Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cake trouble

Ever since I read about Moskin v. Severson in Wednesday's Times, I've been thinking about gingerbread. I'm on a constant quest for the perfect recipe. I like gingerbreads that are dark and molassesy but not bitter, with the perfect blend of sweetness and spice. And, of course, they must be distinctly gingery, so in general I've come to the conclusion that I prefer recipes that include fresh ginger root. This also helps the cake taste brighter; sometimes cakes like these which rely so fully on pantry staples and dried spices can taste dusty and muted.

In years past the main recipe I've turned to was from a family cookbook, which contained loads of fresh ginger. It's very good, but sometimes the stringiness of the ginger root bugged me a bit, and I can't forget that one time I served it to a guest who seemed to find it distasteful. I suspect that some sloppily-grated ginger reminded him of clumps of hair, which is what it sort of reminded me of, when I really thought about it.

Since this past Thanksgiving I've been making a gingerbread pear cake from Gourmet, which has turned out successfully a number of times. I don't use as much fresh ginger as it calls for, in part due to a fear of my terrifyingly sharp box grater which has drawn blood on more than one occasion. But also, the consensus of my test audience (mother, sister, husband) was that it was in fact too gingery. This recipe also felt a bit weighed down by the fruit, and ultimately I decided that I don't like stuff in gingerbread, or cakes in general, for that matter. I find I'm always trying to eat around the debris to get to the cake.

So I thought I would try this one, which contained no fresh ginger and no fruit. I felt optimistic that it might be the quick, simple, deeply-flavored gingery cake I've been searching for.

Unfortunately, this recipe was a complete dud. I'm not an expert, but I'm a good baker, and this recipe just fell flat. For one, it called for no sugar. As I was assembling the cake, I knew this could turn out to be its fatal flaw, but I like to do recipes by the book, at least the first time around. The second and very significant problem with this cake is that as I was whisking the water and melted butter into the dry ingredients, the butter completely seized up and the batter turned rapidly into an unruly, thick paste. At various points I had to push the dough through the whisk, as it was started to form a giant ball inside the wire strands. Nevertheless, being the rule follower I am, I persevered, whisking in the beaten eggs and molasses (yes, this seemed wrong to me that the eggs would be incorporated so late in the game), trying my best to whisk until the batter was smooth and lumpless, while worrying increasingly that my poor cake would turn out tough from overmixing.

Finally I scraped the hideous brown batter into a pan, stuck it in the oven, and hoped for the best.

Sadly, the cake was everything I hoped it wouldn't be, except for tough. It actually turned out with an odd, soft, and almost spongey consistency (which Kim Severson did allude to, so this is no fault of the recipe), with pale, unappetizing, pea-sized clumps of flour and butter running neatly through it. The cake was also very bitter--I should have trusted my instinct and added some brown sugar. And, perhaps worst of all, it didn't really taste like gingerbread. The miniscule amount of ground ginger --even good Penzey's ginger--failed to fight beyond the oppressiveness of the molasses.

Like most desserts, this one was partially remedied by Hagen Daz vanilla bean ice cream, and it was certainly to my advantage that we were consuming the cake while watching the next-to-last episode of "Dexter"--conversation of any topic was completely halted. Also, the lighting was dim. So, the poor quality of the cake was thankfully muffled a bit by external circumstances. Anyhow, I'm back to square one on the recipe front. But next time, I've got some ideas for my own recipe--it's about time I got braver on the baking front.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Pan Bagna at Cafe de la Presse

I had to get downtown today for a workshop, and was able to fit in lunch afterward at Cafe de la Presse. It's at the corner of Bush and Grant, across from the gates of Chinatown. It's a combination of a cafe and a newsstand, which happen to be two of my favorite things lumped into one. Who doesn't want to eat a croissant while paging through Australian Elle?

It appears that everyone who works at Cafe de la Presse is foreign, and at least half the people that go there are too. I'm 100% Californian and not well traveled, so when I go there I feel a little sheepish, as if for some reason I should be more cosmopolitan just to go there. But the staff is very friendly and warm, and I always shake that feeling quickly. Today I got waited on by a 20-something waiter with an ambiguous foreign accent and the appearance of having just finished skiing the Alps; he was very tall, tan, and blond, but not in a California way--a French or Swedish way. His smile was blinding. I felt a little like a hobbit.

Hobbit or no, when I'm there, I take care of business. They do a great croque monsieur and the loveliest, saltiest cornet of fries, but I usually get the pan bagna, which is olive oil-poached tuna on ciabatta, with butter lettuce, sliced fennel and cucumber, red peppers, tomato, egg, green beans, and very light pesto. It's like a salad Nicoise, but layered into a stunning and delicious sandwich, the primary lingering impression being of really good olive oil and good, crunchy vegetables.

