Tuesday, January 31, 2006

No love, no nothing, until my baby comes home

"Are you sure you still live here??"

Posed my old Time Out co-worker and pal Melisa, it's a legit question, given that I've slept overnight in NYC maybe 10 times over the past month and a half. But after a long, slow train ride alongside the Hudson, hauling a painting, a pile of photographs, a suitcase stuffed with K.'s extra civilian clothes, a large, lumpy hand-knitted pine-green sweater (needing only three-quarters of a sleeve), and half a pound of Peet's coffee, I'm back in Brooklyn again, to eat the leftover cream-cheese brownies from the freezer (which is like eating really excellent fudge, without the molar shudder of the tourist-town item) and finally put away the piles of laundry strewn all around the house.

Since mid-December, it's been three weeks driving through the South, four days in San Francisco, a week or so in Brooklyn, then another week in SF, then a 14-hour layover in Brooklyn--just enough time to wash a pair of pajamas, go to the bank, and get back on the A train to JFK for a 45-minute quickie flight upstate to see K. The only good thing about sending your girlfriend off to a military base in a combat zone is that when you're driving back to an empty hotel room at 11 at night through dense fog you cannot cry, because you can already barely see the white lines on the blacktop, especially with a snorting truck riding your bumper as you crawl along squinting for the turnoffs.

I have pictures, and a bouquet of flowers delivered this afternoon, and an Army-girl action figure, complete with bayoneted M16 and flak vest.

All I can do is be USO girlfriend, writing letters, baking cookies, sending shampoo and CDs. So if anyone has good recipes for things that can survive the two-week trip halfway around the world, or ways to make long-distance work, let me know.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Information Gladly Given But Safety Requires Avoiding Unnecessary Conversation*

It's been a beautiful week in San Francisco, and Shifra and Stephen's wedding was just swell. Shifra looked absolutely gorgeous (all brides should wear tiaras!) and they liked their little lemon cake, which got frosted with lemon-cream cheese icing and decorated with June Taylor's lovely candied Meyer lemon peel. Note that putting a lot of lemon juice into cream cheese icing, while making it tasty, also makes it really goopy, which means the nice icing bags and star-squiggle tip were moot as decorating aids.

Otherwise, I was eating, working, and couch-surfing from Oakland to Bernal, laying my flannelled self down on Aerobeds and fold-out couches all over the city. A new find: Bar Tartine, on Valencia near 17th, across from the old Slanted Door space. An elegant white marble bar, sprays of quince blossoms and peach-colored long-stemmed tulips the exact color and texture of my 1930s silk tap pants, and pink pomegranate bellinis, not to mention butternut squash soup with chestnuts and apples, and a lush porcini salad with frisee, beluga lentils, and a poached egg. Dessert was three egg-shaped ovals of sorbet--kiwi, orange-anise, and pineapple, scattered with a crunch of pomegranate seeds and pink grapefruit segments--and two sticky little wedges of a sublime panforte, deep and wintery with spices, cocoa, and almonds.

Dinner at Delfina was marvellous, as always, although the pizza at the pizzeria next door was just good, not fabulous (although I was very happy to have the leftovers to eat cold on the plane the next day). But the antipasti--spicy cauliflower, wild nettle soup, house-stretched mozzarella, house-cured tuna with cannellini beans--on which the staff was chowing as the kitchen shut down last night looked quite delicious.

But what was truly delicious, if I say so myself, were the persimmon/blue cheese/proscuitto bites made to accompany a bottle of champagne poured with the Red Meat Ranger and Papa Sueno. These were in imitation of the sublime fig/goat cheese/proscuitto mouthfuls fed one by one to K. last summer. Since figs were nowhere to be found, I subbed wedges of peeled Fuyu persimmon, dabbing them with creamy-funky St. Agur bleu and wrapping them in proscuitto di Parma. Heated them for a few minutes at 400 degrees F until the proscuitto was slightly crisped, highlighting its bacony flavor against the slippery-sweet warm fruit and melting cheese. While the bites were heating, I boiled down about half a cup or so of balsamic vinegar (mixed with some pomegranate molasses, should you have such a thing on hand, and believe me, you should) until it was thickened and slightly syrupy. (It will continue to thicken as it cools, so don't go too far or you'll get balsamic taffy that will stick to your teeth.) The bites went onto a warmed plate, generously drizzled with syrup.

