Babycakes…

People get so in the habit of worry that if you save them from drowning and put them on a bank to dry in the sun with hot chocolate and muffins they wonder whether they are catching cold. – John Jay Chapman

Muffins really do get the short end of the stick in the baking world.

Which is really too bad, because if they are done right, they are pretty awesome. A cross between a quick bread and a cupcake.

But (and with apologies to Longfellow) when they are bad, they are horrid. We’ve all had the lame-ass conference room muffin, the gas station stand-by as you roll through Barstow (a town as equally uninspiring as that saran-wrapped banana nut travesty).

But I’m here today to tell you that they are worth your attention.

Especially when you are presented with a basic recipe that can accommodate not only the last of the season’s peaches, but next season’s cranberries. Or next year’s strawberries, or raspberries, or gooseberries, or snozzberries…

…and has a super delicious crumble top…

…and tastes like teensy little bits of “good morning!” that are perfect to wake up to.

The only failing I can find in this recipe is that it takes a couple extra steps and maybe an extra bowl or two, but trust me, they are worth it. You, and your paramour, will thank me.

Fruit Crumble Muffins

Adapted from Sarabeth’s Bakery

You will need:

  • 1 muffin tin
  • 1 small saucepan
  • 12 cupcake liners
  • 1 small bowl
  • 2 medium mixing bowls
  • 1 wooden spoon
  • 1 citrus zester
  • 1 whisk
  • 1 magic ice cream scoop

Ingredients for muffin batter:

  • 1 large orange, zested and juiced (you should have 1/3 cup juice, strained to remove pips)
  • 2/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 2 large eggs (at room temperature, natch)
  • 2 1/4 cup flour (bread flour is best but if all you have is all purpose don’t worry, it’s cool)
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 cup seasonal fruit, diced if needed

Ingredients for crumble mixture:

  • 6 tbsp all purpose flour
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp. brown sugar
  • 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 3 tbsp butter, melted

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Line muffin tin with cupcake liners.

Make crumble mixture by placing all dry ingredients in the small bowl, and melting butter. Pour melted butter on the dry ingredients and mix together with a fork, breaking it up with your fingers as needed. Set aside.

In one mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Sift brown sugar into the dry ingredients to remove any lumps (I use a strainer for this). Whisk together.

In the second bowl, whisk wet ingredients (milk, oil, eggs, orange zest and juice) together.

Pour wet ingredients over dry, and stir to combine. Don’t go crazy here, a few lumps are OK. Fold in whatever fruit you are using.

Use your magic scoop to portion the batter into the muffin cups. My magic scoop was given to me by my mom, who got it from her mom, etc. and so on. You may not be so lucky, but never fear – in the end, you want your paper liner to be about 2/3 full.

Sprinkle crumb mixture evenly over the tops of the muffins.

Bake at 400 until a tester comes out clean (15 minutes, give or take).

Enjoy with tousled hair, a cup of coffee, and the New York Times.

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Some (but not all) of the reasons…

When it’s three o’clock in New York, it’s still 1938 in London. – Bette Midler

It’s been some time since I’ve been here. Quite awhile, actually.

It isn’t that I’ve forgotten, I’ve just been a little bit busy. But it’s nice to be here.

Even if nobody is looking.

So, where have I been?

Well, I went here:

Which involved some of this:

And this:

And some of this:


There were also cookbook shops (one and two), people to love and enjoy, pouring rain, and the dinner of a lifetime with three of my favorite men, here.

Afterwards, there was a trip to Las Vegas for a bachelorette fete for a lovely and delightful friend, a dislocated ankle (not mine), meeting Ferran Adria (FERRAN ADRIA!!!), going to see Gabrielle Hamilton speak with Kim Severson, helping a lovely friend harvest her backyard vineyard, Anthony Bourdain at the Paramount, and a million other small things that take up the day to day that kept me from the here and now.

All of which leads me to why I am (finally) here today. Turns out that turning everything off for a bit can distill things down and clarify your thoughts and perspectives into something understandable and (dare I say it) meaningful.

Over the course of the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a LOT about why professionally crafted food is so different from what most people make in their own homes (not that it’s better or worse, just…different), and it turns out, I have some opinions (shocking, I know).

I won’t claim that that the below is an “end all, be all” list of why restaurant food is better than yours (because who’s to say that it is?), but I do think that its a good start, for me, and for you.

Reason #1: Salt

It’s built and sustained cultures. It has been the basis of international trade and destroyed empires. It is one of the basic tastes the human tongue can perceive, and yet we vilify it, use it sparingly, treat it like a sin. I’m here to tell you that salt is one of the most powerful tools in your cooking arsenal, you just have to learn how to wield it (wisely). Restaurants treat salt differently than you. On the line, salt is an ingredient, not a flavor. It’s part of the elemental structure of a dish, and it’s treated as such. Some starting places for you are:

  • Salt is salt is salt. There no way way to change the NaCl nature of the beast (that expensive pink salt from the Himalayas? Guess what: It tastes exactly like that $5 canister of sea salt you have on your countertop – salty), but the way in which salt is handled after harvest makes a huge difference in the way the tongue perceives it. That flaky sel de mer? It’s fantastic on salads. Finer grain salt is better suited to braises and sauces because it melts more readily into the liquid. For baking, get your hands on some kosher salt (preferably Black Diamond). The point is to think about how you are going to use the salt, and to use the right tool for the job.
  • Ever notice that in the better restaurants, there isn’t a salt shaker on the table? That’s because salt is not only used liberally, but it is also used in layers in a dish, and in (almost) every component on the plate. Think of salt as an integral part of your cooking, and add it as you go along, rather than going crazy at the end.
  • Remember what the goal of salt is: to enhance flavors, not, in the end, to make your dish taste salty. By considering the texture of your salt, and when you add it to your dish, you are already half-way there.
  • Lastly, understand that you will use more in the process of cooking, but you will use less in the end, because you will have enhanced the flavor of your food to a point where shaking more on is actually going to detract from your dish.

Reason #2: Time

This is really a two parter, the first being the amount of time we spend in the kitchen vs. “doing other things” and then the amount of time our food actually spends in the pan.

Part 1: Turns out, not every citizen of the US of A is dying to spend their evening hours toiling over a braised pork shoulder or laminating dough (it’s fun! I swear!) However, as a nation, we spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to reduce our time in the kitchen, looking for a “5 Ingredient Fix” or a meal for a family of 4 that takes less than 15 minutes to prepare.  And I get it, I really do. It’s hard to raise children/have a job/care for your house/keep it all together.

But…

What I hear in all this is a desire to have more time to spend as a family. What if, just what if, we treated time in the kitchen not as a chore, but as that family time we are all so desperate to have? What if we saw it for what it is – a way to pass on traditions or make them up as we go along? What if, when our kids leave home, they are prepared to feed themselves on something other than fast food and prepared meals? What if we taught them how to prepare vegetables in a way in which they will actually enjoy them, rather than finding ways to hide them in things? What if they had that one killer thing they can make that will land that guy/girl they’ve got their eye on?

What if we treated the thing we have to do three times every day with a little respect?

