Monday, June 29, 2009

Bay Area pastry chefs just can't catch a break?

Tough times to be a pastry chef. Not only are patrons tightening their belt (and their budget) when it comes to fine dining and desserts, but this morning Michael Bauer kinda called you boring.

Part of the reason is that my expectations are low writes MB after admitting that he routinely gives restaurants with poor dessert choices 3 stars, giving GMs, head chefs and owners the impression that it doesn't matter who's making their pot de cremes and seasonal fruit galettes.

It's also challenging to review desserts, claims MB, because those darn restaurants could be bothered to send him a menu. Do they even give him the PC's name? From the blog:

When we call for menus each week for restaurants I'm reviewing, we have to specifically ask for a dessert menu, otherwise there's a 50-50 chance we won't get one. Even now we sometimes have to call again, which suggests that many restaurants aren't invested in the sweet course. That's probably the reason I see many unbalanced offerings: too many creamy puddings or too much chocolate, for example. I can't even estimate how many restaurants I've been to that have an ice cream component in every dessert.

This isn't the first time MB's complained about the sweet fare out here.

My suggestions for the Bauer? Well, I'd love to see him champion the desserts we DO have. Imagine if he were using his powers of suggestions to offer up examples of success rather than lambaste the options? Also, it seems like Bauer's talking to chefs about desserts but no one's talking to the diners. Chefs are picky. Chefs want to play with toys. Chefs have been making creme brulee for their entire damned career and probably want something new. True. I support all of that.

But let's flesh out the idea that Bay Area people aren't some bizarro boring-dessert lovers, shall we? I mean, Creme Brulee Cart man seems to be doing pretty well.

And let's take a second to think about the many fine bakeries in this city who do offer something a little more interesting. The continued success of places like Kara's Cupcakes proves that people will go out of their way to pay a little more money for an item that's organic and tasty (though they could use some new flavors!)

Friday, June 26, 2009

sweet life bakery, eugene, or

It was a craving for diner food that made my friend and I pull off the I-5 in Eugene OR. First the iPhone sent us to a creepy town across the river from Eugene, the kind of town that can only be the setting for that old fiction topic The Stranger Comes To Town. Well, we were the strangers and we rode out.

In Eugene we found a newfangled diner and purchased elaborate burger sandwiches and fried goods. Tempted by the sign on the door that read Pie Happy Hour 3:30-5 we asked out server to explain, which is how we found out about the Sweet Life Patisserie, who supplied Happy Hour pies.

thanks gina pina

It would be open till ten or eleven. We would fine a line outside the door, she assured us. And it was not to be missed! So we paid, crossed town to the bakery, and waited in a very long line. Maybe you've never been to Oregon or maybe you are one of those people who only goes to Portland, so it bears explaining here: the majority of rural Oregon has a problem with the gays. Sure, Eugene is a college town, but we'd seen neither hide nor hair of queer culture and a whole lot of fundamentalist bigot radiom and the only gay bar in Eugene had closed down 2-3 years earlier.

Once we made it into the Sweet Life we tried to decide between the gelato, chocolates, cookies, cakes, creme brulee, pies and other items. When bakeries have a lot of items I tend to get nervous, because you can't reasonably expect one chef to excel in all those areas.

I went with the mixed berry pie (blueberry, blackberry, ollalie and marion, which prompted a discussion on Marion friend thought it was a joke) and he got the chocolate strawberry cake, basically a chocolate version of strawberry shortcake (whipped cream frosting, ganache, strawberry compote). Coffee drinks to go.

My pie was great. They heated it up for me and gave me a generous slab (for $4, I'd hope so), although they didn't offer whipped cream or anything I guess you could buy ice cream to get it a la mode. The cake was moist, the berries flavorful.

Here's what was so exciting about the Sweet Life: it offered a place for the smart kids, the geeky kids, the gay kids to go and hang out in a town that didn't seem like it had much cultural escape to offer. The cashier at the sweet life was totes gay. And the day before our visit, the Sweet Life bakery had participated in Bites for Rights, a fundraising program that donated 15% of the day's sales to Basic Rights Oregon, an equality organization.

