March 27, 2011 § Leave a Comment
If you could count the hours that I’m spent with the window of a coffee shop between me and the downpour outside…well let’s just say that’s near impossible. It’s poured for days on end, wild winds have whipped down trees into the roads, and then for one day, the clouds drift by and the skies clear and we have one lonely day of peace. People come out of hiding in flocks, line-up in front of the awnings of popular brunch spots (or drunkenly mill around on the sidewalk, pushing each other into other people and pole dancing on top of cars until the police hop out of their car, all in celebration of Britney Spears’ visit to town), and make a run for ice cream before the downpour starts again in full force. The desire to be on the road again becomes more and more urgent. And so I’ve been making cookies. Cookies to convince myself that home is where I’m meant to be.
The funny thing about baking is that you can’t really do it on the road. It’s one activity that is, practically by definition, tied to the home. Sure you might be able to bake a batch of cookies under the glaring hot desert sun (p.s. have you seen my Civil Eats article on solar cooking?) but if you want to do anything more than that, you basically have to sit still for awhile. I’ve never been very good at that. But I’ll be doing that for the next two months, so I guess I’m going to have to start practicing.
Looking at these pictures of cookies, you likely don’t believe that they’re all the same cookies. And they’re not. The coffee shop syndrome has set in, alongside the urgent need to produce that perfect, chewy, with slightly crispy edges, hard on the outside, soft on the inside, chocolate chip cookies that every coffee shop seems privy to but the home baker cannot replicate without mild cursing. This is actually two sets of cookies made with two different recipes, one new, one tried-and-true, and a couple of similar tricks and alterations. The nuts are cropped finely so as not to interrupt the chocolate chip cookies experience a la Smitten Kitchen. The flour is whole wheat a la Kim Boyce after her whole-wheat chocolate chip cookies won me over with their salty-nutty graininess. The butter is browned in one, creamed in the other. While I would normally bow to the browned butter, I would actually say creaming is the way to go with these. And so, finally, I’m back to my family’s original chocolate chip cookie. Just with whole-wheat flour. Who knew it was that simple.
March 16, 2011 § 1 Comment
Valencia Street has this strange entrepreneurial culture where people sit in coffee shops for the entire workday and cultivate start-up business plans, occasionally chat with the people sitting next to them, and generally zone in on the social media pulled up on their Mac Books. I recently became one of these people. We drink fair trade coffee in the form of cappuccinos with pretty leaf designs in the foam and occasionally munch on empanadas from a start-up lady in the Mission or granola parfaits with yogurt from Strauss Creamery.
Nevermind. We relocated down the street, to one of the few casual hippie café spots on Valencia left over from before the hipster wave. The majority of the baked goods — standbys like frosted red velvet cake, peanut butter cookies and rice krispie squares — are in plastic wrap or on plastic cake plates and the lunch options are sandwiches and bagels. You know, like a normal café without the apple-bacon donuts. We have a whole booth to ourselves in the back, and honestly, it’s working out a lot better than the cafés that came before it. We remain, however, very open to café suggestions as we embark on this working café tour of San Francisco, so bring them on. Wait, nevermind, we switched again.
Now I’m sitting at the corner of 22nd and Bartlett under an awning and the heater while it sprinkles outside, on a couch with cigarette burns. A homeless man walks by and shoves a partially-destructed paper cup at us, and weed changes hands, and the guy sitting next to me is rolling as I type and a couple of tables down, two guys are playing chess and another is being interviewed and recorded as he sings about happy hours while strumming on an acoustic guitar. I had a burnt soy latte (the choices were soy or whole milk) and a huge chocolate chip cookie that the friendly guy behind the counter (but actually often hanging out in front of the shop smoking) dug out of the cookie jar with his bare hand. Um sorry, that sounds gross but it’s actually beginning to feel like home, except that my eyes are starting to water from all of the smoke. I kind of feel like the tool with the Mac Book here.
So I guess now’s the time to catch up on what you’ve been missing, A while ago, think way back to February 14th, my dad gave me a hand-held torch and a canister of butane fuel for Valentine’s Day. I’ve only been asking for one for a couple of Christmases and birthdays and no one ever seemed to believe that that was what I really wanted above anything. I mean, nothing can really beat the charm of being able to set fire to your baked goods on a daily basis in the comfort of your own kitchen.
