Monday, October 30, 2006

Things I'm Really Liking Right Now


  1. Baking with whole grain pastry flour
  2. The look of a pencil skirt with a white shirt and slingback heels
  3. Written correspondence on letterpress stationery.
  4. Black and white graphics
  5. Pellegrino with lime
  6. Domino and Blueprint magazines.
  7. Groovy 70s enameled cast iron and earthenware cookware and bakeware
  8. Red Coral jewelry
  9. J. Crew sweaters (great quality and I love the colors)
  10. Baking bread
  11. Homemade granola
  12. Ikea housewares
  13. Double espressos
  14. Moby on my ipod
  15. The idea of a throwing a catered dinner party

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Sunday Morning Decadence - Two Ways

I am a huge fan of indulgent breakfasts. There's just nothing like a delicious buttery pastry and good strong coffee to kick start the day. Given that I don't eat these things often and generally don't eat for hours after indulging I think the calories almost even out - or at least close to it. At least that's what I like to tell myself anyway.

A few months ago, we did the doughnut muffins, which are pretty much unbeatable, given the ease with which they are made, and the fantastic flavor. Everybody loves them.
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A couple of weeks ago though, James outdid himself when he prepared not only the doughnut muffins but this to die for Orange Pecan French Toast. It doesn't photograph very well cold, sadly - but I was too excited about eating it to photograph it when it was still warm. It's really more like a sticky bun, with a bread base on the bottom, and is oh so good. There is no need for syrup - since the topping makes its own, but the sweet orange flavor is the perfect foil for a dollop of creme fraiche and some berries. This is also pretty easy, given that you just mix everything up and dump it in the pan the night before, then bake it in the morning.
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This week, I also decided to try my hand at some homemade cinnamon rolls. We had a bake sale at work to raise money for breast cancer awareness and I wanted to bring something breakfast-y, since it started at 9 AM. I started with a recipe of this dough, made in two batches and wound up with thirty rolls. They were rather time consuming to make - but I was quite proud of myself, having never made anything with a yeast dough before in my life (unless you include a couple of not-so-successful attempts at bread made with a grape sourdough starter ages ago). I think the next time I try these, I will do up the flavors a bit with some cardamom or ginger, just to make them a bit more interesting - but this traditional version was very good.

I think I'm going to need a bigger KitchenAid if I'm going to become a bread person, because that thing only holds about a fist sized ball of dough! Someone else suggested using a bread machine to mix the dough and bake it through the first rise - after which you can take it out and shape it or do other things with it, but that kind of takes the "hands on" fun out of it.

Anyway - here are the recipes. Both require a little planning, but are well worth the effort. Indulge and enjoy!

Orange Pecan French Toast
(adapted from allrecipes.com)
Serves 6

1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/3 cup butter, melted
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1/3 cup chopped toasted pecans
12 (3/4 inch thick) slices French bread (we used a baguette)
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1/2 cup whole milk
3 tablespoons white sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 egg whites
2 eggs
1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar for dusting

1/2 pint creme fraiche - stirred
fresh berries for garnish
  1. In a small bowl, stir together the brown sugar, melted butter, and corn syrup. Pour into a greased 9x13 inch baking dish, and spread evenly. Sprinkle pecans over the sugar mixture.
  2. Arrange the bread slices in the bottom of the dish so they are in a snug single layer.
  3. In a medium bowl, whisk together the orange zest, orange juice, milk, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, egg whites, and eggs. Pour this mixture over the bread, pressing on the bread slices to help absorb the liquid.
  4. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour, or overnight.
    Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C ). Remove the cover from the baking dish and let stand for 20 minutes at room temperature.
  5. Bake for 35 minutes in the preheated oven, until golden brown. Serve with a dollop of creme fraiche and fresh berries
Cinnamon Rolls
Makes 15 (one 9x13 inch pan)

Dough:
Half of this recipe - prepared through the first rise and punched down.

