Monday, May 28, 2012

Return to paradise

Last weekend, we headed down to Santa Cruz for a few days. We rented the same house we stayed in two years ago,  located in a quiet cul-de-sac half a block from the beach. For three perfect days, we forgot about work, responsibilities, and errands, and instead settled into a new routine: beach, eat, nap, read, drink wine, repeat. I challenge you to find a better way to spend a few days.

From our sandy perch, we watched the boats...

and some kids surfing.

We even saw some dolphins, though without a zoom lens you'll have to squint a little.

We went to Capitola, a few miles down the road.

We watched a guy paddle boarding, all by himself.

There were lots of pelicans.

And lots of food. We grilled in the evenings--salmon, steak, and scallops--and I made easy sides that created little cleanup--a mango and avocado salsa, grilled asparagus. On the morning we left to drive down, I baked these lemon raspberry muffins with crumble topping and we ate them all weekend.You can find the recipe here, which I doctored only a little, substituting buttermilk for milk and adding a few drops of almond extract. Next time I might reduce the baking powder and swap in a little baking soda to soften the texture, but they really were delicious.

At our old favorite, the Aloha Island Grille, we ate kalua pig...

and kalbi ribs.

If I were on death row, I think my last meal would be a Hawaiian plate lunch. If I'm going to exit this world, I may as well be full of mac salad.

What was the occasion of this little getaway? you might wonder.

Well, for one, the husband and I celebrated our wedding anniversary! 12 years together, 7 years hitched.

We also celebrated one year of having Soph, the sweetest creature I know, unless you are a bird or gopher, in which case, she's gonna getcha.

And we remembered our Frances, who was with us on our first trip to Santa Cruz, by sprinkling some of her ashes in the Pacific.

I still miss her every day but cannot believe my good fortune to have found the two best dogs on the planet. What are the odds?

To me, there is no happier vacation than one spent wearing flip flops, shaking sand from my clothes, and smelling faintly of the sea. Three days was not enough but without a doubt, we will return.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Strawberry almond crunch cake

This cake actually has another name, a given name: Almond-Rhubarb Snack Cake. That's also a good name; as I think we've discussed before, "snack cake" is a magical phrase, summoning visions of small, soft little cakes, perfect for one and suitable for consumption any time of day.

I made this cake once before, in its original incarnation, and posted about it. (Now, as I did then, I left out the nuts in the batter, as I don't like nuts in cake.)  It was quite good with rhubarb. However, this time around, I had quite a few strawberries to use up. Strawberries are the tomatoes of the berry world: one day they're perfect, the next, they're mush on your counter. So, strawberry cake.

One of the best things about this cake--in addition to its perfect crumb and perfumed, almondy scent--is the almond topping, which is why I renamed it for this post. What you do is this: you mix a little melted butter, cream (I had half and half and that worked fine), flour, and some sugar. You then pour it over the cake when it's about 10 minutes from being done, and sprinkle it with sliced almonds. Together, they form a crunchy little frosting crust. Flo Braker, you're a genius. How do people think of these things? It's hard to imagine what this topping wouldn't be good on.

Honestly, I think the cake was even better with strawberries than with rhubarb. I feel like rhubarb benefits from macerating in sugar--the way it usually does in a pie or crisp. With this cake, you're getting unmacerated bits of fruit throughout. Strawberries are better for that than rhubarb, in my opinion, which can seem a little stalky. I mean, it is a vegetable.

Ultimately, you could swap nearly any fruit in here. I do think something with a little color is best--apples might taste good but they woudn't be as pretty as ripples of blueberries or raspberries running through. No matter what you use, though, the cake is impossible to resist and, like a good snack cake, is appropriate for devouring at breakfast, in the afternoon, or for dessert.

This recipe has a number of steps and rather specific directions, but I maintain that it is an easy cake to make. None of the steps are difficult, and having made this cake twice, I can vouch for the validity of the directions. They seemed to collectively result in a perfect, light, moist, and totally addictive cake.

