Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Red Velvet Goodbye

Last weekend, two of my very dear friends moved away – from Chicago to Michigan. The whole weekend was full of reminiscing and celebrating, especially since Stephen had just graduated from law school. It was sad, yet exciting, and would have been far more sad were there not an expiration date on my time in Chicago already firmly set.

Since I often know how to best express myself with food and baked goods, I found out from Diane that Stephen has a very soft spot for red velvet cupcakes. I had never made red velvet before, nor had I really ever understood the crazy appeal of them – I’m not huge on chocolate cake, and I have been trying to stay away from processed foods, so dumping entire containers of red food dye into the batter didn’t seem like the best idea. After all, is a red velvet cupcake not just a mild chocolate cupcake masquerading itself as something far more special? People love them though, and lines form outside of Magnolia bakery in the city for them (among various other types of cupcakes, of course – but their recipe calls for buttercream frosting on their red velvet – what’s up with that?).

So I went ahead and made them anyway. And - they changed my mind. They were moist - incredibly moist actually, probably owing to the buttermilk - and amazingly light, with just a tinge of chocolate flavor. The chocolate was not in the least bit cloying or overwhelming, just slightly discernable, without enough presence to really turn somebody like me - who isn’t usually into chocolatey-rich desserts - off. The cream cheese frosting – that’s the kicker. I’m pretty sure it’s impossible NOT to like cream cheese frosting.

Being a red velvet novice – never really having even eaten more than one bite of red velvet at a time, I was unsure how these stacked up against other such cupcakes. Stephen, Diane and everyone else agreed, though, and they were met with rave reviews, so I guess I did something right. They departed with a few leftover cupcakes – something for them to remember me by.

Red Velvet Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting
Makes 24 cupcakes

I think cake flour is integral to this recipe – my box says that it is 27 times finer than regular, all-purpose flour, which means that the resulting cake was that much lighter and airier. I made 2/3 of this recipe, which led to some complications with measuring, but I still wound up with 18 beautiful and moist cupcakes.

For the cupcakes:

3 ½ cups cake flour
½ cup unsweetened cocoa (not Dutch Processed – I used Hershey’s and it worked marvelously)
1 ½ teaspoons salt
2 cups canola oil
2 ¼ cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
6 tablespoons red food coloring (3 ounces – three bottles of individually-packaged red food dye)
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
1 ¼ cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 ½ teaspoons white vinegar

Adapted from Elisa Strauss’ “The Confetti Cakes Cookbook” via Smitten Kitchen

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place paper muffin liners in the indents of two muffin tins. Alternatively, butter the sides of each muffin indent generously.

2. Whisk cake flour, cocoa and salt in a bowl.

3. Place oil and sugar in a large bowl and beat at medium speed until well blended. Beat in eggs one at a time. At low speed, very slowly add red food coloring. (Note: do this carefully, since it might splash and it will stain if it gets on your clothing.) Add vanilla. Add flour mixture alternately with buttermilk in two batches. Scrape down bowl and beat just long enough to combine.

4. Place baking soda in a small dish, stir in vinegar and add to batter with mixer running. Beat for 10 seconds.

5. Divide batter among muffin tins (fill about ¾ of the way full – a little bit more if you’d like bigger cupcake tops, but be careful when you remove them from the pan so that the top doesn’t start to split from the bottom), place in oven and bake until a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean, about 20 minutes (Check a couple minutes early, mine were cooked perfectly at 18 minutes). Let cool in pans 20 minutes. Remove from pans and place on wire rack. Cool completely before frosting.

