Monday, September 29, 2008

Whimsical Bakehouse: Cupcakes

"Why are you so negative about this cake book?" Isabel asked me earlier. I felt her tone was a little pissy.

"I'm not," I said.

"Yes, you are." Definitely pissy.

She's right. I'm negative about this cake book. Not sure why, but I have some theories that I'm still working out and will share in the fullness of time.

So, I made Whimsical Bakehouse vanilla cupcakes for Owen's class birthday party. He wanted them glazed in chocolate and decorated with these adorable homemade chocolate bumblebees, as they appear in the book.

I actually purchased the special chocolate and candy dye to make the bees, but discovered I lacked the will to execute the project. I foresaw hours of finicky work, much frustration, and eventual failure. Valuable time I could spend compulsively monitoring the election.

Instead, I slapped on some buttercream and sent the cupcakes off to school. Isabel and her cousin Edie ate the leftovers.

Whimsical Bakehouse: Crazy Swirls

The agony this ugly cake caused me.

Meet "Crazy Swirls," baked and decorated according to the instructions in Liv and Kaye Hansen's The Whimsical Bakehouse, a lively, chatty volume that I bought when I was preparing to bake my sister's wedding cake a few years ago.

I ultimately decided the Whimsical aesthetic -- bright, clangorous color combinations -- wasn't one I embraced. But I kept the book on the shelf anyway, and Owen recently chose it as "his" cookbook. Now I have to make some effort to work from it for a few days.

For the joint birthday party of Owen and his cousin Stella, I made my first Whimsical creation:

1. I baked a walnut caramel cake -- three rather delicious layers of toast-brown butter cake.

2. Made the coffee mousse filling.

3. Broke the extremely friable cake while stacking and filling with coffee mousse. Sad, but fixable.

4. Whipped the egg whites for Kaye's buttercream and "boiled" the sugar syrup for 7 minutes per the instructions. The sugar caramelized. I poured it into the egg whites nonetheless. Hot, brown soup, sloshing around in the mixer. A minute later I poured it all down the drain.

5. I whipped more egg whites for Kaye's buttercream and this time SIMMERED the sugar syrup for 7 minutes. The sugar didn't caramelize. I poured it into the egg whites. Hot white soup sloshing around in the mixer.  A minute later I poured it all down the drain.

6. See #5, but this time instead of soup, I got glossy, sweet, snow-white meringue to which I added a pound and a half of butter in tiny clumps. Beat for ten minutes. If you've never made meringue buttercream, it's a silky miracle. When it works.

7. Crumb coated the cake.

8. Divided the buttercream into five different bowls, and colored each with a different hue on the yellow-orange-pink spectrum, per the instructions.

9. Put blobs of frosting all over the cake.

10. Chilled the cake.

11. With a warm spatula, scraped off the lumpy ridges of buttercream to yield a moderately smooth, piebald orange-pink cake. 

12. Decorated with white buttercream squiggles. Voila, Crazy Swirls.

Took to Justine's house, adorned with candles, cut, ate, sent leftovers home with Checka who proclaimed it her "dream" mocha cake.

Mocha cake?

So far, achieving whimsy has been exhausting, expensive, and fattening.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Whimsical Bakehouse: An Interlude

I am taking a short break from Arabesque for reasons I will explain. 

A while back I decided that my family members (a.k.a. prisoners) should have a say in choosing the cookbooks from which I cook our meals. Big of me, don't you think? Isabel started us off with the Cuisine of California, and now it's Owen's turn. 

It was his birthday this week and he chose The Whimsical Bakehouse cake book. I tried to convince him to change his mind, as this is basically a book of elaborately decorated, garishly colored party cakes.

He declined. 

Fair is fair and I will give it my best shot, though cake decorating is not my forte.

I asked Owen to explain his choice:

Tipsy Baker: Why this book?

Owen: Because I like desserts and cakes and stuff and sweet things.

Tipsy Baker: But I have a lot of dessert books. Why this one?

Owen: Because it has a lot of pretty designs and it's a challenge and you've been doing this a long time and I thought you should get on to something more fancy.

Tipsy Baker: Anything in particular you want me to make?

Owen: The spotted cake. And "Summer Nights," and "Sunflower."

Tipsy Baker: What was your favorite book we've cooked from so far?

Owen: The Alaska cookbook. Because we went to Alaska and I thought it was amazing. And I kind of liked -- what was it called -- oh yeah, the baked Alaska.