We ended up swabbing everything we could through the drips of balsamic syrup on the plate, from slices of baguette to our fingertips. We didn't lick the plate but I think that might have happened had we not been on good champagne behavior. Alongside there were rosemary grissini from A.G. Ferrari, tiny blood oranges, a little tub of Redwood Farms fresh chevre, more blue cheese and proscuitto, and a flat slice of white lemon Stilton, described by the wags at Rainbow Grocery as "Nothing like regular Stilton. Tastes like cheesecake, rhymes with Paris Hilton." And it did, if you were thinking of the dry-ish, Italian-ricotta kind of cheesecake, studded with tiny flecks of candied lemon peel. A good time, especially with a glass of champagne tinted sunset-pink with a squeeze of blood orange juice.

*This phrase is posted at the front of all Muni buses and trains, to give the drivers a legitimate excuse not to listen to the legions of crazy people who ride the bus all day. I am shocked! shocked! that it has not become a bumper sticker or t-shirt already.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Left my heart in San Francisco...

Oh, California! I'm back again, to the sunshine and beautiful white light in the morning, bearing cake pans and spelt flour, cornstarch-free powdered sugar and a microplane grater. It's lovely to be here again, and now that my sister Amy and her family (my 2 nieces and 1 nephew, plus my super-nice bro-in-law) are probably moving from Connecticut to Minneapolis this spring, well, that's one less thing to keep me in NYC. What I'm going to do in CA: go to Delfina with Bucky, take the Larkspur Ferry with Paige, hang out and eat organic clementines with Jen, read stories to Charlotte and Sebastian (my niece and nephew by friendship, since I've known them both since they were born), and see Shifra and Stephen get married! And make their little cake, of course--the whole reason I'm here. It was none too hard to leave the half-melted slush and mittens behind me. More on the cake adventures to follow...

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Fishing in Brooklyn

K., being a Florida girl, has had a lot of great seafood in her life. But among all the grouper and stone crabs, she's missed one great thing:

Lobster Rolls!

We were browsing around in Book Court, down by the cookbook section (hey, how'd that happen?) and I found Pearl Oyster Bar founder Rebecca Charles' book, full of sepia old-timey photos of Maine and then, tucked off in the corner, a little color snap of a lobster roll on a paper plate.

"So, are you asking me out for a lobster roll?" asked K. It was 4 o'clock, and we had to leave to catch her plane at 8.

"You bet," I said, and we went back home, drank tea, and went over to Brooklyn Fish Camp, at Fifth and Degraw. Now, a little backstory: Rebecca Charles and her former partner Mary started Pearl, serving oysters and lobster rolls to the West Village hordes, inspired in equal parts by New England seafood shacks and San Francisco's Swan Oyster Depot. Then, Rebecca and Mary had a nasty breakup, and Mary started her own seafood joint, Mary's Fish Camp, just a few blocks away, inspired in equal parts by the menu at Pearl's and the original Mary's Fish Camp, in Florida. Both thrived, with Pearl expanding next door and Mary's begetting Brooklyn Fish Camp in the Slope. Making it across the river was dangerous: on what was to be opening day, a fire upstairs damaged the restaurant, postponing the opening for a month, and early Chowhound reports whined about inconsistent cooking and indifferent service.

But they were close by, which meant we didn't have to consign ourselves to the vagaries of the F train to get there, and I knew they had lobster rolls--which, if they were anything like Mary's, would be swell.

And didn't we have fun, with a Florida waitress, Belle and Sebastian on the stereo, and big, fat, cold-weather lobster chunks spilling out of a buttery bun. The roll was almost eclipsed by the enormous haystack of hot shoestring fries, but it was there, holding its own. No celery, no fripperies, just lobster and mayo. Mmmmm.

Meanwhile, I had the grilled French sardines over lentils--three nice meaty specimens, but damn, these were some bony fish. I'm well-practiced at peeling out the backbones and heads, and liberating the odd whiskery bone, but this was a little too reminiscent of the afternoon we'd just spent up in the dinosaur-fossil section of the Museum of Natural History. Still, it was a good time.

And then we came back, for K. to grab her bag and head out, and for me to realize yet again that she really is going away in just a couple of weeks, off to Afghanistan for a year, where an M-16, not me, will be keeping her company.

But if you need to cheer up, as I do, just go to Canadian singer Sarah Harmer's web site and listen to her song "I Am Aglow" from her upcoming album I'm a Mountain.