Part 2: As a rule, all this hurrying in the kitchen is adding to another way in which we short-change our food. Long story short: it just simply doesn’t spend enough time in the pan. That super delicious chicken you had at Chez Whathisname? I guarantee you it was better because Chef didn’t pull it out of the pan the minute the exterior looked even remotely done. She left it there to get a little brown, let the natural sugars (yes, there are sugars in meat) caramelize and create a deeper flavor. That croissant in Paris? Delicious not only because it was made with a veritable fuck-ton of butter, but also because the patissier didn’t remove them from the oven when they were golden, he waited until they were that deep mahogany, allowing the butter to truly vaporize and create an astounding, flaky, crunchy delight. And that bread at your local artisan baker? Only better because they aren’t afraid of a little dark spot on the loaf.

So, wait a little longer. Go a little further. Let the food do its thing. Don’t burn it, but don’t puss out either. If you aren’t a little nervous, you haven’t gone far enough.

Reason #3: Heat

I need you to start thinking of heat as a tool, as a way to achieve results. Restaurants don’t bake everything at 350. They don’t always use the “medium” setting on the burner. Think about what you are doing, and then think about the heat that will be required to achieve your desired result.

Searing requires a high (yes, use the max setting you have available) heat. It’s OK to get a little agressive. If you need a sear, you need to show your food who’s boss. Are you looking to braise something? I want you to think Marvin Gaye. Low and slow is the way to handle this particular situation. Making soup? This is where the middle ground pays off, letting it bubble along, rather than rapidly boiling it’s way into extinction.

Heat is a tool. Learn how your stove works. Warm (or chill) your plates and bowls. Calibrate your oven, think about what you want your end product to look/taste like, and operate your dial as required.

Reason #4: Garnish

Why aren’t you doing this? It’s easy, and if you are already making dinner, you have all the tools at your disposal.

Did you cook chicken in that pan? A little wine and butter makes a great pan sauce. Did you make a salad dressing? Reserve some herbs and garnish your pork roast so that everything is tied together. Got nuthin? What about a little cheese, or olive oil, or mayonnaise, or yogurt, or balsamic, or mustard, or something, anything to pull it all together.

One caveat: Anything you use to garnish your plate should be edible and make sense. There is nothing worse that than lame-ass piece of curly parsley on the corner of the plate, and don’t even get me started on that ubiquitous sprig of mint that comes on every damn dessert on the planet. If you are really thinking about your garnish, it will not only be edible, but will serve to pull a dish together, make it taste even better, and perhaps even telegraph to the diner what they are about to experience. For instance, you wouldn’t garnish a lemon tart with chocolate shavings, instead, you might want a little whipped mascarpone with lemon zest on top. Likewise, you wouldn’t want to put a red wine sauce on a chicken you marinated in lime and garlic, rather, lean toward a sour cream and chipotle sauce.

And there you have it. Four ways in which to start thinking, really thinking, about the food you eat, and how to make it better.

After all, you only get to do it three times a day.

Trust me, it’s worth it…

…I do like the idea of peach pie. Its name – whisper the words – carries a seductiveness that appeals on a hot, still afternoon when there is little else to do. This is a dessert whose name alone wins you over by its unapologetic softness and deep scent of summer. – Nigel Slater

This post isn’t actually about peach pie. And because it’s the perfect time of year for them, I sorta wish it were. But I don’t regret the recipe I’m about to deliver to you one iota.

You see, peach pie is easy. Get your hands on the recipe for a great pie crust (your auntie’s, your grandma’s, or this one), and fill it up with (a ton of) late summer gold, and you are pretty much set. A little sugar, a little vanilla, maybe even a little butter, but only if you really feel the need to gild the lily. Easy peasy.

But, if you are up for (just a tiny bit) more work, this coffee cake is for you, especially if every other peach-greedy bastard (i.e., ME) has beaten you to the market and you can only get your hands on two or three of the golden beauties.

What is about to be in front of your eyes is the formula that will give you a dense yet delicate cake, which is essentially a whole lotta liquid, barely held together with just enough flour to make a batter. This cake started out as the Campton Place Coffee Cake from Desserts by the Yard, by Chef Sherry Yard, pastry chef at Spago, and by all accounts, one of the most lovely people you will ever meet (which I sincerely hope to do one day, if only to beg forgiveness for messing with her recipe below).

Anyway, when it all comes together, it makes for the most incredible cake with a double filling of peaches, highlighted by cocoa powder and cinnamon. Your mind? Is about to be blown.

Peach Coffee Cake

Adapted from Desserts by the Yard, Sherry Yard

You will need:

  • 2 medium bowls
  • A sifter (I use a large fine mesh strainer)
  • Liquid measuring cups
  • Dry measuring cups
  • Measuring spoons
  • Bowl scraper or rubber spatula
  • 1 bundt pan
  • 1 stand mixer
  • Small pot for melting butter
  • Pastry brush (I use a natural hair paintbrush from the hardware store)

Ingredients for the cake:

  • 3 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 6 oz. unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 1/4 cup sugar
  • 3 large eggs at room temperature
  • 2 cups vanilla yogurt at room temperature

Ingredients for the filling:

  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 tbsp. cocoa powder
  • 12 oz. peaches – peeled, pitted, and diced
  • Optional: 1/4 cup finely chopped almonds, coconut, pistachios, or whatever else strikes your fancy

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare your pan by brushing with butter (please don’t use the spray – it’s gross, and always leaves a discernible and undesirable flavor), and then dusting with flour.

Make the filling by combining all ingredients in one of your medium bowls, and set aside.

To make the cake, cream the butter and sugar together in your mixer until light and fluffy. This is going to take about 5 minutes, so don’t get all anxious and stop short. Just let the mixer do the work.

While the butter and sugar are working, sift the dry ingredients together three times (yeah, three times – it’s totally worth it and I swear you’ll be looking for things to sift three times after one taste of this cake). Set aside.

Once the butter and sugar have made friends, add the eggs one at a time, making sure to scrape the edge of the bowl a couple of times with your rubber spatula, and waiting for each egg to be fully incorporated before adding the next.

Scrape the bowl once more, and then with the mixer on its lowest setting, add the wet and dry ingredients alternately, in three additions each. Once everything is incorporated, it’s time to assemble the cake.

Put 1 1/2 cups of batter in the bottom of the pan, and use a spatula to even it out. Then, put 1/2 the filling on top of that. Next, put another 1 1/2 cups batter on top, and even out with a spatula. Add the other half of the peach filling, and then the last portion of batter on top, evening out to complete the assembly.

Bake the cake until a tester comes out clear of batter (about 45 minutes), but don’t forget to rotate half way through. Take cake out and cool for 30 minutes on a rack before inverting onto a plate. Resistance will be futile, so make sure you have a fork handy. Goes good with coffee or tea, but goes great with a favorite face on the other side of the table.

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Four and twenty…

You live and learn. At any rate, you live. – Douglas Adams

I recently had the great good fortune to assist at a baking class held at Della Fattoria, and taught by the inestimable Christa Colardo of Marin Cooking.

The building that Della is located in has been a bakery for over 100 years, and you can see it in every little quirky detail, from the dumbwaiter…

…to the fridge (ever so conveniently located on the second floor).

The focus was baking from the farmers market, and at this time of year, that means only one thing:

Pie.

In all it’s forms.

So, with everything at our disposal, we got to work.

And I have to say, I was REALLY impressed with what the students made.

At this time of year, when the sun shines just a little softer and the evenings are just a bit cooler, you are allowed to contemplate turning on the oven for a just a little bit, and dream of a perfect pie cooling on your windowsill (handsome stranger: optional). Want to try your hand at it? All you need is one thing: a reliable pie crust.

