Sunday, December 27, 2009

Pumpkin Bread

I know that I have been a neglectful blogger lately, but with work and the holidays and all it's been a bit hard. But I'm not here to make excuses. I'm here to tell you, or at least to strongly suggest that you make this pumpkin bread. Why? Because the season for pumpkin bread is here, and with fall nothing more than a not-so-distant memory at this point, it won't be here for much longer. And because it's so easy that I feel like a fool for not having made it before. It's a great cold-weather alternative to banana bread, and takes arguably even less effort to make, considering the pumpkin is already pureed for you (if you choose to go the canned pumpkin route, which I did, and why not?).

This pumpkin bread is so quick to put together that you really don't need to plan ahead much at all for it. If you get a hankering for warm autumnal scents permeating your home, this bread can be whipped up in ten minutes flat. You'll be rewarded for your ten minutes effort with a moist, warm, deeply flavored bread that will make you feel at home, no matter where you are.

Sure, pumpkin bread (much like banana bread) is nothing more than cake-in-bread's-clothing, but on a chilly winter's morning, there's no need to justify thinly-veiled cake for breakfast. Faintly sweet, wonderfully, but not overwhelmingly spicy, it's the type of bread that vanishes faster than you'd ever think possible.

Pumpkin Bread

adapted from this recipe from King Arthur Flour

This recipe makes a couple of loaves, which is convenient for those times when you want to leave a loaf with your parents and take another loaf to a lovely holiday brunch.

I found the chocolate chips to be a little bit overwhelming in the amounts originally called for in the recipe, since their strong flavor overpowered the subtly spiced bread at times. I think a better move is to add more nuts than chocolate, which I've reflected in the recipe below. The bread would be great without any chocolate at all as well, since it's sweet enough and rich enough without it.

1 cup vegetable oil
2 2/3 cups sugar
4 large eggs
2 cups pumpkin (NOT pumpkin pie filling)
2/3 cup water
3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cup pecans (can substitute walnuts), toasted and cooled, chopped
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, cream together the oil and sugar. Beat in eggs, pureed pumpkin and water. In another large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and vanilla. Add the flour mixture to the oil and sugar, stirring to blend, then mix in the chocolate chips and nuts.

Spoon the batter evenly into two lightly greased 9 x 5-inch loaf pans. Bake the bread for 1 hour, or until a cake tester inserted in the center of loaf comes out clean. Remove the bread from the oven, and cool it in the pan on a wire rack for about 15 minutes, then remove the bread from the loaf pans and cool bread on wire rack. When it's completely cool, wrap it well in plastic wrap, and store it overnight before serving, which, difficult as it may be, really allows the flavors to deepen and is really worth it.

[Note: the recipe includes an optional glaze, but I don't really see any reason for it. Sure, for presentation's sake it gives it a bit of a 'wow' element, but the bread is sweet enough as is, and I just don't see the icing as a worthwhile addition. However, should you wish to drizzle some atop (just don't go overboard), whisk together a cup of confectioner's sugar, 2 tablespoons of melted butter and a tablespoon of milk, and drizzle atop the bread just before serving.]

Monday, November 30, 2009

Le Bernardin

My friend Drew and I have a few things in common. We both enjoy a good football game. We share a love of Korean fried chicken. We like a good barbecue followed by a raging dance party. We enjoy delicious food. Our birthdays are a few days apart from one another. So when Drew invited me to celebrate the latter two in a celebratory meal at Le Bernardin, the venerable seafood mecca with the most adorable executive chef ever, who was I to refuse? And so, at the beginning of October (I cannot believe I've let this get so out of control, but this month has been really, really awful at work, so please forgive me...please), my friend Drew and I sat down to a delicious meal in one of New York's (and the country's) best restaurants.

I had been to Le Bernardin, one of New York's (now) five Michelin three-starred restaurants, for lunch before, but I had never dined there at night. The room, which is quite stark with an almost corporate feel during the day, when it is awash in generous amounts of sunlight flowing in through it's giant street-level windows, takes on a completely different character at night. The dimness of the room is offset only by the flickering candlelight emanating from each table. The room benefits from this, as its loftiness is diminished, and each table feels more secluded than it would during daylight hours. It still feels undeniably large, and therefore a bit impersonal, but less overwhelmingly so.

In lieu of the prix fixe, in which the diner chooses one dish from each category of the menu, which is organized by ascending levels of doneness, from "Almost Raw" to "Lightly Cooked," we decided to go for the Le Bernardin tasting menu with the optional wine pairing.

Since this was pretty much forever ago, I am a bit fuzzy on the details, but I remember my general impressions of each dish. Also, since I didn't want to disturb the dining room with constant flashes, the photos are, well, not awesome.

When the bread plate came around, I went first for the olive bread, which, when offered, I have hard time passing up. What can I say, I love that salt. I followed that up with the brioche, which was rich, buttery and delicious.

The meal started with an amuse of a crab salad with potato crisps and an herb oil, which was very mild but fresh-tasting, and definitely served its purpose of whetting the appetite.

The first course then descended upon us, a gorgeously plated kamptachi tartare with marinated japanese cucumber and aged citrus vinegar. The tartare was awesome, with a pleasant richness that was cut by the freshness of the cucumber and given a lovely bite by the citrus. I was liking where this was going. (Wine: Assyrtiko, Thalassistis, Gaia Estate, Santorini, Greece 2008.)

This crab-zucchini panna cotta was next. The silky panna cotty was wrapped in a paper-thin slice of raw zucchini and came resting in a "vandouvan spiced broth" punched up with an awesome curry oil. (Wine: Gelber Muskateller, "Steirische Klassik", Neumeister, Styria, Austria 2007.)

The Sourdough Crusted Red Snapper, served with marinated heirloom tomatoes in a basil - scented tomato consommé was among my favorite courses of the evening. The fish was cooked to absolute perfect; the sourdough crust was perfectly toasted and crunchy, but did not get in the way of the delicate flesh of the mild snapper. The heirloom tomatoes were awsome, and it took pretty much everything in me not to take the bowl to my mouth to slurp up the remaining broth. ( Wine: Jurançon, Domaine Cauhape "Chant de Vignes," SW France, 2007. I absolutley adored this wine - it was light and punchy, not overly sweet and an incredible companion to the dish.)

The crispy black bass with braised celery and parsnip custard, served with Iberico ham and a green peppercorn sauce was eminently enjoyable. While the braised celery conjures up bad memories of Top Chef's Jame, who not only oversalted the celery into oblivion while attempting to recreate this dish in an elimination challenge, but also said she was not inspired by the dish at all, I found the dish to be lovely. The bass was, expectedly, fantastically cooked, with the crispy skin giving way to supple, tender flesh. The celery didn't do much on its own to heighten my enjoyment of the dish, it was certainly inoffensive and, hell, I like celery.

The parsnip puree was awesome - I recall it being described as "parsnip three ways," as there was a custard, a foam and a crispy parsnip twirl atop the cup. The puree was awesome, the custard was incredibly light and creamy, with the subtle, slightly bitter undertones of parsnip coming through as each spoonful coated my tongue. I did my best to break up the parsnip chip to enjoy the contrast of textures in each bite, but I gave up after a little bit. And I didn't regret it. (Wine: Rioja, Reserve "Vina Ardanza", La Rioja Alta, Spain 2000.)

The final savory course was escolar (white tuna), which was poached in extra virgin olive oil , served with sea b eans and potato crisps and topped with a light red wine béarnaise, and it was phenomenal. The tuna was silky smooth, its texture absolutly perfect. The meatiness of the fish held up very well to the béarnaise, which would have overwhelmed anything more delicate. The crunch of the potatoes and the pop of the sea beans played well against the supple fish. All of the elements played very well with each other and created another masterpiece. (Wine: Malbec - Mendel - Mendoza/Argentina 2007.)

