The family secret

November 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

I didn’t realize how much I had settled into a routine in this strange foreign country until I left it for an even stranger foreign country and returned, very early one Sunday morning to a light rain, misty skies and wet streets. Quite soon after I returned, I was forced to bundle myself up and run a couple blocks to the closest convenience store because my shelves were empty and it being Sunday, every grocery store in the area was closed. As I walked out of the door, in a sleep-deprived educed haze, I stumbled into stands and stands of furniture vendors, French women selling vintage hats and men trying on classic suit jackets in the middle of the street. I thought for a moment I had turned down the wrong street, and wondered if I had forgotten my neighborhood that easily, until I spotted the couples dancing at the fountain at the base of rue Mouffetard, clustered together tighter than normal under a white awning, and I knew I was home.

Since my return, I have been trying to force myself outdoors but find it increasingly harder to leave the warmth of my bed and my apartment’s heater, which may or may not work consistently. Walks home from work are enjoyed only with the first gingerbread cookies of the season, but even then with the longing for the gingerbread men I used to make in my kitchen in San Francisco — the French boulangeries it seems, are not champions of the baked goods not requiring pounds of quality butter. But the spice, even if the cookie is a bit too hard, is much appreciated, as is the simple sugar glaze that never ceases to make me quite content.

And then I’ve been baking some things as necessity arises. For instance, I made my mother’s famous chocolate torte for a class party, which resulted from no one knowing what they were supposed to bring to accompany wine tasting and thus bringing whatever they could think of. My mother makes this quite a few times a year, for family birthdays, for dinner parties with close friends. This is the cake I would invariably wake up to sitting on the kitchen counter a couple times every year whenever the family had somewhere important to be or someone important to celebrate. It has never been perfectly smooth on top (and I confess my ganache-making that morning left much to be desired), but it never ceases to impress. As a child, I found it much too strong and chased it properly with an exorbitant amount of whipped cream and vanilla ice cream. But now I can enjoy it as is, with its simple chocolate ganache on top. I am convinced that French alcohol is much stronger than its American counterparts as this cake tasted decidedly of rum this time I made it. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as my (French) professor declared it the best chocolate dessert she had ever tasted.

Chocolate Torte

6 tablespoons or 75 grams butter
6 oz. or 150 grams semi-sweet or dark chocolate
4 eggs, separated
1/2 cup or 120 ml sugar
1/4 cup or 60 ml flour
6 T or 90 ml ground almonds
1/4 cup or 60 ml rum

Preheat the oven to 190/375 degrees (C/F). Butter and flour (I use cocoa powder for the “flouring”) a 8-inch pan. Melt the chocolate over the stovetop. Cream together butter and sugar. Add the melted chocolate and run. Beat in egg yolks. Fold in flour.
Beat egg whites until they form stiff peaks.
Fold the egg whites into the batter, minimizing stirring. Some egg whites can remain unmixed.
Bake for 30 minutes.

Salon du Chocolat

November 4, 2010 § 2 Comments

Around 7:30, when I’m in class, you can hear out the window the cries of young adults, students, and their voices carrying up and down the streets, shouts of “A la Concorde!” Then the music begins to play, shortly followed by sirens that seem to last much longer than the demonstrations that have since traversed into another quartier. In the morning, you read in the newspapers about la grève, which has transformed into a social movement, particularly in the universities, against Sarkozy’s government, which many criticized for failing to negotiate on the issue of retirement age and now criticize for failing to represent the French people. In the midst of this social movement, life in Paris seems to roll on: transportation seems to be running more or less by routine — with the exception of the next strike day which is set for this Friday — and tourists can be found clustered around Notre Dame and the Tour Eiffel despite the heightened security alerts issued by the U.S. governments and the bomb recently directed at the French president by mail. That does not mean to imply that the bomb threats are in any way connected to the student movement, but you get the general picture of disorder here.

Indeed, when we were in Marseille, after only 5 days of strikes by the garbage collectors, the city was already strewn with bottles, food wrappers, rotting leftovers. Days later, merchants began taking their garbage to the dump themselves because the rank smells deterred customers from entering their shops. It makes you contemplate, noticing the differences between how citizens demonstrate their displeasure in different countries, why the French loudly take to the streets when they are unhappy and why the Americans simply vote Republican.

