Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Luck & Money

A cold, foggy day out there, but I've got my black-eyed peas, my rice, my greens and my cornmeal. Which means I'll be set for making Hoppin' John, greens, and cornbread, for good luck and money (cornbread for gold, greens for folding money) on New Year's Day. Now, I just need to decide if I'm going the ham-hock route for the hoppin' john (always tastier, although smoked paprika--Spanish pimenton--works too), and pick up some more garlic & lemon for the greens (since I like them quickly steamed and then mixed with sauteed garlic and lemon juice in the California way, not boiled-to-khaki as traditionally they would be in the South) plus buttermilk for the cornbread.

Such are my Southern roots that I can't remember a New Year's Day where I didn't have black-eyed peas and cornbread. Maybe not in Italy, where the New Year's foods were lentils and zampone (a whole stuffed pig's foot) or a particular kind of fat sausage. I do remember going to the Carrefour on New Year's Eve day and coming home with a pannetone the size of a football helmet for 1 euro. We rang in the New Year in Bologna's main square, crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with every inhabitant in the city as prosecco bottle missiles rained overhead. In the morning, we made coffee and pannetone French toast--the perfect way to start anew.

I love taking a long walk on New Year's Day--I remember E. and I walking all over the city one chilly green January 1, cresting Randall Rock and running into friends old and new all along the way.

Out with the old, in with the new. Leave the regrets behind and face the challenges with glee.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

chestnut soup

And while we're talking winter soup, here's another one: chestnut soup! Inspired by the smooth-as-velvet, froth-topped bisque from NYC's Cafe Sabarsky, and adapted from a NYT recipe by Mark Bittman, this is very easy and tastes much richer and more luxurious than its simple ingredients would lead you to believe.

Chestnut Soup

12 to 15 fresh whole chestnuts
[or 12-15 peeled whole vacuum-packed or jarred chestnuts]
2 tbsp butter
1 onion, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 parsnip, peeled and diced
1 branch thyme
4 or 5 sprigs of parsley, minced
1/2 cup dry sherry or madiera
3 cups chicken broth
2 tbsp creme fraiche
4 or 5 crimini mushroom caps, sliced and sauteed in butter until tender and browned

To prepare whole chestnuts, cut an "x" in the skin of each chestnut with a sharp knife. Roast at 325F until the meat is tender and the skin dries out and curls back. Peel chestnuts while still hot, otherwise skin will stick to the nut.

Melt butter in a saucepan. Saute onion, garlic, carrot, and parsnip, stirring, until tender. Add crumbled chestnuts and sherry, and cook, stirring, over low heat for 2 or 3 minutes. Add herbs and chicken broth, a little salt (depending on the saltiness of the broth) and simmer gently for 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool for a few minutes, then puree in a blender. Taste for seasoning, adding more sherry as needed. Return to the pan and warm gently. Top with a spoonful of creme fraiche and a few slices of mushroom.

This went very nicely with a green-and-pink salad from the mystery box: crunchy little gem lettuces, shredded radicchio, and sliced watermelon radishes, in an apple-and-mustard dressing of olive oil, cider vinegar, Dijon mustard, garlic, and a little rosemary-apple compote.


A party centered around fried potatoes: what's not to like? As usual, the annual latke party was happy, grease-spattered chaos, with the four year olds building a fort in my bedroom and the adults circling the frying pans like starved hyenas.

And therein lies the inherent difficulty of a latke party: for latkes to be at their best, they must be freshly made and fried. You can't make the potato mixture ahead of time, or it turns into grayish, soupy mush. And in my purist opinion, you can't really fry the pancakes beforehand, or they get greasy and flabby, tasting like warmed-over hash browns. But frying to order, with only two not-very-large frying pans at one's disposal, means producing only a mere handful at a time, certainly not enough to get everyone at the party all the latkes they deserve.

Oh, well. There was a lot of hot borscht to fill in the gaps, and this turned out to be the savior of the party. Who knew everyone loved borscht so much? Or this borscht, more to the point, because there were a lot of folks who claimed to hate the beet, or be indifferent to borscht, before this batch.

