Friday, May 28, 2010

Honey and vanilla pound cake

Sometimes a cake just calls to me, and no matter how busy I am or what I've got to get done, baking and eating said cake moves to the top of the list.

Of course, boring old life, like work and errands, can sometimes thwart the best of intentions. I started thinking about this honey and vanilla pound cake on Tuesday and didn't get around to it until today. See, I've actually been busy...working. Good grief! I guess a part of me idiotically envisioned working for myself as having an endless series of weekends piled on top of each other. Taking leisurely swims, poking around the farmer's market, finally cleaning out the hall closet. (I guess I mixed up working for yourself with being a kept woman.) It turns out, when you don't have a steady paycheck coming in, all of a sudden you're a much harder worker. And things like cakes and cookies have to take a back seat.

Not for long, though. After I got through a big project for the week, I was able to focus on important things, like softening the butter and making sure I had good vanilla in the pantry.

Like most of Ina's recipes, this one is simple, rich, and satisfying. Also like most her recipes, it's best not to dwell too long on the ingredients: the fact that this smallish loaf contained two sticks of butter, more than a cup of sugar, and four eggs made me hesitate momentarily in my tracks. After a few days of eating decadently (the way everyone should when they are on vacation), I wondered if I ought to be putting my efforts toward something more austere. But then I couldn't think of anything healthy to make that sounded remotely as wonderful as this pound cake, which I envisioned golden, delicate, and perfumed with my favorite scents: lemon, honey, and vanilla.

Sure enough, when the cake emerged from the oven, I knew I had made the right choice. Doesn't it look homey and inviting?

The recipe suggests you let it cool until, well, cool. I'm a free thinker, though, and so after a very brief wait, I sliced off a thick piece. There's no rule against warm cake in my house; in fact the rule is: eat it.

The cake was delicious and moist, with a tender crumb and a perfect, ever so crisp crust.

I wouldn't say this cake is overly endowed with the flavors in its name, though. If I were going to make it again (and I will), I might add more honey and more vanilla. My version tasted of lemon, if anything, but that may be because lemon zest is one of the things I don't measure, along with minced garlic and grated parmesan. So the recipe called for a teaspoon and I probably added two.

One of the many nice things about a simple pound cake is that it can be delightful on its own, or it can fill out another dessert. I can see making this for guests and serving it with ice cream or sorbet, or even using it in a trifle if you were so inclined. I also plan to eat it for breakfast tomorrow. I'm pretty sure that in the breakdown of cake categories (dessert/snack/breakfast), pound cake can be justified on all occasions. At least that's the way I'm looking at it.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Everything tastes better on vacation

On the 21st, the husband and I celebrated our five year anniversary. To mark the occasion, we decided to head south to Santa Cruz for a few days.

For those of you who have never been, Santa Cruz is a lovely place, like a piece of Hawaii dropped in Northern California. We rented a fabulous house half a block from the beach. While it was too chilly to swim, it was perfect for strolling, and sitting and watching the waves, both of which we did every day, at least twice. The beach was barely populated, which, to two people who live at a busy intersection of a crowded city, felt like a gift.

There's nothing Frances loves more than the beach.

Just being near the water makes you feel relaxed and hungry and tired, in a good way. Throughout our trip, which was all too short, there was a lot of wine drinking, mystery reading, and snoozing on the patio. We also ate some great food, including teriyaki ribs and mac salad at the Aloha Island Grille, which was close enough to walk to. And lunch at the harbor. Who doesn't enjoy looking at boats while eating a juicy cheeseburger and crispy fries?

We cooked in the evenings. At the end of our block was a little Mexican market, where one night I picked up a handful of ingredients for grilled chicken with orange, lime, and cilantro. I topped it with guacamole and served it with red-pepper rice, cooked in a pot. I was relieved it turned out as well as it did. A girl is spoiled after 17 years with a rice cooker.

The night after, the chicken made its way into fajitas.

The first night, though, was the best dinner of the trip. The husband had it in his mind that he wanted surf and turf, something splurgey for our anniversary. He grilled New York strip steaks and I sauteed some scallops wrapped in bacon. We made a colorful salad and drank plenty of wine to apologize to our arteries which were hardening by the minute.