Strawberry Almond Crunch Cake
Adapted slightly from Flo Braker's Baking for All Occasions 


1 3/4 c. cake flour
1/2 t. baking soda
1/4 t. salt
1/8 t. baking powder
4 oz. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 c. granulated sugar
1/2 t. almond extract
1/2 t. vanilla extract
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 c. well-shaken buttermilk
1 c. strawberries,  trimmed and either halved or quartered

Almond topping

2 T. unsalted butter, melted
1T. all-purpose flour
1 T. heavy cream (half and half worked fine)
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. natural or blanched sliced almonds

Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.

Butter a 9-inch springform pan with 2 3/4 or 3-inch sides. Line the bottom with parchment paper.

To make the cake: Have all ingredients at room temperature. Sift together flour, baking soda, salt, and baking powder onto a sheet of waxed paper; set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed until smooth and creamy, 30 to 45 seconds. Add the sugar in a steady stream, stopping the mixer occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Continue to beat on medium speed until the mixture is very light in color and texture, about 3 minutes. Add the extracts during the final moments of mixing.

With the mixer on medium speed, add the eggs, about 3 T. at at time, beating after each addition until incorporated. When the mixture is fluffy, reduce the speed to low and add the flour mixture in three additions alternately with the buttermilk in two additions, beginning and ending with the flour mixture and mixing after each addition only until incorporated. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Fold the strawberries in with a rubber spatula. Spoon the batter into the pan, and spread evenly with the spatula.

Bake the cake until a round wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out free of cake, 40-45 minutes (mine was done in 40).

About 15 minutes before the cake is ready, begin making the almond topping. In a small saucepan, mix together the butter, flour, cream, and sugar and stir over low heat until just blended.

About 10 minutes before the cake is ready, remove the cake from the oven, pour the topping mixture over it, and sprinkle the almonds over the top. Return the cake to the oven and bake until the topping spreads over the cake and just begins to bubble, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool in pan for 20 minutes.

Slowly release the springform clasp and carefully remove the pan sides. Let the cake cool on its base on the rack for 10 minutes longer. Then invert a wire rack on top of the cake, invert the cake onto it, and varefully lift off the base. Slowly peel off the parchment liner, turn it over so that the sticky side faces up, and reposition it on top of the vake. Invert another rack on top, invert the cake so it is right side up, and remove the original rack. Let cool completely.

Serve at room temperature, cut into wedges. Cake keeps, covered and at cool room temperature, for 2-3 days.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Teriyaki round 2, and beachside adventures

Success! It took me long enough, but I finally had another go around with the teriyaki business. Remember back in October when I made that gorgeous but unbearably salty beef teriyaki? I put out a plea for tried-and-true recipes and thankfully, my blogger (and real life friend, thanks to our meeting in France last year), Camille, sent me her go-to recipe.

Within about a month I have made it three times: twice for chicken and once for mahi mahi. I also happen to be making it this evening. Who knew the ideal chicken teriyaki would come to me by way of Paris?

It's simple and brilliant. For one thing, there's no marinating. You broil the chicken, which takes less than 15 minutes, and while that's in the oven, you simmer the sauce on the stove. Then, you eat it.

Camille's recipe does involve an extra step which I skip--she suggests you buy chicken thighs with skin and bone and cut out the bone. This is a good idea, because then the meat cooks more quickly, and when it's done, you can slice and serve it nicely. But, I didn't want to get into that. I just used the thighs as they were and tacked on a few extra minutes for cooking.

One thing, for those of you inclined to health it up, do NOT remove the skin. You'll just end up with shriveled little chicken nubs. The skin protects the chicken from drying out; plus it gets nice and crispy. If you're looking to feel virtuous, enjoy the fact that this recipe involves not a drop of oil. Hooray!

I added the sesame seeds as a garnish, and the most recent time, I added sliced scallions for a bright and oniony finish. It's a slam-dunk.

