Thursday, March 31, 2011

Summer in the City

In San Francisco, we take our summer where we can get it. Unlike the rest of the country, the months of June, July, and August are generally cold and foggy here. We run our heat and wear sweaters. Pictures in catalogs, or images on TV, showing people frolicking in bathing suits at the beach, or grilling on the patio because it's too hot to cook inside, seem like they're from another planet. It makes for a very grumpy city.

However, we do get sprinkles of summertime throughout the year: a few weeks in the fall, a couple in the spring, and sporadic days in the early part of the year, like now.

The thing is you never know when the warmth will arrive, or how long it will last. Sometimes the day starts out gorgeous and you're opening windows and unearthing flipflops. At 5:00, the fog and wind has rolled in, windows are clamped shut, and you're thinking about making beef stew for dinner.

What I do love about this is that it makes people deeply appreciate the nice days. When it's hot in San Francisco, everyone is out, riding bikes, walking dogs, picnicking, and even sunbathing (if you're at Dolores Park, at least). No one assumes tomorrow will be nice too, so they get out while they can.

Yesterday was in the high 70s and utterly breezeless. It was beautiful. For dinner, I thought it would be nice to skip the oven and minimize stove use. After watching a rerun of Ina Garten making pesto pasta salad, that's what I decided on, although with a few twists.

For one thing, I didn't want to make a salad--i.e. I didn't want to use mayo the way she did. I'm not anti-mayo but it didn't sound good to me with pesto.  I did, however, like the idea of something creamy balancing out the pesto, which I often find harsh. Here's what I did, call it a recipe if you like, although it was more making it up as I went.

I made pesto. I don't follow a recipe for pesto, so I have no measurements. This was garlic (two cloves is plenty for me), basil, walnuts, olive oil, salt, and--this I stole from Ina--defrosted frozen spinach to hold the green color, and a few tablespoons of lemon juice.

When the pasta was cooked I set aside a few spoonfuls of pasta water and tossed the hot pasta with 2-3 ounces of goat cheese to give it that creamy base I was looking for. Then I added the pesto, a little pasta water to get it to the consistency I wanted, some grated parmesan, about a cup of defrosted peas, chopped toasted walnuts, and a cup or so of halved grape tomatoes.

We opened up the windows along with a nice bottle of wine, and voila, a summer's dinner.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Triple chocolate walnut cookies

I first had these cookies a few weeks back, when I met my cousin Pete for lunch. He had just baked a batch and when we sat down at Out the Door, he presented me with a lovely little bag of them. Even amidst the restaurant's strong and heady aromas of lemongrass, chili, fish sauce, and five spice, I could smell those cookies in all of their chocolatey goodness. Throughout lunch, it was all I could do to keep  from diving into that bag.

Once I got home, I went for it. You know, nobody is around during the day. Being alone for large chunks of your life can lead to bad habits, like, um, standing silently in the kitchen, zoning out, and eating a stack of cookies?

These are even better than these chocolate chocolate chip cookies which I also think are great. The new ones, though insanely chocolately, are a little bit less sweet. Plus, I think melted chocolate adds a dimension you just can't get with cocoa powder. The final result is somewhere between a cookie and a brownie, with that perfect cracked top and velvety interior.

I emailed my cousin immediately for the recipe, which he promptly sent. He also told me about his edits to the recipe, which I agreed off the bat were smart. For one, he ditched the milk chocolate chips for semi-sweet. Then, he added walnuts to the batter. Normally, I'm on the fence about nuts in cookies, and truth be told, I never would have thought to do that. But the walnuts added the perfect crunch and ever so slight bitterness, a nice foil to a rich cookie. So, that's how I made them yesterday.

I drummed up the excuse of making them for my friend Deborah, who is literally about to have a kid any day now. The husband and I had planned to visit Deborah and her husband Richard in their new house last night. I figured an edible housewarming gift is always welcome (who needs another vase from Crate and Barrel?), and pregnant or no, people like cookies.

These people did like these cookies, as did the husband, who enjoyed two back to back in the car on the way over. He had just gotten off the train and was ravenously hungry. When I'm really hungry, I don't tend to want sweets--my taste runs to the savory. But at the end of the work day, the husband has a powerful sweet tooth. (Had we been at home, he would have washed the cookies down with a Sierra Nevada--a version of another sweet-and-boozy combination he swears by: Reese's peanut butter cups and Guinness.)

Anyway, I digress. Here's the deal. These cookies are ridiculous--ridiculously good. And even more ridiculous is the fact that you're supposed to make them into ice cream sandwiches and then roll them in candied almonds or coconut. That's for the next round.

Here's a link to the original recipe, but I've also included the recipe with the variations Pete made below. Mine baked for 15 minutes, and, like Pete, I baked one sheet at a time in the center of the oven, and mid-way through, took them out, banged the sheet on the counter, and rotated it when I returned it to the oven. Although they seem silly, I think all of these steps do make a difference--banging the sheet removes any air bubbles, ensuring a dense, chewy result, and placing the cookies in the middle of the oven and rotating them leads to even baking.