Tipsy Baker: What is your favorite thing to eat?

Owen: Lamb steak.

Ed. note: Lamb steak? What the hell is lamb steak?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Arabesque: The Falling Down Drunk Baker

Actually, I didn't fall down, but I did fail to make a photographic record of the Middle Eastern banquet -- all cooked from Claudia Roden's Arabesque -- that I served at our first Office party. You can see it sloppily arrayed on the table there, but when I checked my camera this afternoon, I discovered, to my horror, that in my merry inebriation I took no decent pictures of: 

-hummus (delicious, the usual)

-baba ghanouj (delicious, the usual) 

-stuffed grape leaves (more delicious than the Trader Joe's usual. Not difficult to make.)

-Moroccan potato and olive salad (EXTRA delicious, unusual)

-bstilla (delicious -- but called for chicken thighs which I can barely look at, let alone eat.)

-Lebanese rose pancakes (EXTRA delicious! Very unusual. These are tiny yeasted pastries that you dip in orange water syrup then top with creme fraiche and rose petal jam. I ate fifty of these. Sadly, not an exaggeration.)

I did manage to photograph the guests, dressed up as characters from The Office. In the photo above, from left to right, we have Dwight, Angela, Toby, Kelly, and Michael. I was a middle-aged Pam. We ate a lot and watched the first episode of Season Five.

Then I staggered to bed, woke up at 4 a.m., and wanted to die.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Arabesque: Sorry Mom!

I just had to get that off my chest. I grew a little overheated in our final conversation last night, which happens when I hear the words S**** P**** and have drunk a couple of glasses of wine. Sorry, sorry, sorry! I am actually considering suspending my blog until we've solved this presidential election crisis. 


Otherwise, the evening was swell. We made my two favorite dishes from Arabesque thus far:

-Lamb Tagine with Dates and Almonds. The first time I read this recipe I knew I was going to love it: Rich, tender meat stewed with sticky dates and topped with crunchy fried almonds, all of it bound together with a honey-flavored sauce. Claudia Roden suggests omitting the traditional honey, as she thinks it makes the tagine too sweet, but I went for the full measure and did not regret it. This tagine is not just the best dish I've made from Arabesque, but one of the best I've made since starting Tipsy Baker, right up there with Niloufer Ichaporia King's cardamom cake

-Almond Pastries in Honey Syrup. Honey and almonds again, in a very different format. This was a baklava-style sweet, but instead of building up several dozen layers of nuts, butter and filo you roll your lovely nut filling -- which is flavored with orange flower water -- into a long filo tube, bake, slice, and drench in syrup. Not tricky at all, and wonderful.
Unfortunately, I was so distracted by our political argument that I forgot to send my mother home with any leftovers. Something else I'm sorry about.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Arabesque: Harira

"I'm actually glad I didn't go out to dinner with Juliet tonight because instead of missing something really gross I would have missed this," said Isabel, serving herself a second bowl of harira, the classic Moroccan Ramadan soup that contains (among other things) beef marrow, chopped meat, chickpeas, lentils, tomatoes, saffron, ginger, flour (!), and orzo.

I think that was a compliment. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Arabesque: Lebanese Pizzas & Turkish Shampoo

A quickie this morning because, because, because. . . 

Those are Lebanese lamb pizzas, which looked ravishing in the photograph in Claudia Roden's Arabesque. Prepared and shot by me, they look a little untidy, but still kind of appetizing, no?

And so they were, though I'll not rush to make them again. My children were very unenthusiastic.

On the side, I made Roden's roasted red pepper, tomato, and apple salad, a Moroccan dish that sounded so strange I had to try it. It was actually not strange at all and very tasty, one of those cooked, relishy salads you might eat with pita bread.

And for dessert: Turkish rose water rice pudding

This was INTENSELY rosy, which according to Arab folklore will give you an INTENSELY rosy outlook on life. So that's something in its favor. Mark said this pudding tasted like "delicious shampoo," and though I generally love milky, aromatic desserts, I had to agree. 

Monday, September 22, 2008

Arabesque: Prawns & Fattoush

Isabel and Owen are slowly warming to shrimp. I think Isabel ate two of Claudia Roden's Prawns with Garlic and Coriander

I think she picked one piece of toasted pita out of the fattoush, which was a giant Lebanese salad of lettuce, purslane, tomato, cucumber, green pepper etc. etc. tossed with a sumac dressing. 