For a palate cleanser before the dessert courses, we were brought a small dish of "La Faisselle," which is an artisan fromage blanc , which the website touts as being produced exclusively for Le Bernardin by the Vermont Butter and Cheese company), served with a few slices of strawberries and a strawberry coulis. The fromage blanc was fresh and mild, and not really much more. Though it didn't have to be, since it performed its required duties. (Wine: Torrontez Sparkling-Deseado Familia Schroeder, Patagonia Argentina.)

We were then treated to an extra course, "The Egg," a milk chocolate pot de crème with caramel foam, maple syrup and maldon sea salt is a Le Bernardin signature created by pastry chef Michael Laiskonis, and for good reason. While certainly sweet, the sea salt offsets it perfectly, and since it's only a couple of bites worth the sweetness doesn't have an opportunity to overwhelm you. Since it's served in an egg, you can only finagle so much out of it at a time, which means that the bites are small, and there's a limited amount of them. But careful maneuvering with the spoon ensures that you get all the elements at once, and when they all come together, it's really unbelievable. The flavors are simple and familiar, but the varying textures and the crunchy element of surprise from the sea salt make it really fabulous.

Our next dessert course was a hazelnut gianduja parfait with Oregon hazelnuts, honey, caramelized banana and brown butter ice cream. The parfait was lovely, the banana crunchy and awesome, but what really stole the show for me was the brown butter ice cream. Really, I would have been happy with a bowl of that (though I would certainly not have minded if that bowl were topped with a couple of slices of that caramelized banana. (Wine: Muskat Ottonel, Trockenbeerenauslese No. 5, Alois Kracher, Neusiedlersee/Austria 2004.)

Our final course was also an exta course, sent to us with complements from Drew's friend who is a sous-chef at the restaurant during their lunch services. It was a passion fruit mousse with mango sorbet and white chocolate . Drew loved this. I was a bit too full to really enjoy much more, but it was light, faintly sweet, pleasantly tart and quite good.

And so my dinner at Le Bernardin drew to a close. I rolled out of there incredibly full, and perhaps a bit more than tipsy, but with a very happy belly. Once again, thanks to Drew for making it happen, and for sharing a birthday meal with me.

Le Bernardin
155 W 51st St (between 6th and 7th)
New York, NY 10019
(212) 554-1515

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Honey Cake

Tradition is an interesting thing. We perpetuate certain ideals, advocate certain processes, even propogate lies, all in the name of "tradition." It provides a basis for the continued existence of certain items, techniques or processes that might have otherwise fallen by the wayside as the underappreciated victims of social darwinism.

But we humans are emotional beings, a feature with which the rational actor model is still grappling. Certain traditions, yes, are rooted in fact or in religious circumstance, but some happenings take place time after time, year after year, just because that's the way it always was, or how it had always been done before.

Because of these emotional connections we often feel towards the traditional, we frequently tend to just accept tradition as is, and don't question at all the reasons why we do what we do or how we do it or why we've adopted a particular means of accomplishing the end result of whatever the tradition in question may be.

One such tradition is the consumption of honey around the Jewish New Year (yes, I HAVE waited that long to write this post - please forgive me). There is a definite reason why honey finds its way to the Rosh Hashanah table - it is meant as a symbol of the sweetness we hope to experience in the coming year. Honey makes its way to the table in various forms, though most typically in a shallow dish in which we dip slice after slice of apple, which is always delicious in its simplicity. The other most common vehicle for honey around the high holidays is the ubiquitous honey cake. Dense, deep...dense honey cake.

There are few redeeming features of a typical honey cake. Actually, I might take that back - there is one redeeming feature of most honey cakes - the very top crust. Soaked through and through with honey, the top layer is rich, sweet and oh so deliciously sticky. The rest of the cake, though, forget about it. Dry, dense, the rest of your standard rosh hashanah honey cake is a waste of time, really. But that top layer - the top layer of any honey cake around our house at the holidays is just ripe for the picking, my attempts at denial rendered futile by my sticky fingers. The rest of that cake, though, just sits there, and sits there, and sits there. The funny thing about honey cake is that it really takes forever to go stale - with all the honey and sugar and oil it stays just as moist as it was on day one (which is to say, not all that moist) for far longer than most other cakes. And so it can sit there, on the counter, no less, and taunt you, with it's deep, dark color, as if to say "I could be delicious, why don't you just grab another little bit," for upwards of a week.

Tradition dictates that we have honey cake on the table each and every year. We don't question it, don't second guess it. There has been honey cake on the table every year prior, why stop this year? But why can't we question the honey cake itself. If it has to be on the table, can't it at least be delicious? Anything based around something as sweet and pure an ingredient as honey should certainly have the potential to taste fabulous. So I set out on a search to find a delicious honey cake, one with certain ingredients that would add a depth of flavor and prevent the cake from being cloyingly sweet - one that would allow the honey to shine, rather than to overpower. And I found it, with a four-fork rating on epicurious. I figured, if any honey cake could be so universally approved, it had to be good. But there was still a part of me that thought legitimately good, or is it good for honey cake? The ingredient list looked like it would balance out the intense sweetness of the honey, with citrusy notes from the orange juice, aumtumnal spices and a deep richness from the coffee. And it did not disappoint.

This honey cake will change your mind about honey cake. A new tradition began at our house this high holiday season: a tradition of truly delicious honey cake, one that we will all look forward to on the dessert table at the holidays, and not just one that sits on the table because it should. A honey cake that is happily eaten, top to bottom.

Marcy Goldman's Majestic and Moist New Year's Honey Cake
from A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking, recipe also availabe here

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup honey
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup warm coffee or strong tea
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup rye or whisky (I subbed orange juice, as my whiskey was dreadfully close to empty, and well, I wanted it)
1/2 cup slivered or sliced almonds (I went without)


I like this cake best baked in a 9-inch angel food cake pan, but you can also make it in a 10-inch tube or bundt cake pan, a 9 by 13-inch sheetpan, or three 8 by 4 1/2-inch loaf pans.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease two loaf pan(s)*.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices. Make a well in the center and add the oil, honey, sugars, eggs, vanilla, coffee, orange juice, and rye or whisky.

Using a strong wire whisk or an electric mixer on slow speed, combine the ingredients well to make a thick batter, making sure that no ingredients are stuck to the bottom of the bowl.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan(s) and sprinkle the top of the cake(s) evenly with the almonds. Place the cake pan(s) on 2 baking sheets stacked together and bake until the cake springs back when you touch it gently in the center. For angel and tube cake pans, bake for 60 to 70 minutes; loaf cakes, 45 to 55 minutes. For sheet-style cakes, the baking time is 40 to 45 minutes. This is a liquidy batter and, depending on your oven, it may need extra time. Cake should spring back when gently pressed.

Let the cake stand for 15 minutes before removing it from the pan. Then invert it onto a wire rack to cool completely.

* You can also use a tube or angel food pan for this cake.

Friday, September 11, 2009

NY Craft Beer Week

Need something to do this weekend (or this week, or next weekend)? Of course you do! Has the rain gotten you down? Why not spend some time drowning your sorrows and sampling some delicious beers?!?

For the second year, my friend Josh has amassed a wonderful schedule of events and roped in an impressive group of people to help pull them off. Josh is no joke, he really knows his stuff, and has impressed me with his seemingly-inexhaustible wealth of beer knowledge time and time again.

There are a variety of events taking place over the next ten days, from bar crawls in a number of different neighborhoods, to lectures on home brewing, to multi-course menus with beer pairings at some very well known restaurants. Josh is supremely dedicated to making this event a success, and has partnered with some great breweries, restaurants, companies and people in organizing NYC Craft Beer Week.

