Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bread Baking Day-Birdseed Muffins

This month's theme for the Bread Baking Day is Quick Breads and is hosted by Mansi at Fun and Food Blog. I love making all sorts of quick breads, and always look for new recipes, so this challenge was the perfect excuse to try something new. I have been wanting to make these muffins for the longest time, the recipe comes from the lovely book Nancy Silverton's Pastries from La Brea Bakery. If you don't know Nancy Silverton, she is one of the people responsible for bringing back artisan bread in this country when she opened La Brea Bakery in 1989, in Los Angeles. Nancy and her ex-husband Mark Peel also opened Campanile, a restaurant located in the 1929 building where Charlie Chaplin had his office, on La Brea Avenue, in Los Angeles. Nancy is a bread encyclopedia, has written many books, and is a great source of inspiration.

I knew the recipe would be interesting, it has eight grains/seeds, is partially sweetened with honey and has buttermilk as the liquid, which adds a nice tang to the muffins. The recipe is not exactly quick as it requires a toasting and a grinding step, which add about 10 minutes to the execution.

The recipe is not a traditional muffin recipe but rather a cup cake/cake recipe. The butter is first creamed with the sugar, the eggs are then added, the liquid and the flour go in last. After noticing the batter separating after adding the honey, I modified the recipe by adding the flours and the buttermilk in the more traditional 3:2 additions. If you have the book there is a probable mistake in the amount of sunflower seeds, the recipe calls for 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons of seeds, but in parenthesis it says 6 ounces which is more than a cup.

I had to add this photo because it reminds of a well known leaning tower. I am not even sure how the muffin on top didn't fall.

The muffins came out perfect and very pretty. They are not very sweet, so if you like your muffins sweet add 1/4 cup of sugar. They were perfect with a dollop of butter on top, YUM!

Birdseed Muffins
adapted from Pastries from La Brea Bakery

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sunflower seed
1/2 cup rolled oats
2 tablespoons wheat germ
1/4 cup millet
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1 tablespoon flax seeds
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
4 ounces of butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1/4 cup mild-flavored honey. such as clover
1 1/4 cups buttermilk

For the topping:
2 tablespoons millet
2 tablespoons flax seeds
2 tablespoons poppy seeds
2 tablespoons sesame seeds

Pre-heat the oven to 325F. Spread all the top 6 ingredients in rows on a baking pan, and toast for 6-8 minutes. Allow to cool. Turn the oven up to 350F.

In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade, combine the sunflower seeds, wheat germ, flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Process until the seeds have the consistency of the flours. Add the rest of the toasted grains and the poppy seeds, pulsing on and off a few times, just to combine.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy. Add one egg at a time, mixing well between each addition.

Add the honey and mix well. Add the flour mixture and the buttermilk in 3:2 additions, mixing only until incorporated, scraping the bottom of the bowl after each addition.

To prepare the topping: mix the four seeds together. Sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon on the topping into the bottom of each paper lined muffin cup. Fill the cups completely to the rim and sprinkle 1 teaspoon of the topping over the surface of each muffin. Bake for about 25 minutes, until firm and golden. I made 24 mini muffins and 8 regular muffins.

Buon Appetito!

Monday, March 30, 2009


For someone who cooks for a living, it is a challenge to calculate how much to charge for the food I prepare. Rule of thumb in the industry is to keep the food cost below 30%. I normally try to figure out how long a dish will take to shop and cook for, then come up with a price and try to spend no more than a third of what I will be paid. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't; potential clients often don't realize how much time it takes to prepare the food. I shop, prep, cook, package, clean, and most of the time deliver. There is also the hidden costs of the gas, electricity, and water bills, which are impossible to estimate. Often I make one of something, so I can't save on volume, and obviously my ingredients are more often than not purchased at a retail price. Take this cake for example:

I made it for a fund raiser event for which I donated 6 desserts. The person who bid on the item asked me to make a birthday cake. Since I don't know the woman I am baking for very well , and since she doesn't like chocolate, I decided to make this crowd pleaser, easy to make and fast to decorate cake. I have a rough idea of how long it took me to make; about 15 minutes to make, 15 to assemble, and 15 to decorate; totaling 45 minutes, not including shopping and delivery.

This is what I spent:

Sponge Cake $2.5o
Simple syrup $0.10
Pastry cream $1.50
Heavy cream $2.65
Marzipan $2.00
Chocolate $o.38
Sliced almonds $2.00

Grand total: $12.63

If I applied the 33% rule, I would charge $42, for a gross margin of $29.37. The cake serves 8 to 12 people, which means $3.50 to $5.25 per slice. What do you think? Is $42 a fair price?

Promise of Late Summer Harvest

Pear Tree Blossoms

Friday, March 27, 2009

Daring Bakers-March Challenge

The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

This month's challenge is my first with the fun and ever growing group the Daring Bakers. Being Italian I have to confess that I was disappointed when I saw what the challenge was about, and to be honest I don't consider lasagnas a baking challenge, but a cooking one. Reserves asides I decided to go for it, I am not a quitter. It meant trying a different recipe for ragu' and making spinach pasta, a first for me. I decided not to change the recipe, but stick to it since it was my first time.

