Friday, July 29, 2005

Personality Types, Upside Down Cake

I just took my Myers-Briggs personality test. This is something everyone else in the world did about five years ago, and I remember lots of conversations that hinged around the magic letters I, E, S, N, F, P, J. I also remember thinking the whole thing was pretty stupid. But I took the test, and it turns out that I'm a ESFJ--the "provider guardian." Martha Stewart was a ESFJ, you know, and George Washington, too.

In terms of practical expression, I think that the ESFJ manifests itself most obviously in my overwhelming urge to bake for others. This began more than a decade ago, when I was just a wee lass toting brownies (made from Seventeen Magazine's recipe) to the children's librarian at the public library. Now I bake for neighbors (banana bread, more brownies) and dinner guests (upside down cake) and new acquaintances who invite me to brunch (blueberry muffins). I'm pretty certain I do it because people like you more when you knock on their door holding sweets, because nobody, nobody does it anymore. Also, it doesn't matter what you are making for dinner provided you have baked a proper dessert, so it gets you off the hook a little bit in that respect, too.

I've already given you a dynamite birthday cake recipe (see earlier post) but for everyday appeal you should master the upside down cake. It's incredibly versatile, since you can use any fruit on top. The classic pineapple is always a winner, but it works well (and is equally delicious) with nectarines, peaches or plums. Best of all, this cake can be a dessert dessert or a brunch dessert or a breakfast dessert.

Upside Down Cake
(adapted from The Best Recipe cookbook)
You should make this cake in a 10-inch cast iron skillet, if you have one. If not, a 9x3 inch pan will do, but make sure you butter it really, really well, to avoid the embarrasing moment when you flip your cake right-side-up and all the fruit clings neatly to the inside of the pan. Argh!
4 Tablespoons butter
3/4 cup light brown sugar
Fruit, sliced into manageable slices (4 peaches or nectarines or 5 plums or 1 small pineapple)
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3 Tablespoons cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 Tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup plus 2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
4 large eggs, seperated
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2/3 cup milk
If you are using the cast iron skillet, you can make the topping right in there and then pour the cake batter over the top and pop the whole thing in the oven. If you are using a cake pan, you'll have to make the topping in a seperate pan then pour it into the cake pan.
Melt the butter in the cast iron skillet set over medium heat. When the butter is melted, add the brown sugar and cook until the mixture is foamy and pale, about 4 minutes. Arrange the fruit on top of the sugar mixture in a pretty design (I go for a concentric circle). Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, cornmeal and salt in a medium bowl. Cream the butter in electric mixer at medium speed, gradually adding in one cup of the granulated sugar. Continue beating until light and fluffy. Beat in egg yolks and vanilla, reduce the mixer speed to low, and add dry mixture and milk, alternately in three or four batches, ending with the dry ingredients. Continue mixing until batter is just smooth. Transfer the mixture to a big bowl, clean the bowl of your electric mixer (unless you are one of those lucky ducks who has two bowls for their mixer) and then beat the egg whites on low speed until foamy. Increase the speed to medium high and beat until soft peaks form. Add the remaining two tablespoons of sugar and beat until the whites form stiff peaks.
Take a quarter of your beaten whites and fold them into the batter. Fold in the remaining whites in two additions, folding until no white streaks remain. Pour batter onto the fruit, taking care not to disturb the pretty design you made, and pop the cake into the oven. Bake until the cake is golden brown and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 60 minutes.
Remove from oven and let sit two minutes. Place a serving platter over the pan and hold tightly. If you are using the cast iron skillet, it's a good idea to wear an oven mitt on both hands when you're doing this flippy thing. Trust me on this one. Flip! The first couple times you do this, you might want to flip privately, in case something goes wrong or you discover you didn't butter your cake pan enough (see above) but when you've gotten it down, it's fun to do it in front of an audience, because the cake is absolutely lovely and impressive when turned out.

Monday, July 25, 2005

What's for dinner?

I'm not crazy about leftovers. Well, I should qualify that. I'm not crazy about eating the same meal, in unaltered form, twice in a row--even if it's really good. Even if it "improves with age." I like making something, like a roast chicken, that can wear many hats. Roast chicken dinner one night followed by chicken salad sandwiches or pulled roast chicken with barbecue sauce on a soft roll. One bird, many meals.