Filling:
1 stick of butter - softened
5 Tablespoons of good quality cinnamon
1 cup of brown sugar

Cream Cheese frosting:
4 oz of cream cheese, softened
1 stick of butter, softened
1 cup of powdered sugar - sifted
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 drops of lemon extract or oil (optional)

Line a 9x13 inch baking pan with parchment paper, and lightly grease the paper.

In a small bowl, mix the cinnamon and brown sugar together with a fork.

After punching the dough down, divide it into two pieces. Let it rest for a few minutes, then roll out and stretch each piece into a rectangle about 13" x 9", with the long edge facing you (it should be about a quarter of an inch thick). Spread softened butter on the rectangle, leaving a one inch border at the top uncovered. Evenly sprinkle half of the brown sugar and cinnamon mixture over the butter - still leaving the one inch border at the top. Starting at the bottom left corner - start rolling the sheet of dough away from you, until the border at the top comes in contact with the outside. Evenly slice the roll into pieces about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 inches thick, and place in the paper lined pan about 1 inch apart and one inch from the edges of the pan. Repeat with the second half of the dough.

From this point you can either let them proof at room temperature (preferably in a warm moist place) for about 30-45 minutes - at which time they should be ready for baking, or set them in the refrigerator to proof overnight. You can also cover the pans and freeze them. If you do this, leave them out on the counter (covered) overnight and they will be ready for baking in the morning - this is what I did and it worked well.

Bake at 350 for about fifteen to twenty minutes, until they start to brown on the top. If they look brown but aren't done yet (pull up the center of the middle roll to check) you can cover them with lightly with foil to finish baking.

Meanwhile, make the cream cheese frosting. Whip the cream cheese and butter in a mixer fitted with the wire whip attachment. Sift in the powdered sugar and add enough milk to make it a pourable consistency. Beat in the vanilla and lemon extract or oil (be careful with the lemon oil - just a little too much can make it taste like pledge!)

When the rolls are still warm, drizzle the frosting over and spread it around with a spatula or brush. These are best served warm.


Sunday, October 22, 2006

A Dozen Things I'd Like To Do In San Francisco

  1. Go to the Farmer's Market at the Ferry Building on Saturday.
  2. Sit outside and eat oysters and drink beer at the Hog Island Oyster Company.
  3. Get BBQ at Brother In Laws'.
  4. Eat one "fancy meal" at Gary Danko, Michael Mina or Boulevard.
  5. Eat out one other night, at Delfina, Cafe Zuni, Oola, Coco500, Range or similar.
  6. Buy Parisian macarons to take home from the Bay Bread Boulangerie in the Fillmore (the caramel is swoon-worthy!)
  7. Try to get into the French Laundry for lunch, with Redd or Bistro Jeanty as a backup.
  8. Go over to Berkeley/Oakland - brunch or lunch at Cafe Fanny, Poulet, Chez Panisse or Oliveto. Stop in at the Marketplace Hall and surrounding shops in Rockridge (including La Farine for my favorite chocolate chip cookies.)
  9. Check out the new (to me) Asian Art Museum.
  10. Go shopping at some cool boutiques and shops.
  11. See all of our friends up there - the Schidams, the Mallards, et al. - either at Tom's or over in Marin.
  12. Try the pastries and desserts at Tartine (and the rest of Rorie's recommendations!)

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Ultimate Fall Lasagna

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This lasagna is based on a recipe my husband makes that uses cinnamon and nutmeg in the ricotta layer, and Jamie Oliver's - which uses slow cooked stewing beef (in his case ground, in mine pounded to a pulp with a potato masher) and fall vegetables (in his case squash, in mine pumpkin.) The end result takes a long time to make, but the results are pretty darn good. This recipe is also pretty flexible - you can follow it exactly or approximately, and chances are it will turn out just fine.