Information about tickets, events and anything else you might want to know about NYC Craft Beer week can be found on the event website. Beer Passports are available for $35, which gets you $2 pints at participating bars and reduced ticketing to certain events, as well as other benefits that last beyond September 20th.

NY Craft Beer Week 2009
September 11-20
Various Locations around Manhattan and Brooklyn
Map of Participating Bars

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Huevos Rancheros

I've written here before about my tendency to become affixed on certain things for periods of time. Though sometimes protracted, these fixations are ultimately fleeting moments in my greater culinary life. However, from the period until the obsession starts until the craving is fulfilled, those fleeting moments can feel like far, far longer. Once a dish is in my head, I must have it, lest I never move on. Until that food passes through my lips, all other food is sub-par; yea, that foie gras brulee could be sublime, but if it was a cripsy, oozy grilled cheese I wanted, I will not be fully content.

Oftentimes, I can have a version of the dish and move on, but sometimes I need the idealized version of my obsession. Until I have that perfect dish, just as I've built it up in my compulsive, deranged mind, I will not - nay, I cannot move forward.

Lately, huevos rancheros have been the object of my desire. Why? I cannot tell you exactly, but the combination of toothsome, spicy black beans atop corn tortillas, covered with the liquid gold of a just-punctured over-easy egg, speckled with salsa fresca and a smokey, haunting salsa was something I just could not get out of my head.

Usually, huevos rancheros would be something I could very easily put together, in about twenty minutes flat. But popping open a can of beans was just not going to result in my perfect huevos rancheros. No, it couldn't just be any black beans, certainly none from a can would do. It had to be the fresh black beans I had purchased at the Union Square Greenmarket after the Times had touted their freshness and flavor.

What that meant is that my idealized version of the dish was not just something that could be thrown together willy-nilly after getting home from work one night. I couldn't just change out of my dress, grab a can opener, and have dinner ready in twenty minutes (at least the first time). Sure, the shortcut route was one I considered on various occasions when I got home late and tired and really, really wanted those huevos rancheros in my belly. But I never gave in; I just knew, deep down, that only huevos rancheros made with those beans would do. And dried beans, even when they're fresh and don't require overnight soaking, still need quite a while before they become tender enough to eat (at least enjoyably).

But when a cloudy summer Sunday sent me packing back from the Hamptons earlier than anticipated, I knew I had my chance. I had the time to both prepare my beans and turn them into the base for, well, for a lot of things, but immediately for my huevos. [And before I start hearing comments about "well, why didn't you just make the beans when you got home late one night, and then you would have had them ready to use later that week?" - there was no shot in hell that I was not making huevos rancheros as soon as I had spicy, salty, toothsome beans at my disposal, ready to go. That is all.]

And so I rinsed the beans, put them in a pot and added water so that the water level was about an inch over the beans, deciding to forego the "bring to a boil, let soak for one hour and rinse" step in lieu of just allowing them to cook a little bit longer.

Then I made my pico de gallo, chopping up some tomato (mercifully, finally in season, though blighted, tragically), onion, garlic and jalapeno and dousing it with some fresh lime juice as the beans boiled away on the stove.

And before long, I had my huevos rancheros, and they were everything I wanted them to be, and so, so much more. The months (literally, it had been two months spent with huevos on my mind) that I had waited seemed to wash away; all memories of my deprivation gone as I gleefully pricked the jiggly yolk with the tines of my fork, taking far too much pleasure in the destruction of one of nature's more perfect little packages. But I knew, as I watched that canary yellow liquid drizzle down over the beans, over the cheese, that I was going to be able to move on, and happily. I dragged forkful after forkful of those glorious beans through the unctuous cholesterol-laden goodness, relishing in not only the taste of my huevos rancheros, in the wonderful harmony of fresh ingredients, but also in my will power, in my devotion to my huevos ideal. I had not broken down and given in to something that I knew would not please me. I allowed myself to continue building it up, and it was totally, undoubtedly, worth it.

I want to talk about those beans - man, the Times knew what they were talking about. These were the best black beans I had ever eaten. Their texture and taste surpassed any that I had ever eaten from a can, and any that I had made from dry up to that point. While dried beans tend to have a better texture than canned (not to mention that you can control the sodium content and they are not suspended indefinitely in that filmy liquid), it is fully impossible to know just how many days, months, years those bags of Goya Frijoles Negros have spent on the supermarket shelves. I think it's safe to assume it's typically a very, very long while.

While I'd heard so many sing the praises of Rancho Gordo beans, I just could not validate the expense of having pricey beans shipped to me from across the country. But once I saw the Cayuga Organics stand at the Greenmarket, I had my chance to try some fresh beans at a far lower (albeit still higher than supermarket) price. Later in the week, I threw those beans into some tacos, and ok, just ate them out of the tupperware in the fridge. But the point is that the couple of hours it takes to make the beans the first night opens you up to their use in an infinite number of deicious ways later on.

And I can say now, with full conviction, that the freshness certainly makes a difference. The flavor and texture of these beans surpassed anything that I'd made in the past. They were wonderful, and are the new standard against which I will measure all black beans in the future. Sorry, Goya. [Still love ya, though, and I will undoubtedly return to you when tight for time].

Huevos Rancheros

In their simplest, most traditional form, huevos rancheros are just simply cooked eggs over tortillas with a smokey, red salsa, but those were not the huevos of my dreams. The dish is one that is open to interpretation, and can be made to suit your tastes and your whim. Add some guacamole (as I did later in the week), ditch the beans, add more cheese, fry the eggs right on the tortilla, keep them sunny side up, hell, go crazy and scramble them if you really want (not in my house, though). This dish is so easy to tailor to what you want and what you have that I find few times when I would not gladly call it my dinner. And it's healthy, too.

I prepared my beans from dried, boiling them in some water with a clove of garlic, which I'd crushed, about a quarter of an onion, a bay leaf, a few dashes of cumin and a pinch of red pepper. I added salt towards the end of the cooking process. There's a debate in the cooking world about whether salt should be added to beans as they cook. The antis say that the salt will break open the skins of the beans as they cook, and will destroy their shape and texture. Others say that the salt adds flavor, and with no discernable effect on their texture. As I love flavor, especially of the salty sort, I added salt, and my beans were none the worse for wear. I did add the salt as the beans were nearing doneness, though, to ward off any possibility that the skins would be torn to shreds.

I make a quick pico de gallo for one by cutting about a half a tomato and an equal volume of onion into small dice. I add to that a bit less than a clove of finely minced garlic and about a half a jalapeno, with a few of the seeds and the ribs added in for some extra heat. I roughly chop some cilantro and throw that in, add the juice of anywhere from a half to a whole lime, depending on how much juice each half yields, grind over it some salt and pepper, throw it in the fridge while the rest of the meal comes together to let the flavors mingle, and it's ready to go when I need it.

I feel a bit silly even posting a recipe for this, since it is open to endless variations and is so incredibly simple.

Serves 1

2 Corn tortillas
1/2 cup black beans, either prepared from fresh, or canned, rinsed and drained
1 ounce cheese of your choosing (I prefer cotija or a melty, sharp cheese)
Pico de gallo, as desired
Avocado or Guacamole, as desired
Cilantro, as desired
Sour cream, as desired

If not using freshly cooked beans, heat them up in a small pot.

Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add the corn tortillas, and, flipping frequently, allow them to heat through. Feel free to crisp them at the edges if desired. Remove the tortillas to a plate. Pile about 1/4 cup of black beans atop each tortilla.

In the same skillet, add some butter to lightly coat the bottom of the pan and crack in the eggs. Once the whites have set a bit, flip the eggs (or leave them sunny-side up) and allow to cook for about 30 seconds on the other side. Once the eggs are cooked to your liking, slide them out of the skillet onto the piles of black beans. Top with cheese as desired, and add some salsa (I love tomatillo salsa) and add whatever accoutrements you feel like. I love pice de gallo, some sour cream, cilantro, a few slices of avocado and some chopped radishes, which I think add a fresh, bright, peppery crunch to the dish.

