June 27, 2009

Tart? Pudding? What’s in a name?

When they announced the Bakewell Tart as June's Daring Baker challenge, Jasmine and Annemarie shared some of the old world dessert's history including the controversy behind its name. There's apparently a whole lot of conflict over whether it's a tart or a pudding.

I know my mind works in mysterious ways, but the tart versus pudding debate struck me as Shakespearean in nature. Bill said it best through Juliet: Oh, what's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet; so Romeo would, were he not Romeo called, retain that dear perfection to which he owes without that title. Translation: Tart? Pudding? Let's quit arguing and enjoy dessert!

And in retrospect, the Bakewell Tart…er… Pudding is the perfect Shakespearean confection.

Think about it…

The hero: An almost sinful shortcrust pastry base.

The leading lady: An unctuous layer of vine ripened fruit at the peak of perfection.

The comic relief: All topped off with a fluffy frangipane that doesn't feel like it will fit in with the rest of the cast. But it does.

A whole lot of history, a bit of comedy… and the tragedy arrives when the plate is empty. The Bard would have LOVED it. We sure did!

But I digress. The June Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Jasmine of Confessions of a Cardamom Addict and Annemarie of Ambrosia and Nectar. They chose a Traditional (UK) Bakewell Tart... er... pudding that was inspired by a rich baking history dating back to the 1800's in England. Required elements included the pastry and the frangipane, but our hostesses left us to our own devices when choosing the fruit filling. For me there WAS no question – I'd stashed away a jar of our Blenheim Jam for precisely this purpose. The tart (pudding) came together without much fuss, and the apricots paired beautifully with the almonds in the finished product.

For those of you who want to try your hand at the tart, Jasmine's posted the recipe here and Annemarie has it here. And the ongoing escapades of the Daring Bakers can now be found in the Daring Kitchen.

June 24, 2009

Before the Apple revolution…

Long before the Steves - Jobs and Wozniak -revolutionized the world of personal computing by reconfiguring the forbidden fruit, produce of a different type dominated the Silicon Valley. At the turn of the twentieth century the hottest commodity in Santa Clara Valley was the apricot, not the apple. And the Royal Blenheim - a probably hybrid of France's Royal and England's Blenheim apricots - was considered the king of pre-Silicon Valley crops from World War II until the tech invasion converted orchards into office parks in the 1970's and 80's.

Despite their regal status, these days the finicky Blenheim is often more of a wall flower than a homecoming queen. By today's standards they're smaller than your average apricot and they often retain a pale green tinge around the edge, even at the peak of flavor. Their delicate flesh bruises easily, making them difficult to market to a consumer who equates blemish-free with beauty and perfection. But if you're willing to peak beneath the surface, the Blenheim packs quite a reward. So when John learned that this summer's harvest from the folks at Peter Wolfe Ranch in Brentwood was available for pick-up we cleared the calendar for the weekend.

We made the trek to Brentwood on Saturday morning, hoping to beat the heat. Vera – the voice of our trusty Verizon-provided GPS navigation system – served us well, only whining a couple of times about "recalculating route…" as she guided us through the rapidly expanding suburban sprawl of strip malls and cookie-cutter houses toward our destination. When we emerged from the car we were pleasantly surprised NOT to be overwhelmed by the heat and we made our way to the shed to pick up our stash. And one taste of the elusive apricot made it clear to us that "progress" is a matter of perspective. I'll take a green-tinged blemished Blenheim over the softball-sized firm-fleshed apricots lining the aisles at the mega mart any day. These little guys are liquid sunshine, and at least in my head they are the taste equivalent of the color apricot.

We spent Sunday deploying 24 pounds of apricots. Sadly I spent most of the day scouring the marts of trade for canning supplies since Amazon's shipping department failed to expedite my order. It frightened me that the guy managing the kitchenware department at Bed Bath and Beyond had no idea what a canning funnel or canning tongs were, and was only vaguely more familiar with ball jars, lids, pectin and paraffin. In the end I found the lids and seals on an abandoned aisle at Andronico's, and we made do with my existing inventory of tongs and funnels. Like his great aunt before him, John held hot jars carefully and "offered it up" when they singed his fingertips.

