Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Dare to Steam

"The April 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Esther of The Lilac Kitchen. She challenged everyone to make a traditional British pudding using, if possible, a very traditional British ingredient: suet."

I almost skipped it.    Even absent the specific challenge information, logic told me to stay away*.     And then, when I saw instructions that involved rendering your own cow fat** as Step 1, and knotting up some kind of harness with string and foil as step 7, I was pretty much done.

I was just about to post my shamefaced "That's all folks, I'll see you Daring Bakers sometime in May" message to the group when I noticed one key fact***:

The suet was optional. Only the steaming part was required.

Well, that's a whole different story, isn't it?

I was in****.  And boy, am I glad about it.  This was a rich, luscious and deeply comforting dessert.  It was like eating the moistest cake you've ever had, straight out of the oven.  But without the oven, and without the fuss.   And of course, without that icky suet.

Dark Chocolate Spice Pudding with Cheater's Creme Anglaise
I discovered this recipe using good old google.  I think my exact search term was "steamed chocolate pudding recipe."   I lucked out.   All the spices serve to intensify and magnify the chocolate, making   this a wonderfully complex and grown up dessert.   My adapted version is below:

4 oz. semisweet chocolate, chopped (I used Ghiaradelli Special Dark 72% baking chocolate)
½ cup butter
2 eggs
½ cup packed brown sugar
1 tbsp finely grated orange zest (I didn't have an orange, so I skipped this part)
¼ cup orange juice
½ cup cold strong coffee
1 tbsp vanilla
1 cup flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
1 ½ tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp freshly ground pepper
½ tsp salt
½ tsp freshly ground dry mustard

Generously butter 6-8 small ramekins (or a single large pudding mold), and dust the bottoms with a combination of cocoa powder and sugar*****.   Put a bunch of water on to boil.

Melt chocolate and butter in a double-boiler or a microwave. Stir regularly until chocolate has completely melted.  Remove from heat and let cool for a few minutes. In a separate bowl, combine eggs and brown sugar until blended.  Stir chocolate mixture into egg mixture. Add orange zest, orange juice, coffee and vanilla, and mix well. Whisk flour, baking powder, ginger, cinnamon, pepper, salt and mustard together, fold into chocolate mixture just enough to moisten.  Pour into ramekins and cover.

Get out your crock pot, or set up a large pot on the stove.   Place ramekins into the pot, and slowly add boiling water until it reaches halfway up the sides of your puddings.  Cover pan and return water to a boil.  Reduce heat to simmer.  Cook for about 1 hour for small puddings, 90 minutes for larger pudding.   During cooking time, add hot water as needed to maintain water level.

Remove puddings and allow to set for 5-10 minutes.  Serve warm in the ramekins, or unmold onto plates.  Either way, sprinkle with powdered sugar and pass the cheater's sauce on the side.

NOTE:  There may be a moment about halfway through cooking where your husband walks by and says, "So, you add chocolate to the water too, huh?  That's cool."   This will cause you to jump up in panic as you realize your ramekin tops are leaking and there are pools of chocolate goo floating around your puddings.    Fear not.  It's messy but most of the pudding will still be inside cooking away nicely.  Pretend to your husband that this is definitely part of the plan and that it is indeed cool.
Cheater's Creme Anglaise

Take some vanilla bean ice cream out of the freezer about 10 minutes before your puddings are done.   Put it in a bowl on the counter and let it soften up a bit.   Just before serving, stir it around vigorously so it has the consistency of frosting.   Top each pudding with a dollop and play it off as something you learned in cooking school.  Works every time.
* A: I'd spent the early part of the weekend cranking out cookies for the bake-off at our school fair, and then spent the fair day eating my way through the various competing entries (for research purposes, of course).   I was so thoroughly sugared out that I had eaten dry roasted peanuts for dessert.   B: My husband was on an enforced 24 hour liquid diet (don't ask), and the kids were heading to bed so any and all results would have to be eaten by me, and me alone.   C: There were new episodes of House and 24 on tonight.   Putting it all together:  A+B+C = Screw it.  QED.
** Per our hostess, "Suet is the hard but flaky fat found on the inside of a cow or sheep around the kidneys and that area of the body."  Yeah.  Double screw it.
*** Along with some raves from other DB's who had finished their challenges, and a helpful hint involving a crock pot.   
**** Plus there was a new factor, D:  I had these great ramekins that my mom had from the 60s that I'd been dying to use.  The recipe said you could use ramekins!  And we could pick any kind of pudding we wanted to make.  Putting it all together:  D > A+B+C.  QED.
***** If yours don't come with tops like mine, you will need to rig up a cover of buttered parchment or wax paper and some foil to make tops, and use string to hold the tops in place while they steam.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Guinea pigs don't send care packages

