Public Transportation in Prague: Prague Metro

Public Transportation in Prague

Public Transportation in Prague

My wife Therese, her mother Eileen and I just recently returned from a fabulous trip to Prague, Czech Republic, and I am excited to share the details of what we did and ate in the days to come.  But I thought that a good introduction to Prague would be to tell you about the city’s Public Transportation System.  There is a very good article on TripAdvisor which gives many pertinent pieces of information on Prague’s buses and trams and so forth.  I’m sure I will probably duplicate some of what you will find there; but I will also give you some information that is not in that article.

The good news is that Prague’s system of buses, trams and metro/subway trains is well laid-out, clean, safe and pretty easy to grasp.  We did not use the buses at all, so I will not be talking about them – we found that we could get everywhere we wanted to go using just the metro and the trams, and we became quite adept at using them.

In terms of the size of its historic/touristy sections, I would compare the size of Prague to Philadelphia’s Center City, or Boston’s downtown.  If you are a big walker, you can easily get from one end of Prague to the other in the course of a day.  If you don’t choose to cover the city on foot, getting there by tram and/or metro is quick and easy.

As for how you pay for the metro and tram and how much it costs, there are a couple of ways we handled that.  There is a Prague Card you can buy at the tourist office to the left of the Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square, that in addition to covering admission to lots of museums, gives you free unlimited access to public transportation.  Since we were planning on doing lots of the main sights in Prague for our first few days there, we purchased Prague Cards for 3 days (you can get them for anywhere from 2 to 4 days).

Later in our long week in Prague, we decided to buy day passes directly from the Metro station near our hotel.  After taking a taxi what felt like a short distance and paying the equivalent of $25, we reasoned that buying 2 full price and one senior day pass for about $14 was a bargain (one full price day pass costs about $5.50).  If you are enterprising, you might wish to sort out the system for buying individual rides – to me, it seemed complicated, and being able to buy one ticket and ride all day on it felt easy and convenient.  The automated ticket vending machines were pretty easy to figure out, and we had lots of change (they do not take paper money, their one drawback), so that was convenient for us.

With change in hand, the process takes 3 or 4 steps.  First you press a white button marked “English” which changes the messages the machine gives you to English.  Then you press the button for a day pass.  Last, you put your coins in, and the machine spits out your card.  Then you just have to remember to validate the card the first time you use it by sliding the blank end into the yellow machines found near every metro and tram entrance.

If you are buying a discounted pass, that just adds one more step.  For that, you press the English button, then the green “discount” button, then select day pass, and finally you deposit your coins.

The one other thing to keep in mind is that ticketing is on the honor system.  During the 10 days that we were in Prague, we were never approached while in the metro or on a tram and asked to produce our Prague Card or day pass.  Nevertheless, we always bought tickets and had them handy just in case we were asked.

Prague’s Metro system, compared to that of a large city like New York or Madrid, is quite simple.  There are three lines – A (or Green), B (or Yellow) and C (or Red).  Each line crosses over the other two only once – A and C meet at the Muzeum stop (which is at the southern end of Wenceslas Square), A and B meet at the Mustek stop in Old Town, and B and C meet at the Florenc stop which is northeast of Old Town.  Our hotel, the Hilton Old Town, is half a block from Republic Square (Namesti Republiky), and we took the Metro from there to Old Town Square several times (two stops – one on the B line, then change to the A and take that one stop).  We also took the Metro to the State Opera House one night for a performance of Verdi’s La Traviata (once again, two stops – one on the B line, and one on the A line).

In my next post, I will finish up my discussion of Prague’s public transportation by telling you about our experiences on the trams. Once again, the trams were convenient and easy to use, just like the Prague Metro – in my next post, I will go into greater detail (accompanied by some useful photos).

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Croque Madame, Cibo Express: Surviving JFK’s Terminal 2 and Delta Flight

Croque Madame

Croque Madame

Two Thursdays ago, Therese, her mom Eileen and I departed for JFK Airport’s Terminal 2, to begin our vacation in Prague, Czech Republic.  We always like to get there early, since it can take forever under any conditions to get to JFK from lower Manhattan.  And besides, we figure that it starts things off nicely to get to the airport early and have a relaxing dinner at one of the fine airport dining establishments.  After all, we know that many of the airlines are sprucing up their terminals, including adding restaurants with better than edible food, right?