While I was traipsing around the Tri-Valley in search of supplies, John was making my kitchen smell like summer. He started with two preserve recipes: Blenheim Apricot Jam and Apricot Butter. When I got home we pulled out the ice cream bowl attachment for the Kitchen Aid and made David Lebovitz' Apricot Sorbet. And I pitted the last of a pound of farmer's market cherries and set to work on a custardy Apricot Cherry Clafouti.

All in all, a weekend well spent.

For a little more history on the beautiful Blenheim, see this article from the Chronicle in 2004.

May 01, 2009

In defense of the doggie bag...

Pay attention to what your body's telling you.

That's one of the pieces of advice I'm trying to employ in my quest for a healthier lifestyle as I transition into late middle youth. And while I'm willing to drink a little lemonade and not so many beers (I'm not a beer fan anyway) and eat a few more salads in my next thirty forty years, I'm NOT willing to give up my passion for good food. So in an effort at portion control, I'm a judicious proponent of the doggie bag when dining out. And since I've NEVER liked leftovers, that forces me out of my comfort and into my creative zone.

Take a recent dinner; a conglomeration of take out and in house leftovers.

I started with about a cup of chirashi rice leftover from lunch at Koji's. Added some chopped onion and leftover steamed asparagus. And kicked it up a notch with a dash of Thai sweet chili sauce. I paired this dish with an egg scrambled with another container of sauteed mixed mushrooms left over from dinner at Bridges. Seasoned with a bit of oregano, a nice foil for my take on "fried rice."

A nourishing, soul-satisfying, virtually no (addional) cost meal.

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April 29, 2009

Twenty dollars in tomatoes???

Juicy little sun-ripened pearls of red, orange, and yellow, cherry tomatoes have always been among my favorite aspects of late summer. As I've matured I've put names to the faces of the Sungold and the Sweet 100, and I've learned that while they're available at the mega-mart virtually year-round, they're just got as tasty trucked up from the southern hemisphere in the dark days of December...

So when I learned that my little Aerogarden offered a kit with cherry tomatoes I thought my md-winter dream of caprese salad might become reality. I'm not exactly a green thumb -- to my mother's great dismay I killed the unkillable palm tree and cactus in college -- but we had some luck with the aerogarden herbs last fall and I was willing to take a risk...

And as you can see from the over-exposed photograph above, I DID get tomatoes. Tasty tomatoes. They were slow growing, but the little buds after 8 weeks and the itty bitty orbs in the 12th week kept my attention.

I think I missed something in the instructions around properly supporting them though -- my plants caved under the weight of the fully ripened fruit, and each plant yielded about 30 tomatoes before completely giving in. So I'll call it a qualified success and try again next year...

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April 27, 2009

Cheesecake: The Sequel (or a tasty sauce hides a world of sins)

A year ago we conquered cheesecake for children. With this month's Daring Baker challenge, we showcase a more grown-up cheesecake, in many cases all dressed up and headed to the prom. Or the Oscars. For those with baking skills.

For someone with my (lack of) talent with cheesecake, we're headed for the homeowner's association planning meeting. Whee!

But I digress...

The April 2009 challenge is hosted by Jenny from Jenny Bakes. She has chosen Abbey's Infamous Cheesecake as the challenge. But she's given us a LOT of leeway in the execution. She challenged thousands of us to play with it. Make it unique. Make a showstopper of a dessert. Add flavor, sauces, decorations – dress it up and show it off.

Um... sure. You realize you're pushing buttons here Jenny. I thought I'd proved in December that I'm cheesecake impaired? You want me to get CREATIVE?!?!

So I took a couple of deep, cleansing zen-like breaths, rolled up my sleeves, grabbed an apron, said a silent prayer to Martha, Peabody, Shuna, Tartlett and a host of my other baking gods and goddesses... and made some minor modifications to the base recipe.

