Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Birthday cake (and more cake!)

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The monster in the fridge

This past weekend was my good friend Susan's birthday party, and I figured I could use the practice, so I volunteered to make her cake. The request was for an almond cake, and I had fantasties of a box shape, decorated like a present. Most of all, I wanted it to be tall. The cake layers baked up a bit denser and flatter than I would have liked (sometimes it just doesn't work quite right to double or triple baking recipes, and I think I wound up with a little too much egg by the time I doubled this one) so I made a meringue layer to go in the middle, and several layers of filling - chocolate ganache and a vanilla almond pastry cream - with raspberry jam for good measure. Susan likes the color combination of pink and brown, so I decided to frost the cake with a pink stabilized whipped cream flavored with a little almond extract, and decorate it with a chocolate marzipan ribbon. (If you read my earlier post, I did not get around to the cookies this time, but I am sure I will at some point!)
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all packed up and ready to go

To make the ribbons, I kneaded the marzipan and melted chocolate with a little corn syrup and powdered sugar. It tasted kind of like an almond tootsie roll. I really wanted a three dimensional bow that would stand up - but I decided my "dough" wasn't stiff enough, and added more confectioner's sugar. The dough went crumbly - then too soft again when I added a bit of corn syrup, so I wound up having to just roll it out and cut out the bow. Even then it was a bit sloppier than I would have liked, but that's what I get for tinkering with it!
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a slice (with meringue on the bottom)

I got the idea for the meringue layer from a cake an old boyfriend's mother used to make. His family was from Argentina, and she made a wonderful cake with sponge layers stacked with dulce de leche, meringue and whipped cream. This was pretty close to what I remember, though my meringue stayed soft on the inside, despite being dried overnight in the oven. I think it was the type - I made an Italian meringue, which means the egg whites and sugar were heated to 120 degrees and then beaten. It did add a good contrast in terms of texture and flavor - it was crisp on the outside and marshmallowy on the inside.

I was worried that there wouldn't be enough. Turns out even though there were about twenty people there, the birthday girl was still left with cake coming out her ears. Luckily, I don't think she was terribly unhappy about that!

Happy Birthday Susan!

Monday, January 22, 2007

How I Ate My Way Around San Francisco Bay - November, 2006

Where do I begin?? I just got back from a phenomenal food-centric weekend in San Francisco. We had the best time - eating on the high and low end, seeing friends and soaking up that peculiar brand of San Francisco smugness that is only tolerable because it is - as much as we So-Cal folks hate to admit it - well earned.

The orgy of eating started with Oola, on Folsom South of Mission (near Lulu) on Thursday night. They are famous for their spare ribs, which I literally could not get enough of. I'm a sucker for ribs to start with, so when I heard that they were the speciality of the house here - along with good cocktails - I was sold. We ordered an appetizer portion, which was one apiece, and then had to order more. Turns out the ribs are braised and deep fried, which is what makes them taste so good. The recipe was actually published in Food and Wine back in January. I would say it's probably something best enjoyed occasionally, and the arduous process is best left to the professionals, but if you're really feeling ambitious, here is the link.

The following day, we pointed North to meet some friends for brunch in Mill Valley at the Dipsea Cafe. The food wasn't very memorable, but it was great to see our friends. After a nice long visit, we headed up toward Napa. Our first stop was Domaine Carneros by Taittinger, a beautiful chateau-style winery just past Gloria Ferrer on the way to Napa. We did a three sample flight of their sparkling wines and pinots, and were so taken with their 2002 Brut Vintage and Pinot Noirs that we joined their Chateau Society club. They will send us a bottle of champagne and a bottle of red wine (generally a pinot) every other month. Seemed more than doable to us. We also get good discounts on re-orders and on wines purchased at the winery - which we took advantage of on our first order of six bottles - one of which we brought with us and the rest of which we shipped home.

After that, we were ready for some lunch. After our late breakfast and long visit, we had canceled our 1 PM reservation at Redd in Yountville. Instead, we headed to the Taylor's Automatic Refresher near St. Helena. I must have driven by this place a dozen times when I lived in Northern Cal (from 1995 to 1998,) but it never seemed to be much more than a little roadside burger stand. Somewhere along the line, it morphed into a hip little gourmet spot - something like the West Coast version of the Shake Shack (or so I imagine since I haven't been there.) Here in San Diego, we have Johnny Rockets and Ruby's, but somehow this is better. You order at the counter in front, and then seat yourself at one of the picnic style tables, either in the front or in the pleasant, grassy, tree-shaded area out back. I chose a chicken club sandwich - with swiss, bacon, lettuce and tomato on grilled sourdough, and James had a bleu cheese burger. We ordered sweet potato fries and onion rings, and each had a good glass of wine - since we were, after all, in the Wine Country. I ordered a glass of Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc, always a winner. The food was very good, though next time I would order the sweet potato fries without the funky chili seasoning, it tasted like Old Bay, and I have a thing about that. I'd also be curious to try one of their milkshakes - they looked really good.