We also watched The Lost Boys, which some of you may know is based on the city of Santa Cruz. Set in the mid-80's, it's about a band of mullet-sporting vampire thugs on motorcycles (led by a bleach-blond Kiefer Sutherland) that terrorize an amusement park in "Santa Carla." It's a gloriously bad movie, which we enjoyed every second of, while slurping Haagen Dazs ice cream bars.

What is it about being on vacation--particularly near the ocean--that makes everything you eat taste like the best thing in the world? I suppose it has to do with your state of mind: you're happy, and you're feeling indulgent.

I've heard people say they can't relax easily when they go away, that they can't forget about things at home. I, on the other hand, have always been good at going on vacation and checking out of my dull, day-to-day worries. It's like my regular life disappears behind me into the San Francisco fog.

For a few days, we imagined quite seriously that we lived in Santa Cruz. We got used to the floor being perpetually gritty from sandy feet and paws and woke up in the morning listening for the sound of the waves. On the way home, we discussed how easy or hard it might be to get a job there. I suppose living there would be different than being on vacation. But it's an idea we're not done with yet.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Where's the Hungry Dog?

I'm on vacation in Santa Cruz. Headed home tomorrow though and will post about our beach and food adventures soon.

Hungry Dog

Monday, May 17, 2010

Something old, something new


I have a little trick for perking up leftovers.

What I do is I make something new to go with something old that needs to be eaten. Last week, for example, we had some leftover roast chicken. Now you know I love roast chicken. But like Frances, I prefer it best the first night. (I am not joking about the dog. She will gobble down as much roast chicken as we could possibly feed her the night it's roasted; a few days later, she sniffs it disdainfully and must be coerced to take a bite. She'll consider it when it's lightly reheated. Who's the more evolved species here?)

Anyway, we had this chicken from a few days before. No sides to go with it, though. In fact, I can't even remember what the original sides were. A big salad with croutons, maybe--that's one of my favorite go-to dinners.

So I perused the pantry for something inspiring. Amid the boxes of pasta and jars of spices I spied to my great delight a small ziploc bag of dried porcini mushrooms. 

I've gushed about porcinis before; I don't just love the way they add a deep meatiness to any dish, I love the way they remind me of a dear aunt and uncle, both now gone, who would mushroom hunt and share their findings with the family. I thought I had used up all of their precious fungi but here remained one last bag stashed away. I decided on a wild mushroom risotto.

Later, we sat down to dinner. The risotto was delicious, full of shallots, wine, and roughly chopped porcinis. The chicken brightened and stood up to the earthy risotto. All of a sudden it seemed more interesting to me and we finished it off, down to the wings. Who knew a lowly mushroom could bring new life to an old chicken?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Chocolate chip cookies, with a twist

Awhile back-- a long while back now, it seems--the nice people at Abrams sent me this gorgeous book for review.

I was excited. For one thing, the photos are really sensational. I found myself salivating at the sight of deep fuchsia beet and quinoa pancakes--when in reality, beet and quinoa pancakes don't sound good to me. I was equally enamored of the beautiful Apricot Boysenberry Tarts in the cover shot.

But a cookbook can't be just enticing photographs. There are far too many of these out there, in my opinion--oversized, glossy tomes that should just be set on your coffee table while you serve dessert baked from a real cookbook.

Good to the Grain, however, is the real thing. The recipes are serious. Kim Boyce is a former pastry chef at Spago and Campanile in L.A. She's clearly earned her good reputation, which is underscored by a glowing foreward from Nancy Silverton. Boyce writes in a thoughtful way, and it's evident that she's invested years in perfecting these recipes. We're lucky she's shared them with us--and her techniques, too, honed through years of working in professional kitchens.

I'll admit that I was biased against the book from the beginning for the plain fact that I don't generally have a high opinion of cookies and cakes made with whole grains. They are often leaden and dull and what they hold in virtue they often lack in flavor. But Kim's recipes were not the familiar 25-grain bread and harvest hockeypuck selection. On the contrary, her recipes called to me. Corn and Gruyere Muffins? Iced Oatmeal Cookies? Sign me up. And I've been fantasizing about her Muscovado Sugar Cake for months now.