But my classes seem to exist in the bubble in which most ex-pats sit at the sidelines of the French movements, criticism and general complaints (which my professor likes to say is the national pastime). We sit at the window and hear the shouts but with nothing at stake ourselves, we do little but ask why. Otherwise we continue about our daily lives, which this weekend, included this marvelous Salon du Chocolat at the Porte de Versailles Expositions. We ran around like crazed children sampling chocolate of every kind and form…mousse and truffles and biscuits and pain d’épices and ganache filled macarons and even chocolate fois gras…I could go on and on and on as you can very well see. There were matcha tea croissants and chocolate butter lotions and even a chocolate statue of a small boy peeing liquid chocolate!

And we sampled it all. And came home to the huge Champs d’Elysées box of Lindt chocolates that could only be a birthday gift from a friend in the 16e.

French café and American coffee cake

October 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

The days here are shortening, it is almost dark by the time I get out of class, and the cold nips at my fingertips yet I have not yet made it around to buying myself a pair of gloves. And I realized, as I hailed a taxi at 5 a.m. on Saturday, that the days of walking home across town in the middle of night are over. The kind lady who pulled over even though I wasn’t at a designated taxi stop had the heat turned all the way up and greeted me in a gentle, sing-song voice, saying that I would be her last passenger of the night before she returned home to take care of the kids while her husband went to work. I woke up three hours later, freezing in my own bed — I didn’t discover the heating system in my apartment until last night —, and dragged myself, bundled in an assortment of workout gear and jackets, onto the Metro to La Defense.

A short walk along the water found me at the boathouse: it was windy, slightly sunny but so, so cold. We took out a rickety pair, the footboards and seats barely attached, and rowed around the 4k loop, struggling and swerving in the stretches against the wind, before docking it a haphazard manner, barely avoiding getting pushed into the shore by the wind. We were glad when our feet hit ground again, grateful for the cup of coffee a British man purchased for us in the café above the boathouse, and then we were trust back out into the cold and the drizzle for the walk back to the Metro. All other plans for Saturday were scarified in favor of my bed.

But Sunday, I got an early start. After a full week of being sick and spending most of my free time lazing around in my loft bed, not fully sleeping but definitely not entirely awake, this weekend was a welcome change of activity. Slow paced activity. I put a bar of creamy, milk chocolate in my purse and set out across the river to the 11eme. A lazy look around Victor Hugo’s house on the Place des Vosges. I saw a great depiction of Hugo’s Les Misérables by the Théâtre du Soleil called “Tempête sous un crâne” a few weeks back. Then a short walk to la Bastille, during which I ate a fudgy macaron noisette from Gérdro Mulot (the first macaron I have ever truly loved, but then chocolate-noisette might be my favorite flavor in the world so it hard to go wrong). I stopped at a vendor at Place de la Bastille to buy cinnamon, scooped from a large bin, and dates, for this cake I’ve simply been dying to make, before watching the children run towards in the carnival stands on the Bastille circle — food vendors selling churros and popcorn. There seemed to be much more interest in the food than in the carnival games of shooting hoops and the like, the kind where the prize is one of those huge stuffed animals that, right then, you desire oh-so-much but you never really look at again after that special day you won it.

On the way home from the Bastille, I snapped these pictures of the Sunday dancing at the bottom of Rue Mouffetard. One older woman keep swaying arbitrarily by herself while people coupled up to dance which made taking pictures quite difficult, but I found it hard to fault her for that.

Then just as I was getting settled back into bed for the rainy afternoon, I found myself dashing out the door for an impromptu coffee date with that cute waiter in the Quartier Latin right before his shift started. And somehow, the café went down better than usual without the crème. Hmm maybe I’m getting better at this French thing.

I would swear off cream in my coffee forever if I could have this cake with it every morning. Who needs cream when you have this?

Cinnamon-chocolate chip sour cream coffee cake
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

The only changes I made were to substitute yogurt for the sour cream, which I haven’t been able to find out here, and add some dates because I ran out of chocolate. Mine didn’t bake up quite as pretty; I’ve been having some problems with my electricity these days, which likes to shut off at inopportune moments, like when my cake is in the toaster oven.

115 grams or 1 stick unsalted butter
300 grams or 1 1/2 cups sugar
3 eggs, separated
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
225 grams or 16 ounces sour cream/plain yogurt (If using yogurt, add an extra teaspoon of baking soda)
390 grams or 3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

225 grams or 12 ounces chocolate chips
100 grams or 1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 180°C/350°F.

Cream butter and 1 1/2 cups sugar, then mix in the egg yolks and vanilla. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda and baking powder. Alternately add sour cream and then dry ingredients into butter mixture. Beat eggs whites until stiff, then fold into batter. Mix last 1/2 cup sugar and cinnamon together in a separate, small dish.