Well, somehow Terminal 2 at JFK hasn’t gotten the memo.  By all accounts, it is the terminal to avoid if you can.  It is cramped, laid out in such an awkward way that it would be hard to re-construct it in a more traveler-friendly shape as many other terminals (for example, JetBlue’s Terminal 5 at JFK) have been.  And though Delta sent out a post on their blog in September of 2013 saying they were adding lots of new restaurants, which would be finished and running by summer of 2014 (i.e., a few months ago), the only one that seems to have materialized is Croque Madame, a cafe created by Chef Andrew Carmellini that specializes in crepes and sandwiches.  And the reviews of that new spot have been decidedly mixed, leaning more towards the negative is anything.

Nevertheless, Croque Madame still seemed like our best bet, so I decided we would go there for our early dinner.  After our typically endless car ride to JFK, we were unexpectedly ushered through the TSA Precheck line, and discovered that our gate was right next to Croque Madame.  It was meant to be!

When we first got to the restaurant, there were no tables free, grumble grumble (I will come back to that).  So we had to sit at this tall common table on bar stools, grumble grumble.  A fellow came from behind the counter and said we could come up to the counter to order from an iPad just next to the cashier, and he would bring us our food.  I ordered us some glasses of wine, a club sandwich for me, another club for my mother-in-law and a crepe for my wife.

As we sipped our decent glasses of wine, a table opened up, and the counter fellow found us and brought us our food.  My club sandwich was a tiny bit better than edible, but that was about it.  The toast was chewy and stiff, as if it had been toasted in a microwave.  There was a minimal amount of ok turkey roll and a couple slices of rubbery bacon and some surprisingly lively lettuce and tomato, with a smear of mayonnaise.

The salad alongside it seemed to have ranch dressing on it, with possible dairy (my bad – I should have said something in the special comments section of my order – was there a special comments section?).  I nibbled around the dressing, and found the greens to be fairly adequate.

The wine was better than the sandwich, nicely chilled, tangy and sweet.  Therese’s crepe looked much better than my sandwich (too bad I can’t eat crepes!).

OK, getting back to the space issues.  Since Croque Madame has no barriers setting its tables apart from the rest of the cramped hallway where it resides, the tables, with their iPads for ordering food, are mostly filled with people hanging out.  So those of us who actually want to patronize the restaurant are left scrambling for the least comfortable seating, while others charging their cell phones and playing games on the iPads take up the vast majority of the tables.  The restaurant’s minimal staff has no time to be asking people to move on if they are not going to order food.  It’s a bad situation, and nobody seems interested in doing anything to fix it.

After making the best of my meager dinner, I paid a visit to Cibo Express Gourmet Market, a chain that can be found in pretty much every airport terminal in New York City.  They often have good sandwiches and dairy free desserts and other goodies, so I always check them out.  In this case, I was looking for something to serve as my on-board dinner and snacks, since Delta Airlines, with which we were regrettably flying again, is really bad at making a non-dairy meal.

Sure enough, I found some better than adequate options to take with me on the airplane.  There was an appetizing Italian hero on a seeded hero roll – all I had to do was take off the provolone cheese, and I would be ready to go.  And for snacks, there was a package of mixed salted nuts, a package of Divvies Dairy Free Chocolate Chip Cookies, and BarkThins Snacking Dark Chocolate with Almonds.  Wow!  Talk about making a score!  No matter how badly Delta did with their in-flight offerings, I was set.

Sure enough, Delta’s dinner that night set a new standard for appalling.  The only thing I could eat off of it was the dry salad – lettuce, a couple cucumbers and a couple carrot slices.  Even the salad dressing had dairy in it.  I heard one of the flight attendants mentioning a chicken salad as an option which sounded promising, but those were gone by the time they go to me.  No matter: I happily munched on my Italian hero and two dry salads (my lovely wife gave me hers, while telling me that the food was ghastly – I think she lived off of two helpings of a block of cheese and a roll).