I decided it was a good idea to start basic: isn't that a reasonable measure of a cookbook?  I chose Boyce's recipe for chocolate chip cookies made with whole wheat flour. I liked the look of the recipe for two reasons besides the mouth-watering photo: 1) The butter is added--chilled! No pre-softening necessary. And 2) It calls for chopping up good dark chocolate instead of plain old chocolate chips.

I have to tell you, these were some of the best chocolate chip cookies I have ever made. They turned out ever so slightly crispy on top, but chewy in the center, with a nutty background from the whole wheat, and big chunks of chocolate running through. Now, most of us are loyalists when it comes to chocolate chip cookie recipes, and if I could only make one the rest of my life, it would still be the one from Baking Illustrated that I wrote about a year ago. But this would be a very close second place.

The one thing about this cookbook is that I don't see myself buying all these different kinds of flours. I mean, whole wheat I can get behind. But amaranth, barley, spelt, and kamut?  It seems to require a change in life perspective--and a larger pantry. But truthfully, that barrier is my own making and not the fault of the book. And it is one I am inspired to break through, thanks to Kim Boyce.

Chocolate Chip Cookies
from Good to the Grain: Baking with Whole-Grain Flours

About 20 large cookies

Parchment for baking sheets

Dry Mix:
3 c. whole wheat flour
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1 t.  baking soda
1 1/2 t. kosher salt

Wet Mix:
8 oz (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2" pieces
1 c. dark brown sugar (I used light)
1 c. sugar
2 eggs
2 t. vanilla extract

8 oz. bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped into 1/4-1/2" pieces (I used Scharffen Berger semisweet)

1. Place two racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 350. Line two baking sheets with parchment.

2. Sift the dry ingredients into a large bowl.

3. Add the butter and the sugars to the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. With the mixer on low speed, mix just until the butter and sugars are blended, about 2 minutes. Use a spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing until each is combined. Mix in the vanilla. Add the flour mixture to the bowl and blend on low speed until the flour is barely combined, about 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl.

4. Add the chocolate all at once to the batter. Mix on low speed until the chocolate is evenly combined. Use a spatula to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl, then scrape the batter out onto a work surface and use your hands to fully incorporate all the ingredients.

5. Scoop mounds of dough about 3 T. in size onto the baking sheet, leaving 3 inches between them, or about 6 to a sheet.

6. Bake the cookies for 16-20 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through, until the cookies are evenly dark brown. Transfer the cookies, still on the parchment, to the counter to cool, and repeat with remaining dough. These are best eaten warm from the oven or later that same day. They'll keep in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Fava bean puree with homemade pita chips

One evening last week I was in the mood for a pre-dinner snack. As you may recall, one of my favorite things to whip up on such occasions is white bean puree with pita chips. For a few months or maybe years, I made this little nosh quite a bit.

I think I went overboard on it, though, because recently I haven't really felt like making or eating it. Sometimes when I look at the cans of cannellini beans in the pantry I can't help but grimace. And when I've mentioned it to the husband, he's made a face, too. Guess I made it one time too many. What can I say? I have a semi-obsessive personality.

Happily, there are other dips to be had. And isn't it fun to take something seasonal and make it the star? Something like fava beans.

You know the method. Take the fava beans out of their cute caterpillar-like pods, and for as long as you can stand it, remove the thin coverings on each one. I tried to find pleasure in this simple (if mind-numbing) task, but after awhile,  I chucked the remainder of the unshelled beans into the food processor. They were awfully tiny and who would know the difference? I'm obsessive but lazy, a  combination I'd like to channel into a wildly lucrative career someday.

The second frustrating thing about fava beans is that you buy a pound of them but by the time you're done shelling, you only have about 1/2 a cup. They didn't even form a single layer over the bottom of the food processor. So after a moment's hesitation, I opened a can of cannellini beans along with salt, pepper, lemon juice, olive oil, a small garlic clove, and a big handful of basil.

It looked very pretty, if a little like guacamole.

The pita chips turned out crispy, golden, and dusted in sea salt.

When all was said and done, though, this puree, although more than edible, would have been better without the cannellini beans. I felt their canniness took away from the freshness of the favas, which is the root of their appeal--they taste like a new spring garden.