I went with a meyer lemon theme, paying homage to the fruit I played softball with in the back yard as a kid, never guessing I'd one day be spending $1.25 a piece for them.

I zested the lemon before I juiced it, and tossed the zest in with a combination of graham crackers and almond meal to form the crust.

I added a bit of limoncello to the batter.

And when the cake came out of the oven with a couple of crevasses (see... I TOLD you cheesecake impaired), I took a tip from Alton brown and decorated it with a sauce make of sour cream, lemon marmalade and candied meyer lemons.

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April 09, 2009

Waste not...

Letting you all in on a little secret... I'm not much of a breakfast eater.

Don't get me wrong... I love breakfast FOOD (I love almost ALL food), but if I had my way, my ideal day would start at the crack of noon. Until I was in my mid thirties, breakfast typically consisted of a can of Mountain Dew on my way to school/work. Diet if I was feeling particularly virtuous.

But continuing to enjoy good food as I make the transition into what a colleague calls "late middle youth" requires that I get and keep my (_]_) in gear. Unfortunately my schedule dictates that several of these butt-busting sessions happen in the early morning hours. And since the drama associated with passing out on Lizette mid-workout is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I find myself becoming better acquainted with breakfast.

One of my go-to (translated: "you can sleep an extra 15 minutes because this one takes no time to prepare") pre-workout breakfasts is the humble banana, smeared with a tablespoon of peanut butter. Potassium and protein both seem to fuel my workout, and a little natural sugar gives me an additional energy boost.

The problem? I'm picky about bananas. I like them almost green. If they've gone all the way yellow, they're over-ripe for me. And they cross my line very quickly, so if I'm not very careful this produces a lot of waste.

So I'm always on the lookout for good banana bread and muffin recipes -- a nice alternative to tossing a mushy banana into the blender for a smoothie. And I recently found a GREAT recipe over at Sugar Laws for some mighty yummy Banana Saffron Muffins. Easy to assemble and Katy's right: the saffron adds a subtle but distinct flavor and makes these muffins something special. An added bonus: they freeze well, and tossed in the toaster oven for a minute and then smeared with a bit of peanut butter it's every bit as quick and satisfying as the aforementioned standard.

And anything that affords me a few extra minutes of sleep is a VERY good thing. Just ask anyone who's had the misfortune of scheduling a 6:30 AM conference call with me...

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April 08, 2009

What IS this?

This mystery vegetable showed up in this morning's CSA box.

Can anyone out there tell me what it is? It's fairly hearty, with a mild bitterness in its raw state.

Is it some odd breed of kale? Dandelion greens? Something altogether different? The only thing on the list that I couldn't easily identify in the box was green garlic, and I'm pretty confident it's NOT that.

And while we're at it, I'll take any ideas you have for what I might do with it...

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March 29, 2009

Daring Bakers... Passport to Italy

Step aside Stouffers... this isn't convenience food. This is my GRANDMOTHER's lasagna. Or something damn close.

This month's Daring Baker adventure -- brought to us by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande -- takes us to Italy as it might have been in my great grandmother's era and proves that the simplest of recipes stand the test of time.

Paper thin ribbons of spinach-speckled egg pasta, bathed in alternating layers of a beautiful butter-nutty bechamel, a beefy bolognese courtesy of Tyler Florence and a sprinkling of piquant parmesan cheese.

Real food. Simple ingredients. And a moderate amount of elbow grease. With the exception of the tomatoes in the sauce and the spinach in the pasta, nothing out of a can, a jar, a plastic bag or a cardboard container.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper's Lasagne of Emilia Romagna warms the heart and soothes the soul -- and thanks to the ladies hosting the March challenge it's my new go-to recipe when I've got an afternoon to kill and I'm looking for old world comfort food.

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Under the wire...almost

We're still in the process of assembling this month's Daring Baker Challenge, but I didn't want to let the posting window go by yet again without documenting our progress. The bolognese turned out beautifully, and we're optimistic about the other components as well. With this month's time commitments, we may well be enjoying the fruits of our labor on Wednesday, so be sure to check out everyone else's lasagna while we wrap things up here.