The recipe makes a lot of sauce, which is just fine with me - I like my lasagna (heck, all of my pasta dishes) heavy on the sauce. If you don't want so much on top or on the side - feel free to adjust to taste.


Ultimate Fall Lasagna
Serves six generously or eight reasonably

6 slices Niman Ranch bacon
1 med onion, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1 carrot, finely chopped
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp cinnamon
2 handfuls of chopped fresh herbs, such as oregano, basil, thyme, or sage,
or 2 teaspoons of dried herbs (any assortment)
salt and pepper
14 oz to one pound slice of bone-in beef shank
1 28 oz can San Marzano canned tomatoes or organic canned tomatoes - doesn't matter if they're diced, whole, etc.
2 Tablespoons of tomato paste
1 cup red wine
1 cup water or broth (beef or vegetable)
2 bay leaves

1 egg
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 pint organic whole milk ricotta cheese
3/4 cup canned pumpkin (about half of a can)
salt and pepper

1 cup loosely packed finely shredded parmesan
1/2 pint creme fraiche
about 2 tablespoons of milk
a pinch of cayenne pepper
salt and pepper

14 oz shredded mozzarella
1 handful of shredded finely fresh parmesan (about half a cup)

fresh lasagne sheets

1. In a large heavy dutch oven or saucepan, fry the bacon until golden. Remove from the pan to paper towels to drain, and pour off most of the fat. Chop the bacon roughly and set aside.

2. Dust the beef shank with flour and season with salt and pepper. Add two tablespoons of oil to the pan and brown the shank on both sides. Remove the shank to the plate with the bacon.

3. Add a little more oil to the pan if necessary, and cook the onion, garlic and carrots until translucent. Add the red pepper flakes, cinnamon and herbs and stir to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Place the beef shank and bacon back in the pot. Add the wine, water, tomatoes, tomato paste and bay leaves, cover and simmer for 1 hour.

4. Use tongs to remove the shank to a cutting board and chop the meat into half inch pieces, removing the bone and any gristle. Return the meat to the pot, and using a potato masher, smash the tomatoes and meat together. Simmer for another thirty minutes to an hour, tasting and adjusting the seasoning as you go. Give the sauce a good smashing every time you taste. If it seems too thin, remove the lid for the last fifteen or twenty minutes of cooking, so it can reduce a bit.

5. Meanwhile, make the ricotta mixture and white sauce:
In a medium bowl, whisk the egg with the nutmeg and cinnamon. Fold in the pint of ricotta cheese and season with salt and pepper. Divide the mixture in half, and fold the pumpkin into half of the mixture. Set aside. (note - next time I plan to try it with all pumpkin ricotta)

6. For the white sauce - stir the parmesan cheese and creme fraiche together in a small bowl. Stir in the pinch of cayenne and just enough milk to make the sauce liquid. Season with a little salt and fresh ground pepper.

7. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

8. Lightly oil an earthenware or glass lasagne dish. Lay one sheet of the pasta on the bottom of the pan and spread with sauce. Cover with the pumpkin ricotta mixture, and top with another sheet. Using a slotted spoon, scoop a generous portion of the meat from the bottom of the sauce and spread it over the pasta. Top that with a pasta layer, and spread with the plain ricotta. Spoon sauce over that - using both the meat and the liquid. Top that with another sheet and a thin layer of sauce. Pour the white sauce mixture over and spread. Sprinkle with the mozzarella cheese and parmesan.

9. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes, until the top is brown and bubbling. Allow to rest for fifteen to twenty minutes before serving. Reheat the sauce while the lasagna rests (and make the salad).

10. Cut into portions, spoon sauce over, and serve with a green salad and red wine. Pass more sauce on the side.

Bon Appetit!!

**Post Script**: We just ate the last of the leftovers of this, after having frozen them for a week, and they were absolutely fabulous - even better than fresh from the oven. If you have the freezer space, I would highly recommend making one and freezing it! Also, I was thinking as I ate the leftovers that some mushrooms would be really good in this - maybe sauteed in a little garlic and broth or oil and added to the sauce layers?