For the Cream Cheese Frosting:

From Smitten Kitchen

This recipe makes enough to frost each cupcake quite generously

8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature (buy the kind in the block)
½ cup butter, unsalted, room temperature
3 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Place cream cheese and butter in a medium bowl. With a handheld electric mixer, beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add sugar and vanilla. Beat, on low speed to combine. If too soft, chill until slightly stiff, about 10 minutes, before using.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Getting the Creative Juices Flowing

My bar review class started today. I know - I can’t believe it either. Despite the fact that I am two weeks from finishing my school obligations, and almost a full month from graduation, I am somehow still expected to attend draining barbri classes and do barbri reading and summarize notes and oh so many other things. Though the next two weeks will be mighty painful, the rest of the summer is what I find truly terrifying right now. This is essentially going to be my life for the next eight weeks: class, summarize, read, study, repeat.

The bright spot within this is that my class is in the loop, with farmers markets within a couple of blocks twice a week. This means, at least, that I can take a few minutes after class each day to relax, roam leisurely between stands and take that time for myself. The stress will no doubt build as the weeks before the exam turn into days and the opportunity to see what looks good, to talk to people, to figure out what to do with these goodies I pick up, even if it is just once a week, will hopefully be able to get my creative juices flowing at least enough to keep me sane.

This week at the farmer’s market, it was morel mushrooms and purple asparagus. The wonders of morels espoused by nearly every internet source in existence. I have tried them a couple of times though I had never cooked with them before. My plan at first was to simply sauté them and toss them with cream, a la Orangette, But I felt that wouldn’t spread the joy enough, since I don’t really have the money to buy a ton of morels, at least not enough to satisfy should I have served them piled atop toast.

Instead a decided to team them up with the purple asparagus and let them mingle among strands of pasta in a light cream sauce. I threw in some chicken for good measure, sprinkled some chopped chives and grated parmesan and it was delicious. Hopefully all my after-class ventures will be this rewarding.

Fettuccine with Chicken, Morels and Asparagus
Serves 4

This dish was light in spite of its cream base and truly tasted of spring. The pasta could have used a more generous helping of morels, but my wallet could also use a more generous helping of money.

10 ounces fettuccine
12 ounces chicken tenderloins
Olive Oil
4 tablespoons butter, divided
1 large shallot, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb asparagus, purple or otherwise
5 medium sized morels, gently cleaned and sliced crosswise
1 ½ cups dry white wine
1 cup heavy cream
Fresh chives, for garnish
Parmesan cheese, for garnish

Boil a large pot of water. Place the asparagus in the boiling water and cook until bright green and crisp-tender. Don’t overcook them and allow them to become soft. Remove from the water and place in an ice bath or run under cold water to stop the cooking. I cook the asparagus still in the rubber band to make this process easier. After the asparagus are done, drop the fettuccine into the boiling water.

As the pasta is cooking, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and melt one tablespoon of butter in one tablespoon of olive oil. Sprinkle the chicken liberally with salt and pepper and brown in skillet, about 5 minutes per side, ensuring that chicken is cooked through (juices will run clear). Remove chicken from heat and set aside on a platter.

Lower the heat to medium. Heat three tablespoons of butter, add shallots and allow to cook for a couple of minutes before adding the garlic. When garlic becomes fragrant, add the morels; cook until soft. Pour the wine into the skillet and cook down a bit, about 2-3 minutes. Add the cream, bring to a boil and cook until mixture is reduced by half. As the sauce reduces, cut the chicken and asparagus into bite-sized pieces.

Once sauce is just about reduced, melt in another tablespoon of butter if you think the sauce needs thickening, then add the chicken and asparagus to the sauce and toss until warm. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Drain the cooked pasta and toss in sauce to coat. Divide among plates and garnish with chives and parmesan cheese.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

If You're Anything Like Me

If you are anything like me, you probably bought way, way too much matzoh for Passover this year, as you do every year. If you’re also anything like me, you don’t really even like matzoh all that much. If you’re nothing like me, then I suggest you go to the store right now and buy up whatever matzoh might still be hanging around the shelves on super sale, because what follows is pure deliciousness.