I've done a pure fava bean puree before, in more disciplined days when somehow I gathered the patience to shell what must have been two to three pounds of the little suckers. Those days are over, though, or at least on hold. But I do have fond memories of that puree, which always turned out brighter in taste and greener in color. I often used mint, a better match than basil. My recent combination ended up tasting vaguely like pesto, which wasn't what I was going for. I do think it would be good on a sandwich, however.

Oh well. Sometimes it's enough for a snack to be functional--something to hold you over until dinner is ready. It need not meet every culinary expectation. When it does, great. But I can live with mediocrity from time to time.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Sometimes it's ok to be a quitter

Well, good news, folks: yesterday, I quit my job.

I'm serious, it is good news--you see, I have a plan. Without getting into details, the place I've been working for the last two years is a disaster. On the one hand, it's sad, because I care about the mission of the place. On the other hand, every woman for herself. So, over the last few months, I've been building up a little side business. And now, I'm ready to break free and make it my full-time work.

It's doing the same thing that I've been doing for 10 years, but now I'll be doing it on my own. I am my own boss! This idea is incredible to me. The idea that I answer to no one except my clients sends ripples of excitement up my spine.

Of course, some of those ripples are fear. What if I can't make this work? What if my current buzz of business fades away and no one wants to hire me anymore? These concerns have kept me up a bit these last few nights.

But in the mornings, things have seemed clear. Something about that broad sweeping sunlight you get this time of year makes you feel like the world is embracing you. And somehow, I mustered the courage to take the leap. Kind of a big deal for a play-it-safe hungry dog like me.

Thanks to the husband, my mom, my sister, and the good friends I'm so lucky to have, all of whom have been so supportive about my new venture. And thanks to all of you who have encouraged me! It's a great thing to be buoyed by people you have never met, who truly seem to want the best for you. No, not just great: amazing.

I should wrap this around to talk about food, right? Here's a pasta I made the other night amidst all this change. It's tagliatelle with smashed peas, ricotta, basil, and sausage. It's bright, creamy, and delicious. It will make your mouth happy and your stomach purr. Make it. (Note: I used sweet instead of hot sausage: your choice.)

Happy weekend to you all!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Fried chicken and cole slaw, Derby-style

The husband's cousin, John, who also is from Kentucky and has lived out here forever, throws a Kentucky Derby party every year. When John and his wife lived in the city, the party would take over the multi-unit building they lived in in the Mission, with hundreds of revelers congregating on the back staircases and in the garden below. Televisions were set up throughout the flats so everyone could watch the race. Bluegrass bands played all day and into the evening and bartenders were hired for the sole purpose of muddling mint juleps. There was grilling on the front sidewalk, elaborate betting schemes, an auction, and even a hat box from which you could borrow if you arrived unadorned.

The food at the Derby party is always potluck, and in the past we've been a little lazy, showing up with beer and stuff to grill. But this time around, the husband got it in his mind that he wanted to bring fried chicken (oven-fried, to save on the mess) and cole slaw. He scoped out recipes and decided on this one and this one, but with some additions. He spiced up the chicken with some cajun seasoning; to the cole slaw, he added sliced almonds and dried cranberries.

Here's the chicken. Doesn't it look crunchy and delicious?

And the colorful, confetti-like slaw:

When the food was packed up and ready to go, I put on a dress and cowboy boots, the husband donned his driving cap, and we headed out. This year was a little different than others, because John and his wife now live in Marin. While this party was scaled down by past standards, there were still probably at least 80 people there.

There was a mint julep station...

and live music from The Crooked Jades...

and I have to admit there were some cute kids there, like this tiny Wildcat fan...

or the little one that stole the show, strumming his ukelele in the garden.

As for the fried chicken and the cole slaw, believe me when I say both turned out fabulously and were devoured rapidly at the party. How quickly something disappears on a buffet is certainly one measure of a dish's success.

It was a lovely afternoon in a lovely place. But no matter how nice Marin is, I'm a city girl at heart. I always like coming home over the Golden Gate Bridge...

and watching the ocean fly by.

Happy belated Derby Day!