I have a terrible sweet tooth (as you may have divined if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time), but my sweet tooth is not typical. Not for me the sweetness overload, the gooey cakes, the sugary cookies and candies. I prefer a more subtle sweetness, balanced by savory, or tart, or nutty flavors. Something that could easily be served for breakfast or afternoon tea. Enter the clafoutis. A classic French dessert that’s sometimes described as a custard, sometimes as a pancake. It is a custard with flour, a pancake with more cream. Or it’s own thing. An eggy, custardy, but not insubstantial dessert with a subtle sweetness that is braced by whatever fruit it is made with. It’s not much to look at, generally — it’s really a country casserole, with nubs of fruit poking through a golden, eggy crust. It’s practically foolproof to make, and the batter comes together almost instantaneously. And yes, I am hooked. [...]
Bread pudding. The words themselves are hardly inspiring. Stodgy, pedestrian, British, with those overtones of school dining halls and hospital food. There are some truly execrable bread puddings — dry, almost crusty, with little discernible flavor other than that provided by a few sugary raisins, and no give. And frankly, most bread puddings I’ve had in even the best bakeries and restaurants have been in this mold — cut into neat squares and utterly unappetizing. But a good homemade bread pudding is a different beast. This is spoon food, creamy and gooey and served warm from the oven in a bowl. Bread and milk and eggs and sugar combine to form an alchemy — no longer distinct elements but something altogether new and wonderful. Comforting and exciting all at once, bread pudding has the potential to hit exactly the right dessert spot. Bread puddings can range from the basic bread and butter pudding, also known as “make a dessert from things in your pantry” to the very fancy indeed. This one is somewhere in between. It is an easy bread pudding, make no mistake about that. And most of the ingredients are in my pantry, but the basic sandwich bread and milk and eggs is kicked up a notch — the bread is a brioche (the best bread for bread pudding hands down, if you can find it), spread with a sweet and tart raspberry jam. The custard is thickened with cream and scented with the floral aromas of Tahitian vanilla extract and Amontillado sherry. And to top it off, the pudding is taken from the pedestrian to the porsche with a topping of creamy, dreamy, meringue, browned to perfection. [...]
My darling daughter very recently turned two. The Nuni is growing up — getting more independent, more vocal, more affectionate, more skilled. She chatters and tumbles and climbs her way through life. The Nuni was quite pleased to have a birthday, especially one that involved bubbles and balloons and cake, and has been known to sing a rousing chorus of “HAPU CAKEY NUNI!” six or seven times a day.
I, on the other hand, now have to live with a two year old, which means that my life is now full of more drama than the Real Housewives of New York. Either a tutu is too short or a spoon is too shiny or I am not promptly answering some silent or intelligible command and then you better WATCH OUT. On the other hand, there are kisses and pretend play (“I cooking Mommy!” being my favorite, natch) and a constant source of entertainment. So it all balances out, I suppose.
But I digress. Birthdays are the name of the game, and if you are me, that means birthday cake, and homemade birthday cake at that. I asked the Nuni several times before her birthday party what kind of cake she would like — Strawberry cake? (She loves strawberries) Orange cake? (My personal favorite) Gateau d’Opera? Being two, she would only answer me with the cryptic “Green Cake”. Now I could have taken this in any one of a number of directions — all organic, local and sustainable ingredients? Chock full of spinach and zucchini? But I decided to treat this as simply a color request. I thought I’d stay simple, not only for my general sanity this year but also because I hope to establish a precedent of a rather basic cake that would become the standard, de rigeur birthday cake. (I shudder to think what I put my own mother through. My standard request throughout my childhood was something I called “purgatory cake” – angels food on top, devil’s food on the bottom, with a chocolate mousse filling and seven minute frosting. Can you imagine the number of bowls?)
I decided on chocolate cake, because, well, it’s chocolate cake, and no further explanation should be necessary. I scoured my cookbook library, websites and back issues of cooking magazines to find the perfect chocolate cake recipe, and I think this may just be it. It’s moist but structured enough to stand up to layering and frosting, chocolatey without being bitter or too intense, and relatively simple to mix (although it does take two bowls). It would take to a good chocolate frosting, but to accede to my daughter’s request for a “geen” cake, I went with a white frosting and green food coloring — cream cheese frosting because I like it better than buttercream, and white chocolate for richness and pizzazz. Finally, I dug out my old cake decorating chops and decorated it with chocolate plastic, in no small part because I can’t pipe frosting to save my life.
Click here for the rest of the story and the recipes. [...]
People who don’t live in Los Angeles say that we don’t have seasons. The sun is always shining, the grass is always green, it’s always swimming pool weather. That’s not entirely true. We have seasons. In the winter it rains and the world is green. The spring is full of marine layers and fog, studded with purple jacaranda blooms. Summer is hot and dry and brown and ridden with wildfires. In the fall it smells of dirt and the Japanese maple trees in Beverly Hills turn glorious colors and the silkfloss trees burst into glorious pink blooms. We have seasons.
They just don’t change in September.
