Monday, June 30, 2008

Pittsburgh: Tessaro's, The Aspinwall Grille

After a short break, during which I celebrated my 27th year of existence and spent a lovely weekend on the central coast of CA, I'm back to wrap up our PA/NY trip. For our last dinner on the East Coast, we visited Tessaro's, a steakhouse/bar in the Bloomfield neighborhood of the city.

The interior is paneled in dark wood and nice bartenders will serve you a drink while you wait for a table. It is, for lack of any other description, a stereotypical neighborhood eatery. It seemed like everyone was a regular and the staff treated them accordingly.

Famed for their burgers, Tessaro's also does grilled fish very well. Unfortunately, I did not order a burger or grilled fish. I picked the pork chop(s), of which you can order a single or double order, and it didn't come out so well.

Our kindly server asked how I wanted my chop done and I asked for medium rare. I've never encountered degrees of doneness for pork. My chop came out thick and bone-dry. While flavorful, it was hard to chew. Yes, that's white rice as my side dish. I had a crazy craving for rice and it was pretty good. The cup at the bottom? Melted butter. Makes the world go round, methinks.

We were due to fly out the next evening, so D.'s uncle took us for a late lunch at The Aspinwall Grille. It's located in, uh, Aspinwall. Ok, that's a bit cheeky... to clarify, Aspinwall is a borough bordering Pittsburgh.

My entree was perfectly executed. Called Imperial Tilapia, it features a seared tilapia filet topped with a fresh crab cake and a delicious roasted red pepper cream. I love tilapia for its mild flavor and super-moist flesh.

The crab cake was full of shredded crab meat, complimented by the mild pepper cream. The veggies were cooked to perfect and the rice pilaf was very flavorful. They couldn't have made this dish better.

Special thanks to D.'s family for a great trip to Pittsburgh!

4601 Liberty Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15224

The Aspinwall Grille
211 Commercial Ave.
Aspinwall, PA 15223

Monday, June 23, 2008

Pittsburgh: The Strip District

The Strip District in Pittsburgh is a great place for food. No, it's not a district for strippers. Anyway, we started our visit in Pittsburgh by having a fabulous dinner at D.'s aunt and uncle's house. The next day, D.'s uncle took us on a tour of the city, ending with meeting his aunt for lunch in the Strip District.

I love this place... any street that's food-oriented makes me happy. There are tons of restaurants and markets. Lots of specialty markets and shops. We started with a visit to the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, or PennMac.

It's an Italian market and a food-lover's playground. Bulk spices, sweets, meats, cheeses, etc. line the crowded interior. I could get used to a place like this. The extensive cheese counter:

Bulk olives:

My favorite find:

I love, love, love gianduia. San Diego has Italian markets... I don't know why I've taken so long to explore them, but that's on my to-do list.

We wandered over to Penzey's Spices, which is a great spice chain. Imagine every possible spice one can dream of, Penzey's has it. I was also very intrigued by their Penzeys One magazine and the recipes. Since it wasn't too expensive, I subscribed.

Next up, lunch at Kaya, which has a island-fusion-themed menu.

I ordered a "todo en uno" meal, which is one of their sandwiches, but smaller, with two sides instead of one. The pressed manchego and idiazabal sandwich was filled with plantain chips, watercress, and drizzled with lime oil. I'd say, execution-wise, the sandwich fell flat. The cheeses didn't melt completely and the bread was too crusty, making the sandwich very hard to bite and chew. The partially melted cheese also became kind of gummy as it cooled. Plantain chips and watercress were nice fillers, but the lime oil completely overwhelmed their flavors. Minus the oil, a softer bread, and completely melted cheese would have made this an excellent combination. The spicy mango sambal dipping sauce (bottom left) was sour, tasteless, and not something that paired well with the sandwich.

The sides, on the other hand, were perfect. I picked the shrimp chowder and sweet potato fries. As far as chowders go, this is one of the better ones I've experienced. The cream base was perfect and the shrimp was fresh and flavorful. They wisely picked large shrimp and cut them into chunks, instead of going with a generic tiny shrimp. Corn, sweet potato, and poblano chiles were gorgeously balanced, with each flavor present, but not dominating (which can happen with peppers in chowder).