By the time we made our way through the traffic and stopped for coffee at Dean and Deluca in St. Helena after our late lunch, we were staring 4:00 PM in the face. We drove down the lane to visit the Niebaum-Coppola winery - but were appalled to find that they were actually charging visitors a tasting fee simply to park and walk in. We turned right around and left. The only reason to go there anyway is their gift shop which carries Francis Ford Coppola's personal favorite items - like Rhodia notebooks and Amedei chocolates. We were kicking ourselves that we hadn't made plans to stay overnight in the valley, but it was too late for that now - so we headed back down to the City where we were staying with our good friend Tom.

We had reservations for dinner at Michael Mina, and we had told ourselves that we would go, having missed our lunch reservation, but after our day of fun we just didn't have the energy. Instead, we chilled down our bottle of Taittinger Brut, and enjoyed it in front of a roaring fireplace, along with a delivery pizza.

One of the things I knew I definitely wanted to do on this trip to San Francisco was go to the Ferry Building Farmer's Market on Saturday morning. I got up bright and early (by my standards anyway) on Saturday, and headed down there to meet the lovely Sam, of Becks and Posh - who had graciously agreed to give me a tour. Sam shops the market every single week, essentially doing her marketing there rather than in the stores. How I wish we had that luxury in San Diego! By the time I got to the market at 9:05 it was as bustling as Los Angeles International Airport - to my horror and delight. How great that people are patronizing the market, but my goodness - the lines were twenty people deep for the restrooms!

We met near the Sur La Table store, and headed out on a tour of Sam's favorite stalls, including the Fatted Calf (where I bought a 12 dollar salami!) and the Dirty Girl produce farm, where Sam picked up a box of tomatoes. We also looked over the food stands, and some of the shops inside. I bought some delicious cannelle (my first!) and cookies at the delightful Boulette's Larder (which came packed in a cute little bentwood basket), some Humboldt Fog, aged gouda and a Beaufort style cheese at Cowgirl Creamery and a still-warm baguette and almond croissant at Acme Bread. We also visited Recchiuti Confections (where Sam insisted on buying me two to sample - no need to twist my arm!) and the Slanted Door's elegant takeout stand, called "Out the Door" where we purchased our breakfast. Half of a Saigon Roast Pork sandwich (a lovely incarnation of a Bahn Mi) and a "Blue Bottle" coffee for me, and summer rolls for Sam. Coffee probably wasn't the best choice of beverage, given the chile sauce I slathered on the sandwich - but I needed it and it was delicious nonetheless. I highly recommend this as an eating option within the building. It's right across from the Ferry Building branch of Taylor's Refresher. After bidding Sam adieu, I toured back through the mall portion of the Ferry Building and went back to Michael Recchiuti to buy some gifts and a few more of those fabulous chocolates for myself. They are almost as good as my favorite L.A. Burdick chocolates - but being from California, they are more local which gives them an edge.

Next on the agenda was a visit with my "oldest friend," Moira. Moira and I are the same age, but we've known each other since we were four. We don't do a very good job of keeping in touch - I think it had been about two and a half years since we'd seen each other, and almost as long since we talked last - but really, what's two and a half years when you've known someone for more than thirty? I picked her up at her place and we popped down to the Fillmore to do another one of my foodie errands - picking up Parisian Macarons at the Bay Bread Boulangerie on Pine. By that time we were ready for a light late lunch, so we stopped by Chez Nous, a cafe on Fillmore which serves mainly small plates. I opted for mussels with curry and coconut milk and frites, while Moira had a souffle-like omelette. It was lovely, and gave us a chance to catch up.

