Monday, July 25, 2011

The Essence of July

When I was growing up, we had a cherry tree in our backyard. I think it was accidentally planted there.  It clearly did not belong.

It sat by itself, overshadowed by a gigantic mulberry tree. 

This cherry tree looked like it belonged as an illustration in a Shel Silverstein compendium. It was a sad little tree. It was also not what you'd call prolific, maybe because it was depressed. I don't know. At best, it would produce two, maybe three cherries each summer. Obviously, I would climb the tree and eat them. I wasn't a rough and tumble kid, but when you are as short as I am, you develop pretty good climbing skills. I happily scaled that tree each summer to command my miniature harvest.

Now, of course, I just walk down the hill to Whole Foods (although to be fair, I do scale a rather steep hill on the way home). Or, if I'm really lucky, the harvest gets delivered directly to my door via the farm box. No need to climb a tree.

I love this recipe because it takes such wonderful advantage of the cherries that always remind me of the lushest, sunniest part of summer. (Well, the lushest, sunniest part if you don't live in San Francisco.)

At this point I am going to have to provide you with some sexy glamour shots.

So pretty on my stripy dishtowel!

Brown Sugar Cherry Cakes
Prep time: 15 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: 12 cakes


1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for muffin tin
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup packed light-brown sugar, plus 2 tablespoons for topping
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons low-fat buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
60 cherries (about 11 ounces), pitted

Just buy a cherry pitter. You'll thank me.
I have heard of some MacGyver trick where you can do this with a paperclip. But seriously, just buy a pitter. It pits olives, too, making it multfunctional, which I prefer if at all possible because otherwise you end up with one tool for each job and there's no more room in the drawer. Not that I have that problem.
Cherried up and ready for the oven! I actually cut the cherries in half because I couldn't figure out how five whole cherries could fit in each muffin cup. 
Ok, at this point I am a little bit freaking out. These things look like they are going to spill all over my oven. Fingers crossed...
Unfortunately, the cakes maybe could have used a little more butter in the muffin tin. They kind of broke apart. I wouldn't say the wheels fully came off here, but we definitely got a flat. Next time I'm using cupcake liners.

Ah well, they still tasted great.

That's what counts, right?

I didn't serve mine with vanilla ice cream, but I would strongly suggest that's how you serve them. Or, if you want to be fancy about it, you could try ginger ice cream. Haagen-Dazs makes a good one.

In other good news, I'm almost caught up on the blog backlog! Hooray!
Just a few more posts and I'll be back to posting the near-present rather than the far-past.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Food is Love

In case you haven’t caught on by now, let me be clear about one thing:

I really love food. 

As a younger child, Rainbow Sherbet and I had a long-standing and (I thought) mutual love for each other, but when I was 8, my cold, cold heart was stolen by another ice cream: Coffee with a Bailey’s Swirl.  I was positively taken by it, whisked off my innocent young feet. It made such an impact on my young palate that I can still show you today where the Baskin Robbins was where said ice cream was procured, although I'm sure the store is no longer still there. Coffee with a Bailey’s Swirl was so sophisticated and worldly and adult, and let’s be honest – a little naughty. It had Bailey’s in it. Like so many love affairs, it wasn’t good for me, but it was good. 

In junior high school, I had a committed two-year relationship with a particular Gourmet recipe for Oatmeal-Walnut-Chocolate Chip muffins, which quickly moved from infatuation to an established breakfast relationship. Those muffins were simultaneously delightful and a bit too much, like a boyfriend who is wonderfully kind and generous but overly doting. I wanted those muffins passionately for a long while and then I suddenly, without notice, got completely sick of them. They were really too much, too rich, too dense, like lead in my stomach. They were also a bit...dry. 

And then there are the foods I think of fondly, not so much because of my wild passion for them, but because they are so comforting and kind, like the boyfriends who were really good to me (in spite of myself). Great guys but guys who were never really going to push back. Like homemade egg salad sandwiches on wheat toast. I’ll never be in love with egg salad sandwiches, but I will always think of them fondly. They have, at times, satisfied me at my hungriest.  

Just as with non-food love, it’s not all commitment and stability and long-term relationships. There are also the brief entanglements and one-night stands, the ones that spark the mind and the heart, for better or worse. They are like time capsules in my mind – this smell, that light, this feeling – all united in a single moment.  Naturally, they’re not all good.  The gorgonzola gnocchi in Rome eaten al fresco in the Piazza Pasquino was a rocky affair I’d rather not repeat. Like a truly bad relationship, that one hurt physically, if not psychically.