Now, everyone has their thoughts on pie crust, but for me, it’s nothing but an all butter pate brisee, and lucky for you, I’m willing to share:

Pate Brisee

You will need:

  • 1 medium bowl
  • Plastic wrap

Indredients:

  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 cup cake flour (look, if you don’t have it, don’t worry – just use 1 cups of all purpose flour, it will be just fine)
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 6 oz. butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes and chilled
  • 7 tbsp. ice water

In the medium bowl, whisk your flour(s) and salt.

Take your butter out of the fridge, and place it in the bowl. Then, using your fingers, work the butter into the flour until you have a some pieces that are small (like crushed crackers) and some that are a bit bigger (like broken walnuts). The mix of sizes is actually important here (when the butter melts in the oven, it vaporizes, making the flakes everyone is after), so don’t try to get it all even and stuff.

Now, add the water a tablespoon at a time, until the dough is shaggy (you’ll know it when you see it). It should not come together in a ball (if it does, it’s too wet).

Note: You can do all of this in a stand mixer, if you have one at your disposal, but don’t worry, it’s just as delicious if done by hand.

Once your dough is shaggy, put your plastic wrap on the counter, then turn the contents of your bowl out onto the plastic, and gather it all together. Then, fold up the plastic wrap, and push the dough around until it comes together and you don’t have cracks at the edge.

The last step is to let it rest, for at least 30 minutes, but preferably overnight in the fridge.

Then, I dare you to not find reasons to line the nearest pie pan and fill it with whatever you have on hand: peaches, berries, chocolate, quiche lorraine…

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More of a “collection”, really…

Anyone who eats three meals a day should understand why cookbooks outsell sex books three to one. – L. M. Boyd

Cookbooks. I have a few.

I also have some mixed feelings about them.

On the one hand, they can be delightful little journeys around the world, or just around the corner. They can inspire you to new heights of ridiculousness (yes, I have driven to three different grocery stores to find unpasteurized heavy cream to make fresh ricotta – and then found it just a few blocks from my house, and also discovered through experimentation that I DIDN’T EVEN NEED IT), and can lead to greatness (beef tenderloin en croute with leeks vinaigrette? Mai oui!). They are windows to a world that isn’t yours, but you wouldn’t mind if it put its slippers under the bed. The right one will send you straight into the kitchen to slice/grate/pickle/braise your way to Valhalla.

On the other hand, cookbooks will chain you down and keep you coming back for more, like a bad boyfriend. They make you dependent on a particular set of steps, ingredients, and methods. The wrong cookbook will try to convince you that you simply must, must do it (whatever “it” is) the author’s way or your efforts will fail miserably and you will die in ignominy (and hungry).  And, as great as that way may be, I *hate* being told what to do. Hate it.

Cookbooks also have a singular ability to drive you nuts when poorly constructed or not well thought out. More than once, I’ve gotten half way through reading a particular recipe, only to be left with having to guess what to do with the bunch of parsley or reserved half-cup of sugar (which I realize is the result of crap editing more than it has to do with the author herself). And, because the author has waxed rhapsodic about enjoying the dish on a deck, with a view, and a chilled glass of flinty white sitting on an artfully restored butcher block table at sunset, I wind up pissed off that I am “enjoying” it in my sweltering kitchen, the remnants of a bottle of (now warm and flat) bubbly water in a Mason jar on the counter, staring at a pile of dirty dishes instead of a vineyard. Fuck.

And they take up a hell of a lot of shelf space.

And they are everywhere around here. They are piled on coffee tables, stuffed into corners, and (despite my half-assed efforts to achieve a semblance of domestic organization worthy of a spread in Dwell) find their way into the shelves reserved specifically for non-food related books (all two of them).

So, even though there are a fair few cookbooks out there that make me idiotic with rage, I’d like to take up a bit of digital space with (yet another) list of those that absolutely rock my world. That changed the way I view food and cooking. If this list was in any way timely and profiled works published only in the last year, I would suggest that we give them an award for pure awesomeness. But (at least this time) this is more of a survey of what’s on my shelf and (more importantly) what’s on my counter, getting down and dirty and (not a little bit) sticky. So, here we go:

Best All Around

Mark Bitman is quite possibly my favorite food guy, ever. And? He wants you to cook. Badly. Not that he wants you to eff up every time you step in front of the stove, rather he is deeply invested in getting a knife in your hand, a whisk in your utensil holder, and a pan on the stove. Moreover, he wants the food you cook to be FOOD. Granted, his columns in the NYTimes have become…curmudgeonly (by his own admission), but his omnibus How to Cook Everything is truly the best book you can have in your kitchen because it provides you with more than recipes. He gives you techniques, and encourages you to step outside the formulas he presents. If you are new to the kitchen, or just need a (really) basic reference, get this.

Best Vegetable (But Not Necessarily Vegetarian)

Yotam Ottolenghi is a genius. No, really, a genius. If you are lucky enough to live in London (or just planning to visit), please please please, go here (there are four: Notting Hill, Islington, Belgravia, and Kensington). And then take your bounty to Green Park (after stopping here for a little light reading) and enjoy your spoils in the golden light of Autumn (because I am picturing you heading over in October, which is my favorite month to land upon their shores). If you aren’t planning to storm the the old sod any time soon, get your hands on his book(s). Nobody has a more beautiful perspective on vegetables, and nobody is combining flavors the way he is. Mr. Ottolenghi, while as committed as the next chef to seasonal and organic, isn’t going to hit you over the head with an Alice Waters-sized sledgehammer about it. He’s more interested in getting YOU interested in making the flora of the land the centerpiece of your meal.

Best for the Devoted Carnivore

The River Cottage Meat Book is, bar none, the best book dealing with the many thorny issues around eating meat. Particularly if you are interested in eating responsibly and sustainably, without pulling a Zuckerberg. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is on his way to becoming an institution in the UK DIY food scene (whatever you are thinking of brewing/preserving/curing/raising – he’s done it first), and rightly so. If you start with The River Cottage Meat Book, make sure you follow up with their handbook series (bread, jam, etc.).

Best “Wait, You Can Do That at Home”?

Charcuterie is enjoying a renaissance, particularly with the Do It Yourself set. And, while there’s a lot of weird information out there (which is hilarious, because it’s a pretty straightforward and classic craft), I suggest that you put on your goggles, prepare to get dirty, and dive into this guide for the self-starter salumieri. While Mark Ruhlman will be mentioned more than once in this post, I humbly suggest that if you are interested (and can get your hands on a pork leg) in hanging your own prosciutto or developing a signature smoked duck, this is the book for you. Ruhlman, in partnership with master salumieri Brian Polcyn and Chef Thomas Keller not only explain the principles and process of creating masterful farce (or “force meat” – the basis of all sausage/salami), but also walk you through the different additives and sanitation concerns you need to keep in mind. Long story short: want to make your own chorizo? Get your hands on a copy of “Charcuterie“.

Best “Well Preserved”

I talked about both of these ladies in a previous post, but I’ll say it again: If you want to make good jam (and who doesn’t?!?), you need to get both Christine Ferber’s Mes Confitures, and for good measure The Blue Chair Fruit book by Rachel Saunders. ‘Nuff said.

Best Party

If I can’t be Elizabeth David, I would like to be Serena Bass. Times a bajillion.

