Monday, September 3, 2007

Obsessives

Chow is building a video series called "Obsessives", profiles of people in the food industry & community with singular fascinations, and looking at how they do their work. So far they've got one of the baristas from Blue Bottle talking about espresso, then Chris Cosentino (exec chef of Incanto in Noe Valley) talking about offal and food ethics (not for the squeamish, but I thought this one was really excellent; he clearly has a deep respect for the animals he cooks), the Stephens-Lewallens, owners of the Mendocino Sea Vegetable Company, and now June Taylor, producer of amazing preserved fruits (marmalades, conserves, syrups -- if you've had her stuff, you know how amazing it is.)

It's a really spectacular project they're doing, and all four of the videos so far have been great!

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Beans, Beans, Good for the Heart...

I'm pretty sure I've mentioned Rancho Gordo on here before, suppliers of the best beans money can buy. I've missed them ever since moving back to Austin, where beans aren't so locally grown in so many varieties.

Some ingredients aren't worth worrying as much about. I've never had, say, a red onion that really jumped out at me as being wildly better than any other reasonably fresh red onion. Some things aren't really worth the time and money involved in procuring at their zenith.

Lest there be any doubt, beans are a food where the quality is critical. I made the Chocolate Turtle Beans from Heidi's latest cookbook and used a mix of Black Turtle beans and Appaloosa beans that I had sitting around from the Whole Foods bulk bins.

Disaster.

I soaked the beans for a day and a half just to be on the safe side, to where starch had risen to the surface of the water. I eagerly sweated the onions and garlic in my stock pot, added the tantalizing spice blend (I used the rest of my smoked serrano powder from Tierra and my Ceylon cinnamon with the allspice and cumin) and cooked the beans with that, their soaking liquid, and a bottle of thick English stout.

Two hours later, the black beans were still tough, nearly crunchy. Another hour later it became clear they weren't going to get much softer. I kept simmering just to reduce the liquid, mixed in the chocolate, and ate them with fried eggs in soft, fresh whole wheat tortillas. It was supposed to be bliss! That meal was going to be transcendental. Instead, every time the stout-chocolate-smoked serrano sauce started to pull me off to dreamland with its rich, mole-like complexities, I'd bite into a black bean with a crunch like uncooked potato and grimace a little bit.

Beans from Whole Foods are maybe $3/lb. or so for the interesting ones. All of Rancho Gordo's are $5/lb., less than double the price. And the difference is, Rancho Gordo's make for delicious, highly edible dishes, where Whole Foods' are unpalatable, cook poorly, and just aren't worth eating.

I went ahead and ordered a pound each of six different bean varieties from Rancho Gordo. I just got the shipment notification, and should be getting them in a few days.

Really, $38 for six pounds of beans and shipping is just not that much money in the grand scheme of things. Six pounds of beans? If I ate nothing else for dinner, that would probably feed me heartily for an entire month. Using them for side dishes, stews, chilies, and the occasional entree, I'll be set for much longer than that.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Cooking and Critical Mass

As long as I can remember, my cooking has been this oddly schizophrenic activity. It happens in one of two ways. Either I'm Cooking, with a big trip to the grocery store or farmer's market (or both) and a big chunk of time devoted to it, or I'm just cooking a meal to eat, which entails knocking something relatively mediocre out by an easy formula.

Now that I'm really sinking some time and energy into my cooking technique, now that I've cleaned out and organized my pantry, now that I make an effort to keep staples stocked (and, lo and behold, my grocery bill hasn't increased, since staples are so cheap), that's slowly but surely changing.

And it's a really pleasant change. More and more I'm finding myself hungry and am able to open the refrigerator or glance in the pantry and put together, with relative ease, something serious. Something closer to Cooking, something that would until very recently have taken 5 hours, including a specific trip to Central Market, complete with fanfare.

Tonight I had Kristine, Jessica, and Ian over for dinner on a whim, because last night I made some ravioli and there was no way I was going to eat them all. But furthermore, I threw together a full meal, with the help of a couple tomatoes and a pepper I got for the sauce, some figs I'd had around for a week that I needed to use, and a bunch of staples I just... happened to have around. Kristine brought the salad, too; I haven't quite gotten the knack of keeping greens on hand, because they wilt so fast. That's still pretty premeditated for me.

