Fruit & Murder (Cookbook Review - Chez Panisse Fruit by Alice Waters)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

It was around 1:30 in the morning that I came to the logical conclusion that I would have to kill Alice Waters. It wasn't that I wanted to kill her, but rather my insanity compelled me to.

It's not that she had done me any personal wrongdoing. I certainly hadn't suffered at the taste of her food, the scorn of her tongue, or the lash of her organic whip which I hear can cause the bravest of chefs to become timorous in her presence.

Alice Waters has become a very central part of my life recently, not for her recipes or her restaurant or cookbooks but because of my thesis research on Slow Food. I have at this point read every essay she has composed, every speech she has given, every letter she penned about the subject. Her good, clean, fair mantra became the fuel of my sleepless nights.

I began to go mad. Soon I was accompanied by a disembodied, matronly voice whispering in my ear, "Is that salad procured from local growers? Where did those croutons come from!? Is that tomato organic?" I swear I'm starting to see her face in trees and toast.

I had to kill her if only to stop her from continuing her rhetoric which I would have to read which then would make me crazier. Her death would bring peace to my wearied brain and body and a stop to her tendentious prattling in my head.

Since I had no desire to be on the front page of the New York Times with a headline reading "Food Blogger Murders Nine with Crenshaw Melon," I would have to find another option. Somehow I needed to endear Waters to me so that I could assuage my murderous intentions.

-Figs poached in red wine with spices are dark and intriguing.-

Lucky for us both a possible solution lied in one of her cookbooks, Chez Panisse Fruit. It was a book that I had browsed many times in the bookstore the way hungry wolves may cautiously circle a baited trap, deciding if the meal is worth the risk. I would pick it up and poke my nose in and warm myself to the linocut illustrations. I would be starving for knowledgeable prose and her frankness when she mused over huckleberries would satiate me.

Still, I would not commit to the purchase, fearful that in the cookbook world Chez Panisse was passe. I can be at times a slave to literary fashion, but with the potential crime looming over me I needed to connect with Waters and make her human and not just a lecturer (and victim). Determined to avoid jail I marched into the store, snatched the book off the shelf, paid for it and escaped to the car.

I opened the book and read it cover to cover in one night. Each page was classic Alice as we've come to expect her, and this was her own locally produced rabbit hole through which I began to fall. Each fruit was celebrated and detailed with Waters' quaint voice. "Fresh dates are a civilized pleasure." "Tangelos are man-made or accidental crosses of mandarins and grapefruit." "We serve these delicate nutty persimmon cookies alongside winter fruit compote or Cognac-flavored creme brulee." Each sentence instilled passivity and calm. Waters was redeeming herself.

The next day, soothed though not steady I set to work prepping a dish of halibut and lime tartare with coriander and shallots. Her recipes would be put to the test to see if they would mollify my wickedness. Just as the limes and cilantro assertively cut through the buttery fish so did it my frustration.

This was soon followed with a small batch of Meyer lemon sorbet. The sunny flavor broke through any remaining cloudiness. Alice Waters was suddenly saintly. I still had no desire to listen to her go on about Slow Food this and that, but she would no longer find herself and the wrong end of a cheese knife.

-Blueberries preserved in sweetened Syrah. Delicious when reduced and served with skirt steak or duck.-

I took her fruitful recipes to heart whipping up batches of blushing rhubarb and grapefruit preserves. And though her recipe for raspberries preserved in brandy was a bit costly for me, her method was not and blueberries preserved in Syrah (a combination suggested by my friend Lynn) took its place. Their opulent taste rendered any lingering thoughts of the crime away as I popped the berries one by one or reduced some of the sweetened wine into syrup for scones.

Dried figs poached in red wine with orange, cinnamon and vanilla were spicy and breathtaking. Dolloped over fresh vanilla ice cream I couldn't help but let a perky smile escape as I ate. Treaties could be crafted over a dessert like this.

I was relaxed. Happy and full of fruit I patted my stomach and rolled my eyes. Alice would live. From now on when I have to read another one of her forewords to a collection of essays I plan to go to the kitchen and cook from her book. With its volumes of information on so many varieties of fruit from tropical loquats to rural gooseberries its always in season and useful. So if I'm writing in winter or studying in summer Waters doesn't have to worry as I know I can turn to whatever appropriate section based on what season it is to sooth my ire.