Sandwich from Cibo Express with Two Dry Delta Salads

Sandwich from Cibo Express with Two Dry Delta Salads

At the end of our overnight flight, as the lights came on and we began our descent, there was a pleasant surprise.  The breakfast snack package Delta put together actually had a few dairy free options!  Yes, there was a mushy croissant-like item that I couldn’t touch.  But the snack box had a package of nuts and fruit, some small toasts and a container of apple dip.  Therese and her mother agreed with me that the toasts and apple dip were actually really good.

Breakfast Snack Mix from Delta Airlines

Breakfast Snack Mix from Delta Airlines

So the flight ended on a good note for me.  But otherwise, I would grade the whole experience pretty low.  Transcontinental flights are just a matter of survival for me.  But as long as they deposit me, as this one did, in a new place, ready to explore and enjoy myself, that’s ok.

Posted in Airlines, Airplane food, Airports, Countries, Czech Republic, Dairy Free, Food, New York, New York City, Prague, Travel, United States | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Dairy Free Traveler in Prague: an Overview

Therese, Eileen (her mom) and I are in the midst of what is proving to be an incredible visit to Prague.  I wish I had the time to tell you all about it right now! But the truth is that my time has been filled with so many wonderful activities that I haven’t had the time or energy to devote to blogging.

But in the meantime, I will give you a little overview of what we have been doing, and what we will be doing, so you know what you have to look forward to reading about, once I can get some writing done!

We arrived on Friday, and after checking in at the Hilton Old Town Hotel, made a bee-line for the Old Town Square, where we had a great lunch and watched the fascinating Ornamental Clock chime the hour.  On Saturday, we took the tram to the Prague Castle, where we spent the day visiting the many sights there, including St. Vitus’ Cathedral.

Sunday, we saw an Art Nouveau exhibit and took the guided tour of the Municipal House and visited the Alphonse Mucha Museum (since there was also some amazing Mucha art at the exhibit and in the Municipal House, it was as if the whole day was Mucha).

Monday we spent mostly exploring the Jewish Old Town, the former Jewish ghetto, which is called Josefov.  And today, Tuesday, Therese and I took a culinary walking tour with Eating Prague.  Tomorrow we will take a day trip to Cesky Krumlov, a historic town in southern Prague whose incomparable castle complex and medieval town center are both Unesco World Heritage sites (Cesky Krumlov is about 2 and a half hour’s drive from Prague and we have hired a driver/guide to take us).  If the weather is nice (which it seems like it will be) we will go out in the evening to take some night pictures of Prague Castle and the Charles Bridge.

The rest of the week we will see more museums like the Decorative Arts Museum and just relax and have some fun shopping and gallery hopping.

How has the food been?  So far lots of restaurants have been very accommodating of my allergy.  The best was probably the Sarah Bernhardt Restaurant in the Paris Hotel, not far from our hotel, where the waiter said to me, “pick out whatever you want, and the chef will figure out a way to make it without dairy.”  And the resulting meal was extraordinary.

So wish us continued luck in our adventures in Prague, and I look forward to telling you all about it soon!

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Green Curry With Seafood: An Old Dairy Free Favorite Gets a Facelift

Green Curry With Seafood

Green Curry With Seafood

How can something be subtle and powerful at the same time?  That is the question I’ve been asking myself as I have been working with this wonderful purple basil that I’ve bought at the Union Square Greenmarket a couple times lately.  On this occasion, I decided to make it a part of my green curry with seafood.  Would it be able to stand up to Thai Kitchen Green Curry Paste and Thai Kitchen Organic Coconut Milk and make its presence felt?

Oh yeah.  I decided to include the basil in two ways, and it definitely made a difference.  I took half the leaves and tore them roughly and put them into the curry as it cooked.  Then I used the other half as a garnish when I plated the curry.  Just that much was enough to make me say, “mmmm, what is that new flavor?” And of course it was the basil.

The other thing I do differently with my curry has to do with the broth/sauce.  I begin by sauteing first the scallops and then the shrimps in the pan with a little olive oil or margarine.  The seafood leaves behind a wonderful essence which then becomes the base for the sauce.  Later, after I have cooked the onions and pepper in the essence and added the curry paste, I will add the coconut milk.  But when I have added the rest of the vegetables, there won’t be enough liquid to cook and cover all the veggies.  I could add more coconut milk, but my solution is to add chicken broth – just enough to mostly cover the vegetables.  The resulting curry broth is almost like a soup base, rich but light, dancing with the combined flavors of seafood essence, chicken broth, coconut milk and oh yes, basil.