Tonight's Menu:

Spinach salad with sweet bell peppers, chevre, and avocado dressed in lemon and white wine

Chicken, zucchini, sage, and brown butter in whole wheat ravioli with heirloom tomatoes and roasted pepper, with a tomato-pepper coulis

Black Mission figs poached in a pinot noir reduction, with vanilla gelato

Sugar cookies with caramel and roasted cacao nibs

The figs seemed like they'd be good poached, and I had some pinot noir. Then I couldn't really see serving them unaccompanied, so the gelato just kind of happened. I had a vanilla bean, I had some whole milk, I had sugar, cornstarch, and best of all, a tested recipe. What's more, it took almost none of my time. I threw the milk on with the bean on the back burner. I mixed the rest of it and poured it in when the vanilla-milk reached a simmer. I threw it in a cold bath since I didn't have hours to refrigerate it. And immediately before serving dessert, I fired up the ice cream maker and poured it in.

The wine reduction happily simmered away, too, on the side, as I worked with the ravioli, blanched the tomatoes and roasted the peppers (which Kristine then adeptly peeled), and when it was time for dessert, 5 minutes poaching was all it took.

For once, I was able to prepare a full meal, each course ready just as it was served, nothing staying warm (and drying out) in the oven, and yet still able to sit at the table through most of it and socialize. All four burners were on most of the time, and it never felt overwhelming.

Furthermore, it didn't take a special trip to the grocery store.

I was able to improvise well, too. This morning I made the caramel for the cookies, and lacking heavy cream, I just used whole milk. I cooked the sugar syrup longer for a bit more browning, eyeballed some measurement changes to compensate, and after a brief crystallization scare, ended up with delicious, dark brown caramel of just the right texture.

I think this is all a good convergence of my increasing intuition (thanks in large part to this exceptional book) and my more diligent effort to keep those foundation ingredients around.

All I know is, if I'd tried to make a meal like that before, it would have taken a couple days of cookbooks, shopping lists, trips to and from the store, and careful planning, and even then I doubt it would have gone so smoothly. Progress!

Actually, that's a lie - that's not all I know. I also know that after a few hours of running all four burners, the oven, and now my dishwasher, while outside it hit 100 degrees today, it is now really, really hot in here.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Dishwasher Detergents

When I first moved into my house, I was excited to have a dishwasher for the very first time since I moved out of my parents' house 10 years ago. I got a box of Cascade, and started using that, but at some point my anti-big-brand bias took hold, and I thought, it's probably awful stuff, made with ground up bones and dreams or something. I got some of the Mrs. Meyer's stuff from Central Market, a brand that at least looks smaller and more independent, and started using that.

A while ago I realized that my dishes come out of my dishwasher just filthy. I routinely have to re-wash plates, silverware is covered in gunk, and I thought, man, I guess my dishwasher is just no good. That's too bad. I started washing things by hand more and more.

On a whim, I tried using the Cascade again, thinking, "This won't work, there's no way the difference is the detergent. Obviously it's just a bad dishwasher."

My dishes are spotless now.

I actually Googled, just now, to find the name "Cascade" -- it had slipped my mind -- and came across a review of detergents by Consumer Reports. I've been meaning to subscribe to them forever, and at $26 a year, you can't really go wrong, so I did. Turns out Mrs. Meyer's scored a 54, and the powdered Cascade got an 85. Now I'm going to go try their top scorer, the Cascade packets.

I'm just excited I don't have to hand-wash things anymore. It was a sad day when I realized it wasn't getting things clean.

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Friday, August 3, 2007

More Frozen Treats

Cantaloupe Sherbet with Honey & CassiaI used the last couple cups of cantaloupe puree last night to make another sherbet. Same basic recipe as the last one, only I used a bit more milk and whisked in the honey straight to the cold mixture, instead of mixing it with the milk and warming it beforehand.

