Sunday, July 26, 2009

Fire. Sticks. Meat. Dinner!

I'll admit it: I enjoy a few of humankind's most basic, primal pleasures. Namely, cooking things over a fire on a stick (what did you think I meant?). Because I so enjoy the finer art of cave-woman cookery, I consider myself pretty well-versed in all things cooking stick-related. But apparently, I'm still in the Stone Age. Just recently, it was brought to my attention that you can get flavor-infused cooking skewers: kabob skewers that have been pre-seasoned with everything from hickory smoke and honey bourbon, to Thai coconut lime and ginger mango. A cave-woman should be so lucky.

When I happened upon these modern marvels, of course I had to get some to try. Made by Callison's and simply called Seasoned Skewers, the packaging and marketing buzz claimed a well-seasoned meal was to be had simply by stabbing these sticks into the meat or veggies of your choice and giving them 15 minutes to do their thing. I got the hickory smoke flavor, and skewered away.

The steak kabobs I made were gussied up with a little spice rub and finished with a mopping of Guiness BBQ sauce, but I made a couple "control" kabobs of naked meat and naked veggies as well, to see how much flavor the skewers did, in fact, impart on their own.

Happy to report: the seasoned skewers did their job. The control kabobs came out with a nice smoky, hickory flavor. It wasn't very strong, but certainly it was there and did liven up their unseasoned subjects. The one downside that I found to these skewers was that they were so darn thick, that it was nearly impossible to string up the veggies. I had cut up some squash and mushrooms in very generous sizes, and still they split in half when I attempted to put them on the skewers. So, for what it's worth, if you want to give these seasoned skewers a try, you're better off just impaling meat. The caveman or woman in you will be proud.

Welcome To My Lunch: Fresh Vietnamese Spring Rolls

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of watching and photographing Chef Charles Phan of San Francisco's Slanted Door restaurant as he was preparing an extravagant Vietnamese meal for some lucky diners at an intimate charity fundraiser. I had been a fan of the restaurant since its earliest days, back when it was housed in a nondescript location in an area of town that wasn't exactly on the map at that time for high-end cuisine. The restaurant has since changed and upgraded its locations a couple of times (me, following wherever that green papaya salad happened to go), and now makes its permanent home in San Francisco's Ferry Building. Needless to say, that evening when I had the pleasure to be in the kitchen with Chef Phan was a real treat - I've learned so much about cooking from observing four-star chefs in action, and predicted that that particular evening would be no exception.

Phan was preparing one of the restaurant's signature dishes, fresh Vietnamese spring rolls. It's a seemingly simple dish - fresh ingredients rolled up in delicate rice wrappers and served with peanut dipping sauce. I had tried to make them at home many times, never with huge success; seems as though whenever I would make them, the rice paper would bulge unbecomingly, or simply tear and spill its contents.

So I watched. Surely the master at work would reveal to me the great ancient Vietnamese secret required to roll these babies like a pro. A tuck here, a fold there.... there is no doubt that he and his line cooks were adept. They certainly made it look easy. I studied their every move, and asked lots of questions. And I even learned some new ideas for ingredients (a sauce similar to a lemon aioli - who knew?).

But alas, the dexterity and slight-of-hand required to make fresh spring rolls eludes me to this day. Chef Phan's ability did not magically transfer to me. I continue to make ugly, bulging, splitting, irregular and ill-stuffed rolls. But you know what? I continue making them! At the end of the day, even the ugly ones taste good. And they're SO healthy (a great place to hide vegetables), that they're often a go-to project for me on the weekends when I can make a batch to take with me to work for lunches throughout the week (they also store really well).

And such was the case this weekend. I happened to be at the Ferry Building and enjoyed a quick and delicious steamed bun lunch from Out The Door, the Slanted Door's take-away counter (see the picture). I passed on getting the spring rolls to go as well, because I was reminded that I had all of the ingredients at home to make them myself.