I could write sonnets about their sweet potato fries. It's hard to do sweet potato fries well, as they tend to become soggy or easily burnt when fried. These were thicker cuts with a nice crust and a tender middle. The sugars in the sweet potato were fully developed, resulting in a fry that was perfect in both texture and taste.

D.'s sister, H., ordered the veggie burger, which looked really good.

Fried eggs are always a nice touch and the menu mentions it's a locally sourced egg. Interesting that the egg is singled out. I suppose manchego and avocado can't be locally sourced in PA.

After lunch, we wandered some more. One great stop was Mon Aimee Chocolat, which carried tons of European chocolate, including some old favorites from my visits to Paris and Germany (Ritter Sport, which is really common in California, and Kinder Bueno, from the Ferraro company). They also carried Capogiro gelato, but we already filled up in Philly. Not a ton of artisanal chocolates from the West Coast, but Chuao Chocolatier from San Diego was represented.

The Enrico Biscotti Company was a fun shop chock-full of its namesake. That would be biscotti, not guys named Enrico.

The biscotti looked great, but I found the chocolate ravioli (sugared flaky pastry with dark chocolate paste in the middle) and the chocolate macaroons to be divine.

Definitely a place worth visiting on any trip to Pittsburgh!

Pennsylvania Macaroni Company
2010-2012 Penn Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15222

Penzeys Spices (Pittsburgh retail location)
1729 Penn Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15222

2000 Smallman St.
Pittsburgh, PA 15222

Mon Aimee Chocolat
2101 Penn Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15222

The Enrico Biscotti Company
2022 Penn Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15222

Sunday, June 22, 2008

A Potentially Useful Recipe

Interrupting the trip recaps with a story that is both tragic and comedic. Here in North Park, skunks are rather common and quite fearless. They roam from yard to yard, making their dens under houses (we've seen whole families slip through an open crawlway). Well, two NP skunks have met their fate in our yard, not realizing that Canus lupus familiaris is apparently one of their predators. To be fair, I think there's only one member of C. lupus familiaris who finds the thrill of victory to outweigh the disgusting stench. That's me trying to be polite and not say that someone is too dumb to learn that black and white stripes with a big tail = stink.

To date... Bear: 2 Skunks: 0

Last year, he went after an adult skunk and all olfactory nerves within a 2-house radius paid for it for a full day. Even after being immediately scrubbed down with skunk wash, dog shampoo, and a full groom the next day, he reeked of skunk for months. The worst died down after a couple of weeks, but the smell lingered in his hair follicles until Thanksgiving (first time was August 2007).

This past Friday, I let him out without checking the yard first. Next thing I knew, that all-too-familiar stink filled my nostrils. This time, though, it was a juvenile who went down fighting. D. went to pick up the body the next morning and found it with its teeth still bared.

Moo: Bear, it's a little one! You're a baby killer!

Bear: *grin* pant, pant, pant *tail wag*

No remorse, that one. You'd think he'd learn. In light of this event, I present a recipe:

Skunk Wash

1 quart hydrogen peroxide
1/2 cup baking soda
1 tsp. liquid soap (dish soap is fine)

Do not add water and do not mix in a closed container. Soak affected areas (since skunk spray is oily, it's ideal to use it on the whole body in case the spray spread) for five minutes, then wash with warm water. Be very careful when washing near the eyes or mouth. Follow with regular pet shampoo. Dry the pet thoroughly.

For best results, use it as soon as the pet's been sprayed. The vet office that gave us the recipe (thank goodness for 24-hour vet emergency rooms) said that the wash will be ineffective if the owner waits too long.

Ideally, if a regular grooming can be scheduled the next day, it helps, especially if the pet was hit full-blast at close range. Expect the smell to linger lightly for about 2-3 months. Since we had leftover wash and our poor little friend had met his end on a barren patch of sideyard, we poured the remainder over and around his body. That reduced the stench and made it easier to bag and leave out for the city's dead animal collection. Plus, the neighbors won't wonder what the hell happened... again.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Philadelphia: Matyson

Mood lighting is my worst nightmare. It's soft, creating no shadows and no texture, and it's often yellow, leading to very warm-colored shots. Because the lighting lends to little texture, my poor point-and-shoot (Canon PowerShot SD1000... the best P&S I have ever worked with) isn't able to focus. Poor focus leads to blurry shots.

Why not use a manual focus, you ask? Well... we have a DSLR, but that thing is huge. I'd love to bring it to restaurants, but it's not conspicuous and D. would die of embarrassment.