One final note: it is important to follow the step of removing the cookies from the sheet when they are done to a rack but leaving them on the parchment. With my final four cookies (a tiny third batch), I had run out of racks and so removed the cookies on parchment to a cooled baking sheet. When cooled, they had hardened quite considerably, whereas all the other ones remained soft and perfect.

Pete's Triple Chocolate Walnut Cookies
Adapted from Martha Stewart

Makes 24-28

1 cup all-purpose flour 
1/2 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder 
1/2 teaspoon baking soda 
1/2 teaspoon salt 
1 stick unsalted butter 
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped 
1 1/2 cups sugar 
2 large eggs 
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
3/4 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Sift together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a medium bowl. Heat butter and semisweet chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water until melted. 

Beat sugar, eggs, vanilla, and melted-chocolate mixture with a mixer on medium speed until combined. Reduce speed to low, and gradually beat in flour mixture until just combined. Fold in chocolate chips and nuts.

Using a 1 1/2-inch ice cream scoop, drop dough onto parchment-lined baking sheets, spacing about 2 inches apart. Bake, rotating and tapping sheets on counter halfway through, until cookies are flat and surfaces begin to crack, 15 to 17 minutes. Transfer cookies on parchment to a wire rack, and let cool. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Mango-blueberry upside down cake

Mangoes are in season. This is surprising to me--seems like they would be a summer fruit--but they've begun showing up in our produce box, which means, their time is now.

I searched the Hungry Dog to see what I did last time we got mangoes and was reminded of the crazy mango bars, a post which, although I like it, makes me sad, because it reminds me of Frances. Like about one million other things do. Today is two months without her, and while it's gotten easier on a day-to-day level--(after all, you must adjust to things about which you have no choice)--when I think about that dog, I realize my heart is still smashed into tiny pieces.

Anyway, that doesn't change the fact that I had a couple of rapidly ripening mangoes to use up and on friday I came across Barbara's post about a mango upside-down cake with basil ice cream--an intriguing combination, no? I decided that this (yet another) rainy weekend would be a good time to give it a whirl.

Unfortunately, I encountered a few challenges from the get-go. For one, I couldn't tell if my caramel had darkened or actually burned, and since it was screaming hot, I couldn't taste it. Also, the butter and sugar seemed to remain sort of separated, which I was fairly sure wasn't right. But after awhile, I figured that was as good as it was going to get and so I turned off the heat.

Then, one of my gorgeous mangoes was spoiled. Luckily, by chance I'd picked up a little box of blueberries at the store earlier. So I sprinkled the berries in to fill the holes between the mango slices.

The rest of the cake was simple and pleasant to put together, even if it involved a number of steps, including separating the eggs, whipping the whites, and folding them in. I like doing all those things, though, and I find satisfaction in a producing a lovely, light batter.

When the cake emerged from the oven and I flipped it onto a plate, it looked beautiful and weird. The blueberries had turned purpley-black and with the glowing orange mango, it was fit for Halloween.

When we dug into it later, although the flavor was good, it seemed a bit heavy, which I hadn't expected. I had beaten the whites to stiff peaks and folded them in ever so carefully, but somehow I must have over-mixed and lost some of the airiness the cake should have had. It sounds like Barbara's was ethereal. Mine was more like a cake-shaped brick.

So, overall, while not a failure, not exactly a success. I had better luck with the plum upside down cake I made from Alice Waters's cookbook last year. But, I trust Barbara and her cake turned out perfectly. So, give it a go. Just be more gentle with the folding step. And let me know if you try that basil ice cream--sounds like a winner.

Monday, March 14, 2011

I think I'm in love

I've got a new favorite pasta.

It's not for the vegetarian, the purist, or the healthy.  Anyone who classifies themselves as such, move along.

For the rest of you, I give you: penne with spicy tomato sauce, black olives, sausage, and burrata.

I absolutely adore this pasta. I found the recipe on Connie's blog (which I love) a few weeks ago, and knew it was going on my short list. I liked all of the ingredients, of course, but I also liked that it called for canned tomato sauce--nice shortcut! I know we're supposed to make our own tomato sauce but once in awhile it's nice to skip a few steps.

Of course, I made a few edits, all but two of which reflect my gluttonous nature.

For one, I used regular penne instead of farro penne--but only because I couldn't find farro penne, even at Whole Foods. Two, I omitted the fennel, because the husband swears he does not like it (although I slipped it into a dinner last week and he did not notice, which makes me suspicious of his claim). But I figured tricking your mate shouldn't become a regular occurrence so I let the fennel go for this one.

On the gluttonous end, I used a full pound of pasta, because I don't like to have a fraction of a box of pasta rattling around in the pantry--it's destined for the garbage. And, I used a full pound of sausage instead of a half, because, you know, why not? And, I used two cans of tomato sauce instead of one. I'm a sauce fiend, as we've discussed, so I knew one 15-ounce can wasn't going to do it for me.

