Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Back to the kitchen

Friends, I've been busy. And tired. And when I try and think back to what I have been cooking in the many, many weeks since I last posted, I can't think of a single thing before this weekend, when I all of a sudden rediscovered the kitchen. Hello, old friend. Friday night I made arroz con pollo for a hungry group of friends, then gilded the lily with the "Devil Dog" cake from Gourmet. Turns out I will be adding marshmallow frosting to my repertoire straight-away.

Then I was on a roll, and on Monday (Thank you, Mr. Columbus. Though I don't stand by your raping and pillaging of indigenous people, I sure was glad for a day off) I finally tackled the knobby pumpkins that came in our farm box. I wish I could tell you what kind they were, and if I'd kept my latest issue of Martha Stewart Living magazine, I probably could. (I just tried looking at the website but boy, has Martha done a few projects with pumpkins over the years...)

I peeled the pumpkins, removed the seeds and sliced them, then roasted the slices with olive oil and salt and pepper in a 4oo degree oven. The next day, I then smooshed the slices though a ricer to make a smooth puree (you need about 3/4 cup of puree). To that, I added one riced russet potato (a bit one, about 3/4 lb., boiled in its skin until soft then peeled before ricing). I let the whole mess cool before sprinkling it with 3/4 cup of all-purpose flour. Then, in a small bowl, I mixed together 1 large egg, 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, 1/2 teaspoon each of minced fresh thyme, sage and salt, and then a good pinch of pepper and nutmeg. I added the pumpkin-potato mixture to the egg mixture and mixed gently until it held together in a dough, then turned it out on a well-floured surface and divided the dough into sixths. Then I made dough "snakes," and cut each snake into many 1/2-in. niblets.
A roll across a gnocchi paddle (or the back of a fork) and then a brief tour in boiling, salted water (just until they float) followed. Transfer floaters to an oiled, rimmed baking sheet and continue until you have boiled them all (try to resist the urge to cook them all at once, as this can get dodgy). Once all the gnocchi have been boiled, melt some butter, let it get golden brown and nutty, then drop in some whole sage leaves and the boiled gnocchi. Wiggle that pan around furiously so the gnocchi don't bond to its surface and so they get fully coated with delicious browned butter. Eat these while they are hot, topped with more Parmesan and, if you have some lying around, maybe some braised chard? Or sauteed spinach? Or fried pancetta or bacon crumbles?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

This cake won't change the world, but it might make you feel better

We're just coming off of a long weekend of parties, finding ourselves facing a very busy week with not quite enough rest under our belts, and all of a sudden it seems like there is an awful lot looking for our attention. Beneath my feet, two dogs (ours and a spare we're sitting on for the week) wrestle around; on the table, a stack of unopened mail and unread magazines towers. And for some reason, in spite of the bright blue sky outside and the secure knowledge that things are really quite good, I find myself a little bit down today.

In order to combat that, I'll tell you about the party we went to on Sunday night. It was a big collection of friends from various restaurants, gathering together to fire up the pizza oven that will be installed at the Slow Food Nation bread pavilion this weekend. And fire it up they did, filling it with pizzas and ratatouille, with slow-roasted goat and crispy potatoes and wild salmon and wax beans and peaches and...well, you get the idea. A whole mess of food. The whole event was held in a metal-work studio a couple blocks from our house, and had the lovely bohemian quality that makes this part of the world so great. Somehow 80 people were fed from that oven, the wine didn't run out, the place didn't catch fire, and a feeling of wellness and plenty rolled over the crowd like a wave. It's too bad you can't bottle that feeling.

I didn't want to show up empty-handed, so Sarah and I made a bunch of nectarine upside-down cakes using our old favorite recipe from The Best Recipe cookbook, put out by Cooks Illustrated. In the scheme of things, this cake is relatively easy to turn out in quantity and it never disappoints (well, it disappointed once, when I accidentally forgot to fold in the beaten egg whites at the end. Oops.). You could make this cake over the weekend, serve it to dinner guests and then eat the leftovers for breakfast. Top it with pineapple or peaches or nectarines or prune plums or cherries.

Fruit upside-down cake

This cake bakes up very nicely in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet, and you can make the caramel topping right in the pan. If you don't have one, you ought to buy one. But if you want to make this cake RIGHT NOW you can use a 9-inch round cake pan, so long as it's got 3-inch deep sides.

