Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Because It Is A Log

On good days, random ideas - each a potential hook for a blog post - will float into my head uninvited. I may be watching trees go by outside the window on a crowded BART train. Or scrolling through the daily New York Times cooking newsletter on my phone as I sleepily shovel cereal into my mouth first thing in the morning. Or grocery shopping at Safeway, scanning the aisles for things to drop into an unnecessarily large shopping trolley. Whatever my more immediate pursuit, on good days, the ideas will fly in, thick and fast.

If only things were always like that.
On a "good" day in the Ferry Building, San Francisco
On not so good days, no amount of prodding will coax an idea into my head, let alone from my head to the screen.

One of the things that I have missed most about blogging is recalling the recipes I've experimented with in my kitchen, and remembering that special ingredient, added on a whim to a staple recipe, which had the unexpected result of elevating the end product from "good" to "so much better".

And so, when a friend told me the other day that the word blog comes from the words "because it is a log", it made so much intuitive sense to me, that I fell for that made-up theory hook, line and sinker. In fact - and I can say this with some authority, having looked this up on Wikipedia - the word blog is a shortened version of "weblog". I like the made-up version better. "Because it is a log" has so much more personality than "weblog", which signals, unambiguously, that an internet geek was in charge of christening the invention.

And so, because it is a log, I am delighted to return to this corner on the internet, which gives me the space to succumb to nostalgia every now and then, and to reclaim my (admittedly infrequent) writing habit.

I may have suffered a prolonged bout of writer's block for the last several months, but my kitchen experiments have continued all this while.

In my baking experience, plain ole' yellow cakes are the most fiddly. There's something about the alchemy of ingredients that goes into a plain vanilla cake that makes them tricker than other types of cakes. Having burnt my fingers on a few occasions early on in my baking adventures, I've tended to mostly steer away from the temptation of trying out yet another recipe. But when I got a request for a good ole "bakery style" yellow cake with chocolate frosting, I had the perfect excuse to throw caution to the winds and test yet another recipe.

I finally settled on a recipe from Cook's Illustrated, which came with largely positive reviews from online reviewers and very precise instructions that got me interested. Overall, I can say confidently that this is the most success I have had with a yellow cake recipe. I frosted the cake using the Perfectly Chocolate Chocolate frosting recipe from Hershey's website. The frosting recipe called for such copious amounts of sugar that I chickened out, eventually deciding to halve the recipe. 

Bad call. As with friends, the more the merrier when it comes to frosting. Depending on the cake, icing can be so much more than the cake itself, as in this case. 

One other recent experiment comes to mind. This one has been a runaway success in our home. Have you heard of shakshuka? Simply put, it is a dish of eggs sunny side up on a bed of spiced tomatoes. The bright yellow of the yolks contrasted with the fiery red of the tomato base and patches of egg white make this a natural eye-pleaser.

I remember reading on a blog (I've helpfully forgotten which one) that "shakshuka" sounds like someone sneezing. Isn't that a great description? Not long after, I came across Melissa Clark's version accompanied by a good-enough-to-eat picture of the dish on the New York Times' Food page. So I attempted the recipe in my own kitchen. There were requests for seconds, and soon, every Sunday morning, I was hearing requests for shakshuka before anything else. And that is how shakshuka, which I believe was born in a faraway part of North Africa, became a regular Sunday morning breakfast feature in our home.

Shakshuka in a pan too small for the yolks to reveal their colors
(Moral of the story: make a little well in the sauce for each egg;
 use a bigger pan)
Shakshuka could not be more different than Cook's Illustrated's fluffy yellow cake recipe in that it is more a concept than a precise recipe. As Clark herself acknowledges, there are as many versions of shakshuka as there are cooks who embrace it. In her version, the tomato sauce is a vehicle not only for the eggs but also for salty feta cheese. Much as I love cheese, we tend not to consume very much dairy, and so I typically leave it out, although I can see that adding the feta to the dish is a genius idea. I always use fresh tomatoes, not the canned ones that Clark recommends. Sometimes, I add chopped green chillies for a touch of heat. Sometimes, I substitute the pungent red onions in her version with sweet white onions, if I have them on hand. I use a generous hand with the garlic, often adding twice as much as her recipe calls for. I also sprinkle on some zaatar, a ground spice powder, which I picked up at a Middle Eastern store at Berkeley. And most importantly, I skip the last step of baking the whole thing (although I suspect this final touch significantly improves the results), but only because I do not have in my cookware repertoire a cast iron skillet that will double up as an oven-proof dish. My point is, shakshuka is as forgiving a recipe as they come. And with the basic ingredients for the recipe being pantry staples -  eggs, tomatoes, onions, garlic and oil - there really is no excuse to deny yourself the pleasure of a shakshuka breakfast any longer.

