Thursday, May 28, 2009

heading out of town

see you in a while, cali! it's cold and foggy here and i'm in need of some time to relax. i've got a new stack of library books. i'll pack my prepster shorts, charge the ipod and fly out tonight.

see you soon, herrell's, jp licks, hi rise, sofra? doughnut plant, i'll catch you on my travels too, and il lab, and maybe momofuku?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

what we talk about when we talk about food

Lately I've been thinking that I wouldn't have this blog if I were starting it today. Right now the market seems saturated for this sort of thing, and while that wasn't any less true (probably) three years ago, I had fresher eyes for the genre back then.

When Francis Lam wrote about his quest to make a perfect omelet, he's writing about the sense and muscle memories, and the intuition that make a good cook. When Michael Ruhlman wrote about driving down Route 9 in a blizzard for his culinary exams, it certainly wasn't the test that was on his mind, but the necessary sacrifices of time and will that you are required to make if you play the game. He understood it was a test of character. When Molly O'Neill wrote about learning to butcher and cook fish in a Provincetown kitchen, she was really talking about grit and integrity, about the differences in a kitchen between insider and outsider, and how we permeate those boundaries. As well as the need for the flavor of the fish to dictate the cooking method, and the importance of seasonal and local ingredients back before our country really had a culinary movement. Carol Blymire's posts at Alinea at Home are about the fear of failure and the comfort and courage that food offers us, as much as they are about xantham gum or agar. And when Ruth Reichl portrays Wolfgang Puck and Alice Waters in the early days of California cooking, it isn't the food, though it's evocatively described, so much as the passion and vision of these young cooks before they were culinary figureheads.

What we talk about when we talk about food isn't food. This is a balancing act that is difficult to execute consistently. Oh, it's tempting to get caught up in describing the flavor of a rare ingredient or fresh heirloom produce gently coddled in the hands of some culinary idol. It's exciting to talk about the atmosphere of anticipation that surrounds the diners-slash-audience embarking upon a tasting menu. It's easy to write about food--and to write something interesting--only on the level of the food itself. But it's not satisfying. And it's not transcendent.

It's good to remind myself of these things, because I've been struggling to write about food, and I've been slightly checked out of the food debate, catching only faint whispers of SF rumors and trends, rumbles about Bruni's replacement and so on. In my own writing I've been stalling, researching, and committing that crime of writing about food only on the surface.

I've become so tired of the way we talk about food, either in the present media moment of here in SF. Recently Robert Beringela (pseudonym) serialized a "food noir" tale in San Francisco magazine that, while at first glance amusing and pointedly thumbing its nose at this tiny-city-of-food-cliche, eventually revealed itself to contain no more substance than the ubiquitous beet/goat cheese/mixed green salad that's grown so offensive round here.

I've had the dubious fortune to be at two restaurants during opening review process, so experienced the MB hype, stressful service, and inflated prose {for the record, when a critic's in house, we most often know it, at least by dessert!}, plus the anticipation of waiting for review. But parsing the sentences of a Bauer review isn't wholly satisfying, in parts because MB can play favorites with his chefs, and to a lesser extent with styles and trends.

More than ever it's important to support the places where real, honest conversations about food are taking place. I'm talking about your local farm markets and your organic bakeries, and Gourmet and Saveur, but not the other food magazines, your specialty stores and restaurants, and your own kitchen, your own cooking. Make it count for something.

The food scenes in my writing are actually the more difficult ones to write, because while my writing brain wants to put something down and go ahead, the cook in me begins to parse the dish. Is it good enough? What cooking techniques are necessary? What's the mise look like, and whose station's it coming off of, what's the fire time? Why would the chef choose these things? What am I really trying to say?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

vanilla bread pudding with stone fruit

I used to be a little snot (used to be, you say?). One day during the course of my stage at Oleana, I told the pastry chef, Maura, that I wasn't a fan of bread pudding. I hadn't yet learned that you don't tell this to cooks; that claiming not to like something ends with you being prodded or strong-armed into trying their adaptation of it. Sometimes, when we say "don't like," what we mean is don't understand or aren't impressed by or, as my french chef used to say, "it is not very interesting."