Saturday, October 14, 2006

20 23 Things to Do Now That It's Fall


  1. make shortribs and beef curry and post recipes...Mmmmm....
  2. toast some pumpkin seeds
  3. start taking hot baths again (with lavender oil!)
  4. snack on organic gala apples
  5. go to San Francisco for Veteran's Day weekend (I can't wait!)
  6. make lentil soup
  7. drink red wine
  8. bake bread (see two prior posts)
  9. get out the down comforter
  10. slow roast something
  11. try Jamie Oliver's lasagna recipe from Jamie's Dinners
  12. roast beets and use them in salads
  13. start xmas shopping (I always wait too long!)
  14. get a massage and a facial
  15. get a headlamp for me and flashing collars for the puppies, so I can walk them after dark
  16. make panini sandwiches (good with soup!)
  17. light a fire in the fireplace
  18. curl up with a good book
  19. try and stay away from the halloween candy that I bought, even though we have no trick or treaters.
  20. get all my favorite fall shoes and boots re-done for yet another season
  21. Go see Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, and Michael Gondry's Science of Sleep
  22. Go to yoga more often
  23. Watch football on Sunday afternoons (Go Chargers!!)

Sweet Dough

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This is the other recipe we made in our class on breads. The following week, dubbed "French Day" by Chef Foran, we made a veritable plethora of classic french recipes - Pate a Choux, Puff Pastry (using the "blitz" method") and Crepes, which I will post next. These are all so basic, but again - just like the french bread, magic. Such good stuff from so few ingredients.

My dough hook did come in, but it's pretty clear that my little mixer will not handle this whole recipe, so I will probably halve it. I plan to try it later today or tomorrow and I will post some pictures.  This is the recipe for plain straight yeast rolls - for the cinnamon rolls above, click here.

Sweet Dough
(makes 3 dozen 2 oz rolls - we did one dozen round rolls, one dozen cloverleaf rolls, and one dozen single knots.)

2 pounds 10 oz bread flour
3/4 oz instant dry yeast
20 fl. oz whole milk
4 oz butter - very soft
4 oz eggs
4 oz sugar
1 oz kosher salt

egg wash
1 egg
2 T water
pinch salt

Place the bread flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a standing mixer.

Warm the milk gently to between 105 and 115 degrees. Add the yeast and allow to foam (this could take a few minutes.) Add the milk mixture, butter and eggs all at once into the flour mixture.  Blend in the mixer until the dough starts to come away from the sides. Knead a bit longer with the dough hook, then turn out onto a floured surface and knead by hand until it is smooth and elastic, and a small ball can be flattened and stretched paper thin without breaking. (This is called the "window test.") It will still be quite soft and a bit sticky.

When the dough is sufficiently kneaded, form it into a smooth ball. Keep it flat on the surface, but turn it in circles with both hands - simultaneously stretching the surface down over the top and tucking it under until the dough is perfectly round and taut on top, and has a little indentation on the bottom. Place the ball smooth side up in a lightly oiled bowl covered with plastic wrap, and leave in a warm place to rise until doubled in volume. (The amount of time this takes will vary depending on the conditions - but it should take less than an hour. The inside of the oven with just the light on is a good spot for this).

Turn the dough out of the bowl and punch it down to let the excess gasses out. Let it rest for just a few minutes. Decide how you want to shape the dough, and cut it into appropriate portions. For dinner rolls use 2 oz of dough per roll. If you are making cloverleaf rolls, divide the 2 oz portions into 3 balls about 1 inch across. Roll each ball across the work surface with your palm, simultaneously stretching the surface of the roll and tucking the edge under the ball with your fingers. It's a fluid motion, sort of like rolling dice only with your palm down. Place three balls in a muffin tin.