As if being progressive on the issue of equality isn't enough of a reason to love Sweet Life, here's another:

the bakery is super conscientious of those with food allergies and dietary restrictions. Vegans and gluten-free girls, little signs in the case will tell you which products you can eat, so you don't have to hold up the line asking.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

amazing apricots 1

I remember the first time I ate an apricot. It was my first time in California, I was visiting family in Woodside, and I bought an apricot at the local market because it felt so California to me. And also because I'd never seen a fresh apricot.

I experienced what many people experience when they bite into a fresh apricot. The flesh was mealy, the flavor underwhelming, the skin spongy. I did not eat another fresh apricot for about six years and I gave them another try only grudgingly.

If you've ever thought these apricot things are so mealy and yucky...i contemplate eating them because i really want a fresh peach and the peaches aren't ready, well then, this post is for you. see, apricots deepen in flavor when cooked, and the mushy complaint of their texture turns soft. How, exactly, you say?

image by max xx

Close your eyes and think of a peach pie. You know how the peaches are bright, how they taste like you think yellow would if yellow had a taste? How they're probably one-dimensionally sweet from all the sugar added in the pie? When you cook apricots like this, don't be surprised if you turn down the next piece of peach pie someone offers you.

Pit and halve a bunch of apricots. Put them in a pot with some sugar and a splash of water. If you have a vanilla bean, you can throw one in. Apricots and vanilla really sing. If you've got a good honey, you can use some honey. What else could you use? Chamomile, dark brown sugar, brandy, lemon. This is not a list of ANDs, however. It's a list of ORs. Any item on this list will complement the apricots, but so that you understand the beauty and complexity of an apricot once it's cooked, choose sugar plus one, or even a rich type of sugar like muscovado or maple or demerara. Something special.

Cook the apricots plus sugar plus water (plus extra) over medium heat. Let's say you have six to eight apricots. I would add 1/3 to 1/2 cup sugar. You can always add more sugar but you can't take it out. The fruit will start to break down and release its juices. Continue cooking until the juices thicken. I'm not going to give you a more exact recipe than that, but I will answer questions. You will be left with a delicious compote that I like to serve warmed over vanilla ice cream.

Learning how to cook apricots will change your life. If you're lactose intolerant, spoon them over soy yogurt with granola for breakfast, and if you hate sweets grab a nice cheese and good bread because this compote is versatile, easy, cheap and delicious. Promise. If you get inspired to try this and make a new, fun combo, let me know.

stuff that's keeping me happy lately

I've been so busy traveling. There's a lot that I want to tell you about but it's going to take a while. In the meantime here's a teaser of stuff that I've been into lately:

  • pilot books, seattle
  • amazing apricots
  • breaking news: harvard lays off 275 employees --> THIS IS NOT SOMETHING I LIKE
  • molly moon's, seattle
  • finding a gay friendly bakery in eugene or
  • inner sunset farmers market, sf
  • modesto jr. college egg farmers
  • being so close to the end of chapter 3, phew!

photo by James Callahan

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Andre Dubis-isms

While searching my hotmail inbox for a recipe for rosemary-soy chicken wings, I unearthed an email from a grad school professor that contained a list of anecdotes about the esteemed writer Andre Dubus Sr.

Known among writers as "Andre Dubus the father," so as to distinguish the subject from his son, the Andre Dubus who authored The House of Sand and Fog, the elder Andre Dubus is known primarily for his rich and haunting short stories. Dubus is one of those people described frequently as a "writer's writer."

What does this mean? Certainly it ranks up there with the haughty-yet-cliched terms bandied about by teachers and students of writing in MFA classes and advanced-level college workshops. Both curse and blessing, being a writer's writer is like being crowned prom king AND valedictorian. Your writing is layered, rich, resonant (oh, cliche!), your endings are earned, your characters' dialogue is never petty nor trite.

