to locate a breakfast sandwich, Ben and I scoped out the cookie selection. We ended up getting the baker’s dozen, which included one of almost every cookie they offered. I had joked in the car that it would be great if the cookie place sold the local Marianne’s ice cream so that I could kill two birds with one stone and have an ice cream sandwich.

Lo and behold, they DO have the ice cream there and they DO make ice cream sandwiches. With a big day ahead of us, foodwise, I decided to forgo it. I did try the Horchata ice cream, which was delicious. The cookies however…nothing special. My favorite was the peanut butter, but it still wasn’t close to being the best ever.

How was Santa Cruz? Well, the part that we walked through – albeit briefly – was nice, but it seemed very, very small to me. I think I am scratching this place of this list.

INTERMEDIATE STOP – Farmstand

Along a fairly open stretch of road, we were suckered into stopping at a farm stand by their “7 Avocados for One Dollar” sign. Of course, you go inside and the avocados at that price point are quiet small – not much bigger than walnuts in the shell. We already had a bunch of strawberries and other snacks in the car, so with no avocados deals, we moved on. After taking some fun pictures.

IMG_6872

IMG_6873

STOP #2 – MONTEREY

Ben located a few items here for us to check out, with Red’s Donuts and a French patisserie as the top picks. Our plan had been to grab a few doughnuts, maybe some French pastries, and then head down to Cannery Row and the area near the aquarium and enjoy an outdoor snack.

Red's Donuts

Red’s Donuts

With doughnuts in hand, we walked toward the bakery. It wasn’t easy to find, and when we did find it, we discovered they were closed for a few weeks for renovations. Bummer! It was approaching lunchtime (I believe it was past noon) and all Ben and I had had were cookies so far. We toyed with getting sandwiches at an outpost of San Francisco’s legendary Ike’s…but decided to wait for San Luis Obispo. The doughnuts would have to suffice.

Off to Cannery Row and the waterfront we went…and of course, there was no parking. We slowly drove through and while we could have stopped somewhere and explored, the clock was ticking and I felt we had to keep going. Definitely want to return and check it out up close.

This meant the doughnuts were consumed in the car. Old fashioned – not good. Glazed twist – not bad, but a little doughy. Crumb cake – meh. Another swing and a miss.

STOP #3 – SAN LUIS OBISPO

Our beloved cousin Greg, and his wife, Tiffani, met while going to school at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Maggie’s and my only trip there had been for their wedding, and most of it didn’t look familiar. It was, I don’t know, ten years ago?

Apparently, SLO is a hotbed of BBQ and tri-tip sandwiches. Greg and Tiffani debated with us, via text, over which place they thought was better. We made the decision to go to Firestone Grill. And it was our first home run of the day!

 Big salad, tri-tip sandwiches, onion rings, seasoned fries and chicken fingers. This was the meal we'd been waiting for.

Big salad, tri-tip sandwiches, onion rings, seasoned fries and chicken fingers. This was the meal we’d been waiting for.

This lunch, coming around 3 in the afternoon, was well worth the wait. The tri-tip sandwich was delicious, and I could only eat half of it. (I saved the other half in the car but we ended up eating so much more I never got around to finishing it.) Everything else we got was delicious too. We sat outside on Firestone’s patio and watched everyone around us – older couples, families with kids, a junior or high school baseball team and more.

Like Santa Cruz, we basically made time to walk from parking spot to destination and back. At least we got to sit and relax a bit, but we didn’t explore the town. It did seem bigger than Santa Cruz and, as a college town, could have some potential for me. Not to mention that I’d eat that tri-tip again!

EMERGENCY STOP

Maggie took over the driving at this point, while I nodded off in the front seat. Somehow, we lost track of the gas level and it wasn’t until we were on a fairly desolate stretch of road that we saw “18 miles to empty”. Ever been on a road trip and seen the sign that says, “Next Gas Station (or Rest Stop): 37 miles”? It felt like one of those places. Fortunately, Google Maps came in handy and we made it to a small town about five miles away, where the only gas station was open. Whew!! Very close call.

STOP 4: Santa Barbara

This was a two-fer. I wanted to check out McConnell’s Ice Cream. Ben wanted to check out a famous taqueria. It took just long enough from Santa Barbara to clear some (but not a lot) of belly space.

The line outside La Super-Rica Taqueria.

The line outside La Super-Rica Taqueria.

One of the women in the kitchen presses tortillas.

One of the women in the kitchen presses tortillas.

My "light meal" - pinto beans with bacon, queso de cazuela (a cheese and tomato dish), and fresh corn tortillas. Delicious!