Instead of mint, I went with Vietnamese cassia, the spice we often identify as cinnamon; it's the flavor of "hot cinnamon" candies. It's not really cinnamon, though, although it is a close relative. "True cinnamon" is a different spice, Ceylon cinnamon, and has a much milder, dustier taste.

I found Ceylon cinnamon combined poorly with cantaloupe, the fruit flavor overwhelming it, but cassia was like a minor revelation. Cassia tastes sweet, although it of course contains no sugar, and has a heat to it, almost like capsaicin in peppers. I think that's why it works: the sweetness works in harmony with the sweet cantaloupe and honey flavors -- amazingly, all three flavors are still distinct, they don't compete -- but the heat contrasts with the ice cold sherbet.

The cantaloupe-mint sherbet was very good, but not surprising. I think this is better, because the way the flavors combine is so unexpected.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Frozen Treats

Cantaloupe-Spearmint SherbetThis week is ice cream week. Well, ironically, I haven't made any ice cream, but I have made a sherbet and now frozen yogurt.

The last cantaloupe from my garden was ripening up, and one day I walked outside to find it lying there, its rind bright orange, starting to split on its own it was so ripe. I plucked it off the vine and debated uses for it. I was just about ready to look up recipes for candying fruit, candy it in chunks and dip it in chocolate, when I stumbled across Heidi's Tip-Top Melon Sherbet Recipe, and knew what I needed to do. I went out and picked up a $30 Hamilton Beach ice cream maker and made the sherbet as described on her site, only I warmed the milk and honey together first so I could add some spearmint leaves from the garden. I poured the result, with the leaves, into a jar and set it in the fridge overnight. As it froze in the machine, I sprinkled in flecks of minced mint leaves to give it a little extra color. It came out very well, and is delicious, although it hardened up very solid in the freezer, so I threw it in the blender with a little whipping cream to soften it back up and smooth it out a bit. Now the color is a nice pale peach-orange flecked with green, and the taste is divine.

Matcha Frozen YogurtEager to keep exploring, I then made the Frozen Yogurt Recipe off Heidi's site, from David Lebovitz's ice cream book. I used store-bought strained Greek yogurt to make things a bit quicker for me, but I still wanted a flavor in there. I was thinking of doing mint with chocolate chips, but figuring the mint was already in the cantaloupe sherbet, I changed my mind and decided to pursue a tea flavor.

As much as I love jasmine, it didn't seem like it would pair well with yogurt, the floral height of the jasmine with the funky tang of the yogurt culture, so I moved on to Kukicha, a green tea with small twigs, with a nutty, earthy taste but still the warm, distinct flavor of green tea. I thought it might give the concoction some barnyard flavors, the twigs with the funk of the yogurt and the grassy notes from the tea, but it seemed right in my head.

Now, how to get the tea in there? There's no liquid in that recipe beyond the yogurt, and I wasn't making the yogurt myself. If I were, Lulu observed, I could steep the tea in the milk first and then make the yogurt with that, a technique that apparently worked well for her making this recipe with lemongrass.

Instead, she suggested I look into Shuna's post on candying herbs, which I did, and it sounded straightforward enough: Heat simple syrup to 236F, dump in solid matter to shock it into recrystallizing, quickly pour onto a sheet to cool and crystallize, then dump the resulting chunks of candied herb sugar into a blender and plug your ears.

I did it the first time to the letter of the recipe and the sugar just... didn't recrystallize. Exactly 236F, added the tea, and watched as it turned into... crystal-clear (and sadly crystal-free) syrup with twigs and tea in it.

The irony is that confectioners work really hard to prevent recrystallization. It's hard, most of the time, and it shows: Most inexpensive fudge is gritty from the sugar recrystallizing, for example. Corn syrup is used in candies explicitly because it interferes with the granular sugar's attempts to recrystallize. Dairy does the same.

Usually keeping the solution fully liquid is a balancing act. And here I was, trying to throw myself off sideways as hard as I could, to no avail. I was confused.

