Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Holiday Road Trip

We're hitting the highway tomorrow for a road trip up to Santa Barbara, Big Sur and eventually on up to the Big City (San Francisco) for Christmas Day. It's probably not the best timing with the rain and all, but it should be nice and cozy once we get where we're going.  Maybe we'll throw a Scrabble game or a chess board in the car with our rain boots. (On the plus side, I'm looking forward to a chance to wear my wellies!)
If all goes as planned, we'll be dining at some of my favorite restaurants, including the Big Sur Bakery (above), The Hungry Cat in Santa Barbara - and Pizzeria Delfina in San Francisco.  (Zuni and Chez Panisse are closed, dang it.)   The Big Sur Bakery is doing a multi-course seafood dinner on Christmas Eve - a sort of riff on La Vigilia. I hope to provide a full report.

If we're lucky, the rain will let up enough for us to go for a hike or two in Big Sur. This photo was taken in 2007, from the beach at Andrew Molera State Park. 
We're also planning to spend one night at Esalen in one of these Point Houses, and log some serious time in their cliffside baths.
Central Coast 2007 275

I will be back soon with more New York posts (on Milk Bar, Locanda Verde and the Mast Bros. Chocolate Factory,) some updates to my favorite local restaurant list, and much, much more.

My best wishes to all for a peaceful, relaxing and delighful holiday, and hope to see you back here soon!  xxxooo

Monday, December 20, 2010

Vanilla Bean Fleur de Sel Caramels {A Recipe}

Fleur de Sel Vanilla Bean Caramels
I cannot tell you how long I've been meaning to do this. Four, maybe five years?   Since I decided to scale back on my baking this year, I finally had time to try homemade caramels again.  I attempted these once several years ago - but I overcooked the caramel and ended up with a hardened mass once it had cooled.  This time I might have been a little overly cautious - these are an eensy bit soft and could be just a smidge darker, but they are still dangerously delicious. As it turns out - as long as you don't burn the sugar, and don't cook the caramel to the point you can't chew it, there is a pretty good-sized range wherein success can be achieved here.  I know this recipe will scare some of you - it scared me for the longest time, but honestly, the hardest part has been keeping my hands off of them long enough to get them to their recipients.
Vanilla Bean Fleur de Sel Caramels
There are a few things you will need before you start.  An accurate digital thermometer and cellophane or wax paper caramel wrappers are essential.  You also need a large heavy pot and a wooden spoon, and one more thing - patience.  The sugar can take a long time to turn the right shade of brown, and if you turn up the heat too high to get it moving, it can burn.  If you overcook it, it will turn inedibly bitter - you'll know it's gone too far if it turns the slightest bit reddish.  The good news is it's pretty hard to overcook the sugar in this recipe because it's tempered with some water and corn syrup. This helps it cook more evenly, and prevents crystallization.  (If you object to corn syrup you can use brown rice syrup or Lyles Golden Syrup - they will  serve the same purpose.)  When you add the hot cream to the sugar mixture, it will take a few minutes to come to temperature, but when it starts moving, it will move fast - so definitely keep an eye on the thermometer as you stir.  This recipe makes a lot, but certainly not a ton.  I'm having absolutely no trouble giving them all away - and if I had the time, I'd make another batch!
Vanilla Bean Fleur de Sel Caramels
Vanilla Bean Fleur de Sel Caramels - Edited 12.19.11
adapted from the Barefoot Contessa

Ingredients:
3 cups sugar
1/3 cup light corn syrup
1/3 cup water
2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 sticks good quality unsalted butter
1 heaping teaspoon Maldon or other good quality sea salt, plus fine fleur de sel for sprinkling.  (I used Fleur de Sel de Guerande)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or half a vanilla bean (note they are added at different stages of the recipe)  .
neutral vegetable oil or butter

special materials: candy or caramel wrappers , a probe thermometer, a large, heavy pot, parchment paper.

Method:
Line a 9x17 inch baking pan with parchment paper and very lightly coat the paper with vegetable oil or butter.

In a large, heavy pot with high sides (a stock pot is good for this), cook sugar, corn syrup and water over medium/high heat until the mixture turns a deep golden brown.  Do not stir, just swirl the pot and tip it to see the color. 