I usually use Passover as an excuse to eat a pretty piss-poor diet for a week. Yes, there will be a salad in there every once in a while, but for the most part, it’s all eggs, meat, potatoes; cholesterol, fat and sodium. It’s also a time to play around with some desserts. I’ve said it before: I’m not the biggest dessert person out there. Ice cream, yes please, any day. Cakes, eh. But once a challenge is posed to make something deliciously sinful without flour, well that’s when it gets fun.

The following recipe has everything you’d possibly want in a real treat. It is crunchy, crackly, sweet and salty. But beyond all that, it is addictively amazing. It’s incredibly easy, takes no real effort, and leaves you with an incredible amount of chocolate-caramel covered matzoh. I found myself pawning it off on friends, who were, to say the least, not displeased with the copious amounts of chocolate covered matzoh that had been forced upon them.

Everything in this candy works incredibly well together. I can usually eschew chocolate rather easily, and caramel is often too sweet for my blood, but this, this I could not physically pass without reaching in for some more. But I would only take little, teensy pieces, because, you know, it’s not bad for you that way. Or at least that’s what this candy required I convince myself was true.

The chocolate covered matzoh you can buy pre-made usually tastes pretty bad. The matzoh is still matzoh, bland, flavorless and always almost stale. Simply putting chocolate above something that doesn’t really taste too good to begin with isn’t going to all of a sudden make it taste amazingly. But add a half-pound of butter, an equal amount of sugar, nuts and some salt, it’s a whole new ballgame. The caramelization moves the matzoh into wow-territory, giving it a real bite and crunch, well beyond the feeble excuse for crispiness with which it is usually endowed. By the time Passover was over, I had made about four batches of this stuff, and I am impressed with my self-restraint in refusing to make any more since the holiday has ended.

David Lebovitz’s Chocolate-Caramel Covered Matzoh
Recipe also here

The matzoh burned for me at 375 degrees, so I started my oven at 350 and lowered it if I caught it starting to get too dark, which was almost each time. I really enjoyed stowing these in the fridge and eating them cold.

4-6 sheets plain, unsalted matzoh
1 cup unsalted butter, cut in chunks
1 cup packed light brown sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract (NOTE: if you happen to make this for Passover next year, be advised that not everyone considers vanilla to be Kosher for Passover. Since the vanilla ferments in the production of extract, it poses a potential problem for this holiday usage)
Sea salt
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips (Note: if making for Passover, make sure that your chocolate doesn't have corn syrup in it)
Toasted, chopped pecans

1. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil, ensuring that the sheet is completely covered and the foil is wrapped around the edges of the pan. Place a sheet of parchment paper over the foil. (NOTE: I forgot to use parchment every time I made the recipe; oops! The foil only stuck once to a teensy part of the matzoh, so I didn’t cry over the piece I threw away)
2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees
3. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, heat the butter and sugar until the butter is melted, stirring frequently until the mixture begins to boil. Allow the mixture to boil for about three minutes, stirring constantly.
4. Remove caramel from heat and add salt and vanilla. Pour the caramel over the matzoh and spread evenly to coat using a heatproof spatula.
5. Put pan in the oven and reduce the heat to 350 degrees. Bake for 15 minutes. If it starts to burn, remove the pan, lower the heat to 325 and then replace the pan.
6. Remove from oven after 15 minutes and immediately cover with chocolate chips. Let stand 5 minutes, then spread the chocolate over the matzoh with a spatula.
7. Sprinkle with sea salt, pecans, or whatever else you so desire.
8. Let cool completely before breaking into pieces. Store in an airtight container. I like mine in the fridge.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

In-N-Out of Napa

We set out for Napa behind the wheel of a Sebring convertible. Though cheesy as can it was beyond necessary for an unabashedly sunny day that was to be spent driving through the vineyards and greenery of Northern California. We set out early and arrived in Napa just in time for a late breakfast. Our plan had been to check out a small café, get some coffee and relax in order to free our bellies for a large meal that was sure to come later on. Instead, we turned into the Boon Fly Café, a cutesy place set up in what used to be a barn (or was at least constructed so that it looked as if it was in an old barn).