La Pasta Verde

I doubled the recipe thinking that I might use some for a catering job I might have and that made lots of pasta. I also decided to use my mixer to do the job of mixing and thinning the dough. I know, I know, I was supposed to roll the dough by hand but I have thoracic outlet syndrome so I try to not overuse my hands unless I don't have an alternative (I love my chiropractor but I would rather not see her). The dough was easy to make, it came out nice and soft, and it looked a beautiful shade of green. I used my pasta machine to roll it and brought it down to the last setting (a seven), which was probably too thin. I dried the pasta like the recipe called for but personally I thought it was a mistake. The pasta ribbons were so thin that they broke and some fell on the floor, and they didn't stay flat so storing them without farther braking is impossible. Next time I will cook the pasta right away without drying it. I made some tagliatelle as well.

Il Ragu'

The meat dish was ok, but the instructions weren't clearly written I thought, the author kept going back and forth between saucepan, pan, and skillet, so I had to concentrate, which is funny since I have made ragu' dozen times. The ragu' I normally make is a simpler version, with just beef, no milk or chicken broth, and more tomatoes. I will stick to my recipe next time because this version was too complicated and lengthy, and it had too rich of a taste. My most trusted tasters also prefer the ragu' I normally make.

La Besciamella

Nothing to say, except that it was a classic recipe, and it turned out really good.

Le Lasagne!

Making the layers turned out to be difficult because the pasta was so thin that it kept breaking. I had to cook one layer at the time and patch many pieces together. But it was all worth the effort, the dish looked and tasted great. I had an eleven year old guest who refused to eat it because of the green pasta (eek!), but when his mom forced him to taste it he went for seconds. Thumbs up from a picky kid, not bad.

Thanks Mary, Melinda, and Enza for hosting this month's challenge, bring it on DB!

All recipes below from The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food by Lynne Rossetto Kasper (published by William Morrow and Company Inc., 1992).

Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna (Lasagne Verdi al Forno)
(Serves 8 to 10 as a first course, 6 to 8 as a main dish)

Preparation Time: 15 minutes to assemble and 40 minutes cooking time

10 quarts (9 litres) salted water
1 recipe Spinach Pasta cut for lasagna (recipe follows)#1
1 recipe Bechamel Sauce (recipe follows)#2
1 recipe Country Style Ragu (recipe follows)#3
1 cup (4 ounces/125g) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Working Ahead:
The ragu and the béchamel sauce can be made up to three days ahead. The ragu can also be frozen for up to one month. The pasta can be rolled out, cut and dried up to 24 hours before cooking. The assembled lasagne can wait at room temperature (20 degrees Celsius/68 degrees Fahrenheit) about 1 hour before baking. Do not refrigerate it before baking, as the topping of béchamel and cheese will overcook by the time the center is hot.

Assembling the Ingredients:
Have all the sauces, rewarmed gently over a medium heat, and the pasta at hand. Have a large perforated skimmer and a large bowl of cold water next to the stove. Spread a double thickness of paper towels over a large counter space. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Oil or butter a 3 quart (approx 3 litre) shallow baking dish.

Cooking the Pasta:
Bring the salted water to a boil. Drop about four pieces of pasta in the water at a time. Cook about 2 minutes. If you are using dried pasta, cook about 4 minutes, taste, and cook longer if necessary. The pasta will continue cooking during baking, so make sure it is only barely tender. Lift the lasagne from the water with a skimmer, drain, and then slip into the bowl of cold water to stop cooking. When cool, lift out and dry on the paper towels. Repeat until all the pasta is cooked.

Assembling the Lasagne:
Spread a thin layer of béchamel over the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange a layer of about four overlapping sheets of pasta over the béchamel. Spread a thin layer of béchamel (about 3 or 4 spoonfuls) over the pasta, and then an equally thin layer of the ragu. Sprinkle with about 1&1/2 tablespoons of the béchamel and about 1/3 cup of the cheese. Repeat the layers until all ingredients are used, finishing with béchamel sauce and topping with a generous dusting of cheese.

Baking and Serving the Lasagne:
Cover the baking dish lightly with foil, taking care not to let it touch the top of the lasagne. Bake 40 minutes, or until almost heated through. Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes, or until hot in the center (test by inserting a knife – if it comes out very warm, the dish is ready). Take care not to brown the cheese topping. It should be melted, creamy looking and barely tinged with a little gold. Turn off the oven, leave the door ajar and let the lasagne rest for about 10 minutes. Then serve. This is not a solid lasagne, but a moist one that slips a bit when it is cut and served.

#1 Spinach Egg Pasta (Pasta Verde)

Preparation: 45 minutes

Makes enough for 6 to 8 first course servings or 4 to 6 main course servings, equivalent to 1 pound (450g) dried boxed pasta.

2 jumbo eggs (2 ounces/60g or more)
10 ounces (300g) fresh spinach, rinsed dry, and finely chopped; or 6 ounces (170g) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
3&1/2 cups (14 ounces/400g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour (organic stone ground preferred)

Working by Hand:


A roomy work surface, 24 to 30 inches deep by 30 to 36 inches (60cm to 77cm deep by 60cm to 92cm). Any smooth surface will do, but marble cools dough slightly, making it less flexible than desired.

A pastry scraper and a small wooden spoon for blending the dough.