The book is simply one of Waters' most intriguing works, easily pulling you in with evocative artwork and recipes that are feasible and scrumptious. You'll feel a connection with Waters and begin hearing her sweet voice following you to the Farmer's Market. (Without it awakening your criminal impulses, of course.) A classic resource that every home cook should read at least once to better understand the world of fruit.
Halibut Tartare with Lime, Coriander, and Shallots
Adapted from Chez Panisse Fruit
Serves 6

3/4 pound halibut
zest and juice of 2 limes
1 shallot, minced
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
olive oil
kosher salt
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
bread or toasted brioche

Slice the halibut into thing strips across the grain removing any fibrous connective tissue. Cut the slices into strips and then dice as well as you can. (Having a sharp knife helps so you don't just butcher the hell out of it like I did.)

Place the lime zest, juice, coriander, shallots and olive oil and a pinch of salt into a bowl and whisk.

When ready to serve toss the halibut with a bit of salt. Add the sauce and toss again. Stir in the chopped cilantro and taste, making adjustments if necessary. Serve immediately on bread or brioche.


Sunday, July 26, 2009

Now at the age of twenty-six I'm able to say that I finally made my first pancake. I had never really been a super fan of pancakes to begin with. I liked them well enough but always preferred eggs and bacon, with my eggs still runny so that I could sop up the bright yolks with bits of slightly undercooked bacon and buttermilk biscuits.

This isn't to say I didn't enjoy pancakes. My mom always made little pancake people with smiling faces made out of raisins when I was a child. Elise's mom can pile onto my plate a six inch tall stack of blueberry buttermilk pancakes. To this I'll complain that my bird-like stomach can't possibly eat it all, but after she passes me some syrup, butter, and a tall mug of black tea she knows I'll finish them with a satiated smile.

So why all the sudden pancakes? The reason is that I had too much buckwheat on hand. What else am I supposed to do? I was buckwheat scone'd and buckwheat cookie'd out, though like the blueberry pancakes I could probably eat more had I not devoured them all already.

I blame Alice Medrich. Her cookbook, Pure Dessert, was the impetus for me to go all buck wild. Before her I had never even tasted the stuff. Buckwheat was more to me some rascal on an old comedy show whose mom was too cheap to buy him a haircut than an off the beaten path flour.

I picked up the book on a whim after being hypnotized by her sesame cake recipe. I was like a deer in headlights looking at the simple cake that was comprised of the most basic ingredients (that I kept regularly in my kitchen I might add). Normally not someone to make any purchase on the fly, I convinced myself by recalling some saying that any cookbook is worth the price for just the one recipe that inspires you. After twenty-six years I am, however, good at convincing myself.

The book's chapters are all arranged by type of ingredients such as fruit, grains, chocolate, honey and sugars. The book certainly requires you live near a Whole Foods of Co-Op. In order to explore the subjects eccentric ingredients such as lebni, chestnut flour and muscovado have to be procured. Not wanting to search high and low and pay out so much I looked for the more practical recipes.
-Buckwheat nibby butter cookies from Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert-

My eye was caught by a short recipe entitled nibby buckwheat butter cookies. Not an everyday recipe, but practical for me as I regularly keep cocoa nibs on hand which by my own definitions makes me eccentric, I guess. Flours, butter, sugar, and cocoa nibs. Easy enough. Off to the store I went to find a bag of buckwheat thinking on the way what other recipes I could do to ensure that I used every penny's worth.

Before I move on I should elaborate on buckwheat. Not so sure myself what it was I decided to consult Regan Daley's book, In the Sweet Kitchen, my go-to resource for any baking questions. Daley notes that buckwheat isn't a grain but rather the seed of an herb. It has similar nutritional properties to wheat flour but is gluten free. The color is that of ground nutmeg and the flavor is nutty, reminding you of slightly bleached earth that's seen too much sun. It's appropriate then that the texture is sandy, or even silty like the bottom of a river shore when baked into cookies and muffins. An entirely delightful ingredient.

Anyways, after shopping I got home, then started and finished the cookies. I allowed them to sit to the next day per Medrich's instructions and brought them to work. Nutty, sandy, earthy, buttery. Perfectly matched with the mocha-esque cocoa nibs. I don't really like crunchy cookies but there were my exception. Eagerly eaten and encouraged to make more, the cookies were crunchy revelations.

The next recipe was Medrich's buckwheat and semolina scones. The different grains and flours offer an array of textures and flavors that are surprising at first, welcomed at the finish. I found myself greedily smearing the tender scones with apricot jam and marmalade and washing it all down with steamy cups of Earl Grey. Medrich knows how to work her buckwheat.
-Pictured: A sweet tasting buckwheat scone seconds before I devour it.-

Unlike the scones, my first pancakes had a little help. BF had made them plenty of times before so while I made the batter he did most of the cooking though I did flip the first one (go me!). As he slowly stacked them up their sweet-dough smell crawled along the walls of the kitchen and filled the apartment. I decided to break out the elderberry syrup that Elise had made from the elderberries we picked earlier this month and dropped a few pats of butter on top.