Nothing fancy in it, just a whole lot of Mariquita Farm's fabulous mystery box vegetables, augmented with fresh beets from the Alemany Farmers Market. In a big pot, I sauteed chopped onions, garlic, carrots, and a lot of parsnips in a splash of olive oil. (If I'd had celery root, or rutabagas or turnips, I'd have thrown some in too. Petrouchka, or parsley root, is a nice addition if you can find it.) Then peeled grated raw beet, a handful of chopped raw cauliflower, shredded cabbage, a can of chopped diced tomatoes and their liquid, a branch or two of thyme, enough water and/or chicken or beef stock to cover the vegetables. Why so many parsnips? Well, I had them around--lots in the mystery box--and they do nicely in a soup, relaxing all soft and sweet and earthy as they cook.

Season with plenty of salt, a spoonful of caraway seeds, and a hearty splash of apple cider vinegar. Bring to a simmer, turn down heat and let it simmer very gently for an hour or so. Add the shredded beet greens, plus a good handful of minced fresh dill and parsley, just before serving. Taste for seasoning, adding freshly ground pepper and a little more vinegar as necessary--it should have a slight tang to balance the sweetness of the beets, carrots, and parsnips. You could make this heartier, by starting with some meat bones and adding potatoes and white beans, but I like it as a vegetable soup. Since this was going with latkes, I didn't add potatoes, but you could certainly put them in.

It's hard to give quantities, since it's the kind of soup that's based around how much stuff you have on hand, and how much soup you want. It's almost impossible to make in a small quantity, and anyway, why would you want to? It keeps well in the fridge or freezer, and you can down it by the quart, since it's all veggies. Top each bowl with a spoonful of sour cream and a sprinkle of minced fresh dill, and serve with a slice of challah or seeded rye bread. Note that this is the hot, winter-in-the-Ukraine kind of borscht, not the same as the simple straight-up purple beet soup that's typically stirred to pinkness with sour cream and drunk cold from a glass with your scrambled-eggs-and-Nova and toasted bialy at Barney Greengrass.

Thanks must be paid to Jen, for her superlative, truly perfect sugar-dusted soufganiot (Israeli jelly doughnuts), filled with the homemade marmalade she got from PQ; to Liz for her excellent chocolate-chip gingersnaps; to Ken, for bringing six-packs of He'brew, the Chosen Beer; to Joie Rey, for Ritual Roasters coffee and a big wedge of Humbolt Fog goat cheese; to Nancy and Roxie, for taking over the frying, and bringing lovely Bodega Bay chocolates; to the happy flowers from Karlyn and Ray; to Shar for schlepping over the bridge, pink champagne in hand, after a very long day, and exciting all of us about Whale Wars; to Bill for bringing his very sweet mom (who introduced herself to everyone saying "Hi! I'm Bill's Mom!"), to Phil for finally intoducing his daughter Violet, now three and a half; to Susie for taking the train all the way from Santa Cruz, and for nearly crashing another latke party along the way; to Eric M., Liza, and DG for taking on potato-grating duty, and to all the other friends, new and old, who came and squeezed into the tiny house, with children, wine, and good cheer in tow.

Friday, December 26, 2008


What a pretty day! It's clean and blue out there, crisp and Bay-Area-wintery; perfect for doing some pre-latke-party errands, like stocking up on Russian chocolates (actually made in Brooklyn, for the Russian immigrant market) and gelt out in the avenues, digging out the dreidels (which live in my bags of random papers and tchotckes, somewhere under the desk), vacuuming and skimming all the random junk off the living room surfaces while the roomies are out of town.

But first, coffee and waffles! It's been a while since I jacked up the waffle maker, and they sure are good with butter and Sarabeth's apricadabra jam.

What I really need to be doing is KNITTING, of course. I promised a handknit scarf to Omar, and then word got out. And now his younger brothers want one, too--pink for Ches and bright multicolors for Kai. So this will be my bus activity for the next couple of weeks. Luckily C. and K. are still little, so a foot and a half of scarf will be more than enough. And I've also discovered a quickie, less yarn-intensive way to do ribbing: German rib, aka fake fisherman's rib. Fast and easy, and it doesn't take double the time and yarn like real fisherman's rib. Just cast on an odd number of stitches, k2, p2, repeat to end of row. Start with k2 at every new row, and you'll get a nice, neat stretchy ribbing, perfect for a light scarf. For Omar, though, I might try this multidirectional diagonal scarf, which looks very cool.

