Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Soon I Will Be Invincible

Wow, it's been a long time since I've updated. Sorry about that.

My friend Austin Grossman has written his first book, a novel called Soon I Will Be Invincible (here's the site). It's superhero fiction with self-awareness; it's thoughtful but also funny, very entertaining, and a fast read. Well, at least, the first two chapters were; I haven't gotten my hands on the full book yet.

He has some reading & signing dates up already and it looks like he'll be in Austin on June 20th reading at BookPeople. Show up! I'm certainly going to. It should be fun; Austin's witty and hilarious.

One particular evening that sticks out in my mind: A handful of us, including Austin and myself, were at the New World Cafe, this vegan restaurant in Oakland, and I got caught up, curious about their various foods and how they managed to prepare them vegan.

I wasn't trying to hassle the waitress but I think it came off that way.

"How do you make the Thai iced tea?" I asked.
"Oh, we use soymilk for that."
"The puddings are vegan, too?" I swear I was just asking out of curiosity.
"Yes, they're thickened with agar."
"How about the Vietnamese coffee?" One of my friends rolled her eyes.
"Oh, the Vietnamese coffee does have sweetened condensed milk. It's the one thing on the menu that isn't vegan," she admitted.
Austin looked at me flatly. "Nice work," he quipped, dryly, "Nancy Drew."

He's a clever wit and a thoughtful, funny guy, so I expect no less from his first book. I can't wait to get my copy!

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Monday, May 7, 2007

Almond Pound Cake with Jasmine Cream

Jasmine-Almond CakeI've been negligent in writing this entry, as I made this cake a while ago. I knew it would be a bit involved.

It all started a year or two ago when I started drinking tea in earnest for probably the third or fourth time. My tea habit is like all my other habits; it comes and goes. This particular time, I had a new expert tea-drinker friend, Lydia, to point me in new directions. She suggested I check out Red Blossom Tea Company, located right in San Francisco's Chinatown, if I wanted to try some particularly good teas. I'm usually something of an Adagio patron, but it doesn't hurt to try new things.

I ordered a gaiwan and some teas from Red Blossom and when they sent it, they included a few small sample packets of other teas, an oolong and a jasmine, the Phoenix Eye, each leaf rolled into a shape like a small football. I'd had jasmine tea before, but not like this. This wasn't astringent or bitter. When I brewed it just right, it was incredibly floral but also sweet, creamy, and very smooth. I was amazed.

I became fixated on the idea of using it for a dessert. Maybe a custard, I thought. I talked about it with Heidi and Lulu and they each separately volunteered that jasmine tea would probably pair particularly well with almonds, although neither had tried making a tea-infused custard.

I let the idea rest for a while, until March, when I was back in San Francisco for the Game Developer's Conference. I took advantage of some free time to wander over to Red Blossom's store. I met one of the proprietors, who runs the store with her husband and parents, and she insisted that I sit down for a tasting. From pu-erh to lishan formosa oolong to keemun black to wuyi oolong she led me, and an hour later (and, I'm pretty sure, about $50 worth of free tea) I stood up, thanked her, and bought several teas, including a sizable bag of jasmine. I settled on the Dragon Pearl, which smelled even better than the Phoenix Eye, and cost only a little bit more.

On my way out I remembered to ask her how I might infuse cream with the tea. "Just steep it cold," she said, "put the tea in the cream and leave it in the refrigerator for 5 hours or so."

Cut to a month or so later. I finally decided to put my scheming into action and give a cake a shot. I wanted a layer cake of sorts, slabs of almond cake interleaved with thick, sweet jasmine cream custard. I poked around my cookbooks -- I'm really not much of a baker, so this is forgotten territory for me -- and decided to appropriate two recipes from the Tartine cookbook that Lulu brought me as a gift. Certainly, I told myself, there are worse places to turn for advice on baking desserts. Tartine is one of those places I'm sure to visit every time I'm back in San Francisco.