The next batch I tried harder. I heated it up to 245, figuring if it still didn't recrystallize, maybe it would at least harden enough I could grind up the result (in my head, I knew this was untrue; 245 is barely firm-ball stage, the stage where the cooled result has the consistency of caramel.) I moistened the Kukicha I was going to dump in, just a little, and then put it in the freezer to get it as cold as possible, hoping the temperature difference would help catalyze the crystallization.

Still nothing. A pan of glassy, perfectly smooth syrup with some twigs and tea leaves in it. I was defeated. I'm not sure what the problem was. Maybe Texas is just too humid? Maybe I should have taken it off the heat when adding the herbs and let it sit to allow the crystals to grow? I don't really know what you do to cultivate crystals, because I've always been working hard to prevent them. Usually the cultivation isn't something you need to really work at.

I gave up on the Kukicha, but I had a crafty backup plan: matcha. I mixed a good few teaspoons of the green tea powder into the yogurt mix, tasting as I went (too little matcha and you can't taste it at all; too much and it's horribly bitter.) I got the mixture just right, froze it, scraped it into a tupperware container, and threw it in the freezer. OK, maybe I had a few spoonfuls in the process (it came out really well -- the flavors are a great combination!)

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Fleur de Sel Caramels Enrobed in Bittersweet Chocolate

Caramels... garnished with fleur de sel and caramelized sugar.

I've been making candy this week, inspired by this new blog I'm reading, Sweet Napa. If you want to see some awesome confections, head on over and get ready to drool.

I first attempted to mimic her Scotch Bar, a layer of chocolate ganache with single-malt scotch, then a layer of fleur de sel caramel (oh yeah, fleur de sel is a gray, coarse, moist french sea salt), semi-enrobed in bittersweet chocolate.

First of all, I left the 350ml bottle of 12-year Glenlivet in my car while I was at work, and I got into my car at the end of the day and the car smelled like a still. The bottle had gotten so hot that it blew out the cork, tearing off the foil in the process, and fell over, dumping most of the scotch all over my car. I had to drive with the windows down for a few days to avoid getting a headache!

Luckily there was still enough scotch in the bottle for the ganache, which I made with just cream and chocolate, no butter, so it was light and soft even when frozen.

Sadly, I then overcooked the caramel. I was cooking it over high heat, so it cooked down much faster than it was supposed to, and I was taken by surprise, rushed off to get a glass of cold water for the cold water test, and by the time I did all that, it was much too hot. Batch one hardened into toffee.

I made a second batch, since the caramel is the cheap part. It's the chocolate and scotch that were expensive. I stopped it early, at 245F, the beginning of soft ball, instead of the 248 the recipe called for, hoping I'd get a softer caramel closer to a sauce. Then I watched in horror as the thermometer continued to rise, off the heat, to over 250. I guess my thick-bottomed aluminum pans really retain a ton of heat, and they kept radiating for a while.

Those candies were alright. The caramel was much too hard, but not quite toffee. I dipped them in melted chocolate to attempt that semi-enrobing, but the condensation off the ganache caused the chocolate to seize and it became kind of a messy affair. They didn't look terribly professional by the end. (As Nina from Sweet Napa said, "Well, rustic happens.")

I had enough cream left for one more batch of caramel, so for my friend Kate's birthday, I decided to give it one last shot. This time I stopped the caramel at 245F and had a pan of ice water ready to dunk it into, and it is a perfect consistency, not overly chewy but not quite liquid at room temperature. I melted the chocolate and this time poured it over the caramels, sitting on a cooling rack over a baking sheet, and after that cooled, I painted the chocolate foot on each with a pastry brush. I dusted the top of them with a little extra fleur de sel (I'm something of a salt addict. I get it from my mother.) And then to finish it off, I melted some dry white sugar in a saucepan, let it caramelize to a nice light golden color, poured it over a baking sheet, and let it run down the side so it made a thin sheet. When it cooled, I cracked it up into slivers and drove them into the tops of the caramels as a neat little garnish. And they add a nice candy crunch, too.