Off to shower and get out into the daylight now, but stay tuned for the excellent chestnut soup recipe!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Warm you up

What is it with R&B singers and raunchy Santa songs? This not being my holiday, culturally speaking, I have no problem with lines like, "Hang up your pretty stockings/Turn out the light/Santa Claus is comin' down your chimney tonight" or "I"ll slide down your chimney and bring you lots of joy/ what I got for you mama, it ain't just a toy."

1. Santa Claus Wants Some Loving--Albert King (also covered by Lynnard Skynnard, but I'd go with the original)
2. I'll Be Your Santa Baby--Rufus Thomas
3. Backdoor Santa--Clarence Carter
4. Santa's Back in Town--Elvis Presley (he blows the lyrics here, but it's worth it just for the grin)
5. Santa Baby--Eartha Kitt, r.i.p.

bring your lipstick

I had a roommate back in college whose style motto was "Always dress like you're going somewhere better later." She had perfect shiny black hair, bright red lipstick, and a carefully or semi-ironically cultivated cut-glass accent (her parents were Brits, and she'd spent her high school years divided between Rodean and Spence). She was fond of black stretchy skirts and lacy black stockings, all of which made her an exotic anomoly among the jovial preppy types. Having a fondness for black garments and red lipstick myself, I was immediately charmed, and took her advice to heart, which meant, for me, wearing silver heels, black sweaters, Tres Tres Dior lipstick and Cinnabar perfume. She really did dress up like she was heading to a Soho cocktail party instead of a kegger in the courtyard, and it was fun--often more fun than the parties themselves, with their "Come on Eileen" and Everclear punch in trash cans.

I'm reminded of this every time I wander out of the house to do just a few errands, flanneled and bedheaded, only to end up, several hours later, in an art gallery, then a bar, still sans makeup and avec tennies. You can never predict when San Francisco will scoop you up into something better, and as a result you should always dress for what you want to happen, not just for the bank-and-post-office errands on your docket.

Like today, for example. Mostly it was writing, dropping off books at the library, buying Grape-Nuts and yarn. I knew I had to pick up 20 lbs of potatoes for the upcoming latke party chez PQ, and then meet Bucky at 18 Reasons for the Chanukkah Spin n' Fry. Which meant, of course, that I assumed I could nip over to Dogpatch, grab the potatoes from Julia's Mystery Box* truck, and get home again in time to change for my descent into hipster jewery.

But then, when I arrived at the truck, Julia was just finishing up selling her vegetable mystery boxes, about to sit down to dinner at Piccino with her son and his pal, all of whom had been moving enormous boxes of parsnips, carrots, greens, potatoes, radishes, radicchio, turnips and more from the corner of 20th and Tennessee. As she was kind enough to invite me to join her, what could I do but tuck my bags of potatoes behind me and sample her nettle-and-rice soup and amazing, super herby-garlicky roasted Dungeness crab, cracked and heaped over cannellini beans, and share a simple margarita pizza? By the time the boys were discussing the various merits of lemon tart vs. flourless chocolate cake, it was past 8 and I was late for the Spin n' Fry, still in my only-for-errands clothes and, since I hadn't bothered to bring a purse, woefully unequipped with lipsticks, comb, or other purse-stashed accouterments. And Julia, with true farm wife's generosity, had gifted me with a mystery box of my own, out of the small stack of no-shows. Which meant I was now underdressed and loaded down with some 40 or 50 pounds of rambunctious organic vegetables.

Nothing to do for it but find a cab and head over the Mish, even as scruffy as I was. Who could miss a roomful of Jews, brunette, bespectacled, and smiling over the brisket and latkes, the gelt and the dreidels? Bucky was there, with a coterie of Bike Coalition chicas, and we talked food, bike repair, Christmas Eve appetizers, and somehow, the Infamous Pirate Party of 1996. And then it was on to Anchor Steam's Christmas ale at the 500 Club, where I ran into a small posse of past and present Bay Guardian writer/editors, one of whom grew up in the same part of Buffalo as Bucky did. Yet again, small city, long life.

On the way out, various knots of people were puzzled but fascinated by my enormous plastic bag of vegetables, which I clutched in my arms like a huge basket of laundry. Not quite as cool as the conversation-starting Slinky I used to wear as a bracelet back in college, but definitely more edible.