But the affairs that were really, really good, those that pulled at my heart and at the same time, opened my mind in a way that taught me something new about food and myself, they are the memories I come back to, that I fantasize about.

There aren’t many of those, the really, really good ones. It takes a mysterious combination of environment, experience, and emotion to create one, and as in romantic love, not something you can predict or plan for. It just happens. You just have to be open to it.

Thirteen years ago, I had duck pappardelle in Florence, at Trattoria Cammillo. I say this without irony: that meal changed my life. It was in that moment that I became a “foodie,” before I even knew what a “foodie” was. It was in that moment that I became an adult (insofar as food was concerned, at least). I remember that pappardelle like it was yesterday, the tender but toothsome chunks of duck breast and thigh, the ribbons of homemade pasta just barely sauced in duck gravy and the slightest bit of tomato. I can, to this day, see the plate in my mind’s eye. This simple dish was quite possibly the very best thing I’ve ever eaten. I am hard pressed to think of another that can compare. It was an epiphany.

A trip to Spain and Portugal a few years ago elicited another food love affair, this one sparked in Barcelona. While not as monumental an experience as the pappardelle, this one has also stuck with me, in the back of my mind. It’s the one that got away.

There’s a little chocolate shop not far from the Picasso Museum (which has a fantastic collection, incidentally) called Xocoa. And at Xocoa, they sell Basil Chocolate Chip Cookies.

It was love at first bite.

(Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

These marvels of earthly delight were like Toll House cookies, except with a curious depth of flavor and earthiness from the bits of basil in the batter. They absolutely blew my mind.

In the five days we were in Barcelona, I went back to Xocoa multiple times to get more. I was infatuated, a woman obsessed. I brought a box home on the plane but they didn’t even make it all the way over the Atlantic Ocean before I’d eaten every last one. I could not get enough.

And then the affair was over. I got back to the States, to my regular life, my regular food routine, and kind of forgot about them. They were a vestige of another time, another place, perhaps a dream.

I’m not sure what made me think of them again, earlier this month, all these years later. It may have been during an evening out, when my date and I were trading stories of our mutual love for Barcelona. It may have been when I saw the big bunches of fresh, summer basil at Whole Foods. Whatever it was, it happened.  I just knew I had to revisit the Basil Chocolate-Chip cookie.

It’s funny, because I do this in love relationships, too. Boyfriend #3 was also boyfriend #5 and #8. Boyfriend #10 was also #12.

Yes, I also like Greatest Hits albums.

It was time to bring this food memory home. Obviously, flying to Barcelona on a moment’s notice was not in the cards (but oh how I would love it if it was).  My other (real life) option was to try to make them.

I can make cookies. I have access to basil. And I had memorized the ingredients of those magical cookies: flour, sugar, egg, butter, salt, baking soda, basil, chocolate chips.

How hard could this be?

Harder than you might think.

Here is my second attempt, with some notes. The first attempt was actually a couple of years ago in my annual Christmas Cookie blitz. I used milk chocolate chips which was way wrong. So I like to pretend that attempt never happened because it was terrible.

I cannot consider this recipe complete yet because (cue Bono) I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. 

I set about preparing the basil first. It was almost imperceptible in the original cookies so I elected to chiffonade it and then chop it into tiny bits. To do this, you first stack the basil leaves.

Then you roll up the leaves, like a basil cigar. 

And slice thinly, making pretty basil ribbons.

I used a full cup of basil this go-round. Perhaps a bit less next time. I'm not sure. 

The cookies proceed as usual from here. Cream butter and sugar. 

I added the eggs and vanilla and after a quick mixing, added the basil. Should I add the basil at this stage or with the chocolate chips? Maybe next time I'll try adding it at the end. 

The flour mixture gets added, then the chips get thrown in. And here's our dough. 

I ate more of this dough than I would like to admit. It was addictive.

And here is the finished product. I give it a C+. The cookies spread entirely too much and were not puffed and crispy but flat and kind of chewy. The basil flavor was good but overall these were disappointing, much in the same way a bad kiss can be. Full of so much promise and potential. Until it happens. And then it's kind of a bummer. 

People loved these but they weren't what I had in mind. But I'm nothing if not an optimist. To borrow from Cinderella, "someday, my prince will come." 

And by "prince", I mean "perfect basil chocolate chip cookie recipe."

Just so we're clear. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Pita? Pizza!