Best “Celebrity”

I really have nothing to say here. Most “celebrity” cookbooks are too heavy on the celebrity, and too light on the cooking. Additionally, my celebrities are probably a bit nerdier than the standard. That said, for pure entertainment, I nominate Anthony Bourdain for the one line in the Les Halles Cookbook: “If you can’t properly roast a chicken then you are one helpless, hopeless, sorry-ass bivalve in an apron. Take that apron off, wrap it around your neck, and hang yourself. You do not deserve to wear the proud garment of generations of hardworking, dedicated cooks. Turn in those clogs, too.” Luckily, the book is also full of great, technique-based formulas, and I’m pretty sure he feels just ever so slightly douche-y, wearing whites for the cover shot, since he hasn’t been in a kitchen for years (a fact that only he holds against himself – once a cook, always a cook I say).

Best Pastry (Reference)

There are about a million books out there that claim to be the end all, be all  of baking reference books, but I have to say that James Peterson’s Baking is far and away my favorite. Covering everything from sweet to savory, laminated to short dough, bread to biscuit, and puff to praline, this is my go-to book when I have a question about how to get the job done right. The extensive photo work is a great reference for what it might look like (remember, YOU are the chef, not some book, so you get to decide what the final product should look/taste like), and I have yet to have a formula fail.

Best Pastry (Outside the Bag of AP Flour)

A lot of people have already blogged about this book, so I’m just adding my voice to the chorus. In Good to the Grain, Kim Boyce has done a masterful job of expanding the range of baked goods in the average kitchen. Who knew that rye flour would make such an intense danish dough? Oatmeal sandwich bread? Yeah, it’s now the house staple. And Oh. My. God. The whole wheat chocolate chip cookies? A. Maze. Ing.

Best “Damn, That Girl can BAKE”

I’ve mentioned this chef before as well. Joanne Chang’s Flour is on high rotation in this “lady”‘s kitchen, not only because it’s full of solid formulas, but also because she crosses the Franco-American boundary with ease. A cookbook with everything from craquelin to the world’s best granola ever, by way of a cookie entitled “The Chunky Lola”? Sign. Me. Up.

Best “When You are Ready to Give Up the Recipe and Finally COOK”

And here is where I get back to my original thought: Folks, cookbooks are holding you down until you say “Uncle”. If you only ever buy one more cookbook, ever, make it Ratio by Mark Ruhlman. Having this on your shelf is like having a secret decoder ring to the world of food. It will put a whole new perspective on the cookbooks you do have, and will enable you to better judge what books you buy in the future. It will also save you $60K in culinary school tuition.

Best for the Food Nerd

Harold McGee is the master of all things science in the kitchen. Maillard reactions? He understands them, and wants you to as well (but he’s also gonna let you know that it’s just another word for caramelization). Gluten strands? They are some of his best friends. And best of all? He makes them accessible. Well, OK, the really best thing is that I just found out he LIVES DIRECTLY BEHIND A FRIEND OF MINE. Let the stalking begin! Alright, all I really want is for him to sign my copy of On Food and Cooking. And maybe to cook him dinner.

Best Food Writing – Actual Book

You don’t have to take it from me, you can also listen to the James Beard Awards. By far and away, Gabrielle Hamilton has written the best. book. on. cooking. ever. Blood, Bones, and Butter not only covers the psychological ups/downs/inbetweens of being a chef (in a variety of environments from the home kitchen to renown restaurant), but it is one of the most beautifully, finely written works on the shelf. It’s also one of the few written by a woman chef (a subject she covers eloquently and realistically), which like it or not, is a rare and wonderful thing. She’s a bad ass, and if I can’t be Elizabeth David or Serena Bass, I want to be Gabrielle Hamilton, warts and all.

Best Food Writing – After the Blog to Book

Cleaving, by Julie Powell will change your mind about this fantastic author who doesn’t look or act a thing like Amy Adams. Singularly talented, and singularly effed up in all the right ways.

And there it is. Yep, I glossed over some writers I really love, and read over and over and over again, but if I didn’t give the likes of  Nigel Slater (hearts. galore.), MFK Fisher, Julia Child (gasp!), Molly Wizenberg, Deb Perelman, David Lebovitz, and Dan Lepard short shrift (all of whom will get their own posts), we’d be here all night, and there is a glass of wine and two new books (Cooking with Les Dames d’Escoffier and Bacchus and Me) calling my name…

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Honor among thieves…

“You might get the impression from the specifics of my less than stellar career that all line cooks are whacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts and psychopaths. You wouldn’t be too far off base….maybe they’re running away from something-be it an ex-wife, a rotten family history, trouble with the law, a squalid Third World backwater with no opportunity for advancement. Or maybe, like me, they just like it here. “ – Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

I need to come clean: I recently stole something. Well, not really “stole”, and not really “one thing”. More like “borrowed indefinitely” and “four things.”

You see, all cooks are thieves. Not of the “break into your house on Christmas Eve” ilk, but thieves nonetheless. And? I am no better than the next white jacket down the line. Was I shocked to find two more whisks than I left home with and a brand-new-to-me pair of tongs? Not really. Because that’s just how it goes when you are in a hurry to get from one kitchen to another. You aren’t looking too hard at what goes into your kit, and neither is the cook next to you.

Did I mean to do it? No.

Will it happen again? Definitely.

But none of this thievery is intentional. I have no need for more whipping instruments or grabby devices. And in some other cook’s kit is my favorite peeler, a few towels, and a microplane.

Am I irritated by this? Yes. Because that was my *favorite* peeler, dammit.

Am I mad about it? No. Because it’s inevitable, so there isn’t any sense in getting pissy about it.

And now I need to say this: In spite of all this thievery, cooks are the most generous people on the planet. Truly.

We are geared to feed you on a multitude of levels. And when I say “geared”, I mean, it’s essential to our being. We are the lowest on Maslow’s hierarchy, but want nothing more than to ensure that your basic needs are met.

For instance, in the last week, I have delivered two dinner baskets to people who aren’t cooking for themselves for whatever reason, got bored and made carrot cake for the folks at my favorite bar, gave dessert ideas to one of my favorite ladies chasing a guy I heartily approve of (she went with vanilla shortcake with grilled fruit and bourbon whipped cream), delivered restaurant recommendations to a guy I think needs to land a particular girl (I’m really hoping they are able to get a table at Frances), agreed to teach a baking class (at a bakery I think makes the best bread in all the land), and will spend the holiday weekend cooking exactly enough food to satisfy the Holy Roman Army at an event I already told people I wouldn’t be feeding them at, as well as providing desserts for a family event (that I’m pretty sure I’m stepping on some very gracious toes to do so).

And in unwitting trade for the things I gave up, the lovely Patty (with whom my friendship is as uncomplicated as my path to knowing her has twists and turns) provided me with an unprecedented bounty from her garden and the always delightful Paige (who provides a sense of balance and reprieve from judgment) handed off not only a dozen pasture-raised eggs, but also garlic, rosemary salt, 3# of flour, and a loaf of bread from Eat Well Farms.

I? Win.

I also managed to pilfer, along with the aforementioned tools, a jar of the most effing delicious quick-pickled onions I’ve ever tasted. Really. And true to the generous form (in spirit and body) of cooks around the world, I want you to have them too, so here they are:

Pickled Red Onions

Courtesy of Christa Colardo, of Marin Cooking

You will need:

  • 1 sharp knife
  • 1 small saucepan
  • 1 sterilized pint jar and lid

Ingredients:

  • 1 large or 2 medium red onions
  • 1/2 cinnamon stick
  • 1 pinch chili flake
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tsp whole coriander seed
  • 1 tsp fennel seed
  • 3 cloves
  • 1/2 cup red wine vinegar
  • 2 tbsp rice wine vinegar
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 pinch salt

Slice onions into 1/4″ thick slices. Separate into rings and pack tightly into your jar.