The interior was very welcoming. Huge windows lined the walls, allowing natural light to pour in and bask everything in its sunlit glow. This created indisputable warmth, the kind that convinces you you’re going to love this experience no matter what you end up eating. We ordered the Boon Fly Benedict, in which poached eggs top very thick cut ham and homemade levain in lieu of English muffins. The ham was a bit too salty for me taste (which is saving a LOT), but he loved every bite, and it wasn’t my dish anyway, so I just watched on in delight as he barreled his way through. The other plate to arrive at the table carried a breakfast flatbread, essentially a pizza with eggs on it. It was interesting, and, in my opinion quite good. The saltiness of the cheese and the bacon contrasted so nicely with the caramelized onions. Upon popping the yolk of my over easy eggs, each of these flavors was brought together in a wonderful bite that was all at once salty, sweet, creamy, crispy, and chewy. Breakfast was a bit on the expensive side, but we were only in Napa one day, so we figured we might as well, and we both left satisfied and very, very full.

Our first vineyard stop was at Darioush, which is fairly new to the Napa scene. The proprietor is of Persian descent and this influence is apparent throughout the property. There are pillars inside and out, lavish bathrooms, Persian touches throughout. It was, by far, the most ostentatious building I saw throughout the day, but we never did make it to the Castle. The winery was, in a word, ridiculous, in its size, stature and decoration, but it was an experience I am definitely glad we had, since it differs so much from the rest of the Napa wineries. There were artichokes growing in the lawn, which made me beyond jealous that it was artichoke season in northern California and unadulterated winter back in Chicago. As for the wines: they were all good, but the Chardonnay we tasted was the best of any we tasted all day. I usually don’t tend towards whites, but this was perfectly balanced, not too sweet and totally refreshing. Instead of crackers during the tasting, Darioush places before you delicious roasted pistachios (which can, conveniently, be purchased by the bagful).

We went next to Mumm for some sparkling wine. We sat outdoors in the warm sun and drank sparkling wine overlooking the vast expanse of vineyard that lay before us. It’s not far off from perfection as far as Mondays go, or any day really. We each ordered a different tasting flight, the “Best of the Best” and the “Reserve Tasting,” so that we could try as many wines as possible (obviously). Not all of them were great, but they were mostly quite good, and the DVX Rose 2002 was by far our favorite. The wines on the Reserve Tasting were generally more affordable, so we went home with a bottle of the Blanc de Blancs 2003, which we enjoyed our last morning in the city. We loitered at the vineyard for a while, drinking and enjoying the beauty around us. The scenery was gorgeous, the company great and the sparkling wine quite enjoyable.

(We made it to another couple of vineyards before calling it a day, but neither one of them was particularly notable, so we’ll just skip right through them.)

The early evening found us at Ad Hoc. I had read many great things about it prior to our departure. Since there was no way we could afford a French Laundry meal, we decided that a home-style Thomas Keller meal was a great bet. We called to see if there were reservations still available, and unsurprisingly there were not, but we were told that we could sit at the bar and enjoy our meal there. They gave us the menu (they provide a fixed menu each night of four courses: salad/soup, main with sides, cheese and dessert) on the phone, which featured fried chicken. We later heard from one of the locals that fried chicken night was beloved within the community and the place was jam-packed every other Monday. This tidbit, combined with our struggles with timing in San Francisco prompted us to arrive at the restaurant a half hour before it opened, at 4:30. We waited and waited and were finally let in at five o’clock. We sat at the corner of the bar and were promptly greeted by one of the friendliest servers I’ve encountered in a very long time. It was clear from the moment we walked in how proud every person there was to work there, and how much they appreciated the food we were about to be served.