Dig in, and enjoy.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


Convivio has been on my radar from the moment it opened. It was highly anticipated, as it opened in the space that had previously housed L'Impero, and with renowned Italian Chef Michael White at the helm. The reviews it garnered soon after opening made it clear that this anticipation was warranted. Frank Bruni, the soon to be ex-restaurant critic of the New York Times, bestowed upon Convivio three stars, a rare "Excellent" amidst a sea of "goods."

It was only until recently that I had the good fortune of dining at Convivio. It's a bit out of the way for a weekend dinner, since I tend to dine before going out and don't often (read: ever) find myself out and about on a Friday night on the bumping streets of Midtown East. It's also expensive, and I've had little reason for celebratory meals lately. However, Restaurant Week solved both of these problems. Convivio is much closer to my office than to my apartment, and its restaurant week lunch special, at $24.07, was not going to break the bank.

We had 1:30 reservations, and the late afternoon sunshine flowed into the restaurant through the street-level windows. The light, however, didn't really do the space many favors. The décor was stark and the sun's rays did nothing but draw attention to the sharp edges and unadorned whiteness of much of the space. I would imagine the space does not seem as severe in the evening, as I feel the restaurant would benefit from a softer light and the glow of candlelight.

We ordered from the restaurant week menu, but decided to supplement our meals with a few items from the reasonably-priced sfizi menu. The sfizi are small snack-sized portions that are meant for sharing among the table. We went with the Carciofi (artichokes flavored with mint and pecorino), the Cozze (mediterranean mussels with chile, scallion, capers and topped with bread crumps) and the Funghi (grilled mushrooms cooked in vin cotto).

Of the three, the funghi were the clear favorite of the table. Even avowed mushroom-haters could not resist their amazing depth of flavor and the beguiling spice lent by unexpected red pepper. The wine provided a richness that made it seem as if we were eating something far more sinful than mushrooms.

The artichokes were flawlessly executed, though the taste of mint was not as pronounced as I was hoping. The nutty pecorino that draped the artichokes lent a salty complexity to the earthy artichokes.

The mussels were delicious as well. It was spicy, but the flavor of the chile was felt more than its heat, which did not overwhelm any other element of the dish, as if bringing your taste buds to attention in order to best enjoy the other flavors going on. The bread crumbs provided a wonderful textural element, countering the squishiness of the crustacean with a good deal of crunch. This sfizi was very generously portioned, particularly considering the price.

The entire table ordered the same appetizer, the stracciatella - creamy burrata cheese with zucchini and basil pesto. It was a good thing we all ordered the same dish, since any person who had made the mistake of ordering another dish would have been forced to listen to the rest of us repeat, about seven hundred and thirty two times before the dishes were removed from the table, that this was among the greatest things we'd ever eaten. And no, I don't think any of us would have shared. I should preface this by saying that I am borderline obsessive when it comes to burrata. I must be restrained, oftentimes physically, from ordering it every single time I see it on a menu. Not that there's anything wrong with ordering it every single time I see it on a menu, but I am seeing it more and more these days and such a habit is good for neither my wallet nor my waistline. If you're unfamiliar with burrata, it is essentially a thin skin of fresh mozzarella cheese that houses a bevy of rich, salty, thick, gooey, curdy deliciousness that toes the line between cream and cheese more delicately than anything else I've encountered. It has an incredibly short shelf life, since it takes only a day or so before the insides turn, and is therefore difficult to track down. Suffice it to say that if mozzarella is a Honda Civic Coupe, burrata is an Aston Martin V12 Vantage.

Convivio's rendition was no different. To this point, the best burrata I had encountered was at A16 in San Francisco, where it was topped with a wonderfully fruity olive oil and just enough sea salt to cut through the richness of the cheese. Convivio's version may just top that one. The basil pesto provided a fragrant, floral brightness, while the delicate strands of zucchini lent some more textrure and freshness to the dish. The crostini, an olive-oil soaked little number neatly perched alongside the glorious pool of milkfat, could have not done its job of transporting cheese to mouth any better.

For the mains, most of us ordered the grouper, which was served with a sweet pepper caponata and a roasted pepper crema. The grouper was perfectly cooked, but I found the flavors to be a bit lacking. The caponata was fresh and wonderful, and the roasted pepper crema had the smoky undertones of roasted peppers. It needed perhaps just a bit more acid, since the flavors felt a bit muted, and a touch more lemon might have allowed the rest of the elements to perk up.

I also had the chance to taste the orecchiette, which was handmade and served with crushed pomini tomatoes, basil and capped with a generous dollop of ricotta ala olio. The orrechiette were flawless - the little ears toothsome, but not gummy, cooked to a perfect al dente so that they retained the perfect amount of bite. The tomatoes were fresh and bright, and the cheese, oh that cheese, cut the acidity of the tomatoes with a salty, creamy richness that elevated the dish from pasta into pasta that dreams are made of. This is clearly Michael White's wheelhouse - the simplicity of the dish belied the obvious skill, care and talent that went into making it. It was seriously delicious.

For dessert, I had the affogato, which is essentially a grown-up ice cream float. Freshly brewed espresso, strong and delicious, is poured atop zabaglione gelato and topped with a vanilla bean whipped cream. It tastes exactly how it should, which is to say, rich, complex and delicious. And strong, of course.

The other dessert option was the cioccolato e caramelle, a valhrona chocolate ganache on a bed of salted caramel, both neatly contained in a perfect little pastry shell and accompanied by vanilla gelato. The girls who ordered this were both excessively pleased. It was a bit too rich for my tastes, but the caramel was wonderfully gooey, the chocolate expectedly sinful.

Restaurant week menus are not always indicative of a restaurant's quality, since many tend to take shortcuts or cut corners in an effort to make up in volume for what is lost in revenue. I was more than pleased with my restaurant week lunch at Convivio, and would return in a heartbeat for some more of the excellent sfizi or appetizers, and especially to try out some more of the pastas (the malloreddus - saffron-scented gnochetti with crab and sea urchin in particular is calling my name…). I consider a restaurant week menu successful if it makes me want to return to the restaurant to find out more, and to try some more dishes from the menu, to see what the chef can do. To this end, this was a remarkably successful restaurant week menu, as I am already looking for a reason to come back for the (admittedly not that expensive) $69 prix fixe dinner menu. And considering that this was the first meal after my half a loaf of challah incident, after which the mere thought of food was enough to make me want to hurl, I think that says a lot.

This meal took place a few weeks ago already, and I feared my tardiness would make much of this entirely irrelevant as Restaurant Week was slated to end on July 31. BUT now that Restaurant Week has been extended through Labor Day, you can still take advantage of some great deals!

45 Tudor City Place (b/w 42nd and 43rd)
(212) 599-5045
Participating in Restaurant Week for lunch and Sunday dinner

Friday, July 24, 2009

Banana Bread

I tend not to cook the same recipe twice. It's not a hard and fast rule I have, or something that I do intentionally, but there are so many recipes out there, so many things I have yet to try my hand at, that it seems almost a waste to retrace steps I've already taken. Sure there are things I cook for myself all the time, such as the less-than-stellarly-healthful french toast with caramelized bananas that I've developed a penchant for as a late dinner, but that's not really what I'm talking about. I'm talking about meals that you don't just make, but plan ahead to compose.

Pastas, eggs, sandwiches; these aren't things for which I need to rely on recipes to make.