I love this way of making green curry – in fact, now that I have done it this way a few times, I can’t imagine doing it any other way!

Green Curry with Seafood
(makes 6 servings)

1 pound, uncooked scallops
1 pound, uncooked large shrimps
1-2 tbsp. olive oil or margarine
1 medium to large yellow onion, roughly chopped
1 red bell pepper, cut into large pieces
1 medium to large zucchini, halved lengthwise and sliced
8 crimini mushrooms, brushed off, caps removed and quartered
6 to 8 white eggplants, roughly peeled and cut into quarters
2 dozen purple basil leaves
1 can unsweetened coconut milk
½ – 1 cup, chicken broth
2 tbsp. green curry paste

I know that there is a considerable amount of preparation for a dish like this.  But after getting all these lovely vegetables fresh from the green market, I had to use them!  This is where a willing spouse or energetic youngster comes in handy.  In my case, I had the former close by – my wife always asks me how she can help, and usually I tell her to relax, but this time I took her up on her offer.  And she did a great job of slicing and peeling and chopping!

Vegetables Prepared

Vegetables Prepared

Beautiful, right?  Before I proceed, I should say just a thing or two about these white eggplants.  I love eggplants, and one of the things I love is how many different shapes and colors and sizes they come in!  So I try to take the opportunity to buy some of the different ones, and use them in dishes (after all, eggplants are really good for you).  But, if all you have available are the monster aubergine eggplants where you are, use those.  Chop them into 1-inch squares and go for it.

OK.  So as I said earlier, start with the seafood.  Take your shrimps out of their shelves – I even like to remove the tails, but if you like the tails on, then leave them on.  Put a large skillet on over a medium heat.  Add the olive oil or margarine, and when that is hot, you’re ready to begin.  Sprinkle some salt and pepper over both sides of your scallops and add them to the pan.  Cook them on each side for about 3 minutes – 4 minutes if you like a little extra crust on your scallops.  Put them aside on a plate.

Salt and pepper the shrimps, and add them to the pan (if your pan is looking a little dry, feel free to add another drop or two of olive oil).  Cook them on each side for 2-3 minutes, until they turn tannish and curl up into little shrimp curls.  Put those aside as well.

Now add your onions and cook them in the essence for a couple of minutes.  Add the red pepper and cook for another minute or two.  Add the curry paste and stir to make sure all the vegetables are covered with it.  Cook, stirring, for another minute or two.

Now add the coconut milk and stir to get it well mixed with the curry paste and vegetables.  Add the zucchini, mushroom and eggplant, and here is where the chicken broth comes in.  Add just enough of the broth to bring the level of the liquid up so it nearly covers all the vegetables.  Turn up the heat to get the liquid bubbling, and then turn the heat down and cover with a lid.  Let it cook for about 5 minutes.

Tear your basil leaves roughly in half.  Take the lid off the pan and add half the basil leaves.  Stir them in and let it cook for a minute or two (if the zucchini is still too al dente, you can let the curry cook for even longer – just don’t cook it so long that the vegetables get mushy).  The last step is to add the seafood back to the pot, give it a good stir, let it heat the seafood for a minute or two, and you’re done!

Of course, you can eat this dish over rice or noodles.  But we like to eat it all by itself, almost like a thick soup.  Oh, that broth is to die for.  Hope you like it as much as we do!

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Café Prague: Dairy Free Czech Food in New York City

Cafe Prague

Cafe Prague

Not long ago, early on a Sunday evening, Therese and I were walking down 19th Street in Manhattan.  We had just been to see a late afternoon showing of the new foodies film, the 100 Foot Journey (which is quite excellent, by the way) at the Broadway and 19th Street AMC Theater.  We were heading west, intending to do some grocery shopping at the 23rd Street Chelsea Trader Joe’s.  But we were feeling hungry as well, and just as we were both feeling that by the time we grocery shopped and got home and cooked, we would be eating too late, we looked across the street and saw Cafe Prague.  Talk about serindipity!

You see, our next trip, which begins at the end of this week, is to Prague, the Czech Republic’s capital and largest city.  We could not pass up the chance to maybe sample some of the food that we will be eating when we travel in just a few a days!