In the saucepan, place all other ingredients, and simmer for 5 minutes. Pour hot mixture over the onions, and close jar. Refrigerate for at least a day before enjoying on salads, sandwiches, or whatever else your little heart desires.

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Say “Cheese(cake)!”…

Okay, here it is, your choice…it’s simple, her or me, and I’m sure she is really great. But Derek, I love you, in a really really big ‘pretend to like your taste in music, let you eat the last piece of cheesecake, hold a radio over my head outside your window’, unfortunate way that makes me hate you, love you. So pick me, choose me, love me. – Grey’s Anatomy

It’s a fact: If you are human, you are hardwired to like cheesecake.

Gill Elvegren Pin Up, c.?

No, not *that* kind. (OK, probably that kind. Too.)

This kind:

When you think about it, cheesecake is the Marilyn Monroe/Sophia Loren/Helen Mirren of desserts. What I mean to say, is that it’s smooth, sweet(ish), and made with (a lot) of wholesome ingredients.

It’s tempting, and has that indescribable “something” that (when done correctly) makes it less of a transgression (against an ideal that more than likely belongs to someone else) and more of a moment in time that makes you believe in hugs. And schoolgirl crushes.

But then there is this…

Which makes you believe in something a bit more than that crush. It makes you believe in “extra”. And “meaning”. And “more”. And that when you combine a few simple ingredients, you can have something bigger than that schoolgirl fantasy. You can have “it”, with a capital “L”.

And it’s a little messy. But in a good way.

I’m here to tell you, it’s not hard to do. After all, it’s just a custard, baked in a cookie shell. No water baths or thermometers required (unless you really want them, that is). Nothing to be afraid of.

Especially when you combine it with a little citrus and top it off with (just a tiny bit) of sour cream.

So when you are presented with a formula, and a method, and the know-how, you find yourself obligated to have a go. To find your first attempt unsatisfactorily gummy, coming on too strong with the dairy, and not backing it up with enough sass. It makes sense that you would then tinker with the formula, flirt with it, tease out its secrets. Back off the flour, increase the butter, and play with the flavor profile.

You find yourself sleepless, thinking of this cake. You commit to stirring (not whipping) the dairy and eggs. You press, and pour, and bake, and finally, chill (for an excruciating 24 hours) so that all those lovely things you put together can do their work. Over, and over again. And eventually, you find it. The balance between sweet/tang, crisp/supple, like/love. And just when you think it won’t happen, the ring comes off, and…

there she is, in the morning light, ever so slightly tousled, looking for all the world like a good girl (gone bad).

Tangerine Cheesecake

Adapted from The Perfect Cake by Susan G. Purdy

You will need:

  • 1 9″ springform pan
  • 1 large bowl
  • 1 sheet tray
  • 1 medium bowl
  • 2 saucepans
  • Standup mixer with paddle attachment (if available)
  • 1 offset spatula (big or little, it doesn’t matter)

Ingredients for the crust:

  • 1 cup graham cracker crumbs
  • 1 cup lightly toasted and ground pecans (not chopped – you want the nuts to be a similar texture to the graham crumbs so that your crust has a nice, even texture)
  • 8 tbsp (1 stick) butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup sugar

Melt and cool butter in small sauce pan. Mix crumbs, nuts, sugar, and salt in the medium bowl. Pour butter over the mixture, and use your hands to combine until it looks like wet sand. Tip mixture into the springform pan, and press down evenly (I like a little bit to come up the sides, the trick is to make sure that the mixture is ultra-firm in the pan). Put pan into fridge to set while you make the custard.

Ingredients for the (custard) filling:

  • 4 8oz. packages of cream cheese at room temperature (don’t get fancy with natural cream cheese – it’s too dry, and don’t even think about reduced fat)
  • 1 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 1/4 cup tangerine juice, reduced in a saucepan (just cook it over high heat) until it measures just shy of 1/2 a cup (it’s OK to eyeball this) and cooled to room temperature
  • 2 tbsp orange liquor (Triple Sec, Grand Marnier, etc.)
  • 1 tbsp tangerine or orange zest (either is fine)
  • 1 tbsp vanilla extract
  • 2 tbsp all purpose flour
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 5 large eggs at room temperature
  • 2 large egg yolks at room temperature

Preheat oven to 325.

Place cream cheese in bowl of mixer (or beat by hand) until soft and creamy on low speed. Keeping the mixer on low, add sugar, and beat until fully combined. Add juice (reserving 2 tbsp for the topping), liquor, zest, extract, salt, and flour and mix until fully combined, stopping the mixer frequently to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add eggs and yolks, one at a time, until fully combined, again, stopping the mixer a couple of times to scrape down the sides and catch anything lurking on the bottom. The custard should be completely smooth and without lumps. This, along with using a low speed on your mixture (so as not to add air) are key to a successful cheesecake.

Remove pan from fridge, and pour custard into the shell. Place pan onto sheet tray, and bake until cake is jiggly (but not solid) in the middle (like jello, with a matte finish). This takes about an hour, so set a timer (or alert, or whatever you need to get yourself up off the couch) for 45 minutes. If the cake isn’t done, let it keep going and check it every 5-10 minutes until it looks right (again, jiggly in the middle but not “wavy” and with a matte finish).

Remove from oven, and let cool on the counter while you make the topping. By the way, the cake might be a little brown around the edges, and that’s OK. It’s not burned, right? Plus, you are about to put it’s crowning glory on, which covers a multitude of cheesecake sins, so no worries.

Ingredients for the topping:

  • 2 cups sour cream (no yogurt here, please – it’s too wet, and will fall into any cracks your cake might have developed and your final cake, while still delicious, won’t be very pretty)
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tbsp reduced tangerine juice

Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl, and whisk until fully combined.

Gently pour topping over cooling cake, spread evenly with your offset spatula all the way to the edges, and return to oven for 10 minutes.

Once topping is baked (it should not have any color – really, 10 minutes will do it), remove from oven and place on cooling rack. Once cake has cooled, place in refrigerator overnight. I know, I know, this is the hardest part. Leave it the hell alone. Really, don’t mess with it. The custard needs time to set up, and the flavors need time to combine. Trust me, it’s totally worth it.

Once cake has chilled overnight, remove ring from springform, and admire that gorgeous gal for all she’s worth.

To serve, place a knife in a deep bowl of hot water. Once knife is warmed, remove from water and dry with a towel. Slice firmly and with conviction right down the middle. Return knife to bowl of water and repeat until requisite number of slices is achieved. Plate slices, and garnish with additional zest or a drizzle of tangerine juice (if you have any leftover).

Enjoy (preferably with reckless abandon).

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Jam today…

The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today. – Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, AKA Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I’ve decided to start calling this month Junuary.

We’re more than half-way through the year, and so far, we haven’t gotten past spring. Which I’m actually OK with. I don’t long for the heat. In fact, I loathe summer weather (which is probably why I’ve never moved away from the Bay Area, where it rarely gets above 75 degrees, and when it does, we cease complaining about the cold, and start complaining about how unbearably hot it is). But I will say that on the rare occasion it does get warm around here, nothing makes my day faster than a drive through Berkeley on Interstate 80, Journey’s The Lights blaring from the car radio (it has to come on by chance – no cheating with the iPod), the sun setting behind the Golden Gate bridge, windows down, hair flying everywhichway, and me still salty from a day on the north coast.