I am aglow with thoughts of you
Are the stories that you told me true?
It doesn’t matter if they are
They are to me

You’re a map of a place maybe someday I’ll go
With thoughts of you I am aglow

Does it matter that all I can think of is you?
Is it obvious? Does it show?
With thoughts of you I am aglow

Friday, January 13, 2006


An all-expenses-paid month in Arkansas in June, that's what I won today. And what more could a girl want?

No, really. What I've actually got is a fellowship to go to the Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow, in Eureka Springs, to putter around a beautiful, airy, sunny dream kitchen, make pies and jams, and write.

Of course, what I mostly do in my regular life is putter around in my dark, no-counter-space kitchen, make cranberry bread, and write. But this will be infinitely prettier, and heck, out in the Ozarks, which means not in steamy summer concreteland. Yippee! And someone else makes dinner! No more Grape-Nuts on the bed, at least not for 4 weeks. There's even a front porch--just what I need to cement my unrealistic move-to-the-country fantasies.

First thanks are due to the lovely Bakerina, who sang the praises of this place on her blog, and convinced me to apply. It's lucky I didn't look at the photos on her site first, or I would have been way too entranced to consider offering up my bits of honey lore and restaurant wit in pursuit. And piles of thanks are also due to Jen and Tori, for writing recommendations that promised the fine folks of Dairy Hollow that I would be a charming dinner guest and a happy writer bee.

Well, enough about me. What you really need to know is that according to the National Pie Council (and no, until today I didn't know there was one), January 23rd--just mere days away--is National Pie Day. You know what this means, don't you? A perfect, nationally-sponsored reason to EAT PIE. I'll be in San Francisco that day, staying at the aforementioned Jen's house, and I might just have to make her a pie. Because when my country (or the National Pie Council) says bake, well, the Pie Queen bakes.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

does your monkey do the dog?

Another reason for the Monkey Bread title: Monkey Yoga, right next door to Arizmendi. Do the yoga people come and eat yummy nut bread after their downward dogs? We'll just have to see.

And wedding-cake report: success! The lemon cake is excellent, and tastes just like regular cake. Maybe a smidge more dense, but it's a pretty dense cake to begin with, thanks to all that butter. In fact, I might try leaving out 2 tb of the butter on the next go-round, just to lighten it up a little, but the taste is great--beautifully bright and lemony. I usually make this with Meyer lemons, but even with plain old regular lemons from the supermarket, it's excellent.

The first time I made this cake, it tasted great but didn't rise, and in fact completely fell apart coming out of the pan. Happily, I knew author Fran Gage, just from the food-world circuit, so I could buttonhole her the next time I saw her at the farmers market, and ask what went wrong. Turns out there was a mistake in the first print run of the book, and the recipe called for half the amount of leavening it should. I doubled the baking powder next time, and voila! Excellent lemon cake. So, here's the correct recipe (with spelt/eggless/cornfree variations, should those be your issues).

Lemon Cake (adapted from Fran Gage's Bread and Chocolate)

Zest of three lemons
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar

I like to take the zest off the lemons with a microplane, which gives very fine shreds. If you don't have a microplane, it's okay to take the zest off in bigger pieces. Bring water and sugar to a boil. Boil for 1 minute, add lemon zest. Remove from heat and let cool. Refrigerate overnight, or up to 1 week.

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour (or white spelt flour)
1 tsp baking powder (or 3/4 tsp cream of tartar and 3/8 tsp baking soda--this is because regular baking powder contains cornstarch)
10 TB butter (I would use a little less, like 8 TB)
1 cup sugar
2 eggs (or a scant 1/2 cup of firm silken tofu, pureed until smooth)
1/3 cup lemon juice
Lemon zest from above

Grease a loaf pan or cake pan. Drain lemon zest, reserving syrup. Chop zest finely, if necessary. Mix flour and leavening, and set aside. Cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, or tofu, and beat well. Add flour and lemon juice alternately, stirring gently until smooth. Stir in lemon zest. Add a tablespoon or two of lemon syrup to make a thick batter. Spoon batter into pan. Bake at 350 until golden brown and cake tester comes out clean. Let cool. Can drizzle with reserved lemon syrup if deserved.

Monkey Girl Wedding Cake

OK, Monkey Bread: Esther over in Australia wants to know. Now, unlike say, pudding (meaning a custardy bowl of sweet goo, not the dessert course at large) or Mallomars (excellent cookies aka biscuits, with a bottom layer of shortbread, a big puff of marshmallow, the whole thing coated in dark chocolate and only sold from October to April, when the weather's cool enough not to melt the chocolate), monkey bread is not some only-in-America thing.