In a greased 9″x13″ pan, pour in half of the cake batter. Sprinkle the top with half of the cinnamon-sugar mixture and half of the chocolate chips (and any other add-ins you want, such as a dried fruits or nuts). Pour remaining batter on top, sprinkling the top with the remaining cinnamon-sugar and chocolate chips.

Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean.

Olive oil cake

August 24, 2010 § 1 Comment

I have been having a very difficult time with this post. Like much of my writing — essays, newspaper articles etc. — my blog entries usually just flow out. I don’t often mess around with how to phrase sentences. If a metaphor doesn’t form itself, I don’t push it. If a word doesn’t come naturally, I use another and figure I will return to it when the time is right. So when I do hit a block that has me staring at the screen and reforming a single sentence over and over again, changing single words and punctuation marks here and there, I know something is off about my subject matter.

I came home the other day and I decided it was about time I buckled down, started eating healthy again and got back into better shape. I tend to function better under rigid guidelines and tight schedules, and my diet works no different. I’ll get into funks where I eat only oatmeal and insist on just ordering coffee when I meet up with friends. And it may sound strange, but oftentimes I’m just happier that way.

Once I’ve decided to eat healthy again, it’s fairly easy to turn down that piece of sheet cake with the fake, fluffy, brilliantly white frosting and a greasy slice of pizza late at night. I’ve finally made that decision again and I’m sticking with it, and I relish that feeling of control. I relish knowing exactly what goes into every little bite I eat — I like adding the spoonful of sugar myself, measuring out exactly a half cup of milk and simmering a pot of whole grains, knowing that the only other ingredient is water. I like that getting back in shape means falling into a routine of running every day. Sometimes that tight schedule may mean arriving somewhere else a bit late or starting the morning errands two hours later, but it doesn’t mean I’m missing out on anything. It just means that I’m living my life, exactly how I want to live it. So that when I make this cake, with a full cup of extra virgin olive oil, I can cherish a bite or two and then give the rest away.

I understand that this can be a strange approach to food, especially for someone with a food blog. When I started reevaluating what I was eating, I spent some time thinking about this blog and what I was going to do with it. Should I pull a total 180 and start posting recipes from my parents’ 1970s vegetarian cookbooks? Should I instead focus on baked goods with lower butter and sugar content? Or should I start posting food I’ve never even tasted? The thought of abandoning this blog altogether scares me, I have come to rely on it so much that it would feel as though the ground had been yanked out from underneath me. It has been a source of satisfaction and accomplishment when other parts of my life feel like they are falling apart and it has restored my love of writing, which I had once thought was all I wanted in a career. It has given me a lot more faith in myself than two years of college ever did.

Moreover, I never realized starting this blog how quickly one forms a connection with one’s readers. I never realized how many times I would hear “I saw that on your blog,” or that people would ask about my new haircut or my scrapped knee without me ever mentioning it, or that friends of friends would actually read the words I’m writing and make the very same cakes I am pulling out of the oven. I would never want to abandon that feeling of companionship right as I am about to embark to another continent. I would never want to abandon this right before I start learning how to bake with just a stove top and a toaster oven.

But I realize some part of this blog needs to change as I start living on my own. In order for me to continue, and not feel guilty pulling a cake out of the oven for the hundredth time, I need to start feeling closer to the food I am producing.

I realized this as I toyed with the idea of making S’Mores cookies, chock full of graham crackers, marshmallows and Hershey chocolate bars. We bought all the ingredients at the local Safeway, all the while I ignored the quiet voice in the back of my mind, which was saying you could make these all on your own. What I really should have been doing was buying graham flour. That voice in the back of my head finally stopped prodding my thoughts when my hands landed on the matte cover of Good to the Grain, by Kim Boyce. I opened the book — one of the few cookbooks I own that does not sit on the shelf, abandoned — and flipped to the section on spelt flour, where the binding easily fell open on its own to this olive oil cake.

The fruitiness of good olive oil — I used De Cecco Extra Virgin — is paired with deep, dark chocolate and fresh rosemary in this cake, which is at once homey and ground-breaking. The flavor is wholly unexpected and yet, one even begins to think of the olive oil as the sweet note in this cake. I only had a couple bites of a slice and the rest of the cake went to mother’s Italian class. But when a cake is truly worth eating, a couple bites is all you need to feel indulged.

