Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Simpler times


Did your mom ever make this for you? Mine did. It's an icebox cake made with Nabisco chocolate wafers and whipped cream. The recipe's on the box. My electric can opener-loving mother would make real whipped cream (a miracle, really) with her hand-held mixer, and add just a little sugar and vanilla. Then she'd let the whole thing sit in the fridge for a good few hours so the crunchy wafers would soften into cake. In those few hours, a mysterious alchemy would transform two disparate elements - thin crunchy cookies and billowy whipped cream - into a cold, dense torte, the edgy cocoa cutting the unctuousness of the cream. It was a marvel, especially when made by someone with a deft hand and an innate sense of proportion. My mother had both with this cake. 



The flavor is somewhat bland, as many desserts of the 20th century were. There's no salted caramel or puckery yuzu or bitter cocoa nibs. Just one note chocolatey wafers and a blanket of cool dairy cream. It's probably the single most comforting dessert I can think of. I'm going to make it for my kids soon, knowing that its simplicity might be lost on them as they measure it against the exotically flavored cupcakes to which they've become accustomed. Then again, they might fall in love with it. Like I did. 





Monday, March 17, 2014

A lifetime of steamed broccoli





Sometimes I think my palate has died a thousand deaths. Having kids can do that to you. You realize after 10 or 11 years that your well-intentioned plan of offering up only food that you, yourself, would eat has failed. You have six different kinds of chicken nuggets in your freezer and you rationalize that at least you buy them at Whole Foods and they are all white meat - really, they are. When that's a win for you, you know your soul has been siphoned out of you with a bendy straw.

I had high hopes for my daughter when her first solid food was wild mushroom risotto and brussels sprouts. She ate it. All of it. At that point I thought I had won. This child, unlike my first who only ate things with a crunchy brown coating, would embrace culinary adventure. Or at least sauces that extended beyond ketchup. Today, 10 years later, she won't even eat ketchup.

To be fair, they each have their own culinary thrill rides. They both eat octopus, even knowing what it is. My daughter especially likes the baby ones with all the tentacles. They like sushi. My son prefers pasta with green sauce to pasta with red. My daughter has just started eating red meat. Woo!

These are little victories for me, but still, I know I have caved. And it cuts even deeper when I find myself excited by food again, or a cookbook, like the Ottolenghi series by Yotam Ottolenghi. He's an Israeli Londoner who, along with his Palestinian partner, owns several high-priced food shops and who has electrified dishes of the middle east with a modern take. But I know if I make chickpeas with caraway seeds, chard and Greek yogurt, I will immediately be asked, "But what am I having for dinner?"

Remember when you would never ask that question? In the dark ages, one dinner was made, and you were expected to eat it. If you didn't like something, eat around it. Eat the bread. Scrape off the sauce. Figure it out. We were tougher then, with fewer choices if any, and there were no chicken nuggets in the freezer.

Last summer, when we were in London, we took our kids to Ottolenghi. It was exquisitely beautiful, but like a minefield for my kids, filled with the scary and the unknown. Beef filet (at like $25 a pound) worked, as did the bread and desserts. But the things that make Ottolenghi Ottolenghi - the abundant salads that sparkle with mint and cilantro, cumin, sumac, and oddly shaped vegetables (three of which are pictured above) - went untouched. Even the potato salads got the cold shoulder - too many weird bits. So I steamed some broccoli for them in our rented apartment kitchen. Because that's what I always do.




Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Me and Jada

For a while now, I've been thinking that me and Jada Pinkett Smith were like sisters from another mother. We have so much in common. She's married to Will Smith, a powerful Hollywood actor/former hip hop star. I'm married to my husband. She has kids who whip their hair around. Me, too. And she's a vanguard of style, which is exactly how I'm known in my social circle.

But the other day, I read that she doesn't eat for pleasure, she eats for nourishment. I have been reeling ever since. And I don't mean the sort of benign annoyance reserved for a body-obsessed celebrity. I mean I have come to the realization that we, as a society, are completely fucked.

Bill Maher, in an interview with the New York Times food correspondent, Mark Bittman, demonized everything except for the few vegetables he grows in his own backyard. Oh, and cannabis. Milk is chemically incompatible, yeast is bad, wheat is the devil, and you know how he feels about corn, meat, and anything that comes in a box or package. That leaves three things that won't kill me immediately, and I hate all of them.

My question is: why isn't anyone talking about how things taste anymore? Why isn't Alice Waters stepping up to the plate? She's the one who brought back Brillat-Savarin's phrase, "The pleasures of the table." Yeah, she's into community farming, but she also loves eclairs.