On Saturday night, James and our friend Tom and I put on our Sunday best, and went down to my favorite restaurant in the whole wide world, Boulevard. I have never had a bad thing to eat or drink in this restaurant, and it did not disappoint this time. I started with my favorite cocktail - a "Boulevard Pink Limonade" - made with Bacardi Limon rum and pink lemonade. It sounds a little silly, but it's just so delicious. I started with an appetizer of dungeness crab salad with avocado and tobiko caviar, my husband ordered the scallops with pork belly and Tommy had the foie gras. They were all good, but the scallops were exceptional. Tommy had ordered them for his main course, and I changed my order from the squab and short rib entree after tasting them. James ordered a halibut dish that came with a "carbonara" made from shaved hearts of palm and oyster mushrooms. It was interesting and delicious. We then ordered three desserts, since they are always so good. The "Naughty Mascarpone Creme Brulee" with gingerbread and huckleberry sauce, an apple cake with apple fritter ice cream, and an ice cream sandwich assortment. When they arrived, I realized that the sandwiches were made with the same vanilla ice cream I made from their cookbook, and served with the same hot fudge sauce - which did not diminish my enjoyment of them in the slightest. I almost licked the hot fudge ramekin clean.

On Sunday morning, we wound up our trip with a visit to Le Petit Robert, a bistro in Russian Hill that I read about on Rorie's blog, Milk and Honey. Like Chez Nous, it is owned by the Bay Bread people. James and I had "Croque Madame" sandwiches and Tommy went with the Petit Robert burger - both of which are served open faced. It was very good, but we were puzzled by the lack of croissants or pastries. None were offered which seemed a bit strange for a French bistro serving breakfast.

I didn't make it to the East Bay on this trip, but I would love to go over there and visit Shuna at Poulet, and check out my old haunts in Rockridge. I'd also like to do another Wine Country tour, with a bit more time to spend, and hit some "Old San Francisco" spots for the sake of nostalgia. I am planning another visit this winter, so we'll see what develops!

Here are a few of my favorites from this visit:
Oola's ribs
The Saigon Roast Pork Sandwich at Out the Door
Cannelle and salty chocolate cookies from Boulette's Larder
Fresh french baguette and almond croissant from Acme Bakery
Fleur de sel caramel and peanut butter pucks from Recchiuti Confections
Scallops with pork belly at Boulevard
Mussels with coconut milk, curry and lime at Chez Nous

Special thanks to Sam, for not only hosting me on a delightful tour of the market, but for telling me how to make these cool collages, and to Tommy, for letting us stay with him at his fabulous house!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Restaurant Week at 1500 Ocean, Part II

My goodness I am behind! I had intended to write this post earlier in the week, but I wanted to get the chocolate cake post in for Sugar High Friday, so I wound up pushing everything else back. It's a little late for Restaurant Week, but I thought I'd say a few words and post some photos, just in case you are still curious.

I've wanted to try this place since I read Naomi Wise's review back in July. I was really intrigued by the menu and by the fact that the chef worked under Thomas Keller at Per Se, and I was curious about their remodel (and those cool blue chairs!)
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Our first visit was during the holidays, when we went for drinks with our friends Marc and Susan. On that trip, we enjoyed cheese fondue, lollipop chicken wings, tuna tartare and cheese biscuits while huddling in front of the outdoor fireplace watching the skaters on the beach-side rink. (All but the tuna tartare are on their bar menu only.) The cheese fondue was the best of the lot. It came in a cute little ramekin propped over a flame, and was served with apple wedges and french bread. The tuna tartare was good, but nothing out of the ordinary, and the chicken wings were just like buffalo wings. The cheese biscuits are also served in the bread basket of the restaurant (below).
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On that first visit we couldn't help but notice that the restaurant wasn't very busy. It was pleasant to have the outdoor area to ourselves, and we had excellent service as a result, but it concerned me a bit for the restaurant.
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I needn't have worried. When we showed up for our 7:15 reservation on Thursday during Restaurant Week , the place was packed. Even so, the dining room felt relatively spacious and it looked like they had some overflow seating on their heated covered patio. We sat in a booth on the side of the room, and aside from the fact that the spacing was a bit tight (we didn't have room for the bolster pillows they had put on the seats!) we were happy with the arrangement.

We were dining with Lisa and Luis, who as usual brought a wonderful bottle of wine for us to share. This time it was a 2003 Meyer Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon.
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We ordered from the RW menu but added a couple of items, the foie gras, pictured above, and the shrimp, also above. The foie gras was perfectly sauteed, garnished with ground pistachios, a port wine reduction, grilled fig and frisee. The shrimp were sweet and tender - accented with a black bean puree, a griddled piece of corn bread and a sweet and spicy relish that provided an interesting contrast.
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A piccalilli-like jalapeno relish also came with the Lime and Honey Cured Hamachi, along with an avocado mousse. This was also very good - though a small serving. It would make an excellent choice if you like to save room for your main course.

