Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Top Ten Highlights of Summer 2010

10. Farmers markets teeming with heirloom tomatoes, bundles of fresh herbs, and every variety of zucchini and squash imaginable.

9. Restaurant Week in NYC, especially at places that don’t condescend to their diners by offering a dumbed-down menu. The Red Cat was so lovely I had to go back twice, and the sage-infused panna cotta at Maialino was a revelation. (Why did I not have my camera that day?)

8. Endless glasses of iced earl grey tea and cold-brewed iced coffee, which definitely took the edge off of the extended July heat wave.

7. Going to Museum Of Modern Art with my parents an hour before the museum opened for a members-only preview of the special Matisse exhibit. It was a rare treat to have the museum practically to ourselves, giving us the luxury of space to absorb Matisse’s delicious canvases without fighting to see through the crowds. When the doors opened to the general public, swarms of people made a beeline for the Matisse rooms while we repaired to the Terrace 5 Café for cappuccinos and the most exquisite croissants with apricot jam that I’ve had this side of Paris. (Why didn’t I have my camera that day either?!)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Birthday Cake Week

It’s Birthday Week for the Little Chef and me, and it should surprise nobody that I have spent a lot of this birthday week baking decadent cakes. But lest you think that everything that comes out of this fiddler’s kitchen is a starry-eyed triumph, I must disabuse you of that notion. I do try to share my most successful dishes with you on this blog, presenting them at their most photogenic whenever possible, but sometimes my best efforts are a total flop. While my baking efforts haven’t been exactly unmitigated disasters this week, I do know that my kitchen rhythm is just OFF. I’ve been making stupid mistakes in my baking, such as forgetting to add key ingredients to the batter, only to realize the omission after the pans are in the oven. The perfectionist in me is smacking her head against the wall, but the chocolate/whipped cream/caramel-loving side of me is still pretty happy.

The Little Chef’s birthday was first, and we got very excited looking through some of the hilarious posts on Cake Wrecks, the website devoted to professionally decorated cakes gone horribly wrong. We were inspired to try our hand at decorating, and with two little Wilton cake decorating tips and some disposable icing bags, we were ready for action. I made a basic buttercream and we practiced on a piece of waxed paper while the cake was in the oven.

Writing with icing is harder than I thought it would be, but we both started to get the hang of it. I was impressed with Mac’s icing-printing, and I found that my icing-cursive resembles my good little 5th grade schoolgirl handwriting.

We both enjoyed making icing dots. I created a small lattice, and then we played tic-tac-toe. (The Little Chef won.)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Balsamic Strawberry Shortcake At Its Finest

I don’t think I’ve ever met a version of strawberry shortcake that I didn’t like. I love it in its most classic form: a tender biscuit split in half horizontally and filled with sliced berries and softly billowing whipped cream. I’ve made variations on berry shortcakes too many times to count, and I find myself experimenting with each new batch. Sometimes I invite blueberries and raspberries to join the fun, thinking that strawberries shouldn’t have exclusivity at this summer dessert party. I often brighten the berries with grated lemon zest, and I recently made a delightful version in which I tossed the strawberries with a bit of lavender sugar. I’ve spiked the cream with Grand Marnier, whipped it with crème fraiche for a tart contrast to the sweet berries, and I’ve made it like this and that. As long as there are berries, some kind of biscuit-type base and a generous amount of whipped cream, I am a happy camper. But my latest version is a Balsamic Strawberry Shortcake, and I have to admit that this is one of the best I’ve ever tasted.

The shortcakes themselves—a sweet variation on a classic biscuit—are easy enough to make. Some shortcake recipes call for a variety of dairy products to bind the dry ingredients together, producing a base that could range from flaky-layered biscuits to tender-crumbed scones, and I’ve even seen recipes that incorporate finely chopped hard-boiled egg yolks into the mixture. But this recipe plays it clean and straight, requiring only chilled butter and some cream to transform ordinary flour, sugar and baking powder into extraordinary little shortcakes.

Aren’t they pretty? I think so.