Making them doesn't really require a recipe, but in my mind, there are a few key ingredients: fresh mint and fresh basil. The addition of the fresh herbs gives them a truly Vietnames flavor, and just livens up the whole dish. If you don't have the fresh herbs, don't make the rolls. Or at least don't serve them to me! :) Other than that, go crazy! They're great stuffed only with vegetables, but equally good stuffed with certain proteins (shrimp being my favorite). Since my batch was being made to last for a few days, I went with baked tofu and veggies. Here's what my rolls this week contain:
  • Fresh shiso leaves (if you don't have/can't get shiso, butter lettuce or leafy green lettuce will also work)
  • Daikon radish
  • Seeded cucumber
  • Red bell pepper
  • Shredded carrots
  • Savory baked tofu
  • Chopped basil and mint
  • Lemon aioli (recipe below)
  • Peanut sauce, for dipping
And a couple of tips for rolling your own:
  • Double-up the rice wrappers. Getting the dried rice wrappers into pliable condition in order to roll them (and make them even remotely palatable), you have to rehydrate them with a dunk in simmering hot water. I dunk two at a time. By having two together in the simmering water bath, they adhere to each other, making a double-thick skin - less likely to split and bulge. Notice I said "less likely"...
  • Work with the rice wrappers while they're still wet. I even roll them from a plate that is itself slick with warm water. the minute they start to dry out, that's when they'll stick and tear.
  • Make the shiso or lettuce your first layer on the rice wrapper; pile everything else on top of that. It helps give the skin a little more backbone and structure.
  • Julienne any vegetables for easier rolling. All of the veggies and fillings I use are cut to look like matchsticks and laid horizontal to the direction that I roll. It makes for less poking and protruding from the rice wrapper.
  • Roll them up as you would a burrito, tucking the sides in first.
  • Dab a little bit of warm water at the edges to seal the rice wrapper and keep it from unrolling.
Lemon aioli
  • Juice of 3 lemons
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon crushed garlic
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 cups olive oil
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Place the lemon juice, mustard, garlic and egg yolks in a blender or food processor and purée. With the machine running, drizzle in the oil. If the aioli appears too thick, add 2 tablespoons of water at a time to adjust the consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

To Market, To Market....

Can I be any more clear: I love where I live. My recent haul from the Napa Farmers Market was a kaleidoscope of colors, a bounty of flavors, a delight of discovery. My market basket held ears of sweet white corn; tender shoots of asparagus; a half a dozen Dapple Dandy pluots; a bundle of baby scallion shoots; a fistful of amaranth greens; a single, spicy daikon radish; some stunning Tongue of Fire shelling beans; some equally colorful Royal Burgundy fillet beans; a cluster of heirloom carrots, and a precious bundle of bright magenta and orange zinnias to round it all out. I just had to share!

So what am I going to do with it all?!

How about these carrots, from Sun Born Organics:

These gorgeous heirloom varieties are almost too pretty to eat. But eat em I will! My favorite carrot recipe of all timeis in the Fare to Remember Cookbook: Carrot Harrisa Puree. It's a dip that will relinquish you of any negative thoughts you might be harboring about cooked carrots. It's healthful, and super simple. Scoop it up with pita bread, crackers or veggie spears, and you'll be making a second batch before you know it.

Carrot Harissa Puree
Contributed by Anne Vrolyk
  • 2 pounds carrots (if large, cut into pieces for steaming; if small, steam whole)
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons harissa paste (North African chili/spice paste available at gourmet specialty stores or online)
  • 1 teaspoon powdered cumin
Steam carrots until soft. Put together into a food processor with oil, harissa and cumin. Process until smooth. Salt to taste. A little more oil can be added if texture is not creamy enough.

What about the beans? I got two very different sorts of beans; both gorgeous, both delicious. I know that the Royal Burgundies (from Shooting Star CSA) are destined for a quick saute together with slivered almonds, a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Why mess with Mother Nature?

The stunning Tongue of Fire shelling beans from Scully Ranch on the other hand, I'm still not sure. Any thoughts? I'm thinking something slow-cooked. With bacon.

The amaranth greens (also from Scully Ranch), however, I know exactly what I'll be making. David, who mans the farm's market stall, provided me with this recipe:

Amaranth Greens with Garlic Oyster Sauce
  • 1 bundle amaranth greens
  • 2 tablespoons oyster sauce
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 teaspoon crushed garlic
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
Heat the oil and garlic in a wok until the garlic starts to sizzle; add greens. Sautee. As the greens start to wilt, add the oyster sauce, sugar and cornstarch; toss to combine. Cook until greens are cooked through and sauce thickens.