But cakes, for instance, require a recipe. I just don't know off hand the precise measurements required in order to make something rise. And, unlike cooking, baking requires more precise measurements, since there's science and shit working inside that oven. Chemical reactions are required to make cakes rise, to make cookies puff, and if the proportions aren't right, then you wind up with cakes that sink and cookies that spread far too much. But with so many recipes out there, why eat the same thing twice? Sure there are classics, and I am sure that there will be some that I remake over and over again, but likely not until I've done enough experimenting to be sure that the particular incarnation really is the best of the best.

Sometimes, though, there are recipes that I come back to time and time again.

Some of my staple meals have spillover effects. For instance, to afford myself the ability to make my fall-back dinner of french toast and bananas whenever the craving hits, I tend to keep both challah an bananas around my kitchen at most times. While the french toast tends to get better as the challah gets stale (provided I don't get home from the bar a little, uh, hungry, and house half a loaf, and actually give it a chance to get to the stale stage, that is), the bananas are another matter. I'll only buy a couple of them at a time, but it's still rare that I actually go through all of them before they're overripe and past the point where they're acceptable for use with french toast. You'd think I'd learn and just buy one at a time from the fruit guy on the corner, but no, that would actually be wise. So I'll usually throw a couple in the fridge - the skins will turn brown, but the fruit itself is none the worse for wear.

While overripe bananas aren't the greatest in their unadulterated form, it's a well-known fact that the riper the banana, the better it is for baking. The browner they are, the spottier they are, the sweeter they are, and this sweetness really comes through in the baking process. The texture, which is what I think most of us find unappealing about the brown-speckled banana, is not an issue in baking, since the banana is mercilessly smashed, is form sacrificed for its better attributes: its moisture and the sweet, delicate, subtle flavor that is so basic to all of us.

This constant excess of bananas means that I need to find ways to use them, lest they meet the sacrilegious end of the trash can, which is just far too much for me to bear. Typically, this leads to banana bread.

Banana bread is without equal in the world of baked goods. It's so familiar that just the smell of it baking away in the oven is enough to instill warmth within your being. The fact that it's termed a "bread" despite having all the same ingredients (usually) as a cake, and the presence of the word "banana" - a real, honest-to-goodness fruit - in its name even allows you to convince yourself into thinking you're being virtuous for having a slice.

While, as I mentioned, I tend not to make the same recipe twice, banana bread, and this banana bread in particular, is one of those exceptions. When you want banana bread, there's just nothing else that comes close - there are simply no substitutes. And when extra bananas are lying around, there are few things to do with them as enjoyable as turning them into banana bread - sure cookies are cool, and I suppose muffins have their place, but there are just no substitutes when banana bread beckons. In fact, there may actually be no higher honor to an extra banana than playing a leading role in the making of banana bread.

I have tried a lot of banana bread recipes over the last few years, but this one has become my go-to. It's a veritable breeze to put together, the batter takes all of three minutes - max- to put together, and the fact that there's no fat in it makes me feel a little bit better about constantly having some around. Oh, it's also delicious, by the way, and it takes to freezing exceptionally well, so leftovers are not an issue.

It also happens to be an amazing companion to the salted caramel custard from a little place I may have mentioned here before. The last time I had the custard in my freezer I made the mistake (or had the ingenious idea) of throwing together a batch of banana bread. And when I was left in my apartment, working, all Memorial Day weekend, while all of my friends were traipsing around tri-state-area beaches, with nothing but my laptop, some banana bread and a pint of salted caramel custard, I may have developed an unhealthy affinity for banana bread and salted caramel custard sandwiches. What do you want from me? If I was going to be sitting home, drafting documents all weekend, I was going to gorge on banana bread and salted caramel custard sandwiches to my little heart's content - and don't judge me - I do not regret a second of it. I did, however, learn the danger of having both items in my general vicinity at once.

But I digress. This recipe is a keeper, an honest-to-goodness go-to. And while I will undoubtedly stray from it in the future, and I will try other banana breads, I don't doubt that I will continue to fall back on this recipe. It's simplicity and relative healthfulness, and it's wonderful results, have solidified its status as a standby in the kitchen of Shelbs & Cheese.

Banana Bread with Cinnamon Sugar Topping

Adapted from Everybody Likes Sandwiches

Banana bread, and this recipe in particular, is infinitely adaptable. It has no fat or oil of which to speak, so if you're feeling something more healthful, just cut back on the sugar and leave out the chocolate - it's still delicious. And you can enjoy it knowing that it won't leave you feeling all weighed down, or, worse, guilty. And if you're feeling some spice, go ahead -throw in some cloves, some cinnamon, hell, go nuts - add some ginger. Or if you just want to call a spade a spade (or a cake a cake), just whip together some cream cheese frosting and go to town.

Since this recipe has no oil or butter, really, really ripe bananas are necessary for it to achieve its great moistness. So let those bananas get really spotty, and then let them go a couple more days. You won't regret it.

The original recipe calls for an 8x8 square pan. I do not have such a pan, but have a 9x9 square pan. I have tried it in the larger square pan, in two loaf pans, and in a 9 inch circular cake pan. The circular pan has yielded my favorite results thus far, I think because the extra height keeps the cake nice and moist, but play around with it. You really can't go wrong.

3 really ripe bananas, mashed (I've made the recipe with two large bananas with good results, though 3 is certainly preferable)
2 large eggs
1 1/2 c flour
1 1/4 c sugar
1 t baking soda
1 t vanilla
1 T cinnamon
3/4 c chocolate chips

3/4 c chopped walnuts (optional - though I can't do without them)
2 T sugar mixed with 1/2 t cinnamon, for topping

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Mix mashed bananas with eggs and stir well to combine. Add the flour, sugar, baking soda, vanilla, and cinnamon and mix well with a wooden spoon or rubber/silicone spatula. Add the walnuts, if using, and all but about 2-3 tablespoons of the chocolate chips into the batter.

Pour batter into a buttered square (or circular, if you so desire) cake pan. Sprinkle the entire surface with the cinnamon-sugar mix and dot the surface with the remaining chocolate chips.

Bake at 375 for 35-40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into cake comes out clean.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Hash House San Diego

As luck (and two quite fortuitously-timed closings) would have it, the July 4th weekend found me in the loving (and misguidingly infuilential) care of a few of my very dear friends from law school on the sunny shores of San Diego (where, let me tell you, it is shockingly cold - why your friend proudly responds to your inquiry about needing a jacket with a resounding - read: borderline mocking - "no, but they're cute so you can bring one" - don't listen to her. Pack a sweater). (How many parentheticals can I use in one sentence (apparently many).)

It was an amazing weekend full of nostalgia, reminiscing about old memories, and of course, of creating new ones.

As my friend Jess and I stood on a corner in downtown San Diego near the end of a very long night, trying to scrounge together plans for a Sunday brunch, my friend Mackenna (she of "jackets are unnecessary but cute" fame), in all of her shoeless genius, requested that we go somewhere where she'd be served pancakes the size of manhole covers. Jess, not one to disappoint, knew of just the place. We were to brunch at the Hash House in the Hillcrest nightborhood of San Diego on Sunday.

And was brunch ever in order. We had celebrated America's founding precisely the way our forefathers had envisioned - playing drinking games around a jacuzzi on the beach during the day, throwing back countless shots of cheap whiskey - like the true pat-riots we are - throughout the night. And so, like any and all good Americans, we awoke on July 5th in desperate need of butter-laden biscuits, cured pork products, and - of course- manhole-sized pancakes.

We had been told tales of the Hash House, and the portions with which we were to be met, by Scott and Julia, our ever-gracious hosts, and proceeded to vastly over-order nonetheless. On July 4th weekend, what better way to celebrate America than with excessive overconsumption and mindless waste? It is, after all, the American way. We were only fulfilling our pat-riotic duties.

The Hash House does the American way in an unquestionably unapologetic manner - it's the American way done the American way.