In the meantime, melt the butter in a small saucepan and add the cream, the seeds of half a vanilla bean (if using)  and 2 tsp. sea salt.  Bring just to a simmer.

When the sugar is cooked to the desired degree of doneness (based on the color) pour the cream mixture  into the pot.  The mixture will bubble up and steam vigorously.  Cook, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon, until the mixture registers 245 on a candy thermometer.  Stir in the vanilla extract (if using) and generous teaspoon of salt.

Immediately pour the hot caramel into your parchment lined pan.  Sprinkle evenly with the fine fleur de sel, and allow to cool until set.   (It can also be refrigerated - coat it with lightly oiled saran wrap to prevent it from getting sticky.)

When the caramel has set, score and cut it into little pieces just a little bit larger than 1 inch square (don't worry about making them perfect - they'll squish in the wrappers)  and wrap them in cellophane or wax paper squares.  twisting the ends closed.  (If you have a friend or two to help with this, it could be a great little coffee-klatsch activity.) 

Store them in the fridge to extend their longevity - then give them as gifts and wow your friends with your homemade candy prowess!   

p.s. - I also made Peppermint Bark.  This recipe is the best on the planet.  The contrast of the harder white chocolate against the slightly soft ganache filling is delightful.   I use Peppermint Oil instead of extract (just because that is what I had) one drop in the white chocolate and 2 in the dark (per batch).  I always at least double the recipe and recommend you do too - it disappears fast!

*EDIT* I've made these a few times since this post was written, and I have made a few edits to the recipe based on my experience.  For one thing, I recommended vanilla paste for an addition - but I think vanilla extract and vanilla bean are more common and easier to use, so I've modified the recipe to use those.  I also recommend cooking the sugar to a darker color, and adding a little less salt to the caramel mixture, since they will also be sprinkled with salt.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Crafts with the Kiddos

Juju's Craft PartyA couple of weeks ago, I helped a good friend of mine throw a craft party for her three year old.  Inspired by the Kimmel Kids Crafting Community Weekend I went to in Palm Springs in October, we set up two rental tables with chairs and laid out the materials. On one side, the kids made and decorated paper hats and flapper-style headbands with construction paper feathers and other adornments, and on the other, they made necklaces and earrings with glass and wooden beads.
Juju's Craft PartyTo make the necklaces, we strung the beads onto string or ribbon, and pushed the ends through with a toothpick or skewer.  With the ribbon, we tied knots to keep the beads in place and add spaces or length - just like we did at the craft weekend with the fabric necklaces.
Juju and cupcakeFor the headdresses, I made some paper feathers and decorations out of construction paper ahead of time and the kids picked them out and glued them to strips from large sheets of construction paper.  They really seemed to enjoy coming up with their own designs, and cut some of their own shapes too. 
Juju's Craft Party Juju's Craft PartyJuju's Craft PartyTo make the origami paper hats we folded sheets torn from a large pad of newsprint sketchpad paper. (For the folding instructions, click here.)  They didn't stay on very well, but they looked cute decorated with the cut outs. 
Juju's Craft PartyThere were snacks, drinks and sweets displayed on this sweet table in a corner decorated with paper poms, and hot chocolate, lemonade and milk were served in covered glass jars with paper straws.  A good time was definitely had by all.  We were a little worried initially, because it rained, and the last thing you want in your beautiful home is a bunch of cooped up, cranky children - but the house is a lovely and calm place to spend a rainy day with it's double-sided fireplace and walls of glass, and the crafts proved to be a perfect rainy day activity - so it all worked out well in the end.
Juju's Craft Party
I even stayed on after the party ended, to help the guest of honor work on her paper crafts.  (Pronounced "paypuh craphs.")  Note the tongue.
Juju's Craft Party
Another shot, because I just can't resist.  I adore this child.
Juju's Craft Party
I bought the construction paper at Michaels and Joann (they had slightly better quality supplies at Michaels, it seemed to me). All you really need is good quality, bright construction paper, some scissors and a couple of glue sticks.
Juju's Craft Party
I had actually bought most of these wooden beads at Michael's a few months earlier, intending to do a project with my nieces. We never got around to it, and by the time I went back to buy more for this party all I could find were natural colored ones, which I mixed with the colored ones to stretch the quantity. I did find a few sources for colored wooden beads online, here, here and here and while I can't vouch for them, they look promising. (If you have extra time on your hands, this also looks like a fun idea.) 