The sandwich reminded me that as much as I like strong flavors, some of my favorite things are very delicate, like cucumber and celery. Celery! I could put celery in everything! I love its mild, grassy taste and pale, watery color. In my head, I lump these vegetables together, mostly for that summery, washed out shade of green, but also for having a very distinct but delicate flavor. I also include fennel in this group, and to some extent artichokes. (Incidentally, I just about lost my mind when I discovered cardoons, which, just like the Internet said, look like celery but taste like artichokes.)

No photo of the pan bagna, though. I guess technically I can take photos with my phone but I don't know how to get them from my phone to the computer. Ultimately, my technical abilities are pretty geriatric--I can type, and that's about it. But, I'm planning on changing this, starting this weekend. The husband and I are in search of some camera equipment. So, stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

How to cut up a chicken

One of the many things I regret not listening to my dad explain to me was how to cut up a chicken. Now that he's not around, I've had to figure it out myself. I'm not the type of person who's very good at looking at the wispy little drawings in cookbooks and translating that into my hands and the chicken on the cutting board. So it's taken a number of years and countless chickens until I finally feel I can do a respectable job of cutting one up.

The fact that we now roast a chicken almost every week has helped, although my poor husband had to listen to quite a bit of swearing over the last few years as I struggled to teach myself. The thigh was always my nemesis. Wing, drumstick, no prob. But the thigh was always tricky to outline and inevitably I ended up hacking into the joint, either resulting in a very tiny thigh or a weirdly large one carrying with it part of the bone that connects the thigh to the back I guess (do chickens have hips?).

Anyhow, I finally figured out a few things that really make it easier. 1) Let the meat rest. I knew this from a cooking standpoint--let the juices redistribute etc-- but letting it cool makes it much easier to handle and the parts become more distinct. 2) The order that works best for me goes: drumstick, breast, wing, thigh. And here's the secret with the breast: remove the entire breast off the bone, which is easy, but takes a bit of practice so you don't lose much of the meat, then slice cross-wise. I used to just slice it straight off, but I have to say, not only does it end up looking much prettier, but the cross-cutting makes for more tender chicken. Slicing it straight off results in unnecessary shredding. 3) Do not cut into the thigh until you find the joint. This is basic, I know, but it has generally been a problem for me, as I would get frustrated and end up angrily hacking through something or other just to get it done. But if the chicken isn't too hot and you're careful, you can find the joint and remove the thigh so it turns out intact.

I should have taken a picture of the chicken cutting procedure but juggling the chicken, knife, and camera seems tricky. The husband has been interested in helping me with the picture taking business so next time I will enlist his skills.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Dinner with friends, and a simple breakfast

Last night we had good friends over for dinner. It's been very wintery up on the top of the hill where we live, with wind whipping over Twin Peaks and rattling our little flat. We've been cranking up the heat and piling on sweaters. So, pot roast seemed like a good idea.

As with most recipes, I turn to Marcella Hazan. I like her Pot Roast of Beef Braised in Red Wine. It's reliable, and it manages to seem both elegant and rustic. I served it with mashed potatoes (which always get the short end of the stick when I'm cooking--this was proved true again last night when the cream and butter boiled over and I ended up haphazardly mashing them in the pot they boiled in in a rush to the finish) and roasted asparagus--the cheating cook's vegetable, because it is so easy and everyone seems to like it.

The pot roast turned deep brown from the initial searing, then got velvety and sweet from three hours of slow braising. As has become my habit, I added a few things to Marcella's recipe (sacrilege, but not only does she not call for any sizeable vegetables, but she calls for miniscule measurements of them, such as 1 1/2 T. chopped tomatoes. Yes, tablespoons.) I got some good carrots at the farmer's market and the husband put in a request for pearl onions. Impossibly cute and delicious, he reminded me. I agreed, so long as I could use the frozen and pre-peeled ones. I am not about to go blind for some pearl onions, painstakingly marking the little x in the root and struggling to get a grip on their slippery little skins.

But the star of the evening if I do say so was the dessert, a delicate apple crostata. Braeburn and Fuji apples (I know, not traditional, but that's what I picked) tucked into a golden and flakey crust, with a sparkly sugary shine on top. The secret to this delicious pastry is that the dough is very short, resulting in a very tender crust. Served with vanilla bean ice cream, this launched the four of us into a temporary coma.

As you'll see, I'm trying out something new here, food photography. I'm a borderline terrible photographer so bear with me. So far what I understand is that you need light, not too much background crap, and it's imperative that you get weirdly close to the food.

This morning I woke up surprisingly refreshed, after sleeping deeply and undisturbed for a good eight plus hours. It is so great to wake up on a Sunday and have no plans but coffee and The New York Times. And, currant scones.

Later tonight: roast chicken and freakishly large Brussels sprouts.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The hungry dog's hungry dog

As you might have guessed from the title of this silly thing, in addition to just being a hungry person who likes to cook, eat, and think about food, I also have a hungry dog that lives in my home.