So I've got this weeks menus pretty much in place. But I wonder... what will next week have in store? The beauty of shopping at the Farmers Market is that you just never know! Stay tuned...

Oh the Pasta-Bilities: Croxetti with Walnut Cream Pesto

Leave it to my mom to spot the obscure pasta from across the room. During her recent trip to visit me in Napa, we were wandering the aisles of one of the many gourmet specialty shops in town, when she spied the plain brown paper packaging of a Genovese import. Called croxetti, the pasta is stunning: beautiful little coins about the size of a silver dollar, lightly embossed with a floral insignia. The package stated that the pasta was "ideal with pesto," but listed a recipe for a Walnut Sauce. Feeling adventurous - and hungry - we decided that we'd go home and make the walnut sauce, and if disaster ensued, we could top it with one of the many pestos that line the shelves of my fridge.

We didn't have to resort to Plan B, but almost. After assembling and prepping the ingredients as listed for the walnut sauce on the package, it became pretty clear that the recipe had been originally written in Italian... and was not very well translated. There was nothing resembling a sauce coming together in the kitchen. Not even close. Needless to say, we improvised.

The result is a walnut cream pesto. We figured that since the package claimed the croxetti's affinity for pesto, we couldn't go wrong. And it was good, especially when we added some fresh Italian Oregano to give the pesto a little color and depth of flavor. And if you can't find croxetti, just use it on your favorite pesto-friendly pasta (fettucini, for example).

Walnut Cream Pesto
  • 2 1/2 cups shelled walnuts
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for garnish.
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4-1/2 cup olive oil
  • Fresh Italian Oregano leaves, to taste
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
In a bowl, pour boiling water over the walnuts (enough to cover them); let soak for 3 minutes and then drain. Add the softened nuts and Parmesan cheese to the mixing bowl of a food processor. Pulse several times to chop and combine. Add the heavy cream and 1/4 cup of olive oil; blend to a paste. Add more olive oil if the pesto is too dry. Add oregano and seasonings to taste; toss with croxetti or your favorite pasta. Top with additional shavings of Parmesan.

Which Cracker Takes the Cheese?

Now I love me some cookbooks. I collect them, I read them, I look to them for inspiration, I drool on them. Rarely do I use them as intended: to actually follow a recipe. My friend Carolyn, on the other hand, not only takes cookbook worship to a whole other level (to say her collection is impressive is an understatement), but she is a devout, by-the-book recipe follower. Which is great news for me, since I'm often on the receiving end of her recipe religion.

Such was the case recently when Carolyn appeared with two packed tubs of cheese crackers. Apparently, she had been skimming her vast cookbook collection, and came across two eerily-similar cheese cracker recipes from two of her favorite authors and Food Network stars: Giada De Laurentiis and Ina Garten. What's a girl to do but make a batch of both to compare and contrast?

So we munched: both were cheesy, flavorful, and ridiculously addictive. But a clear winner? Giada's version used pecorino cheese vs. Ina's parmesan; Giada's had little kick in the form of cayenne, whereas Ina's were infused with the flavor of fresh thyme. I'm not so sure - I'd be hard pressed to choose one over the other, and in fact, thought a combination of the two would make for an ideal cracker. If I were to make them - and obvioiusly deviate from both recipes, as is my nature - I'd use Giada's pecorino together with Ina's fresh thyme. See? A new recipe is born!

But for those of you who are more like Carolyn and want a straight-up good recipe, here's both of them. Say cheese!

Pecorino Crackers
By Giada De Laurentiis
  • 1 1/4 cups grated pecorino Romano
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine the cheese, salt, pepper, and cayenne in a medium bowl and stir to combine. Add the butter. Using a hand mixer, beat the cheese mixture and butter until combined. Add the flour 1/4 cup at a time, mixing only until incorporated and the mixture holds together.

Place tablespoon-sized balls of the dough on 1 or 2 parchment paper-lined baking sheets, tapping the dough down gently with your fingertips. Bake until just beginning to brown at the edges, about 15 minutes. Let cool on the baking sheet for a few minutes before transfering to a serving plate.