The joy of good bread has been lost because the wheat might not be labelled properly. Buying meat is fraught with questions of integrity, even at a place like Whole Foods. You go there because it's the morally correct place to drop $200 on groceries, only to be faced with a rating system for meat. "1" means the animal wasn't water boarded, while a "4" signifies that the cow was fed grass hand-picked with a tweezer by Jamie Oliver. Am I a bad person for choosing meat #1?

Jada probably doesn't even eat meat.  She probably rises to a non-GMO soy latte and a gluten-free, sugar-free muffin made with spelt. Her mid-morning snack is 2 celery sticks and a 1/2 teaspoon of faux peanut butter with three raisins (four, and you're headed for a life of diabetes). For lunch, she might have a kale salad, with 1 oz. of tofu, weighed on a French scale. No dressing. And for dinner, she splurges and has a broiled faux chicken breast, no salt, steamed vegetables, no fat or salt, and 1/4 cup of quinoa, the ancient grain that connects us to our ancestors. For dessert, she treats herself: a tiny child's spoon of sugar-free frozen yogurt, sweetened with agave. It all tastes like shit.

I awake to a slice of cold spinach pizza. I eat carrots and a few apple slices from my kids' lunches. Sometime mid-morning, I get hungry and have Cheese Nips and a diet coke. Lunch is a big chopped salad from Portillo's with a bread stick coated in GMO oil. It's delicious, and so is the salad. I start to get all low blood sugary around 4, so I have two cookies. Or maybe some roasted salted almonds. Or a carrot muffin and a string cheese. For dinner, it's a heaping bowl of pasta with a couple of meatballs and freshly grated parmagiano, and some steamed broccoli with olive oil and lemon. I always have seconds, and usually no dessert, because with the way I eat, I never feel like I need to treat myself. I am always emotionally and physically satisfied after a meal.

So I guess that's the one difference between me and Jada: I eat for pleasure. And she eats to be 20 pounds lighter than me.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Can I have another piece of chocolate cake?


Not a day goes by when one or both of my children don't have chocolate smeared on their faces. And I embrace it - this daily eating of chocolate - as long as it's quality chocolate. I don't like them to eat Cheetos or Twinkies or sugary cereals, but chocolate.....yes.

When there's chocolate cake in the house, I have a piece every day, at least one. For me, chocolate cake is satisfying like the carcass of a gazelle would be satisfying to a lion. Thoroughly, devotedly, an all-consuming kill, and at the end, I would lay down and my eyes would roll back in my head. Chocolate cake.

I don't need frosting. I especially don't need bad frosting. But I could always go for a perfect whipped ganache. I made it once in cooking school, and I've never had anything better. Ganache is heavy cream and chocolate, melted to a glossy glaze, but when you whip it, it becomes fluffy, like the lightest chocolate air, but with its deep, dark chocolatey edge miraculously in tact. The problem was, even with the recipe copied word for word, I never could duplicate it. It would turn out grainy, or dense, and a disappointing whipped ganache is a sad affair, indeed.

But really, it's the cake part that I love. And so when I found the following recipe in Alice Medrich's "Chocolate and the Art of Lowfat Desserts," I almost died. I normally hate low fat desserts - the most egregious oxymoron ever. But this recipe has nothing insulting - no non-fat cream cheese product, no applesauce to replace the fat. It's all butter, baby.

Alice Medrich is a plump woman who used to own a pastry shop somewhere in northern California. She's written a few books and become somewhat of an expert on all things chocolate. I make this cake recipe probably once a month, and we eat it over the course of three or four days, with ice cream or just plain, in the middle of the day, standing over the counter, gazing out the window, realizing that life is pretty fucking great.


Alice Medrich's Chocolate Pound Cake

Spray a tube or bundt pan with cooking spray
Preheat oven to 350 degrees

2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
3/4 cup plus 1 Tbs. unsweetened dutch process cocoa (Valrhona, if you can find it)
3/8 tsp baking soda
3/8 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 eggs
4 egg whites
2 Tbs instant espresso dissolved in 3 Tbs hot water
2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cup buttermilk
12 Tbs unsalted butter, room temp
2 2/3 cups sugar

Combine flour, cocoa, baking soda and powder, and salt together and set aside. Whisk the eggs with the whites in a small bowl and set aside. Combine the dissolved espresso powder with the vanilla and buttermilk and set aside.

Using a stand up mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the butter until softened, about a minute. Slowly add the sugar, and scrape down the sides as needed. Beat for about 3 minutes, until well incorporated. Gradually dribble in the eggs and beat until well incorporated. Scrape the sides down as necessary with a rubber spatula.