I made the jasmine custard as a modified version of the Tartine chocolate pudding:

Jasmine-Almond CakeJasmine Pastry Cream

1 1/4c whole milk
1/2c + 2T heavy cream
1/4c cornstarch
3/4c sugar
3 large eggs
1/4t salt
5T jasmine tea leaves

At least 5 hours ahead of time, mix the cream and milk and add the tea leaves, stir, cover, and refrigerate.

When the cream-milk mixture has steeped, add it, with the tea leaves, to a saucepan and bring to just under a boil. This part is important both because it's what the original Tartine recipe says, but also because jasmine tea will become bitter if heated above 180-190F, so I recommend using a candy thermometer here to be sure.

While that's heating, in a mixing bowl, comine the cornstarch and sugar with a fork. In another mixing bowl, whisk the eggs with the salt until blended, then add to the sugar mixture and whisk until well-combined.

Pour the hot milk mixture through a strainer into a bowl to remove the tea leaves. Discard the leaves, as you'll need the strainer again in a bit. Pour half the hot liquid to the egg mixture while whisking continuously. You don't want to add the milk so fast that it cooks the eggs, so don't pour too fast. Pour the egg mixture back into the pan with the rest of the milk mixture and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture has visibly thickened and registers 208F on your candy thermometer. This should take 5 to 7 minutes, depending on how cold your eggs are.

Immediately pour the contents of the pan through the sieve again. Blend with an immersion blender for a full 5 minutes until no lumps are visible, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula as necessary.

I'm reasonably happy with how that worked out, although it never stiffened up to my liking. Perhaps some deft use of egg whites would have helped, or perhaps just using more cornstarch? It was delicious, but it was really very runny. Tartine's is very solid; it'll hold a spoon upright, but without the chocolate, mine just didn't firm up in the same way. Something to figure out for next time.

For the cake, Lulu suggested Tartine's Almond-Lemon Tea Cake, omitting the lemon:

Jasmine-Almond CakeAlmond Tea Cake

3/4c pastry flour
1/2t baking powder
1/8t salt
5 large eggs
1t vanilla extract
3/4 almond paste, at room temperature
1c sugar
1c unsalted butter, at room temperature

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350F. Lightly butter and flour a 9-by-5 loaf pan, knocking out the excess flour.

To make the cake, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt twice. In a small bowl, combine the eggs and vanilla and whisk together just to combine. In the bowl of a stand mixer [Ed: I did this all by hand with a wooden spoon and whisk, and it is incredibly difficult. I don't recommend it] fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the almond paste on low speed until it breaks up. This can take up to a minute, depending on how soft and warm it is. Slowly add the sugar in a steady stream, beating until incorporated. If you add the sugar too quickly, the paste won't break up as well.

Cut the butter into 1T pieces. Continue on low speed while adding the butter, a tablespoon at a time, for about minute. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Then turn on the mixer to medium speed and beat until the mixture is light in color and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. With the mixer still on medium, add the eggs in a very slow, steady stream and mix until incorporated. Stop the mixer and again scrape down the sides. Turn it on to medium and mix for another 30 seconds. Add the flour mixture in two batches, stirring after each addition until just incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl one last time, and then spoon the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface.

Bake until the top springs back when lightly touched and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack.


That all went swimmingly. The cake came out well. Now, to put them together. The cake is extremely delicate when warm because of all the butter in it, so I refrigerated it during the day while I was at work so it would be solid enough to slice into layers. I came home and found that, indeed, it gets very solid when it's cold, for the same reason. All that butter, when refrigerated, becomes dense and heavy.

It did make it easy to slice into layers, though, so I took a bread knife and carefully cut through the side of the cake to make 3 slabs. I lined the loaf pan with plastic wrap and gently put 1 slab back in, then layered it with about 1/4" of the jasmine custard, put the next slab in, another layer of custard, and topped it with the final slab of cake. I put it back in the refrigerator overnight.