For the topping:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

3/4 cup light brown sugar

fruit of your choice, cut into this wedges or slices


1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons cornmeal

1 1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. salt

1 stick butter, at room temperature

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

4 eggs, separated and at room temperature

1 1/2 tsp. vanilla

2/3 cup milk

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease pan (you don't need to grease a cast-iron). Melt butter in skillet. Once foaming subsides, stir in brown sugar and cook 2-3 minutes. The sugar and butter will clump and look terrible, but don't despair. Transfer to a cake pan, if using, or just proceed with next step if using cast-iron. That's the way it's supposed to look. Arrange fruit over sugar mixture in an attractive pattern and set aside.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and 1 cup of the sugar until light and fluffy. Turn mixer to low and add egg yolks and vanilla, stopping mixer occasionally to scrape down sides of bowl. With mixer on low, add dry ingredients little by little, alternating with milk, beginning and ending with dry ingredients.

3. In a separate, clean, bowl, beat egg whites until foamy, then add in remaining 2 tbsp. sugar and continue beating until egg whites form stiff peaks. Stir 1/4 of the beaten egg whites into batter to lighten it, then gently fold in the remaining whites until there are no longer white streaks in the batter.

4. Pour batter over fruit in pan and gently spread it to evenly cover, taking care to avoid disturbing the fruit layer. Bake until well-browned and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean (do not poke all the way to the bottom of the pan, as the fruit layer will remain gooey), about 50 minutes if you're using a cast-iron skillet, or 60-65 if you're using a traditional cake pan. Let rest on cooling rack two minutes, then run a knife around the edge of the pan and flip cake out onto platter. Reposition any fruit that may have stuck to the bottom of the pan.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Fish Fry

A week out, I'm still wishing we were back in Michigan. Michigan, I think to myself, where life is easy. I know it's the rose-colored glasses of vacation talking, of course, because vacation has a funny way of making you want to up and leave your real life. But I stand by it: Michigan is nice.

Should you find yourself in Ludington, Michigan, sometime between Memorial and Labor Day, you owe it to yourself to make a pit stop at Bortell's Fishery. We were lucky to be traveling with our friend Chad, who grew up just down the road from this place and who wisely steered our car there in time for a late lunch. Here at Bortell's you can get fish to go (fresh or smoked), but you can also order fish by the pound and wait while the owner, Kris Bortell, fries it up for you right then and there, just as the four generations of men before him have done. Take a minute to check out the black-and-white photos on the wall and it's almost as though time has stood still--the Bortell men all look remarkably similar, with blond hair, broad faces and strong shoulders.
We ordered a smorgasbord of smelt, perch and whitefish, all caught in Lake Michigan, took the whole fried lot of it out to a picnic table and then chowed down. My favorites were the smelt, which are headless but otherwise whole. Even though (in this case) it was a misnomer, I couldn't resist calling them by a name I saw on a San Francisco menu: Fries with eyes.

Was it sunnier in Michigan? Does Kris Bortell possess some kind of frying expertise no other cook has mastered? I doubt it. But somehow, that afternoon, everything seemed pretty close to perfect. Vacation will do that to you.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Shake it don't break it

I have been dutifully documenting meals and recipes these last many weeks, with plans to share lots of images and stories with you. Wholesome things, mostly, summer squash, farm eggs, raspberry lime rickeys. But let's face it, sometimes you just want the money shot. So that's what I'm going to bring you today. We just returned from a too-short trip to Michigan and have returned with a new motto: Michigan-who knew?

Who knew, for example, that Lake Michigan is like a salt- and shark-free ocean, with waves and tides? That heartlanders really are as nice as is reported? That Northern Michigan really is the cherry capital? Some of you surely did, but you were wise to keep it a secret. Otherwise, you'd never have the place to yourselves. But we crashed t
he party and I'm glad. Because if we hadn't, I wouldn't be able to tell you about the cherry shake at Don's Drive-in in Traverse City.

Don's cherry shake brings all the boys to the yard.

And though you might be able to guess at the sheer glory of good vanilla ice cream blended with ripe, just-picked Bing cherries, now you know for sure. Best of all? Don's offers a real, true small size, 10 ounces of creamy goodness that's just enough to satiate, but not so much it sickens. After all, I had a lot of research left to do to find the state's best tart cherry pie, so I couldn't let my appetite be hampered by too much cherry shake. If you happen to be in this part of the world during cherry season, make a bee-line to Don's (2030 N US Highway 31 N, Traverse City, MI 49686, 231-938-1860).