A few days ago, I was out running errands with my mom.   More specifically, I was driving her around and waiting in the car a lot while she went to the grocery store*, the bank**, and Macy's.   I reached my limit when the line at the post office imperiled the timeliness of my next chauffeuring appointment.***

Me:  I can't do this today, Mom. I'm really sorry.
Her:  (Pointedly putting the carefully addressed packages back into her bag with a regretful sigh) Oh, that's OK. 

So of course I find myself driving back to Burbank the next day to take her to the post office.   Which turns into me waiting in line with her packages while she's resting comfortably in her apartment.

God, she's good.

We're heading to my house a few days later.

Her:  It felt very strange to not go to the post office.
Me:  I agree.  It was very strange for you not to go to the post office.
Her:  I've been going to the post office for years.  
Me:  You can still go to the post office.
Her:  That's not my point.   My point is, I felt bad.  But then, I thought of something, and it made me feel a lot better.
Me:  What was that?
Her:  I was thinking how well qualified you are to work with seniors.    You could run the most amazing old people's home!  You know how to cook.   You love board games.   You're very patient.  Plus, you're a good listener, and that's so important since old people can really talk your ear off if you let them.
Me:  You don't say.
Her:  The only thing you don't really know is the health part, but I'm sure you could figure that out.  And there's a lot of money in it, believe me.  It's a growth industry.   So I realized that thanks to me, there's  a whole new career ahead of you later in life.   And that made me feel good.
Me:  That's a pretty big leap, Mom.  Do you think they'd all need me to take their stuff to the post office? 
Her:  (Ignoring me)  Plus, you've had experience with the guinea pigs.
Me:  The guinea pigs.
Her:  Yes.  You've been through it.  When they die, I mean.   Some people aren't cut out for that part of the job.  But I think you'll be fine.

She smiles at me cheerfully, and takes out her shopping list for the grocery store.

To be honest, I like the part when the guinea pigs are born much better.

* Where she managed to reap a savings of something like $63 on her three bags of groceries through a combination of double coupons, weekly specials, and club card deals.
** Where she handed me her ATM card at the drive through window and in a slow, clear voice, recited the PIN code for me three times.   I tactfully refrain from punching it in before she's finished, and she tactfully refrains from overtly criticizing my own profligate cash withdrawal habits. 
*** Driving my son and his friend clear across town so they could lie around another friend's house and do nothing as a group.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Because the kind that comes pre-ground has very little flavor

From the Associated Press:

Cookbook pulped over 'ground black people' typo
SYDNEY — An Australian publisher is reprinting 7,000 cookbooks over a recipe for pasta with "salt and freshly ground black people."

Penguin Group Australia's head of publishing, Bob Sessions, acknowledged the proofreader for the Pasta Bible should have picked up the error, but called it nothing more than a "silly mistake."

The "Pasta Bible" recipe for spelt tagliatelle with sardines and prosciutto was supposed to call for black pepper.

"We're mortified that this has become an issue of any kind and why anyone would be offended, we don't know," he told The Sydney Morning Herald for a story printed Saturday.

"We've said to bookstores that if anyone is small-minded enough to complain about this ... silly mistake, we will happily replace (the book) for them."

The reprint will cost Penguin 20,000 Australian dollars ($18,500), but books already in stores will not be recalled because doing so would be "extremely hard," Sessions said.

There was no answer at Penguin's offices Sunday."