A wooden dowel-style rolling pin. In Italy, pasta makers use one about 35 inches long and 2 inches thick (89cm long and 5cm thick). The shorter American-style pin with handles at either end can be used, but the longer it is, the easier it is to roll the pasta.
Note: although it is not traditional, Enza has successfully made pasta with a marble rolling pin, and this can be substituted for the wooden pin, if you have one.

Plastic wrap to wrap the resting dough and to cover rolled-out pasta waiting to be filled. It protects the pasta from drying out too quickly.

A sharp chef’s knife for cutting pasta sheets.

Cloth-covered chair backs, broom handles, or specially designed pasta racks found in cookware shops for draping the pasta.

Mixing the dough:
Mound the flour in the center of your work surface and make a well in the middle. Add the eggs and spinach. Use a wooden spoon to beat together the eggs and spinach. Then gradually start incorporating shallow scrapings of flour from the sides of the well into the liquid. As you work more and more flour into the liquid, the well’s sides may collapse. Use a pastry scraper to keep the liquids from running off and to incorporate the last bits of flour into the dough. Don’t worry if it looks like a hopelessly rough and messy lump.

With the aid of the scraper to scoop up unruly pieces, start kneading the dough. Once it becomes a cohesive mass, use the scraper to remove any bits of hard flour on the work surface – these will make the dough lumpy. Knead the dough for about 3 minutes. Its consistency should be elastic and a little sticky. If it is too sticky to move easily, knead in a few more tablespoons of flour. Continue kneading about 10 minutes, or until the dough has become satiny, smooth, and very elastic. It will feel alive under your hands. Do not shortcut this step. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and let it relax at room temperature 30 minutes to 3 hours.

Stretching and Thinning:
If using an extra-long rolling pin work with half the dough at a time. With a regular-length rolling pin, roll out a quarter of the dough at a time and keep the rest of the dough wrapped. Lightly sprinkle a large work surface with flour. The idea is to stretch the dough rather than press down and push it. Shape it into a ball and begin rolling out to form a circle, frequently turning the disc of dough a quarter turn. As it thins outs, start rolling the disc back on the pin a quarter of the way toward the center and stretching it gently sideways by running the palms of your hands over the rolled-up dough from the center of the pin outward. Unroll, turn the disc a quarter turn, and repeat. Do twice more.

Stretch and even out the center of the disc by rolling the dough a quarter of the way back on the pin. Then gently push the rolling pin away from you with one hand while holding the sheet in place on the work surface with the other hand. Repeat three more times, turning the dough a quarter turn each time.

Repeat the two processes as the disc becomes larger and thinner. The goal is a sheet of even thickness. For lasagne, the sheet should be so thin that you can clearly see your hand through it and see colours. Cut into rectangles about 4 by 8 inches (10 x 20 cm). Note: Enza says that transparency is a crucial element of lasagne pasta and the dough should be rolled as thinly as possible. She says this is why her housekeeper has such strong arms!

Dry the pasta at room temperature and store in a sealed container or bag.

#2 Bechamel

Preparation Time: 15 minutes

4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) unsalted butter
4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour, organic stone ground preferred
2&2/3 cups (approx 570ml) milk
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste

Using a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter over low to medium heat. Sift over the flour, whisk until smooth, and then stir (without stopping) for about 3 minutes. Whisk in the milk a little at a time and keep the mixture smooth. Bring to a slow simmer, and stir 3 to 4 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, pepper, and a hint of nutmeg.

#3 Country Style Ragu’ (Ragu alla Contadina)

Preparation Time: Ingredient Preparation Time 30 minutes and Cooking time 2 hours

Makes enough sauce for 1 recipe fresh pasta or 1 pound/450g dried pasta)

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (45 mL)
2 ounces/60g pancetta, finely chopped
1 medium onion, minced
1 medium stalk celery with leaves, minced
1 small carrot, minced
4 ounces/125g boneless veal shoulder or round
4 ounces/125g pork loin, trimmed of fat, or 4 ounces/125g mild Italian sausage (made without fennel)
8 ounces/250g beef skirt steak, hanging tender, or boneless chuck blade or chuck center cut (in order of preference)
1 ounce/30g thinly sliced Prosciutto di Parma
2/3 cup (5 ounces/160ml) dry red wine
1 &1/2 cups (12 ounces/375ml) chicken or beef stock (homemade if possible)
2 cups (16 ounces/500ml) milk
3 canned plum tomatoes, drained
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Working Ahead:
The ragu can be made 3 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate. It also freezes well for up to 1 month. Skim the fat from the ragu’ before using it.

Browning the Ragu Base:
Heat the olive oil in a 12 inch (30cm) skillet (frying pan) over medium-high heat. Have a large saucepan handy to use once browning is complete. Add the pancetta and minced vegetables and sauté, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, 10 minutes, or until the onions barely begin to color. Coarsely grind all the meats together, including the prosciutto, in a food processor or meat grinder. Stir into the pan and slowly brown over medium heat. First the meats will give off a liquid and turn dull grey but, as the liquid evaporates, browning will begin. Stir often, scooping under the meats with the wooden spatula. Protect the brown glaze forming on the bottom of the pan by turning the heat down. Cook 15 minutes, or until the meats are a deep brown. Turn the contents of the skillet into a strainer and shake out the fat. Turn them into the saucepan and set over medium heat.

