Saturday, January 31, 2009

//Put-put went the coffee maker

Oh Happy Day! Although I'm on Day Three of Cold Watch 2009, which technically means it's still possible for me to infect any humannoid who comes within five feet of me, the period of post nasal drip is over! Instead of remaining in bed underneath my bed's many layers of blankets like a nut in a batch of baklavah, I bounded out of it this morning and hurried into the kitchen so I could resume my morning coffee ritual. In the future I'm going to have to remember not to let my enthusiasm for caffeine get the better of me, as I initially turned on the coffee maker without adding water to the tank, first. Of course, I only realized this once I went to retrieve the stainless steel to-go cup from the maker's platform and found it suspiciously... empty.

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I'd like to think my Oops was really a benevolent act in disguise... I mean, certainly I like to get steam treatments every once in awhile. Surely coffee grounds must like saunas, too.

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Ah-hah! Found the problem: No water.

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Problem solved; commence java making.


Now, what about brunch?

I'm fairly methodical about my eating habits all around (as opposed to just being health conscious). I neither want to OD it on cooking at home, nor do I want to OD it on eating out. The former is time consuming and necessitates that one get used to eating lots of leftovers if they live by themselves, while the latter tends to be prohibitively expensive if you do it every day.

Earlier in the week I made dark chocolate bread pudding with bananas and a vanilla sauce (we'll get to that later). When all was mixed and baked, I still had two slices of cinnamon bread, a single banana, and 1.5 cups of vanilla sauce leftover. Neither of these things would be usable after this weekend, so I made it my mission to use these ingredients for today's breakfast, rather than go out.

Grilled Almond Butter Sandwich with Sauteed Bananas

* Two slices of bread
* Two tablespoons of almond butter (or other nut butter of your choice)
* One slightly overly ripe banana, thinly sliced
* Enough leftover vanilla custard sauce to coat the bread (see recipe below)
* Butter, butter, butter

Dip one side of each slice in the custard for 15 seconds, and set the pieces batter face down on a large plate. Spread two tablespoons of nut butter on the dry sides of the bread. After you do that, thinly slice the banana and add one tablespoon of butter to a small saute pan. Just when the butter begins to brown, throw in the bananas and let them break down. Be sure to stir the mixture every so often so as not to burn the fruit. You want the bananas to take on a consistency like the nut butter on the bread (i.e., it's OK if the fruit doesn't retain its shape — you'll have an easier time making the sandwich if the bananas become a spread). Once the bananas turn a kind of caramel brown, immediately remove the pan from the heat and spread the mixture evenly on one of the pieces of bread. Assemble the sandwich.

In a much larger saute pan, add another tablespoon of butter and turn the heat on medium-high. Wait 20 seconds and then place the sandwich in it. If it sizzles the moment it touches the pan, the temperature is high enough; if it doesn't, remove it from the pan and wait an additional 15 seconds. After 1.5 minutes, flip the sandwich over to the other side; using a spatula, gently press down on the bread so as to let the other side sear. After another minute and a half, flip it again and then pull it from the pan.

Cut the sandwich (or not) at whatever angle you choose. Optional: Drizzle a teaspoon of honey over the bread after it's been set on a plate. Eat the sandwich whole, or pull it apart and dip it in, oh I don't know, your coffee.

Standard Vanilla Custard Sauce (one of the many on Epicurious.com)

1/2 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise (or use vanilla extract and whisk in a teaspoon of cinnamon if you want the custard to look like it has specs in it)
2 cups half-and-half
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar

Scrape seeds from vanilla bean into a 2- to 3-quart heavy saucepan with tip of a paring knife, then add pod and half-and-half and bring just to a boil. Remove from heat.

Whisk together eggs and sugar in a bowl until well combined, then add hot half-and-half mixture in a slow stream, whisking constantly. Transfer custard to saucepan and cook over moderately low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until thickened and custard registers 175°F on thermometer, 5 to 10 minutes (do not let boil).

Pour custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a metal bowl, discarding solids. Set bowl in a larger bowl of ice and cold water and stir custard until cool. Chill in refrigerator, covered, until cold, at least 1 hour.

