Friday, August 28, 2009

The Market on Market Street

Greetings from San Francisco!

I have escaped the New York heat and humidity for my first-ever solo vacation in one of my all-time favorite cities. I wanted to plan a writing retreat for myself, but rather than go somewhere quiet and remote, I wanted to visit a different city that would spark my imagination. (Yes, I must confess that I am a city girl through and through, for if I’m surrounded by too many trees in the middle of nowhere, I start to panic.) It’s been a year since my last visit here, but if previous San Francisco trips are anything to go by, I look forward to all kinds of culinary inspiration this week.

I took an early flight in order to arrive in time for lunch yesterday, trying to maximize my eating potential here in this food-lovers paradise. As I emerged from the Bart station underground, I rode an escalator literally right into the middle of the Wednesday farmers’ market at the Civic Center. I hadn’t even been above ground for five minutes before I was tucking into a hearty green chile&cheese tamale. Welcome to California!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Julie & Julia

I finally went to see “Julie & Julia” on my birthday last week. What fun! I enjoyed the multitude of articles written this summer in anticipation of the movie’s release, not only in the entertainment rags but also in the food magazines. I’m sure that many of you have seen “Julie & Julia” by now, and I’d like to offer up a few thoughts.

Obviously the film is about cooking and great food, but that’s not really the whole story. Yes, we see an enthusiastic Julia Child learning how to cook as a new bride in France, developing her skills so thoroughly that she eventually co-writes the definitive tome, Mastering The Art Of French Cooking. We also watch Julie Powell tackling an ambitious year-long project of cooking her way through MTAOFC and blogging about it. But the film isn’t just about the food. Both Julia in post-war Paris and Julie in present-day Queens begin the film rather adrift but wanting to do something meaningful. Cooking—and WRITING about the cooking—is the way in which these two women find much deeper significance in their lives while sharing their journeys with others.

Meryl Streep is amazing. Full stop. What can’t that woman do?! Not only does she capture Julia Child’s distinctive vocal inflections—right down to that kooky mellifluous warble!—her Julia is merry and bubbling over with joie de vivre. She is so compelling, with an irrepressible twinkle in her eye, and I couldn’t stop smiling every time she was on screen. I almost wish the whole movie had been about Julia, for Meryl Streep paints such an engaging portrait and I didn’t want the story to shift away from her. Instead, I think I will go reread my copy of Julia Child’s memoir, My Life In France, which I urge you all to do if you haven’t already had the pleasure.

On a personal note, I want to give a shout-out to my two friends who were actually IN the movie but whose scenes mainly ended up on the cutting room floor, unfortunately. If I were a filmmaker shooting a wedding scene requiring two beautiful violinists who also doubled on guitar, then Cenovia and Max are absolutely the two I would have picked myself. But if I’d had two such talented musicians who looked as stunning in their 1950s period costumes as these two did, I would have given them appropriate screen time! I’ll give them some blog time here instead and share a few of Cenovia’s photos from the set with you.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Week of Birthday Cakes, Part 2

People who don’t know me that well often think it’s strange that I make my own birthday cake, something I’ve done for the past sixteen years. What they might not realize is that I derive immense pleasure from creating outrageous desserts that make my friends swoon with dizzy delight. And what better excuse than a birthday party to make an extravagant cake to share with friends?

Here I am on my roof deck on Sunday night, modeling one of my birthday presents. (This apron was a most appropriate gift, I think!) It was a beautiful evening and not too uncomfortably warm for mid-August, at least not with a glass of chilled sparkling wine in hand. I was filled with much gratitude being surrounded by so many people I love as I celebrated my last night of being 35.

Not one but two cakes made a dramatic appearance at my birthday party this year. It’s not that my decadent streak is growing more pronounced as I get older, because Lord help me if that’s the case! But two cakes were absolutely necessary because I had the great joy of having Julie at my party this year. Julie, my incredible friend/culinary co-conspirator/French horn goddess, is also a fellow Leo as her birthday is just two days before mine. (I’ve always had a little twinge of culinary envy that Julie shares her August 15th birthday with both Julia Child and Tom Colicchio.) Since the party fell right in between our two birthdays, I was especially thrilled that she could be here to celebrate too. Two birthday girls = two birthday cakes.

Let me introduce you to the Passion Fruit Bavarian Cake in the foreground, the shaggy one covered in coconut shavings. Please also say hello to the Chocolate Raspberry Earl Grey Cake that’s lingering in the shadows. It may look a little shy, especially since I ran out of time to decorate the top of it with fresh raspberries. But don’t be fooled into thinking that this cake is a shrinking violet, for there is an unbelievable amount of chocolate intensity lurking beneath that demure whipped cream surface.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Week of Birthday Cakes, Part 1

It is officially Birthday Week!

As I mentioned last week, I am always in a festive mood during the entire month August, not just on my actual birthday itself. While my birthday is on the 17th, my nephew Mac’s birthday is on August 10th. For several years now we have made a tradition of celebrating the week in between our two birthdays. 

Our Birthday Week schedule usually includes an outing at the movies on one day, breakfast at our favorite diner on another day, and a taxi ride just for the fun of it. We also make the pilgrimage to 18th Street, one of the best blocks in Manhattan, where we spend some time at the marvelous children’s store, Books Of Wonder. Eventually our sweet tooth trumps our love of reading stories together, and we wander across the street to City Bakery for an enormous chocolate chunk cookie or an outrageous passion fruit tart.