For regular rolls, do the same rolling motion with the 2 oz of dough, and place on a cookie sheet covered with parchment. If you like, you can place the balls close together for a pull-apart effect, or sufficiently apart to create a round roll with crust all the way around.

To make knots, roll each 2 oz piece of dough into a snake about eight inches long, and tie in a knot, so the ends are flush with the surface.

Place the formed dough in a warm moist place to proof for about 45 minutes, until risen to the appropriate size for baking (assume they will rise a bit more in the oven.) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and brush the rolls generously with the eggwash mixture. Bake the rolls for about 10-15 minutes, carefully watching for the browning. They should be fairly deep brown when they are done - the surface caramelizes fairly quickly because of the sugar content in the dough.

Tear apart and devour warm, with butter. Mmmmm....

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The 12 Steps of Bread Baking

  1. scaling (ingredients)
  2. mixing (kneading)
  3. fermentation (rising)
  4. punching
  5. scaling dough (dividing)
  6. rounding
  7. benching
  8. makeup and panning
  9. proofing
  10. baking
  11. cooling
  12. storing (or eating, if you are like me)

This is when you realize baking really is magic - when you see something like flour, water and salt turn into delicious bread. I didn't have my camera that night, so no pictures unfortunately, but we made this in my class with Chef Foran two weeks ago (at Grossmont's culinary program.) I just love his class, he's such a good teacher and a lot of fun. I lost the dough hook to my mixer at home, but I ordered a replacement and as soon as it gets here, I am whipping up a batch of this!

Leftovers freeze very nicely - just wrap them well before putting them in a heavy plastic bag, and cut pieces into portions so you can only defrost what you need. To defrost, either put slices directly into a toaster or warm in an oven at 300 degrees for ten minutes or so.

Baguettes - Makes 5

2 pounds 12 oz bread flour
1/2 oz yeast
26 oz water @ 105 degrees
1 oz kosher salt

Put bread flour and yeast in bowl of standing mixer, fitted with dough hook. Add water and salt all at once. Mix until the dough comes together, and continue to mix for about five minutes.
Turn the dough out onto a board or table, and knead by hand until it is smooth and elastic enough that a small ball can be stretched paper thin without tearing (the window test).
Using your hands, form the dough into a ball and tuck the edges under - pulling the top taut and smooth. Cover with plastic and allow to rise to double volume (about 45 minutes)
Turn the dough out onto the table or board and punch down thoroughly to expel air. With a dough cutter, divide the dough into five equal pieces. Allow to rest approximately ten minutes, and shape each piece into a long snakelike form, rolling it back and forth between your hands. If desired, form pointed ends on the loaves by rolling them between your fingers. Place the dough on a baguette pan (long ridged perforated pan - they have them at Great News) and place in a warm moist place to proof (rise) until it is the appropriate size for baking. Slash each loaf diagonally with a razor and sprinkle with flour for a rustic look.
Preheat the oven to 425 or 450 depending on how hot your oven burns ( the bread should start to brown fairly quickly, if it doesn't turn the oven up a notch or two.)

Place a couple of handfuls of ice in a rimmed sheet pan, and place in the bottom of the oven. Slide the baguette pan into the top of the oven and bake the loaves until they start to brown. Rotate the pan, and continue baking until the loaves are an even deep golden brown. Remove the pan from the oven and set on a rack to cool.

Devour immediately, or to store in the freezer - wrap each piece in foil or paper and place in a plastic freezer bag.

