Thursday, January 29, 2009

P.S. I Love You, Part II - The Parker Palm Springs

Lemons at the Parker
Ah, the Parker. It seems to be a loaded question when you ask people what they think of it. Regardless of how they feel about the decor (which I love, personally) or the service (come on, what guy would want to wear those hot pink pants?) I have never had a bad breakfast in their dining room and I think virtually anyone would have to agree that the grounds are absolutely gorgeous.
The Parker Palm Springs - outdoor lobby area
By some sort of landscaping miracle, they are both lush and drought tolerant - with lots of meandering pathways, citrus trees dripping with fruit, and plenty of shady spots, fountains and grassy bits to ameliorate the heat.
Gardens at the Parker Palm Springs
Gardens at the Parker Palm Springs
After wandering for a little while among the pampas grasses, you come to a cute little "Lemonade Bar" serving lemonade, of course, and other "beverages" too.
Gardens at the Parker
The Lemonade Stand (aka bar) at the Parker
A shaded lane between two petanque courts shelters a row of tables and chairs, and just beyond another hedge lies one of the two swimming pools on the grounds.
Gardens at the Parker Palm Springs
Second pool area at the Parker
The sensibility of the Parker is sort of Morocco meets the beach - having a weakness for whimsy myself, I dig the oversized chess set and the peaked umbrellas, though someone with less tolerance for this sort of thing might not...
Chess set at the Parker
I also love their huge bougainvilleas that climb up the outside walls of the rooms overlooking the other pool - closer to the center of the complex.
Pool at the Parker Palm Springs
And the vast swaths of grass punctuated by some Moroccan lawn furniture and an ancient olive tree remind me of the even-more-whimsical Delano in Miami Beach.
Gardens at the Parker Palm Springs

Since their rates are a little higher than some of the other places in town (around $300 per night) I haven't stayed there yet, but I could definitely be talked into it, despite what some have said. Maybe a girl's weekend this Spring? Who's in?

More photos can be viewed in this set.

Chocolate Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Frosting

chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter frosting
This past Sunday afternoon, I was seized by the urge to bake something for the office. I wanted something more than cookies, but nothing too fancy, and I'd had my eye on this Barefoot Contessa recipe for a while. Homey and simple yet utterly decadent, it seemed like just the thing.

First though, I tried a little experiment. You may have seen or heard of the Weight Watchers "one point cupcake" - a concoction of - are you ready? Cake mix and diet soda. Yes, two chemical tastes that taste great together. Or not. I was curious, but really, I should have known better. I have never been much for "fat free" this or "low fat" that. The finished product actually looked pretty good and it had a nice crumb - but it tasted just like Snackwells. Remember those? Enough said - the whole batch went in the trash. Which I felt a little bad about, but there was nothing else I could do with them.

Since I had a feeling that might not work, I already had the butter softening for this recipe. Flour, sugar, coffee, buttermilk, creme fraiche, Valrhona cocoa - now that's more like it. I whipped up the frosting using natural crunchy peanut butter, powdered sugar, softened Plugra butter, and an unopened container of soft cream cheese that I happened to have sitting in the fridge. A dash of salt, a dribble of vanilla... yes, indeed.
chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter frosting
The cupcakes baked up just lovely, with a moist crumb and deep, not-too-sweet chocolate flavor. The frosting was delicious too, though if I had it to do over again - I might have used a little less peanut butter, and I would use smooth. I decorated mine with a few chocolate chips, but some chopped peanuts would work too. They were a big hit at the office, and I really enjoyed the two I saved. I think they lasted a whopping forty-eight hours in the freezer.
chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter frosting