The duck confit, pictured above, was served with a pomegranate reduction sauce. The duck itself was perfectly cooked, but the sauce and accompaniments - pureed celery root and braised endive - were a bit too sweet. I much preferred the green peppercorn sauce and mashed potatoes served with the duck confit at Modus.
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The dessert was a universal winner. We loved the chipotle chocolate cake with caramel ice cream and espresso crunch. It had just a bit of heat, moist texture and a good, deep chocolate flavor. In fact, we loved it so much that the waiter insisted on bringing us an extra one for the table, which then appeared on the bill! We thought he might leave it off since they were late with the coffee (it didn't get there until after we had finished dessert) but no such luck. We didn't quibble because he had been very good to us (he did comp our corkage fee), and we enjoyed ourselves so much - but we did think it was odd.

A note about the coffee - they bring it out in little silver french press pots, which are very cute, but don't let them plunge it when they bring it to the table. It a few minutes to steep a pot of french press, and mine was very weak.

Other items we ordered included the salad, which was excellent, the Santa Maria barbequed steak, which appropriately came with pinquito beans, and the cheese plate - which didn't look very good to me, but my husband seemed to enjoy it. We didn't try the gnudi, which several people raved about, including Captain Jack, but it is on the regular menu, so we have another excuse to go back.

The regular menu at 1500 Ocean is far from inexpensive, but they do have a four-course prix fixe for $75. - $110. with wine pairings. Three glasses of wine for $35.00 sounds a bit steep to me - unless they bust out a dessert wine not listed on the menu. Their wine list is excellent and fairly well priced. We didn't indulge in a second bottle since it was a "school night," but it looked like they had lots of good choices.

Overall what we ate at 1500 Ocean was very comparable to what we had at Market. Both restaurants serve modern California cuisine using fresh, local ingredients, and both chefs seem to have a soft spot for upscale comfort foods. Market's menu is a little more adventurous (and affordable), but everything at 1500 Ocean was flawlessly prepared, the atmosphere in the dining room was more pleasant, and the service was far better. I think my dining companions (who also dined at Market) would probably give the edge to Market, but I would be really hard pressed to choose between them. I recommend you save yourself the trouble, and try both!

1500 Ocean
Hotel Del Coronado
(619) 522-8490

reservations also available at www.opentable.com

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Devil's Food Duel

For a long time now, I've been wanting to make a chocolate cake from scratch. I have a bit of an aversion to baking cakes, pies and other "one piece" desserts, because I can't test them before serving them to friends and family. Sometimes things go well, but then again, sometimes they don't.
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The excuse for this baking frenzy was not this just month's Sugar High Friday #27 (theme: Chocolate by Brand) but a meeting of my monthly supper club. It's supposed to be a Cooking Light supper club, but nobody seems to mind too much if the dessert isn't exactly low fat. After looking online and poring over several of the cookbooks on my shelves, I came up with two radically different recipes, one from a fun little cookbook I picked up last week called "Birthday Cakes" by Kathryn Kleinman, and one from Epicurious. Though they both claimed to make devil's food cakes, the Epicurious recipe used butter, semisweet chocolate and cocoa powder and called for far less baking soda and baking powder. The "cookbook" recipe called for twice as much cocoa powder, double the amount of baking powder and soda, but only half a cup of oil and half as many eggs.

I could hardly believe that two dissimilar formulas would lead to the same result, but I couldn't tell from the recipes exactly what I would get from each one. As you may have already figured out, I decided to try them both. I stuck with the flavors called for in the original recipes, since I figured they would be compatible, but I added a ganache filling to the Epicurious cake, and I used a different frosting recipe from the Birthday Cakes cookbook - the one on the cover to be exact - I really wanted those thick swirls of fudgy buttercream!

"Birthday Cakes" is a cute book with lots of pictures and a wide variety of recipes from the "who's who" of pastry-chefdom, including Maida Heatter, James Beard, Alice Medrich, Alice Waters, Emily Luchetti, Julia Child, Lindsay Shere, Flo Braker and our very own David Lebovitz (who also happens to be the host of this month's Sugar High Friday!) I like that it includes pictures of all of the cakes and gives you a recipe for a finished product, rather than forcing you to guess what will go with what. As a bonus, most recipes include a little story from the chefs as to why the cake is special to them.