I think she ate a single grain of the raisin-and-pine nut pilaf, left over from the other night

I don't believe Owen ate anything at all. I'm a little tense these days, so I'm picking my battles. I let this one go.

After dinner we settled in on our new couch to watch four episodes in a row of The OfficeWe're trying to catch up with season 4 so we'll be ready for season 5 which premieres on Thursday. I know. I'm an awful parent rotting their brains this way instead of reading them Dickens by candlelight. But it's really fun.

In the first episode we screened, the dorky central character, played by Steve Carell, takes a job as a telemarketer and works alongside an Indian man who brings in a Tupperware full of golden rice pilaf for dinner in his cubicle.

Abruptly, Owen jumped up and said, "That really makes me want to eat the rice stuff you gave me tonight. Do we have any left?"

Tipsy Baker: "It's in the refrigerator, it's cold, and you have to get it yourself."

Owen raced off and prepared himself a bowl of cold Turkish pilaf, which he ate avidly. Then he got another. Then he told me he wanted me to serve pilaf again tomorrow. 

Suggestible boy. I think he has a future as an eater if I play it just right.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Arabesque: Chicken Soup for the Soul Sick?

Financial meltdown, that pitbull in lipstick, job anxiety.  .  .

Interesting times, these. And yes, I feel cursed.

I never read any of those Chicken Soup for the Soul books back when they were popular, and honestly, the Turkish chicken soup (official name: Barley Soup with Yogurt) I made last night did nothing for my soul. 

"This Anatolian peasant soup with the delicate flavor of mint and saffron is magnificent," Claudia Roden writes in one of her typically seductive Arabesque headnotes. 

Not quite magnificent, but tasty and very easy. You simmer the carcass of a roast chicken in water for an hour, strain off the stock, pick off any meat clinging to the bones, then add to a pot of sauteed onions with some barley and saffron. Cook gently for half an hour "until the barley is swollen and tender" (did she crib that from a Judith Krantz novel?) then add lots of chopped fresh mint and two cups of whole-milk yogurt.

I know the Greeks and the Turks hate each other, but I thought this hearty, tangy soup tasted a lot like Greek avgolemono. (If you ever need a recipe for avgolemono check out Diane Kochilas' outstanding Food and Wine of Greece -- or email me.)

Sadly, though, whether you call it avgolemono or yorgutlu corbasi or pho or Campbell's, chicken soup will never cure what's ailing the Tipsy Baker.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Arabesque: Turkish Delight

Night #2 of the Claudia Roden/Arabesque experience.

Prepared the Turkish roast chicken with pine nut and raisin pilaf. The chicken was, as always, chicken. But the pilaf was kind of exciting -- spicy, buttery, fluffy, profoundly delicious. I also made a lemony Moroccan pear-and-leaf salad (cute name) and tried to distract myself from pilaf by eating lots of salad. Didn't entirely work.

Dessert: milk-and-almond pudding which you make by gently simmering milk with sugar, ground almonds, and rice flour until it thickens into a delicate, ivory-colored porridge. Pour into pretty dishes and chill. Garnish with pistachios.

I am aware that many people do not share my ardor for this type of sweet, which tastes like a divine perfumed Junket. If you're a lover of molten chocolate cake, tiramisu, or brownies, you might want to skip the milk puddings. But if you like dainty, aromatic desserts, you will taste Roden's milk pudding and wish you'd been raised in Istanbul.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Arabesque: I Hope You Like Eggplant

The world is falling apart, but the Tipsy Baker will not blink. She will keep cooking. And when her bank fails and she loses her job and her country goes to war with Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and Spain all at once, she will not blink. She will keep cooking. She may not sleep, but she will never, ever blink. 

Last night I started a new book, the (so far) very alluring Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey & Lebanon by the legendary Claudia Roden. It's a handsome volume, despite a handful of unflattering lamb shank shots. We'll be eating a lot of lamb for the next couple of weeks. Also, dates, orange flower water, and eggplant. 

I launched our tour with a Moroccan dinner. The centerpiece was a plate of "deliciously aromatic" kefta kebabs, which are meant to be skewered and grilled over coals on the streets of Marrakech, but can also be formed into burgers and sauteed on a stove in the California suburbs. (Roden is relaxed about these adjustments, which I appreciate.) The kebabs are basically beef patties flavored with cinnamon, ginger, and bounteous chopped herbs, primarily mint, and they were a big hit with a 7-year-old American boy. Tolerated by an 11-year-old girl. Adults: very pleased.

