Friday, January 29, 2010

Til death do us part

The first wedding cake I ever made nearly killed me. There were others, later in my career, that came close, too. But it was that first sadistic, buttercream-filled bastard that nearly did me in.

When my stepsister told me she was getting married (this was 20 years ago), I thought, Cool, I can make your wedding cake. I had never made a wedding cake before, but I was young, optimistic, and in cooking school. I was so enthusiastic about baking anything and everything, I would get to school at 5 AM, complete my classes, and then run home and bake more.

When I told my chef instructor I wanted to do this - make a wedding cake for an actual wedding and actual people - it was with an incredible amount of idealism. Gee willikers, I thought, I can do this.

The process went something like this.

Step 1: Bake the layers.

Actually, step 1 is to understand how much cake you need. I skipped that step.

Step 2: Bake an indiscriminate amount of cake batter into layers.
This is where the trouble started. I baked the layers as if the cake was being served at the group wedding of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. As soon as I started assembling the thing, I realized that unless we wanted leftovers for the next 6 months, we should probably invite more people. Somewhere in the range of 1000 more.

Step 3: Frost the cake.
I spent an entire day - a humiliating, dispiriting day - frosting this cake. At one point, my chef instructor, Michel, Napoleon incarnate, came into the workroom and took a good long look at the layer I was working on. It was the bottom layer - the biggest - and it sat on the turntable looking horribly misshapen, and not even remotely suitable for a wedding. Michel held up his index finger. I thought he was going to point it at me and say, "Do you know how much you suck?"

Instead, he stuck his finger into the frosted side of the cake. The frosting was so thick, it swallowed up his finger to the juncture where finger met hand. A good three inches thick. He grabbed a spatula, stuck it into the side of the cake, and spun the turntable. The frosting came off - all seven pounds of it - with a thud.

"You do it again," that little Frenchy said.

So I did. Three more times. And it still looked like shit.

In a haze of bad esthetic judgment, I chose to garnish the entire cake with chopped pistachios and chocolate leaves. Green and brown. The very essence of matrimonial purity.

Step 4: Going to the chapel.
In order to transport the cake, I rented a van. The cake had to go in two pieces - the bottom layer and then the top three layers, which were anchored with dowel rods driven through the middle of the stacked layers.

My then-boyfriend drove while I wrangled. I didn't know at the time that a cake this size needed to be secured in some fashion, or it would slide around with every turn of the vehicle. So I spent that hour yelling "Jesus!" while the two parts of the cake played bumper cars in the back of the van.

Upon arrival, and further inspection, the cakes only suffered minor dents, nothing a few strategically placed chocolate leaves couldn't disguise. I managed to get it stacked in one monumental piece. And it was a monument - of ugliness, bad taste, ineptness, and I'll-never-do-this-again.

Step 5: Get the hell out of there.
Most pastry chefs don't have to be at the wedding where their cake is served. Given that it was family, I wasn't so lucky. There was a lot of hand-wringing and worry. There was also a lot of alcohol. So by the time the cake was served, the hard edges of sobriety had softened. The cake was deemed delicious. And beautiful (Thank you, Jagermeister shots). And we all drove off into the sunset, some of us on a fabulous honeymoon, others swearing we'd never do that again.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

One hell of a ham sandwich

It would take a lot for me to say a sandwich was the best I've ever had. The sandwich would either have to change my life in some marked way, like by giving me a great singing voice, or be so delicious that I would keel over from the sheer surprise of it.

I've had a lot of really great sandwiches in my life. And they weren't all $14 masterpieces from that high temple of sandwiches, Zingerman's. I can remember bologna, mayonnaise, and lettuce sandwiches from my youth that were glorious, and grilled cheese sandwiches, the bread slathered with mayonnaise instead of butter, that made the tomato soup seem almost unnecessary. There was even a period in high school when a BLT on a kaiser roll, dripping with the co-mingled juices from the tomatoes and still hot bacon grease, was dinner every single night.

But the best sandwich I've ever had?