I would totally wear that perfume from Seinfeld.

So I stand in my kitchen, radio on, wearing a wool sweater and flip-flops, contemplating turning on the heat in June (or maybe just put on a scarf, because lighting the pilot light freaks me the hell out), and daydreaming of another halcyon day of softly carpeted hills and seaside cliffs indicating we live on the edge in a more than figurative fashion around here. It feels like it may be forever away.

The one plus to this scenario is that there is a continued abundance of spring fruits and vegetables in the market, which made their welcome appearance in April, right when I had reached the point of not wanting to look another butternut squash/sweet potato/dark leafy green in the face. See, I refuse to pay top dollar for lame-ass strawberries in December, or blackberries that have been carted halfway around the planet just so I can “enjoy” their lackluster flavor in February. And there are only so many times you can eat pumpkin risotto before you think about breaking up with it. Permanently.

And here’s where I admit that I have a secret weapon to a dull winter diet based on starchy vegetables, grains, and (my BFFs) butter & olive oil. One that keeps me in seasonally procured fruits throughout the short, twilit days of autumn, provides me with palate-zapping pickled green beans in November, and the bright spark of lemon in September (citrus is a winter crop, folks).

It’s preserving.

See, there was a day when there wasn’t a corner store that had peaches (no matter how flavorless and inappropriate) in January. There were no pickles unless you made them in July. No kimchi unless you buried that pot in the field your damn self in June (you do this with it, btw). No grocery store available to pick up that extra bottle of wine, jar of tomato sauce, or can of cherry pie filling. Winter was just a vast expanse of time filled with fruits and vegetables that could survive in cool storage in your cellar until the buds arrived in April, promising the return of something, anything, other than apples.

Unless you planned. Answered when opportunity knocked. Invested (a small amount) of time and money to ensure that when you needed it most, that jar of summer was available to you for just a turn of the wrist and pop of the lid.

There are about a million ways to preserve food. And, while each culture has it’s preferred method (nomadic cultures tend to use smoke because you can build a fire anywhere, coastal people lean toward salt, etc. and so on), Americans tend to lean into “canning” (which isn’t really canning, because, jars). So until you are ready to give up a closet to a pork leg for a few months, for our purposes today we’ll focus on how to keep yourself in the fruits of summer throughout the year in form of jam, one of the easiest and most straightforward methods of preservation.

I love jam. More specifically, I love well-made, soft, and jammy jam. I’m of the opinion that most commercially made “jams” are actually fruit cheeses (it’s a thing), stiff and unyielding, which is a direct result of the (actually pretty damn sensible) commercial guidelines regarding mass food preservation in regard to temperatures, cooking times, sugar content, etc. However, if I have a choice, my spoon is headed for the jar with that distinctive ring/lid combo, indicating that I’m about to hide some homemade goodness in my belly.

And the thing about homemade jam? If you follow a few rules regarding sugar/fruit ratio, are thoughtful about the type of pectin you use, ensure the fruit you start with is of high quality (garbage in, garbage out) and pay (close) attention to sanitation, you almost never make a clunker.

Let’s start with the ratio of fruit to sugar. While there is only one way to make jam (cooking down fruit, sugar, and any additional flavorings you wish to add such as orange zest, fresh herbs, spices, etc. until they are of a proper consistency), one of the ways in which you can control the end product is to decide how sweet you would like the resulting jam to be.  The best jams are cooked quickly, with the least amount of sugar possible. Most people use a 1:1 ratio (because it’s easy to remember? Or because the fruit isn’t ripe enough?), weighing out the fruit and then weighing out an equal amount of sugar. I however, prefer a less tooth-achingly sweet preserve, and use a .75:1 (or .5:1 if the fruit is already sweet – make sure you taste it before cooking so you know what you are getting yourself into and can adjust as needed) ratio of sugar to fruit, which provides you with the chemical reaction needed for preservation and texture, but still allows the fruit to shine through.

The best part of understanding the ratio is that you are now freed from recipes and making jam in massive quantities. Do you have a few baskets of strawberries that are going spare? Just slice them, weigh them out, add 3/4 (or 1/2) of that weight in sugar to the pot, a little water (just enough so that the sugar looks like wet sand) and cook it down with a squeeze of lemon (and maybe, just maybe, a little bourbon). You’ll get a jar or two out of that, and if, like me, you intend to eat it right away (under cover of night, with just a spoon), you don’t even have to process it if you don’t wish it to be shelf-stable.

A second area to consider when making jam is pectin. Pectin is naturally occurring in all fruits to some degree, and is required in jam making to provide the “set”. You can choose to add commercially made pectin to your jam, or you can make a jelly from green apples (a bit more time consuming), but I prefer a third option, and rely almost exclusively on lemon juice to give me the necessary amount of firmness to my jam. My choice is different if making jelly (I go with the green apple jelly option), but for jam, I don’t need a hard set, and lemon juice gives me the soft, supple texture I’m looking for.

Thirdly, you’ll want to be conscious of the quality of the fruit you are using. Jam isn’t for fruit that isn’t ripe, or about to hit the compost pile. Making jam is a lot like cooking with wine. If you wouldn’t eat it raw (drink it from a glass), you don’t want to cook with it. Listen up, because I’m about to lay some cooking wisdom down for you:

You don’t want to start with substandard fruits because all you are going to do is cook them down, or reduce them, to a more concentrated version of themselves, and if the flavors aren’t pleasing at the start, they sure as hell aren’t going to be pleasing in the end. No amount of cooking is going to produce some magical event that makes bad fruit taste good here. Look for fruit that is heavy for it’s size (indicating that it has fully ripened), is intensely flavored, has a good outward appearance (they don’t have to be picture perfect, but they do have to look nice), and smells like it should (if you get a little high from that bowl of mangoes, well, I won’t tell).

Lastly, you need to follow some rules regarding sanitation, particularly if you plan to process (usually in a pot of boiling water) the jam jars to make them shelf stable. Start with a clean kitchen (bleach your counter tops, work surfaces, and sponges, clean your sink well, and sanitize all jars, lids and implements), and read up a bit on how to can here and here before you get going.

Speaking of getting going…

I may be the only person on the planet with a preserving hero. Christine Ferber is an absolute legend, and her jams make me want to use words I really don’t like. Words like “slather” and “luscious” (because, c’mon, those words are gross). But use them I do, because I swoon at the thought of her formula for peach & lavender honey preserves, willingly make jar upon jar of green apple jelly which gets me one step closer to her white cherry and raspberry preserves, and go miles (MILES) out of my way for just a few jars to cram into my suitcase here. (There is also this lady, who is doing some wonderful things as well.)

And this brings me (and you) to my favorite of all time, her rhubarb/rosemary preserves. I can only make this once a year, when rhurbarb’s fleeting season is in full swing. Long before strawberries are done, rhubarb has left us with just a memory of her Mae West, salty/sweet, harsh and unyielding until the right one gets their hands on her at which point she melts into a soft and forgiving creature ways.

So get yourself some rhubarb, honey, sugar, rosemary, and lemons and make yourself some, before she slips away. Maybe pop this or this on for good measure.