On the side: the excellent, unfortunately named mashed eggplant-and-tomato salad (see above), which was untouched by children, much loved by everyone else.

Dessert: Fruit Salad with Honey and Orange Blossom Water. Good, but not as good as it sounds.

I have two small gripes with this book so far:
1. Roden goes on at length about the centrality of bread in these cultures, but offers no recipes. 

2. I absolutely HATE it when authors like Roden don't specify quantities of salt in ground meat recipes. With most foods -- stews, stir-fries, sauces -- you can taste as you go. But you can't "salt to taste" a meatball or kefta kebab before its cooked (unless you're crazy), nor can you effectively add salt once it's started cooking.

Fortunately, I have run into this problem before and have figured out my own ratio: A teaspoon or slightly more of salt per pound of ground meat. 

But I resent having to use it!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Alice Waters: The Earnest Assessment

Judged strictly on the deliciousness of the recipes, this is by far the best book I've cooked from since I started Tipsy Baker. 

When I began the Alice Waters project I had planned to cook from all of her books, and so I did. But the title I ended up gravitating to was The Art of Simple Food. It's the only book from her oeuvre that is truly geared toward the home cook. Instead of pigeons, beef cheeks, and purslane, the recipes call for ingredients -- eggs, chicken, spinach -- that anyone can find in the local grocery story. You don't need a mandoline, propane torch or wood-burning oven. You don't need a sous chef.

The writing is tone-deaf. You won't stay up nights reading this book for its wit or graceful prose. But if you are looking for straightforward, excellent recipes (try the cream biscuits, the cornbread, the apple tart, the Caesar salad, the Bolognese sauce, the meatballs, the steamed sole. . .) you will never be disappointed.

 I mean that quite literally: Never.

Based on the forty recipes I tried, here's my breakdown:

Worth the Price of the Book: 10 (!!!)
Great: 15
Good: 12
So-So: 3
Flat-out bad: 0

Pretty amazing if you compare it to some of my past experiments. And pretty amazing given that I started this project with a major grudge against Alice Waters.

Tomorrow: Arabesque by Claudia Roden. 

Alice Waters: Pickled Watermelon Rind

Pickled watermelon rind. A longstanding goal of mine. Achieved.

If you grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder you might understand how this concept wormed its way into my consciousness. Pickled watermelon rind appeared in every description of big farmhouse suppers, alongside the ham, fried chicken and gravy, biscuits, roasted venison, hot fried donuts, and dried apple pie with pitchers of fresh cream.

To make this preserve according to the recipe in Alice Waters' Fruit, you peel off the watermelon's green skin, pare away the pink flesh, and are left with the crunchy white layer in between. You cut this into small squares, soak in brine overnight, then cook in a sweet-tart syrup with some lemon rind and spices. Jar.

 It's quite lovely to look at, very tasty, and definitely exotic.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Alice Waters: Spaghetti, Meatballs & Goodbye

Amazing dinner. Amazing pasta night! Spectacular finale to the hugely successful Alice Waters experiment. She may speak in a breathy, babyish voice and prefer to address only to her elite friends, but her recipes really work, damn it.

Justine and Stella joined the usual Wednesday night crew to make Waters' spaghetti and meatballs (Simple Food) with some focaccia (Simple Food) on the side, just in case we didn't get enough carbs. 

The pasta was, as usual, tender and lovely. The meatballs: fluffy and flavorful. The focaccia, well, it was tasty enough, but I'm loyal to my old Jack Bishop recipe so this is one I'll probably not bake again.

Dessert: A staggeringly delicious and buttery free-form apple tart (Simple Food)  with leftover clove ice cream (Chez Panisse Desserts.)

I know I promised a post about pickled watermelon rind, and it's coming. We opened a jar and nibbled at it while making our pasta tonight. But I failed to take a striking picture when there was natural light and the stuff is GORGEOUS. It deserves the star treatment. So, I'll post about this excellent preserve -- and offer my earnest summation of the Alice Waters experience --  in a few days when I return from a short business trip.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Alice Waters: Shrimp & Salad

Over the last few days I have been cooking extensively from the Alice Waters oeuvre, but a lot of it has been too undramatic to mention. A really terrific creamy cucumber salad. A pretty good braised duck. Another fine angel food cake. And so on.
But as this is my penultimate Alice Waters night, I feel compelled to issue a report. Once again Alice, my onetime nemesis, gets. . . and A+. Her sauteed shrimp and garlic (Simple Food) and Caesar Salad (Simple Food) are both astonishingly good. This was a messy meal we ate with our hands, but it was much appreciated by my finicky family. I think Isabel consumed one shrimp and a pound of salad. Owen ate two shrimps, a few Romaine leaves, and several dozen croutons. But no one threw a tantrum or even complained, and everything was delicious. 