Buckwheat pancakes with elderberry syrup. It sounded so Chez Panisse and somewhat ozarkian. Either way it was good. The pancakes were wheaty and full and perfectly soaked up the port-like syrup, imbuing them with a deep indigo hue and a port-wine flavor. Cut with a bit of whipped butter it was a breakfast that declares, "This will be a perfect Sunday."

Buckwheat has earned its place as a regular staple in my pantry from this point on. I'm smitten. Enamored. It's too delicious not to have on hand as who knows what kinds of recipes can be concocted from it?

But now I'm curious what other grains and seeds and flours are like.

Anyone have any kamut by chance?

Buckwheat Pancakes
Serves 2, makes 8 medium sized pancakes
Adapted from All-Recipes

1 cup buttermilk
1 egg
3 tablespoons butter, melted (plus extra for the skillet)
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons buckwheat flour
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda

1. In a small bowl whisk together the buttermilk, egg, and melted butter. In another whisk together the all-purpose flour, buckwheat flour, sugar, salt, and baking soda.

2. Slowly whisk the dry ingredients into the liquid.

3. Place some butter into a skillet and set over medium heat. Pour on about 1/4 cup amounts of the batter onto the skillet. Let cook for minute or two. When bubbles form on top flip the pancake and let cook for another minute or two. Continue this process until all the batter is used up.

Judging on Appearance (Through the Lens of Coffee)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

One of the benefits (and admittedly, downfalls) of working in a retail environment is the constant and varying interactions with society. With the given exception of the always predictable and welcome regulars each and every experience is unique, allowing you to observe the human psyche at work and in what ways it manifests itself.

Back when I worked at the coffee shop I was able to watch as a sort of invisible man. To most I wasn't so much a person rather than an object that exchanged caffeine and food for money. To this effect it allowed me to simply meditate about the various personalities that came to the counter without much interference from the subjects themselves, cataloging them.

Now when you are the device that stands between a person and their satiety you gain a unique perspective. From my position I was in a peculiar place where I could observe how their mannerisms and personality expressed themselves in their drink orders.

Take The Procrastinator, an obvious type. Bag full of disorganized papers. Dressed in clothes that stick to them in sour, wrinkled mass. That girl with the hair bunched in a rat's nest with a scrunchy or the guy who clearly hasn't shaved in a few days (these physical descriptions can be switched or combined regardless of sex)who decided to blow things off to party. It's not just crunch time, it's do I cut the red wire or the blue wire before their life utterly implodes upon them like a neutron star. Large mocha with triple espresso. Probably a sugar cookie. Whatever gets them through the night.

Since I worked in a college town, I was smart enough that during finals I actually kept extra cups pumped with extra chocolate on hand for the expected 8 PM queue of haggard students and the occasional professor or TA trying to grade papers.

Given there were a few suits who lined up, not just students, but the signs were all there and the same. One woman came screaming for a mocha with espresso "as fucking fast as possible." She was late, she was unprepared, she was likely more screwed than a piece of Ikea furniture.

She seemed to only realize it when I told her that her skirt was tucked into her underwear and she had been inadvertently flashing the entire shop for about four minutes.

Let's move on to Cappuccino, No Foam. Far too busy and self absorbed to listen to me that that order is, in fact, a latte. A cappuccino is all foam. Get off your damn cell phone, actually look at me when you make your order and be polite enough to maybe pause your conversation for three seconds so I can give you your four cents change which you'll dump in the change jar as a convenience to yourself. Jerk.

Then we have Complicated Order. Medium caramel soy latter, no whip, extra shot of espresso, high foam kinda stuff. A unique individual who looks down on the sheeple that plague their space. They're the only people in the world who really knows what's going on and feel the need to inform the coffee person behind the counter.

"People just don't seem to realize how media/the proletariat/pop culture/Iraq/the government/McDonald's/Scooby Doo is actually influencing their lives," and then tell me how they've subverted these powers and demagogues and live outside influence.

I recall one guy telling me how he wired his computer to be off the grid, and unknown to The Man. (Who is this Man? I like to think it's Niel Patrick Harris. He would be an awesome The Man.) All I can do is smile, roll my eyes when I turn away, and then repeatedly slam my head against the walk-in door and pray that I black out before the practiced diatribe on how MTV VJ's are warping the minds of youth to become slaves to Mountain Dew begins. A speech I had already heard from him. Twice.

It's been years since I've worked at a coffee shop, but I can still generally look at a person and figure what they're going to order. Anyone who has worked in a coffee shop can do the same. It's one of those stupid human tricks you pride yourself in.