It was a little bit of work to put everything together and set it all up, but it was an absolute blast.  I wouldn't hesitate to do it again!

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Dinner at Ma Peche - NYC

The room at Ma Peche
You would think that finding a restaurant for dinner in NYC would be easy, given all the amazing options.  Not so, at least for me.  I find it almost paralyzing - so afraid I am of wasting an evening. I spent an embarrassing amount of time debating whether we should eat at Ma Peche. It was my first choice, initially, but then I kept second guessing myself. I knew I wanted to try at least one of David Chang's places, but I agonized over the middling reviews on New York magazine's website and Yelp, contemplated the menus and the cost, and debated whether lunch at Ko or dinnner at Ssam Bar were better options. Ultimately, it was all a big fat waste of time, because we went, and it was fabulous.
Ma Peche menu
The menu is deceptively simple - the descriptions are minimalist, but the dishes themselves are not. The prices are also fairly reasonable, as you can see above. Teens for starters, twenties for entrees - not bad for the big city. We sat at the bar, so we could see them preparing the food, and chat with one of the chefs as well as the people next to us. I preferred it to the dark-ish dining room, though I didn't find the room unpleasant - I certainly expected worse after reading the vociferous complaints in other reviews.
Ma Peche
We started with a half dozen oysters - which as you can see here were plump and lovely specimens. They were also, without question, the best I have ever had. Buttery, sweet, rich - just perfect. We would have ordered another half dozen if we hadn't planned to eat our way through the rest of the menu.
Ma Peche Fluke with Butternut Squash, Yogurt & Pepitas
This dish was the surprise stunner of the evening. It was on the menu as "fluke, butternut squash, yogurt, pepitas" - not the most likely combination of ingredients, but a winner nonetheless. The shaved raw fish was layered with shaved pickled squash and plated with a drizzle of tangy sauce, pepitas and a accent of mint leaves. We liked it so much we encouraged our neighbors at the bar order one too, and they thanked us for it.
Ma Peche
Our next course was a David Chang specialty - sticky, sweet pork ribs. Ironically, these were not my favorite. They were fine, but a little bit flabby, and just not all that special.
Ma Peche
We made friends with one of the chefs at the bar. I think he was pleased by our obvious delight with the food, and gave the four of us at the bar a special treat - a delightful little mini-course of raw scallops with mustard oil, mustard flowers and shaved white lily bulb. (This is why it pays to sit at the bar!)
Ma Peche
This next dish was another favorite of mine.  Called a "coquillage" - it borrowed from Vietnamese and Thai cuisine - a rich, creamy stew of king crab and clams made with coconut milk and cream, topped with fried shallots and chives. Somewhere in there, our neighbors also shared a bit of this amazing pork chop for two with us.
Ma Peche
The brussel sprouts arrived last, and though they were good - I was far too full to eat very many by that time. You might have also noticed that everything here was sized generously - plenty for two people to share.
Ma Peche
They don't serve dessert in the restaurant, but after dinner  we went upstairs to the Midtown branch of the Milk Bar in the lobby of the Chambers Hotel. It's not quite as comprehensive as the downtown original, but they have the cakes, pies,  two flavors of soft serve and other treats to go, as well as Stumptown coffee. I picked up a piece of crack pie, a compost cookie and some malted cake truffles. I also tasted the famous cereal milk soft serve, and was a little disappointed to find I didn't like it.
Momofuku Milk Bar - Midtown
The crack pie lives up to it's name though, with a crunchy,oatmeal cookie crust and a thin, rich, sweet filling. You could just call it butter pie, and you wouldn't be too far off.  They make the cake truffles with scraps from their four flavors of layer cakes, Chocolate Malt, Apple Pie, Birthday Cake (vanilla with colored sprinkles)and Banana. A little later in the trip, we went down to the original Milk Bar location next to Ssam Bar, on 2nd Street - which was definitely worth the trip. More on that coming soon!