What a triumph.

I am frankly astounded by how successful Alice Waters' Simple Food has been at helping me produce relatively popular weeknight meals. More on this later. Meanwhile, must  go help Isabel frost her Alice Waters chocolate cupcakes.

Tomorrow: Homemade spaghetti with meatballs and an apple tart.  Bonus: Pickled watermelon rind. 

And then we kiss Alice good-bye and move on to warmer climes where we will begin experimenting with filo dough, rosewater, and gum mastic.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Alice Waters: Zzzzz

No matter how you feel about eating beets, they're kind of pretty. Though my blotchy photograph and half-assed food-styling doesn't really do them justice.

That's a walnut beet salad out of the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. Nice, but nothing to get excited about. Served it last night with plain poached salmon (Simple Food) and fried peppers and capers (Simple Food.) 

Dessert was a possibly too-tart rhubarb crisp (Desserts) topped with a monumentally wonderful, ivory colored, faintly exotic clove ice cream (Desserts). I don't know why I waste my time making fruit sherbets when ice cream is so much better.

I'm beginning to bore even myself with elegant, understated Alice Waters-style food. I will try to shake it up a little over the next five days of organic baby lettuce and homemade mayonnaise. And then. . . . ?

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Alice Waters: Lasagne & More Sarah

A staticky radio broadcast of the Republican Convention accompanied the preparation and consumption of Alice Waters' tomato and cheese lasagne (Pasta, Pizza, Calzone) and cherry sherbet (Desserts) on Wednesday night. 

Our evening, condensed:

Checka: Do we have to listen to that noise?

Tipsy Baker: Yes.

Dita: I would like some ice in my wine, if you don't mind.

Tipsy Baker: I can't BELIEVE she just said that. No, not you Dita, I was talking about Sarah Palin.

Checka: How's middle school, Isabel?

Isabel: Fine.

Checka: Do you have any new friends?

Isabel: Not really.

Checka: Any interesting classes?

Isabel: I don't know.

Tipsy Baker: Did you HEAR that?

Checka: This lasagne is heaven!

Isabel: It's too cheesy.

Tipsy Baker: It's not worth making fresh pasta when you put it in lasagne.

Checka: Oh, I disagree. These noodles are very delicate.

Owen: Can't we turn off that noise?

Tipsy Baker: Be quiet, I'm listening.

Dita: I like McCain.

Tipsy Baker: What's wrong with being a community organizer?

Isabel: I don't want any sherbet. I don't like cherries.

Tipsy Baker: I'm tired of sherbet, too.

Isabel: All these Alice Waters desserts are fruit based.

Tipsy Baker: Aren't most people terrified of pit bulls?

Checka: You're really obsessed. I think we need to leave.

Tipsy Baker: What did you say?

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Alice Waters: Cornbread & Ratatouille

Struggle though it is to wrest my attention from Sarah Palin, I did manage to focus on Alice Waters long enough to make dinner last night.

Pan-fried pork chops

The cornbread was ravaged by many possum-like hands before I even put the rest of the meal to the table. For the last decade I've only baked sweet, cakey cornbread from an excellent recipe given to me by Mark's grandmother. I was sure no one would like Waters' cornbread (Simple Food) which calls for almost no sugar. I was wrong.

Predictably, the ratatouille (Simple Food) was less popular, though it was pretty fantastic. Ratatouille is a miracle dish, so much more than the sum of its off-putting eggplant/zucchini parts, managing to taste oily and rich without actually being oily and rich. How does that WORK? 

Pork chops (Simple Food) were the skinny kind. Tasty and easy. Nothing more to add.

I think I overstated my growing fondness for Waters in my last post. Saturday, when I caught her underwhelming Slow Food panel performance, I was in a semi-traumatized, any-liberal-port-in-a-storm state over the prospect of Vice President Palin. Over the weekend, I was convinced that I was watching a horror movie. Now I'm wondering if it won't turn out to be a comedy.

Only time will tell. Meanwhile, I'm going to try not to let the unfolding political drama affect my judgment on important matters, like Alice Waters and her cookbooks.