On the downside, the recipes aren't quite detailed or specific enough about methods and times - for example, not telling you what attachment to use with the standing mixer, or how long to beat the frosting to get it to thicken properly - but a moderately experienced baker would probably be able to cope with these shortcomings.
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To comply with the Sugar High Friday theme, I must tell you a bit about the brands of chocolate that I used and why. I used two different cocoa powders, Valrhona and Scharffenberger, in an effort to test their properties in finished baked goods. The difference between them in their raw form is strikingly apparent. The Scharffenberger (pictured above in the front) is much lighter and reddish in color, and smells good, like actual chocolate. The Valrhona, which is "dutched" is deep brown and smells a bit bitter. It turns out that the "dutching" process involves washing the cocoa with an alkaline, which raises its' pH level and affects both the flavor and how it behaves when added to baked goods. What I have read online indicates that you are not supposed to substitute one for the other. Apparently it can affect whether the cake rises properly, becasue the cocoa interacts with the baking soda and baking powder. Dutched cocoa will not react with baking soda, and requires that baking powder be added in order for the cake to rise. I used the natural Scharffenberger cocoa in the cake that called for more baking soda and powder, and dutched cocoa in the other cake (along with melted chocolate), which would seem counterintuitive. Both of them rose just fine, but the cooking methods were dissimilar which may account for the difference. One (the Scharffenberger) was dissolved in water first, and the other was simply whisked into the flour.

I was really impressed with the color and flavor of the Scharffenberger cocoa. It wasn't cheap - I found it at Vons for $9.50 for a six ounce can - but it just smells and looks better than ordinary cocoa. To help offset the expense I used Ghirardelli 60% Cacao bars for the semisweet chocolate, which cost 1/4 as much as the comparable amount of Scharffenberger (except in the ganache, where I used Valrhona 55% that I had on hand.) I find that the Ghirardelli 60% chocolate bars and chocolate chips are widely available, always fresh in the store and far less expensive than Scharffenberger or Valrhona.

Ultimately, I found that the cookbook recipe - flavored only with cocoa and containing no butter - produced what I think of as a true devils' food cake. The Epicurious cake had more of a brownie-like flavor and texture. It certainly wasn't bad, but wasn't quite what I was going for. It also had a lighter color and though moist, was a bit crumbly. If I do make this recipe again I would consider using some unsweetened chocolate to deepen the flavor, and I would moisten the layers with simple syrup.

The fillings turned out great. The orange ganache and the fudgy buttercream frosting on the Epicurious cake were spot on - and the whipped cream, banana and peanut butter with the devils' food cake was quick, simple and tasty. They were both popular at the supper club and it was interesting to hear which version people preferred and why. It was about evenly split, with some people preferring the dark moist crumb of the devil's food, and others preferring the dense richness of the Epicurious cake. Either would make a spectacular birthday cake.

Without further ado, here are the recipes:
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The "Epicurious" Cake:
Chocolate Orange Ganache Torte with Espresso Crunch and Buttercream Frosting

(adapted from Epicurious):
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped (I'd recommend 70% cacao or over)
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 cups (packed) golden brown sugar
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
4 large eggs

4 oz good quality semisweet chocolate (I used Valrhona Equatoriale 55%)
8 oz heavy whipping cream
1 tbsp Grand Marnier or other orange liquer
1 tbsp brandy
4 drops of orange oil, or 1 tsp of finely grated fresh orange zest

Crushed espresso crunch candy (I bought mine at a baking supply store - you could also just crush some hard coffee candies)

Buttercream Frosting:
(adapted from Emily Luchetti's recipe for Bittersweet Chocolate Frosting appearing in Kathryn Kleiman's "Birthday Cakes")
4 oz bittersweet chocolate (I used Ghirardelli 60%)
8 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped (I used Scharffenberger)
1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
3 cups confectioners sugar
pinch of salt
2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cup plus 2 tbsp milk

Chopped candied orange peel

For the cakes:
Preheat to 325°F. Butter and flour two 9-inch-diameter cake pans with 1 1/2-inch-high sides. Line bottoms of pans with parchment paper rounds. Stir chocolate in top of double boiler set over simmering water until smooth. Remove from over water. Cool to barely lukewarm.