I worked at the time at a bistro in Boston that served chocolate bread pudding with whipped cream (side note: it really irks me when people call it chantilly on's whipped cream people). We made four hotel pans of the stuff, using leftover house bread (baked by me & my boss) plus the supplementary bread we got on the weekends. The night guys usually cut the bread for us, two large fishtubs, but occasionally we'd have to top it off, then make the custard. I'd be up to my elbows in the stuff, tossing the bread, letting it soak. Then I'd have to portion it into the four hotel pans, bake them in barely-there hot water baths consisting of the 1/2-1 inch of water I could pour on the full sheet pan and, when baked, pull these same suckers out of the oven without spalashing hot water all over myself and burning the mitts. So I was usually pretty clumsy and usually made a mess (big surprise, right?). Suffice to say I'd had it with bread pudding and I felt that I was pretty well informed on the topic.

Well it only took a couple bites of Maura's bread pudding to change my mind. Hers was made with homemade brioche, pretty standard, and I had excellent results baking it with Acme pain de mie as well. Maura soaked her bread in a mixture of custard plus simple syrup; her theory was that the simple syrup prevented the bread from getting too heavy and resulted in a lighter final product. I'm not sure whether that's true but I know the results are certainly delicious.

This version below features stone fruits, with cherries just coming into season! We don't have peaches yet but we do have apricots, which are delicious baked or roasted. As promised a long time ago, here is the bread pudding recipe adapted from Maura's supremely wonderful brown butter bread pudding with mulberries and milk jam at Oleana.

vanilla bread pudding with stone fruit:
{makes 1 lg. deep dish pan (9x13) +/- a few extra ramekins}

custard base:
eggs 9
sugar 2.5c
cream 4c
milk 2.5c
vanilla bean 2, split and seeded

for soaking:
simple syrup: 1c
cubed bread: 8c
custard base above

fruit, to add:
pitted cherries: 2c
peeled, sliced peaches: 2c

Warm dairy with vanilla beans and infuse 30 minutes. Whisk eggs and sugar together. Add cream and milk. Place bread in large bowl, coat with simple syrup and then with custard base. Let soak 1 hr or until most of liquid is absorbed, tossing bread every so often. Add cut fruit to soaked bread and mix. Pour into baking pan, using ramekins for any overflow. Cover with foil and bake at 325 for 35 minutes. Remove foil and bake 15 more minutes or until top is lightly browned. Center should be set. If not, keep baking.*

*I worked somewhere where we baked bread pudding FOR THREE HOURS once.

in other notes:
*huge burn blister on my finger with goo bubble the diameter of a caper. it needs to go away.
*valrhona cocoa powder, how i have missed you.
*i should do a post on ways to infuse vanilla beans, maybe i will.
*i ate the second half of my burrito for dinner and now i have nothing to look forward to at work tomorrow.
*claudia fleming is still awesome.
*i've been reading a book a day, about.
*my car is not dead and gone forever. hell yeah! road trip seattle anyone?
*i'm contemplating a series of podcast essays. main problem: i'm not interested in the sound of my own voice, unless i'm pretending to be claudia gonson. second main problem: that just sounds gimmicky and slightly pretentious.
*i need to learn to say no, sometimes, and stop doing everyone a favor all the time.
*i chopped orange peel for a long time today and it was really theraputic and zenlike. i recommend it.

Monday, May 11, 2009

flaky lemon shortbread

Shortbread is a taken-for-granted kind of cookie. It's usually ho-hum, buttery, sweet, nothing too special. It's versatile. You can add spices, citrus zest, vanilla bean, cocoa nibs. Some people really enjoy buttery, flaky cookies and my mother is one of them, so this is what she got for Mother's day. For the record, it shipped well and did not break. Always useful information.

This particular shortbread is flaky, tall, and soft. (There are other chewy shortbreads that are delicious too and this is not one of them). It's adapted from the Tartine cookbook. I've tried it out a couple of times and it's critical to do it by hand, with the butter at a supersoft consistency. As if you've left it out on a humid July day while you went to the corner store for some eggs, ran into your neighbor, chatted for fifteen minutes, and came back home to find squeezable, malleable butter.