Note: This custard won't set. In other words, because there is no cornstarch or gelatin of any kind in the recipe, you're essentially making a sauce.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

//It came from the fast food bag

Note from the Editor: The writer does not claim responsibility for the actions performed prior to this post's creation. She's currently slightly feverish and therefore is not of sound mind. (Yeah, THAT'S why she made what she made.)

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It's Day Two of Cold Watch 2009. I haven't gotten any worse, but I haven't gotten any better either. My ability to taste foods is slightly compromised due to the congestion, which might also account for the weird craving I had late last night. I haven't had a cup of hot coffee in three days now because drinking it only makes my throat feel worse (see yesterday's post). I miss my morning cuppa. =( But! I'm doing all that I can to get better ASAP. For instance: It's 82° outside, but I wore leg warmers, pants, a sweater, and scarf to work today to keep my body from experiencing even more chills while I work in my company's frigid office.

Enough about today. Let's talk about what went down at 11:00 p.m. last night. Hunger struck, and it struck hard. I must have been delirious, because I can't recall what thought associations led me to conclude that the obvious and best way to abate the rumbling in my tummy was to make a Krispy Kreme McDonald's chicken sandwich. It's not like I'd ever eaten something like this before! It's not like I ever eat KK or Mickey Ds! Maybe I was thinking about fair food? Or the time Steve and Elicia pureed In 'N' Out in a food processor and served the dip on crackers? I have no idea.

It was, however, totally delicious. But I'm not going to make this a weekly ritual or anything.

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Mr. Dunkin Donuts coffee looks on and feels neglected as I prepare my late night snack.

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One bite and the whole thing fell to pieces. This was ultimately a good thing, because I didn't go on to finish the sammich. Anything that tasty couldn't possibly be terribly dietetic.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

//Good Grits

I remember getting a slight chill last weekend when Mr. ProNerd was in town. The stress from that must have sent my immune system into a tizzy, because this morning I woke up with a vague sense that all was not well with my body. The most prominent symptom, the one that led me to believe I had caught the tail end of the virus that had wreaked havoc on my boyfriend one week earlier, was the one that greeted me the moment I swallowed.

Post nasal drip feels like the back of my throat is covered with blistered tissue from having accidentally swallowed piping hot coffee the day before. That, or someone managed to jam an emery board down my esophagus while I was sleeping. Post nasal drip is dry. It's rough. It's omnipresent. I hate it. Hate. Hate. Hate it. Should you have a congested nose, at least you can choose to breathe through you mouth. Unfortunately, there's only one way you can swallow, and most of the time you perform the function without even realizing it. For me, the routine reminder of post nasal drip's existence only magnifies the fact that I'm ill.

Since the only way to get over a cold is to just let it run its course, symptom suppression is the only way I can stay sane while my body's white blood cells conduct biological warfare inside of me. Sleeping 14 hours a day is ideal, too; but I work. I'm not a fan of pseudoephedrine or other OTC cold medicines, so I look to food to help me obliterate the myriad of aches, sniffles and other annoyances that come as part of the typical rhinovirus package.

In the past I've consumed large quantities of tom yum goong with extra chili flakes, kim chi, wasabi with sushi (yes, exactly like that), Odwalla Blueberry B Monster smoothies, oatmeal and peanut butter. Basically, spicy, thick, and bland foods that either coat the back of my throat, or open the mucus floodgates and consequently divert my attention away from the dreaded PND. At 17 I ate an entire quart of ice cream in one sitting — that's how much I wanted to forget about the post nasal drip going on at the time.

Coincidentally, last night I went to bed thinking it'd be a good idea to get grits the following day for lunch. This craving for hominy porridge is the direct result of the subpar brunch experience I had at Moonshadows in Malibu last Saturday. (Warning: the site plays music the moment you click "Enter Restaurant")

I'd eaten at Moonshadows before, but for dinner only. Honestly I was quite surprised that their brunch didn't live up to the gastronomic culinary excellence like their nighttime meals always have. Now don't get me wrong, the food wasn't terrible by any means. And perhaps part of the reason why I was disappointed was because I'd checked out their menu a few days prior to brunch, determined what I was going to order (Niman Ranch wild boar and cranberry sausage over grits with Fuji apple raisin "gravy," with caramelized onions and bacon chips), and let my imagination tantalize and taunt me with the most exceptional vision of what said dish was going to taste like. Still, this is Moonshadows of Malibu we're talking about here! Their direct competitor of Geoffrey's, another high class establishment on the Pacific Ocean. The food _has_ to be of a certain quality; it's not like Geoffrey's is that much further up the coast, or their prices that much more exorbitant. For whatever reason, though, the dish I ate was no better than what I would have gotten at Denny's.