While shakshuka and the fluffy yellow cake were relative successes, there were also some tragic failures. I experimented with a recipe for a delicious sounding syrup soaked Lebanese semolina cake, Basboussa. I boldly substituted the semolina flour that the recipe calls for with coarse semolina, which is what I had on hand. How I wish there were a happy ending to this story. I ended up with a tray of gritty squares. I wound up getting rid of most of it, but not before I vowed to try this recipe another time, with the deference that it deserves. 

On the bright side, now that I have an online record of my irreverence for the subtleties of semolina, I am a little less likely to forget the bitter fruits of my cockiness and suffer a second round of gritty squares. 

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

A Holiday in Hawaii

Have you watched the movie, Roman Holiday? I have been fascinated by Audrey Hepburn and her movies for as long as I can remember, and of course, it does not hurt to have the dashing Gregory Peck in the frame. It has been a while since I last saw the movie. With a somewhat unreliable long term memory, I am sure watching it again will be like it watching it for the very first time. 

But some particularly memorable shots from the movie are still vividly clear in mind. There's that shot of a Vespa driving Audrey Hepburn through the city (rather than the other way round) to the sound of her delightful squeals. I also remember a scene of her smelling the summer air and languidly enjoying an ice cream cone, and her monologue on the many things that she wants to do on a day off - enjoy coffee in a cafe, look at shop windows, walk in the rain. Of course, those things held special meaning for the princess that she played in the movie. But it truly is the little things that make any holiday special. 

We were in Maui, Hawaii recently on vacation. We did all of the things that Audrey Hepburn wanted to do on her Roman holiday. Except walking in the rain, that is. Inviting a cold which could take a whole week to sneeze off in exchange for a few minutes in the rain has always sounded like a  a bad bargain to my inner pragmatist.

We spent a few quiet hours, as often as we could, in a delightful, if somewhat overpriced, French cafe, Chez Meme Baguette Bistro. They serve up the check inside a book, which I thought was a nice touch. We spent as long leafing through the books as we did demolishing our brunch orders.  

There were other great finds, chiefly the charming 808 Bistro that is decked up in fairy lights at dinner time, making for a magical, twinkling setting in which to enjoy a great meal.  I've had banana bread for breakfast and I have always loved french toast but have never thought of combining the two to make one spectacular meal. Well, 808 Bistro did. They serve up a decadent banana bread french toast that I have resolved to attempt in my own kitchen some day. We couldn't help returning for dinner one night. I had a deliciously creamy (and I could tell, calorie-laden) pasta dish with sun-dried tomatoes which my thoughts continued to obsessively return to every now and then for the rest of the vacation.

We gave local Hawaiian cuisine a shot, but found it somewhat underwhelming.We did enjoy some of the local food trucks though. In fact, our very first meal in Maui, as we made the long journey from the airport to our hotel, was a plate of spicy shrimp and rice at the Geste Shrimp food truck. We enjoyed our shrimp and rice by the water, in the heat of the afternoon sun, with the wind threatening to overturn our flimsy styrofoam plates. It was a messy introduction to Hawaii's food trucks, but every bit worth a war with the elements.

We looked into shop windows, and inevitably stepped into some, parting with more dollars than we would have liked. We did a spot of snorkeling, and discovered a multicolored world that silently chugs on under water. We stepped tentatively into the sea only to have the waves rush out and pull us in entirely. We climbed up a crater, and got as close to the clouds as we ever have.  
Halakalea Crater
We watched the sun go down by the beach. Before we knew it, it was time to head home, but not before we gathered many reasons, each one as beautiful as the next, to return.