Chicken Teriyaki
courtesy of Croque Camille, edited slightly

8 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
½ cup soy sauce
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon grated fresh ginger
2 tablespoons mirin
1 clove garlic, minced or pressed through garlic press (about 1 teaspoon)
½ teaspoon cornstarch

Optional: sesame seeds & green onions, sliced

Position oven rack about 8 inches from heat source; heat broiler. Season chicken thighs with salt and pepper; set thighs skin side up on broiler pan (or foil-lined rimmed baking sheet fitted with flat wire rack), tucking exposed meat under skin. Broil until skin is crisp and golden brown and thickest parts of thighs register 175 degrees on instant-read thermometer, 10 to 14 minutes, rotating pan halfway through cooking time for even browning.

While chicken cooks, combine soy sauce, sugar, ginger, and garlic in small saucepan; stir together mirin and cornstarch in small bowl until no lumps remain, then stir mirin mixture into saucepan. Bring sauce to boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally; reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce is reduced to 3/4 cup and forms syrupy glaze, about 5-10 minutes. Cover to keep warm.

Transfer chicken to serving platter; stir sauce to recombine, then drizzle to taste over chicken. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and/or green onions. Serve immediately, passing remaining sauce separately.


New discoveries: It's such a nice surprise when, after 16 years of living in a city, you discover a new pocket to love.

We recently started heading out to the Outer Sunset/Ocean Beach on the weekends, when the weather is decent. In San Francisco, this can mean anything from 80 degrees to simply the absence of blowing wind and fog. We take what we can get. If I can sit on the beach and not be buried in a sandstorm, that constitutes a beach day. If I can do this in a short-sleeved shirt and flip flops, it's really something special.

Sophie digs the beach, too, as you might guess. She lived the first part of her life in Idaho and when we first brought her to the beach she went nuts. It actually was a rather stressful occasion which required calling on (some might say yelling at in a panicked voice) strangers to help us catch her as she tried manically to kill seagulls. Now, Sophie stays on leash.

Sometimes we just walk on the beach. Other times, we find a dune to sit on and watch the sunset. Usually, we find something delicious to eat at some point in the excursion. I'm sure we are not the only people for whom the merest whiff of salty air makes us ravenous.

Our favorite place to eat in the Outer Sunet was, for many years, Cajun Pacific, a teeny outpost about two blocks from the ocean, where you could drag the outdoor tables into a sliver of sunshine and eat po boy catfish  or andouille sausage sandwiches and drink Sierra Nevadas while the waves crashed in the background. CP is still around but in a different incarnation; now they basically just serve dinner, and even that seems sporadic. So, for our lunchtime needs, we've had to branch out.

Happily for us, we've found two excellent places which have shot to the top of our list. The first is Beachside Cafe at 48th & Judah (same owners of Java Beach, at the other end of the block), where we have become obsessed with their fried chicken sandwich, which is juicy, crisp, and delicious on a bed of tangy slaw, and served on a roll that is just the right balance of soft and crusty.

Although not a good shot, the sandwich more or less looks like this: 

In addition, they offer a bottomless mimosa on weekends, which literally means they will walk around with a pitcher and refill your quickly draining glass for as long as required. If you've never eaten a fried chicken sandwich by the beach, washed down with a mimosa, I'm afraid you're missing out. As someone who had never done this until a few weeks ago, you can trust me.

We've also become avid fans of Outerlands which is about three blocks east at Judah and, oh, say, 45th. This place is a bit of a scene, but it's worth it. On our first visit, we ordered open-faced bacon and egg sandwiches on their homemade bread, along with a fantastic farro and beet salad that I later tried to rip off at home, with reasonable success.

For dessert there was a perfect chocolate chip cookie and one of their signature salted caramels which are stocked irresistibly (and cleverly) in a glass canister by the cash register. I was irritated that the husband broke his longstanding anti-caramel policy and horned in my treat, but who could blame him? The caramel was shared.

These places both seem to have a bit of a following, which may or may not be a good thing for the neighborhood. There's a fine line between driving local business and stampeding residents with increased traffic and unwanted noise. For better or for worse, I would guess that the Outer Sunset is about five years away from being the next Mission or Hayes Valley.  I guess I'd better enjoy it now before the hipster hoards, with their skinny jeans and fixed-gear bicycles, descend.