I've seen the phrase used occasionally to refer to something like pull-apart rolls, meaning wads of dough dipped in butter and squished together in a large pan, to be baked and "pulled apart" into fluffy hunks at the table (because monkeys don't slice their bread?). But this monkey bread was a different animal altogether, something purely made up by the nice bakers at Arizmendi Lakeshore, a collective bakery in Oakland, CA. In fact, we sat around in our PJs wondering the very same thing. Why monkey bread?

Well, there were a lot of nuts in it. It was a small loaf of slightly brioche-like yeast bread, full of walnuts and probably other good things like brown sugar. The top was sugary and really crunchy along the edges, especially when the whole loaf was reheated until toasty. I'm going to be back in Cali next week, and if I can, I'll go back to Arizmendi and ask, "Why monkey?"

(And speaking of animals you can toast, even better than the monkey bread, to my taste, were the Wolverine rolls, chewy-crusted whole wheat rolls full of sweet dried apricots and pecans. Warm 'em up, put a little goat cheese on, and you're one happy monkey.)

And the wedding-cake countdown continues...Today's purchase: a set of disposable icing bags and a cute lil' star tip. Now, I just need a big can of cheap icing and a lot of practice, since the bridal couple has, alas, nixed the idea of one of those plastic bride-and-groom sets on top (although they did, for a moment, consider a little Yoda figurine, hand in hand with...whoever Yoda sleeps with.) Did I mention that I've been tapped to make Shifra's wedding cake? The same couple who got the eggless-spelt-flour carrot birthday cake back in May are getting married in SF next weekend (yay!) and I'm making a little cake, just for them. Which means, of course, lots of cake baking, in order to find an eggless, wheat-and-corn free item that's also very, very tasty. The first try (almond-lemon-cardamon) was a washout; next up, the excellent Meyer lemon cake from Fran Gage's charming book Bread and Chocolate. Lots of butter, a delicious lemon syrup (made from the zest of four lemons soaked in a syrup that's equal parts water and sugar), and in this case, buzzed silken tofu instead of eggs. Wish me luck! And if you have any tips for eggless baking, let me know! Will anyone mind if I whip out some wax paper and start piping rosettes on my JetBlue tray table?

And another request, for all you knitters out there: I need a pattern for a very long, rather weirdly shaped, tube-like cozy. A cover for an M16, in fact. One of the Pie Queen's nearest and dearest is about to go overseas to serve her country, to a place where she's going to need to keep her rifle with her all the time, and don't you think a little pink yarn would make all the difference on those chilly nights? This may sound like a joke, but actually, I would knit this, if I could, if only to make a tentful of soldiers laugh out loud. If you have a pattern, let me know!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

True Grits

So, grits. At San Francisco's Just for You ("the best Louisiana truck stop on Potrero Hill") they're described on the menu as "that white stuff you ate in prison." At the Waffle House*, they're what comes with your eggs and Coca-Cola** on Christmas morning, when it's just you and K. and a bunch of cops drinking coffee, plus the cheery waitstaff, cheery because hopefully they're making extra cash working on a holiday while you're reading the laminated menu with all the pictures as one of the waitresses feeds quarters into the jukebox, yelling back to the kitchen "You sure she wants ten dollars' worth?"

The best grits I've ever had, though, happened in my very own Yankee kitchen, thanks to K slow-cooking them first and then mixing in some grated Irish cheddar, a shake of cayenne pepper and, after ransacking my spice rack, a brick-red spoonful of smoked paprika, from a little red tin bought ages ago at a Spanish-food stall in London's Borough Market. Smoked paprika, also called pimenton, is the bomb, especially for vegetarians who want to fake a smoky bacon flavor. But I'd never have thought to put it in grits. That's why it's good to rub up against other people's cooking: they know stuff you don't. Hopefully, these grits will happen again this weekend, when K. returns, or at least some variation on them. If we get around to leaving the house (to go see the gay cowboys or the butterflies swatting around the Museum of Natural History) we might even check out the oyster po-boys at South, the new incarnation of Blue Star on Court Street.

*Despite my deep fondness for waffles, I didn't know what a Waffle House was til we hit Georgia. What diners are to New Jersey, Waffle Houses are to the South: all-night greasy spoons out on the highway, where you go for eggs and toast late at night or early in the morning, with a lot of drinking behind you or driving ahead of you. Alas, the waffles, at least at the one we went to, were flat and gummy. But as K. pointed out, it's not about the waffles at a Waffle House.