I just uploaded another six blog posts' worth of pictures to my computer which means this catch up game isn't going to end anytime soon. But in the meantime, here's a little quick dinner post.

I cobbled together dinner tonight from some random things in the fridge. Here's a peek.

Normally, I don't keep tomatoes in the fridge. Totally kills the flavor. But as you can see from this pic, these were starting to shrivel and I really didn't want to give them up to the great compost bin in the sky just yet.

These tomatoes really should have done a better job with the sunscreen when they were younger. Probably should have also laid off the cigarettes. 

I thought roasting them might make up for the sin of putting them in the fridge. So I tossed them with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, and threw them in the oven at 400 degrees.

Love the color of these little guys.

After about 30 minutes and one flip about halfway through, I had this.

Roasty and delicious.And gorgeous.
I let the tomatoes cool for a bit and then pureed them in my mini Cuisinart. Love that thing and so much easier to clean than the full-size one.

Now I had roasted tomato puree. I thought about sauteeing a sad little zucchini that's been hanging out in the crisper for a week but in the end decided a pizza-like treatment would be a good use for the puree. And I had mini pitas.

I split a pita and spread the roasted tomatoes on it. Then I added a little goat cheese and threw it all back in the oven at 500 degrees for about 4 minutes until the pita got a little toasty. 

Not bad, but it needs a little something, don't you think? (Sorry for the dark photo.)

Arugula and olives helped round things out. And a drizzle of olive oil, of course.
Olive oil makes everything better.

Another dark photo. Rats. Really need to work on the kitchen lighting.

This little meal actually could have been improved by adding a few red pepper flakes into the puree. Will have to remember that for the next impromptu pita pizza night.

Dinner is served!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Social Loafing

I never use my loaf pan. I use the other baking pans all the time - the cookie sheets and the muffin tins, and even the tart pan and the springforms. But the loaf pan just sits there, forlorn, in the cabinet high above the stove, waiting for its day. Patiently waiting. And waiting.

Well, my little loaf pan's day arrived on July 4. (Again, catching up on these blog posts!)

On the last airplane I was on, I ran across a recipe for Zucchini Cornbread in my July issue of Bon Appetit that looked absolutely delicious. I really love any and all corn-based items, and zucchini is one of my summer-favorite veggies (probably because Mom always made such delicious sauteed zucchini for us growing up). I was intrigued by the summery combination of these two ingredient loves. 

Fresh summer zucchini.
But, it was a loaf. Not charming little muffins or little cakes. A whole loaf. The problem with the loaf is that...well, I live alone. I need not eat an entire loaf of anything. Ever. 

Luckily, I was headed to a 4th of July potluck party where there would be many mouths to feed. The perfect time for a little social loafing. (Yes, that is a social psychology pun. Sorry.)

Yield: Makes a whole freakin' loaf


1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter plus more for pan
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 large zucchini (about 10 ounces) - as you can see, I used two smaller zucchinis and just weighed them to be sure I had about 10 ounces
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup medium-grind cornmeal


Position a rack in the middle of oven and preheat to 350°F. Butter a 9x5x3" loaf pan.

Melt 1/2 cup butter in a small saucepan over medium-high heat.
The recipe cannot be bad if it starts like this.

Continue cooking until butter solids at bottom of pan turn golden brown, about 3 minutes.
Scrape butter into a medium bowl. Set aside and let cool. 
It's hard to describe how good this smells. A little bit like fried chicken, only cleaner and maybe a bit nuttier. It smells like delicious. The brown butter is absolutely the trick to this recipe. I must start using brown butter more often when I bake and cook.
Whisk in eggs and buttermilk. (This was boring so I didn't take a picture.)

Trim zucchini ends. Thinly slice five 1/8" rounds from 1 end of zucchini and reserve for garnish. Coarsely grate remaining zucchini. Add to bowl with butter mixture and stir until well blended.

Sift both flours, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda into a large bowl. Whisk in cornmeal. Add zucchini mixture; fold just to blend (mixture will be very thick).

I love that this recipe doesn't require the mixer. Recipes that just require a whisk and a wooden spoon make me happy.

Transfer batter to prepared pan and smooth top. (It's easier said than done to smooth the top, by the way.) Place reserved zucchini slices atop batter down center in a single layer.
Next time I'll brush the zucchini slices with a little melted butter so they brown more nicely.

Bake bread until golden and a tester inserted into center comes out clean, 55-65 minutes.

I think it's so funny how that one zucchini slice on the right just refused to stay in line. There's always one, right?