The brunch menu, while large, was not overwhelmingly so, though when each menu option sounds as appetizing as these all did, the decision of what to eat is far from an easy one. We had agreed before our arrival that a pancake for the table was a must, since we are all of the mindset that no one ever really wants more than a couple of bites of a pancake, and actually ordering them as your meal always seems like a great idea, but will, without fail, leave you disappointed, bored and hungry for something savory about a seventh of the way through.

[When looking at these pictures, please keep in mind that these are not normally-sized plates. They are, in fact, the largest things you have ever seen in your life. I believe it was Scott who, more accurately than I could ever have known at the time, described them as "troughs." The pancake below may not look that large atop that plate, but it should be noted that the plate was, no joke, at least 20 inches in diameter. The plate alone must have weighed 13 pounds, as I struggled to lift it to hand it back to the waitress after dumping my leftovers into a to-go box. Now, I try to avoid hyperbole, and while I often succeed, there are no doubt times where I over-exaggerate. Believe me, this is NOT one of those times.]

The pancake options were varied, but we ultimately settled on the strawberry frosted flake and banana brown sugar. The pancakes, despite being manhole-sized (the picture above really does not do these pancakes justice, the thing was, seriously, the size of a hubcap) were actually incredibly soft, fluffy and remarkably light. I tend to fund that fluffiness and size are inversely correlated when it comes to pancakes, as they get bigger, they tend to get tough and gummy and unevenly cooked (I call it the Pancake Paradox). These, however, were perfect. The frosted flakes provided a great textural contrast amidst the fluff. I could have used a few more strawberries, as they were only sparsely dotting the surface, and the pancake would have benefitted from the added fresh sweetness.

I found the banana brown sugar pancake to be the better of the two. The bananas were strategically placed throughout the pancake in large, lengthwise slices, and the brown sugar did wonderful things in the batter - caramelized to the point of crunchiness in some places, gooey and syrupy in others. It was a truly excellent pancake.

The rest of the dishes were pretty good as well. I ordered one of the specials, a blue crab crab cake, which came with with two eggs, mashed potatoes (which find their way onto nearly every dish; seriously - you order eggs benedict, be prepared for eggs atop a split biscuit atop a pile of mashed potatoes, which have been ingeniously placed on the griddle, given them a wonderful golden brown hue and areas of awesome potato crispiness) and chili mayo. After seeing numerous plates pass by our table, each with legitimate puddles of sauce, I requested the chili mayo on the side. Thank the lord I did - while I may have turned a corner with mayo, this was beyond egregious - do you see that souffle-sized ramekin full of chili mayo?!? If my crab cake had come drenched in that entire 3/4 of a cup of chili mayo, it might have gotten ugly. Mayo, i love you, i really do, but even you have to admit that is just a silly amount of mayonnaise. Thankfully, I was able to dip my crab cakes in the mayo, applying a more modest amount and allowing the flavor of the crab to come through, instead of being totally lost beneath a blanket of spicy goop. The eggs, which I requested poached, were unfortunately overcooked, and did not provide me the opportunity to coat the crabcakes with an additional layer of unctuous cholesterol-laden deliciousness. Regardless, it was a highly enjoyable meal.

The biscuit that accompanied the dish (with the rosemary "tree" in it) was a light, fluffy, buttery number. On each table at the Hash House is a jar of homemade jam, with huge pieces of strawberries and peaches floating throughout. The jam is perfectly sweet - not overly so - and the fruit still mercifully intact, having macerated ever-so-slightly, such that you're actually biting into a piece of fruit, allowing you to feel (ever-so-slightly) virtuous for eating something that is (or was, at one point) moderately healthy. Of course, butter was a great option as well, as it always is.

The other dishes that found their way to our table were universally well-received. Emily's cobb salad was a towering behemoth of a dish that was full of huge strips of bacon (no bits here), amazing amounts of avocado, blue cheese, and all the other things that make cobb salads so wonderful. It was topped with barbecue sauce and a dressing that Emily was still raving about hours, nay, days later, trying to figure out what was in the mystical concoction that made it so magical.

Julia ordered the sage fried chicken benedict, which came with spinach, bacon, tomato, griddled mozzarella, chipotle cream and scrambled eggs, all, of course, placed gloriously atop a heap of mashed potatoes. I didn't have a chance to taste this, but I didn't need to in order to know that it was delicious. And enough to feed the entire nation of Rhodesia.

The orders were rounded out with a couple of hashes, one of which was the day's special and featured hunks of buffalo, another with roasted chicken. All looked delicious, but I was too stuffed to stick my fork in anyone's plate but my own.

While the Hash House was not outright cheap for breakfast, it's hard to complain when you're given enough to feed yourself for three meals. And when the food is actually good, too, it's a good deal indeed.

Hash House a go go
3628 Fifth Ave
San Diego, CA 92103
(619) 298-4646

Apparently there is also a location in Las Vegas (who knew?):
6800 West Sahara Ave
Las Vegas NV 89146
(702) 804-4646

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

An Experiment in Coconut Cake

Growing up, I did most of my baking according to three-step directions on the back of boxes of Duncan Hines and Betty Crocker mixes. My parents, while both avid cooks, were never bakers. So when the time came to bring cupcakes into class for our birthdays, my brother and I would turn to the mixes that always hung around our cupboards. Funfetti was, unsurprisingly, an elementary school staple in the Parnes household; my brother and I, like most children, were unable to deny the temptations of sprinkles within the cake batter.

I'm slightly hesitant to admit this (though admittedly, only slightly), it was not so far out of the norm for me to eat sprinkles by the spoonful, straight out of the tub. Why I found (ok, find) these little bits of wax and artificial colorings to be so delicious I will never know, since they don't really taste like much more than the sum of their parts after all, which is, of course, to say that they taste like wax. Few cupcakes, however, (particularly of the boxed-mix variety) have been made the worse for wear by the fanciful addition of sprinkles to the party. Sure a few sprinkles crowning a twist of frosting is all well and good, but theres just something to be said for sprinkles that are actually integrated into the cupcakes themselves - like colorful stars against an otherwise pale vanilla cupcake sky, without actually altering the predictably nostalgic taste of the cupcake itself.

But really, I digress. I did have a point, after all. The backs of these cake mix boxes all contain variations on the same basic step-by-step procedure to create foolproof cakes; add eggs, oil and water, mix and bake. Where these mixes allow you a bit of creative license, however, is in your chosen baking vessel. This same mix could be a 9-inch layer cake, or 18-24 cupcakes, or a sheet cake, or two smaller square cakes, all dependent upon what you chose to bake it in. My take-away from this, which has stuck with me years later, was that any cake batter can be made into cupcakes, and any cupcake batter into cake. While this adage may be true on a more general level, it is, apparently, not without its exceptions. I learned not to cast broad baking strokes the hard, (very) dense way.

It was my mother's birthday a week ago. As we all know, all proper celebrations require cake. My mother is not a fan of chocolate cakes (in fact, we're not a big chocolate-cake family, or a cake family at all - if I didn't sporadically bring cake with me on my visits to my parent's house it's unlikely that they'd ever eat it). I turned instead to a coconut cake recipe, which seemed befitting the recent wave of nice weather we'd been experiencing.

This was not your typical coconut cake, as it called for reduced coconut milk, which I found pretty intriguing. In fact, was not a cake recipe at all. It was a recipe for coconut cupcakes, which looked so-adorable-I-could-pinch-them on the glossy pages of Bon Appetit. But cupcakes just would not do. Cupcakes don't feel as celebratory as cake does. Perhaps it's the fact that, when dealing with cupcakes, you don't all share in slices of the same larger whole, which feels slightly less communal to me. When eating cake, we have to pause, and wait for the pieces to be actually cut, providing a moment in which to share in a joyous, cake-worthy event. Cupcakes can just be grabbed, willy-nilly, without any regard to why they were baked in the first place.