Grits by themselves are thick, hearty and bland, which makes them the perfect kind of comfort food for lessening post nasal drip. Their texture and taste makes them a dream ingredient for a haute cuisine chef who wants to show off their breakfast talents — the perfect canvas onto which one can pour whatever sauce they like. Chefs dress up every variety of rice with all manner of additives, sweet or savory; they've been known to make creme brulee oatmeal with sugared bananas, too. Omelets always taste better when the eggs have been beaten with a smidgen of cream. What I'm trying to say is: If a high class restaurant is going to charge $18 for a bowl full of grits, the gravy that accompanies it better have some taste to it. What I got at Moonshadows was as bland as the hominy itself — you couldn't even taste a hint anything in the sauce. The raisins were few, the Fuji apples had been pureed so much their juice (and consequently their flavor) had evaporated. It was tasteless; and as for the color, does the word "gruel" spring any particular hues to mind? I was suitably unimpressed, and unfulfilled, which brings me to today.

As late as yesterday, I still wanted recompense for my experience. I wanted food justice. I wanted to know that I didn't have to go to the South for a decent bowl of warm hominy. Believing Google sincerely meant it when they said "Do no harm," I figured it couldn't hurt to enter "Los Angeles best grits" into their search engine. The first entry to pop up was a ChowHound.com discussion about where to find palatable grits in the greater Los Angeles area. After sifting through about 45 responses, a few places came up: Nick's Coffee Shop and Deli on Pico, Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles, Pann's over by LAX, and Square One Dining in Hollywood. Nick's didn't have a website of their own; and though they received positive reviews on Yelp!, no one had anything to say about their grits. Roscoe's and Pann's... eh, the quality of their dishes can be extremely variable. The 35 mile roundtrip to either of these locations, combined with the knowledge that I might be served yet another bowl of disappointment, made me hesitant to even consider them. At least so soon. (nb: Pann's does have the best biscuits in Los Angeles – that you can count on.)

Square One Dining was new on my foodar, and it was only 7 miles away. I scratched my chin and went to their website. It checked out OK. I mean, insofar as I could tell, I liked the sound of all their offerings. Then again, I liked the sound of what was on Moonshadow's brunch menu too! Thwrup, thwrup, thwrup went my fingers as I strummed them on my laptop. Then I remembered that Los Angeles Magazine.com had a "Best of Section" that had proven to be spot on more often that not (for instance, under the category of "Best Grilled Cheese," you won't find The Foundry, thankfully... but that's another gastrotale for another entry). Sadly, no category for "Best Grits." They did, however, have a link for "Best Breakfast." I clicked. There right smack dab in the middle of the page was an entry for Square One Dining. And they gave a thumbs up to their grits! A cross-match! Score! I had a plan, and now I had a place to go with it; on Thursday I would go try their grits.

Then I woke up feeling ill this morning. Energy zapped. Muscles twitchy. Could I make the 7 mile trek to Hollywood? Should I? Yes, yes I should, damn it. I'm sick. But more importantly: I'm sick AND suffering from post nasal drip AND I don't have any oatmeal or juice on hand. So before I went into work, I went to Square One Dining to soothe my throat.

I don't want to spend a lot of time talking about the aesthetics of the place, or the service. Suffice to say, there isn't a huge sign outside the restaurant that announces its presence. The name of the restaurant is on a dark-gray brown awning, and the color of restaurant's name on the overhang is only slightly lighter. The trees on the sidewalk partially obscure the place as well. You might drive past it. But I found it, mostly because I took a gamble and assumed that a chartreuse single-story building on the residential side of Fountain Avenue had to be the local eatery. This wasn't the first time I'd encountered such a setup in Los Angeles, and I don't think it'll be my last. Sure enough, the place was Square One Dining.

