Thursday, December 31, 2009

Kitchen Fiddler: A Year In Pictures

It seems that just the other day I was enjoying Cranberry Ginger Pecan Muffins on January 1st, but suddenly it’s New Year’s Eve again. What happened to the time??!


As a teenager I did an extensive journal-writing session every December 31st that provided a recap of the current year, celebrating the areas in which I grew and improved, as well as ranking my top 25 favorite days of that particular year. I still do that in a way, spending time reflecting on both the major highlights and lower points of the year. It feels healthy and necessary to recognize the ways in which both the positive and the challenging experiences have stretched and deepened me in different ways. Taking time to acknowledge this always makes me excited about moving forward into a new year.


I’m still working on my own personal recap of 2009, but throughout the various highs and lows of this year, the one thing that remained consistent was that I always had a blast cooking and writing for this blog. I would like to take a moment to thank you for visiting and keeping me company here on Kitchen Fiddler this year. I’ve had such fun experimenting in my kitchen and sharing stories with you these past twelve months, and I look forward to sharing many more culinary adventures in the near future.

Many recent newspapers and magazines have been filled with photo retrospectives of the year. I’ve chosen some of my particular favorite images from my kitchen efforts this year to give you my own version of the year-end photo spread, "Kitchen Fiddler 2009: The Year In Pictures".

I wish you all a joyous and creative 2010, one that is filled with many blessings. And of course, here’s wishing you a year filled with memorable meals, especially ones that you have the pleasure of enjoying with the favorite people in your life. Happy new year!!!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The 2009 CocoaRoar Report


After a whirlwind December, I am now sitting in my quiet clean apartment, taking stock of the past month. The CocoaRoar factory has been dismantled, my cleaning angels have worked their magic, and I’m daydreaming about all the savory dishes I’m going to enjoy cooking in these next weeks. But before that happens, I wanted to thank you all for your great support and chocolate enthusiasm this month!

Last year I enjoyed typing up the CocoaRoar Report for you, and I felt compelled to do the same thing this year. Here are a few photos from these past weeks, and once again, I present to you The Twelve Days of Christmas a la CocoaRoar.

TWELVE Favorite Movies Playing In The Background. I had fun raiding my own personal movie collection and picking out a dozen fun films to keep me going as I truffled my way through the month: L.A. Story, Chicago, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Victor/Victoria, What’s Up Doc?, Quiz Show, Hannah and Her Sisters, Little Miss Sunshine, Cabaret, Waking Ned Devine, The Graduate, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, of course.

ELEVEN Meyer Lemons. I love taking advantage of these seasonal smooth-skinned beauties, finely grating their floral peel and squeezing their juices into a luxurious white chocolate ganache. This irresistible citrus-flecked truffle has beguiled even the most hardcore white-chocolate haters, and some have even gone so far as to proclaim it their favorite of the six flavors!

TEN-Times-Thirty Pieces of Golden Raffia Ribbon. I did everything I could to prepare the packaging materials, including lining all the boxes with leopard tissue paper and precutting 300 pieces of ribbon to the exact length required. This was definitely a time-saver once I was in the middle of the chocolate trenches.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

On The Chocolate Homestretch

Greetings from the CocoaRoar factory!  I must apologize for neglecting my dear Kitchen Fiddler readers in these past two weeks, but I'm finding it difficult to do much as my hands are semi-permanently covered in chocolate these days.  That can actually be a lot of fun, but I don't recommend blogging or doing anything else near your computer if you happen to find yourself in a similar chocolatey state.


It makes sense that my hands would be perpetually chocolate-covered this month since i had to fill all of these red boxes with my homemade truffles before Christmas.  The boxes were stacked 4-deep on my shelf two weeks ago, about 300 boxes total.  But as that stack has diminished considerably, I'm racing towards the finish line of the CocoaRoar Christmas '09 season with only five dozen more orders to fill in the next two days.  I think I'm going to make it.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Louise and Her Chocolate Factory

It should surprise no one that my favorite childhood book was Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Right from my very first reading of it at age six, I was transported into a magical world, one where a chocolate river churned by waterfall ran through the heart of it while chocolate delights beyond my wildest dreams waited at every turn. I was always disappointed in the Halloween loot I collected each year, thinking that none of it ever held a candle to the scrumdiddliumptious chocolate I imagined that Mr. Wonka created for children and adults all over. I used to have dreams about winning a golden ticket to that chocolate factory, as well as dreams in which I was capable of creating chocolate wonders of my own that made people swoon.