Sweet dough recipe, appropriate for cinnamon rolls, yeast rolls or challah bread - coming soon!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Aceitunas y Uvas en la Valle de Guadalupe

Adobe Tower
Our trip the Baja Wine Country started with a pleasant drive through the rural back country of San Diego early on a Friday afternoon. We crossed through the town of Tecate and traveled about two hours on the two lane Highway 3, turning off at a small town named Francisco Zarco - just thirty minutes north of Ensenada. Here the pavement ends, and the last two to three miles to the Adobe must be traveled on dirt roads.
Adobe Gates
The Adobe Guadalupe is a six-room inn, winery and stables owned by Don and Tru Miller, an American couple who retired to the valley in the late nineties. Don is a former Orange County banker and long-time wine connoisseur whose focus is clearly on the grapes, while Tru spends much of her time caring for the horses they keep in their beautiful stables. In 1998, they bought the land on which the Adobe now stands, and built everything you see there today. In 2000, they planted their first grapes.

Today, the winery produces four red wines - Serafiel, Kerubiel, Miguel and Gabriel, and one rose, named Uriel. (The wines are named for the Archangels in Spanish, in honor of their son who died in a car accident at a young age.) They focus on reds and red blends, because the grapes seem to do better in the intense heat.
Adobe Rose
The hotel itself is built in a courtyard formation, with the living rooms and the owner's home at one end, along with the dining room, kitchen and office. It was designed and built by a Persian architect, and the design is very Moorish. On the other side of the courtyard are the six guestrooms.
Adobe  Courtyard Fountain
Dinner is available for an additional $50. or so per person, including wine. It was served in a dining room off the kitchen decorated with silver and crystal and lit solely by candlelight. The food was delicious.
Dinner
We were served a cream of mushroom soup, drizzled with olive oil and garnished with a sprig of cilantro, a green salad with oranges, tomatoes, local cheese and avocado, pan-grilled salmon with a curry sauce served with basmati rice, and a strawberry mousse dessert served with a caramelized slice of banana, a crisp chocolate cookie and a maraschino cherry. With the meal, they served us a Vina de Liceaga Sauvignon Blanc, and the house Kerubiel red. After dinner, we were offered shots of the smoky housemade "Lucifer" mezcal and espresso. We were amused that the owner's three Weimaraners joined us during the meal to snooze on the sofa and chair facing the giant fireplace that dominates the room.

After dinner, headed out to the jacuzzi for some stargazing. We could see the milky way and several shooting stars, and all of the stars and planets burned far brighter than they do at home. We also had some Kalyra Port that I had brought with me in my bag - and a few bites of Vosges and Valrhona chocolate that I had toted down as well.
Fruit and Avocados
The next day started with breakfast in the Adobe's beautiful kitchen. The enormous room features a long farmhouse table which looks to seat about fourteen people. Bowls of fresh fruit and vegetables heap the counters. Breakfast included wonderful coffee, fresh squeezed orange juice, fresh cut fruit, and a choice of huevos rancheros or cheese and eggs on the first day, and huevos rancheros or pancakes on the next. After two days, it was clear that the huevos rancheros are definitely the way to go.
Huevos Rancheros
After breakfast, we went for a walk around the grounds - having planned a private wine tasting with Don at 11 AM. I walked around and took some pictures of the grounds and the stables.
Black Stallion
Their horses were beautiful, and as horses are wont to do - they greeted me looking for treats. I wished I had some apples or carrots to make friends with them, but I hadn't planned that far ahead. By the time I got back, it was time for the wine tasting.
View from the Tasting Room
The private wine tasting in their cellar is fantastic, and I recommend a visit for anyone in the valley - whether you stay at the hotel or not. They throw open the giant double doors onto the vineyards, and the bar is just inside. Past that is the cellar where their barrels and bottles are aging. It's really a beautiful room.
Winetasting with Jack
The wines are fruity and rich - we chose the Kerubiel as our favorite, and brought back as many bottles as we were allowed - well, actually one extra, since we thought we were allowed 1.5 bottles per person. It turns out that U.S. Customs adheres to the Federal guideline of one bottle per person, but they let us off since we were only one over. The others were also very good, but we were smitten with the Kerubiel. As much as I like rose, I wasn't in love with their Uriel. I found it a bit strawberry-ish for my taste. I didn't mind drinking it by the pool, but I didn't feel a need to bring any home with me.
Looking back, the cellar
After the tasting, we set out to do a little wine tasting in the area, armed with recommendations from Don to stop at Liceaga and a small town called San Antonio de Tomas. If we were looking for a bite to eat he recommended a restaurant called the Hacienda. We drove all the way to Ensenada before realizing that we must have missed our destination - and backtracked until we found the little town. We found the Hacienda restaurant which was really a nursery, with a restaurant attached. It was lovely, with each table in sort of a private alcove surrounded by plants, and sheltered by several ancient oak trees.
Hacienda Restaurant
The ice cold beer served in frozen mugs really took the edge off of a headache I had been nursing all morning (something about the previous night's mixture of red wine, mezcal and port no doubt) and the chips with two kinds of salsa and guacamole were fantastic. We tried to keep it light because of our upcoming reservation at Laja, but realized we had utterly failed when we saw the plates come out.