However, you don't always get them all. I was thrown today. Totally left field.

In front of me was an biker, the owner of the Harley Davidson out front. Leather clad, dark shades. The salt and pepper ZZ Top beard covered the rest of his face. The only flesh I could see, and this guy had a lot, were his arms where the scantily clad women he had had inked in his your were now as stretched and saggy as the walking canvass they were imprinted upon. I figured this was a dude few people ever messed with, and those that had were dead.

A guy like this? He wants his coffee black, LIKE HIS SOUL!

"Iced Earl Grey tea and a vanilla scone." He asks in the lightest and most cheerful of tones.

Guess that shoots down my theories.

Or, at least, shows exceptions.

The New Vanilla Garlic

Monday, July 20, 2009

Didn't recognize the place did ya'? Yeah, the blog has a brand-spanking new look. I think it fits me pretty well.

The old blog was like an old house, wonderful because it had so many memories and emotions attached to it. However, over time, you begin to notice little things. The paint is peeling, the floor creaks, the door jams, and dammit if that light doesn't always seem to go out. In this case broken links, light text on a dark background, and non-user friendly layout were hurting the blog. It had gone in its previous incarnation as far as it could.

It was time to renovate. Touch things up. Redecorate. Some new paint. New furnishings. Fancy side bars. Clear FAQ pages. This was sweeping under the rugs and getting out the useless buttons dirtying things up. It was hanging window treatments to advertise my twitter and myspace. This was Extreme Home Makeover - Blog Edition.

Still, it's a big change. Change is supposed to be a good thing, but I must admit I don't handle it well. This was a stressful process. One I have been putting off for sometime, as I've been hiding under the covers so it couldn't get me.

I have two people to thank for all their help in this. The first is Ellie Moore of Rainy Day Templates who worked with me, listened to me, gently helped me make good conclusions and sound decisions, and made this whole process extremely fun (and affordable). Ellie, you are amazing.

The second I have to thank Elise who did an amazing job taking and editing the banner picture. The old one was cobbled out of my poor Photoshop skills and pictures I lifted from the web when I first started blogging.

Anyways, I'll be still fixing a few things here and there over the next few days so if you see things missing or out of whack, please bear with me.

Thank you much!



Extract of Cyanide

Friday, July 17, 2009

So I tossed the first batch of noyaux extract. I learned that basically I was making a jar of sweet smelling poison. Which is good to know for a variety of reasons, but is kind of a disappointment baking wise.

A quick recap: apricot pits, cherry pits, peach leaves, and bitter almonds all get their heavenly aroma of almonds from prussic acid, otherwise known as cyanide. Generally trace amounts of it are so small that it's virtually harmless; hence people using it to flavor ice creams, custards, and jams. As such I figured that it would be a clever way to brew up some of my own almond extract.

I double roasted the pits and the shells in order to eliminate the enzyme, amygdalin which, when it comes into contact with water creates cyanide. I then placed these in a jar with some vodka and planned on letting it sit and brew, hoping for extract.

Still, I was a bit nervous. When flavoring foods with these food stuffs that have cyanide, the amounts that come out are so minuscule it doesn't have the ability to harm you. However, leeching it out for 8 months? That was a bit different, my noyaux extract had a good chance of making me quite sick or being downright lethal.
-Brewing this put probably put me on a government terrorist watch list.-

Elise, curious if the technique would work or would just be dangerous to ingest wrote to Darrel Corti, the well known food oracle. If anyone knew if this experiment would be safe it would be him. He wrote back saying that the toxic compound in the oil had to be extracted first, and that it might not be safe.

I threw the batch out because I loaded it up with so many pits that I became a bit nervous. This was about 30 some pits, plus a few shells. I was fine with maybe 10 of 12, as I had eaten about nine of them to no ill effect (I did have a small stomach pang, but I'm well convinced that was psychosomatic and brought on through my own worrying as it went away instantly when I distracted myself reading a book).

It was the next day Elise had e-mailed a chemist friend of hers who sent a different reply. Now, not to put down on Corti, but I gathered a guy with a PhD would probably have a bit more insight into the matter, or at the very least a different one. He wrote the following and provided a variety of insightful links which discuss the human consumption of foods that use noyaux:
Sounds worth a try.

There are "bitter" almonds (or apricots) that contain high levels of amygdalin (the cyanide containing compound). But "sweet" almonds contain much less, and are considered safe.

Figure out how many almonds or apricot pits you think are safe to eat in their raw or roasted form. If you make your extract from that many, and no more, then you will certainly be safe, since at worst you will be getting all of the amygdalin in the extract, but at best you might get next to none.