*What is the Mystery Box, you ask? Well, Julia's husband, Andy, is an organic farmer in Watsonville and Hollister. Their farm, Mariquita Farm, was a longstanding part of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Until they decided that the tourist-dominated crowds were in the market to snack, wander, and maybe buy some lavender salt, not to pack their bags with kale and carrots for dinner. However, after quitting the market, they still wanted contact with their regular city customers, even though they already had a lot of restaurant clients and a large CSA.

So the Mystery Box was born: twice a month, the Mariquita truck would pull up outside a local restaurant, and customers who'd pre-ordered through an email list would show up and hand over $25 cash. In return, they'd get an amazingly abundant pile of dirt-fresh veggies, whatever was striking Andy and Julia's fancy on the farm. It worked like a charm, and now they often bring a few items from other farming or ranching friends--eggs from pasture-raised hens, organic apricots, fresh lamb, handmade sheep's milk ricotta--or large quantities of particular items, like 25lb boxes of tomatoes or 10-bunch bundles of basil.

If you loved tomatoes but felt daunted by the amount, you would be encouraged to share the bounty with friends, on your own time. The price is similar to your average CSA box, but the quantity is much, much more generous, and the stuff inside is always intriguing. You have to be a cook, though--the mystery box doesn't pander. Parsnips, daikon radish, radicchio in all sizes and colors, turnips, arugula, enormous cauliflower and radishes fill the boxes in winter; this isn't about broccoli and lettuce. Anyone can sign up and get on the list; the only caveat is that if you confirm for a box that week, you MUST show up to pay and take it home. Miss your pickup, and you'll have to pay for the box you skipped in order to get another box in the future.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Dance Dance Revolution

Dance! Dance! I'm pretty much a pushover for fun, especially when the very persuasive Susie B. calls me on her way into the city and says how I will regret it FOREVER if I don't put on my tutu, pick up my tiara and meet her and Jon at the LGBT Freedom Band's Dance-Along Nutcracker. She's been going since her daughter was little, and now that said daughter is 18 and too cool to flail around to the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies in public, she goes with friends instead. I am not exactly a ballerina, but as a wee pie princess I did drape myself in the PQM's Pucci scarves, put on our Nutcracker album and try to recreate in the living room what the lithe ladies of the NY City Ballet did onstage every December. Most of all I wanted to do that final pose of the sultry Arabian coffee dancer, where she lies prone, facing the audience, and arches her feet over her head. Alas, this was never achieved, but you can't fault a girl for trying.

When it came time for the Arabian number, both Susie and I hit the ground. "This is for floor work," we told our new best dance friends, two adorable 3 yr olds who were enthralled with Susie's tutu and stripey tights and my big iridescent golden scarf. We rolled around and pointed our toes in the air and flapped the scarf over their heads like a circus tent.

I can't really put the show (aside from the dancing) into words; it was a very San Franciscan mashup of The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol, from a Mime Troupe/agitprop angle, with a little Corpse Bride thrown in. And drag queens, and French horn players dressed as reindeer! And ghost brides, and a guy on roller skates, and a giant prop clock where 8 o'clock was marked "No on 8". The Christmas tree had menorahs and Kwanzaa candles on it, and they finished with a rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" that named-checked every December holiday from Hanukkah to the winter solstice, with Ramadan thrown in for good measure.

It was pouring again when we left, sorry to swap our tiaras for raincoats. We went over to 24th St, where it was too wet to show Susie's pal Laura, a high school art teacher and painter, the murals of Balmy Alley, but where we could browse (through the window) the hot-pink rhumba panties of the Candy Kitchen lingerie store while we waited for seats at the counter at the St. Francis Fountain. This newly reopened diner was where Susie's parents courted back in the day. It used to be a real soda fountain and candy kitchen, with malteds, homemade peanut brittle, and egg salad sandwiches served with chips and a pickle slice. Recently revived by hipsters, it happily still has reubens, patty melts and even egg creams, along with vegan chorizo and tofu burritos. (And Pixie Stix and the much-discussed Wacky Packs.) The chocolate-banana shake: perfect, right down to the cherry on top.