By the end of the meal we realized that we would need to push back our reservation to a later time, so we decided to stop by the restaurant on our way back and pay them a visit. On our way back toward Francisco Zarco, we passed two wineries we wanted to visit - one was Casa Piedra, the winery owned by Hugo d'Acosta, who is also the winemaker at Adobe Guadalupe. Unfortunately, they were closed, but we saw their interesting modern facility. Next, we stopped at Vinas de Liceaga. Liceaga is an Ensenada construction mogul known for his Merlots, which are produced in the winery attached to his residence. It looked like they also had a large construction project underway, which we later learned was a hotel. At Liceaga, we tasted their sauvignon blanc (which we had been served the night before) and Merlots. We liked the reserve Merlot enough to buy a bottle. The sauvignon blanc was also good, but we were saving room in our suitcase (and our import allowance) for the Adobe's wines. They also sold a couple of ouzos, which were interesting. One had a very whiskey-like taste and was far more palatable than the other. They also sell a cake made with the ouzo - which they had samples of out for tasting. It reminded me of a whiskey cake my dad used to make when I was a kid, around the holidays.
Laja interior
After the tasting at Liceaga, we headed out in search of Laja. We found it not too far from Hwy 3, off of a side road that led directly to the Adobe - cutting across a large swath of farmland. We walked into the peaceful room furnished with natural wood and asked about changing the reservation. Oddly, without asking our names and without canceling our earlier reservation, they told us to come back at 7:30. Perfect. As we were leaving, we saw an employee in their garden picking vegetables for the evening's meal.