The service was prompt, and they didn't charge me after I switched from drinking an iced latte to iced tea. The grits were brought from the kitchen and placed in front of me within 7 minutes of my ordering them. Oh boy did they look marvelous, with lots of thick, cube-like bits of bacon stirred in with perfectly melted cheddar cheese! (Photos below.) I added a wee bit of honey just because and then spooned some of the grits into my mouth. Mmmmmm. The dish did the trick — PND went away for a few hours, and I got my grits do over. Had I been any hungrier, I might have gotten their chorizo, tomato, jalapeƱo, onion and mozzarella egg white omelet with grits on the side, but the cold did a lot to kill my appetite. As such, I left the restaurant with a cardboard container filled with 3/4 of the original grits dish (which I then heated up and ate for dinner).

Square One gets my enthusiastic approval.

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Square One Dining serves Intelligentsia coffee and espresso. For two years now I've been meaning to bite the day old espresso puck and stand in line for what has long been rumored to be the Best Coffee in Los Angeles (or on the West Coast, for that matter). Thanks to Square One, I no longer feel the temptation to do so. Intelligentsia and me didn't hit it off, so it's back to Dunkin Donuts and Lavazza for me. *phew* For a moment there, I was worried.

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//Post Pinwheel Peach Cobbler

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In the end, the Cylons caused our team's downfall. =(

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Despite this, the pinwheel peach cobbler suffered a worse fate. It.got.devoured.

Another success! After the last of the cobbly bits were wiped clean from the cake pan, it was suggested that I try making fesenjan in the coming weeks. Anytime is a good time for fesenjan... but where does one get pomegranate syrup?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

//A Night Under the Stars Meets Starry Night

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Rose and Or's parties have become somewhat of an institution in my social circle. Birthday gatherings aside, they've probably thrown at least 8 themed parties in the 3 years that I've known them. This past Saturday was their bi-annual Prom Party.

The majority of Rose and Or's energy goes into planning the lavish aesthetics of the event — decorations, costumes, photo backdrops, etc. Constructing something like a zombie graveyard for Halloween can take several weeks, so naturally this leaves them with little time for food preparation and catering. This works to my advantage, as I'll look for any excuse to bake or cook for events. Initially the plan was to bake two dishes, but as usual, I got carried away and made much, much more.

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A celestial-looking raspberry almond tart was a no-brainer.

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Peanut butter-chocolate chip sandwich cookies with tiramisu-peanut butter filling kind of resemble asteroids or meteors when assembled.


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That was to be it. Nothing more. To make even just one more dish would necessitate my needing to block off two evenings for baking. But... one week before prom, The Gabster gave me Hello, Cupcake as a belated Christmas present. She couldn't have possibly known this, but I'd wanted that book ever since I first saw it at the Portland Paper Source store in early October 2008. What a wonderful gift! The temptation to thumb through the pages was so strong, I sat in front of her house for a good 10 minutes after we'd said goodbye and gave the cupcake manual a cursory overview. I drove away feeling so very, very inspired.

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Whoa! What do we have here?

It was on page 41 of the book that I found the ultimate dessert for Or and Rose's party. They called prom "A Night Under the Stars," so a cupcake recreation of van Gogh's "Starry Night" seemed like the perfect addition to what was shaping up to be a perfect evening.

The most labor intensive part of the project was hand mixing the nine colors of frosting for the cupcakes; that by itself took two hours, and stretched the tendons in my right hand beyond mere elasticity. Once the cupcakes cooled and were secured to the cake box using standard Wilton's frosting, piping the actual cake frosting was a simple. An hour after laying down the first squiggle of royal blue icing, I was done.


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This particular project was a great learning exercise for many reasons: 1.) I learned how to better pipe frosting using standard ziploc bags (i.e., what's the best way to hold the bag, how much plastic should I snip off if I want to make tiny squiggles); 2.) I found a way to put my creative inner critic on mute; and 3.) I now know that it takes 25 dots of blue food coloring to make sky blue (16 if you're looking for Tiffany Blue). Overall, I was pleased with the results (both appearance-wise and taste-wise).

Upon successful completion of Starry Night, I began working on individual toasted coconut cheesecakes with a homemade chai-graham cracker crust.


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You can make your own chai spice mix, but I guarantee that the flavor won't be nearly as instense as using four bags of chai tea.

I also baked zucchini-ginger cupcakes from scratch and layered ginger cream cheese frosting over them.