Anyway, please excuse the poor quality of the pictures. They certainly do not represent the quality of the meal, which was excellent. I'd have to say this was the best BYOB we've tried in Philly so far.

Accompanied by the lovely tempranillo from Justin, we started with the zucchini napoleon (me), the salmon done three ways (J.L.), and a chickpea soup with bacon-rendered oil (D.).

The zucchini napoleon was divine. Finely shredded zucchini was mixed with binders (most likely egg) and fried until lightly crisp. The shreds were still rich and "squash-y", while the fried disc as a whole had a crisp crust. Although the salad, tomato compote, and tortilla strips were meant to give a Mexican twist, the cumin gave it more of an Indian air. All in all, excellent execution.

D.'s soup was lovely, with the bacon oil giving it a nice punch. Can't really go wrong with bacon. J.L.'s lovely salmon appetizer was also very good, with a salmon fritter, smoked salmon, and salmon roe as the "three ways".

Our entrees were delicious. I ordered a dish that was like a deconstructed bouillabaisse. I'm unsure about the type of fish, but it had a thick and fatty skin that crisped up beautifully with a hot sear.

Fresh black mussels (3 shells w/ meat and a handful of shell-less pieces... yay for generous mussel portions!), a deconstructed ratatouille, crusty bread with a garlicky aioli, and the best bouillabaisse broth I've ever had in the States. The only problem was that the broth was more of a sauce than a stew. I could have consumed buckets of the stuff.

Execution was excellent... everything was cooked perfectly. Composition was a little off. I would have removed the overpowering ratatouille, which had peppers and eggplant, both being a little too pungent. Otherwise, a perfect dish. The fish's skin had great depth of flavor and the meat was very moist.

For dessert, we opted for a luscious dark chocolate cake with dulce de leche ice cream, candied walnuts, and caramelized bananas. Wow and wow. The cake was decadent, but fluffy. I've attempted to make dulce de leche ice cream before and I couldn't quite nail down the sweet caramelly flavor. I didn't add enough salt, actually, so the flavor was quite muted. Matyson's version was nice and pungent. Caramelized bananas and candied walnuts were great touches.

J.L. has suggested that our next trip to Philly be a trip of BYOB exploration. I'm in for that!

37 S. 19th St.
Philadelphia, PA 19103

Thursday, June 19, 2008

New York City: King 5 Noodle, William Greenberg Jr. Desserts

The heat wave thankfully broke on Wednesday, but it was still pretty warm for our trip out to Flushing. We decided that we had to have some Chinese food in Flushing, so we took the 7 train from end-to-end.

To start, the view from our hotel room:

The obligatory shot of Times Square, just before we arrived at the subway station:

On Chowhound, I read that King 5 Noodle has a good Taiwanese breakfast.

It's been ages since I've had a proper Taiwanese breakfast of fried crullers (
you tiao), sweet soy milk, and these lovely bundles of rice (fan tuan) filled with dried shredded pork, the aforementioned cruller, and little pieces of pickles.

And the cruller:

In addition, D. had a bowl of
niu rou mien or beef noodle soup. J.L. and I ordered scallion pancakes on top of the breakfast feast.

We were too stuffed to eat any more, which proved to be a tactical error. On Chowhound, there is a revered food court at 41-28 Main Street. For one thing, I didn't realize the food court was in the basement. The other thing was that it was tiny. I don't know why, but I expected something more expansive. Imagine a short and low-ceilinged hallway lined with 8 food stalls. We were way too full to stop for food, but it was a shame we didn't. The last stall we saw had a woman rolling out dough for dumpling wrappers.

Yum... that's definitely a stop the next time we're in New York.

Heading back to Manhattan, we decided to visit Central Park and stopped at William Greenberg Jr. Desserts for black-and-white cookies. Wow, these were the best b-n-w cookies I'd ever had. The cookie was moist and almost cakey, topped with a rich chocolate and sweet white icing. I was in heaven. D. had the delightful idea of buying two cookies and saving one for our flight from Philly to Pittsburgh, which was a great way to extend the fabulousness that was this cookie.

After walking through the park, we headed to Penn Station to catch our bus back to Philly.

Next up: One of our best meals in Philly.