Parmesan Black Pepper Crackers
By Ina Garten
  • 1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 3 ounces grated Parmesan
  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Place the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix until creamy. Add the Parmesan, flour, salt, thyme and pepper and combine. Dump the dough on a lightly floured board and roll into a 13-inch long log. Wrap the log in plastic wrap and
place in the freezer for 30 minutes to harden. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the log crosswise into 1/4 to 1/2-inch thick slices. Place the slices on a sheet pan and bake for 22

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Big Flavors, Small Package: Smoky Red Pepper Crostini

Fair readers, I lied to you. I swore up and down just a couple weeks ago that I was done with the bacon bread. Over it. Ready to move on. Alas, I am weak and mortal. I bought more.

But I had to. The vision of this appetizer was swimming in my head; the distraction was not going to go away until I actually made them. The flavors in these little bites pack a punch, thanks to a host of complementary ingredients: bacon bread, smoked chili-infused olive oil, fire-roasted red peppers, and two different types of decadent cheeses (Le Fumaison from Auvergne, France - described as "meaty and firm with a big lingering finish, delicately smoked"; and Mimolette from Normandy, France - "visually intense with a chewy texture and a smoky, almost bacon-like flavor").

The assembly is simple - but I'm afraid the result wouldn't be quite as drool-worthy if you didn't use pretty much use the exact ingredients. But if you can get your hands on these various items, you're in for a treat for sure.

Smoky Red Pepper Crostini
  • Place slices of a bacon bread baguette (available weekends at The Model Bakery in Napa) on a baking sheet
  • Brush tops of the slices with chili-infused smoked olive oil (from The Smoked Olive - see my earlier Shameless Plug)
  • Top with strips of fire-roasted red bell peppers; season with a sprinkle of salt
  • Top the peppers with slices of Le Fumaison or Mimolette cheese
  • Place under a broiler and cook until the cheese is melted and bubbly

Hip to Be Square: Pecan-Macadamia Squares

And this is precisely why I don't bake. When I have friends that not only do it well and actually enjoy it, but also bring me samples? Duh - do the math. This is my friend Carolyn's latest dessert creation, inspired by an Ina Garten recipe. Carolyn ad libbed only a bit - she used a combo of pecan and macadamia nuts simply because that was what she had in the pantry (the original recipe calls for only pecans). The result? I think you can see for yourself!

Pecan-Macadamia Squares
Contributed by Carolyn Hindes, recipe by Ina Garten

  • 1 1/4 pounds unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 extra-large eggs
  • 3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 pound unsalted butter
  • 1 cup good honey
  • 3 cups light brown sugar, packed
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon grated orange zest
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1 pound pecans, coarsely chopped
  • 1 pound macadamia nuts, coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

For the crust, beat the butter and granulated sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, until light (approximately 3 minutes). Add the eggs and the vanilla and mix well. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix the dry ingredients into the batter with the mixer on low speed until just combined. Press the dough evenly into an ungreased 18 by 12 by 1-inch baking sheet, making an edge around the outside. It will be very sticky; sprinkle the dough and your hands lightly with flour. Bake for 15 minutes, until the crust is set but not browned. Allow to cool.

For the topping, combine the butter, honey, brown sugar, and zests in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Cook over low heat until the butter is melted, using a wooden spoon to stir. Raise the heat and boil for 3 minutes. Remove from the heat. Stir in the heavy cream and pecans. Pour over the crust, trying not to get the filling between the crust and the pan. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the filling is set. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold. Cut into bars and serve.

BBQ Buzz: Grilled Pork Loin with Coffee-Spice Rub and Apricot Sauce

I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle not too long ago extolling the virtues of using coffee or espresso in recipes. Ever since that day, I haven't been able to walk past a Starbucks without thinking of dry rubs and marinades.

The Chronicle article gave a basic coffee rub recipe for a grilled pork; that recipe was the launching point for my own spicier version. And naturally, with all of the gorgeous stone fruit in season right now, I thought that pairing the smoky, aromatic rub with a simple fruit sauce would be a gorgeous complement of flavors. Happy to report that my instincts were right. Apricots won the spot in the sauce thanks to their vibrant color and subtle sweetness, and a robust French roast claimed the spotlight in the rub.

The finished product was a roast that was beautifully and deeply stained from the dark rub, but incredibly moist and flavorful. It was so good, in fact, even my dog couldn't resist from helping himself (and that's another story entirely... but for any of you that know my dog, you know exactly what happened). Canine belly aches aside, this recipe is smokin'! I suggest you give it a try, but keep it all to yourself (sorry pooches!).