Olive Oil Cake
From Good to the Grain, by Kim Boyce

Dry Mix:
3/4 cup spelt flour
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt

Wet mix:
3 eggs
1 cup olive oil
3/4 cup whole milk
1 1/2 tablespoons rosemary, finely chopped

5 ounces bittersweet chocolate chopped into roughly 1/2 inch pieces

Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Sift the dry ingredients into a large bowl, pouring back into the bowl any bits you sift out. Set this bowl aside.
In another large bowl, whisk the eggs until light. Add the olive oil, milk and rosemary and whisk again. Using a spatula, fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until just combined. Stir in the chocolate. Pour the batter into a fluted tart pan or cake pan (about 8-9 1/2 inches in diameter) and bake for about 40 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and skewer inserted in the center comes out clean.

Seriously vanishing oatmeal cookies

August 14, 2010 § 1 Comment

I tend to hoard a lot of things — I collect little notebooks and spend about a week writing in each one, I have enough dresses to never repeat one on a night out for a year, and I buy all sorts of new ingredients, only to make one dessert with each one and then feel lost as to what to do with the remainders. I buy fresh lavender, rose water, seven different types of dark chocolate (semisweet, orange-scented, 75%, 85%, unsweetened, you get the picture) and all kinds of different nuts and dried fruits without usually a very coherent idea of what to do with them. Thus, I often end up with random quantities of ingredients, so that there is always a handful or two leftover after I have made whatever I fancied making that day.

So this week it came time to start thinking about packing to go home to San Francisco. I encountered piles of clothes I didn’t remember I had, multiple newly-acquired cake and tart pans that I have no idea where to pack, and a very random assortment of dry ingredients in the pantry that I knew none of the boys who usually live in this house will ever use. I had half a bag of large, unsweetened coconut shavings that I used to decorate this cake. I had half a bag of mini chocolate chips, which I had originally bought to replicate the chocolate chip scones Cloister Inn serves at breakfast. This has never happened but somehow the chocolate chips started to disappear on their own anyway. I have a handful of walnuts and a cup or two of sliced almonds, none of which I remember buying. But here all these things are in the kitchen and I’m leaving for good in a week and not taking them with me.

Luckily, the Quaker oatmeal cookie recipe came to rescue of these ingredients and supplied my house with cookies for at least 24 hours. I love oats, any kind of oats. Oatmeal in the morning (and maybe for lunch too), oatmeal on the top of fruit crisps, oats in granola and granola bars (more on this soon) and of course, the obligatory oatmeal cookie. My grandma makes fantastic oatmeal cookies, but until I finally decide to buy margarine, mine never turn out quite like hers.

These cookies were chewy with a crisp outside, packed full of coconut, chocolate and nuts. Yummy.

Vanishing Oatmeal Cookies
From Quaker Oats

½ cup (1 stick) plus 6 tablespoons butter, softened
¾ cup firmly packed brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt (optional)
3 cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup raisins (or nuts, coconut, chocolate chips etc. I probably doubled or tripled the amount of add-ins).

Heat oven to 350°F. In large bowl, beat butter and sugars on medium speed of electric mixer until creamy. Add eggs and vanilla; beat well. Add combined flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt; mix well. Add oats and coconut, nuts and chocolate chips; mix well.
Drop dough by rounded tablespoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets.
Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until light golden brown. Cool 1 minute on cookie sheets; remove to wire rack. Cool completely. Store tightly covered.

My summer so far

July 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

I feel as though I have been absent for a very long time. Like the days have gotten ahead of me and it’s somehow 1 a.m. and I’m not home yet but it feels like I just left the house for work. The recipes have gotten ahead of me, the bookmarked ones have been adding up and the ones I have made have been disappearing before I have a chance to think about them. There were the molten chocolate cakes (baked in my new cake pans) that we made one night in about twenty minutes, which disappeared just as quickly. The blueberry crumb bars, of which I cut a small sliver to save — gone by the time I got home from work.

But despite these disappearances, I have been learning quite a bit about food. We made risotto, using the entire box of rice, quickly realizing just how much rice an entire box of rice is. We pan-fried risotto balls, stuffed with fresh mozzarella and breaded, the next night for dinner. Perhaps a better day of cooking was when we had tomato-mozzarella tart for dinner and plum clafoutis for dessert. The plum clafoutis was easy to pull together, the crepe-like batter is simply poured over cut plum slices, skins on and everything.