Ma Peche
15 West 56th Street
New York, NY 10019
(212) 757-5878

Friday, November 26, 2010

The First Thanksgiving

Chocolate Pecan Pie
They say to always put your best foot forward, so I'm leading with this picture of the chocolate pecan pie I made the other day. I find it hard to juggle a camera and every dish/spatula/pot/pan in my kitchen at the same time, so I don't have very many good photos of the big feast. Ultimately, for my first time hosting, I think it all went off ok. (*whew!*)
Fried Womach Turkey
There are a few things I might do differently next time, but I have NO regrets about frying two of our three turkeys (or cooking three turkeys, for that matter.) They came out fantastic - especially the Womach Ranch bird, above. The skin was crisp, the meat was moist, it was quick, you can easily do more than one - I think we have a new family tradition. (I did the other one in an electric roaster, and it came out great too.)
'Thanksgiving
The rest of the meal was traditional as well. I made our family dressing with sage, buttermilk biscuits and cornbread, sweet potato casserole, brussel sprouts, cranberries and gravy. I made homemade dinner rolls, but the first batch of dough didn't rise, and the second didn't rise in time to be baked with the meal, so we had to run out to get some. Next time I'll make those earlier. I'll also start the gravy earlier, so it can develop more flavor, hash the brussel sprouts, so they'll cook faster, and make the sweet potatoes a little lighter and fluffier. I'd also like to try a different dressing recipe - maybe sourdough with oysters or sausage - something a little more savory.
Thanksgiving Pies
I wouldn't change a thing though, about the last part of the meal. The pies. I made two this year, a chocolate pecan and a lemon meringue, and Connie made four - two pumpkin and two apple cranberry - one of each with walnuts & one without. (I guess there is one thing I'd change, I'd have her make them all with nuts!) There was also a spice cake - made by Eleanor and Elizabeth - which meant we had seven desserts for eleven guests. I ate all I could last night and more for breakfast this morning, with fresh whipped cream and coffee. I'm giving away most of the rest. That kind of goodness must be shared - both for my benefit and theirs!

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday, and hope you enjoy a peaceful and bright long weekend!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Eataly! - NYC