We stopped by Phil'z for coffee on the way back, and even this hand-made-cup place falls down in making decent decaf. My cup was watery, weak and without body, as it is almost everywhere that's not my own French-pressed kitchen.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

hot ginger

It's cold, it's cold, it's cold! PQ Castle still has no heat. Now usually, this is no big deal, because the heater we do have usually only heats the living room, a little. So I crank up the space heater and hunker down in my bedroom, the only warm room in the house. But now, with no heat at all, my roommate's got the space heater (since it came from her mom to begin with) in her room, and I'm in fleece and scarves. Every apt. I've ever had has been frigid at some point, often for way longer a time than was comfortable in, say, December. And no one here to snuggle up with, either, and my hot water bottle, complete with hand-knitted cover, is still in storage in chilly Brooklyn. So: cold and a wee bit lonely here! But luckily Leslie and Anya's potato party (latkes! vodka!) is coming up tomorrow in Oakland. Until then, deadlines to attack, and perhaps, gingerbread to make. I've got Elizabeth Faulkner's Demolition Desserts here, and turns out she's a sucker for gingerbread, too. Hers has chipotle in it, which sounds almost as good as the kind with bacon grease. Then again, there's also this one, a spicy chocolate gingerbread via Nigella Lawson's cookbook Feast. Lawson or Faulkner? Who could choose? Into the kitchen!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

holiday fun in the city

Hot chocolate! We don't have heat chez PQ of late, which means swapping the single space heater around the 3 of us....Which means hot drinks and flannel are the necessities du jour, as if I need an excuse for either one. BUT, fun things to do this weekend, all in places with heat:

Today, Thursday, 5-7pm, Serpentine turns one! Come celebrate with a glass of free bubbly and some nibbles down in Dogpatch, at the 17-yr-old Slow Club's lil' sister. Of course, having been kicking around SF since 1990, on and off, I remember when the Slow Club was the new cool thing in town. What the heck. I'm still about 35 years away from hitting kids with my purse on the bus to get a seat.

Sunday, 10am-2pm. Those cute, tattooed servers at Delfina, with their skinny black bra straps showing? They're not just charming and very good at their day (well, night, but you know what I mean) jobs, they're artists, too. Come to Delfina's holiday arts n' crafts fair, featuring stuff made by their staff.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

in a jam!

I miss my jam pot! Specifically, I miss my big, wide copper confiture pot, with its flared sides and brass handles. It was perfect for jam-making, since it was wide and shallow, allowing for rapid evaporation. The copper was nonreactive as well as heavy, which meant even sugary things cooked evenly, without hot spots or burning, and it cleaned up like a dream. The only drawback was its size--really big--which required making a pretty hefty amount of jam at any one time. (Where is it? Still in Brooklyn storage, with all the other large, fragile, or otherwise squirreled-away items of my life, mostly books, shoes, leopard lingerie, and china.)

I've been making jam throughout the year as fruit's been available, starting with the big box of organic Meyer lemons S. brought me last spring. And now, I'm beginning to pull out the contents of the jam kitchen, inspecting and wrapping for the holidays. Something I've learned this year is to unloose the screw-top rings after the jars have cooled and sealed. Why? First, to check that the seal is clean. I pulled out half a dozen jars of apricot jam earlier this week, only to find them cruddy with sticky jam trails down the sides. I'm not exactly sure where the gunk came from--the seals were tight, and the jam inside unspoiled--but just to be on the safe side, I opened them up, adding a little more sugar, and reboiled/recanned the contents. It's also wise to remove the screw-bands after sealing so that water (or condensed steam) doesn't get caught under the band and rust out the lid.

It's also very wise to label every jar as soon as it's cooled and sealed. I have a few jars of mystery marmalade--lemon? Seville orange? Mixed orange?--that will have to be labeled "California Citrus" since I can't pin them down any further than that. As far as I can remember, what should be in the jam cupboard this year is:

Meyer Lemon Marmalade
Seville Orange Marmalade
Mixed Citrus Mystery Marmalade
Strawberry Jam
Hedgerow/Brambleberry/Raspberry-Strawberry-Blackberry Jam
Bernal Hill Wild Blackberry Jam
Bread and butter pickles

And, if I can manage to come home with some pears after my meeting out at the orchard this Friday, the divine Vanilla Pear Butter.

I'd still like to make some more pickles, and maybe even Chez Pim's bourbon-vanilla-butternut squash butter, in a mashup with Helen Witty's Spiced Pumpkin Butter.