Plum Clafoutis
From Gourmet Magazine

1 lb black or red plums, pitted and cut into eighths
2 tablespoons Armagnac or other brandy
1/2 cup plus 1 Tbsp sugar, divided
4 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon pure almond extract
Confectioners sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 400ºF with rack in middle. Butter a 2-qt shallow baking dish.
Toss plums with Armagnac and 1 Tbsp sugar in a bowl and let macerate 15 minutes. Transfer plums to baking dish with a slotted spoon and pour juices into a blender. Add eggs to blender with milk, butter, flour, salt, extracts, and remaining 1/2 cup sugar and blend just until combined. Pour over plums.
Bake until puffed and just set in center, about 35 minutes. Cool 15 minutes, then dust with confectioners sugar.

Another time…

…we excursioned to the fish market by the waterfront and bought live lobsters and soft-shell crabs…then looked up how to cook them. The lobsters sat on our kitchen floor for a bit while we boiled them one by one in the small pot and fried the battered crabs until brown and crispy. I made a honey cornbread to go along with the seafood and one of the boys grilled fresh clams in the backyard.

About two weeks later, I headed over to the Eastern Market after work (which I hear is better on weekends) and bought crushed-chili hummus, stuffed grape leaves and chocolate cream ravioli, which didn’t totally win my heart. Perhaps it was the disconcerting idea of chocolate pasta, but I ate it feeling like it was all a bit strange. We’ve spent Friday evenings at the jazz concerts in the Sculpture Garden on the mall, dining on crusty bread, hummus, guacamole and sangria. And late weekend nights at Five Guys.

Another birthday: the classic remixed

June 28, 2010 § 1 Comment

A couple of days ago it was one of my housemate’s birthdays. You should know by now that the second I say “birthday”, you’re in for a really long story about everything that went wrong while making the cake that ends with, it actually turned out to be a beautiful and delicious cake. So if you would like to skip over all my ranting about this cake to the pictures, please feel free.

I’m absolutely positive that this is the best birthday cake ever — standard, vanilla yellow cake with chocolate frosting and colored sprinkles. Why? Because Deb at Smitten Kitchen said so. I’m also absolutely positive that you can do anything to this recipe, even get almost every single step wrong, and it will still come out utterly delicious. Why? Because that is exactly what I did.

It basically all came down to having none of the ingredients that the recipe required. I creamed the butter and the sugar only to find that my vanilla extract had magically disappeared from the kitchen. So this vanilla birthday cake quickly became cinnamon flavored. Then, I couldn’t find any baking powder even though I know, know, know, I had it somewhere. So in went extra baking soda and a cup of plain, non-fat yogurt. Then, as I was stirring in the 4 cups of flour, I started having even more doubts. The cake batter was thick, almost unstirrable. Frustrated I looked back at the recipe and realized I had left out all the buttermilk. And I had no buttermilk. So in went some non-fat milk and even more yogurt. After all this, the mixing bowl was overflowing and I had zero idea whether I would actually end up with a cake in the end.

I cooked the cakes in two batches and was mildly comforted when the first layer started to rise like a normal cake. I went out on a run and left my housemates in charge of taking them out of the oven when it was done. Surprisingly, both cake layers turned out beautifully domed and golden brown.

The icing issue was a whole lot simpler. I was planning on using chocolate buttercream frosting I used for my mother’s birthday cake but before I could start making it I happened upon the ingredient “3 sticks of butter” and I just couldn’t do it when it was written out like that in black and white. So I started with a smaller batch, with just a stick of butter and eyeballed the cocoa powder and icing sugar. Of course that made a miniscule amount of frosting so I ended up having to use about 3 sticks of butter anyway in order to frost the entire cake.

And now for the very predictable end of the story: the cake was great. The cinnamon flavor played well off the rich chocolate frosting and the cake layers were still slightly warm when served, which made it wonderfully homey. There is something very comforting about a standard yellow cake with sprinkles; it’s like celebrating your 5th birthday all over again. Except it was his 21st.

Best Yellow Layer Cake
Yield: Two 9-inch round, 2-inch tall cake layers

4 cups plus 2 tablespoons cake flour (not self-rising)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups buttermilk, well-shaken

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter two 9-inch round cake pans and line with circles of parchment paper, then butter parchment. (Alternately, you can use a cooking spray, either with just butter or butter and flour to speed this process up.)

Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy, then beat in vanilla. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition. At low speed, beat in buttermilk until just combined (mixture will look curdled). Add flour mixture in three batches, mixing until each addition is just Incorporated.

Spread batter evenly in cake pan, then rap pan on counter several times to eliminate air bubbles. (I like to drop mine a few times from two inches up, making a great big noisy fuss.) Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then run a knife around edge of pan. Invert onto rack and discard parchment, then cool completely, about 1 hour.

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