Reducing and Simmering: Add the wine to the skillet, lowering the heat so the sauce bubbles quietly. Stir occasionally until the wine has reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Scrape up the brown glaze as the wine bubbles. Then pour the reduced wine into the saucepan and set the skillet aside.

Stir ½ cup stock into the saucepan and let it bubble slowly, 10 minutes, or until totally evaporated. Repeat with another ½ cup stock. Stir in the last 1/2 cup stock along with the milk. Adjust heat so the liquid bubbles very slowly. Partially cover the pot, and cook 1 hour. Stir frequently to check for sticking.

Add the tomatoes, crushing them as they go into the pot. Cook uncovered, at a very slow bubble for another 45 minutes, or until the sauce resembles a thick, meaty stew. Season with salt and pepper.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Perfect Match

My father had a rhubarb plant in his garden and I always wondered what for? Maybe rhubarb has entered the Italian cooking realm nowadays, but when I was growing up this vegetable was normally used in the making of liquors, notably Rabarbaro Zucca, which is made with the rhubarb root. My first encounter with rhubarb in the States was a weird concoction that a friend of ours brought to a party. She had approximated the ingredients since she didn't have half of them, so needless to say her creation didn't knock our socks off, it actually put rhubarb into a remote part of my brain. Luckily, I had the great fortune of spending four months as a pastry intern at the restaurant Chez Panisse and got re-acquainted with this fabulous vegetable. I learned many thing working under the watchful and very talented Pastry Chef Mia Ponce, but there is one thing I keep making all the time, their galette dough, known among them as "crunch dough". A fruit tart is always on the menu at Chez Panisse, made with whatever fruit is in season, and it is their best seller I believe. The tart/galette can be made with lots of different fruits, and it is one of the best thing I have ever tasted. I have used various fruits, sometimes in combination, but four are at the top of the list: figs, cherries, plums (especially Santa Rosa), and rhubarb (technically a vegetable).

The dough's recipe came to them via Jacques Pépin, and it has been published in three of their cookbooks, including the Chez Panisse Café Cookbook. I make enough dough so I always have few disks in the freezer to defrost on a whim (you can too by quadrupling the recipe and make 8 portions). Yesterday I made two apple and two strawberry tarts for a friend of mine who ordered them for her baby shower. This dough is a little tricky to master but the results are spectacular, and wait until people start tasting it, you will have many friends all of a sudden. The crusts results in a super flaky delicious treat and the fruit speaks for itself, unencumbered by too much fuss. I just found a great photo collection taken by Anita during a class that the talented Shuna of eggbeater taught, click here to get a better visual lesson on how to make a gallette.

The fruit combinations are infinite, so experiment with different pairing (bing cherries mixed with rainier cherries add color interest for example). The trick with some of the more watery fruit, like berries or cherries, is to toss them in a tablespoon or more of flour before adding them to the crust. Because of the sugar and water contents of each fruit varies you have to go with instinct on both the flour and the sugar, but once you have made few of these tarts you will know. I add sugar on the fruit to taste, figs don't need either sugar or flour because they are very sweet already, apples only need some sugar. Plums need some sugar but I like to make a nice glaze with the pits, some water, and sugar that I brush on the finished tart for shine and extra sweetness. Cherries and berries both need sugar and flour. You can always sprinkle more sugar and/or flour half way the baking if you think the fruit needs it.

The rhubarb is cut in 4-6" chunks which are then cut in half length-wise and then cut into thin strips. I never peel the rhubarb since fibers are not an issue with the rhubarb I am able to find in the Bay Area markets.

And here is the final product in all its glory.

Crunch Dough
adapted from Chez Panisse

2 cups bread flour
3/4 tsp sugar
pinch of salt
6 oz unsalted butter
1/2 cup ice water

Cut the butter in 1 inch cubes and let soften at room temperature to the consistency of marsh mallow.
Add butter to pre-sifted dry ingredients and mix just enough to coat the butter pieces with flour (this can be done in a mixer or by hand).
Press all the butter pieces with your fingers to flatten them like coins.
Drizzle cold water over the dough while mixing until it comes together. It is very important to not over mix. If the dough is too dry sprinkle more water. The last mixing of the dry parts with the wetter parts is better done by hands. Do not over mix the dough, you want to still see some small pieces of butter and the dough should look like pieces of rugs. Divide the dough in two, wrap each half in plastic, flatten into disks, and refrigerate overnight or freeze.

Let the dough defrost completely and roll as thin as you can and then refrigerate or freeze to harden the butter again.

Spread a layer of frangipane on the dough, leaving an inch border. Spread the fruit on top in one layer overlapping the pieces since they will shrink. Fold the edges of the crust over the fruit, making pleats. Lightly brush melted butter on the crust and then sprinkle with some granulated sugar. Bake at 375F until the crust is brown and the fruit is cooked. I make a 4X recipe that yields 8 crusts so I always have some in the freezer. For this tart I sprinkled the rhubarb with some sugar, the zest of one orange and some orange juice. Half way the baking the rhubarb needs to be pushed down into the juices so it won't dry out and burn. You will need about 11 ounces of rhubarb per tart.