Sift flour and next 4 ingredients into medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat brown sugar and butter in large bowl until smooth. Beat in eggs, 1 at a time. Beat in melted chocolate until smooth. Mix in dry ingredients alternately with buttermilk in 3 additions each. Divide batter evenly between prepared pans (if you have one, a scale is great for this).

Bake cakes until tester inserted into centers comes out nearly clean, about 30 minutes. Cool cakes in pans on racks 15 minutes. Turn cakes out onto racks; remove parchment and cool completely.

At this point, Cakes can be refrigerated overnight, well wrapped in plastic.

If desired, you can brush the cakes with a bit of simple syrup before using. It will help keep them fresh longer and make the cake a bit easier to cut and serve. To make, boil equal parts sugar and water (about a half cup of each) and cool - add a bit of liquer or extract for flavor. Flip the cakes upside down and brush liberally with the syrup before filling with ganache.

For the Ganache:
When you are ready to assemble the cake, finely chop the chocolate and place in a heatproof bowl. Bring the cream to a boil in a small saucepan and strain into the chocolate through a wire mesh sieve. Allow to stand for a few seconds and gently whisk by hand to blend. Add the orange oil or zest and liquers and whisk just to blend. Place the ganache in the refrigerator and allow to cool for about forty minutes, stirring once or twice during the chilling (don't allow it to harden).When it is cooled, place it in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, and beat just until thickened and fluffy. Be sure not to overbeat it, or it will become grainy. Do not chill it again before putting it on the cake (like I did, and had to heat it over a double boiler to bring it back to spreadable consistency!)

Immediately spread the ganache over the bottom layer of the cake and sprinkle with the espresso crunch. (I flipped the cakes upside down so that the flat side was facing up.) Add the top layer of the cake and press down firmly - using plastic wrap to keep the cake from sticking to your hands.

For the Frosting:
Melt chocolates and butter together in a double boiler, remove from heat and cool to lukewarm. Sift the confectioners' sugar and salt together into the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. In a small bowl, combine the vanilla and milk. Whisk the milk mixture into the confections sugar to form a paste. With the mixer running on low speed, drizzle the melted chocolate and butter mixture into the bowl. Turn the mixer up to medium speed, and whisk at high speed just until thickened to the desired consistency. Do not overbeat the mixture, or it might "break" or start to separate. Use immediately to frost the cake.

To make candied orange peel, boil thin strips of orange peel (the orange part only - remove the pith) in simple syrup (1/2 cup of water and 1/2 of sugar) for thirty to forty five minutes, until most of the bitterness is cooked out. Lay the strips on a paper towel in the refrigerator to cool and dry, then chop finely and sprinkle on the cake.

The finished cake will keep for a day or two unrefrigerated - if refrigerated, bring to room temperature before serving and protect any cut edges from drying out with saran wrap or parchment. Cut the cake with a sharp knife dipped in hot water.
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The "Cookbook Cake":
Elvis Cake
Adapted from a recipe by Maria Bruscino Sanchez in Kathryn Kleinman's "Birthday Cakes" in honor of of the King's favorite sandwich - fried peanut butter and banana

(this cake should not be assembled more than a couple of hours before serving because it contains fresh banana and whipped cream - on the plus side, it is really quick and easy to put together.)

Devil's Food Cake:
1 cup boiling water
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cups all purpose flour
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 tsp vanilla extract

1 cup of whipping cream
3 tbsp confectioners sugar

1 jar of smooth, sweetened peanut butter, such as Skippy
2 ripe bananas

For the cake:
Preheat the oven to 325. Grease and flour two nine inch cake pans and line them with parchment paper. Pour the boiling water over the cocoa powder and whisk to dissolve. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt and mix on low speed. Add the eggs and cocoa mixture and blend on low speed for one minute. Scrape down the bowl and add the buttermilk, oil and vanilla. Beat on low speed for one minute. Scrape down the bowl and beat on medium speed for one to two minutes, or until smooth.
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Pour the batter evenly into the pans and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until a tester comes out with a moist crumb. Let the cakes cool on wire racks in the pans for ten to fifteen minutes, then turn out onto wire racks to cool. Remove parchment paper and let cool completely before frosting. Cakes can be stored overnight in the refrigerator wrapped in plastic.

To assemble, chill bowl and whisk of electric mixer in the freezer for fifteen minutes. Whip cream to soft peaks in the mixer, then added powdered sugar. Resume beating and whip just until stiff.