Let cool in pan 10 minutes. Remove from pan; let cool completely on a wire rack. DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 day ahead. Store airtight at room temperature. 

This was as tasty as I had hoped. We put the plate of it, sliced, out on the buffet table before the meat was done on the grill. And by the time the meat was done, the cornbread was gone. 

I'm definitely making this again. Maybe just for myself next time.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Eleven Things I Love Right Now

This exhibit at SFMOMA.
It's fantastic. Some of the art gave me chills. I'm serious.  

This ring.
A gift to myself for things done well.

Tomato salad.
I make this with whatever ripe heirlooms I have, then I add whatever's in the fridge that looks good. Tonight it was basil and avocado. I always dress this simply with olive oil, sherry vinegar, sea salt and freshly ground pepper. And it is always so good. Be sure to drink the juices from the bowl at the end - that's the best part. (Or, if you live with another person, perhaps use a spoon for the juices rather than drinking directly from the bowl as I tend to do when alone.)

Navy blue.

Summer fruit.

Ridiculously girly shoes.

Summer fog.

The color, shape, scent and general state of being of these fresh lychees.

Muhammara with homemade pita chips.
The muhammara isn't homemade (yet) but I intend to tackle that soon 'cause I'm obsessed with this stuff. Here's the recipe, in case you want to give it a go before I get a chance to. Homemade pita chips are super easy: Heat oven to 375, cut pita into wedges, brush with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt, bake for 10 minutes. Tastes honest and healthy, not like the pita chips you get at the store.

This song.

And last, but not least, this emoticon:


It's a monkey!
And if there is one thing I am sure of, it's that we all need a few more monkeys in our lives.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Summer has Arrived

Sometimes Summer takes a little time to come to San Francisco. It finally decided to show up this year in mid-June. (Yes, I am waaaay behind on blog posts. Trying to play catch up here!)

Dahlias are in season. I love flowers that look like they grew in someone's garden rather than in a greenhouse.

It's time for summer fabrics. I love being able to break out cotton and linen and great summer prints.

And it's time for tomatoes. Gorgeous red heirloom tomatoes. The kind that actually taste like tomatoes. Not like paste. Or what I imagine paste to taste like. I was never a paste-eater, myself. Epicurean from birth, I tell you. 

With the warm summer weather, a chilled tomato soup was in order. I set off in search of a new gazpacho recipe but found this one from Charlie Trotter and Roxanne Klein that sounded divine, like the chic uptown version of that Spanish summer favorite.

by Charlie Trotter and Roxanne Klein, excerpted from Raw

Yield: Makes 4 servings


2 large, red heirloom tomatoes, peeled and seeded
1/2 jalapeño chile, seeded and chopped
1/2 cup chopped, peeled cucumber
2 teaspoons sherry wine vinegar
Celtic sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 3-inch-long baby fennel, thinly shaved on a mandoline (If you don't have a mandoline, maybe try a sharp veggie peeler?)
12 arbequina olives, pitted and quartered (Ok, seriously Charlie? These do not exist in several well-stocked SF grocery stores. I subbed kalamata because it was what I had at home although I might use green olives next time)
1/4 cup peeled, seeded, and diced red tomato (Totally forgot this ingredient. Don't think it affected my end product.)
2 teaspoons brine from olives
2 teaspoons sherry wine vinegar
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
12 micro fennel sprouts or fennel fronds (Micro fennel sprouts, really??)


To make the soup: In a high-speed blender, combine the tomatoes, chile, cucumber, and vinegar and process until smooth.

Ready for blending!
You can't tell, but this is an action shot.

Pass the purée through a fine-mesh sieve and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Straining the soup (because I didn't peel the tomatoes before blending, and I would suggest you leave your peels on as well) was the only time consuming part of this recipe. And by "time consuming" I mean five minutes, tops.


Ladle one-fourth of the soup into each bowl. Garnish with the fennel, olives, and tomato. Drizzle the olive brine, vinegar, and olive oil around the soup. Sprinkle with the fennel sprouts.

I put the mandoline to work on the fennel for perfectly thin shavings. The next day, when I ate the leftovers, I set the mandoline one click too thick and ended up with giant awkward pieces of fennel in my soup. Evidently 1/16" matters more than you might think but I guess that's why Six Sigma exists.

For a bunch of stuff just blended together, this soup is surprisingly tomato-y and really fresh and delicious. Plus, it's no-cook. Love!

Happy Summer!