I'll post the recipe for the caramels here, but I'm just stealing it directly from Sweet Napa. But she copied it verbatim from Epicurious, where it was copied, verbatim, from Gourmet Magazine in 2004. I guess that makes it alright for me to use, then.
Fleur de Sel Caramels
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 5 tbs unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • 1 tsp fleur de sel
  • 1.5 cups (300 grams) sugar
  • 1/4 c corn syrup (BHS: Good stores sell corn syrup made without high-fructose syrup -- avoid Karo and use it!)
  • 1/4 c water
Line bottom and sides of an 8″ square pan with parchment paper, then lightly oil parchment.

Bring butter, cream, and salt to boil in a small saucepan, then remove from heat and set aside.

Boil sugar, corn syrup, and water in 3-4 quart saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Boil, without stirring but gently swirling pan, until mixture is a light golden caramel.

Carefully stir in cream mixture (mixture will bubble up) and simmer stirring frequently, until caramel registers 248 on a thermometer, 10-15 mins. Pour into baking pan and cool 2 hours. Cut into 1-inch pieces, then wrap each in 4 inch square of wax paper, twisting 2 ends to close.

Makes about 40 candies.

Gourmet 2004

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Chicken, Sweet Potato, Fennel, and Spinach in Cashew-Cream Sauce

Last week for cooking night, I was in a rush so I just knocked out a no-cook mango raita and a simple cashew chutney and picked up some naan from The Clay Pit, my favorite Indian restaurant in Austin.

The Clay Pit makes a Korma sauce that they describe as a "rich cashew-almond-cream sauce" and I describe as "incredibly delicious." I've always wanted to try imitating it, but never got around to it.

While I ate the cashew chutney, though, I realized it wasn't too far off, and then I had a bunch left over from cooking night, so tonight I tried my hand at reusing it and adapting it into something like the Clay Pit's Korma. Here's the chutney, first:
Cashew Chutney

From India: The Vegetarian Table by Yamuna Devi

2/3c dried chana dal or yellow split peas
1/2t fennel seeds
1c cashew nuts
water as needed
1/2- to 1-inch piece fresh ginger
1/2 to 3 hot green chiles (BHS: I used 2 serranos and it had noticeable heat)
1/3c chopped cilantro
salt to taste

Place the dal, fennel seeds, and nuts in a skillet and toast until the dal and nuts brown in a few places. Add 4 cups of water and bring to a boil for 3 minutes. Set aside for an hour or so (BHS: The goal is to let the nuts and dal plump up a bit, so don't skimp on this too much), then drain and transfer to a food processor. Pulse until finely chopped. Add the ginger, chiles, cilantro, and 1 3/4c water. Process until very smooth, for 2 or 3 minutes, adding enough water to make a thin sauce; season with salt. (BHS: I used a blender, which was fine, but I had to slice the ginger and chiles up before blending, and had to add water immediately with the nuts to get things moving in there.)

The essence of Clay Pit's Korma is a rich creaminess from the fat and protein in the nuts, paired with a subtle sweetness from hints of anise and raisins plumped in the sauce. I went for the same thing by thinning that chutney with a bit more water, then bringing it to a simmer with a generous handful of currants and 6 or 7 star anise before cooking the chicken and veggies in it. Here, I'll write it up like a real recipe:

Chicken with Sweet Potatoes, Fennel, and Spinach in Cashew-Cream Sauce
Chicken with Sweet Potatoes, Fennel, and Spinach in Cashew-Cream Sauce

3-4c cashew chutney (very liquid; if yours is thicker start with less and add water)
1 large handful currants or raisins
6 star anise

1 large fennel bulb, chopped very thin (I used a mandolin & then a knife)
1 large sweet potato, diced
1 bunch spinach, rinsed and chopped
1.5lbs skinless chicken breast, cut into bite-sized chunks

Bring the chutney, raisins or currants, and star anise to a gentle simmer in a wok or very large skillet over medium-low heat. When the sauce has been visibly simmering for a couple minutes, remove the star anise and add the sweet potato and fennel, cover, and continue simmering, stirring occasionally, until the potato can be pierced with a fork but isn't fully cooked. Add the chicken and continue simmering, covered, occasionally stirring to keep the sauce from burning on the bottom of the pan, until the chicken is just cooked through. Turn off the heat and fold in the spinach until it is just wilted. Salt to taste and serve either in a bowl on its own or over rice.

