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

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