My “light meal” – pinto beans with bacon, queso de cazuela (a cheese and tomato dish), and fresh corn tortillas. Delicious!

I kept the meal kind of small, and Maggie shared with me a little bit. i wanted one of their many tacos or quesadillas or other dishes, but I just didn’t have the stomach space! Ben’s – and everyone else’s – looked delicious. We waited in line about twenty minutes or so to order at the little window, and then another fifteen or twenty minutes for our food. But it was totally worth it. The tortillas, wrapped in foil, were so fresh and hot that I couldn’t carry the package in my bare hands! I mixed the beans with the cheesy tomato mixture, wrapped it in tortillas and let it drip down my hands as I tried to eat it. A wonderful mess was made.

After soaking up the vibe of this place – like Firestone, filled with old and young, families and couples – we got back in the car and headed onto State Street. This is where all the shops and restaurants and people really hang out.

Favorite stop on the road trip.

Favorite stop on the road trip.

I loved that they offered an ice cream "flight" of three small scoops. It was hard to narrow down to three, but better than two or one!

I loved that they offered an ice cream “flight” of three small scoops. It was hard to narrow down to three, but better than two or one!

The people at McConnell’s reminded me of the staff at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in Chicago – friendly, patient, happy to let you try a bunch of flavors, and always smiling. I went with one fruity flavor (seasonal berry, I believe – instead of eureka lemon with marionberries), churros con leche and coffee chip (one of THREE different coffee flavors on tap). Amazingly, we each squeezed ice cream into our full bellies, and walked it off a little bit along State Street.

Then, back into the car again, for the final leg of the trip. We sailed from Santa Barbara to LAX, making it in under 90 minutes, I believe. We dropped off the car and hauled our stuff into my mom’s waiting car. Off to Westwood we went, where we made our way to our respective beds for the trip and enjoyed some well-deserved shut-eye.

PARTY TIME

Saturday morning, I needed to get to work. In my new role as a certified pastry chef, I had been inducted into coordinating a dessert activity for the big get-together. My cousin Nancy (whose mother, Louise, was turning 80) came up with the idea of turning her mom’s beloved cactus/succulent garden into a cupcake decorating activity. I was on board!

Instead of transporting cupcakes from SF, I decided to turn my beloved Hummingbird Cake recipe into cupcakes. That recipe requires no mixer, so it was easy enough to do at my mom’s apartment on that Saturday morning. With those out of the oven successfully, I then took care of a recipe my mom had volunteered to make: the MGM Grand Las Vegas’ Waldorf Salad, which Louise had at our family’s Passover celebration. Well, that required much use of my practiced knife skills, as 1/4-inch dice was required of a dozen apples! It was a long morning on my feet, but nothing I wasn’t used to.

Soon enough, the food was ready, we loaded up two cars and headed to Orange County.

Part of Louise's collection of cacti and other succulents.

Part of Louise’s collection of cacti and other succulents.

We had a leisurely afternoon, sitting in the sunshine by the pool, nibbling on snacks and sweets while the lunch came together. The featured item was BBQ ribs from one of Louise’s favorite places, and I went to town on them. They were so good!

The cupcake supplies are laid out and ready to go after our lunch ended.

The cupcake supplies are laid out and ready to go after our lunch ended.

My sample cactus - not too shabby.

My sample cactus – not too shabby.

The kids get to work.

The kids get to work.

Then the adults jumped in.

Then the adults jumped in.

An impressive collection of cupcake cacti!

An impressive collection of cupcake cacti!

We soon headed back to LA, where I relaxed at home with my mom and Michael, quite exhausted (and full) while Maggie and Ben went to a pizza place Ben wanted to check out and do other assorted things. Sunday was nearly as casual, as we hung out together, played some cards, and then Maggie, Ben and I went to see the new Pixar movie, Inside Out. We all enjoyed it, and it was the first movie I’d seen in a theater in 2015, I believe!

Delicious late-night snacks from The Lime Truck restaurant.

Delicious late-night snacks from The Lime Truck restaurant.

On Monday morning, I headed into the Fairfax district to pick up some rugelach for my colleagues back at Tartine. Diamond Bakery is known as one of the best Jewish bakeries in town and their rugelach are something I always enjoy. It seems to be a tradition that when someone at Tartine goes on vacation, they bring back treats. So, I was just doing my part.

On the way there, I saw that our parent company was continuing to spread its wings.

Oakland's finest coffee continues to percolate throughout the state.

Oakland’s finest coffee continues to percolate throughout the state.

A few hours later, pastries in hand, I was on my way back to San Francisco, and ready to jump back into the fray at the bakery and let my training begin in earnest.

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