And this cafe is totally charming!  It looks almost like a little cafeteria, with a long counter with many glass cases from which you can choose sandwiches and lots of other things, and a couple rows of tables that look like they would be perfect to share with strangers if the cafe was crowded.

Another thing that immediately captured my imagination was the way the walls are covered with posters and illustrations of the sights we will be visiting when we are in Prague, like the Prague Castle and its St. Vitus Cathedral, St. George’s Basilica and the Old Royal Palace.  And of course there were the lights reflecting on the Vltava River, which bisects Prague much the way that the Danube runs right through the middle of Budapest.

OK, so Prague Cafe has the atmosphere.  But what about the food.  We went towards the section of the menu that is all old Czech favorites, and we asked the friendly lady behind the counter if any of them were dairy free, or could be prepared that way.  She seemed stumped for a moment, and Therese said to me, “Crap, it’s gonna be hard to find you food in Prague!”  But then the counter lady thought, and she started listing a handful of dishes that would work for me.

The one dish that threw me was pork loin, dumplings and sauerkraut.  Therese’s grandfather made us a pork loin stewed in sauerkraut for a lunch one time, and it was so simple but so satisfying, and seeing that listed on Prague Cafe’s menu, I started thinking, “wow, I bet that would be good.”  Our friend the counter lady said she suspected there was butter in the sauerkraut, and my reaction was, “no way! why would you put butter in sauerkraut?”

But whaddaya know?  She was right.  Butter in the sauerkraut.  No worries, though.  I had a good plan B.  Chicken with sauteed vegetables and rice and beans.  That doesn’t necessarily sound Czech.  But trust me, it was good – filling, simple, but very satisfying.

Chicken with Sauteed Vegetables and Rice and Beans

Chicken with Sauteed Vegetables and Rice and Beans

What this meal earth-shattering?  No.  But will I be thrilled if I find a dozen lunches and dinners in Prague as good as this?  Absolutely.  Our visit to Cafe Prague only served to further excite me for our coming trip!  And I look forward to sharing our fun and great food experiences with you!

Posted in Chicken, Countries, Czech Republic, Dairy Free, Dinner, Food, New York City, NYC Restaurants, Prague, Restaurants, United States | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Café d’Alsace: Where It All Started

Cafe d'Alsace

Cafe d’Alsace

I will begin this post by taking all the mystery out of it.  First of all, the answer to the question that I, and I presume all of you who are similarly dairy allergic, ask, is yes, there are dishes at Cafe d’Alsace that are dairy free.  Of course, if there weren’t why would I be eating there, but bear with me.

As for the “it” of this post’s title, I am referring to the romance I have been carrying on for these several years with my lovely wife Therese.  You see, it was at Cafe d’Alsace that we met for our first date.  It was Restaurant Week in NY back then, a twice annual period when many of the city’s great restaurants offer fixed price meals so that folks on a budget can for that time afford an exceptional meal.  We had a very nice dinner that night at which we got to know each other a bit, and as they say, the rest is – well, not history, but more like a grand adventure.  Which goes on to this day.

But getting back to the food.  It is great when entering a restaurant to discover that there are a whole range of dishes on their menu that are dairy free.  But let me tell you, Cafe d’Alsace only has to have one such dish to make me smile to the outer extent of my face: choucroute garnie.  A friend of mine introduced me to this dish years back, and I will always remember him, and love him, for it.  It’s pretty simple: sauerkraut, potatoes and pork products.  With an emphasis on the latter, as the song goes.

When I was there most recently with Therese, for another Restaurant Week dinner, I actually did venture a tiny bit outside my comfort zone.  I saw on the menu that they also offer a duck choucroute, and my mind filled with wonder imagining what it might be like to put sauerkraut and duck (another thing I love to eat) together.

Duck Choucroute

Duck Choucroute

The dish came in a rustic cast iron pan set on a cutting board.  It was garnished with a large sprig of rosemary, hinting at how the dish was prepared.  There were three duck preparations: a duck confit leg, a duck breast, and a plump duck sausage.  Each one was more rich and satisfying then the next.  But I have to say, the star of this dish is the sauerkraut.  It is so soft and sweet and many-layered in its flavor.  If someone told me that all I could eat for the rest of my life was sauerkraut, I would be happy, but only if my meals were prepared with this recipe.  I’m sure there are juniper berries involved, and some other choice spices.