King 5 Noodle
3907 Prince St., Suite 1G
Flushing, NY 11354

William Greenberg Jr. Desserts
1100 Madison Ave.
New York, NY 10028

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

New York City: Amy's Bread, Babbo, Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory

After 1 1/2 days in Philly, D., J.L., and I boarded a bus and headed to New York City. On the agenda: eating well and trying not to die in the sweltering heat. When we arrived in NYC, it was in the high 90's, but with tons of concrete and humidity, it felt a lot hotter. After settling into our hotel in Hell's Kitchen, we decided to head to Amy's Bread for a quick lunch.

Amy's has three locations in the city and it's a charming little bakery with a small sitting area and a powerful air conditioner. We bought small sandwiches (mine had brie and tomato) along with some desserts. D.'s yellow cake with fudge frosting was very good and my red velvet cupcake was yummy. One thing that was lacking in the cupcake, however, was cream cheese frosting. It was topped with regular buttercream instead.

We had a few hours to kill before our reservation at Babbo, so we headed to the New York Public Library for a tour. This is definitely a gem in sightseeing terms. For one thing, the library is incredibly lovely, with a variety of detailed ceilings in many rooms. In addition to the books/reference part of the library, there were several exhibits. We saw the first Gutenberg Bible to arrive at the United States, the tattered stuffed animals that inspired the characters of Winnie the Pooh, and an intriguing photography exhibition called "Eminent Domain," featuring photo essays on the city and its changes.

Afterwards, we spiffied up and headed to Greenwich Village for our long-awaited reservation at Babbo. Since they take reservations one month ahead, with respect to calendar day, starting at 10am, I woke up at 7am on May 10 in San Diego to call. It took almost half an hour to get through, but I was able to secure a 6pm reservation.

We arrived and noticed that there isn't a lot of room to wait. It was hot as Hades outside, so no one wanted to wait out there. The bar area was already packed with walk-in diners and those of us waiting. After 20 minutes of waiting around (we arrived a little early), they seated us. Unfortunately, that's when they dropped the bomb.

The air conditioner was broken.

In all honesty, we might have considered leaving if that little tidbit was dropped when we checked-in. However, we were there, they were about to seat us, and it's Babbo, for goodness' sake.

Y'all, I kid you not, it was 90-ish degrees up there. Maybe more than that. The lovely upstairs dining area was filled with skylights and big windows. The radiant energy shining into the room might have increased the temperature. Plus, with no air circulation whatsoever, the room was humid. Still, it was packed with diners and most seemed to be enjoying their meals. We were literally dripping sweat, so we started with a cold white wine and pondered our meal.

The amuse bouche, crostini topped with a lovely chickpea bruschetta:

We decided to go with one antipasti, two primi, and each person ordering a secondi. In retrospect, we thought we should have ordered more primis, which are typically pasta dishes, because we liked the pastas more.

Our antipasti, the Babbo salumi platter with "cipolle modenese," a deliciously sweet pile of caramelized onions or shallots (in the middle, topped by olives and pickled fennel):

Clockwise from top, pork loin, salami, tongue, lardo (the white strips and my favorite part), and prosciutto. Everything was delicate and paper-thin with lots of flavor. However, we felt that it was a smidge too pricey ($15), despite the various cured parts.

The pasta was universally enjoyed, with the black spaghetti split into three servings. I could have eaten a full plate of it and not feel the least bit full, even though it was pasta topped with rock shrimp, salami calabrese, and green chiles.

D. liked the pasta special, a fettuccine topped with crisped pancetta and asparagus.

My secondi was the fennel-dusted sweetbreads. This dish received unanimous rave reviews all over the interweb and I figure it was worth a try. Plus, I'd never had sweetbreads before, so why not have the first time be one of the best preparations I can find?

The fennel, the crispy orange rind, and the duck bacon were amazing touches. The vinegar broth had a couple of wilted scallion stalks in it and the fritters were drizzed with a lovely orange sauce. It's a very rich dish with a slightly unusual texture, but it was incredible. Despite the three small fritters, I was stuffed after this dish.

D. and J.L. weren't too pleased with their entrees. J.L.'s spicy two-minute calamari was basically a spicy soup and nothing special. D.'s skirt steak arrived sliced and on a bed of their salsa verde. Our server described it as pureed Italian parsley with capers and anchovies. I'll be honest and say that I'm not sure where they're going with this, but it tasted like grass. Italian parsley is incredibly overpowering and there was a hint of saltiness from the capers/anchovies, but it tasted the way freshly-mowed grass smells.