It's been a pumpkin sort of week, or month, really, given how many pumpkin/butternut squash/sweet potato pies have been made chez PQ lately. And last night at Orson was all orange, all the time: we got 2 shots of curried pumpkin and sweet potato soup, a pumpkin pizza with fennel sausage, sage, red onion and ricotta, scallops with a sweet-potato puree, and finally the piece de resistance: The Clock After Midnight, made of pumpkin custard topped with brown-sugar streusel and pierced with dehydrated carrot spears, all over a spatter of carrot emulsion and root-beer maple syrup.

It took me a minute to get the Cinderella reference, just as it took the waiter to explain the King's Dream: peanut-butter cheesecake, peanut ice cream, slices of chilled banana rolled in cocoa nibs, and toasted marshmallows. But my favorite was the Snowcap: squares of gianduja topped with a snowfall of powdered (but still icy-cold) white chocolate ice cream, just like the snowflakes that fall during the last part of Act I in the Nutcracker. Or the froth of ice chips off the back of the Zamboni clearing the skating rink! Anyway, witty and yummy, and the best part of the meal, not surprisingly, since owner/exec chef Elizabeth Faulkner is a pastry chef from way back, and has clearly found a smart kindred spirit in Orson's pastry chef, Luis Villavelasquez.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Headcheese, Pleeze

Duck meatloaf! Apple cider doughnuts! Sausages! Fried chicken with cheesy waffles! Maple-bacon almonds! Bacon-wrapped trout! I lost track of how many times bacon got mentioned on the menu at Buttermilk Channel, a new restaurant way down on Court Street, in my old Carroll Gardens/Cobble Hill Brooklyn 'hood. Turns out it's owned by a friend of an old high-school friend of mine (ah, Facebook!) who brought it up by asking what my opinion was on headcheese. I bow to John Thorne on this one, who said, "The world is divided into two kinds of people: those who have never heard of headcheese, and those who have and wished they hadn't."

Gelatinous porky bits aren't really my cup of tea, although in my perambulations last week (trying to go see French film I've Loved You So Long up in Pac Hts, and being stymied by the loooong bus ride), I ended up at the back of Browser Books, reading Little House in the Big Woods just for nostalgia's sake. I was surprised at how much I remembered, pretty much word for word, especially the part about breaking down the hog for winter. Headcheese is nothing more than the bits boiled off the head, finely chopped and seasoned and set in a jelly made from the bones. Buttermilk Channel makes its own, and it's yours for $8/plate, probably much, much more than a whole pig cost back in the 1880s, when Laura Ingalls Wilder was playing kickball with the pig's bladder and grilling the tail in front of the fire.

But right now, typing away about the glories of mail-order pears (no, I don't work for Harry & David, but I should), all I want are those maple-bacon almonds, with maybe some of their housemade pickles on the side. Were I back in NYC, I'd have a pickle throwdown between Buttermilk and Chestnut, with Rick's Picks as referee.

Also, here, a fun little conversation by the owners of Rabelais Books, in Portland, ME. Headcheese gets a mention!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Leeds United!

Fabulous finger-waved art-punk femme, coming to Bimbo's 365 Club on Monday Dec. 15. Who wants to go?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Chocolate Whiskey Cake

Oh my gosh. That Whiskey-Soaked Chocolate Bundt Cake in today's New York Times sounds like Best.Cake. Ever.

Actually, it sounds a lot like the chocolate whiskey cake that my parents would always bring home from our summertime visits to Saratoga Springs. Ostensibly, we went to Saratoga for the horses. My parents loved going to the track--to gamble a little, sure, but mostly for the whole ambiance of it--the personalities of the jockeys and trainers, the semi-mob guys and their flashy wives/girlfriends/mistresses, the beautiful horses, breakfasts of steak and eggs and Hand melons at the Clubhouse during morning workouts. Spending Sunday afternoons at Aqueduct or Belmont, or a whole week at Saratoga in August, seemed perfectly normal to me as a kid, even as my mom exhorted us not to tell our grandma what we were doing.

One of the reasons I liked Saratoga so much, I suspect, was going to really good restaurants every night. Like Nantucket and the Hamptons, Saratoga's had a longtime rep as a playground for wealthy New Yorkers (originally due its natural spring waters and reputation as a spa), and so there were fancier places there than you might expect. But Mrs. London's remained a favorite, a bustling cafe and bakery with smashing croissants, the best chewy sunflower-seed bread (dubbed "Max's Loaf") and above all, the whiskey cake, a dense, rich chocolatey cake with A LOT of whiskey in there. We always brought one home with us to Jersey, serving it in small after-dinner slices to make it last.