Grilled Pork Loin with Coffee-Spice Rub and Apricot Sauce
  • 2-pound pork loin roast
  • Oil, for cooking
Coffee-Spice Rub
  • 3 tablespoons ground French roast coffee
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
In a small bowl, combine rub ingredients; rub all over meat (there may be extra). Cover the pork loin and refrigerate for 8 to 24 hours. Bring to room temperature 30 minutes before grilling.

Preheat a gas grill on high or prepare coals until hot. If using coals, bank the coals around the perimeter once hot. Oil the grate and the pork loin. Sear the pork over high heat on each side for 3 minutes, turning only once. Reduce the grill temperature to medium-low, or ideally (using a multi-burner gas grill), turn off the flame entirely directly beneath the loin and reduce the side burners to medium in order to provide indirect heat. Continue to rotate the pork loin every five minutes or so; cook until the internal temperature in the thickest part of the loin reaches 150 degrees. Remove from the grill and let rest; the temperature will continue to rise. The roast is finished when the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees. Slice and serve with Apricot Sauce.

Apricot sauce
  • 1 1/2 pounds apricots, pitted
  • Squeeze of fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon sugar, to taste
  • Dash of salt, to taste
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
Place apricots in blender and puree until smooth. Run the puree through a fine mesh sieve to remove any pulp or chunks. Transfer to a sauce pan and heat to a low boil. Reduce to a simmer and add remaining ingredients, whisking to combine. Reduce by 1/4 or to your desired consistency.

My First Basil Harvest of the Year

Just had to share this picture of my first crop since it's so pretty.... do I see pesto in my future, or what? Was able to harvest some of all five varieties of basil I've got growing in my herb beds; this batch is earmarked as a gift for a friend (down payment on some fresh tomatoes from her garden). It's a good day.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Bless You, Bakers of the World: Lemon-Ricotta Cookies

I think we've all established that I don't bake. But that doesn't mean that I don't enjoy a delicious baked good on occasion. Thankfully for me, I have friends who pick up where I clearly slack. When my friend Carolyn made the rounds with these amazingly-delicious lemon-ricotta cookies, it was a no-brainer to ask her for the recipe to share with y'all. Lo and behold - it's a Giada recipe. All you Food Network junkies know exactly who I mean. Regardless of what you think of her as a personality, you gotta give her props for her recipes. This one is no exception - the cookies are moist, flavorful, and not too sweet. So if you're a baker looking for an addition to your repertoire, this is a good one.

Lemon-Ricotta Cookies
Contributed by Carolyn Hindes
From "Giada's Kitchen," by Giada De Laurentiis

  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 (15-ounce) container whole milk ricotta cheese
  • 3 tablespoons juice
  • 1 lemon, zested
  • 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 lemon, zested

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a medium bowl combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside. In a large bowl combine the butter and the sugar. Using an electric mixer beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating until incorporated. Add the ricotta cheese, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Beat to combine. Stir in the dry ingredients.

Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Spoon the dough (about 2 tablespoons for each cookie) onto the baking sheets. Bake for 15 minutes, until slightly golden at the edges. Remove from the oven and let the cookies rest on the baking sheet for 20 minutes.

For the glaze: Combine the powdered sugar, lemon juice, and lemon zest in a small bowl and stir until smooth. Spoon about 1/2-teaspoon onto each cookie and use the back of the spoon to gently spread. Let the glaze harden for about 2 hours.

Ice Cream, Hold the Cream

Ok all you gluten-intolerant, lactose-intolerant, fussy recipe-intolerant folks out there: this one's for you. My friend Kristin (who is all of the above) has found dessert nirvana. She tinkered with a basic gluten-free ice cream recipe, and thanks to her trusty ice cream maker, is cranking out fruity frozen delights on a regular basis. The ice cream is made from a coconut milk base, so it has all of the rich, creamy texture and mouthfeel of regular dairy-based ice cream. You won't miss a thing. Not even the calories - they're all still there (dammit!).

Coconut Milk Ice Cream
Contributed by Kristin Lucas
  • 2 16-ounce cans of full-fat coconut milk
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
  • 1 pound fruit (peaches, strawberries, cherries... what's your pleasure?)
Throw all ingredients in a blender*; whir til smooth. Throw it all in an ice cream maker; push the go button. Freeze. Eat. Repeat.