Well, Mark Bittman of the New York Times stepped up and named the best sandwich of his life. He found it here, in Barcelona. It only has two ingredients: ham and bread. Not surprising, since Spain is the ham (jamon) capital of the world, and has raised curing pork to an art form. Spanish pigs are delicious pigs.

At first, I thought this sandwich seemed a little austere to qualify as the best sandwich one might ever have. Ham and bread? I started to improvise in my head. A little bit of unsalted butter on the bread might help, as would a thin slice of nutty manchego. Or would it?

The ham in question is called jabugo, which comes from the prized black iberian pig of southern Spain. It lives a comfortable and pampered existence, hand fed barley and maize as a piglet, and then let out to roam in pastures, where it feasts on acorns until its time is up. The meat of this fancy black pig is prized for its rich marbling and distinct, complex flavor.

I'm starting to believe.

The sandwich in question can be found at Cafe Viena in Barcelona, by all accounts an unassuming place (the Panera of Spain?), and certainly not the kind of place one might find such an aspirational sandwich. With the jabugo nestled in what looks like a French ficelle - a personal-sized baguette that has a toothsome crust and a tender crumb inside - I'm imagining a salty, chewy, crunchy, slightly sweet, mildly tangy and entirely satisfying sandwich on every gustatory level.

Perhaps the flauta d'iberic d.o. jabugo is the best sandwich one might ever have. Perhaps I need to go to Barcelona and find out.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Cozying up to vindaloo

I've never been a big fan of Indian food. But after my lunch last week with friends, I seriously wondered why. As it turns out, Indian food is my kind of sustenance in every way - fried appetizers, zippy dipping sauces, tastebud destroying heat, and lots of rice to temper the burn.

I traveled back to childhood, searching for answers. Could it have been my short tenure with our Indian babysitter, Saru, who regularly prepared curried goat for dinner? While she did provide unsurpassed dress-up material with her collection of colorful saris and bindi make-up, the goat stew went down like rocks.

Or maybe it was that time I was taken to Bukhara on a blind date twenty years ago. Bukhara was a somewhat trendy downtown restaurant that served Indian food from the northern provinces (whatever that meant). It was a utensils optional kind of place: you ate with your hands, assisted by the delicious naan that they baked in their tandoor ovens.

My date was a current high-ranking White House official. I won't name names, so let's just call him "Q." Back then, he was a political operative. A mutual friend set us up, presumably because we were both short and Jewish.

"Q" picked me up at my apartment, at which point he threw down the gauntlet and the date turned into a rigorous intellectual obstacle course. Was I tough enough, smart enough, savvy enough.....excellent enough to go on a second date? The night consisted of a question-and-answer period, a pop quiz, and a duel. The choice of restaurant was, in hindsight, a test to see if I was too squirmy to eat with my hands. I wasn't, but there was no second date.

And then came lunch last week. We went to Hema's Kitchen, a place on Devon that was featured on Check, Please!, that annoying yet addictive PBS show hosted by the cutesy Alpana Singh. Since I don't know jack about Indian food, I'm assuming Hema's is a fairly conventional Indian restaurant, with a comprehensive menu that features goat in some form, although I don't recall this with any great certainty.

We ended up ordering several dishes, beginning with samosas, and ending with lamb vindaloo. I'm sure vindaloo is to Indian what Kung Pao is to Chinese - a deliciously spicy concoction that's different at every restaurant, yet consistent in its use of specific spices that make it decidedly vindaloo. What those spices are, I have absolutely no idea. But I like that about Indian. The mystery. The intrigue. The upper lip perspiration and facial flushing that stays with you for the rest of the day. Oh, yeah, and the samosas. I kind of like those, too.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Banker's hours

"I'm beginning to think Hot Doug's is stupid." - Bob M.

This was posted on my Facebook page a few days ago, a frustrated lament from a friend of mine, and fellow fan of Hot Doug's. I hate to say it, but I'm starting to agree with him. And it isn't because I don't love the food. The combination of sriracha hot sauce and seaweed salad on a Thai chicken sausage is one of those middle-of-the-night encased meat epiphanies that happen but once in a lifetime.