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Foodie Girls Lunch Brigade - Episode 14

Like all relationships, the bond between eater and restaurant goes through phases.  The flush of discovery when you first meet. The thrill of connection when you know this is more than a one-nighter.  The heady excitement of the early meals, when you can't seem to keep your joy to yourself.   And, over time, the cosy comfort of knowing each other very well.   Your table, the staff, the feeling when you walk through the door as familiar as the worn shoes on your feet.  The menu: superfluous.   You are that rarest of breeds:  A regular.   And the restaurant is your place*.

So it's kind of weird to find out that other people like your place.   Validating, yet somehow a bit disconcerting at the same time.  Especially when it turns out that other people like your place for entirely different reasons.  And that one of those reasons is tofu.

Episode 14 - Falling in love with Iroha (all over again)

Yes, tofu.   Agadashi Tofu, to be exact.  A dish I can't recall ever seeing on the menu at Iroha Sushi of Tokyo, but which FG7 swore was the best cooked tofu dish in the city.  Best in the city?  Huh.  How come I didn't know that?  I felt cheated, yet somehow titillated.  Like seeing a beloved spouse in the light of an admiring stranger.   And suddenly there were admiring strangers coming out of the woodwork.   "I love Iroha!" came an e-mail.  "My old stomping ground!" gushed another.    We practically had a complete Iroha harem around the table when we sat down to lunch**. 

One of the fun things about Iroha is how hidden it is, basically a tiny house behind a Japanese pottery shop on Ventura Blvd.   At night, there is a tarot card reader in a hut at the edge of the parking lot.  It's usually a toss up between sitting at the warm and inviting sushi bar or out on the quiet patio, particularly when the strings of twinkling lights are on during warm evenings.  For lunch on a nice day, the secluded leafy patio wins, hands down.

FG7 was quick to put in an order for the tofu.  Other voices piped up for the calamari salad.  Fried string beans. The lotus root is great here, someone raved.  I asserted myself with the albacore tataki and the crunchy roll.  Then suddenly there was spicy tuna on crispy rice cakes and a forest fire roll in the mix.   The juxtaposition of the familiar with the unexpected was thrilling.

Our animated conversation was briefly interrupted when a shower of water hit the heat lamp over our heads with a sizzling hiss before splattering on the floor behind us.   Staff on the roof was removing shades to let in more light, and got more than they bargained for.  But thank goodness they did, so I could get these photos...

That tofu!  A revelation indeed.  Chunky squares of the stuff, with the texture of great flan, flash fried in the lightest of tempura batters.  These were in turn surrounded by a rich, earthy broth and sprinkled lightly with finely chopped scallions.   This dish (a complete steal at $5.50) gave new meaning to the phrase "comfort food."

String beans were snapped up hungrily.  The lotus root salad was a small bowl of contrasting textures and dark, sweet-salty flavor.   Crunchy shavings mixed with the thinnest of cold noodles and a sauce full of soy, sesame and sugar.  FG8, in particular, was a big fan.

The calamari salad, by contrast, was enormous and almost tropical, bright with color and a zesty, crisp mix of citrus, pepper, and perfectly fried rings of calamari, dusted lightly with a spicy batter.   I have seriously been missing out!

Then came the fish.   The albacore, just barely seared, sliced perfectly and gorgeously fanned out on a plate with a pile of crisp, impossibly thin strings of fried onions, was stunning to look at, but even more incredible to eat.  Silky smooth, wrapped up with those onions and the delectable sauce, each bite was bliss on a chopstick***.

A ring of sweet, still-warm crispy rice cakes with generous helpings of spicy tuna disappeared quickly.   The forest fire roll, "albacore, ginger, garlic and cucumber roll with spicy tuna on top" - could be summed up more succinctly as "the yummy ginger one."   And then, I think our eyes may have all closed in happiness simultaneously with the crunchy roll.   Mixing fresh crab with tempura flakes and spicy mayonnaise, it is both a textural and taste sensation not to be missed.

Walking to my car after lunch, I felt an odd mix of surprise, comfort and pride****.   My place, in the end, turned out to be both more than I expected, and exactly the place I knew.  No wonder we've been together so long.