So now you see, I have two things I can reliably order at Cafe d’Alsace.  But there may come a day when I grow bored with their sauerkraut perfection and explore the menu further.  I bet there are other things I could eat there.  As for drinking, exploring their wine and beer lists is a worthwhile endeavor.  This is one of the few restaurants where you can find the amazing Schlenkerla Rauchbier, for example.  Schlenkerla is a beer that, yes my friends, tastes like bacon.  So of course it goes smashingly with choucroute garnie.  This I know from experience.  They also have great Alsacian wines, like our favorite, the Gewurztraminer, a white wine with enough backbone and complexity to go toe to toe with choucroute garnie.

If you are already tired of hearing about my sauerkraut, I will tell you that Therese also had an extraordinary dish – duck (breast and confit) with potatoes and a duck jus that was sweetened with a bit of raspberry.

Therese's Duck Entree

Therese’s Duck Entree

For dessert, as usual there was sorbet for the dairy allergic diner.  But do not feel sorry for me.

Raspberry and Passion Fruit Sorbet

Raspberry and Passion Fruit Sorbet

First of all, they very wisely added some berries and a dollop of raspberry sauce, which made the sorbet more exciting.  Second, with such an extraordinary meal already having taken place, I didn’t mind a bit of anti-climax.

Posted in Dairy Free, Dinner, Food, New York, New York City, NYC Restaurants, Restaurants, United States | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Coconut 5-Layer Cake: More Dairy Free Fun with My Wilton Pans

Coconut 5-Layer Cake

Coconut 5-Layer Cake

Therese had a craving for coconut cake one day, and I thought, why not?  I’ve never made that before.  It would be fun.  We had a recipe on hand that she had saved last winter.  Unfortunately, it was for Coconut Chiffon Bundt Cake.  Hmmm.  We don’t own a bundt pan.  But we do have something that’s a lot more fun (bundt cake is so 1950s!) – our Wilton 5 Layer Cake Pan Set.  And thus it became a Coconut 5-Layer Cake.

Did I adapt the recipe for the 5-layer cake?  Actually, not much.  The recipe was already dairy free, by virtue of the fact that it used coconut milk (yay!).  I toasted my own coconut (back to that in a minute) and put some of it in the icing, as well as sprinkling it over the top of the cake.  I only used about 85% of the cake batter – I used the leftover batter to make pancakes a couple days later (which came out wonderful, by the way).  And I didn’t need to bake those thin layers for 45 minutes – 15-20 minutes was plenty.  Otherwise, I pretty much did everything the same as in the original recipe.

But oh, what a luxurious creamy fluffy batter it was!  Folding the whipped egg whites into it was lots of fun.

Folding Egg Whites into Cake Batter

Folding Egg Whites into Cake Batter

The resulting cake layers had the most wonderful light golden brown coloring.

Cake Layers Straight from the Oven

Cake Layers Straight from the Oven

OK, now back to that coconut.  I started with Let’s Do Organic Shredded, Unsweetened Coconut.  I suppose you could buy toasted coconut, but I wanted to toast my own.  And what did I find out?  It’s a little tricky.  Just like with pine nuts, if you wait until you see the coconut darkening, it is already burnt.  You have to go by the smell (my wife is great at this) – put a thin layer of coconut in a small skillet over the lowest heat possible, and stir for a couple of minutes.  When the coconut starts to give off a smell and feels a bit warmed, it is toasted.  It may still look white, i.e., not yet toasted, but when you transfer it to a bowl, you will see that, eureka! it has in fact turned the loveliest shade of light brown.

Coconut Toasted By Hand

Coconut Toasted By Hand

When the cake was completely cooled, I assembled it by spreading just a bit of the icing on each of the internal layers, and most of the icing over the top.  Then I took what icing was left – a few tablespoons – and drizzled it down the sides.  Lastly, I sprinkled the toasted coconut over the top.  When I sliced the cake, I sprinkled some extra coconut over the side of the slice.  That gave the cake plenty of coconut flavor!

Slice of Coconut Cake with Sprinkled Toasted Coconut

Slice of Coconut Cake with Sprinkled Toasted Coconut

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