Chocolate Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Frosting
adapted from The Barefoot Contessa

makes approximately three dozen cupcakes

2 1/4 sticks unsalted organic butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup light brown or demerara sugar, packed
3 extra-large organic free range eggs, at room temperature
3 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups buttermilk, shaken, at room temperature
1/2 cup creme fraiche, at room temperature
1/4 cup plain lowfat organic yogurt, at room temperature
1 Tablespoon Medaglia de Oro instant espresso, mixed with
3 Tablespoons water (or use strong brewed coffee or espresso)
2 1/2 cups plus 2 Tablespoons all-purpose organic flour
1 1/2 cups good cocoa powder (I used 1 cup Valrhona and 1/2 cup Scharffenberger - since I didn't have quite enough of either.)
2 1/4 teaspoons baking soda (not powder)
3/4 teaspoons kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line cupcake pans with paper liners.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and two sugars on high speed until light and fluffy, approximately 5 minutes. Lower the speed to medium, add the eggs one at a time, then add the vanilla and mix well. In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, sour cream, and espresso mixture. In another bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt. On low speed, add the buttermilk mixture and the flour mixture alternately in thirds to the mixer bowl, beginning with the buttermilk mixture and ending with the flour mixture. Mix until blended. Fold the batter with a rubber spatula a few times to be sure it's completely blended, but don't overbeat the batter.

Divide the batter among the cupcake pans, filling them to between 2/3 and 3/4 full. Bake in the middle of the oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes, remove from the pans, and allow to cool completely before frosting.

Peanut Butter Frosting
1 cup natural style organic peanut butter*
1 1/3 cup organic powdered sugar
8 oz cream cheese at room temperature
6 Tablespoons organic butter, soft but not melting.
1 tsp vanilla
1/3 tsp kosher salt

Beat the peanut butter and powdered sugar together until the sugar is incorporated and the peanut butter starts to become creamy and lighten in color, about one minute. Add the cream cheese and butter, vanilla and salt, and whip until light and fluffy.

Makes enough to frost three dozen cupcakes, with a little left over.

* the original recipe, which can be found here, called for 1/3 of a cup of whipping cream, which I did not happen to have - hence the addition of the cream cheese, and a little extra bit of butter. When I had whipped that up (using the 1 cup of peanut butter called for) I had just a little bit left in the jar - so I decided to whip that in too. If I had it to do over again though, I probably wouldn't. The frosting tasted great, but was a little bit sticky. This is probably nitpicking, but still - I think you should know ;-) LATER EDIT - I later found out that the reason frosting recipes call for non-natural peanut butter, is so the oil doesn't separate out - which may be the reason these came out so shiny. It's not really a flavor issue, but it might be an aesthetic one - so feel free to use Jiffy or Skippy here if you prefer.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

In Praise of Animal Style

Oh, Animal Style. Why do you have to be so damned irresistible?

Since I discovered this eighth wonder of the burger world just a few weeks ago, I've been counting off the days until it's "acceptable" to go to In N Out again - and going, again and again. I've settled on once a week - with the big compromise that I don't order fries. Just the burger and a diet coke. Since there are about as many calories in the fries as in the burger, (believe it or not - 400) it actually isn't such a bad deal.

For those of you who have yet to discover this delicious invention - ordering your burger Animal Style means the meat is cooked with mustard, and grilled onions, pickles, and extra "spread" are added. It's part of their "secret menu" that includes grilled cheese (no meat), any burger "protein style" (wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun), and the "flying dutchman" (two patties and two slices of cheese and nothing else.) They'll also do the fries Animal Style - topped with grilled onions, cheese and the spread. (The regular menu has only three options - the Double Double, a hamburger or a cheeseburger, with fries, shakes and sodas.)

I've always ordered my In N Out burgers (either a single cheese or hamburger, never a double) with ketchup and mustard instead of sauce, and with onion that is cooked in a slice and laid on the meat - so this whole thing was a bit of a shock for me - in terms of how delicious it was. After deciding that I don't like the processed cheese they use - I decided one day to order a Double Meat, Animal Style and add ketchup and mustard. (Normally, it just has the spread.) I was starving that day, so I also added a "well done" fry (the only way to get them crispy) and a Neopolitan shake, which has all 3 flavors in one cup. Freaking. Amazing. The burger has an almost ethnic flavor to it with the sharpness of the pickles, the mustard and the sweet onions - and the double meat (1/4 pound total) adds the right richness to balance it out. Why they don't just make all their burgers this way to start with I couldn't tell you - but once you know what you're missing there's no going back. I tried one the old way last week just to be sure.