Joking aside, what this means primarily is that you are someone aspiring writers need to have in their toolbox. You have something to teach writers--how to tell a good story--as well as readers. If you are a writer's writer, you might not be well-known by the general reading public.* You might not have a bestseller, or financial success. You are a rocks glass of smoky scotch beside a fireplace while soft snow settles onto the eaves of an old house. You are special.

Another of my professors was an old family friend of Andre D's, and had the pleasure of sitting through many a Red Sox game with the old man. He used to tell us stories of Andre's adoration for the gummy New England accent, and the hardworking-hard-drinking working class baseball fans you can encounter at Fenway.

While his Andre stories were more character-driven, the list of Dubus-ism I found portray not the man himself, but the quirks of a writer and the instructions in a practice.

  • Andre Dubus (father) wrote 100 pages to "find" the seven pages of his story "Waiting." It took him fourteen months.
  • Andre Dubus always recorded how many words he wrote each day. And everytime he said "thank you." -- "28 words, thank you." OR "1200 words, thank you."
  • Andre D was at a party once where there was a fistfight over whether something falls to "earth" or to "the ground." Carver was for "ground."
  • Rick Russo said of Andre D's prose style "Once you are a Catholic you will be using that language the rest of your life, even if you don't believe in the dogma anymore."
  • Russo said that reading Andre Dubus and Richard Yates when he was in an MFA program at the Univ. of Arizona saved him--because at the time everyone was reading Gass, Coover, Hawkes, Vonnegut, etc.
  • Rick Russo quoting a friend: "Just becasue it didn't happen doesn't mean I can't remember it."

*Dubus the father's short story Killings was adapted into the movie "In the Bedroom."

Friday, June 12, 2009

the three strikes bakery rule

When trying out a new bakery, I almost always follow the three strikes rule: no matter how I feel about something on the first visit, I'm not allowed to rule it out until I've made two more visits. There are so many variables that could affect the initial impression, ranging from my mood or the weather to an overly salty batch of dough the kitchen made or a slightly stale cookie.* I might visit with a friend and try a few items; in that case, I'll relax the rule a bit.

Last night in the Castro, I told my friend something vaguely upsetting as we were walking back from dinner. Surprising, no. Upsetting, yes. He clutched my arm and, rather than respond to what I'd been saying, demanded cake at that very moment. Let's Go Into Cafe Flore, he said, pointing at the Castro landmark.

image from aweigend.

I've been to Cafe Flore many times, and quite enjoy it for a lingering coffee with friends on a rare sunny-AND-warm San Francisco day, or for late-morning brunches. The eggs are always good, and I respect a tiny postage-stamp of a kitchen that can stay on top of their game. Over the years I've had a couple of their desserts and been lukewarm, most notably for the chocolate violet souffle cake that tastes nothing like violets. Chocolate cake does not need violets, no, not at all. So if you are going to create a violet-chocolate cake, please make sure it actually tastes like something? ok?

We skipped the cheesecake, considered the chocolate cake, and decided to share a slice of the banana foster pie.

What looked like a simple custardy confection ended up being a four-layer pie that, if slightly too sweet, was rich and creamy and perfect for sharing. Deep cookie-crumb crust got a layer of caramel, and another one of rum-vanilla custard. The pie finished with a banana cream and a caramel drizzle. The pie was one of those occasions something tastes better than it looks, the flavors rising above the ho-hum prissy bakery presentation that we all groan over. Lucky for Cafe Flore, this was my third visit.

I'm often considered a snob about food and other things, and I am, sure. That said, there's a place for the ok, the humble, the merely good. The pie was as good as some items I've had from places like Tartine and Citizen Cake. Sometimes we don't want to think that way. It helps, when paying Tartine prices, to believe you are getting the absolute best there can be. There are days when all you want is a sweet and uncomplicated piece of pie, a little sunshine, an outdoor table, and a dose of queers.

*Note to cooks and kitchenworkers: it's actually really important to taste everything you sell every day (sauces and such, maybe every 2 days, unless they're fruit-based). I've seen anglaise go bad in the squeeze bottle during a service. I've also worked at restaurants that serve, day in and out, horribly stale versions of Claudia Fleming's brownie cookies, which is not only gross but completely disrespectful.