(enough for 2 tarts)

4 oz. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
4 oz. ground almonds

Cream the butter with the sugar, add the egg, and mix until is it incorporated well. Add the nut flour until well combined. The unused frangipane freezes very well too.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Around Town

Nature constantly amazes me. The new leaves are bright read to turn green when they mature.

I love this photo. It was taken with so little light, it was close to 7pm, freezing cold, I was walking home when I saw my neighbors' magnolia tree in bloom and had to shoot the last few photos.

The lovely lady who lives in this house always plants many of the same flower in front of her house. When in bloom, they create an amazing reflection on her beautiful windows (few years back it was California poppies, the windows were on fire!). It looks as if the daffodils are actually inside the house. The white hand is actually a purse, she has the cutest things decorating this room.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

San Francisco Chocolate Salon

Today I went to Fort Mason to check out the third annual San Francisco International Salon. It was advertised as 30,000 square feet of chocolate, wine, and confections so I knew something good had to come out of it.

Over 50 artisans were displaying and selling their wonderful products, it was hard to decide where to start. I had checked out the program and I knew that there were few people I was interested in meeting who were going to be there. I first went to see what the The Gourmet Chocophile Challenge was about, and I volunteered to be among 11 other testers to compete for the grand prize of a free Gourmet Tour. Andrea Nadel, founder of Gourmet Walks, was hosting what I was hoping would be a fun challenge. We were first given 6 chocolates to taste, and we had to guess whether it was dark or milk chocolate (easy), what was the exact percentage (not so easy), and what turned out to be the hardest part...guess the ingredients. Some ingredients were obvious like cinnamon, blueberries, pumpkin seed and chili pepper, but others were totally unrecognizable, like cheese or mushrooms (I thought the mushroom's taste was coffee!). I got one of the highest scores so I stayed for the second round which consisted of tasting 3 single origin chocolates and guess the percentage, the country of origin, and the maker (close to impossible). I only scored one point (!) so I didn't get a chance to stay for the third and final round. It was fun though, but harder than I thought, and a great learning experience because I got to taste a wonderful chocolate from Madagascar, and loved it! The flavor was complex and very aromatic, I wish I had written down the name. I hope the country doesn't destroy itself, but will slowly recover and find the pride in its treasures.

It was time to walk around and hit some of the tables. I saw a very interesting mix of vendors, including a Willy Wonka wannabe, and another nice gentleman who clearly believes that chocolate is aphrodisiac. Among the most unusual products I saw, there were some beauty products including a baby cleanser. There was some chocolate inspired art as well, like this wonderful photograph by April Banks.

Anita Chu was talking about her book Field Guide to Cookies so I went to listen to her presentation. It was nice to see in person the talented creator of Dessert First, one of my favorite baking blogs. Anita has a new candy book that is coming out soon, I can't wait to see it.

The most interesting chocolates where the ones that were fair trade, and single origin. I definitely have to learn more about all of this, especially of the countries that produce chocolate, what an immense variety of flavors.

By the time I went around two times I had probably ingested close to half a pound of chocolate, and I was feeling it. I decided to leave but first I stopped to say hi to Celia Sack of Omnivore, a small bookstore in San Francisco that specializes in hard to find cookbooks (I will visit it again because on my first visit I didn't get a chance to talk to Celia and savor it completely). On my way out I stopped at one of the best looking tables, set up by Neococoa, and I couldn't believe my fortune when I noticed the venerable Alice Medrich chatting with Neococoa's owner. I introduced myself to the person I consider the Bay Area Chocolate Guru and asked her if I could write about her recipes in this forum. Alice Medrich was very gracious and gave me permission to publish her recipes on my blog, so expect some of her recipes soon!

I am sure there were many vendors I missed, but the ones I truly enjoyed were:

Socola creates beautiful and delicious chocolate confections and is located in Oakland.

Poco Dolce makes very simply yet delicious chocolate tiles sprinkled with sea salt, an heavenly combination.

Chopita makes infused cocoa nibs and just introduced a hybrid chocolate/cocoa nib bar that is really flavorful and innovative.

Amano had a chocolate from Venezuela that has a smoky flavor that was very interesting.

TCHO has an interesting way to promote its chocolate, through a colorful flavor wheel.

Neococoa wins for taste and look, I would want to eat more of their delicious almond butter and smoked salt truffles.

It was a very pleasant visit and it gave me lots of food for thoughts, pun intended.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Know Your Numbers

I made these adorable tuiles for a cake to celebrate a great guy who is going to school to become a teacher. Part of his course requirements was to work in a third grade class, which is were you learn the multiplication table. Every time I think about the multiplication table, which in Italian we call it the Pythagoras table, I think about one of my oldest friends, Anna B. In elementary school Anna had the misfortune of having a teacher who didn't believe in getting the kids to memorize the multiplication table so she never learned it. By the time we became best friends in middle school, she hated math, mainly because she was handicapped by the numbers she didn't know how to multiply. I felt really bad for her, especially because I loved math and couldn't make her love it too. According to Wikipedia, Pythagoras and his students believed that everything was related to mathematics and that numbers were the ultimate reality and, through mathematics, everything could be predicted and measured in rhythmic patterns or cycles. Not bad for someone who lived around 500 B.C.