I’ve always felt a particular kinship with my nephew, and not just because we were both born on Fridays and our birthdays are exactly a week apart. If you have read previous Kitchen Fiddler posts, you will know that Mac (a.k.a. Little Chef) has been my very enthusiastic little buddy in the kitchen for several years now, ever since he insisted on helping me make the cake for his 4th birthday. He is an excellent helper and hilarious company as well.

Monday, August 10, 2009

A Grown-Up Mint Chip Ice Cream

When life hands you a garden overflowing with mint, you have some seriously appealing options. You can use your fragrant mint sprigs to make juleps or mojitos to slake your thirst. You can tear the fresh leaves into slivers to toss with fresh seasonal berries or sliced stone fruits for a marvelous summer salad. Or, if it is the weekend of your beloved nephew’s 8th birthday and you are the proud new owner of an ice cream maker, you have absolutely no excuse not to make him fresh mint chip ice cream.

I used two heaping cups of fresh mint to steep the milk, letting the vibrant green leaves work their magic and infuse the liquid with bright flavor.

(It really does help to have friends with gardens in which the mint grows like weeds! These friends are usually very willing to make herbal contributions to my kitchen.)

My Little Chef was very eager to help get this mint chip ice cream party happening, so he helped me strain out the herbs, extracting every last drop of flavor from the infused milk. Mac also insisted on helping me crack the eggs, which he managed to do beautifully without spilling a single speck of shell into the bowl! (I was very proud of him.) We whisked egg yolks into the minty milk to thicken it, cooking it over low heat to make a custard that formed the base of this ice cream.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries (With Bread, Arugula and Goat Cheese)

This is one of my favorite times of year. The pace of summer is more relaxed than it is during the school year, and the warmer weather almost justifies indulging in ice cream on a daily basis. It’s also my birthday month, which means that I am ready to celebrate with friends any day this month, not just on my actual birthday. And if those weren’t reasons enough to be happy, it is also CHERRY SEASON!

Cherries have long been my favorite fruit. As a kid I used to devour huge bowlfuls of them in the summers, and the first time I tried a dried cherry, I thought it blew the poor raisin way out of the water. I had several birthdays where I opted for a freshly baked cherry pie over a birthday cake. Black forest cake was a revelation to my 9-year-old self, for it combined three of my favorite things together in one decadent cake: chocolate, whipped cream and cherries. (Glory hallelujah!)

Perhaps cherries seem all the more special to me because their season is so short, only about two months at best. In New York City where there are fruit vendors on many street corners, it is always a momentous day when the cherries first appear at the fruit stands, usually in the middle of June. They typically start out at $4 a pound, but as the summer progresses, the prices drop radically as the cherries become all the more plentiful. It is nearly impossible for me to walk by one of these fruit vendors boasting beautiful cherries without picking up yet another pound or three to take home.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Cup Of Liquid Summer

This has been one of the mildest summers in recent memory, one that has propelled me out of the kitchen and into the sunshine. I would rather spend time out on my roof deck than turn on the stove, and that is why I am a gazpacho-making fool these days. By whipping up a large quantity of this cold tomato soup, I have something bright and nourishing that will last me throughout the week without my having to slave away in the kitchen each day. This gazpacho is infinitely satisfying for a light summer meal enjoyed either indoors or outside, yet it also feels festive enough to serve at a party.

Technically I should probably call this Chilled Fire-Roasted Tomato Soup. I know this is a slightly bastardized version of authentic Spanish gazpacho, which traditionally is made by soaking chopped fresh tomatoes and a bit of stale bread in water and a bit of olive oil, to which chopped cucumber and garlic are added to make a cool refreshing soup with a little bite. I have the traditional tomatoes, cucumbers and garlic going on in my version, though I’ve also added red onion and peppers and enlivened it with white wine vinegar and fresh lemon juice. A heaping spoonful of grated horseradish gives it even more pizzazz.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

But If You DO Have An Ice Cream Maker...

Good grief, I am such a liar.

Six days ago I gave you a lovely Chocolate Granita recipe, all the while claiming that I am perfectly content without an ice cream maker in my own kitchen since I really don’t have room in my small apartment. As I wrote that post, I tried hard to convince myself that I am very happy exploring the wide world of hand-scraped granitas and other icy confections that don’t require equipment that takes up precious counter space. But as Shakespeare once said, the lady doth protest too much.

As soon as I published that last post, I immediately began doing online research on ice cream makers, just to see if there were any new streamlined options available. When I came across this KitchenAid freezer canister and dasher attachment that would fit directly onto the stand mixer that already lives on my counter, I didn’t hesitate. I even opted for express shipping. I figured that if I can store pots in my oven and baking trays in my broiler, I could certainly fit an 8-½ inch diameter canister in the freezer. (My freezer is never full anyway, playing host only to a few ice cube trays, bottles of both vodka and gin, a few packages of frozen passion fruit puree, and a dozen bags of various nuts from a recent Trader Joe’s shopping spree.) Since Manhattan apartment living is all about maximizing every storage possibility, it would almost be silly NOT to keep an ice cream canister in my freezer.

And here it is. Isn’t it a beauty?

I wanted to christen my new toy with a memorable first batch of frozen decadence. I have many ice cream flavors in my repertoire that are worthy of such a momentous occasion: lemon verbena, fresh ginger, passion fruit, bittersweet chocolate with peanut butter swirl, black raspberry with chocolate shards, even a gorgeous Guinness ice cream that makes my knees buckle. It was tough to narrow it down, but in the end I knew that this inaugural batch had to one of my all-time favorite ice cream flavors: SAFFRON.