Jasmine-Almond CakeThe next day, I turned it out onto a plate, intending to be done with it, but I really wasn't satisfied with how it looked without frosting around the outside. I also had quite a bit of the jasmine custard left, but I had one problem: the custard was still runny. Even chilled, it was relatively thick, but still very much a liquid. The layers of the cake would readily slide against each other if I gently pushed on one, and if the custard couldn't hold it together in the layers, it certainly wouldn't stick as frosting for the outside.

Remembering a video I'd seen (and Lulu'd reminded me of) at Beard Papa on how they make their cream puff filling, I took the remaining whipping cream and whipped it as stiff as I could without actually turning it into butter. Then I folded it into the jasmine custard, hoping to get a nice, stiff whipped cream texture out of it. It didn't quite work as well as I'd hoped, because the whipped cream stayed as lumps in the custard and required enough beating to integrate it that it lost a lot of its loft. Still, it was significantly stiffer than before.

I frosted the outside of the cake gingerly with the custard, and tried to give it ornamental piping on top, but even with the whipped cream, the custard flattened into blobs within a few minutes. I topped the whole thing with some toasted almond slices, and took it with me to cooking night.

Overall, I was particularly happy with the jasmine cream. The cold steeping with the short period of heat right at the end managed to infuse the cream strongly enough that it was a very notable flavor, but not at all bitter nor astringent.

That said, the custard and cake didn't go together as well as I'd hoped. The cake, as I mentioned, got very dense and heavy when chilled, but the custard was barely firm enough when chilled, so I had no choice but to serve it cold.

Furthermore, the custard was sweet enough that the cake could have been less so. If I make this again, I'll pick a different recipe for the jasmine cream, something like a stiffer frosting, but still creamy and smooth. I'd probably also make a totally separate frosting for the outside, something like a more solid buttercream, and not try to use the same recipe for the frosting and layer filling.

As for the cake, I'd pick something less like a pound cake and more like a fluffy cornbread made with almond meal. The fat content was just too high; it really needed to be an airier, fluffier cake to complement the heavy, creamy custard. As it was, it was a little overwhelming, and the flavors were a bit hard to really tell apart.

That said, for my first attempt at baking a dessert in a long time, it really did come out very well. It tasted delicious, looked good, and the jasmine cream was to die for. I found enough excuses to lick whisks or spatulas or bowls while cleaning up from cooking that I probably ate a whole cup of the custard on its own.

And I'd do it again.

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Acai Power Pops

Acai Power PopsI got my copy of Heidi's awesome new cookbook, Super Natural Cooking. Since I'm going to paraphrase one of the recipes directly here, I'll go ahead and say that everyone who ever cooks at all should buy this cookbook. It's $13.60 at Amazon right now, which is a gigantic steal considering the book is beautiful and the recipes are excellent. Seriously, just buy it right now. You won't regret it.

I'm working on shedding a few pounds, finally building my resolve to drop those "last stubborn 10 pounds" everyone seems to have when they have been doing sports stuff for a while; your body stops short of letting go of all its fat reserves (maybe you'll be stranded on a desert island sometime soon -- it doesn't know!) and you have to be a little more diligent to shed that last bit.

As a result, I've been hunting down foods and recipes that are packed with nutrients and filling while still being low in calories. According to some quick calculations, these popsicles, made with Straus whole milk yogurt and Sambazon acai puree (which unfortunately comes already sweetened with cane juice, but oh well), are 86 calories each but packed with nutrients.

The recipe is straightforward so I won't reproduce it strictly here, I'll just casually give the overview. I also halved the recipe vs. the cookbook because the popsicle tray thing I bought at Target only makes 4. Mine were 3oz per pop, although yours may vary (and so will your measurements.) Luckily, if you end up with a little yogurt or fruit mixture left over, you can eat it, and it's delicious.