My dog likes to eat almost everything. Sometimes I share my breakfast with her. Usually I eat yogurt (which, P.S., I hate, but I have no breakfast ideas, since I really don't like breakfast but force myself to eat it), with raw almonds and fruit. Whatever the fruit is, the hungry dog gets a couple of bites. She will eat any fruit. She's very partial to apples and bananas, but I've seen her eat honeydew, cantaloup, pears, persimmons, peaches, kiwi, and oranges. When she was a puppy, she did not care for citrus, but like a human, as she grew up, she developed a taste for bitter and even sour things. Now she'll gobble an orange segment, no questions asked.

She also likes all raw vegetables, with the exception of lettuce and onions. When I'm chopping up veggies, she' s at my feet waiting for bits to drop. In fact, she knows that the phrase, "Uh oh" is usually accompanied by something falling to the floor, and if you say these words, she'll snap to attention and stare at your feet, prepared to dive for the lost bit of diced carrot.

The dog has been known to eat celery, zucchini, green beans, potatoes, and fennel, but her all-time favorite vegetable (I guess technically fruit) is the tomato. When she was a little puppy and I was living in the 'burbs, she would steal tomatoes from the garden. She'd bite into every single one, leave the green ones (too tart!) and take care of all the ripe, juicy red ones in a few quick bites.

And of course like any dog she likes cheese, peanut butter, and any kind of meat--especially roast chicken. She now recognizes the smell while it's roasting in the oven. If our oven door wasn't so incredibly dirty, I like to imagine her sitting in front of the oven, staring at the bird, quiet and still in its hot little box, getting crispy and delicious. It's no wonder why she likes it so much--it's one of the few non-produce items we cook that she actually gets to sample.

I like that I have a hungry dog. For one thing, she was real sick a few years ago, and we didn't know if she would live. The first sign of her being sick was that she didn't want to eat. But we were very, very lucky, and the vet fixed her up. So now, when I see my hungry dog, it fills me with joy, because I know she feels good.

Also, I like to think of her as my kid, to whom I've passed my food-loving genes. You might think I'm crazy, but me and my dog, we are connected. I'm sure we're a little bit the same even though we couldn't possible be. I do know if I were a dog, I'd be a hungry dog: I'd be her.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Eating my way through the weekend

This weekend I did a lot of cooking.

On friday, I made really good macaroni and cheese. This recipe is artery-clogging, heart-stoppingly good. You make a bechamel sauce and melt cheese into it. Then you mix that with the pasta, and you layer it with more cheese. Then you pour heavy cream over it, and top it with buttered breadcrumbs. This time I added some Niman Ranch ham, cubed up. I can't believe I'm alive to write about it. It was great.

On Saturday night, I tried a new recipe from the Times for roast chicken. Now, in general, I don't branch out with roast chicken. I use Marcella Hazan's recipe for chicken with two lemons and to me, there is no improvement. But this one sounded interesting. You stuff the chicken with a whole head of garlic, lemon, herbs, etc, but the thing that drew me to the recipe is you roast the chicken over slices of stale bread drizzled with olive oil. So in theory, the bread gets crispy, and absorbs all the chicken juices. I loved this idea. Unfortunately, all the bread that wasn't covered by the chicken burned to inedible crisps. However, to give credit to the Times' Melissa Clarke, the bread that under the chicken was some of the most delicious crispy, chewy, croutony goodness I've ever had. Note to self: email Melissa Clarke.

To go with the chicken, I made creamy grits, and slow-cooked collard greens and swiss chard.

Last night I roasted up a pork loin with sage. I still had a lot of veggies to use up still from last week's produce box. So I roasted up carrots, potatoes, beets and fennel. Then I sauteed broccoli rabe with garlic and a squeeze of lemon, and flash-cooked up the tiniest, cutest white mushrooms in olive oil, butter, and parsley over high heat.

I should start taking pictures of my food. I'm not really a good photographer though. It seems, from the food blogs I've looked at, you need to get real close to the food. Otherwise it just doesn't look that good.

One hour until mac 'n' cheese leftovers for lunch!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Road trip!

We're starting to plan a little road trip to L.A.! The husband has only been there once, and so we have a lot to see. I went to college in L.A. but that was long enough ago that a trip there seems like a new and exciting thing.

Not only are we ready for a little vacay, but we have some good friends who live there that we have been meaning to visit. Also, they might be moving out of state soon, and we're anxious to fit in at least one trip while they still live there. These friends, I miss them. The woman was one of my first friends freshman year of college, so it's coming up on 18 years that we've known each other. We were friends before either of us met our husbands, and saw each other through boyfriends, school troubles and successes, parent illnesses, death, babies, sibling drama, a cat, a dog, and various jobs. We even lived together for one year.

She met her husband early on in college and they got married a few years after we graduated. You couldn't find a better guy for your friend to marry. I went to their wedding in Texas, and seven years later she came to ours in California. I deeply, deeply love these friends.

They were among the first people my husband met when I convinced him to move across the country to a place where he knew no one. From the beginning, the husband told me he liked these friends better than almost anyone he'd met out here.

So, I'm excited. Los Angeles is one of my favorite places, and not purely for nostalgic reasons. It's a fun place, there's a lot to do, there's good food, and warm weather. I can't wait.