Serves 6 (maybe 8.)

It came out really well, I have to say. Not quite the same as the Clay Pit, since I only used cashews. Maybe next time I'll add almonds and pistachios, too. And I think some chopped nuts tossed in to plump up with the raisins in the sauce would be nice, too, rather than just pureeing them all.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Good Espresso in Austin: Teo

Good news for Austinites! Good news for Austinites who want good espresso, anyway.

I've never thought of myself as a coffee snob, and when it comes to drip coffee, I'm not. I drink drip coffee that my friends think is revolting.

But when it comes to espresso, I've been spoiled by my time in San Francisco. Ritual Coffee Roasters was 2 blocks from my apartment and pulled some of the most delicious cappuccinos I've ever had. They were smooth, bold, but not bitter at all, creamy with the milk. I started off getting them tall, but they talked me down to a short double cappuccino, and their espresso was so good that, I admitted, they were right: It didn't need the extra milk. Even their macchiato (a shot of espresso with just the tiniest bit of milk and froth, served in a shot glass) was smooth.

Then there was Blue Bottle Coffee. Further from my apartment, their stand in Hayes Valley was more something I read about than something I frequented, but they set up shop every week without fail at the Ferry Plaza farmer's market, and their mochas were to die for. They were so good, they put other mochas to shame (well, there's Philz Coffee, and their mocha is incredible, but it's more like an overwhelming dessert than anything else; comparing Blue Bottle's mocha to Phil's is apples and oranges.)

I got back to Austin and discovered that most places apparently don't know how to make espresso. I'm sticking to my guns on this one: It's not that I'm a snob. It's just that most espresso is really not very good, and most people don't know any better. I was a little surprised when every coffee shop in Austin offered me sugar with my cappuccino. Why would I need that? Then I took a sip, and without fail, every time, the milk froth was floating atop a cup full of black, bitter espresso, like I'd ordered a cup of syrup of ipecac.

I doubt most people enjoy cappuccino in places like Austin. I bet they think it's supposed to be some kind of drink for the hardcore, unpalatably bitter to normal people. In truth, it's supposed to be smooth and delicious, but it just takes a lot of skill to do. So most people probably get mochas, or have their drinks flavored, to make them drinkable. I don't blame them or look down on them: What else are they supposed to do? The espresso at almost every place in this city is really unpleasant to drink.

This morning, after physical therapy, I headed over to Central Market to pick up some lunch supplies before driving the rest of the way in to work, and on a whim stopped at a gelato place I've been a few times, Teo. I wasn't sure what I was going to order, but on the way in I saw a picture of the owner standing next to a pretty old Italian dude, and the caption on the article said that they were, in fact, in Italy, and the old Italian dude was teaching him to make espresso.

I hesitantly ordered a short, double cappuccino, and the friendly barista chatted with me about coffee while pulling it, saying that she no longer drinks espresso from any place in Austin besides Teo.

The result? Impressive. I've only had the one, so I'll reserve judgment, but it was extremely close in quality to the Ritual version. Smooth espresso, just enough milk to give it a creaminess, and only the slightest hint of a bitter edge to pick it up, just the right amount. It was easily the best cappuccino I've had in months (well, to be precise, since the last time I was in San Francisco, for the Game Developer's Conference, and had one from Blue Bottle every single day.)

Teo is not in my neighborhood, but I've made a mental note: When I want espresso, I'll go nowhere else. Why pay for a cup of bitter motor oil now that I know this place is around?

I heartily encourage anyone in Austin who likes espresso to give them a shot. That old Italian dude apparently knew what he was doing.

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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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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Food

I've been cooking a lot, lately, and friends have been asking me to post recipes, and I've always just put that stuff inline with the rest of my blog posts, but I figure if I'm going to really work at building some more culinary chops, why not have a food-specific blog?

Why not, indeed. Here it is.

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