If you'd rather make this shortbread, orange, vanilla, (orange-vanilla), fennel, baharat, or anything else, you go right ahead. How do you do this? Add some flavoring (seeds from 1 van. bean, 1 t spices, etc), and then taste the dough. Start small...for obvious reasons.

Lemony shortbread:
(makes one 9-inch round, to be cut into 8-10 wedges)

soft butter: 9 oz.
salt: 1/2 tsp. + pinch (reserved)
lemon zest: 1-2 large lemons*
rice flour: 1/2 c. + 2T**
granulated sugar: 1/3 c. + more for topping

Paddle softened butter with a spatula by hand until creamy. Work in sugar and lemon zest. Add rice flour and mix until dough comes together. Pat dough into baking tin and smooth to level grade. Top dough with granulated sugar and reserved pinch of salt. Bake in 325 degree oven 30-40 minutes. Should be just slightly golden but cooked through in center. Let cool before cutting.

*I used Eureka lemons.
**Cornstach can be substituted for rice flour.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

so sorry

About two years ago, I received a comment on a short story I wrote that was published online. Apparently.

I just noticed this comment tonight.

Someone named Tricia begged me for the recipe for the brown butter bread pudding with milk jam from Oleana, the beloved Cambridge restaurant. How Tricia knew I'd spent time in the Oleana kitchen is a mystery...maybe she read the story, googled me, found the blog? Or the other way around?

Anyway, Tricia--who I'm sure will never read these words, not unless she's still out there googling toward Oleana's decadent yet homey brown butter bread pudding, I'm sorry. I do have that recipe tucked in a tiny pink notebook. I used to make that bread puding at Frog Hollow all the time, a brown butter version with pears and dried fruit, and a vanilla custard version with stone fruit. It was pretty universally loved.

I've got the recipe for milk jam also, a Middle Eastern confection similar to dulce de leche, made on an all-day slow simmering stove. I haven't made milk jam since those days, but I know that I will one day.

Three weeks and counting til I get to go to Sofra myself and maybe, if I'm very lucky, they'll have a version of that bread pudding for sale. In the meantime, two years too late, sorry.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

thought stream of revision

{or, some of the junk that goes through my mind}

One of the things I try to do each time I'm working on revisions is give myself the time to re-read the current draft before diving in, especially if it's been a while. It's always great to have writing work that *feels* like writing, but the main reason for this is so that I can spend some time (re)remembering what I wanted to write about in the first place. Usually I'll try to get all the way through without listening to the editor in my head, but when I do let the editor's voice shine, it tends to go something like this:

1. weak beginning...OMG, takes two pages to get to the meat of the story! no bueno!
2. do we have a pretty good sense of who the protagonist is and what he wants by page 2, at the latest? why not?
3. what is the particular problem in this story? is that clear to readers? {usually, in an early draft, the answer is NO}
4. is the landscape clear? {not only the physical landscape/geography, but the other characters that help my MC define himself}
5. insert time-honored/exhausted workshop tropes. pick your favorite, which may include what's at stake? there's not enough tension in this piece. the dialogue/characters is/are flat. and you haven't earned the ending.
6. remember the things that are your weakness. for me, it's an overuse of exposition. which sucks, because I like a lot of exposition, and I'm willing to put up with a lot of it if the writing is good. however, exposition for its own sake is no longer popular in today's literary fiction...and who am I, just another writer, right? right.
7. remember that you are standing in your own way: that your pride, or your adoration for minor character #7 (the one with the harelip and the broken umbrella), or your determination that you know exactly what the piece is about, or your brilliant wit in paragraphs 3-5...if you are going to have a finished, polished piece, most of the things you love will die or mutate.
8. get real quiet and listen.

last night i learned that i totally forgot to convert one page from first to third person, so, sorry brooke, don't be confused when you read the excerpt i sent you. i learned that there's not as much exposition (yes!) as i remembered and nearly no backstory (double yes!), that my characters are still sickly thin, that the madcap caper tone of the chapter isn't being read through the agonizing level of detail i invested trying to make the plot believable, and that what will make the plot more believable is rounded characters stuck in a conflict.