This seemed like a practical answer to the problem. Out of curiosity then, I've started a new jar hoping it might work. (I am, admittedly, a tinge peeved at myself for throwing the old one away which contained 8 ounces of good vodka.)

The day I try it I'll have poison control on speed dial just to be sure, but I believe Simon has a point. If I use a safe consumable amount I should be fine. Furthermore, if I am only using a teaspoon at a time to flavor an entire dish then the amount ingested is microscopic.
-Ingesting this quantity would result in a delicious, bittersweet, almond flavored death (or at the very least, a stomachache).-

Wild Elderberry Adventures (Kinda)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"Wow Elise, this is fun. Let's never do it again."

That pretty much summed up the experience. Fun. Educational. Slightly irritating. Still the day's trials had had an intoxicating effect on both Elise and me.

Hank had warned us that elderberry picking was a bitch. He explained clearly that gathering them requires you to hike through brier patches and swaths of star thistle colonies that no sane creature would traverse. This then would be followed by the finger puckering, back aching, delicate picking of the berries. The berries are so small that it would require the nimblest hands and keenest of eyes of the tiniest fairy tale creatures to pick them efficiently.

My hands were raw, my neck twisted into some inhuman Gordian knot (which a seasoned masseuse later that day would comment on saying, "I may need to get a guy with bigger hands to do this."), and my clothes and canvas bag were now splotchy with indigo juices. Fine indicators of work well done, but a pain in the butt no less.

"Hank did warn us," said Elise, "but I don't think the vast pains of this were thoroughly communicated."
-It's hard not to crush these in my long, slightly effeminate fingers.-

After reading Hank's post about elderberry picking, both Elise and I were overcome with the desire to attack this project ourselves. If for no other reason but to give the whole thing a shot. Culinary adventurers we were! Braving the local Sacramento parks, filled with bikers in neon pants who give no warning before they zoom past you at supersonic speeds barely missing a deadly collision with you. Facing and countless bloodthirsty ticks! Blistering sun! Beware our outdoorsiness!

Yeah, I didn't buy it either, but you'd be surprised what two curious cooks will go through for a Sunday project.

Of course, you may be curious way all the fuss for elderberries. Elderberries are tiny little stone fruits that grown in bunches on, surprise surprise, elderberry trees. The flowers are often used for various liquors and syrups. The berries are generally considered a superfood; they're a natural anti-viral, often used in influenza HIV medications and studies. They're also crazy packed with the antioxidants. Plus the flavor is a funky and tart that echoes wine grapes and blueberries.

Elderberries are also the size of a pinhead. Literally. Not much bigger than this capital "O". As such you have to carefully rake these Lilliputian fruits off their itsy-bitsy branches. Otherwise you squish them in your clumsy paws, squirting their bright innards all over everything.

Armed with clippers and canvas bags we made our way through the park, snipping elderberry branches and tossing them into our hoarded load. As we marched in and out of little paths and dark natural growth alleys where local teenagers probably smoke meth we hunted down trees, always looking for the little blue bundles hanging in the air.

Over the river, through the woods. Around the brambles. Under the thickets. Across the fire ants' nest. Watching for rattlers. Dodging the falling ticks. Fighting our way through growth. Balancing on ledges. Hippity hoppity. We snipped bunch after bunch after bunch after bunch.

Soon our bags were heavy with fruit and we trudged our way back to the car. It was halfway through my rattlesnake story when I felt something wet. I looked to my side. My hip was splotched in indigo elderberry juice. The ripe berries, combined with gravity and their own weight, plus with constriction of the bag had begun to press the juice from the minuscule balls. It was almost shocking how much there was, but as they say, strength in small numbers.


Back at Elise's house we had begun the picking party. This party, physically, was a drag. Seriously, I was ready to bribe small neighborhood children to come help in some Tom Sawyer-ish scheme, the berries my white picket fence. I think I almost convinced Elise to take part in this.

Did I also mention the ticks, spiders, and other assorted creatures we encountered in the bundles of berries? You would look down to suddenly find many pairs of legs crawling over the berries, up the bowl, or worse yet up your arm. All kinds of freaky fun there. Elise and I both learned we can squeal like five year old girls. That's stuff you can bond over.

That's not to say it wasn't a party. We had a ball of a time telling stories, gossiping, trading jokes, laying out the plans for our futures. It was a great time to just chill.

By the end of things, by which I mean two hours later, we had eight pounds of elderberries. Do you have any idea what that looks like? Damned impressive is what.
-This is what is technically called a crazy load of elderberries.-

At this point I had to bid Elise adieu. I went to a massage appointment. I had a coupon and never had one before, plus after our small wilderness excursion I pretty well felt like I needed one. Elise went about cooking the berries down with some sugar and straining them. She the processed elderberry slurry into jelly and syrup. (Elise is a very good friend to me. She also took these awesome pictures.)