The sweltering room definitely marred our experience and we were ready to leave after the secondis. With our check, they brought a small cookie platter, consisting of almond baci, hazelnut biscotti, and chocolate baci. The baci were fluffy and delicate. I have Dolce Italiano, Babbo's dessert cookbook, so I plan on trying the baci recipe one of these days.

D. feels that something should have been offered to those sitting in the blazing upper dining area, whether it was dessert on the house or a break on the check. Once we walked downstairs, we realized the diners on the first floor were sitting in relative comfort. It was dark and fairly cool, which I admit to resenting slightly. Ok, more than slightly.

Service was brisk and efficient, which is worth applauding, considering the conditions. I enjoyed the food, but I'd focus more on the pastas. All in all, I'd say I was "whelmed". Neither overwhelmed nor underwhelmed... I was in a pretty neutral position after our meal. I wouldn't rush back nor would I refuse to return.

To cool off, we headed to Chinatown to the Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. I finally tried the dan tat, or egg custard tart, ice cream, which was a beautiful eggy custard cream.

Day two in NYC: a trip to Flushing and the best black and white cookie ever!

Amy's Bread (Hell's Kitchen location)
672 9th Ave.
New York, NY 10036

Babbo Ristorante
110 Waverly Pl.
New York, NY 10011

Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory
65 Bayard St.
New York, NY 10013

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Philadelphia: Monk's Cafe, Revisited

Our second visit to Monk's cafe was as delightful as the first. D. wanted to revisit this Belgian pub and I thought it was an excellent idea. I also chose rabbit this time around, but it was the lapin a la gueuze, rabbit stewed with root vegetables in Cantillon Gueuze, which the menu describes as a spontaneously fermented ale with earthy and citrus characteristics. I think spontaneous fermented ales are cool... if I'm correct, the brew is left open so yeast in the air can start the fermentation process. It made an excellent stew.

The cliched line of "it tastes like chicken" definitely applies to rabbit. The meat fell off the bones nicely and the mashed potatoes were an excellent side. The squash/onion mixture was soft and flavorful. It's a very elegant dish and paired well with my La Chouffe, a fruity golden ale. The beer was actually a bit too sweet for my liking, which is weird, because I usually enjoy fruited beers.

The atmosphere is a bit loud, but it's a pub, so... duh. The interior is rather dark and looks like a monastery, hence the name. Service is excellent and the food is fantastic. Great "icing" to the cake that is a great beer selection.

626 S. 16th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19146

Monday, June 9, 2008

Philadelphia: Melograno and Capogiro

Here we are in sweltering Philly... D. and I really know how to pick travel dates. Philly's in the middle of a massive heat wave that makes Los Angeles summers seem balmy in comparison. Our uneventful flight was topped by this little gem:

Yes, Southwest Airline's Spirit magazine named Jean-Luc Picard best space commander. Just so it doesn't sound too random, they did a "Best Of TV" survey.

All righty... on to the food...

Our first night, we stopped by Melograno, a little BYOB in the Fitler Square area.

I don't believe they have a website, but other websites describe them as a Tuscan-style restaurant. I enjoyed our visit, which started with the antipasto rustico, a platter with crostini topped with assorted pates (ours were eggplant, salmon, and parmesan), grilled vegetables, slices of prosciutto, salami, fresh mozzarella, and olives.

The salami was fantastic, as was the salmon crostini. Everything else was very good, except for the mozzarella, which was flavorless. The olives were extremely fresh and were milder than usual. The grilled artichoke heart was a nice touch.

As my entree, I chose the quaglie in agrodolce, broiled semi-boneless quail filled with figs and walnuts. It's served with a pomegrante and balsamic reduction on a bed of potato puree and grilled zucchini. The quail was excellent and the filling delicious, but the sauce was a bit too sweet and the potatoes too buttery. A good dish, but those minor details definitely affected the overall blending of flavors.

Overall, an excellent meal. The space is a bit cramped, but the atmosphere is lively and service is fabulous. We brought the 2005 Rhone-style red from Adelaida, which was a nice accompaniment.

To top off our meal, we stopped by Capogiro, which needs to open a branch in San Diego.