The recipe comes from Martha Stewart's Wedding Cakes cookbooks and it works so beautifully. I have not one but two copies of this book, and not because I am a cookbook junkie, but because a great friend send it to me as a gift not knowing that I already had it.

The trick is to have two tuile batters, a plain one and a chocolate one. The desired shape is first stenciled with the plain batter and then a message is written with the chocolate batter. When the tuiles bake, the two batters melt together and they look awesome. Imagine the possibilities!

Tuile Banners
adapted from MS Wedding Cakes

White tuile batter
5 tablespoons of butter, melted
4 egg whites
1 cup sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
3 tablespoon of heavy cream

Beat the egg whites and the sugar on medium until combined, 30 seconds. Add the flour and the salt, and mix well. Add the melted butter and the cream and beat until combined. Refrigerate until chilled, 15 minutes.

Chocolate batter
2 1/2 tablespoons of butter, melted
2 egg whites
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cocoa powder
2 tablespoon of heavy cream

Beat the egg whites and the sugar on medium until combined, 30 seconds. Add the flour and the cocoa powder, mix well. Add the melted butter and the cream and beat until combined. Transfer to a pastry bag fitted with a fine-holed round tip (#1 or #2). Set aside.

Pre-heat the oven at 350F. Line a baking pan with a Silpat. Cut the desired shape out of a plastic lid. Using a small offset spatula spread the chilled bater inside the stencil, on the Silpat. Pipe the desired words with the chocolate batter directly onto the stenciled shapes. Bake at 350F until just set and the edges begin to brown. Remove when still warm and let cool. Store in a airtight containers.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

For the Love of Green

Not that I celebrate St. Patrick's day, or that I have Irish blood (I have been to Ireland if that counts), but I had some cooked nettles in my fridge so I made a nettle frittata for lunch. I got my greens for the day and loads of minerals, Yum!

Nettle Frittata

1/2 to 3/4 cup cooked nettles*
4 eggs
pinch of salt
EV olive oil

Whisk the eggs then add the nettles and the salt. Mix well then cook in a hot non-stick pan. After few minutes turn the frittata and cook on the other side until golden.
*I cooked a shallot in olive oil and then added the nettles until cooked through, 5-8 minutes.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Bread Baking Buddy-Pane Francese

This month's Bread Baking Babes' challenge is brought by Sara at I like to cook. She chose a Pane Francese recipe from the King Arthur Bakers' Banter site, and wrote a very detailed post about it (go check her site). I wanted to participate as a Bread Baking Buddy so I rolled up my sleeves and started the process Sunday morning.

The recipe calls for a chef, a small amount of old dough as the source of yeast. Since I didn't have any old dough I defrosted some pizza dough I had made two days before and used that as the "chef". The dough has some rye flour and olive oil but it will all get diluted in the final dough. I only found King Arthur Bread Flour at the store, not the special one Sara mentioned, not sure it makes a difference. The first dough took about 5 hours to double and it looked nice and soft. The second dough didn't quite doubled in 4 hours, but since I was going to bed I fed it for the third time, or final dough, and let it rise overnight at room temperature. I decided to use my mixer to knead the final dough since it was getting impossible not to add more flour by kneading by hand. It was quite cold in my house, so I was curious to see the dough after the overnight raising. This morning the dough had doubled nicely so I shaped it in two long loaves, and let them proof in the oven with the light on. It took the loaves about 2 1/2 hours to rise to almost double, despite the oven light. I sprayed one loaf with water and sprinkled some mixed seeds on it, 10 minutes later I slashed it in 4 places (I know, I know, the recipe calls for not slashing, but I wouldn't be me is I didn't beg to differ).

I baked the loaves at 45oF creating steam on a baking pan underneath. After 15 minutes the loaves had sprung and started to color so I rotated the pan and lowered the oven temperature to 400F. Fifteen minutes later I notice that the loaves were still really heavy but started to get too dark so I turned them up-side down, lowered the temperature to 350F. Ten minutes later they felt hollow and much lighter so I took them out and cooled on a rack. The bread looked fantastic as I came out of the oven, nicely browned, almost reddish in tint, and I had to resist the urge to eat a piece and instead let it cool 10 minutes.

After taking some pictures I finally tasted both versions and I was really happy with the results. The bread tasted very faintly sour, had a superb crunchy crust, and passed the bread and jam test.

In all the recipe was easy to follow, and because of the slow rising it can be done without rushing, and the flavor of the bread was worth the effort. After eating half of the regular loaf I realized that it had some major bubbles under the top crust, while the one I slashed didn't. I would think that the slashing allows the dough to evenly expand during the final rise in the oven so the gas bubbles are more evenly distributed. Thanks Bread Baking Babes for inspiring us with your monthly challenge!

Creating the Levain
chef (1/4 cup leftover dough, or 1/4 cup sourdough starter, unfed)
1/4 cup warm, chlorine-free water
1/2 cup King Arthur Unbleached Special Bread Flour

Let the chef soften in the warm water, then whisk out any lumps. Mix in the flour until you've formed a stiff dough. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, and knead it for 5 to 8 minutes. The chef (now called a levain) should be moist but firm. Place the levain in a bowl, cover it with a damp cloth, and let it rise in a warm place till doubled. This will take 5 to 6 hours.