(*If you want chunky ice cream, reserve some of the fruit, chop it up, and add when after the other ingredients have been blended.)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Sweetest Thing: Cupcake Taste-Off

The battle has been brewing. The cupcake phenomenon that is so ubiquitous these days has seized the attention of a number of my friends, who not only enjoy cake, but enjoy cake in adorable little individual servings all dressed up as miniature works of pastry art. It was bound to happen that someone would eventually like to know just which diminutive work of baking goodness actually warranted the title "Queen of Adorable Desserts" from amid the sea of princesses vying for the crown. That someone just so happened to be me.

An afternoon tea party taste-off was in order. My friend Carolyn and I assembled a panel of discriminating judges, and we rounded up worthy cupcake contenders. We were looking to find the best representatives of the Chocolate, Vanilla and Specialty categories. The lone criterion for inclusion was straightforward: the cupcakes had to come from cupcake-only bakeries (not bakeries that happened to make cupcakes). Three different local establishments were represented:
(In the chocolate and vanilla categories, we also threw in a "spoiler" cupcake from the grocery store, just to see how they would compare to their flashier peers.)

Here's the category breakdown:

  • Vanilla; Madagascar bourbon vanilla cake with vanilla buttercream (Teacake)
  • Pinking of You; vanilla cake with pink vanilla buttercream (Sift)
  • Sweet Vanilla; vanilla cupcake with sweet Madagascar bourbon vanilla buttercream (Kara's)

  • Chocolate; chocolate sour cream cake with chocolate buttercream (Teacake)
  • The Sky is Falling; chocolate cake with white chocolate mousse filling and chocolate buttercream (Sift)
  • Chocolate Velvet; chocolate cake with bittersweet chocolate buttercream (Kara's)
  • Dulce de Leche; exact description unavailable, but it's a chocolate cake with a caramel buttercream (Teacake)
  • Pink Velvet; pink velvet cake with traditional cream cheese frosting (Teacake)
  • Ooh La La; red velvet cake with traditional cream cheese frosting (Sift)
  • Pink Champagne; raspberry cake with champagne frosting (Sift)
  • Irish Car Bomb; chocolate Guinness cake with Irish Cream frosting (Sift)
  • Meyer Lemony Lemon; lemon cake with lemon curd filling and lemon chiffon frosting (Kara's)
  • Fleur de Sel; dark chocolate cake with caramel filling and bittersweet chocolate frosting topped with gray sea salt (Kara's)
Here's how the tasting and scoring went down: We all had official scorecards, and each cupcake was ranked on it's own merits. Points were awarded for presentation, icing (flavor and texture), cake (flavor and texture), originality and overall impression, for a total of 100 points available for each cupcake.

And we dove in.

Sugar coma doesn't exactly describe our conditions, but Diabetic shock might come close. Nevertheless, our duty called, and we had no choice but to answer. Tasting and comparing is tough business, but the lip smacking and general oohs, aahhs and mmms clearly indicated that we were delightfully up to the task. When the crumbs settled, some clear favorites emerged from the rubble (and I must say - way to represent, Napa!).

Top spots for both the Vanilla and Chocolate categories went to Kara's Cupcakes. It was universally agreed that Kara's cakes were not only beautiful, but moist and creamy and flavorful as well. Excellent representatives of the most basic, fundamental, and much-loved cupcake staples.

Since our Specialty category was brimming with unique contendors, we narrowed it down to the top three faves. Taking third place was Kara's again, with the utterly fabulous Fleur de Sel cupcake (my personal favorite). "Sinfully rich," "ridiculously moist," "creative" and "decadent" were few of the comments left on the score sheets. Runner-up went to Sift, for its Pink Champagne cupcake (I think the sparkles sealed the deal - the top of the cupcake looked like it had been sprinkled with fairy dust). But the hands-down favorite of the day - and the highest score overall - went to the Meyer Lemony Lemon cupcake, once again from Kara's. It was light, airy, refreshing, sweet, tangy, moist... the accolades just kept coming.

So there you have it. Our very un-scientific excuse to stuff ourselves silly with cake. I suggest you do the same immediately.