Friday, July 18, 2008

Why tri-tip sandwiches are better than houses

Whew, boy, what a cliff-hanger that was, huh? Were you all on the edges of your seats? We were, too, for a day or so in there. But then we got the call from our realtor, and I knew by the mournful sound in his voice that we were not moving into a Berkeley bungalow, that we wouldn't be enjoying the fruits of the persimmon, fig, banana and lemon trees in the back yard.
I think I'm OK with this. The house was never really ours, of course, so losing it didn't hurt too much. Just a little. And we all know that most hurt can be covered up with food, with cooking and with dinners out and with good friends. Isn't that true? So I made pesto and I made pie, braised brisket, tested recipes for sticky toffee pudding and made big salads of corn and tomatoes. But my best recent discovery, the one I forgot to tell you about because all this house stuff got in the way, is the tri-tip sandwich from Dunneville Market in Hollister, California.
We were down there the weekend before the house situation, visiting a friend's family (they have a lovely walnut, cherry and apricot orchard, and we made ourselves positively sick on the fruit). On our way out of town, we stopped at this unassuming little spot for their tri-tip sandwich, advertised on a sign in the parking lot. Now, imagine this: a length of griddled garlic bread (made from extra-soft rolls) topped with perfectly tender tri-tip. Wrapped in paper, handed over with a tub of tangy barbecue sauce for dipping, this could well be one of the best lunches around. Having come late to the glory of tri-tip, I fell doubly hard. No lettuce to muck it up, no cheese or tomatoes. Just the bread, the meat and an icy beer, all enjoyed in the shade of a fruit tree. It made me feel happy, and was about $529,994 dollars cheaper than a house in Berkeley.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

High Stress leads to Bad Dinner: Film at 11

We're having quite a week over here in Feed & Supply-land. In a fit of insanity, clarity, hopefulness...whatever you want to call a fit of something we put in an offer on a bungalow in Berkeley on Monday night and now are waiting for the call that will tell us if we are or are not home-owners. Needless to say, the whole process of initialing ones life away, along with all related funds, was a harrowing one.

But first, I'll share with you this telling tidbit. On Monday, the night that we actually wrote the offer, everything came together in a frenzied, late-night meeting with our realtor in Oakland. We had missed dinner and eaten light lunches so we were starving, and I had this romantic notion that we'd have a pizza and salad at Pizzaiolo once the life-signing-over was through. When it became clear that wasn't going to happen, we were forced to settle for a slice of pizza from the worst pizzeria ever, right across from Pizzaiolo. I don't even mind cheap pizza, normally, but this was truly wretched, and took 20 plus minutes to produce, in any case, so it wasn't even fast bad pizza. While we were eating I told Sarah we'd be having a second dinner, to be sure, and I started talking about the Korean food we'd eat after our meeting. I was being a little unrealistic, though, because when we stumpled out of his office some two hours later, it was clear Korean was no longer on the agenda. But my second proposal, an ice cream cone from Fenton's Creamery in Piedmont, was met with enthusiasm. So our second dinner was actually scoops of coffee cookie dream (me) and chocolate peanut-butter (Sarah). But the best part of the whole thing? As we were driving home, Sarah said to me, "If you were in your right mind, you never would of let us have a dinner like that. I feel like I got away with something."

Note to self: lighten up.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Blink and you'll miss it

It was summer there, for a minute. In typical fashion, I have been either over- or under- dressed pretty much every day since the start of June, either bundling against imaginary fog on crystal-blue days or dusting off a sundress when the wind picks up downtown. But when it comes to food, I've been right on track.

It got warm there, for a minute, and when it did I took advantage by serving salade nicoise to our friends for dinner, with hard boiled farm eggs and that luscious Italian oil-packed tuna that makes Chicken of the Sea seem a bit like cat food. It was a kind of high-low night, as we followed the salad and pink wine with many rousing games of asshole, played on our deck of naughty cards which feature, er, models from the 1980s (a gift from our bachelorette party). Then we capped off the evening with rich chocolate cupcakes topped with velvety ganache.

There's no real recipe for salade nicoise, just things you ought to include if you have them on hand: blanched green beans, quartered radishes, the eggs, tomatoes, black olives and boiled new potatoes. We added farm carrots becausewe had surplus, and from time to time I get kind of crazy and add marinated artichokes or roasted red peppers. But the important thing is to buy the best canned tuna you can find, which means that it's Italian and that it comes packed in olive oil rather than nasty vegetable oil. You will pay more for this tuna, and I know it can be hard to feel like it is worth it, when you're accustomed to paying $1.29 for a can and all of a sudden I am asking you to pay $3.99. Just trust me on this one. It matters.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Muffin Better

I know I said I'd post about creme fraiche on my next go-around, but what can I say? Life got in the way. I thought about creme fraiche, though, at the end of a long, hot hike in Santa Rosa, when I turned to my inimitable plus one and admitted that I like whipped creme fraiche as a side for cakes much more than whipped cream. Oh, whipped cream has its place, atop shortcakes and puddings, but whipped creme fraiche, not too sweet and pleasingly dense, is where it's at. Next time, a recipe for DIY, I promise.