The March 2009 challenge was hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

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March 25, 2009

I'm Ba-aaa-ck!

Another one of those parental prophesies is coming true. Time DOES go faster with every passing year. Didn't we just celebrate the new year...how the heck did it get to be SPRING?!?!

I haven't slept through the last twelve weeks, really. While my diet continues to shift as I try to strike a balance between what's good for me, what's good for the community, what's good for the planet and what *tastes* good, I've still got a healthy dose of the culinary curiosity that prompted me to start this journey three years ago. I've eaten well, and I've got a large stash of archived photographs to prove it. And I'm rearranging my recreational time over the next couple of days to share some of it with you.

Coming soon to a your favorite feed reader:

- The Daring Bakers haven't excommunicated me! I've got tuilles! I've got a chocolate valentino! along with a handful of January Tuesdays with Dorie...

- A couple of fantastic Tyler Florence recipes...

- Several selections sourced from this winter's CSA bounty...

Hang in there; I'll wrap up the rewind as quickly as possible so we can move on and enjoy the spring bounty before summer is upon us.

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January 05, 2009

Couscous? Or Quinoa?

Back in the aftermath of battle bug we invested pretty heavily in Tupperware. Modular Mates became THIS girl's best friend. And when year and a half later my "forty flavors of flour" remain flea-free, I'm confident it's been a good investment.

As John has mentioned several times, I should have invested in a label maker at the same time. Because the post it notes I chose to employ have long lost their sticky-ness and several of the plastics in my pantry now contain mystery ingredients.

Rigatoni is pretty obvious. So are raisins, pine nuts and cornmeal. But when I pulled this recipe for Eating Well Magazine's Cauliflower and Couscous Pilaf and perused the pantry for ingredients, I wasn't sure whether what I had on hand was couscous or quinoa. I decided it didn't matter, that except for cooking time they'd play equally well in the recipe.

Turns out what I have is quinoa. It added a nice nuttiness and a bit of a chewy texture to the final product, which I supplemented with a bit of flaked poached halibut for added protein.

Tomorrow I head to Staples for a label maker!

January 01, 2009


If I believe the pundits and their sound bites, 2009 is going to be a year of change, of hope, of growth and renewal. And as I reflect on my personal journey in 2008, I find myself a year ahead of the curve.

I set some lofty goals at this time last year. As is typical for me I met some of them, abandonned others and set a few new ones as circumstances changed along the way.

Professionally I'm now managing the closure of that career-defining project. It's had its ups and its downs, we've navigated an inordinate sea of obstacles along the way, but it's been a tremendous learning experience and we're going to emerge with a set of solutions that truly take us to the next level.

Personally my transition's been even more dramatic. I've rewritten this paragraph a thousand times trying to get the words right, and in the end it comes down to this. Somewhere amid the milestone celebration, I grew up. It's as simple and as complex as that. I'm no longer play-acting at this whole adulthood thing. I don't have all the answers and I probably never will, but I'm starting to GET it. And I understand the differences therein. Who knew.. life DOES begin at 40!?!

And certainly my most significant personal accomplishment in 2008 is a physical one. I've shed a substantial amount of weight in the last twelve months. If you've been paying attention along the way you know it hasn't been about self-deprivation... I've eaten well and indulged on an often-enough basis.

What's different this time? I've shifted focus. While I know what I want, I'm no longer obsessed about numbers and deadlines to the exclusion of all else. And I've changed the way I "keep score." An indulgence (or two or ten) doesn't make me a failure -- it just requires me to rearrange columns A and B a bit to make everything fit, so that I'm taking some step each day toward meeting my goal. And I'm working out. I know myself well enough to realize that despite Lizette's protestations to the contrary I will NEVER enjoy exercise (sweating SUCKS), but the process works and I'm enjoying the end results. After a year of hard work, I'm two sizes smaller. I've got more energy and more stamina. Less of me hurts. I'm sleeping better, my focus is clearer, and I'm getting a lot more out of my day. I call that progress.

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