The first thing I made was vanilla crème brûlée. The standard crème brûlée. The best crème brûlée. I would never prefer any other flavor. Sometimes the classics really are the best. These required very little time to make — just a while to set up in the fridge — and turned out smooth, creamy, and decadent without being heavy, the lightest custard I’ve ever tasted. And dusted with sugar, with a blast of heat from the new torch, it has a burnt caramel top coating that cracks like a windowpane when you take a spoon to it.
March 3, 2011 § 2 Comments
I think I’ve mentioned before that public transportation around San Francisco is often a very interesting experience. From having guys ask for sexual favors on MUNI to having people sit far too close to me on purpose to today, when I was quietly sitting at the back of the bus minding my own business when I was surrounded by a group of five men who were talking quickly in Spanish and leering at me every so often. However, they disembarked a couple of stops later, much to my relief, and a little boy who could not have been more than four years old sat down with his mother next to me. The mother looked frazzled, with an infant wrapped in a patterned felt blanket, very clearly salvaged from a discount store, and trying to keep track of her oldest son, who looked tired, standing with his school backpack. The younger boy was carrying a little Happy Meal box filled with French fries and clutching the toy in his other hand. He grinned up at me and I thought how sad it was that he was excitedly clinging on to the McDonald’s Happy Meal box and that he would likely never smile over the top of a crème brulée, made with locally-sourced, organic milk, that he would likely never know the world of food that existed beyond potatoes fried in vats of fat. But at the same time he looked happy.
There is a lot of discussion in the sustainable, good food movement about making locally-sourced, organic food available to everyone. But despite all the talking about making healthy food accessible to all, the idea does not seem to perpetrate across the board. Even in San Francisco, which is arguably the local produce capital of the U.S., the idea of eating all-local, all-organic food remains a mantra deeply attached to elitism. Something about telling people how they should eat, attached to the high price tag of artisan and organic food, seems to really put people off. Time and time again, at farmers markets, food festivals and seminars, you are likely to see the same crowd. The food movement does have an audience, but it lacks in diversity. The vast majority of “good” food remains inaccessible to the lower classes.
I’m not sure what the solution to this is. On one hand you want to support the food producers who are doing their best to provide a handmade, healthy product while supporting all the workers that are part of the process through good wages and working environment. On the other hand, the fact is that most people can’t afford to buy $16 bags of coffee beans and that does not appear to be changing any time soon. So, in order to explore the issue, I am starting a new little pet project to see exactly how much can be done with a box of locally sourced ingredients. Stay tuned.
In the meantime, please try this loaf cake. After a series of failures in the kitchen, this has helped restore my confidence a bit. Rifted off of Heidi’s (101 Cookbooks) recipe for brown butter squash bread, this is a quick, decently healthy cake. I replaced the oil with more pureed butternut squash, used two-thirds buckwheat flour and one-third white instead of whole wheat pastry flour, and omitted half of the sugar. Next time, I think I’ll try replacing some of the butter too. Oh and I also added chopped candied ginger, because I could eat that stuff out of the bag.
Brown butter-squash loaf
Adapted from 101 Cookbooks
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup buckwheat flour
1/2 cup white flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon cardamon
1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons well-pureed roasted winter squash*
1/4 cup (I used skim)
1/3 cup lightly toasted sliced almonds
1/4 cup chopped candied ginger (I used the uncrystallized kind)
Brown the butter in a small pot over medium heat until it seems nutty and the butter solids are nicely toasted. Allow the butter to cool while you prepare the rest of the ingredients, you can put it in the fridge as well.
Preheat the oven to 350F / 180C. Butter and flour a 1-lb loaf pan, or roughly 9x5x3-inch.
Sift the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, cardamon and seat salt in a large bowl. Set aside. In a smaller bowl, whisk together the sugar, eggs, squash and milk (I have found that adding the milk to the squash in the blender aids the pureeing process). Whisk in the melted butter. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and fold until just combined. Fold in candied ginger.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle with sliced almonds. Bake for about 50-60 minutes or under the edges of the cake are browned and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.