September in Los Angeles just an extension of summer, with less vacation and more traffic. At its worst that means triple digit temperatures, smoke filled skies from wildfires, and faded, stretched out summer clothes that need another month’s wear squeezed out of them. But I like to think of this as a little blessing of Indian summer — sunny mornings warm enough to eat breakfast on the patio, evenings with a light breeze that are the perfect temperature for gin and tonics, tomatoes that continue to ripen on the vine, and summer fruits at the markets. Simple. [...]
Some recipes sneak up on you. You get a cookbook or a magazine, you read through it in a leisurely fashion, maybe try a recipe or two, and set it aside. A few months later, you pick it up again, notice a picture that looks tasty, and forget about it. Fast forward a few months, and you finally make the recipe and think it’s only OK. And then you start to crave it and it finally, finally becomes part of your repertoire.
Then there are recipes you fall for at first glance – bam. You see it and your mind starts racing around the possibilities and you can’t wait to get into the kitchen and try it out.
This is one of those. [...]
Pop Quiz: What do you make when it’s 95 degrees outside, the very thought of turning on the oven makes you melt into a syrupy mess and yet you’re craving a delicious, starchy, baked-good kind of dessert?
If you answered “fruitcake” then I think you need to get your head examined, but the real answer, summer pudding, is somewhat like cake, and it does contain fruit. Summer pudding does differ from fruitcake in several important respects, however, the most important of which is that summer pudding does not require ninety minutes in an oven. It requires ten minutes on a stovetop (which is not going to heat up your kitchen) and a few hours in the refrigerator. [...]
Is there anything more wholesome than pie? The very word brings a smile to one’s face, and it’s associated with all sorts of pleasant things — someone who is sweet as pie (or a sweetie pie) may wish for their pie in the sky which may be easy as pie to get or as American as apple pie. In the eternal debate that rages between cake and pie, pie is eternally the winner, being both less serious and less frivolous than that cake frippery. Liking pie is almost a moral imperative. And yet … I don’t. Or at least I didn’t.
The problem with pie is nearly always in the crust. Crusts in pies that aren’t homemade is nearly always somewhat tough because it has to stand up to storage and handling. And homemade is hard. Those premade pie crusts have a funny taste or a greasy mouthfeel (though I will recommend Trader Joe’s brand frozen pie crusts in a pinch). And making it from scratch is just fraught — there’s all that nonsense about cold hands and whether to rub in the fat or cut it in or use a food processor or NEVER USE A FOOD PROCESSOR or only use lard or only use crisco and the whole thing is so nervewracking that your hands are sweating buckets and OH NO YOU’VE JUST RUINED YOUR PIE CRUST. IT WILL NEVER BE TENDER AND FLAKY AGAIN. Or if by some miracle you manage to make a pie crust that has flaky possibilities then you have to roll it out, and it cracks and sticks and then you have to worry about patching holes because IF YOU HANDLE IT TOO MUCH YOU WILL HAVE RUINED YOUR PIE CRUST AND IT WILL NEVER BE TENDER AND FLAKY AGAIN.
No thanks, I’ll just sit over in this corner with my cake, thank you very much.
However, because I love my faithful readers so much I will give you the recipe for my super secret foolproof crust. [...]
I’m not much of a summer cook. I like to cook the foods of cooler weather — spicy gingerbreads, hearty stews, root vegetables that stick to your ribs. Summer, at least in Los Angeles, is really to hot to do this type of cooking, and those foods are literally the last food on earth you feel like eating. It doesn’t help that in the summertime on Bacon and Tomato sandwiches and corn on the cob, which, while providing an entirely balanced diet (what? That’s what I’ve had for dinner for the past 4 nights in a row!), is not so much the stuff of food blogs.
The problem, of course, is that summertime is when my local farmer’s market offers its greatest bounty. I am confronted with weekly heaps of Gaviota strawberries, Blenheim apricots, Elephant Heart plums, and the biggest, fattest blackberries you’ve ever seen. And while I do LOVE fruit (and my love cannot hold a candle to that of my husband and my child) sometimes I am compelled to buy more fresh fruit than even our family can eat. And so I am forced to cook, even in the summer. [...]
It’s become fashionable or a mark of pride to eschew recipes. You’ll hear many cooks boasting of how they never use a recipe, or they just use techniques they know on whatever they have in the pantry. While there is some virtue to this, if you’re say, stranded on a desert island with a fully equipped kitchen but no cookbooks or internet — but I feel pretty strongly that there is a place for recipes in our collective culinary repertoire.
For the beginning cook, a recipe is an instruction that leads them step by step into the dangerous waters of cooking. A recipe will hold your hand, reassure you that you’re doing the right thing. For more advanced cooks, recipes are inspirational – for what is a recipe, really, other than a collection of ideas? – and communal. A conversation you’re having with whoever gave you the recipe — “Have you ever thought of adding this? What if I did it this way?” That’s why food and blogging go so naturally hand in hand — the internet has made the natural conversation about food larger, easier to navigate. [...]