We had time for more pool lounging when we returned, and we were refreshed and relaxed when we walked into Laja for our reservation. Unfortunately, the sun-drenched peaceful room was now starkly lit and noisy, dominated by a huge party of fourteen at one long table in the middle. The din was deafening. We took our seats and surveyed the situation, trying to figure out where the group came from. My guess was that they were all employees on some sort of company sponsored trip, but it turned out that they had journeyed to the restaurant from a cruise ship docked in Ensenada. We assumed they would be there forever, since they had just been seated when we arrived, but it turned out that they had to get back to their boat and left about forty five minutes after we arrived.
Butternut Squash Soup
Making the best of it, we ordered the seven course tasting (the other choice is a four course) and some cocktails and wine to take the edge off. The first course was a butternut squash veloute soup with local olive oil, which was very creamy and rich. The second was a nice salad with herbs and arugula, tomatoes and viniagrette. It needed salt, which they brought in a small dish upon request. The third course was a bluefin tuna tartare with cucumber and preserved lemon. I normally really like tuna tartare - but I didn't love their version for some reason. I think it may have been the variety of fish used. It wasn't the super mild ahi I'm used to. The seasoning also wasn't balanced quite right - it simply tasted of lemon and oil with no sweetness to smooth it out.
Garden Lettuce Salad
After the third course, we wised up and moved outside to the flagstone patio, following the party of four which had left before us. The weather was nice and mild, and we had a long wood table lit by tea lights they placed on the table for us. They lit lanterns on the steps and a fair amount of light filtered through the glass doors and windows onto the patio from the dining room. It was very dark (I couldn't see the food until the flash went off!) but much more pleasant than the din of the dining room.
Corn Gnocchi
The fourth course was by far my favorite, a sweet corn gnocchi, served with eggplant and squash blossoms. The gnocchi were sort of caramelized, and the components of the dish were perfect complimentary. The fifth course was a seabass served with some baby vegetables. This was fine but unremarkable.
LambThe sixth course however was fantastic - oven roasted local lamb with shallots and mustard greens. It actually tasted almost like pulled pork, but with a hint of lamb flavor.
Yellow Watermelon Soup
Though the menu boasted of seven courses - we actually received eight. I had assumed they would ask us to choose between the two desserts listed, or the two main courses, but they never did, which was just fine with us. The first dessert was a cold yellow watermelon soup, with prickly pear and lemon balm sorbets. This was certainly the most visually dazzling course of the evening, with the contrasting colors. It was refreshing and cool, but didn't really satisfy my chocolate-and butter-centric sweet tooth.
Almond FinancierThe second choice did however - though it didn't contain any chocolate. It was an almond financier, served with butternut squash ice cream and green apple. Though it looks half eaten in the photo, this is how they brought it out, with the financier broken into pieces and interspersed with the apple. It was rich and delicious, and again - interesting.
We had two wines with our meal, an un-oaked Casa Piedra Chardonnay recommended by Don, called Piedra del Sol. We drank two bottles of that, and one of a Tempranillo Cabernet blend from Baron Balche - one of the wineries near the Adobe that we did not get a chance to visit. The Tempranillo Cabernet was not my favorite, but the Piedra del Sol was fantastic.
All in all, the visit to Laja did not disappoint. The service was excellent, the price was excellent (about $60.00 for the seven course meal, not including wine) and the food was interesting and delicious - though we enjoyed some courses more than others. I will definitely go back - perhaps for a late lunch. They serve from 1 PM to 8 PM (at least during the time of year we were there) and I think a day visit might afford a better opportunity to see the grounds, stroll the gardens, and enjoy the atmosphere.
The next day, we hopped in the car to return to the States shortly after breakfast, thinking we would make it home by mid-afternoon at the latest. Instead, we encountered an ungodly wait at the border - about two and a half hours total. I think we would have been better off had we made it there a bit earlier, but it's hard to tell. I'm sure it didn't help that Customs only had a few lanes open.
Adobe Sky
Overall, I highly recommend a visit to the area if you live in Southern California - I'm not sure it's worth traveling from a longer distance because there isn't really enough to keep you busy down there for more than a few days. It would really depend on your mood and what you are interested in. I found it fascinating - like visiting California fifty years ago, and I am sure we will be going back. I would also like to try some of the taco stands along the way (if anyone reading this has been to any of them, please send some recommendations!) When I asked Don about them he scoffed - clearly taco stands are not his thing- though I am sure there are some good ones out there.


For the photo album, click here.
Where we went:
Adobe Guadalupe - http://www.adobeguadalupe.com/
Laja - http://www.lajamexico.com/
Also recommended by Jay - http://www.lasbrisasdelvalle.com/
the Hacienda restaurant - near San Antonio de Tomas -about 1/4 mile East of Hwy 3. Follow the signs.
Vinas de Liceaga - winery speciazing in Merlot on the East side of Hwy 3 near San Antonio de Tomas

Other recommended wineries to visit:
Casa Piedra - on Hwy 3 just North of San Antonio de Tomas, on the west side of the L.A. Cetto - on the East side of Hwy 3 toward the North end of the valley (has a hot springs you can hike to)
Monte Xanic (pronounced Cha-neek) (on the road to the Adobe)
Baron Balche (also on the road to the Adobe)