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Zucchini-ginger cupcakes, pre-frosting

Based on what was leftover at the end of the evening, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that the cookies, the cheesecakes and Starry Night were all a hit. The plan was to wait until the Prom Queen and King were announced before I broke into the cupcake painting and destroyed it; however, someone beat me to it at around 11:00. Oh well. The raspberry tart was a hit, too; but because of its size, there were leftovers. The zucchini-ginger cupcakes were well-received by the small group of individuals who ate them. Personally I found them to be a bit on the savory side; next time I'll use 1 cup of honey (instead of just 3/4) and use buttermilk instead of extra light virgin olive oil like the recipe called for.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

//Whimsical Pinwheel Peach Cobbler

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Winter — or what passes for it here in Los Angeles — finally landed in the middle of January. This means that the night temperatures are in the 30s-40s. Now for those of you residing in what I consider to be the frostbite armpit part of the country, I know that any day when the digits are above the teens is considered a _warm_ day. Understand though that we here in sunny Southern California are spoiled, so 32° is, well, freezing.

But I digress.

When the weather starts to get nippy, I start to crave comfort food. Thai curries, chili, oatmeal, bread puddings, glutinous risottos, cobblers — sweet, savory, starchy and heavy. These are the dishes that stick to your ribs (or so my mother told me long ago). Today I was jonesing for cobbler, so to the store I went in search of fresh produce.

I perused the pippins, picked over the pears, and played with plums; ultimately, it was the Chilean peaches that won. Prunus persica happen to be in season right now because it's the middle of summer in the Southern Hemisphere. The going rate for yellow cling is a $1.00 a pound a Vons, so I loaded up a bag with 8 (4 pounds).

Any cobbler fresh from the oven will warm you up. One made with peaches, however, will make you nostalgic for long summer days. Particular to me, my grandparents had a peach tree in their backyard (which later became our backyard when they moved to... the frostbite armpit of the country). Eating peaches is one the ways I "keep" in touch with my Gama and Gandpa.

A few notes about this dish: 1.) A 9" cake pan is not large enough to hold all the ingredients, so there was some cobbly overflow. (As the person responsible for cleaning up the crumbs, I'm not complaining, but the mess did bother my perfectionist sensibilities... somewhat.) 2.) Instead of sprinkling the brown sugar mixture over the rolled out dough, I accidentally mixed it _into_ it. This kept the pinwheels from keeping their respective shapes during the baking process. That aside, this dish is deeelicious (extremely hot, too). I can't wait to serve it tomorrow night when a group of us play nerdy board games!


Biscuits

* 1/2 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
* 3 tablespoons minced crystallized ginger
* 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
* 2 cups all purpose flour
* 3/4 cup sugar (I used Sugar in the Raw because of its texture and caramel color)
* 2 teaspoons baking powder
* 1/2 teaspoon salt
* 1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
* 2/3 cup whipping cream
* 2 teaspoons vanilla extract


* 1 tablespoon butter, melted


Filling

* 1/2 cup sugar
* 1 vanilla bean, coarsely chopped (or use 2 teaspoons vanilla extract — I refuse to pay $12.99 for a single vanilla bean)
* 1 tablespoon all purpose flour
* 4 pounds peaches, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices
* 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice


* Powdered sugar (optional)

How to make:

For biscuits:
Mix first 3 ingredients in medium bowl. Set spiced sugar aside. Mix flour, 3/4 cup sugar, baking powder, and salt in large bowl. Using fingertips, rub in chilled butter until coarse meal forms. Add cream and vanilla; stir until moist clumps form. Gently knead dough on lightly floured surface just until smooth.

Roll out dough on lightly floured surface to 9x15-inch rectangle. Brush with melted butter. Sprinkle with spiced sugar. Starting at 1 long side, roll up dough jelly-roll style. Transfer to baking sheet. Cover log with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.

For filling:
Preheat oven to 350°F. Blend sugar, vanilla, and flour in processor until vanilla is finely chopped; place in large bowl. Add peaches and lemon juice; toss to coat. Transfer peach mixture to 10-inch-diameter cake pan with 2-inch-high sides. Bake until filling is bubbling, about 30-50 minutes.

Cut dough log crosswise into 1-inch-thick biscuits. Place biscuits atop filling. Bake until biscuits are golden, about 45 minutes. Cool at least 10 minutes. Dust with powdered sugar and serve warm.

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This video was made last week and announces my plan to film my projects every so often.

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Piccakes

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