**K. had the Coke, by the way. I had coffee.

Now, back to work, and the all-important question: will Shifra and her beau want a plastic bride and groom on the top of their vegan no-wheat almond-lemon wedding cake? The recipe testing continues...counting down for the big day, back in SF next week...

Monday, January 09, 2006

Home again, home again, jiggity jig

Well, hello there. Happy New Year! Hope you all had a very, very happy Christmas and Chanukkah and Boxing Day and Epiphany and New Year's and all other champagne-drinking, cookie-baking, latke-frying excuses for wearing red velvet and spilling powdered sugar down your front.

It is, weirdly, something like 60 degrees out on the streets of Brooklyn this evening, which is a very strange backdrop to the still-sparkling Christmas lights and discarded holiday trees sprawling in the gutters, but nice for the Pie Queen, just recently re-entered from warmer climes, notably her beloved San Francisco, preceded by a two-week tour of K's friends and family down South, from Richmond, VA to Charleston, SC and all across and around the balmy state of Florida, home of alligators, manatees, flamingo paddle boats and key lime pie. And the Weeki Wachee mermaids! But more on them later.

There will be lots about Florida in the next few days-- a place I'd visited only once, at age 9, and then just en famille to Disneyworld. What I remembered were palm trees in the hotel lobby and being so terrified by the build-up to Space Mountain as to completely melt down while standing in line (something I still tend to do, even when medicated, at airports everywhere). The real Florida, revisited at 38 alongside hometown girl K., still had lots of palm trees, not only growing inside the Orlando airport but all over the place, from bushy palmettos to swaying royal palms, along with bald cypress and hibiscus bushes and poinsettas growing in big showy bushes right in the front yard. We didn't see alligators eating household pets, or pythons trying to eat alligators (and exploding as a result) but otherwise the dream state completely lived up to expectation, and more, with skee ball and fireworks on Daytona Beach for New Year's Eve, barbecue in Miami, the Gulf of Mexico lapping at the shores of Cedar Key under a pink-streaked dawn sky, and orange trees and gator-head key chains everywhere.

It was fabulous all around, but I did miss cooking. I grabbed it when I could--frying up latkes for breakfast at K's mother's house in Lake Mary, making oatmeal/currant/apricot scones for Molly and K. when they got back from running around Lake Merritt, practically weeping with delight in the circus-colored citrus aisles of Berkeley Bowl before making pints of guacamole, a pie pan full of Meyer lemon bars, and two roast chickens for the See-Me/Meet-K. party at the Red Meat Ranger's house in Oakland, then serving the RMR's continental needs with cafe au lait and warmed-up Arizmendi Bakery's monkey bread in the morning. Back in the real world on Monday, I needed to hit the chopping board even more than I needed to pick up my mail or get started on the pile of work due at the end of this week. I just needed to eat my own food again: a big cast-iron pan of cornbread, a pot of red-bean chili, handfuls of spinach melted down in the chili, followed by freshly peeled blood oranges toted home from CA.

And yogurt! Ah, the joys of plain, plain, live-culture, unflavored yogurt. I had not realized my utter dependence on plain yogurt for breakfast until I had 2 weeks of mornings in Other People's Kitchens, generously stocked with Starbucks holiday blend and milk and bagels (even, in one happy instance, a can of pineapple chunks and an unopened box of Grape Nuts, oh joyful day) but alas, no yogurt. Here is the key to road-trip happiness: do not let your digestive system become dependent on anything not readily available in a Kwiki Mart. Had I needed kiwi-strawberry or key-lime-pie-flavored yogurt, I'd have been happy as a clam; as it was, my only chance at scoring a spoonful of plain old no-sugar 'gurt was a jumbo 32-ounce tub of Dannon from the Winn Dixie--not the most practical option when you're in a 70-degree car for most of the day. Honestly, I liked the grits and eggs, and the chocolate croissants served with French press coffee while watching Ray Liotta chewing up the seat cushions in Turbulence, perhaps the worst Christmas-Eve/serial-killer-on-board/flight-attendant-flies-the-plane- movies ever. But it wasn't until San Francisco that we were back in the land of sixteen kinds of plain yogurt--cream on top! non-fat! organic! goat! The golden West, gracious land of lactobacillis.