Have you had elderberry jelly or syrup? Think of the darkest, richest port wine you've ever tasted. Now make it ever darker and richer than that, and add a slight tartness to the back of it. Yeah... that's about it. Amazing stuff. Over pancakes, waffles, vanilla ice cream, some of the syrup with a glass of gin and tonic. I plan to use some on a wild duck that Hank gave me. Oh yes, I will be eating and drinking well.

Overall, is the pain and suffering worth it? Yes. Very much so. At least to me. But the outdoors and I have a very love - hate relationship (Boy Scouts made me love nature and hate it all the same. Hiking, king snakes, outdoor cooking = good. Canoeing, fire ants, morning frost in a tent = bad.).

So, yes, I'll go next year. I'll go because the results are worth the trouble, thorns, and ticks. I'll go because you don't do elderberry picking or processing alone. You do it with friends, you make a game of it, you catch up as you pluck, and laugh as you hike through the woods. In the end you have great stories to share, a greater bond, and damn good jelly.

Chocolate Cupcakes with Matcha Ice Cream and Chocolate Buttercream Frosting

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Totally slammed and busy this weekend foraging for food or studying. A unique post from the archives.

I have been itching to utilize these two flavors together for some time now. Both flavors are slightly bitter and slightly sweet, so they compliment each other well.

I had to admit I had some trouble with the cake for a while, I wanted something chocolaty and moist, so it had the texture of a cake, but it couldn't get too soggy with the ice cream. Basically I had to find a balance between cake and brownie, and I think I accomplished it. It's chewy and dense, but also deliciously moist.

I've been giving the ice cream maker a workout, and with the heat starting to near hellfire temperatures, it just seemed like the natural step to take in cupcake development. The matcha ice cream was sweet, creamy, and slightly pungent. It's also $25 for 1 ounce (ouch). So if you can spare the expense for a flavor, go for it. Otherwise, I would suggest maybe buying green tea (ooh, or maybe mint!) ice cream and using that instead.

The frosting is a real basic chocolate buttercream, but it's a frosting and it completes the cupcake nicely. Plus, it's purty. Purty is good.

This is also a cupcake that may require a bit of patience, so wait for a day where you'll have a few blocks of time free. The end product is worth the wait though, and it's a fun activity to do with friends and family.

Overall, a tasty treat which has set the pace for many more tasty ice cream cupcake treats in the future!

Chocolate (Halfway-to-Brownie) Cupcakes
Makes 24 cupcakes / 350 F oven

What You'll Need...
4 tablespoons of unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup of sugar
3 eggs, room temperature
1 cup of flour
1/2 teaspoon of baking powder
pinch of kosher or other salt
1/2 cup of unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup of milk

What You'll Do...
1) Cream the butter until light and fluffy. Add the sugar and beat the crud out of it until light and fluffy.
2) Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat for thirty seconds after each.
3) Sift the cocoa powder, flour, salt, and baking powder together. Measure out the milk. Add some of the dry, then some of the wet, continuing to alternate between the two and ending with the dry ingredients. Mix until just combined.
4) Scoop about one heaping teaspoon into the cupcake papers. Spread it out a bit so it covers the bottom of each paper. You want only a small amount of rise there will still be enough room left over for the ice cream layer.
5) Bake for 12 minutes at 350 F. Let cool on a wire rack.

Matcha Ice Cream
Adapted from David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop

What You'll Need...
6 egg yolks
1 cup of whole milk
2 cups of heavy cream
pinch of salt
3 teaspoons of matcha powder
3/4 cup of sugar

What You'll Do...
1) Whisk together the matcha and the cream in one bowl. Whisk the egg yolks in another.
2) In a medium saucepan bring milk, sugar, and salt together over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. Pour the mixture into the egg yolks while whisking like a crazy person to avoid cooking the eggs (mmm, scrambled egg ice cream!).
3) Return the mixture back to the saucepan and cook over medium heat. Constantly scratch the bottom of the saucepan to prevent sticking. It should thicken into a custard. When it's thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, it'd done.
4) Pour the mixture through a strainer (to catch any solids, just in case) into the matcha and cream. Whisk until frothy and place into the fridge to cool completely. Then pour into your ice cream maker per the manufacturer's instructions.

Simple Chocolate Buttercream Frosting
What You'll Need...
1 cup of butter, room temperature
3/4 cup of powdered sugar
1/4 cup of unsweetened cocoa powder

What You'll Do...
1) Beat the crud out of the butter. Add the sugar and cocoa powder in increments. Taste as you go in case you want to lessen or increase the amount of sugar or cocoa. I find frosting is finicky with people, so go by your own taste. Pipe onto frozen cupcakes.