I also really like looking in the fridge or pantry, realizing that there is nothing to eat, and then making a dinner out of nothing. This is precisely what I did last night, and I think it could be the premise for the next Iron Chef. Don't give the chefs a pantry stocked with uni and creme fraiche--give them a fridge with six eggs, cheese ends, condiments and a few potatoes. That would really seperate the men from the boys.

So, what did I make? Tortilla Espanola. I was served my first slice of this egg and potato frittata-like snack by a Puerto Rican friend, accompanied by garlicky aioli. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

Here's the method: For a tortilla that serves one or two people.

Heat 3/4 of a cup of oil in an 8 inch skillet. It doesn't have to be non-stick, but if you have one, go ahead, use it. When the oil is hot, add about a cup of diced potatoes, maybe a small zucchini if you've got one, and let cook over medium-low heat until the potatoes are soft but not brown (if they are beginning to brown before cooking through, lower the heat) While they are doing their thing, whisk up 5 eggs with salt and pepper. When the potatoes, etc. are cooked, drain them (save the oil, you can reuse it) and add them, while still hot, to the beaten eggs. Stir to combine, add a couple teaspoons of the oil back to the skillet then dump the whole mixture in. Cook over low heat until the tortilla is mostly set, then pop the skillet under the broiler and broil until it's set on top. Turn out onto a plate and let cool to room temperature. Eat with aioli, if you like, or a big green salad.

Something from nothing. I'll be darned. Delicious!

Monday, July 18, 2005

Dinner for Emotional Invalids

We all know what foods to make for invalids, for the sick and weak. A scrambled egg, dry toast, baked potatoes, congee, chicken soup. What is less certain is what to cook for emotional invalids, for friends that are just having a tough go at it, a bad week, or year, a rough patch. I suppose I put myself in that category now: new city, no job, long days, a little lonesome-- which direction?

When you're in this state, with an overabundance of what I like to call "invalitude," it's nice to be asked out. Your friends call and all you have to do is bring a bottle of wine. So you dress yourself up a little, take extra good care of your delicate self, and you and your bottle of wine go to Oakland for dinner.

Dinner is enough; anything is enough. But a really good dinner---well, that's something. And a really good dinner that feeds your soul and fills your stomach? Well, those are good friends. If you haven't made this recipe before (I hadn't) you should, as it will instantly become part of your repertoire. A big green salad, some red wine--let the healing begin.

Bucatini all' Amatriciana
For Six Hungry People
from Saveur Cooks Authentic Italian
2-3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
6 oz. pancetta, finely diced
1/2- 3/4 tsp. dried red pepper flakes
2 cups finely chopped tomatoes
2 tbsp. freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano
1 cup freshly grated pecorino-romano
1 lb. bucatini (hollow spaghetti)
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Meanwhile, heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add pancetta, and cook until browned and crisp, about 10 minutes, then transfer with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain, and set aside.
2. Increase heat to medium-high, carefully add red pepper flakes and tomatoes to hot oil in same pan, and cook, stirring often, until sauce thickens slightly, 6-8 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, add parmigiano-reggiano and 2 tbsp. of the pecorino-romano, and cook for a few minutes longer.
3. Meanwhile, season boiling water generously with salt, add bucatini, and cook, stirring often, until just tender, about 8 minutes. Drain. Transfer pasta to skillet with sauce, add 2-3 tbsp. pecorino-romano, and stir until well coated. Divide bucatini between 4 bowls, and sprinkle each with some reserved pancetta and a bit more pecorino-romano.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Beserkly Baby

I drove by the Berkeley Farmers' Market today and couldn't help myself. Never mind that my partner in eating is in Spain (more on that later) and I am cooking for one; the siren song of beautiful vegetables was just too strong.

But the BFM is a serious market, a professional market, that is so Berkeley that it's almost a stereotype, but in a great and wholesome and not too self-conscious way. Yes, you'll see bare-chested old-timers with large wooden amulets dangling from around their necks. There are hippies playing the banjo, a cute guy in a straw cowboy house sharpening knives and garden tools, vegan cookies.

There are also unbelievable baskets of cherry tomatoes, some as tiny as pinto beans, others bright orange and pear-shaped, big bags of salad greens, festooned with nasturtium blossoms and flower petals, and hearty seed studded loaves of bread.

My favorite discovery, though, were the little dates from Flying Disc Ranch, some 500 miles South of San Francisco, which tasted just like maple syrup. All that diversity, all that beauty, makes me think that California is a country unto itself.