Rhubarb with Honey and Rosemary Confiture

Adapted from Christine Ferber’s Mes Confitures

You will need

  • 1 large pot (ideally, a copper preserving pot, but it’s not necessary, any large, heavy-bottomed pot will do)
  • 1 metal spoon
  • 1 sharp knife
  • 1 large bowl
  • 1 sheet of parchment or wax paper
  • 1 strainer
  • 1 dozen canning jars
  • 1 thermometer

Ingredients

  • 2 3/4 lbs rhubarb
  • 2 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 7 oz (by volume) honey
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • 5-10 sprigs of rosemary (use more/less according to your taste)

Rinse the rhubarb under cold water. Slice in half lengthwise, and then into a small dice. Put into your large bowl along with the sugar, honey, and the juice of one of your two lemons. Mix it up really good (either with your spoon or your clean hands). Wad up the parchment or wax paper, and then uncrumple and use it to cover the rhubarb mixture (put it right against the surface of the fruit). Let it sit (macerate) overnight in the fridge.

The next day, strain the juice from the fruit and pour it into your preserving pan of choice. Bring to a boil, and skim any foam off the top and heat until you reach 221 on your thermometer. Once that temp has been achieved, add the diced rhubarb and bring back to a boil, skimming carefully. Add the juice of your second lemon and the rosemary, and boil for another 5-10 minutes (I cook mine a bit longer, allowing the rhubarb to break down). Remove the rosemary (and any loose nettles that may have come off the sprigs). Pour jam into sterilized jars and seal according to USDA/manufacturers guidelines.

Goes great on well, everything.

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You say it’s your birthday…

Women are most fascinating between the ages of 35 and 40 after they have won a few races and know how to pace themselves. Since few women ever pass 40, maximum fascination can continue indefinitely. – Christian Dior

I’d love to say that it’s my birthday too, but it’s not. Not yet, anyway.

But it will be soon, and this year, it’s a whopper. 40. Four. Tee. Fortyfortyforty. Fuck me. Forty.

If you say it a lot, and fast, it’s almost funny.

Now, I’ve always looked forward to my birthday. There are some really good things that are also celebrated on or (extremely) close to that date. It’s Indian Independence Day, France began issuing drivers licenses (not that it has improved vehicular behaviors there AT ALL), Social Security became a law, “I Got You, Babe” hit number one on the Billboard charts, and it is the day that WWII ended.

Albert Eisenstaedt, August 14, 1945

I love the turn of her ankle. The peek of stocking top, the promise of garter. Her head rested in the curve of his arm. The grip he has on her, as though his life depended on it. As though he had been waiting for years for *that* moment. The only photo that comes even remotely close to this for me is this one:

Robert Doisneau, “The Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville,” 1950

Oh yeah, it hung on my wall all through the 80s (perhaps a bit further beyond than is strictly necessary, but really, can you blame me?). While I know now that it was staged, I spent many an hour imagining who they were (just your average, overly-stylish Parisian couple), what they had been doing (meeting at 3PM at a tiny, secret apartment in the 4th arrondissement, natch), and adoring that arm around her shoulders, knowing that his hand would never let her pass through a doorway without finding its place at the small of her back, or her head hit the pillow unsupported.

My, it’s warm in here. Where was I?

Oh yes, birthdays.

So, *ahem*, I had big plans for this year’s big day. HUGE. As it happens, this year is not only my 40th, but also Julia Child’s 100th (we share a midnight, herself being born on August 15), and the 50th anniversary of Mastering the Art of French Cooking‘s first pressing, which also lands on August 14th. The idea was to get myself to London (my second home), and pop a bottle of Tatty on the Victoria Embankment in the AM, and then hop the Eurostar over to Paris for lunch, where the requisite Veuve Clicquot would be upended into a few choice people’s glasses.

But events have conspired against me.

Instead, plans are afoot for a (no less fabulous, but far) more domestic adventure. And while I’ll keep those details to myself, I can assure you there will still be a dinner you can only imagine (duck consommé, anyone?), and Veuve Clicquot to to spare.

And what I find myself focusing on is the dessert. Which is only fitting, because, well, cake.

What is actually surprising is that for years, I professed a serious dislike of cake.

Shocking, I know, but true.

Turns out, what I didn’t like was was shitty box cake. Now, we’re all guilty of breaking out that brightly colored box of nothing (really people, it’s just flour and a little baking soda/powder mixed in for you, along with some fairly nasty preservatives and stabilizers), adding the eggs, oil, chucking it in a vaguely cake-shaped pan and calling it a day. And as I am just as culpable as the next person, there’s no judgment here. None. At. All.

But then pastry school happened.

And I realized that cake can be something other than a pan of air covered in overly sugary icing. It can be butter. And eggs. And love.

Because, isn’t that what a birthday cake is?

It’s time, and attention, and caring. It’s picking your underwear up off the bathroom floor. Filling the gas tank at 2AM, when the idiot light comes on *after* the show. It’s letting the other person play Boogie Wonderland for a fifth time in a row, and not looking askance at that second bottle of wine (which is more likely than not, the cause of the repeated Boogieing). It’s not waiting 3 days to call after the first date. It’s saved love notes. It’s the mix tape you delivered anonymously through the slats in her locker.

And it’s not hard. You just need a few tools, that you probably have lying around.


And I’ll admit that while I have a serious dislike for box cake, it has forever defined how I view the perfect birthday cake. It is surprisingly understated. A simple yellow butter cake with chocolate icing. No more, no less.

However, that simple butter cake better be awesome, and that chocolate icing better be more chocolate than chocolate. No lame-ass chocolate buttercreams (which only ever *look* chocolatey, they never *taste* chocolatey) for me, thanks. Ganache is the only way to go here. For fuck’s sake (is that really a posessive?), it’s the simplest icing you can make, and it only has two ingredients.


So, if you have gotten this far, I’m pretty sure you are all “Let’s get to it!”

Well, alrighty then!

Below you will find not only a formula for my favorite yellow cake (used interchangeably for cakes or cupcakes), but also the ratio for chocolate ganache. But what I really want to give you in this post is some tips for making a great birthday cake. Because what takes a birthday cake from “meh.” to “Ohh!” is a little time and attention to detail. So, here we go:

  • First, you can’t make a birthday cake in one day. It takes two (to do a *lot* of things, but that’s another story altogether). Do yourself a favor, and never ever try to cover (ice) a cake that you have made the same day. No cake you ever buy in a bakery was baked that day, so why not take a cue from them, and bake your layers, and then store them in the fridge or freezer for a few before you attempt to coat them in chocolate?
  • Torte your cakes. What does that mean? It means cut each layer in half, and make yourself a four layer cake, rather than a plain old two layer cake. You get a better cake/icing ratio, it doesn’t take anything more than a bread knife to accomplish, and your end result is a boatload prettier.


  • Choose your fillings wisely. For this particular version, I went with a chocolate/strawberry jam mix. With four layers, you get three opportunities to add flavor to your cake, so I say, use. them. all. No need to be consistent. If you want to do three different flavors, go right ahead and pay attention to that instinct. The don’t have to match, but they do have to go together.