Slice banana slightly diagonally and place bottom layer of cake on serving platter. Spread bottom layer with thick layer of whipped cream leaving about 1/2 to 3/4 inch around the edge, and dot liberally with sliced banana and small dollops of peanut butter. Spread with a little more whipped cream and top with second layer of cake. Press down lightly on top of cake, just until whipped cream reaches the edges. Spread top of cake liberally with whipped cream, and garnish around the edges of the cake with slices of banana topped with a dollop of peanut butter so that each slice will have one. Dust the top with cocoa if you have some on hand - I forgot mine. You may also notice that I have only half of a cake pictured above. I lost a layer to breakage. (I probably could have saved it, but I decided to eat it instead!)

Ultimately, I myself preferred the devil's food cake, and I was surprised at how easy and delicious the peanut butter/banana/whipped cream combo was. Then again, I also really liked the orange ganache and buttercream combo. I was also just glad that both cakes turned out well given the experimental nature of the project. It gave me the confidence to sign on to make the cake for my friend Susan's birthday party coming up in a couple of weeks. She has specially requested an almond cake, and I think I have just the thing (the cake part) with a little almond extract to boost the flavor. We'll see how it turns out.

To see the rest of the Sugar High Friday entries, toddle on over to David Lebovitz' blog - it promises to be a doozy!

Friday, January 12, 2007

Restaurant Week at 1500 Ocean

Well you can add my voice to the chorus of praise for Restaurant Week at 1500 Ocean! I am pressed for time before work this morning, and we are going out of town this weekend, but our own Captain Jack has posted a review on his site that includes many of the items we tasted. We even had the foie gras, and found it to be perfectly prepared. The restaurant was crowded, but just enough to be lively, and we really liked our server.

I'll be back after the weekend with more on 1500 Ocean and some notes from our trip to Julian. We are hoping to see some snow!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Naomi's Best of 2006

This week's Reader boasts Naomi Wise's picks for the best new and improved restaurants in town, along with few pet peeves.

At the top of the top she likes Blanca, where Michael Mina protege Wade Hageman is cooking Nouveau French California food. I haven't been yet, but it's definitely on my "hit list", as my friend Lisa says. Market is named best in the "almost- affordable" category - and she includes a nod to my pastry instructor - James Foran - for best desserts rivaled only by Jack Fisher at Addison (late of 910 and Region). Personally I think his stuff is far and away better than Fisher's, but maybe I'm biased.

She also mentions Modus as the best place to gobble French food into the wee hours. Confidential gets the nod for best Tapas, and she mentions that Chris Walsh will be opening a new restaurant early this year. I wonder if he's going back to his old, and still vacant, location on 6th Avenue?

Hawthornes is mentioned as the best improvement or "turnaround," with fresh vegetables and stocks used instead of the dreaded Sysco mix. I've never been to Hawthorne's, but I did dine at the Green Tomato in Kensington a few times when we lived in the neighborhood (owned by the same people as Fifth and Hawthorne) and they definitely had that problem - I wonder if it has improved as well, or if the same people still own it.

My favorite part of her list is the list of "Eight Great Dishes" - She liked the truffled corn at Island Prime, as well as a truffled corn ravioli dish from J Six that sounds fabulous. She also mentions the "Bubalus Bubalis" Ricotta Gnudi - which is on the Restaurant Week menu at 1500 Ocean, the strawberry ribs from Red Pearl Kitchen, Grand Marnier Souffle at Thee Bungalow and smoked roast beef at the Gospel Brunch at the House of Blues. Rounding out the list are a dish from Paradise Grill (which isn't winning many rave reviews on Chowhound) and Torchon of Foie Gras at Stingaree. I also had a good version of this at La Bastide Bistro last year.

There are also a few surprises, at least to me - the "Best Kept Secret" is Galileo 101 - which has always seemed a bit forsaken in it's odd location facing the trolley tracks in the One Harbor Drive complex. Apparently a former sous chef at Chive is now cooking there.

In the ethnic category, Lotus Thai, a new place called Kous Kous, D'mood, Ranoosh, Samba Grill, and Gourmet India get nods. Gourmet India has a fabulous lunch buffet for about eight dollars and the people are incredibly nice.

One of the most intriguing listings to me however, is the mention of a new place called "Batter Up." Owned by by a former chef at the Juke Joint, which I remember fondly, serves Cajun style casual food at the corner of Euclid and Market. Sounds like an interesting new option for weeknight dinner!