I got distracted by muffins. Blueberry muffins (along with brownies, the recipe clipped from Seventeen magazine) were among the first things that I ever learned to bake. There are a lot of terrible muffins out in the world (in fact, I had a dream the other night that I was hurling those dense craft-services muffins at a loved one...what does it all mean?), but my mom's recipe is just right. Fluffy and moist, with a loose crumb and that all-important sugar-dusted top, this is one of those recipes that you'll be very happy to have in your recipe box. Some friends were going to join us for Sunday brunch, so I snapped out of bed and poked around for the ingredients. The friends ended up totally blowing us off, but that was after the muffins were already in the oven and honestly, at that point, I had no regrets. A dozen muffins for two? No problem!

I used up the end of a bag of frozen blueberries but was a little short, so I made up the difference with quartered cherries, which worked just fine. That got me thinking that I ought to play around with the recipe a little bit...what if I substituted all the blueberries with cherries and topped them with sugar and sliced almonds? The mind fairly reels with possibilities. I'll report back any exciting innovations, but in the meantime I figured I'd better just give you the straight-up version. You'll be happy with them, I promise. And this morning, when I remembered that we had 10 remaining muffins (sometime after trying on two outfits then whimpering on the bed, my eyes half-closed like a blind mole) I felt very happy.

Blueberry Muffins to save Monday morning
Makes 12

1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened

1 1/4 cup sugar (plus more for sprinkling on top)

2 large eggs

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 cup milk

2 1/2 cups blueberries (the tiny Maine ones are the best)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and sugar on high speed until light and fluffy, about four minutes. Add eggs one at a time, mixing after each addition. In a small bowl, combine flour, salt and baking powder. With the mixer on low, add dry ingredients to butter-sugar mixture, alternating with the milk, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Add blueberries and stir in by hand until well dispersed. Divide batter among twelve muffin cups, each lined with a paper liner (or very well greased, if you dare). Sprinkle tops with a generous teaspoon of sugar (coarse sanding sugar looks very pretty, but regular sugar tastes just as good). Bake until well browned and puffed, about 30 minutes.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

I'm sorry. Want a slice of cake?

Dear almond cake, I think I love you.

It has been so long that I'm not sure where to begin. Well, I figure that people really like cake, so what better way to say hello, sorry, than with this lovely little number? There, now don't we all feel better? I'm not the first cook to notice that almond paste and butter and sugar make very, very fine bedfellows, but I'm here to underscore their observations. This is the kind of cake you'll be glad to have in your recipe box. It's perfectly moist, with a tender crumb, and the crowning touch of toasted, sliced almonds adds just the right amount of texture. It also has the added benefit of being incredibly versatile, the black dress of cakes. It's great on its own (even for-ahem-breakfast) but you can gussy it up with any number of seasonal accompaniments.

A little rhubarb compote, maybe, fragrant with orange zest? Some sliced strawberries? A gilding-the-lily drizzle of chocolate? Poached apricots in vanilla syrup? Well, you get the point. I wish I could tell you that I invented this cake myself, that I awoke one morning with a vision of dessert, realized on the first attempt. Alas, credit must be given to the good people up at Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakery. The recipe is in Keller's cookbook, Bouchon, which is filled with recipes that normal people can actually sharp contrast to the collection of recipes in his French Laundry cookbook. Before discovering this recipe I had a go-to almond cake in my repertoire, one so loaded with butter and almond paste that it always collapsed after coming out of the oven, which I dealt with by filling the depression with berries. But that cake has now been removed from rotation, because this one, this one is just perfect.

Gateau Aux Amandes from Bouchon Bakery

7 ounces almond paste
1/4 cup granulated sugar
8 tablespoons (4 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and chilled
2 tablespoons mild-flavored honey
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons amaretto, plus additional for brushing
1/3 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
kosher salt
1/2 cup sliced almonds, toasted
confectioners' sugar

3/4 cup creme fraiche, whipped to soft peaks (we made our own...I'll share that technique in my next post, as it's well worth knowing about.)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour an 8-inch round cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper. Put the almond paste and sugar in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Cream mixture on low speed to break up almond paste, then increase the speed to medium for about 2 minutes, or until paste is broken into fine particles. Add the butter and mix for 4 to 5 minutes, until mixture is airy and light in color; stop the machine and scrape down the sides as necessary. It is important to mix long enough or the cake will have a dense texture. Mix in the honey, then add the eggs one at a time, beating until each one is fully incorporated before adding the next. Add amaretto, flour, and a pinch of salt and mix just to combine.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the cake is golden and springs back when pressed. Transfer to a cooling rack to cool. Invert the cake onto the rack, remove the parchment, and invert the cake again so that the top is once again facing upward. Brush the top of the cake with amaretto and sprinkle with toasted almonds. Dust generously with confectioners' sugar. The cake will keep, well-wrapped, for up to two days (like it'll last that long).

Serve with a dollop of whipped creme fraiche and the fruit accompaniment of your choice. Die and go to heaven.