Start by putting about a half-cup each of Straus whole-milk vanilla yogurt acai puree in a blender. Puree until smooth. Then, take your popsicle molds and fill them roughly 1/3 of the way with vanilla yogurt in the bottoms. I found spooning it in worked best.

Pour the acai-yogurt mixture on top of the vanilla yogurt in each popsicle mold (or paper cup or whatever floats your boat), but stop just short of filling them all the way. That way, you can stir them up a little to get the nice swirled look without them spilling everywhere. Use whatever you like for the stirring. I used a chopstick.

After that, top them off fully with the rest of the acai-yogurt mixture, put in the tops or sticks or whatever you're using, and freeze until solid. Remove by running a bit of hot water over the outside of each, if they're stubborn. Then, enjoy.

I like the idea of using yogurt for popsicles because it feels more substantial: eating a popsicle takes longer and involves more chewing, licking, etc. than eating normal yogurt, and so after eating one, I've only eaten 1/8c of acai puree and 1/2c of yogurt, but it seems like quite a bit more.

Plus, these guys are so quick to make and look so much nicer than store-bought popsicles, they'd be great to just keep around. They're not terribly expensive, either: it took about $2 worth of yogurt and $1.50 worth of acai to make 4 popsicles, so that's about 87 cents a pop. Some store-bought popsicles are more than that, and I guarantee these are better.

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Thursday, May 3, 2007

Greens

Greens are coming into their own for the season, so this week for cooking night I kept it simple. I picked up a bunch of dino kale, mustard greens, and spinach, thinking I'd just wilt them gently in a little butter. Then as I wandered through Whole Foods, I thought, hey, people cook kale with ginger, I think. So I got some ginger. And then, hey, ginger and citrus go well together.

I didn't cook the spinach -- it really was a formidable pile of greens, more than 8 people really needed -- but I made the kale and mustard greens. Separately, I tore out the thick stems from each leaf, ripped them up into edible-sized leaves, and rinsed them.

Then I heated up several tablespoons of unrefined peanut oil in a skillet, tossed in a couple tablespoons of finely chopped ginger (which I first sliced with my new beloved, $15 mandolin from Asahi imports.) Sauteed that on medium-low heat for a few minutes, added the greens, covered, and let cook until they'd wilted a bit. Then I stirred it up a bit to coat each leaf in some of the peanut oil and ginger, squeezed a lemon over the whole skillet, stirred again, and transferred the greens into a serving bowl.

I took some kind of orange citrus, I think it was a tangelo, and sliced it in half, gutted the flesh and sliced it up into bits, and then shaved the rind into thin peels. I mixed a good few large pinches of that, maybe 4 tablespoons total, into the greens.

I cooked the kale and mustard greens separately. I think the kale came out quite well, although it was strong. The ginger was prominent and the kale itself is robust. It got eaten, though, and I'd certainly eat it again. The peanut oil helped cut the other flavors a bit -- the rest were bitter, or acidic, and the peanut oil is so mellow and deep. Next time I'd probably toss in a small handful of chopped toasted peanuts, too, to bring that out a bit more.

As for the mustard greens, well, I forgot just how mustardy they taste, because it's been years since I've had them. They were really intense. The mustard intensity of the leaves with the ginger and the citrus was so strong I winced every time I took a bite, kind of like the way I recoil a little when I eat wasabi or a particularly strong salsa. I liked them alright, but man, eating them was slow going. Next time I think I'll leave the mustard greens for soups or some other aggregate dish where their mustard flavor is a welcome contribution instead of the main, super-intense flavor.

If anyone has any other recommendations on ways to prepare greens, I'm all ears. I've got chard, gem lettuce, and spinach seedlings all nearing an inch tall in the garden, so within a couple months it looks like I'll have more leaves than I know what to do with, and I'll probably get tired of salad dressing and ginger/citrus/peanut soon enough. Cooking these tonight made me realize I don't really have enough techniques for preparing greens, and they're so good for me I'd like some variety so I can look forward to eating them even more often!

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