At $2.85 for the Double burger, and $1.29 for the soda, the price simply can't be beat. I know it's not exactly healthy - but if you're like me - just manage your meat (and calorie) consumption for the rest of the day, and you'll have no trouble justifying it at all!

For more on the In N Out Secret Menu - check out this guide, complete with photos.

For locations and more information, click here.

Photo via flickr

Sunday, January 18, 2009

P.S. I Love You, Part I - The Viceroy and Palm Canyon Drive

Casita at the Viceroy Palm Springs
Last week, my good girlfriend Susan and I took a little trip to Palm Springs, to take in the desert scenery, do a little shopping and get some sun. We stayed at the Viceroy, which did not disappoint, though if I had it to do over again I'd definitely get one of their villas - just steps away from the spa with their own pool. We got there in the late afternoon and I had to go to Indio for work in the morning, so I didn't get any poolside time - but that seemed like an ideal place to spend it.
Doughnuts at Norma's at the Parker Palm Springs
When I was done with my work we stopped by the Parker for a late breakfast, which was fabulous albeit pricey - as it always is. The Norma's Doughnuts - pictured above, were amazing. On the way back down Palm Canyon to the freeway, we took in a few of the vintage stores. a La Mod on Palm Canyon Drive
Sadly most of the shops were closed since it was a Tuesday - the one day of the week that many of them seemed to shut down - but we were able to check out A la Mod, a great consignment shop right there on the main drag, and the Trina Turk store.
Trina Turk has a "residential" store there, with pillows, furniture and other items covered in her signature prints. I bought some cool velveteen pillows with a groovy butterfly design and Susan bought some placemats, a vase and a bowl. They have some fun vintage items sprinkled in among the new goods.
Killer vintage Saarinen tulip table and stools at a  La Mod on Palm Canyon
We also really enjoyed a La Mod - just down the street - I was especially captivated by this original Saarinen tulip table with six matching stools. It was in near mint condition and priced around $5000. I bought a couple of flowerpots, and eyeballed a set of wrought iron fireplace tools. Their prices and selection were the best of what we found.

We're still planning to go back and check out the main Antique Mall and a few of the other shops we missed on North Palm Canyon - if you're in town stop by the Viceroy and ask the front desk for their list of shops, it includes all the good ones!

next up - Part II, the gardens and decor at the Parker.

Friday, January 02, 2009

A Happy New Year indeed...

Barney Greengrass Smoked Nova Salmon

2008 may have been a bit of a mixed bag, but at least so far, 2009 has been FANTASTIC. We rang in the new year yesterday in grand style - with some good friends and a boxfull of goodies shipped from Barney Greengrass in NYC. Pretty much the anthesis of all of our locavore aspirations - but what can I say? Sometimes the heart just wants what it wants.
Inside the box

Inspired by a Twitter exchange the other day, (hi Paul and Caron!) I placed the order last week and sent out the email cry for participants. We rounded up a few willing volunteers and set out a spread just like the ones I remembered from my youth.
Bagel brunch spread

I didn't grow up in a Jewish family - but I grew up next door to one. The Brozinskys moved from New York into the house next door to my parents when I was twelve. I was used to spending time at their house because we'd been friends with the previous family who lived there with their two small children. Shortly after the Brozinskys moved in, they had a new baby. I figured, what the heck, why wouldn't these people also want a nosy 12 year old banging on their door in the middle of the afternoon? So I marched on over there, knocked on the door and asked (maybe even demanded) to "see the baby." Though I cringe now, they were very tolerant, and our families became very close over the following twenty-odd years.

Roseann loved to cook, and loved to feed people. You couldn't visit without being offered something delicious - usually a new recipe or dish - and they had parties, holiday celebrations and dinners nearly every weekend. I learned everything I know about Jewish cooking, food and traditions from them and their briskets, latkes, Passover seders, noodle kugels, and possibly my favorite - the bagel brunches.