The recipe was for 18 cupcakes, so I decided to make it into a cake, for the aforementioned celebratory reasons. In the same vein, I went the layer-cake route, since we all know that layer cakes are far more celebratory than non-layer cakes. Somewhere along the way, though, something went wrong. The cake had great flavor, the coconut made its subtle presence known against the comforting warmth of the butter. This cake will definitely not knock you over the head with its coconutiness, but it is perceptibly hanging around in the mix, more utility man than power slugger; more Joey Fatone than JT.

Something was amiss, however, and my cupcake conversion was not successful. The cake was far too dense, to the extent that I felt legitimate resistance as I tried to cut through it. And despite my mother's insistence that the cake had good flavor, we all knew it was a failure. While the prior desserts I've delivered had been well-received, this was undeniably sub-par. But my family loves me, and ate it anyway (with minimal criticism). In spite of the fact that it was dense, the cake was still fat and sugar, and the flavors were still there. But I learned a valuable lesson, one that I will take with me as I continue along my path to baking enlightenment.

Coconut-Milk Cupcakes (or cake, at your own risk) with Coconut Frosting
Adapted from Bon Appétit, April 2009

While this attempt was not a success, I think this recipe can be made truly great with a couple of minor tweaks - and even has the potential to succeed in cake form.

I baked the batter in two separate 9-inch pans. This might have been my first mistake - a better move might have been to bake the cake in one pan and then cut the single cake into two layers with a serrated knife. But the problem with this cake was its heaviness, so I'm not sure that a one-pan-approach is the solution. A better solution is probably to use cake flour, as opposed to all-purpose. I had tried three separate grocery stores in the Union Square area for cake flour, and was wholly unsuccessful in my endeavor. The recipe below is adapted for cake flour (if you use all purpose, you'll only need two cups - but definitely go the cupcake route), since I think that's a big key to making this recipe work.

The most time consuming aspect of the recipe is reducing the coconut milk - don't be afraid to really let it boil. Otherwise, it will take quite a long time for it to sufficiently reduce - just use a larger pot and you'll be fine. I also found the frosting below a bit too sweet for the subtlety of the cake itself, so I'll reduce the amount of sugar used the next time I make these, perhaps by as much as a cup.


2 13- to 14-ounce cans unsweetened coconut milk (preferably organic) [
3 tablespoons unsweetened, shredded coconut (optional; I would refrain from using sweetened, flaked coconut, since the flavor would likely be too strong).


2 1/4 cups cake flour
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/3 cups sugar
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup reduced coconut milk (see above), room temperature


1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
2 1/2 cups powdered sugar (Note: I found this frosting to border on cloying, and would use close to 1 1/2 cups next time, though I am admittedly not a buttercream person, as I find it far too sweet, so this is a matter of personal taste)
1/3 cup reduced coconut milk (see above), room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups sweetened flaked coconut, lightly toasted (for garnish)


Bring coconut milk to boil in large deep saucepan over medium-high heat (coconut milk will boil up high in pan). Reduce heat to medium-low; boil until reduced to 1 1/2 cups, stirring occasionally, 25 to 30 minutes (Note: I found it took a bit longer than that). Towards the end of this time period, add the unsweetened, coconut to the pan; stir to combine. Once sufficiently reduced, remove from the heat and allow to cool completely. Transfer to small bowl. Cover; chill (coconut milk will settle slightly as it cools). DO AHEAD Can be made 2 days ahead. Keep chilled.

Position rack in center of oven; preheat to 350°F. Line eighteen 1/3-cup muffin cups with paper liners (or cake pan). Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt in medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until smooth. Add sugar; beat on medium-high speed until well blended, about 2 minutes. Add 2 eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition and occasionally scraping down sides of bowl. Beat in seeds from vanilla bean and remaining egg. Add half of flour mixture; mix on low speed just until blended. Add 1 cup reduced coconut milk; mix just until blended. Add remaining flour mixture; mix on low speed just until blended. Divide batter among muffin cups.
Bake cupcakes until tops spring back when gently touched and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Transfer cupcakes in pans to rack; cool 10 minutes. Carefully remove cupcakes from pans and cool completely on rack.

Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until smooth. Add sugar, 1/3 cup reduced coconut milk, seeds from vanilla bean, and salt. Beat on medium-low speed until blended, scraping down sides of bowl. Increase to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy.

Using pastry bag fitted with large star tip (NOTE: I used a ziploc bag with the corner snipped off), pipe frosting onto cooled cupcakes. (Alternatively, top each cupcake with 2 tablespoons frosting. Using small offset spatula, swirl frosting over top of cupcakes, leaving 1/2-inch plain border.) Sprinkle with coconut.DO AHEAD Can be made 1 day ahead. Store in airtight containers; chill. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Seasonal Impropriety: Brisket in May

What I am about to do here is entirely inappropriate, but I have been sitting on this recipe for far too long, and it's just not right anymore. I have to face the facts: there is likely no dish out there that is more wrong for this time of year. And I realize that this may just prevent you from giving this one a try, but I must urge you to reconsider.

I know that bathing suit season is around the corner, and brisket and bathing suits go together like A-Rod and clutch hitting, but New York City has seen nothing but rain for the past three months (that's how long it's been, right? I'm not sure I recall what the sun actually looks like anymore). But something about this year's spring has prevented me from jumping head-first into the comforts of the season; trench coats, puddles, general sogginess, and the omnipresent umbrella have all made it quite hard to leave behind the warmth and familiarity of so many winter comforts.

It's been a gloomy, foggy, schpritzey kind of spring, with the odd 90-degree days thrown in for good measure. Two weeks ago I wore my winter coat on Monday, scarf and all, and by Sunday I was laying out in Central Park in a bikini. One week, two diametrically opposed seasons, and zero plane trips to tropical locales in the dead of winter. So please don't blame me for being seasonally confused. I'm well aware that summer is fast-approaching (to which my borderline disgusting consumption of frozen dairy goods over the last month can attest), but there's just something in the air (uh, probably constant 98% humidity, and not the warm, pleasant summer night kind) that's been preventing me from breaking out the sandals for good.

I admit that brisket is a traditionally cold-weather cut of meat, as many tougher, more inexpensive cuts are, since they require long, slow preparations to render them supple and tender. And yes, this recipe was made for Passover, but this meal is really, and truly, undeniably fantastic. And deliciousness knows no bounds!

So hear my case - brisket need not be relegated to wintertime. Yes, the fact that it requires a long cooking time and tends to be paired with deep, hearty, warming flavors may suggest that it's best enjoyed in chillier times, but this needn't be the case. Free brisket from the chains of seasonality - slice it, sandwich it between two pieces of crusty bread, throw it in a basket with a nice, fresh salad and some fruit and lo and behold - a picnic! What's more summery than a picnic? Not much, not much at all.

This recipe gives a great deal of flexibility in its preparation, since it can be finished a couple of days after it's been started, which is great news for those of us who find ourselves flitting to and fro on a whim whenever a summer breeze decides to pass through.

Beef Brisket with Merlot and Prunes
from Bon Appetit April 2008, recipe here

1 4-to 4 1/2-pound flat-cut (first-cut) beef brisket, trimmed of most fat
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 14 1/2-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice (preferably fire-roasted)
1 cup Merlot or other dry red wine
2 pounds onions, sliced
4 medium carrots, peeled, thinly sliced
16 garlic cloves, peeled
1 1/2 cups pitted large prunes (about 8 ounces)
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon prune juice
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Position rack in bottom third of oven and preheat to 325°F.

Pat brisket dry (this is necessary to get great browning - make sure the meat really is dry) and season all over with salt and pepper. Heat oil in heavy extra-large skillet over high heat.