  • Stop using a butter knife for everything. True, for years I was a big fan of the Irish woman’s toolkit (is there anything around the house that a spoon and/or a butter knife can’t do?), but in this instance, I’m going to have to tell you to get your hands on a serrated knife for torting your cakes (a bread knife is fine), and an offset spatula for covering your cake. You’ll thank me later.
  • Decorate the damn thing. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just thoughtful.
  • I always keep a bottle of bubbles in the fridge and a package of birthday candles around the house. Both are good for cakes, and very short blackouts.
  • Always wonder how bakeries get the cakes covered right down to the edge? It’s cake boards. Get yourself some in the same size as your cake pan. They are readily available at your local craft store, or here. They let you move the cake around, lift it, store it, and eventually, put it on a pretty little stand.
  • Put a crumb coat on the thing. What is a crumb coat? It’s a thin(ish) coating of icing you put on the cake before you cover it completely. It’s great for sealing in loose bits, filling, and ensuring that the second coat (after you stick your cake in the fridge for 30 mins or so) goes on smoothly, and covers everything. It doesn’t have to be perfect (after all, you are just going to go over it again). Think of it as a primer for deliciousness.

Once you’ve got your cake covered and decorated, it’s time to light the candle, sing a (most likely horrifying) Happy Birthday, and enjoy.




Classic Yellow Layer Cake

Adapted from The Art and Soul of Baking by Cindy Mushet

You will need:

  • 2 8″ cake pans (preferably with straight edges)
  • 2 sheets parchment paper to line pans
  • 1 mixer
  • 1 spatula
  • 1 offset spatula
  • 1 pastry brush
  • 1 medium bowl
  • 1 small bowl
  • 1 set dry measuring cups
  • 1 liquid measuring cup
  • 1 bowl scraper (or just use the spatula)

Ingredients:

  • 12 oz. (3 sticks) unsalted butter @ room temperature
  • 10.5 oz.(1 1/2 cup) sugar
  • 6 large eggs @ room temperature
  • 2 tbsp vanilla extract
  • 14 oz (4 cups) cake flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2/3 cup (6 oz.) sour cream (or plain yogurt)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Lightly coat your cake pans with melted butter, using a pastry brush. Cut a circle of parchment for each pan and place in the bottom. Butter pans again.

Cream the butter with the sugar for 5 mins, until the mixture is white and fluffy. Really, you have to a go for a bit of time with this in order for the sugar to beat air into the butter. It’s OK. Just roll with it.

While the butter and sugar are making friends, sift the dry ingredients together into the medium bowl. Measure out your sour cream into your liquid measuring cup, and in the small bowl, beat the eggs and vanilla together.

Once your butter is ret to go, add the egg mixture a tablespoon at a time, allowing the egg to fully incorporate before adding more. Once all the egg is in, turn the mixer down to the lowest setting and add in the sour cream and flour in alternate additions, starting with the flour. Once it’s all incorporated, stop your mixer and use the spatula to fold in anything stuck to the bottom, and mix by hand until you have a smooth(ish) batter.

Divide the batter between the two pans (or into 24 cupcake papers rested in two muffin pans), using the offset spatula to even it out (you don’t have to even out the cupcakes, they’ll sort themselves out). This batter is going to be far thicker than you are used to baking, if you have relied on box mixes. Trust me, it is going to be awesome.

Bake the cake until it bounces back when touched in the middle, or a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool for 10 minutes, then turn out onto cake boards. Once the cakes are completely cool, wrap in plastic wrap and store in the fridge or freezer until you are ready to torte, fill, and decorate.

Chocolate Ganache

You will need:

  • 1 saucepan
  • 1 medium bowl
  • 1 whisk

Ingredients:

  • 16 oz. by weight of good quality untempered chocolate (chocolate chips are just fine)
  • 16 oz. by volume heavy cream (a pint container)
  • Vanilla extract (optional)
  • A pinch of salt (optional)

Put heavy cream in saucepan along with a splash of vanilla extract. Heat on medium heat until you see bubbles around the edges (just prior to boiling). While the cream is heating, put chocolate and a pinch of salt into your medium bowl.

When cream is heated, pour over chocolate and let sit for 3-5 minutes. Then, using your whisk, combine the cream and chocolate until you have a smooth, fully incorporated mixture. THERE SHOULD BE NO LUMPS. AT. ALL.

When the ganache is still fairly liquid, use it to put the crumb coat on your cake. This will be messy. That’s all right. You are washable.

Let the ganache cool for 20-30 mintues longer, or until it’s at the consistency of icing. Don’t worry if it takes a little longer. It *will* get there.

Bonus: There will be leftovers. Just a bit, but also just enough to make licking the bowl a pretty good reward for all of your hard work.

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A fork in the road…

Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company. – Mark Twain

Over the last couple of years, I’ve spent most of my free time cooking. And over the last 10 months, I’ve actually been getting paid to do so. Which is cool. I mean, I have a regular job, just like you (although, I enjoy mine a lot more than most folks do), but for now, cooking is something I do on the side, so it’s nice to have a little extra going into the savings (because I don’t have an investment portfolio, nor am I likely to win the lottery anytime soon…), but it’s never been about the money. It can’t be. Because nobody gets rich working in a kitchen. You have to do it for other reasons.

You have to love it.

You have to need it.

Because a kitchen is the worst boyfriend you will ever have. It will only call when it needs something. It will forget about you the second you are out of sight. It will never ask how you are doing, and it won’t go out of it’s way for you. The kitchen does not care if you aren’t feeling well, had a fight with a stranger on the subway, are worried you can’t pay the rent. If you want in, you have to go with what’s on offer. No substitutions. And in general, it’s a pretty good time. When it’s good, the kitchen smells right, moves fast, talks dirty, and buys the drinks.

And you better be able to keep the fuck up. Follow the rules. Keep your arms and legs inside the ride at all times.

And nobody will call you “Chef” until you’ve earned it. There are plenty of other, better, chefs who’ve written about newly minted cooks expecting high pay, praise, and titles before they even get their first stain on their jacket. And I agree with all of them. Sure, I went to culinary school, because I’m not 19 and I don’t have time to come up through the ranks, but I went in knowing that unless I could pay for it outright, could do it in addition to my regular (more than full-time) job, and was willing to work for free on nights and weekends for a significant length of time afterwards, it wouldn’t do a damn thing for me.

Because, unless you are willing to offer yourself simply for the opportunity to keep learning, there’s no point. Unless you can respect the fact that the kitchen offering you the chance to learn is a business, with a tight profit margin that does not have time or product or customers to waste, you will not be invited back. If you are unwilling to wash dishes, clean the walk-in, rotate inventory, do prep until your knees weep, work through the inevitable burns and cuts, and never ever ever miss a service, you aren’t ready.

Until you feel your posture/attitude change when you button the top button of your jacket, you should just. stay. home.

So why do it?

Because I get to work with some amazing chefs, who I truly respect in the kitchen, who have taught and continue to teach me, daily. Because these same people now respect me enough to solicit my opinion. Because plates come back from the front of house cleaner than clean. Because I can have some small sway in the way someone remembers a day, or event, or experience. Because I love the “A-Ha!” moment when I figure something out. Because what I cook makes people smile/makes them moan/satisfies them.

Because it takes me to places like this:


And this:


With surprises like this:

And just before service, it looks like this:

And afterwards, it frequently looks like this:

And on the way home, you and your favorite kitchen partner pull off the highway in a tiny farming town to see two (surprise) trannys with a truckload of cherries for $1 a pound. And they taste exactly like you *remember* cherries tasting. So you buy 20 pounds. And you put some up with bourbon. And a few with absinthe. And the rest becomes this:

And all is right in the world.

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