FG Final Verdict?  Iroha is ON the list!
Pricing information:  A very wide range.  Appetizers $4-15, rolls $5-20, sushi $5-17, entrees $11-30. 
FG Value Rating:  Fair deal*****
* My husband and I have been coming here at least once or twice a month for ages.  It's our favorite sushi place in LA by far, and that's saying something in a city full of incredible sushi restaurants.
** Including one Iroha virgin, who after confessing that she was "not a sushi person" before this lunch, left with a beatific smile on her face at the end, having tasted and thoroughly enjoyed nearly everything.
*** This dish is one of the reasons I'll always be true to Iroha.   When you throw in the crunchy roll and the fact that it's open until midnight, "'til death do us part" doesn't seem to do the depth of my allegiance justice.
**** As well as fullness of the belly.
***** Our bill was just over $25 per person.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

I did not write this on an iPad

My cat did.

Thanks to my sister for sending this...and thank you also to The Onion, for this eerily accurate description of the iPad's key selling point:

"To ensure that its users receive the constant public attention they crave, the iPad will emit the phrase "Hey, does that guy have an iPad?" every eight minutes."

Crime, Punishment and French Toast

One of the highlights of our swing through Carmel on Spring Break was sitting down to a breakfast of Friar Tuck's French toast* and unfolding a copy of the Carmel Pine Cone.   I can't get you the breakfast, but enjoy this taste of the latest local crime sprees:

Pebble Beach: Someone entered a garage,  destroyed approximately $1,000 worth of pottery, and spray-painted an obscene word.  The suspect was positively identified by the victim and remains outstanding.

Carmel Valley: Reporting party on Laurel Drive called to report a suspicious rope hanging near her outer bathroom window. 

Pebble Beach: Resident reported two men walked into her house without her permission. The men were located, and they had mistakenly gone to the wrong home. The house they were looking for was next door to the resident’s.

Pebble Beach: Resident reported a neighbor was violating homeowner association rules by building before and after hours, as well as on the weekends. Neighbor became angry and confronted the resident, who asked that he leave, as he was trespassing. Neighbor did not leave right away and walked right up to the resident while screaming vulgar insults. Resident only wanted documentation and was given mediation pamphlet**.

Carmel Valley:  Reporting party stated her cell phone was stolen from her apartment at Carmel Valley Road and Esquiline Road. She later found the cell phone in her purse.  Case closed.

Carmel area: Female suspect was the driver of a vehicle stopped at South Carmel Hills Drive and Highway 1 for California Vehicle Code violations. Suspect consented to a search of her vehicle, and methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia were located inside of the vehicle. Suspect admitted to having more narcotics and paraphernalia concealed inside of her pants.

Carmel-by-the-Sea: Report of a subject who was taking rocks from the shoreline for personal use***. The subject was contacted and warned. No further action. 

Carmel Valley: Resident was upset because of the way his soon-to-be ex-wife was treating his belongings.

Carmel Valley: Resident was upset when she found her trees had been trimmed.

* They sprinkle it with cinnamon AND powdered sugar! Plus, there's a stuffed deer on the wall that scolds your kids.
** Apparently, they must stock the squad cars with these pamphlets, just in case.
*** My niece is on the lam in Michigan for engaging in this same criminal activity.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A year of Cheesy Pennies

A year ago today, I started this blog.   I had no idea how much I'd come to love it.*    Maybe keeping a blog is like adopting a dog...before you have one, you have no clue what all the fuss is about.  Then after, you can't imagine life any other way.    Luckily, Mom's still worried about Tiger.  The Foodie Girls are still hungry.  And I've got a fridge full of butter and I'm not afraid to use it. 

Cheesy Pennies is here to stay.

These cheesy biscuits, served hot from the oven at From Scratch in Carmel Valley, can stay, too.

 * And I'm floored by the fact that a few people other than my family seem to enjoy it, too.   THANK YOU!

Friday, April 9, 2010

I'll have one of those, too

At breakfast this morning, a young guest placed her order:

"I'll have pancakes with a siding of bacon."