How You'll Assemble...
1) Be sure the cupcakes are completely cool, and the ice cream freshly made or thawed if frozen. Scoop the ice cream onto the cupcakes and smooth with the back of a spoon. Place in the freezer, preferably in covered containers, but if not no worries, plastic baggies work to avoid a bit of freezer burn.
2) Pipe frosting on and serve or place back in the freezer. Garnish with come matcha if desired.

I Prey for Help Gardening and This is What I Get

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

"Oh sweet holy Jesus! Fuck fuck fuck!" I leaped away from the tinted glass door of my work and, with speed of a Formula One race car, the fluidity (but not grace) of Mikhail Baryshnikov, and freaked-the-fuck-out squirrel-like terror I escaped from the source of my nightmares with nary a scratch.

Preying mantises and I have a jaded history. Well, jaded for me, possibly satiating for them. A quick debriefing of our battles is necessary:

1990, Age 7: The initial trauma. Finding a large preying mantis on our patio table I decide to watch him. It turns and looks at me. This begins a 15 minute staring match and, being an obstinate child, I am determined to win. The mantis after careful observation, assumes the giant and obviously stupid child is probably food. It then leaps on my face and bites me.

I scream and run into the house crying, blood beginning to slowly pool on the bridge of my nose. A large preying mantis bite strings like crazy. Mom won't believe me when I tell her what happened. She insists I am lying. I am scolded for being dishonest and clumsy.

1996, Age 13: I am at school waiting for my carpool to come and take me home. I pass the time sitting on the curb next to some shrubs reading a book. My head jerks up when I suddenly feel a tickle on my neck. A mantis has decided to jump on me for one reason or another.

It then decides to extend its arms/claws/legs/sharp things of pain to hold me down and tear out a small piece of me. My eyes go wide and I yelp. He continues to bite and "pin me down". It resists my swatting, holding on like some determined cowboy riding a rodeo bull. I eventually get him off. I do not mention what happened to the members of the carpool as I rub the welt on my neck.

2006, Age 23: I am walking back into work after lunch. For no reason a mantis the size of a house cat (perhaps to my perception) jumps onto my ear and bites into me, drawing blood. There are witnesses this time. Everyone is stunned. They then laugh at my pain. Assholes.

2008, Age 25: A preying mantis somehow found its way into my car. He reveals himself while I am actually driving the car. I slowly pull over the car, take off my shoe, and screaming with a barbarian war-cry smash him into a fine paste on my dashboard with my sandal. Cars slow down to watch the scene. A small victory for me, nonetheless.

2008, Age 25: Angered at the death of his brethren, the previous mantis' avenger reveals itself sitting on my car. As I unlock the door it unfurls its wings, raises its arms/claws/legs/sharp things of pain, and makes a threatening pose. It is huge. I freak out and run away. A co-worker catches him and lets him loose. I nearly pee myself.

So hence my freaking to the preying mantis now on the door of my work is understandable. Still, this one is a baby, not even half the length of my pinky finger. I reason that he is still dangerous to me (at the very least, psychologically) but nothing I cannot destroy first. I am the greater animal here after all. God and evolution chose me to be the dominant species and I would prove it by gooshing him into oblivion.
"Don't do that!" a co-worker cries. "He helps people garden."

I paused, waiting for a connection.

"Maybe yours?"

I stopped and put my foot back down away from the mantis. He doesn't move an inch, which is futile as there is no way his little brown self is camouflaged against the black doormat.

Co-worker has a point. Something the last few days has been chomping on my mint with gusto like a cat in a canary house. It's been frustrating as I search the pots fervently to locate the culprit but having no results. Yet every day more mint is eaten. This mantis could prove useful.

The old adage "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," never seemed so applicable.

I go back inside for a plastic water cup and a clipboard. I carefully usher the mantis into the cup, wary should he decide to attack me. I take him out back. I open the cup over the mint, shake it, and run.

The mantis checks out his new home. He crawls under a leaf and makes himself comfortable. I assume he is fine with his strange and supposedly plentiful hunting grounds. I water the mint from the other side of the pot, giving him his space and I leave him be.

Hopefully, we will be able to co-exist together. So far though, the mint is still being eaten and the mantis does not seem to be doing his job. This freeloader owes me the death I hired him for. We'll have to wait and see.