Salumi Counter at Eataly
Much has been said about Eataly, the new Italian food emporium located near Madison Square Park in New York City, and as a result, I had some definite expectations about the place. I expected it to be expensive and feel rarified. I expected it to be "fancy" - for lack of a better word. I also expected it to be very, very crowded. Ultimately, I found some of those things to be true, and others, not so much. Before I get to those details though, I must tell you the story of how I came to visit Eataly on this fine November morning...
Meat and Cheese platter and sliced Caprese at Eataly
A few years ago (about four) as some of you may remember, a local girl named Rorie wrote a blog called Milk and Honey. Rorie's blog was chock full of lovely photos, recipes and travel adventures, and it was clear we had a lot in common. Before we could manage to meet in person though, Rorie moved to the East Coast to go to law school. (I warned her, but it did no good.) We stayed in touch through the intervening years, and I think we we both assumed that one day, we would meet up either here or in San Francisco - where we both spend a lot of time. For whatever reason though, it just never seemed to work out. When Eataly opened, we finally just decided to go for it. We made plans to meet up in New York City, sight unseen, for the weekend. I stayed at the Ace Hotel for four nights in a room with bunk beds, and Rorie joined me for two of them. It might have seemed a little wacky to some, but we were pretty sure it would work out, and luckily we were right. We had a grand time eating and shopping our way through the City, most of those meals have yet to be written about here... Ma Peche, Momofuku Milk Bar (those pork buns!) Locanda Verde and the Mast Brothers Chocolate Factory tour for starters. We even ran across the New York Marathon together! It was quite a rush.
Salumi at Eataly - NYC
Getting back to the discussion at hand - with respect to the prices at Eataly, I really did not see the problem. The meal pictured above - a meat and cheese platter for two and sliced caprese salad made with their house-made fresh mozzarella, was only $33.00. I've spent more than that at Whole Foods for just the groceries, and they weren't nearly as good. The packaged (mostly) house-cured prosciutto in the packaged salumi section ranged from around $5.00 to $7.00 per four ounce package, and their prices on packaged cheeses and dairy, and other non-perishable goods like candy, pasta sauce, pasta and rice were truly no more than they would be anywhere else.
Fresh Pasta at Eataly - NYC
It also wasn't terribly fancy. It is, after all, primarily a grocery store. That's not to say that the food isn't fabulous. The bakery brims with crusty loaves of very good bread, and the fresh pasta case offers a wide selection of fresh cut plain noodles, tortellini and ravioli...
Meat at Eataly - NYC
The meat and seafood cases are also fully stocked with abundant, gleaming specimens. The prices here (particularly for the meat) were expensive, but it appeared at least as if the quality was commensurate. (I did notice the fish selection was quite a bit better on Saturday than it was when I returned on Monday - the picture below was taken Saturday.)
Seafood counter at Eataly - NYC
I also didn't find the space it to be nearly as confusing or difficult as it's been described. There are several distinct sections, so it's not one giant room, but the layout disperses the crowd a bit, and allows you to focus on what happens to be in front of you at the time, which isn't entirely a bad thing in my mind.
Produce at Eataly - NYC
The store is divided into four areas, roughly - if you walk through the main entrance you are in the produce section - with the wares displayed in kitschy market carts. The atrium area with the salumi and cheese bar is just beyond that, and to the left is the large hall housing the Verdure Bar, Pesce, meat and fresh pasta counters, the dry goods such as pasta, rice and sauces, and the Pizza and Pasta bar. If you go through the atrium and turn right, you're in the section with the packaged meats and cheeses, pastries, panini, gelato, chocolate and espresso. To the left is the Manzo restaurant and seafood counter, and an area that looked like it might still be under construction. It all looked good, but if I'd had time for another meal, I think I would have liked to try the pizza.
Spying on Pizza at Eataly - NYC
Before we visited, I'd also read quite a few complaints about confusing and slow service at the food stations and dining areas. They close between lunch and dinner - so between 3 and 5 PM probably isn't a good time to come to eat (but it might cut down on some of the crowds if you want to shop.) Early seemed to work just fine. We arrived at about 10:30 on Saturday morning, and sat down at the Salumi e Formaggi bar in the center atrium at around 11:00. We had pleasant, prompt service - as did everyone around us. By 11:30 or 12, the atrium had filled up, and the other dining area was getting pretty crowded, but there were definitely seats available. It was more crowded on Monday at lunchtime (a 45 minute wait for two at the Pizza bar), but it's fairly easy to grab a quick bite if lunch is your aim. They have roasted meat sandwiches, traditional panini, gelato and espresso in the section of the store adjacent to Broadway (go in through the Broadway entrance) and the bread counter sells slices of focaccia style pizza made with fresh mozzarella. There are stand up tables in the dairy section of the store where you can eat takeout food, or you can take it across the street to the park.
Dining area at Eataly - NYC
Ultimately Eataly is definitely worth a visit. Is it worth a special trip across the country? Well, I had some great company and many other other fantastic meals (and adventures) to go along with it - so for me, it definitely was. More on those coming soon!

Eataly
200 5th Avenue (at 5th and Broadway, adjacent to Madison Square Park)
New York, New York 10010
Notes: going early for lunch seemed like a good way to beat the crowds. The dining bars close between lunch and dinner, so check their hours before you go in the afternoon. The Ace Hotel is also a great place to stay if you plan on spending some time here - it's about four blocks away, at Broadway and 29th Street.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Little Winter Market

front window
So if I hadn't been in NYC last weekend, I know where I would have wanted to be - at the Ace Hotel in Portland for the Little Winter Market, hosted by Abby from Abby Try Again and Chelsea of Frolic. Doesn't it look fun?
jordan ferney
Several amazing craftspersons and artists were there, including Jordan and Paul Ferney, above (how about that hello?) and Herriott Grace. The jewelry below is by Sulu Designs. The full vendor list with links can be found on their webpage. The good news is most of them also sell online.
sulu-design
This means even if you weren't at the event, you can still buy the work of these artisans online...
little winter
For example, you can get these adorable little houses from My House Party here...

and the sweet, dreamy goods of Fieldguided here...
fieldguided
Nature inspired papergoods and jewelry from Mossiere can be found here, (brought to you by the folks behind Unruly Things)
mossiere
and these cool decals and ceramics from Shanna Murray are here and here. She also did the window decals for the event - which looked just perfect.
shanna murray
Shanna also does a sweet monthly desktop background, with a calendar, a quote and a lovely photograph. This month's with a Thanksgiving theme is available here.
View of Little Winter from Outside
Maybe this makes your holiday shopping a little easier? I know it did for me! Cheers!

Photos by myhouseparty and kristienkahn from the Little Winter Market Flickr Pool.