Start Your Shopping Engines!

Thanksgiving: that joyous festival of giving thanks, gravy, carbohydrates, football-soaked couch naps at relatives’ houses, overindulgence in wine and pie, and wishing you had worn stretchy-er pants. What I’m seeing a lot of this year is surprising, though. While usually, I think of Thanksgiving as the day before it’s really OK to haul out the Christmas decorations, start writing holiday cards, wrapping presents, etc., this year, I’m seeing a lot of people jump that gun. According to my newsfeed on Facebook, trees are up, presents are wrapped, people are listening to their holiday CDs, and great cookie bake-offs are being plotted. I’ve always considered myself a lover of Christmas and a great planner, but pre-empting Thanksgiving for Christmas is just not kosher with this gal.

That said, I am known to start my shopping early; usually around July or August, in fact. I think it was June this year. But since many of you have the restraint to wait until the actual Christmas season to begin Christmas shopping, I thought I would outline my family’s favorite holiday shopping trip ritual, complete with restaurant recommendations, for your retail and gastronomic pleasure. In case you still need to get away for a really intensive weekend of shopping, here’s our annual outline: Friday night/ Saturday at King of Prussia Mall, outside Philadelphia, PA, then Sunday at either an outlet mall in the Philly area, or like this year, in Lancaster, PA at those outlet malls. If we leave said outlet mall on Sunday early enough and don’t have what we needed done, we sometimes stop at The Crossings Outlets in Tannersville, PA, on the way back to my house in Owego for last minute goodies.

Of course, venturing down the 81 corridor towards Philly affords one the opportunity to eat at Bingham’s Restaurant, that legendary pie paradise stuck between Binghamton and Scranton, conveniently located to hop right off the highway and stuff your face. I had heard for years that I needed to check this place out, and as it recently reopened after a fire-induced remodel, this seemed like the opportune time. Our meal was appropriately hearty and plentiful. I got chicken pot pie just to be really authentic to the pie experience.

Pie, pie, I love pie, nothing goes better with a suit and tie

The pot pie was fine, perhaps a tad on the salty side no doubt owing to a hefty ladleful of chicken base rather than a real chicken stock starter, but it couldn’t hold a candle to my pecan pie dessert, which was by far the most delicious, best textured pecan pie I have ever tasted. The crust was perfectly flaky, the corn syrup base almost creamy in its sugary, dreamlike consistency, and the pecans almost candied in their crunchy sweetness.

Me oh my, I love pie

Dad’s ruben sandwich was sloppy and satisfying. There was no shortage of thousand islands dressing on that puppy, and the fries on the side were yummy. The rye bread upon which the sandwich was constructed was the star – thick cut and made in-house, it was stellar. He had the mixed berry pie for dessert, and was similarly pleased with that meal-ender. Again, outstanding crust, and fresh, luscious filling. Pie is really the star attraction at Bingham’s.

Name the movie from which the pie song came, and you win a BHS t-shirt!

But hold the phone, because pie isn’t the only trick up Bingham’s sleeve. Mom had the rice pudding, which was pretty in addition to being rich, ultra creamy, but still toothsome. I love it when the rice isn’t cooked down so much that it’s falling apart, but the pudding is still creamy and smooth. There’s a trick to achieving that – I don’t know what it is, but I appreciate it when I find it. The huge portion and tiny price made this a home run. Even if you don’t escape on a shopping mini-break this holiday season, if your travels take you over the highway and through the woods to Northern PA, stop by Bingham’s for solid comfort food and exemplary dessert.

Not pie.

After arriving at King of Prussia, taking advantage of the ginormous Crate and Barrel just outside the mall, and checking into our swank and reasonably priced Hyatt Place room, we made the somewhat lazy decision to grab dinner at Legal Seafood. Now, I’ve eaten at plenty of these over the years and never had a bad experience, but maybe a Friday night during the high season isn’t the best time to attempt to sample Legal’s fare. The beeper signifying our table was ready never went off, causing us to wait just about an hour to be seated, and then the waitress brought the wrong dinner to my Mom. The food was excellent, but we were just too tired to really battle the service issues we faced that evening. If you do eat here, don’t miss the clam chowder and crab cakes – both are excellent, for chain restaurant food.