My combination of 1 scoop dark chocolate with 1 scoop hazelnut made it taste like Ferrero Rocher ice cream. Great way to start off the trip!

2201 Spruce Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103

Rittenhouse Square location
117 South 20th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107

Friday, June 6, 2008

Our first tasting

Ah, I love food. When looking at so-called wedding porn... no, that's not meant literally. I'm not talking about the increasingly-popular trend of pre-wedding boudoir shots, but rather photographs of decor and details. Like the fabulous (FABULOUS! I can't help myself...) photos on Abby Larson's Style Me Pretty. Even my cold, un-girly heart thaws slightly at these photos. Anyhoo, when I'm ogling the wedding porn, I usually end up drooling over gorgeous place settings. Generally, there aren't a lot of food shots. However, there are great shots of tables and settings with the occasional speck of food.

Well, it's going to be different with us. I hope. I want some shots of the food and I especially want the food to be fabulous. D. and I will actually try to take some time to actually eat the meal we planned. The WIC (Wedding Industrial Complex) demands that we have a "theme" to the whole affair. Fine. The theme is: THE BEST DAMN DINNER PARTY EV-AR. How's that?

With that said, we had our first tasting today. We weren't expecting much... small portions, mediocre food, etc. Since our expectations were so low, we were blown away by what we were served. For one thing, it was a full-sized 4-course meal. Secondly, it was good food. Quite good. Much better than I expected. Lastly, they surprised me with their take on

First up, the appetizers: satay chicken, bacon and cheese on new potatoes, and potstickers. With D., it wouldn't be a wedding without his beloved potstickers.

Satay chicken fell flat... no seasoning, but the chicken was moist. The potatoes were great and I loved that they were bite-sized. It's a great amuse bouche. The potstickers were deep-fried, which I don't like, but D. was satisfied and that's all that matters.

D.'s steak frites. We're actually going to re-taste this, because the steak was near-inedible. For some reason, it was really tough and tendon-y, so they'll make it again with a better portion of beef.

The fries were insanely perfect. Those are definitely on the menu. The mushroom-based demi-glace was fine.

One of the vegetarian station options was risotto, so we opted to taste it. The risotto is served plain, with pesto or saffron-infused cheese as mixers. For "toppings," there were asparagus, roasted peppers, and olives with blue cheese. It was really good... I'm worried it would be a little plain for the vegetarians, so I'd appreciate some feedback from the vegetarians out there in the interweb... would this appeal to you? Or does it seem like yet another carnivore's attempt to turn a side dish into your meal?

Lastly, the fabled bouillabaisse. Somewhere in Paris, in Port d'Orleans (I think.), there's a little mom-and-pop restaurant that forever ruined me by serving the perfect bouillabaisse. Hearty and home-cooked, bouillabaisse brings me back to Paris. It reminds me of my mother, who spent years there. I've never tasted an American version as good and I still haven't, but this dish was a damned good attempt.

Why attempt to include it in the menu? Well, D. and I first wanted a menu that reflected both Chinese and American. Unfortunately, to many companies, it meant some horrible bastardization of Chinese food. Instead of risking sub-par food just to fit our "vision," we scrapped the idea in favor of French-bistro cooking. Figuring it would play along with our engagement, it would be simple and hearty food that had the best chance of pleasing the majority of our guests. Furthering the inspiration was our first-choice caterer, which happens to be owned by a Frenchman. I wasn't sure what to expect when I suggested bouillabaisse, which wasn't on the menu, but hopefully the owner/chef knew how to make it. He did and it was nicely done.

The broth was deliciously rich and infused with a hint of saffron. There was a smidge too much white wine in it, but not so much that it affected the product. There were huge scallops, shrimp, and green mussels in it. It was really good. Served with a crusty baguette, it would make a great meal, especially during a cool evening.

I really hope this translates well when prepared for 100+ people. Whew! Talk about my dream wedding. Hehe.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Random Notes: Good Food and 80's Bear

A ragtag collection of notes from the past couple of weeks. The first thing is that Bear had surgery for lipomas two weeks ago. Has it really been two weeks? Poor thing... he was woozy afterwards, so as he stood next to us in the kitchen the first night, we noticed he was swaying ever so slightly. Always the charmer, the vet staff sent him home with lavish praise about how sweet he was. Not that Bear ever needs to have his ego further inflated.