Sometimes you just have to take matters into your own hands. In my 17 years of serious cocoa-based experimentation, I can say with confidence that I’ve made more than a few swoon-worthy chocolate creations by now. My apartment is certainly not big, and my kitchen lacks adequate storage and counter space. But I’ve managed to create my own little chocolate factory in here, regardless, and I’ve just begun my third Christmas season of CocoaRoar truffles.

You can create your own chocolate factory too. First of all, you’ll need some chocolate. Lots of it. I happen to have FIFTY-SIX pounds worth of Valrhona bittersweet chocolate in varying percentages of cocoa in my kitchen right now, as well as some Callebaut white chocolate too. (I hope that will be enough to get me through this month.)

Monday, November 30, 2009

Poached Pears

The markets are teeming with a vast array of apples and pears right now, providing a visual feast as well as one for the taste buds. I’m trying to take advantage of this bounty before it is replaced by a whole slew of winter citrus fruits. I'm not ashamed to admit that I've been chomping my way through every variety of apple and pear I can get my hands on these days.

But I were hard-pressed to choose between these two classic autumnal fruits when it comes to dessert, I would invariably go for a dessert involving pears over one with apples. I prefer eating my apples straight up, for I think they need no embellishment.  But pears resonate for me on a different level, especially when they’re poached.

I always think of pears as rather unassuming fruits on their own, but they easily turn into something special with just a little coaxing from a syrup made of wine, sugar and spices. Like a great character actor, a pear is willing and ready to take on different roles. Simmered in white wine and sugar with a little fresh lemon, this poached pear is understated and classy. It can stand on its own, needing nothing but a generous dollop of freshly whipped cream to complement it.  The white wine-poached pear can be an incredible supporting player when fanned over an almond-flavored tart or if layered between cream-filled crepes or delicate sponge cake, and I've never met a vanilla-based ice cream that was not enhanced by a few translucent slices of poached pear.

But poach it in a gutsy red zinfandel, this vibrantly hued pear becomes empowered by the wine, bold enough to take center stage. Pears are also versatile enough to embrace flavors such as ginger, vanilla or cardamom in the poaching liquid. Yet no matter what flavorings you add, I love that they still retain the very essence of their pear-ness.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Fiery Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes were one of those foods of which I was woefully unappreciative as a child. My mother was forever trying to pack as much nutrition onto our plates as possible, and for the most part I was a pretty agreeable eater at the dinner table, but I drew the line when it came to sweet potatoes. I might not have experienced such a sense of disappointment if these golden-orange tubers had simply been presented to me as yams, but the word POTATO was misleading. It set up totally different expectations that were never met by this vegetable whose sticky consistency always reminded me of pureed bananas, which were not my favorite thing as they always got stuck in my throat.

For a kid who dearly loved a bowl of mashed russet potatoes—fluffy and dotted with butter—a substitution of sweet potatoes was not an acceptable swap, especially not at the Thanksgiving table. I felt totally gypped the year our traditional mashed russets were replaced by a sweet potato puree casserole, complete with toasted marshmallows on top. Marshmallows had a welcome place bobbing in a cup of hot chocolate, and I had no objection to them being toasted and smushed between two graham crackers and a piece of chocolate, but they really had no business trying to gussy up a vat of sweet potato puree.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Ten Bells

It’s good to get out of the neighborhood once in a while. It’s especially worth taking a 30-minute subway ride down to the Lower East Side when your destination is a little wine bar called The Ten Bells. If you enjoy sampling a variety of wines that are off the beaten path, then you really must know about this place. If you have a fondness for tapas and you happen to love raw oysters, then you need to take yourself down to this charming hideaway on Broome Street as soon as is humanly possible.

I have a soft spot for this cozy wine bar ever since discovering it on Thanksgiving Day last year. My friends and I had had an excellent non-traditional holiday meal in Chinatown, and Sylvia had done her research and was armed with a list of a dozen wine bars and cocktail lounges in the area where we might have a festive cocktail afterwards. (Sylvia, who is one of the most well-traveled people I know, is affectionately nicknamed “the tour guide” because of her encyclopedic knowledge of where to go and what to see in practically any city!)

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Celebrating With A Passion Fruit and Lime Bavarian

I think I owe you all an apology. I felt a bit cruel showing you pictures of my lip-smacking passion fruit&coconut birthday cake back in August without providing a recipe for you. And I did it again in the last post about the birthday dinner I threw for my Scorpio girls. I posted yet another photo of one of the most luscious cakes ever to cross my lips, and yet I only gave you part of the recipe. Yes, the chiffon cake is lovely on its own, but it’s the zingy passion fruit filling that elevates this delightful cake to extraordinary heights. Topped simply with lightly sweetened whipped cream and a few wide shavings of unsweetened coconut, I can assure you that one bite of this cake will send your taste buds into gleeful fits of giggles.