Nope. It's the hours that are killing me. I wanted to go to Hot Doug's over the holidays and when I checked the website, it said "Closed until January 6th." The guy's taking a vacation? People in the restaurant business don't take vacations. They grind themselves down to nubs, working 23 hours a day, napping on their kitchen floors for the 24th, until the morning prep staff arrives (and people wonder why chefs yell). They don't take vacations, and if they do, they don't close while they're doing it.

But I guess when you're Doug, you can. When Anthony Bourdain tells people to go eat your meat, you can go to Saint Tropez and wear a thong for two weeks, and your business probably won't be the worse for it. Some guys have all the luck.

But then there's Great Lake Pizza and Edzo's. I'm adding them to the Stupid List, and here's why. Because when I found out Hot Doug's was closed, I decided to go to Edzo's instead. It's a new burger place in my hood, and it is to burgers what Hot Doug's is to dogs: a foodie-worthy fast food joint. The meat is double ground in house, and the fries comes in beguiling flavors, Taylor Street Italian (Italian beef gravy and peppers) promising to be the most life changing.

Well, when I checked Edzo's website, it, too, was closed for the holidays. How can a place that's only been open for two months - and only open for lunch - already take a closing vacation? I smelled trust fund, I smelled sugar daddy, I smelled bank robbery. Maybe Ed doesn't need the cash. Maybe all he needs is lunch.

Which leaves us with perhaps the stupidest of them all - Great Lake Pizza. Esquire Magazine called Great Lake the "Best Pizza in the Country," better even than Pizzeria Bianco. If you have paged through this blog, you'll know that I spent a total of 27 hours waiting for pizza from that Phoenix establishment. No dice. I returned empty-handed.

But it isn't the wait that gets me. God knows, I've waited, and will continue to wait, for anything that redefines its own category. It's the operating hours. They are as follows: Wednesday through Saturday, 5:30 - 9:30. That's it. Four hours, four days of delicious pizza a week. They're open for 16 hours a week.

That's part time.

When I worked in restaurants, we laughed at people who worked banker's hours. Pussies. And now, not only are these places working banker's hours, they're making more money doing it. They're getting write-up's and buzz and long lines. It's the exclusivity club. Soon, these places are going to require top secret passwords to get in.

Am I still interested in going? Does Hot Doug make duck fat fries on Friday? Hell, yeah, he does.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The incident

Moon - verb; to pull your pants down and show your bare ass to unsuspecting people.

I'm not 100% sure, but this may have been the guy who mooned us at Kansaku three years ago. Even though his buttocks were pressed up against the glass for a good eight to nine seconds (which may not seem like a long time, but really any amount of up-close-and-personal time with a stranger's bare ass is a very long time), I don't remember them in any photographic way. They were the ass cheeks of a male college student. Enough said.

The only reason I bring this up now, three years later, is because we went back to the scene of the crime the other night and were seated in the exact same place: the table next to the window. Once seated, I inspected the glass for ass prints. The guy had really spread his cheeks around that night, and you just never know.

We had just wanted some sushi. Kansaku is the kind of place that's creative without being scary, inventive without blowfish. Death is not on the menu.

It was still light outside when we ordered. I noticed three college students walk by - two guys and a girl. I thought the girl looked vaguely drunk, not from any personal experience, of course, just from scholarly books on the subject. In college, I spent most of my time in the stacks, and very little time at bars, hanging around the keg at frat parties, bent over toilets, semi-conscious in strange dorm rooms, etc.

As soon as I looked back at my husband, a large bare ass appeared in the window. One of the young men had apparently returned and decided to moon us. He pressed his cheeks up against the glass next to my husband's face, but his head was swiveled back and he looked right at us (see pose above). His expression was odd: disinterested, with a shrug and some regret, as if he understood what he was doing even less than we did.

I looked around the restaurant to see if anyone else was seeing what we were seeing. One waiter stood there, mouth agape. Our mouths were agape. My husband's head was 6 inches away from another man's bare ass.

As abruptly as he showed us his nether regions, he retreated, pulled up his pants and was gone. The waiter rushed over, and I thought that maybe he was going to end up comping us, but instead he wiped down our table, as if to cleanse us of the experience. And then he, too, was gone, leaving us to wonder, did that just really happen?