Though the wine list seemed quite nice, we settled on beers – we were eating fried chicken after all. Our meal started with a simple salad of mixed baby greens salad, cremini mushrooms, pickled red onions and turnips, shaved parmesan and garlic vinaigrette. The salad came dressed with olive oil only with the dressing served in a little boat on the side so that we were free to add as much as we pleased, no more, no less. The big bowl of salad placed in front of us drove home the idea of the home-style restaurant. The salad was super fresh, and I made sure to pick every last pickled turnip out of the giant bowl.

Next came the fried chicken, which was presented on paper in a metal tray. It had been brined in lemon and soaked in buttermilk, which left it with an amazing lemony tang screaming out from underneath the perfectly crisp, yet not at all greasy skin. My boyfriend, the biggest fried chicken lover I know declared it perhaps the best he’s ever had. I was still talking about it three weeks later, and I don’t usually even like fried chicken. I understood immediately why the chicken riled the locals up so much.

The chicken was accompanied by black-eyed peas with smoked ham hocks and wilted spinach over melted leeks. The beans came dotted with generous hunks of pork and the saltiness was just at the right level. There was not much complexity to the black-eyed peas, but they were simple, comforting, and delicious. The spinach was delicious, too, full of the subtle sweetness of the leeks and speckled with garlic.

Next we were brought a hunk of Westfield Farm’s Hubbardston Blue cheese with Marcona almonds and Marshall’s farm honey, which was served warm. The cheese was particularly interesting because all of its blueness was in the rind, with none of the trademark dotting within the cheese that you expect from a Stilton or other blues. It was much more mild than other blue cheeses, but it was pretty good. I enjoyed the honey as well, and felt that the warm honey and the mild bite of the cheese really complemented each other. I held off on finishing the whole hunk, since dessert was yet to come and I already was pretty stuffed.

The apple upside down cake was served with cinnamon ice cream. The apple called forth nostalgic memories of apple pie, which is funny, because I never really ate pie as a kid. But the flavors are undeniably those of home, and of picnics, and of good times in general. I loved the ice cream, and was perfectly content with the wee scoop I was given, since any more would surely have put my over the edge. I cannot comment too much on the cake itself, since I minimized the amount I ate as I thought I was going to burst.

The service was spot-on the whole time. They apparently noticed us standing outside for a while, and respected our commitment to the fried chicken cause, giving us one of our two meals for free. This meant that our four-course meal was $48 plus drinks and tax. Obviously we tipped extremely generously because of this, but the thought and sentiment behind this gesture was incredibly nice.

Stuffed beyond recognition, we departed Napa and headed back for San Francisco. We started on the scenic drive after we cross the Golden Gate Bridge and continued along until it got too dark for it to be scenic. Before we left, though, we had decided that today was going to be the day that I had my very first In-N-Out Burger. People from California cannot shut up about this place, so I knew I had to try it. Since we both just pigged out, we shared a cheeseburger, and none of that “animal style” business either. I wanted my first In-N-Out experience to be unobstructed by extra sauce and fussiness. I wanted a pure cheeseburger in order to best judge the burger. And you know what? It was pretty damn good. Everything just seemed really fresh and the bun was squishy and delicious. It was a very good fast food burger. The jury is still out on the fries though. They’re cut right before they’re fried and not coated with any sort of batter. This leaves them incredibly starchy and kind of flavorless. I wasn’t convinced, but it also seemed like the type of fry that could really grow on you.

And that does it for the NorCal posts. I recognize it took me just about forever for me to get them all up, so thank you for your patience.

Ad Hoc
6476 Washington St.
Yountville, CA 94599
(707) 944-2487

4240 Silverado Trail
Napa, CA 94558
(707) 257-2345

Mumm Napa
8445 Silverado Trail
Rutherford (Napa), CA 94558
(707) 967-7700

333 Jefferson St.
San Francisco, CA 94133
(800) 786-1000