Now you're going to alternately add the dry ingredients with the wet ones, starting with the flour. Turn off the mixer, add 1/3 of the flour and turn the machine on low, so it doesn't spray flour everywhere. Beat until just mixed, then slowly dribble in half the buttermilk mixture. Mix until incorporated. Turn off the machine, add 1/3 of the flour, and continue in the same manner until all ingredients are incorporated. You can do the last bit of mixing by hand with the spatula, to make sure all the dry bits are worked in.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with a spatula. Place the pan on a sheet pan or cookie sheet and place in the middle of your preheated oven. Bake for about 50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. The cake will feel relatively firm to the touch, and have a bit of a bounce.

Cool in the pan, then invert on to a plate. Once it's completely cool, I keep it wrapped in foil. It will stay devastatingly moist for a good three days, if it lasts that long.




Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The last supper



Seeing that the end of the world is only days away, I thought I should decide on a last meal. This isn't an easy task for me. I pose questions like this all the time, to myself, my family, on long car trips, on Facebook, and I've noticed that most people have quick and easy answers. "Beef tenderloin with duchesse potatoes." "Pepperoni pizza." "Steak tacos from La Pasadita."

Meanwhile, I agonize because this means I have to forsake something.  Will it be the quint with onion rings from Krazy Jim's Blimpyburger? Or the lobster stew from Lochober in Boston?  Will I have to turn my back on a Sunday dinner at Hoe Kow, which had the best egg rolls in history, or a plate of Fragrant Vegetable from Shanghai Minnie's? At only $4.25, and that included a can of soda, I could take all my money with me, for my next life.

But since this is presumably folly, I'm going to make myself choose. This is sort of monumental for the aforementioned reasons - forsaking and all that. So here goes.

My last meal would be a bowl of clam chowder from the Hog Island Oyster Company in San Francisco, accompanied by a basket of assorted breads, including a piece of rosemary foccacia, some black bread scattered with raisins, a good sourdough, and long, crunchy breadsticks. The chowder would be the consistency of half-and-half, and it would be buttery, but not cloyingly rich. A long, slender slice of baguette would rest on the side of the bowl, toasted and brushed with a strongly-flavored olive oil.

After the chowder, I would have a green salad, consisting of romaine, arugula, and a little endive. Every piece of lettuce would be bite-sized and perfectly dressed with a mustardy-vinaigrette. The salad would be topped with paper-thin shards of parmagiano reggiano that would almost melt into the salad as I mixed everything together.

Dessert is easy: an apple tart made by my pastry idol, Nancy Silverton. Homemade puff pastry, granny smith apples, caramel sauce, and a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. I might even have seconds. With the end of the world only hours away, there ain't no shame in that.




Monday, April 9, 2012

Pizzeria Bianco: the Elaine Robinson of pizza?




The last scene in the movie, “The Graduate,” still confounds me. Ben has just stolen the doe-eyed and very un-Jewish Elaine Robinson from her pristine church wedding after a stressful, empty gas tank pursuit. As they board the crosstown bus, victorious, and grab a seat in the back, we hear Paul Simon sing, “Hello darkness, my old friend…..” Their faces move from elation to remorse, from victory to loss.

I couldn’t help but wonder, as I woke up last Thursday morning, the morning of my final pursuit of Chris Bianco’s nationally lauded pizza, was it all about the chase? Once you got the prize, was it no longer prize-worthy?

I spent an entire week, three years ago, in pursuit of the prize, enduring an almost two-hour wait just to get on the waiting list, which, we were told, was four hours long. Six hours for pizza? There was clearly a chance that Chris Bianco was, in fact, Elaine Robinson in a flour-dusted chef's coat. But when you're in the chase, the prize is just that much shinier.

We arrived at 5 o’clock on that beautiful Thursday evening and put our names in. There was no line, but we were told the wait would be about an hour, possibly less, so check again in about 30 minutes.

The area surrounding Pizzeria Bianco is surprisingly un-Phoenix-like. No signs of desert, just a little cobblestone street closed to traffic with a few older brick buildings. Pizzeria Bianco owns two of the buildings, the restaurant and the bar next door, where they have checker and chess boards set up, presumably for patrons to endure the long waits. Feral cats roam around, which is entertaining if you like cats. I do, especially when the inexperienced try to sidle up to them and get hissed at.

After milling around for 50 or so minutes, we were seated. I already knew what we would order, having read the menu fifty or sixty times over the past three years: the Margherita, the Wiseguy, and the Biancoverde. We also ordered the spiedini (fontina wrapped in prosciutto and grilled, kebab-style), and a big plate of olives, which I ate myself.