The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open Tuesday from 2-7pm and Saturday from 10-3pm and is located at Center Street @ Martin Luther King Way. For more information, visit

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Turnovers and Tarts

I went to Acme Bread Senior last weekend (that's the flagship store on San Pablo in Berkeley) which is about the size of a shoebox, but it's a very pleasant shoebox, with lots of good smells and things to eat. We were actually staking out a table at Cafe Fanny, right next door, but I figured that I might need an appetizer to tide me over through the long line and subsequent long wait.

What I really wanted were these sublime onion tarts that they make at Acme Bread Junior (ferry building) but it turns out they don't make them at Senior. I don't know why. The guy at the counter didn't know why, either, but he seemed really bummed that he had never tried one, and even humored me as I went into painstaking detail, describing the caramelized onions, the fresh thyme, the slivers of black olive and the nice sprinkling of coarse salt and pepper, all on Acme's really exceptional puff pastry. I have tried lots of puff pastry, both homemade and in the bakeries of the world and Acme's has few equals.

I didn't want to go empty handed, of course (I told you! It really was a long wait!) so I got a ham and cheese turnover. That same puff pastry, filled with good cheese and cubed ham. I think they are on to something with cubing the ham. It keeps the turnover from being all flopppy, gives it a little texture.

Cafe Fanny was pretty good, but they don't have anything on Acme. Oh, and did I mention there is a rose wine sale on at Kermit Lynch, in the same little San Pablo plaza? I kid you not.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Peachy Keen

I'm beginning to realize things are taken for granted here in San Francisco. Maybe it's because the summer weather is absolutely perfect, with brilliant sunshine and nice breezes, or maybe it's because folks have become accustomed to living the good life. Whatever the case, this sense of gracious entitlement seems to extend all the way to fruit.

The good people of this city by the Bay are lucky enough to know what a real peach tastes like. If they are eating rock-hard, tart and juiceless peaches, it's only because they haven't yet reached enlightenment, which comes the minute you taste a peach from Frog Hollow Farm. These are what we should call "peaches with pedigree," because the fruit from Frog Hollow has been written about in all sorts of fancy magazines. The good news is, celebrity hasn't changed these stone fruits--they're really amazing.

I could say that they taste like fruit from my childhood, before factory farming took over and the average fruit or vegetable began traveling 1,500 miles to the average mouth, but truth is, I'm not sure I've ever had peaches that tasted as good as these. I had to cup my free hand under the fruit as I bit into it, sweet fruit juice running everywhere. You can get these little dynamos all over town, at Farmer's Markets and even at Whole Foods, or you can order a box and have it delivered right to you. I imagine the shipping probably costs as much as the fruit, but sometimes it's fun to splurge on ridiculous things, then to wait excitedly while said ridiculous thing wings its way to you. While waiting (or en route to the farmer's market) you can start planning what you will do with your peach motherlode. The first should be eaten out of hand, I think, but then it's open season, and you can make ice cream, pie, cobbler, betty, grunt, crisp--even throw some halved peaches on the grill alongside your pork tenderloin. I'm telling you, it's the real deal.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Just Perfect, and Pulled Pork

There are some days that are just perfect. A group of friends piled into the car and headed to the lake, where we swam, picnicked and soaked in the California sun. The day before I had scored a vintage picnic basket at the grand Alameda flea market, and we pressed it into service immediately, using the sturdy plastic knives and plates that came with the set.

When we were tired we drove over to St. Helena, home of the Culinary Institute of America and Napa's smaller, fancier cousin, to eat dinner at Taylor's Automatic Refresher ( Yes, there is a second Taylor's at the Ferry Building in San Francisco and yes, it does have almost exactly the same menu. But the feeling isn't the same, as there is something about enjoying your burger in plein aire, at little umbrella festooned picnic tables in the "country", that can't be beat.

I had a pulled pork sandwich made with sweet, shredded Niman Ranch meat--it was topped with simple coleslaw and a soft egg bun. I also had a milkshake, of course, and it made the long ride back to the city, through the fireworks, that much sweeter.

Friday, July 01, 2005

The French are Coming!

I just finished reading the New York Observer, and there's a big article about how Le Guide Michelin is coming to the big apple. Due out in November, the classic European guide, with its scrupulous anonymity and painstaking detail, will profile 500 New York restaurants and 50 hotels. On the short list are Alain Ducasse and Daniel Boulud's restaurants....hey, aren't they both French? Some coincidence running this story right before Independence Day. Jeez.