who, what, where, when, why? and why now? i try to be kind on a first raft. i don't have high expectations. and when i'm going through this process, i'm certainly not doing it with a little checklist beside me. to date i've spent, oh, 6-8 years workshopping pieces? i know how to ask these questions, whether it's about your piece or mine. to know what to change, you need to make a series of quick, frequently subconscious decisions. it's wrong because it is. the dialogue reads awkwardly, and when you say it aloud you'll hear. we know when something doesn't sound right because most of us have been reading for what feels like forever.

that, when you think about it, is pretty significant. what else have we been doing all our conscious lives, other than eating, sleeping, losing our tempers, and discovering things to love and find beautiful? ok, and watching television. play kitchens turned into real ones, stuffed animals became pets, and the other games of childhood fell away unless we play them with our children or other people's. i'll stop now before this gets too fever pitch {the movie, not the novel...i actually can't stand nick hornby. sox win, btw!} but consider the implications...what sort of people still care about the same things they did when they were 7?

Sunday, May 03, 2009

how to use a pastry bag, and other things they don't teach you on food media

piping shot by lens envy
Cooks make pastry bags look awfully easy to use, don't they? Cupping giant bags in rounded palms, slapping used bags on the countertop, squeezing miniscule quantities of sauce down the skinny can't be that hard, right?

It's a lot harder than it looks. Sure, anyone can use a pastry bag. There are lots of little tips you can learn to avoid mistakes...and if you're wondering what could possibly go wrong you've certainly never cut a hole too large, causing the tip of your bag to shoot off across the room, and your sauce/frosting/etc to spill all over the table. Or squeezed a bag too hard, causing it to burst (see above). Or tried to warm an emulsion on top of the oven and broken it (thereby ruining your product).

First off: why use a pastry bag at all? They're impossible to clean if you use cloth ones, and if you're using plastic, you're wasteful.

Any delicate, ethereal macaron you've ever eaten? Piped with a piping bag, and almost always filled with one as well. The prettiest cupcakes and wedding cakes? Ditto. Meringue for lemon meringue pie, or baked alaska? Sometimes. Likewise for hors d'oevres, canapes, and other party snacks.
macaron by acme
If finesse is required, a pastry bag comes in handy. It's classy. Though it sometimes looks retro-chic, yes.

So, should you find yourself in need of a pastry bag, here are some tips:

1. Don't buy a Wilton's one, or whatever brand you find in your supermarket cake-decorating aisle, especially if it's got some sort of plastic screw tip. This will almost certainly fall apart.

2. Less is sometimes more: when you're filling your pastry bag you have a choice between a less-full bag that's easier to handle, and a chock-full bag that you won't have to refill often (if ever). I'm partial to a less-full bag because not only is it easier to control your piping, it's less likely to make your hands cramp up/give you repetitive stress injuries.

3. If you do go for a bag bag, keep your non-dominant hand at the top of the bag, twisting the bag shut. Squeeze the bag 3-4 inches above the tip with your dominant hand. You're turning the unwieldy cone into something manageable; by only working with a small amount of product, you are allowing yourself to have control over how much you release and where. If you've got something that's stiff, like cream cheese frosting or not-quite-tempered ganache, this is almost a necessity. When you run out of product in your zone, squeeze it down. If you've got a big bag of whipped cream, sure, top-down is fine...there's no resistance.

4. Remember, your hands are warm. The heat of your hands will warm up whatever product is in the bag. If it's ganache, be careful it doesn't overheat and separate. If it's ice cream, work fast and make sure you are piping into frozen molds. If you're finished with a product but might need it again, chill/freeze it if necessary.

5. For best piping, even pressure is key. Slow, even movements will get you the best results. If you're nervous, practice on parchment, the counter, or whatever's nearby.

6. In a pinch, you can make a pastry bag out of a ziplock. Fill the bag, pinch shut, turn 45 degrees so bottom edge is pointing directly at floor, then cut a hole.

7. Re: cutting holes: err on the side of smaller rather than larger, and hold the bag upright with one hand and cut with the other to avoid a mess. You can lay it on the table, but it might squirt out.

I personally think my tips are way better than these tips. If you need guidance on filling the pastry bag, go here.

If you need a really small amount of something (chocolate or frosting for writing on a cake) you can make a cornet...also known as "a small cone of parchment paper." But that's a lesson for another day.