Second-Stage Levain
All of the levain (from above)
1/2 cup warm, chlorine-free water
1 1/2 cups King Arthur Unbleached Special Bread Flour

"Refresh" the levain by placing it in a medium-sized bowl, chopping it into small pieces, and adding the water and 1/2 cup of the flour, stirring till smooth. Add the remaining flour gradually to create a stiff dough. Knead the dough for several minutes, then return it to the bowl, cover it with a damp cloth, and let it rise for 3 to 5 hours, till it doubles in size. Punch down the risen levain, and reserve 1/4 cup as your next chef. (Let the piece ferment at room temperature for 3 hours, then wrap it in plastic and store it in the fridge. It'll develop a hard crust; that's OK.)

all of the second-stage levain (from above)
3/4 cup warm, chlorine-free water
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups King Arthur Unbleached Special Bread Flour

Chop the levain into small pieces, and mix them with the water, stirring till they begin to dissolve. Add the salt, then 1 1/2 cups of the flour. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured or lightly greased work surface, and knead until the dough is smooth and satiny, adding only enough additional flour to keep the dough from sticking unbearably. Return the dough to the bowl, cover it with a damp cloth, and let it rise in a warm place for 8 to 10 hours.

Shaping: Cut the dough into 2 pieces, and shape each piece into a round or oval. Transfer the loaves to a lightly greased or parchment-lined baking sheet, or to a floured banneton; cover with a heavily floured cloth, and allow them to rise for 2 to 3 hours, or until they're almost doubled in bulk.

Don't slash or glaze the loaves. Bake the bread in a preheated 450°F oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until they're a deep, golden brown. Yield: 2 loaves.

Yippie! Thank you Sara for the batch!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Heart of the Matter-Monthly Challenge

This month's challenge of the group The Heart of the Matter-Eating for Life is finger food. Ilva from Lucullian Delights and Michelle of The Accidental Scientist had the inspiration of having a monthly blog event dedicated to heart-healthy eating. Two years ago they created a web site with the help of Joanna of Joanna's Food. HotM is turning two and the founders had the brilliant idea to make a big birthday bash with prices! This month I decided to participate with a super easy and tasty appetizer dish (it is great to have an excuse to cook something new!). The recipe was adapted by a recipe from Gourmet magazine which had chicken and fish sauce as ingredients. Shrimp works very well too and is a more heart friendly ingredient.

Shrimp Marinated with Lime and Herbs

1 pound shrimp (preferably wild)
1 large garlic glove, minced
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes
1/4 cup extravergin olive oil
1/4 freshly squeezed lime juice

Mix all the ingredient to make a marinade. Marinate the shrimp for few hours to overnight. Pre-heat the broiler on high and broil the shrimp for 5 minutes. Serve as finger food or on steamed basmati rice or even 0n the more heart-friendly wild rice (reserve the juice if served with rice).

Buon Appetito!

Friday, March 13, 2009

For the Love of Red

Cookbook Review

LinkIf you live in the Bay Area, are passionate about baking, and have to add to your cookbook collection, this is a great chance not only to buy a brand new baking book, but to have it signed by the author, Flo Braker, an amazingly talented baker and cookbook author.

Flo Braker will be signing her new book Baking for All Occasions at a new bookstore devoted to books about cooking and gastronomy, Omnivore Books on Food in SF, on Saturday, March 14, from 3 to 4 PM. She will be joined by special guest Amy Pressman of Los Angeles, one of the founders of Bakers' Dozen.

Flo has a great eye and palate for delicious recipes, she has written many cookbooks and is a teaching instructor. Baking for All Occasions has lots of wonderful recipes, from simple cookies to scrumptious cakes like the one on the cover, Eggnog Pound Cake with Crystal Rum Glaze (can I say YUMMY!). The recipes are explained in every detail to set you up for success. I have tried many of her recipes (my favorite of all is her Panforte recipe from Sweet Miniatures), they are well written and easy to follow, and they always turned out perfect, like these Congo Brownies.

Congo Brownies
from Baking for All Occasions

Congo layer
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 ounces butter, melted and cooled
1 1/4 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
1 large egg white
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup chopped walnuts

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. In a large bowl, stir together the melted butter, brown sugar, egg, egg white, and vanilla until just blended. Stir in the flour mixture just until the batter is smooth. Spread the batter onto a lightly buttered and floured quarter sheet pan (13x9" pan). Sprinkle the walnuts evenly on top and gently press them into the batter. Partially bake at 350F until the layer is no longer shiny and is beginning to come away from the sides of the pan, about 20 minutes. Cool on a wire rack while you make the brownie layer.

Brownie Layer
1 cup plus 2 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetened dutch-processed cocoa powder
1/8 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 ounces unsalted butter
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 large egg yolk
2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt. In a small saucepan, melt the chocolate and butter over low heat, stirring with a silicone spatula until smooth. Let cool 5 minuted. Stir the sugar into the chocolate mixture until incorporated. Add the eggs, egg yolk, and vanilla and stir until well blended. Stir in the flour mixture just until the batter is smooth. Scoop the tick batter onto 8 or 9 different areas of the still warm Congo Layer. With the offset spatula, spread the batter as evenly as possible. Bake until the brownie layer top is no longer shiny; appears set; feels firm rather than soft; and a round wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out with moist chocolate crumbs attached, about 25 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack completely. The top layer will set as it cools.