It's been decades since I've had one. If they even still make it-- they don't, alas, have it on their mail-order list. But this sounds like it might be close, or, if not, really good in its own right. As soon as I have an excuse--or a host/hostess to please--I'm making this. I think, although I'm not sure, that the Mrs. London's cake might have had whiskey-soaked raisins in it, so I've added those in. This recipe is adapted from Melissa Clark's recent NYT article, based on an original recipe from dessert queen & cookbook author Maida Heatter in her 1980 "Book of Great Chocolate Desserts."

Whiskey Cake

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened, more for greasing pan
2 cups all-purpose flour, more for dusting pan
1 cup bourbon, rye or other whiskey, plus more for sprinkling
1 cup golden raisins
5 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1/4 cup instant espresso powder (such as Medaglia d'Oro)
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda

Confectioners’ sugar, for garnish (optional).

1. Grease and flour a 10-cup-capacity Bundt pan (or two 8- or 9-inch loaf pans). Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a small bowl, pour whiskey over raisins and set aside. In a double boiler over simmering water, melt chocolate. Let cool.

2. Put espresso and cocoa powders and salt in a 2-cup (or larger) glass measuring cup. Add enough boiling water to come up to the 1 cup measuring line. Mix until powders dissolve. Dump in whiskey and raisins. Let cool.

3. Using an electric mixer, cream 1 cup butter until fluffy. Add sugar and beat until well combined. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating well between each addition. Beat in the vanilla extract, baking soda, and melted chocolate, scraping down sides of bowl with a rubber spatula.

4. On low speed, beat in a third of the whiskey mixture. When liquid is absorbed, beat in 1 cup flour. Repeat additions, ending with whiskey mixture. Scrape batter into prepared pan. Bake until a cake tester inserted into center of cake comes out clean, about 1 hour 10 minutes for Bundt pan (loaf pans will take less time, start checking them after 55 minutes).

5. Transfer cake to a rack. Unmold after 15 minutes and sprinkle warm cake with more whiskey. Let cool before serving. Dust with confectioners’ sugar if you like.

The Mrs. London cake was made in a round, sealed with a dense chocolate glaze and a dab of gold leaf.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Late Nite Easy Cocoa Cake

Most writers, in my experience, will do anything to avoid writing, even though we are usually fit for no other job. So, with numerous deadlines looming, what was I doing on Saturday night? Making chocolate cake, of course!

One of the things I'm always in search of during my rounds of stress-baking is a nice, easy, cocoa-based cake recipe, preferably one that's not too rich and calls for mostly pantry-based ingredients so I can make it late at night without going to the store. I rarely have chocolate, even baking chocolate, on hand. Why? Because I eat it before I can bake with it. Even unsweetened chocolate will get whisked up with hot milk, sugar, and cornstarch to make a kind of choco-pudding sludge if the chocolate demons (or the deadlines) really get cracking. Unsweetened cocoa powder, however, lasts longer, if only because not even I can eat it by the spoonful.

For a long time, Laurie Colwin's Cocoa Buttermilk Cake was my standard, even if the texture was rather coarse and the flavor marked with a certain unresolved acidity. But now baby's got a brand new bag, dense, moist, springy and full of chocolate flavor. I cut the original recipe in half to make just 1 layer. As always, the better your cocoa, the better the cake. I used Ghirardelli.

10pm Easy Cocoa Cake

1 scant cup flour (1 cup minus 1 tbsp, approx.)
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 tsp EACH baking soda and baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1 egg
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup oil
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup hot coffee

Preheat oven to 350F. Whisk together dry ingredients. In a separate cup or bowl, beat egg, milk, oil, and vanilla. Pour into flour mix and stir vigorously until smooth. Pour in coffee and beat quickly until smooth. Pour into greased round or square cake tin and bake 30-35 minutes, until top springs back and tester comes out clean. Let cool 5 minutes in pan, then turn out on a rack.

I've heard you can also dissolve the cocoa into the coffee at the last stage, in lieu of adding it to the flour mixture. This sounds kind of intriguing, so next time you're stress-baking, try it out.