Add brisket and cook until deep brown, about 7 minutes per side. Transfer brisket, fat side up, to large roasting pan. Add tomatoes with juice and wine to skillet. Remove from heat, scrape up any browned bits, and pour mixture over brisket.

Scatter onions, carrots, and garlic around brisket. Add prunes and thyme; drizzle with 1/2 cup prune juice and 3 tablespoons vinegar. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Place the roasting pan over 2 burners and bring the liquid to a boil. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and place in the preheated oven.

Braise brisket until tender, about 3 hours 15 minutes. Uncover and cool 1 hour at room temperature.

The brisket can be made up to third point 2 days ahead; just cover the pan with foil and throw it in the fridge. To resume, bring the liquid just to a simmer over two burner and continue on.

Remove the brisket from roasting pan, scraping it of juices. Place on work surface;cut across grain into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Spoon off fat from top of pan juices. Place 1 cup vegetables (no prunes) and 1 cup braising liquid from pan into processor and puree. Return puree to pan. Add remaining 1 tablespoon prune juice and 1 teaspoon vinegar to pan. Heat sauce; season with salt and pepper.

Overlap brisket slices in 13x9x2- inch glass baking dish. Pour sauce over brisket, separating slices to allow some sauce to flow between. DO AHEAD:Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover; chill.

Rewarm brisket, covered, in 350°F oven for 30 minutes. Sprinkle brisket with parsley; serve.

Note - you can use a slender metal pin or a thin, sharp knife to check whether the brisket is tender. Insert the pin into the thickest part of the brisket; if it meets no resistance, the brisket is done.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Dear Mayonnaise,

I was wrong.

Oh Mayo (you don't mind if I call you Mayo, do you?), I have wronged you. I spoke ill of you for years, proclaiming your nausea-inducing effects, lamenting your overall general grossness. I claimed, nay proselytized, that nothing good could be realized by ingloriously congealed fats. I just could not fathom how anything made largely of egg yolks could be contained indefinitely under a blue cap.

In my defense, however, I must offer the fact that my experiences, you had not been in your best form. I had never been with you in your freshly-made, sprightly, refreshingly-pure state. Can you see why I was singing the gospel of the Church of Mayo-Haters, worshipping at the altar of mustard? You see, in my dark days without you, I had not ever known the real you. My firm denial of your glory was rooted in my distaste for the omnipresent pallid white paste teamed far too often with dry turkey breast and tasteless white bread. You did not have much to offer that sandwich; in fact, I found that you did nothing but turn it into a mushy, gluey mess, leaving me lapping at the roof of my mouth like a dog who'd just eaten peanut butter. You must understand why I felt the way that I did; I did not find you added much to my sandwiches - certainly not enough to warrant your high caloric content. I admit, I may have taken it too far: I would not touch egg salads, tuna salads, far too many dips, or anything else you may have snuck your way into. I even threw tantrums at Mets games when my father, my incomparable sandwich-making father, dared to dress the sandwich intended for me with you.

But mayo, I now see the error of my ways. I have been introduced to you in your purest form. You're like the overly made-up girl who, unbeknownst to her, is far prettier without all of her make-up and high heels. You don't need chemicals, or stabilizers, or multisyllabic words; no, you're at your best when you're just being you, when you're nothing more than the simple sum of your most basic parts: egg, acid, spices, oil. Granted, in your full-fat, mass-produced form you don't possess these additives (save calcium disodium EDTA), but I just could never bring myself to sacrifice those calories to a condiment I just didn't beleive in. And your "healthier," so-called "lite" counterparts, well let's not get started on their blasphemous ways.

Oh mayo, I have seen the light. I have enjoyed freshly-made, bright, sunny, lemony mayonnaise; I have dipped everything from french fries to artichokes. I have seen your versatility - how quickly you go can from mayonnaise to tartar sauce, from mayo to sauce verte; your effortless pairing with sriracha can turn any sandwich into a treat.

You're a Cinderella of sorts; from your meager beginnings as simple pantry staples you become a luxurious a decadent spread capable of elevating the most basic of items. Your generosity cannot be overstated, you eagerly lend a hand to so many dishes, and they are all the better because of it. Vegetables are never stronger than when paired with you - how quickly they go from veggies to crudites thanks to you. You have shown me what mayonnaise is meant to be; and because I cannot always stand about whisking, I have even grown to tolerate the jarred stuff (if begrudgingly so).

I have patiently whisked and eagerly dipped, and I've returned to whisk some more, and damn it, I'm a believer. And yes, every once in a while you'll break on me, but I cannot say I blame you. I have given you no reason to heed to my desires after these years of poo-pooing you. I was so wrong, so blind to your undeniable deliciousness. I can do nothing now but ask for your forgiveness, and lament the years wasted, spent in a dark, mayo-less existence. But that is my cross to bear, and I hope that you'll let this slide, because, believe me, I will never turn my back on you again.

Love and kisses,



Yes, mayonnaise contains raw egg. If for some reason you can't stomach raw eggs, or are pregnant and therefore must be avoiding such things, mayonnaise is probably not for you. But trust me when I say that raw eggs have never had it so good.

I have included a couple of variations below. Alton Brown's was the first I attempted at home; it is a great, classic version, and provides an excellent jumping-off point for just about anything. You really must be patient with the whisking, adding the oil very slowly at first, and allow the emulsion to really show itself before speeding things up. If your mayo breaks, don't worry, you can probably fix that, just keep on whisking and you should be alright. The whisking can get a bit tiring, but hey, you're getting a workout, so you can feel that much less badly about eating mayonnaise. I mean, that is how it works, right? Also, believe me when I tell you that once you make your own mayonnaise, you may never be able to go back to the jarred stuff again. It's cheap, it's delicious, and you know exactly what goes into it.

Mayonnaise is made up of 5 basic ingredients, to which you can add spices, herbs or other items your liking, it's really infinitely adaptable. The proportions of the main ingredients are generally as follows: For one egg yolk, you'll need 2-3 teaspoons of acid (be it vinegar or lemon juice, though you can add more to taste, if you like your mayo quite lemony feel free to add more), 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon mustard (prepared mustard, if using dry, you'll use less) and 1/2 to 3/4 of a cup of oil. I don't recommend olive oil for mayonnaise because the flavor is quite strong and will overwhelm everything else. Neutral tasting oils, such as canola, are a good bet. Apparently you can also make mayonnaise in the blender; I have personally not given it a go yet, but if and when I do I will report back.

Making your mayo will be easiest if all of your ingredients have been allowed to come to room temperature. To make the mayo, whisk all of your ingredients except the oil in a bowl. Slowly, and in a thin stream (very thin at first), whisk in the oil. It's best to start slowly with the oil; you'll be able to pick up speed once your emulsion has come to be. Ta-da! Mayonnaise!

Once this base is formed, you can add whatever you'd like - you can make dijon mayonnaise by simply adding some dijon mustard to your prepared mayonnaise; you can make tartar sauce by adding some capers, parsley, chives and cornichons.

Alton Brown's Mayonnaise
adapted from Alton Brown

1 egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1 pinches sugar*
2 teaspoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 cup canola oil
In a glass bowl, whisk together egg yolk and dry ingredients. Combine lemon juice and vinegar in a separate bowl then thoroughly whisk half into the yolk mixture. Start whisking briskly, then start adding the oil a few drops at a time until the liquid seems to thicken and lighten a bit, (which means you've got an emulsion on your hands). Once you reach that point you can relax your arm a little (but just a little) and increase the oil flow to a constant (albeit thin) stream. Once half of the oil is in add the rest of the lemon juice mixture.

Continue whisking until all of the oil is incorporated. Let stand at room temperature for a couple of hours, and then refrigerate in an air-tight container for up to a week.

*NOTE: the original recipe calls for 2 pinches of sugar, I generally leave out the sugar, but if I do use it, it's hardly ever more than a pinch.