It's a speedy, spicy, perfectly balanced pasta, just right for a mid-week dinner, although I would serve it without reservation to guests. The oil-cured olives add the perfect salty bite. The burrata....well, I feel the same way about burrata as I do about sauce: give me more.

I can see a lot of variations on this. If the husband ate eggplant, for instance, I would consider swapping the sausage for grilled eggplant to make the dish a shade healthier. You could leave out the cheese and it would still be delicious, add capers, making it more like a puttanesca, or skip the olives. The dish could handle any number of alterations without losing its deliciousness.

Give a try and make it your own.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In the winter, a spot of citrus sunshine

Although we've had some nice weather here and there, it still feels like winter. I don't mind the cold too much but I dislike the gray skies. Day after day of that can wear a girl down.

While a real tonic for my winter blues would be a quick trip to Hawaii, we can't swing that this year, what with our upcoming international travel. So a much simpler (and cheaper) remedy was in order: a bright citrus cake, drizzled with a sugary glaze.

I used this recipe posted at Smitten Kitchen, although the original belongs to Ina Garten. It's very simple, although it does take awhile and have a number of steps: the cake, the syrup, the glaze. Instead of using just lemons I used lemons and tangerines and the combination was delicious.

The syrup-drenching process is a little funny, at least the way I did it. You set the cake on a rack over a baking sheet and drizzle the syrup over it. But so much ended up on the baking sheet that I kept having to remove the rack and cake, pour the syrup gathered on the sheet back into my little saucepan, and drizzle all over again. I did that at least three or four times so as to use as much of the syrup as possible, but I am glad I did: I ended up with a supermoist cake similar to a pound cake.

I am also pleased to report that my glazing experience was much improved since the last time I attempted it with the vanilla bean bundt cake. Maybe I let the cake cool longer, maybe the glaze was thicker. Either way, it looked quite a bit better. See for yourself. And don't you think the cake looks a bit other-worldly in this photo?

Of course I baked it in my bundt pan. I don't care for the look of cakes baked into loaves, which is what the original recipe calls for. This would also be mighty fine divvied up into cupcakes; who doesn't want their own individual cake?

So if you're in need of a little mid-winter pick-me-up, look no further. This citrusy cake is just the ticket.

Friday, March 4, 2011

A gorgeous gratin (with a secret ingredient)

Is there anything that doesn't taste good smothered in bechamel sauce?

I'm sure I could eat anything wrapped in that creamy goodness. Include some sharp cheddar and a golden-crumbed topping, and I'd wager you could hide a tennis shoe underneath and I'd at least give it a try. Probably lick the sauce from the laces.

Last weekend, we were invited to a combo birthday/Oscar party potluck. I knew dessert was covered, it being a birthday celebration, and didn't want to bring the standard potluck salad, whether it be green, pasta, or potato. I decided on this divine cauliflower gratin, which, let's face it, is just a fancy name for casserole.

My friend Stephanie made this at Thanksgiving and it was the hit of the dinner. I bothered her for the recipe for a long time to no avail, and even tried this one in my desperation, which was very good. But it did not stand up to Stephanie's. When I finally wore her down (no friendship stands in my way of food) and got my greedy paws on it, I knew had to make it, soon. Heather's birthday bash seemed like the right opportunity.

"Why is it so good, Hungry Dog?" I can hear you clamoring. "Tell us!"

Well, there's the bechamel sauce I mentioned, which is fortified with loads of cheddar and a handful of scallions, giving it a mild oniony bite and a pleasant sprinkling of green. Then there's the topping, which is actually made from crackers instead of breadcrumbs, giving it both delightful crunch and a good dousing of trashiness, befitting its casserole roots. But what elevates this dish from delicious to divine is that the the  topping is made from...wait for it...horseradish cracker crumbs.  

What you do is, you melt some butter, and then stir in the horseradish, then toss it all with the crumbled crackers. So you've got yourself a buttery, peppery, crispy top layered over creamy, cheesy goodness. Oh yeah, there's cauliflower in there too. (Does anyone even care?)

I doubled the recipe and brought it to the potluck, where it was a great success. Heather emailed me the next day for the recipe, and although I considered playing it coy like Steph, in the end I decided, sharing is good. Plus, it's not like I made this one up.

I only made one edit to the dish, which was a concession to the husband. The recipe calls for Saltines -- you know, those flimsy salty little things. That's what I would have gotten if I'd been at the store alone. But the husband was with me, and he noticed that Saltines contain trans-fat. He batted his eyelashes a bit and said, wouldn't I consider some of the good fancy crackers we usually buy?

I was resistant at first--you know I can be a rule follower (a pointless characteristic, I'm realizing as I get older, as all it ensures is that I do the same thing as everyone else) -- but ultimately relented. And, although the crackers were quite a bit tougher to crumble, they yielded a better topping.

I guess after nearly 11 years together, I shouldn't be surprised that we've morphed into each other a bit. But, come on: the boy from Kentucky recoils at trans-fat while the California girl grudgingly agrees to use the rosemary and sea-salt crackers? Just goes to show, anything can happen if you give it time.