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.