Canning with Apologies

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The past few days nothing of exciting or intrigue has happened that's been worth writing about. (Though I did spend a day with a delightful woman named Sheng and her family as they cooked a huge Hmong feast for Elise and I, but that's a story for Edible Sacramento.) I've either been reading, writing, working, and using my few bits of free time in the summer to re-establish my social life and proving to my friends that yes, I can call and, no, I'm not dead.

Still, I've found a bit of fun in jam making recently. It seems to be my auto-escape when it comes to studying. Last spring during finals it was rhubarb and rosemary jelly and this spring I made apricot and Riesling jam. The latest kick to break up summer thesis research has been rhubarb and grapefruit preserves.

I think I turn to canning because it's so multifunctional. I can easily sit on the kitchen counter and stir away while reading a book or taking notes, though it helps that I'm ambidextrous in certain regards and have a good left-right brain split in which to make jam and annotate the Marxist theory simultaneously.

In the end I get experience in jam making. I create something tasty and debatably nutritious for myself. Plus, I enjoy giving these away to friends and family as penance for my being so absent all the time. In fact a lot of these jams will be gifts, not to mention the growing larder I have of liquors, extracts and whatnot. My pantry might resemble to any passerby the workings of some mad scientist developing aromatic and strange biological agents.

The current jam - the rhubarb and grapefruit - is a particular favorite of mine. It comes from Alice Waters' book, Chez Panisse Fruit. I could write out the whole recipe but I can sum it up simply enough:

-2 grapefruit
-2 pounds of rhubrab
-4 cups of sugar

Peel the grapefruit and chop up the peel into little batons. Juice the grapefruit as well. Chop up the rhubarb. Place sugar, rhubarb, grapefruit juice and peel in a tall stainless steel pot and let sit for 2 hours. Place over medium-high heat. Skim off the foam. Cook at a boil for about 25-30 minutes, stirring gently and often to prevent it from sticking to the bottom. Place in sterilized jars.

Simple stuff, right? Plus, the result is a jam with layers of taste and flavor. Both sweet, tart, and tangy the rhubarb offers more texture and a ticklish blush to the preserves, but offers a slight tartness under the sugar. The grapefruit's citrusy zing runs clear throughout but is most prominent when you get a piece of he peel which is simply a jubilant revelation of GRAPEFRUIT in your mouth.

I have it smeared over some bread to go with my Earl Grey tea as I type this. Breakfast of champions who can do more than pour out some cereal.

Still, nothing too intriguing. No jaw dropping run ins with humanity. No cupcakes. No book reviews. Just too busy. However, there is jamming to canning which is delightful in its own right. Hope you'll forgive me.

Extracting Noyaux

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Very few acts in cooking allow us to smash things with a hammer. It's sad really. Sure you can bludgeon a piece of veal with a meat tenderizer like some barbarian, but it's not the same as precision strikes with a hammer as its heft sits gingerly in your palm before the gripping, pinpoint blow.

However the production of noyaux from a squillion apricot pits left over from jam making is the perfect excuse to break out the tool kit and work out some frustration. Indeed, it's simply the most efficient way to go about it and get out any pent up rage you might have about some jerkwad dinging the crap out of your car door and not leaving a note the motherf***er.
Anyways, if you aren't familiar noyaux (pronounced NWI-oh) are the pits from stone fruit, primarily from cherries or apricots. Delicious nuggets of nature that with nimble fingers delicately sew into your treats an almond flavor that wears a sweeter veil. The shells posses a less almondy fragrance but shadows of their former fruity overcoats that once embraced them linger.

For the most part noyaux are used for flavoring ice creams, custard, apricot jams, or eau de vie. However, there is some argument that they're harmful. True, the pits have the tiniest amount of prussic acid - you probably know it as hydrogen cyanide - which is poisonous. Given, eating one of these isn't going to kill you. Eating a small mountain of them raw might. A handful might result in a stomachache. Furthermore when you mix prussic acid with water the acid will leach out of the pit and become stronger. Doing a double roasting eliminates the enzymes and makes it safe for use.
Of course, nowadays the pits are being used for studies to help alleviate or cure cancer as the acid is balanced enough in the pit to keep it free from most infections yet stiff function as a source of germination for a tree. Indeed, the acid is thought to be a precursor to amino acids meaning it may be a primary source to the origin of life. Strange for something that we recognize as a substance that snuffs it out.

Right now, I plan to create my own almond extract, or should I say noyaux extract. This means I'm chucking them in a bottle with vodka. I'm throwing a few pieces of the shells in as well in hopes to give the extract a curious tease of apricot - just enough so the taster pauses to question what familiar taste just flitted across their tongue. I'll be sure to update on how it goes as time progresses.

Cherry Pits: Poisonous? Edible? Usable Culinarily? - By Shuna Lydon

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