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Someone who has a love-love relationship with the family ski trip

The Bernese Mountain Dog FINALLY makes it up to an actual mountain.   Hey, Mikey!  He likes it!

A love hate relationship with the family ski trip

I am posting this from a cozy armchair in front of a crackling fire.   The kids are passed out at last in the room downstairs in the lodge, as is my husband on the couch opposite this chair.  He is ostensibly "reading" while keeping me company, although his magazine hangs precariously over his stomach as it gently rises and falls.  It is peaceful and quiet, and there is an incredible blanket of stars in the sky outside the window.

Every single muscle in my legs is burning in agony, and I don't think I will be able to rise from this sitting position without a crane.

The Chianti at dinner was delicious, as were the polenta fries and the unusual pizzas.  The portions were generous and the service was excellent.   Everyone was remarkably well behaved.

It took nearly two hours to decide on a dinner location, endure the howls of dissent from the peanut gallery*, make a reservation, get directions, extract the teenagers from their video games, pull the girls out of the snowbank, determine which adults were driving, discover that a child who had earlier sledded head first into the hot tub fully clothed was now short a dry pair of shoes, call the restaurant and beg them to remain open as we were in fact fully intending to show up this evening, locate a spare pair of shoes in approximately the correct size, squash a nascent argument about "who gets to sit in back", have the grown-up next to me note helpfully that the dark patches on the road were "most likely black ice" as I was rounding blind curves on the way into town, drive by the preferred restaurant of the peanut gallery**, then go right on past our intended restaurant, make a u turn in a shrouded driveway much to the confusion of the person following me and the concern of the black ice lady, hear a small voice in the back chime in that they had seen the place but assumed there might be two locations the local lakeside hamlet so there was no need to say anything, pull into a parking space, unload the car, and descend on the eternally patient staff who awaited us to finally have that much needed bottle of wine.

The kids have become great, adventurous skiers, and they love the snow.   Whipping through lift lines like practiced professionals, they can almost go anywhere on the mountain and have a wonderful time.  They have boundless energy and courage, often seeking out the most challenging, bumpiest way down the hill.  It is genuinely fun to hang out with them and do this as a family.

Prior to this idyllic time on the slopes, we have apparently raised two helpless lumps of clay.   Waiting in line at the rental shop is a nearly insurmountable obstacle which requires dramatic sighs and slumping over the desk.   They quail at the prospect of trying on their ski boots, but are participatory enough to put all their weight onto a parent's back while they grunt and shove their way into the stupid things***.    Their clothing is intolerably hot and must be discarded in heaps all over the floor.  No one can decide what should or should not go in the locker, but everyone is sure that Mom should take care of it while Dad finishes yelling.   It is a total nightmare to do this as a family****.

In the morning, the kitchen fairies will show up to cook everyone a tasty hot breakfast.  There will be a platter of sweet, refreshing strawberries and pineapple.   A smiling guy will load our stuff into a van and drop us at the foot of a magnificent mountain.  We will walk right by that rental shop from hell and wave our passes cheerfully as we ski onto the lift for the first run of the day.   The kids and their friends will be laughing.   My husband will grin at me with anticipation.   When we get to the top, the view will be so spectacular that it will literally take our breath away.  The sun will be shining, and there will be piles of fresh snow***** just waiting for us to take the plunge.

I still have to find a way to get up out of this chair.

* Sample quote:  "Italian food? Come on! We had pizza last night.  You're so mean!"  At this point, my husband loses his cool and hisses something at me about "killing the spoiled brats with my bare hands."  I decide this is a good time to take a shower.
** We committed to go there tomorrow night, thereby earning many brownie points and their cooperation for the remainder of the evening.   On the plus side, we now know exactly where that place is, and the restaurant appears to be open late.
*** As another mom told me this afternoon, the one argument she could find for taking up snowboarding is that their boots are SO much more comfortable.
**** And we are not alone.  There is a full quorum of parents all over the resort screaming in frustration at their obstinate offspring, thereby adding to the already incendiary atmosphere of the lodge.  Don't even get me started on the lunch lines.
***** The day we arrived was the tail end of a week long dump that brought several feet of new snow to the hills, just in time!