When I was in high school there were only a few bagel shops, and by far the best among them was a small local chain called the Baltimore Bagel Company. Their bagels were smaller and chewier than the ones you see now (more like the real thing) and the shops were no frills - just bagels and cream cheese, juice and coffee. Roseann took me on errands there occasionally and I loved the citified feel of the place - with the stainless steel baskets filled with bagels and the smells of onion, garlic and poppyseeds in the air, it seemed somehow exotic to me.
My plate

When Roseann did bagel brunches she put out baskets of bagels, heaps of cream cheese and sliced tomatoes, red onions and cucumbers. I'm sure there was lox as well - but my palate sadly wasn't sophisticated enough at that point to appreciate it. She also always made a glazed poppyseed cake and a sour cream coffee cake with streusel and chocolate chips - both of which were (and still are) to die for.

When I decided to do my own brunch, I contacted Roseann's daughter Amanda and told her about my plan. I knew her mother had given her a binder of her recipes when she got married a couple of years ago (what I wouldn't do for a copy) and she graciously offered to send me the recipe for the poppyseed cake. At 8 PM on New Year's Eve when she had dinner reservations at 10. This being Amanda, she was already dressed and ready to go out, and the recipe arrived not five minutes later. I wish I could take some credit for the way that girl has turned out - she really is a gem.
Roseann's Poppyseed Cake

The cake was just as I remembered - moist and dense but not too heavy, flecked with poppyseeds and drizzled with a sticky citrus glaze. The table also groaned under Caron's homemade rugalach, and a coffee cake I made from Trader Joe's Vanilla cake mix with a tablespoon of creme fraiche stirred in and a layer of streusel. (Say what you will, but I've never had a bad cake made from one of their mixes.)

From Barney Greengrass, I ordered two dozen assorted bagels (poppyseed, sesame, everything, plain and onion - no blueberry or other weird flavors) - a pound of scallion cream cheese, a pound of lox cream cheese, a pound of smoked nova salmon, a pound of smoked whitefish salad and a chocolate babka. The bagels and the salmon were worth it - and probably the cream cheeses too - but I wouldn't pay again to have the babka or the whitefish salad shipped cross country. The babka was a little dry and crumbly, and the whitefish salad wasn't much if any better than what you can get locally at Point Loma Seafoods or Whole Foods. (Apparently Point Loma Seafoods also does smoked fish in house - so maybe we'll try that sometime too.) I don't know of a good local bakery for babka, but I hear Russ and Daughters' is superior to Barney Greengrass, and if I'm feeling incredibly ambitious I might even try Deb's recipe. Gotta flex those bread baking muscles every once in a while to keep them in shape!
Roseann's Poppyseed Cake

Roseann's Poppy Seed Cake
by Roseann Brozinsky with only minimal meddling from me as noted

3 cups All Purpose flour
2 1/3 cups granulated sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
1 1/2 tsp baking powder

3 eggs
1 1/2 cups milk
1 1/8 cups vegetable oil
2-3 tbsp poppy seeds
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 tsp almond extract
1 1/2 tsp nut/butter flavoring extract (I didn't have any, but I added a teaspoon of lemon zest grated on a microplane)

1/4 cup orange juice
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract (I used the last I had in the cake, so I didn't have any, but didn't really miss it.)
1/2 tsp nut/butter flavoring extract (again I didn't have any so I subbed some lemon juice - I used about one lemon altogether since I wanted it a little tart.)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and grease and flour a 9 inch bundt or tube pan.

Whisk the dry ingredients together in a large bowl, and mix the wet ingredients in an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment for 1+ minutes, until frothy. Incorporate the dry ingredients and beat until thoroughly combined.

Pour into lightly greased bundt pan and bake at bake at 325 degrees for 60-75 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean.

Make the glaze while the cake is in the oven. Combine all of the glaze ingredients in a small bowl and stir until the sugar is dissolved - you can also pop it in the microwave for twenty seconds or so to speed the process.

As soon as it comes out of the oven, while still in the pan - poke holes in the cake with a skewer, and drizzle with the glaze. Allow to cool for about 10 minutes, and turn the cake out onto a plate (you might want to put some parchment on the plate, my cake stuck a little bit since it was so fresh) poke holes in the bottom of the cake and drizzle with the glaze, and brush some on the sides. Allow it to sit for a minute or two, then turn it right side up on its serving platter. Brush the cake liberally all over with the glaze and allow to sit overnight, well covered. (This cake is actually at its best after about 24 hours.)

Serves 12-15.