To read the full article, click here.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Looking Back and Forward

Somehow it just seems appropriate to do a recap post at the end of the year - and doubly so for me, given that this was my first year of blogging. I know it sounds corny, but this blog has brought me into a whole new world. It has changed my perspective and opened my eyes, and I am grateful for that. As we close out the year, I am looking back on some wonderful memories. Here are a few of them:

Best Meal at a New (local) Fine Dining Restaurant: Jack's in La Jolla ( I also like the Grill.) Runners up: Market and JRDN (though technically I think they opened in 05.)

Most Memorable Meal: Dinner at Laja in the Guadalupe Valley

Best Meal at a New Neighborhood Restaurant: Either the Duck Confit at Modus or Moules Frites at Vagabond.

Most Promising Newcomer: Jayne's Gastropub - currently open only for lunch but opening for dinner in February.

Favorite Dishes Outside of San Diego: Lamb at Laja, In San Francisco: Oola's Ribs, Foie Gras and Scallops at Boulevard, Roast Pork Bahn Mi at Out the Door in the Ferry Building, and pastries from Boulette's Larder - also in the Ferry Building.

Best Dessert: Butterscotch Pot De Creme at Jayne's Gastropub
Runners up: Passionfruit Andaji with Coconut Gelato at Red Pearl Kitchen, Chocolate Pot de Creme at Cafe Chloe and the Chocolate Panna Cotta at Market.

Best New Recipes: Doughnut Muffins, Ultimate Fall Lasagna, Lemon Meringue Ice Cream Sandwiches, Lucques Shortribs.

Best Cocktails: The Blackberry Mint Margaritas made from the Hungry Cat's Recipe, Boulevard Pink Limonade at Boulevard in San Francisco (be sure to have them make it with the Bacardi Limon!)

Best Home-Cooked Meal: The Prime Rib and Roasted Vegetables that Tracy and Brian cooked for us on Christmas Day.

Favorite New Cookbooks: Sunday Suppers with Lucques, the Boulevard Cookbook, the Zuni Cafe Cookbook and Jamie's Dinners.

Best New Discoveries: the Black Truffle Pate at Bristol Farms in La Jolla (like frosting out of the can for grown-ups!), American Flatbread pizza (in the freezer section at Bristol Farms), the organic produce selection at People's, lobster pot pies from Williams Sonoma, french pastries (flaky real butter croissants!) and the chipotle pork sandwich at the Westgate Deli downtown, Con Pane - especially their Roast Beef sandwich with goat cheese and red onion, Eclipse Chocolates, Vosge's Barcelona Bar.

Worst disasters: two ice cold side dishes served with a steak at Laurel, our meal at C Level at Island Prime - cold overly rich and fried food - is there anything worse?? Not getting seated at Parallel 33 despite the fact that we had a reservation (they gave our table away to some regulars who walked in without one - we left after waiting thirty minutes for something else to open up.)

In 2007, I'm looking forward to trying a few of the newer restaurants around town - such as Blanca, Addison, and the Tractor Room. I also want to try a few that aren't so new but I just haven't been able to get to - like Confidential and Stingaree. I've also heard that JSix is very good these days, and I'd also like to get back to Jack's, Parallel 33 and the Wine Sellar.

We are also planning a week long trip up to the Central Coast in October. Were going to spend a couple of nights in Santa Barbara, and a few nights in Big Sur. (We decided to push back our Spain trip for various reasons.)

I also have a few New Year's resolutions related to this blog - here goes:

1) Does everyone who starts a food blog gain ten pounds like I did? I resolve to get back down to a size ten within the next six months, without talking about it all the time.
2) I resolve to continue to make my way through culinary school one class at a time.
3) I resolve to go to Roppongi's happy hour to eat their appetizers at half price.
4) I resolve to try one new restaurant, and write about it, at least once a month.
5) I resolve to learn to make french bread and croissants at home
6) I resolve to do as much of my shopping as possible at Peoples, especially for produce.
7) I resolve to eat more fruits, vegetables and legumes, and less meat and dairy.
7) I resolve to get outdoors and go hiking more often at places like Cowles Mountain and Torrey Pines.
8) I resolve to trust my instincts and write honestly in my assessments and reviews.
9) I resolve to continue to refine my writing, to branch out and move beyond the sixth grade reading level where I sometimes feel I am stuck.
10) I resolve to budget my time better, so my blog doesn't cut into my sleep (like it is right now!) or make me late for work or for appointments

We'll see how I do!

Happy New Year!