We fitted him with a cone, just in case:

Ugh, are you serious?!

Turns out all he needed was a t-shirt to cover the stitches. He didn't scratch very much, which was good.

Very cute... way too cute.

Notice the cute 80's-style t-shirt knot. His hind legs were tangling in the hem of the shirt, so we had to pull it back. All he needs is a scrunchie on one ear and a slappy-wrist bracelet.

Food-wise, some items worth mentioning... the first being a new guilty pleasure: Einstein's Bagels Apple-Cinnamon Coffee Cake. Yum. It's probably the baked apples and streusel, but I love it. It's not kind to the waistline, though.

I haven't been overly thrilled with our CSA, which has the smallest parcels during peak growing season. What's up with that? Our veggies rot easily, especially the roots (potatoes, carrots, etc.). One would think everything would be more robust right now, but we're apparently receiving the worst of the harvest. Sure, they should save some for market, but for what they're charging, this is ridiculous. However, the strawberries are good. Organic and picked when the sugars are fully developed, they're fantastic.

Phuong Trang's bo cuon mo chai, or ground beef wrapped in caul fat, is excellent. It's really moist and flavorful. Served with a generous heap of greens, dry rice paper, and warm water, it's perfect because the rice paper is moistened at the table.

At $9.50, it's a generous serving and worth every penny.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

My Best Friend, Esquire

Ok, so she can't use the suffix until she passes the bar and, regardless, she doesn't intend to use it. The bar is a different kind of hell that I'm happy to never experience. However, the suffix "Esquire" amuses me, especially applied to Indira. If it isn't already obvious, my best friend just finished law school and is preparing for the bar. I was honored to bring a cake to her graduation party. She only had two requests: the flavor should be chocolate/raspberry and there should be some sort of screaming pink color on it.

The end result was a tiered chocolate cake with raspberry buttercream that was decorated with dark pink Swiss dots, dark pink "ruffles", and purple carnations. Costco didn't have carnations in pink, so the purple was our next best choice.

The raspberry buttercream was delicious and has a lovely story to it. My friend J., the recipient of my first successful tiering attempt, is originally from Santa Fe, N.M. She and her mom made incredible wild (yes, hand-picked) raspberry jam and gave us a couple of jars. I still had some on hand, so I stirred it into the buttercream, resulting in a sweet and strong raspberry flavor.

The cake is from an old standby that I've been using for a couple of years. Just about all of the chocolate cakes on this blog have been made with that recipe. It's amazing, foolproof, and produces a light and delicious cake that doesn't require any frosting. It's great as a layer cake or as cupcakes. In my oven, the baking time for layer cakes is shortened to 35-40 minutes and it dries out easily, so keep an eye on bake time.

I was anxious about transporting it to the Bay Area because I had to check my luggage. The whole affair went off smashingly. The cake was filled and frozen, then packed carefully with tubs of frosting and my tools. The frozen cake thawed en route, but was still pretty stiff by the time I arrived at Kirkleton's apartment 4 hours later. Once we were in Indira's hometown of Manteca, CA, I frosted, stacked, and decorated the cake. It was small, cute, and transported in an ingenious carrier: a frying pan that the cake fit into exactly. The sides were high enough to keep the cake still, but shallow enough so it could be removed easily.

Some lessons learned from my second tiering attempt:

  • Use lots of frosting in the beginning, because scraping and smoothing removes tons of it. The dark chocolate frosting layer ended up being rather thin after I scraped and smoothed it out. I had more than enough frosting, so there was no reason to skimp.
  • When freezing a cake, use lots of frosting to fill it. I found that the cake actually seemed to shrink a little bit, resulting in the bottom tier being shorter than I liked.
  • Line the cardboard round with strips of parchment. Using strips the same length as the radius of the round, line the round like petals of a flower. After it's decorated, the strips could be carefully removed for a clean cardboard. I didn't do that, so the frosting ruffles were a last-minute effort to cover messy edges and the top tier's cardboard, which was sticking out.
Overall, it was great. My buttercream crystallized a little bit, resulting in a grainy appearance, but it was still creamy and delicious. The party was a lot of fun, topped off with a touching speech thanking me, Kirkleton, and Tirrone for being there for her. And a proud cheering squad we are! Hehe.

Congratulations, Indira!