Flo decorated the brownies with a chocolate glaze made of 3 ounces of chocolate (semisweet or bittersweet), and 3 tablespoons of heavy cream. I simply melted some chocolate, put it into a paper cone and drizzled it on the brownies.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Radicchio Salad with Mungbean Sprouts

If you don't know this site, visit it asap, because it will inspire you. When I saw Juliet's entry on Tastespotting I decided to try sprouting my own seeds. The first attempt was a sad story because I added too many flax seeds to the mixture, which are mucilagenous (i.e. slimy), so the seeds were always too wet and eventually fermented. This property of the flax seeds works well if you are constipated but not if you want to sprout them. The second time I used only mungbeans and kept rinsing them twice a day and draining them well. Within 5 days I had lots of sprouts, and now they are in the fridge to keep them fresh.

Today I added them to a salad and the crunchiness of the sprouts was incredible. I am hooked!

The radicchio I used in the salad is called Radicchio di Castelfranco and it was given to me by the incredibly knowledgeable Annabelle Lenderink of the Star Route Farms at the farmers' market in San Rafael. After we talked about a squash that has only recently been cultivated in California, the Marina di Chioggia aka Zucca Barucca in Venetian, she generously gave me a head of this wonderful radicchio. This chicory variety gets the name from Castelfranco, a town 30 minutes from my home town Venice, has a mild flavor, is really buttery with a slight bitterness, and it paired well with the Meyer lemon zet flavor (the aroma of the zest still lingers on my fingers as I am typing, YUM!).

Radicchio Salad with Mungbean sprouts

Cut the radicchio in strips, and the avocado in cubes. Sprinkle with extravergin olive oil, aceto balsamico, meyer lemon juice and zest. Add a handful of sprout and toss the salad.

Buon Appetito!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Golden Loot

As I was driving home I saw a box full of beautiful lemons in front of a house, but not just any lemons, Meyer lemons! I couldn't believe my eyes, slammed on the brakes, and got out. I controlled the urge to get the whole box in the car, left some for other lucky fellow passerbies, and drove home. Tomorrow I am going to leave a thank you note with my name at the house in case the generous soul has more in the future.

What a loot! What should I make?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Paper Chef 38-Anchovy Paté on Multigrain Crackers

Paper Chef is a fun monthly challenge where you get to create a dish with randomly selected ingredients and then post the recipe on your blog.

Mike was the winner of last month's Paper Chef so he randomly selected the ingredients of this month's challenge: anchovies, figs, mint, and then threw in polenta for fun. It took me a while to decide how to put these seemingly unrelated ingredients together, and I am not sure the mint really works in this dish, it gets masked by the strong anchovy's taste.

I adapted a whole grain cracker recipe by adding dry figs and stone ground polenta, and topped them with an anchovy paté my mom used to make. I then sprinkled fresh peppermint on the paté, thinking that the peppery taste would stand up to the anchovies. The combination of the crackers and the paté worked well, the mint flavor got lost, maybe infusing the butter with the mint ahead of time would have worked better. The challenge was fun, can't wait to see what the other bloggers concocted.

Whole grain crackers

1 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup stone ground polenta/cornmeal
1 cup dry figs, chopped
1/2 cup almonds
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
1/8 cup flax seeds
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup agave nectar

Mix all the dry ingredients together. Mix the buttermilk with the agave nectar and add to the dry ingredients. Pour into two loaf pans and bake at 350F until dry in the center. Let cool and slice thin. Toast in a 325F oven until crispy.

Anchovy Paté

4 oz. butter, softened
2 oz. anchovy fillets, drained

Mix the two ingredients until smooth.

Tennessee Valley Trailhead

This easy and accessible trail is part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area, located in the Marin Headlands. The trail is 1.8 mile long, it starts at the trail head parking lot and ends at Tennessee Cove, a small sandy beach on the Pacific Ocean. The Valley you walk through was known as Elk Valley, once popular for hunting deer, bears, elk, coyotes and wild turkeys. Two years ago we run into a bobcat, just few feet away from us. This amazing animal was hunting a rodent and as we stopped to look at it and take pictures it slowly turned toward us and gave us a look as to say: Can't you see I am busy here? It then slowly walked away, very annoyed by our interruption.As I drove toward the parking lot I stumbled in a group of 12-16 wild turkeys, and the males were busy showing off their beautiful feathers, what a sight.
It was pretty cold at 9am and some plants were still covered in frost.

The trail is spectacular, the Miwok Indians must have been thriving in this area.

On the side of the trail there is a eucalyptus grove which makes the trail even more beautiful, but somewhat unnatural.
I was joined by two wonderful friends, J. and M., so I knew the hike would be fun. We stopped at the horse stables to visit a friend of J.'s.

and got to pet this beautiful horse that was recovering there. What a beauty.
The trail splits in a higher trail that is less affected by the rain, and a lower trail which can get pretty muddy but is worth walking there for the rare encounters you might have with wild birds, and the plants you might see. Nature is waking up from the cold winter and Equisetum and Willows were in bloom.
The beach was as beautiful as ever, with a high sand dune recently carved by the massive rain we have had in the Bay Area.
Thanks J. for suggesting this trail, I had a lovely time.


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