Saturday night, we were equally tired, but better organized for better dining. The nice barkeep at the hotel recommended Creed’s Seafood & Steaks, just across the road from the mall, which we had been eyeing anyway. What a great recommendation! It was quiet and lovely inside – traditional but not in a stuffy way. The service was professional and attentive, but friendly. The prices are on the higher end, but so is the food. I started with an arugula salad with wedges of brie, whole cashews, caramelized red onions and inventive blueberry vinaigrette. I felt adventuresome ordering something so strange-sounding, but was rewarded with a delicious and unique appetizer. The dressing was less sweet and more tart than I had anticipated, but also familiar with the texture and slight sugary essence of fresh blueberries. The brie wasn’t your bottom-of-the-barrel Presidente variety, but just a little funky and buttery rich.

Blueberry salad with brie

Mom and I ordered the filet mignon skewers, and were both so happy with our dinners. First of all, the green beans were tremendous – crisp, sweet, bright green and buttered. YUM! The steak was almost equally as buttery, cooked perfectly, and tender as filet should be – served with a masterful béarnaise sauce that I would eat everyday of the rest of my life if I could. Bernaise is a butter and tarragon sauce – a cousin to the hollandaise you find on eggs benedict at Sunday brunch. It pairs awesomely with steak and elevates simple steamed veggies to the sublime.

Sorry for how crappy my photography was that evening. I don’t know what happened.

Dad’s entrée was another stunner, even if I crinkled my nose at his initial ordering: venison loin. I expected the venison I’ve tried to cook a hundred times and still never enjoyed – gamey, tough, blah. But this was farmed, tender, and mild. Almost like beef sirloin – if you want to try venison for the first time, this is the place. The chianti sauce served alongside was all rich mellowness and brought the whole dish together. Two thumbs up.

The venison got all the good lighting

We were all really too stuffed for dessert, but the hotel had given us a free coupon, and who were we to pass that up? The apple cider crème brulee proved the most seductive option, and all three of us enjoyed cracking through the hard-sugar shell into the lush apple chiffon custard below, as well as the creamy pumpkin ice cream served on top. This has been my season for fun, inventive, fall-flavored ice creams, and I’m loving it! We awarded Creed’s a nine on the BHS scale, and moved on up the road to crash for the night at our hotel.

Loving the fall desserts!

Sunday morning, we scooted over to Lancaster for a morning of Coach and Banana Republic outlet madness, followed by lunch at our favorite of the Amish-style dining establishments dotting hilariously-named Bird-in-Hand, PA: Plain and Fancy Farm. Looking at their website now, I see Adam Richman also visited recently and loved it there. Good on ya, Man V. Food!

We skipped the epic meal that they serve as their Amish Farm Feast, and instead chose to order off the plentiful lunch menu. And look, when you visit Amish country, just give up the goose on the diet, will ya? Order the fried chicken, all the crazy sides, and make peace with the fact that you will owe the treadmill a good five miles for this travesty. It’s worth it. My platter of goodness featured the afore-mentioned fried chicken, bursting with flavor that only brining lends and coated in a satisfying crunchy, light breading, a small portion of delicious thinly sliced roast beef in real gravy, Amish pepper cabbage, dried sweet corn, and brown butter egg noodles. This is all food just a little bit different than the typical American palette is used to, and for the good: the pepper cabbage is pickled, peppery and bright, the dried sweet corn is sweet, yes, but also a complete mystery to me. You’ve got to try it to believe it. The noodles are something I always order in Amish country, and though these weren’t my favorite ever, the brown butter is a really cool touch, making them sweet and nutty.

Artful rendition of my Amish feast – thank you, Instagram!

We were too full to sample the shoo-fly pie for dessert, but I took a whoopee pie for the road and was glad for it. Think achingly sweet vanilla frosting jammed between cocoa-rich fluffy chocolate cakes. I would give Plain and Fancy a solid seven on the BHS scale, and recommend either it or Miller’s Smorgasbord if you visit Lancaster/Bird-in-Hand/Intercourse (hee) anytime soon. Both have charming gift shops from which you can acquire pies, souvenirs, and books on the fascinating lifestyle of the Amish community. We saw more Amish families than ever before during our visit this year, and I’m always delighted to catch a glimpse into the daily lives of these “plain people” who live among us, but so separately.

Thanksgiving is all about indulgence, right? Ok, not really. It’s about giving thanks. But more often than not, we Americans pile on a hefty helping of indulgence with our holidays. Well, what better way to indulge than to escape with your favorite people for a couple days, enjoy the tax-free-clothing land of Pennsylvania, and some great food? Try any of these choices on your next jaunt to the near-south, and let me know what you think of my picks. And Happy Thanksgiving, y’all! My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!

Plain & Fancy Farm Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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