I won’t torment you by withholding this precious information for a moment longer. This Passion Fruit and Lime Bavarian Cake comes from the justifiably famous Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. Alissa and I had the great good fortune of sampling this very cake during a vacation there last summer, and in a whole week of standout meals, this passion fruit beauty was the clear winner in the Most Memorable Dessert category. It’s not a surprise that she requested this for her birthday cake this year, and I was more than happy to oblige.

Fortunately for all of us, the recipe for this stunning cake is in the Tartine bakery cookbook, so I am now able to recreate this in my own kitchen. I have tweaked the recipe a bit, reducing the sugar and making a little extra passion fruit filling, but otherwise it is nearly identical to the original. My friends and I are most grateful for this recipe, and I think you will be too.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Beauty of a Chiffon Cake

I love celebrating birthdays. Many of you know that I am just as excited about my friends’ birthdays as I am about my own summer birthday. Once we enter Scorpio territory in late October, this is a particularly fun period as several of my closest friends have their birthdays within two weeks of each other. It is now that time of year when I don my proverbial party hat or at least kick up a fancy pair of stilettos heels, ready to celebrate with the birthday girls.

Actually, I’ll probably spend more time wearing comfy clogs in my kitchen because I have a few spectacular birthday cakes to make for some truly extraordinary women. Alissa’s birthday was on Thursday, while Cenovia, Lorra and Kristina each have their birthdays in this next week. Since I’m of the philosophy that one should celebrate all month long, we definitely got a jumpstart on the November birthdays last night when four of my beloved Scorpios came over for dinner.

I had been saving two crazy-good zinfandels for such an occasion, and my favorite Sumac Skirt Steak with Pomegranate-Shallot Reduction was the perfect dish to showcase these beautiful wines last night. After a hearty main course accompanied by powerhouse wines, I didn’t want to wallop everyone with a death-by-chocolate kind of dessert, so I swung to the opposite end of the birthday cake pendulum and made a lighter-than-air chiffon cake. When filled with a gorgeous passion fruit filling and topped with whipped cream and coconut shavings, it was nothing short of heavenly.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Arugula Fennel Salad With A Twist

I must admit that I’m having a difficult time finding a good balance this fall. I wanted to find the happy medium between work and play, but I have to accept the reality that I find it very difficult to be disciplined in more than one area of my life at a time. I’m thrilled to be working on a major project right now, one that is exciting and unusual, though it is taking up a vast amount of my mental energy and is eclipsing most of the time I would ordinarily spend cooking. I don’t mean to be a hopeless tease about my so-called Project X, for I hope to be able to share it with all of you in time. Please forgive me for being cryptic at the moment, but perhaps I can appease you with a recipe for my new happy discovery: an Arugula Fennel Salad with a bit of a crunchy twist.

Arugula has long been my salad green of choice, and I’ve often tossed it with paper-thin slivers of fennel, finished with a drizzle of good olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar. But I was inspired by a salad that I had at the Zuni Café in San Francisco this summer, one in which the baby arugula and fennel shavings were enlivened with a scattering of toasted breadcrumbs and finely chopped pistachios with a hint of orange. I was so delighted by the Zuni Café version that I had to recreate my own variation for myself here at home.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Marinated Goat Cheese and the Power of Memory

Most of us have certain foods that hold the power to instantly transport us back to childhood or another memorable time. In “Remembrance of Things Past”, Marcel Proust famously wrote an eloquent description of how a single taste of a petite madeleine cookie conjured up a flood of childhood memories, and I think many people can relate to a particular taste triggering a stream of involuntary memories. However, I’ve started to realize that I actually have the reverse issue. My awareness of the current date—and the memories of what happened on that day in any given year—is often the trigger itself for some very insistent cravings.

Sometimes these cravings are seasonally prompted, but my cravings are often weirdly specific, usually corresponding to the first time I tasted a particular dish. It’s not terribly unusual to seek out desserts featuring fresh berries when these summer gems are most plentiful, but I have had an insatiable craving for Mixed Berry Shortcakes every July 4th ever since I first experienced these in 1996. For five years now, I have been overwhelmed by an almost desperate need for Chocolate Toasts every January 30th, and I am likely to create a scrumptious BLT made with fried green tomatoes each August 19th in honor of the outrageous sandwich I had in 2006. And I get strangely hungry for goat cheese on October Ninths, largely because of a hilarious conversation I once had with Christopher Walken about bizarre dreams and goat cheese soufflés before a matinee performance on October 9, 1999! (Click here to read the story.)