To start: bread, olive oil, and olives. A girl could live on this.


Wood-fired pizza is ubiquitous nowadays and I credit Chez Panisse for that. Alice Waters, and her co-chefs, have been cooking in wood-fired ovens since the 70’s. So when our pizzas came and I took the first bite, the crust didn’t wow me. Everyone’s doing it, and a lot of people are doing it really well. This was good crust, but not religious crust.

But as I invested myself in this pizza – first, with the Biancoverde, a white pizza with olive oil, fresh mozzarella, and fresh arugula, then the Wiseguy, another white pizza, this one with fresh mozzarella, fat slices of fennel sausage, caramelized onions, and my addition of wood-roasted mushrooms – the flavors started to haunt me (as I write this four days later, I can still taste the mushrooms).


The Wiseguy: fennel sausage, caramelized onions, roasted mushrooms (my addition), and mozzarella.


My dining companions and I fought over that Wiseguy, each eating our allotted pieces as fast as we could so we were guaranteed another piece. I speared anything that fell back on the serving plate, especially the mushrooms, which were revelatory as far as fungus goes.

The Biancoverde was the most visually pleasing and lightest of the three. Salty cheese, peppery arugula and olive oil have been done before, but the ingredients here, especially the cheese, made it taste better than most.




The Margherita: mozzarella, tomato, and basil


I didn’t try the Margherita until the next morning, when I had the last two pieces for breakfast. Even then, the flavors were bright and the cheese was admirably salty. Any pizza that can sustain its flavors after 12 hours in a cardboard box, in an iffy hotel refrigerator, is a pizza worth standing in line for.

A really good meal: A slice of Wiseguy, olives, and a glass of local beer.


Pizzeria Bianco, with all its PR-driven hype, was surprisingly unpretentious. No hip music. The waiters did not have an exaggerated sense of their importance in the relationship. And the sparkling water was from Arkansas. But the best part: they thanked us for waiting.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A perfectly perfect cookie


Years and years ago, when I was baking at full throttle, I had grand cookie ambitions around Christmas time. I would find pictures of elaborately decorated cookies on the cover of Gourmet magazine, and I would make them. All twelve varieties, each more complicated than the next. And then I would make a batch of puff pastry just for fun.

I'd be lying if I said I don't have the energy to do that anymore. I don't have the desire. I'm not nearly as enamored of trying a million different recipes, but thank God I was once a compulsive recipe tester, because now, thanks to my 16 hour baking marathons, I know definitively what works and what doesn't.

Case in point: Animal Crackers from Nancy Silverton, my pastry idol. I've been making this recipe forever, and I make it whenever cookies are called for at school, or any other event. Even though nothing in the world is perfect, these are. A perfectly balanced, tender sugar cookie, forgiving, easily re-rolled, just lovely and perfect. I sometimes want to hug this recipe. It comforts me like a family member who knows me, and never - not ever - acknowledges my flaws.

Animal Crackers
from "Desserts by Nancy Silverton"

8 oz. unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 eggs
2 Tbs. cream
1 Tbs. real vanilla extract
4 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
(Note: I add a big pinch of salt to the recipe. Don't tell Nancy)

To decorate cookie tops:
2 egg yolks
crystallized sugar

Using the paddle attachment of an electric mixer, beat the butter on medium speed until it whitens and hold soft peaks, 3 - 5 minutes. Beat in the sugar until well-blended. Whisk together the eggs, cream and vanilla and beat in, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary.

Sift together the flour and baking powder, and add to the butter in three batches, mixing briefly after each addition. After the last addition of flour, beat until just combined. Make sure any flour on the bottom of the bowl is fully incorporated.

Flatten dough into a disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate at least two hours, and as long as several days.

Preheat oven to 325. On a lightly floured surface, roll dough out to 1/8" thickness. Cut dough with your favorite cookie cutter, using as much of the surface area as you can - this will leave less dough for re-rolling. Place on paper-lined or non-stick cookie sheets. If you have enough sheets, place one empty sheet under your cookie sheet. This keeps the bottom from browning too quickly.

Whisk the egg yolks together, and lightly brush the tops of the cookies, then sprinkle the top with crystallized sugar. This gives them a delightful crunch. If you're going to decorate them with frosting, you can omit this part.

Bake for 15 minutes, then turn the sheets from front to back to ensure even baking. Bake for about 7 - 8 minutes more, checking to make sure they don't brown too much. They should just turn light gold.