Reaching Your Grill Potential: Pizza

When it comes to pizza, I'm not exactly, um... discriminating. I'll eat just about anything with a crust and cheese. I do have my favorite styles, of course (honestly, you can't beat a perfectly-executed Neapolitan-style pie, with it's thin, blistery wood-fired crust), but really, it's hard for me to walk away from pizza of any variety. (Guilty pleasure admission: $2 slices at Costco. Don't judge.)

That being said, rarely do I make pizza at home (why bother? very nice kids will deliver it right to your door in under an hour), but when I do, there's really only one method: I cook it on the grill. I suppose it's my own way of getting that wood-fired flavor without the luxury of having my own pizza oven (and for my friends who do - and you know who you are - let's fire it up already, sheesh!!). Making pizza on the grill is simple, and as with any pizza, the topping combinations are only as endless as your imagination. There really is no recipe, just some basic instuctions on technique:
  • Go easy on yourself - use pre-made pizza dough. I get mine at Trader Joes, of course.
  • Form the pizza dough in to a big round ball, and then roll it in cornmeal. The cornmeal will not only help to provide some structure to the elastic dough as you stretch it, helping it to maintain its shape, it will also give the crust an added bit of tasty crunch.
  • Don't be concerned about shape. Without the aid of a pizza pan, your pie will almost certainly not be round. Just stretch the dough to your preferred thickness as best you can - take whatever shape you get.
  • Throw the stretched dough directly onto a very hot oiled grill. Don't touch it - let it cook for approximately 5 minutes on the first side. If you try to move it too early, you'll end up with a gloppy sticky mess.
  • Once the first side has cooked sufficiently enough where you can lift the entire sheet of dough, flip it and turn the heat to low. Add your sauce and toppings (pre-cook any toppings that might require it since cooking time for a pizza on the grill is short; for instance, in the pie pictured, I sauteed the mushrooms in advance with a little crushed garlic).
  • Once your sauce and toppings are in place, close the lid of the grill and let the pie bake to perfection. The pie is done when the dough is cooked throughout and the bottom is toasted with grill marks.
The pie pictured here is a beautiful example of what good results look like, and in fact, it might just be my favorite pizza I've ever created. It was topped with alfredo sauce; heaps of various gourmet mushroom varieties like morel, chantrelle, shiitake and porcini (acquired at the Berkeley Bowl, mentioned in a previous post); fontina cheese, and fresh Wedgewood thyme from my brand new herb garden. I'd be happy to make it again (twist my arm)... just let me know when you want to come over!

Plum Perfect: Plum Berry Crumble Pie

It was the perfect storm of coincidence: I was given generous amounts of beautiful plums by a couple different friends with uber-productive trees, and not two days later, I attended a BBQ where my friend Jessica (baker extraordinaire) showed up with a Plum Berry Crumble Pie. Seeing - and of course tasting - her pie made me realize that I was not destined to a diet of nothing but plums for the foreseeable future; I too could make a pie. It helped that I knew I had a ready-made crust in the freezer (a trick Jessica would never deign to employ, but salvation for me).

As luck would have it, Jessica had contributed an Apple Blackberry Crisp recipe to the Fare to Remember cookbook; it was this recipe that provided the basis for the Plum Berry Crumble Pie (same recipe, just plums substituted for apples).

So if you have a wealth of plums (or any other stone fruit, for that matter) looking for a home, give this recipe a try. It sure made the plums disappear from our house like nobody's business!

Plum Berry Crumble Pie
Adapted from Jessica Taekman's Apple Blackberry Crisp recipe

Note: I don't have a recipe for pie crust - Jessica's or otherwise - so this recipe assumes you'll go the semi-homemade route like I did, or you're industrious enough to hunt one down.

  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup unsalted, chilled butter cut into pieces
  • 5 pounds plums (blanched, peeled, pitted and sliced)
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh berries
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup crystallized ginger, finely diced (optional)
  • Zest and juice from 1 small lemon
For the topping, mix flour, sugar and salt in food processor. Add butter and blend, turning on and off until mixture resembles coarse lumps and crumbs. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pre-cook your pie crust until it is golden brown. Gently toss fruit ingredients in a large bowl. Transfer mixture to baked pie shell. Crumble topping over fruit; there will be a lot but use it all. Bake until fruit bubbles through and topping is golden brown, approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour.