Friday, April 18, 2008


Passion for food and cooking. My friend MF has it. A long, long time ago, we worked together at my very first advertising agency. It was a scary, scary place and those of us who've worked there all share a special bond over the experience. As MF describes it, it's as if we're survivors of an abusive family. Haha! I can only laugh about it now. I think it was she who once calculated the number of hours we were working and concluded we were getting paid less than minimum wage. (Note to self: Getting paid $8-10 an hour in the kitchen isn't such a bad deal after all). Sometimes I wonder if 7 years at that place damaged me beyond repair and has put me in a permanent state of "advertising burnout."

Anyways, MF was always bound for great things, and I'm amazed at her courage to live out her love and passions. First, she left the "abusive family." A big step. Then she became a freelancer. Then she moved to paradise. Yep. She relocated to Hawaii. And now she's put out a cookbook of her very own, called Just Sweets. It's a momentous occasion because she was always making tasty things to share with her fellow orphans at the old agency, and I had always hoped she would take her cooking to the public, maybe open up her own little place. I remember after tasting her red velvet cake for the first time. I was hooked. And her boozy eggnog (yum). And her mac-and-cheese (pure comfort). I was so excited to see that she shared her red velvet cake recipe in this book. Other appealing recipes I'm looking forward to trying are her Haitian-style Bread Pudding, and Beata's "Superduper" Sweet Cake.

Available at in downloadable PDF format for only $5.00.


How timely for this NY Times article to appear the Wednesday following my Saturday with my new sous chef Raj. I found it worth a few chuckles, and it gives us some chefs' insights on the high level of profanity in the kitchen:

Tom Colicchio
“Mr. Colicchio blames a loosening of standards in the whole of American culture: ‘You read Rolling Stone and you don’t see rock stars curse like this… And it’s recent, too. It’s something you’ve seen just in the past year.’”

Ruth Reichl
“‘For as long as I’ve been around restaurant kitchens they have been testosterone-fueled places where guys almost revel in their profanity.’”

Anthony Bourdain
“Mr. Bourdain thinks that public profanity could be the ultimate sign that chefs have arrived: ‘I’m making a living at it…I do a lot of speaking engagements and sometimes I feel like I’m being paid to curse in front of people who haven’t heard it in a while…I’ve been pushing it and pushing it and have unloaded like a marine in front of a vast roomful of blue-haired ladies, and they seem to get it.’”

Marco Pierre White
“‘I have sworn, yes, in the early days, going back 20 years,’ said Marco Pierre White, the English chef once renowned for his scorched-earth rages. But then he tidied up his vocabulary. ‘It was just growing up.’”

David Chang
“‘When you talk to older guys, they’ll all say they were big yellers but they’ve toned it down now,’ said David Chang. He said that he would like to do the same, in part because he was worried that his tantrums were damaging his heart. ‘It’s not like I want to do it, I just want to get my point across and unfortunately I’m not that eloquent or articulate…I could find a better way — and I’m trying — to communicate, I will change in a heartbeat.’”

So the downfall of American culture, high testosterone levels, the Hollywoodization of chefdom, youthfulness, and the lack of good communication skills are all factors leading to foul language in the kitchen. Ok. I buy that.

But I have my own theories, too:
1. All the extremely bleepin’ painful wounds you incur but can’t whine about express themselves in the form of explicatives.
2. There’s no bleepin’ “Save as” or “Ctrl Z” button in cooking. Yes, you can try to fix some things in the prep or cooking process, but some things, when bleeped up, are just bleepin’ bleeped. It’s going in the bleepin’ trash along with the 2 hours you spent on it.
3. You’re so focused on the task at hand you don’t have the time to think about expressing your bleepin’ thoughts eloquently. You just say the first words that land on your tongue, and that would be “Bleep!” mainly because that deep cut you have on your fingernail is bleepin’ killing you and you can’t say bleep about it.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Silent workers

{ The staff at Le Bernardin }

I just wanted to share a blog post I came across by Michael Laiskonis. Laiskoniks is the executive pastry chef at Le Bernardin, and his blog provides an informative look into the thoughts and musings of a 4-star restaurant chef.

When I saw this post, I was really happy and relieved to see someone of this caliber actually recognize and celebrate the silent workers behind the scenes. I felt relieved on behalf of Lupe, Segundo, Ben, Chiquito, Adam and of course the new sous chef Raj. These are the people that make the restaurant industry tick – they’re the backbone of any four-star restaurant in the city. And you can be assured that these are the people who do what they do for the pure love of cooking/baking, not for celebrity or pretense.

For me, these are the guys that make enrich my experience at RestoX. I admire their consistency, their humble mindset, their kindness and generosity, and of course their seemingly-natural cooking intuitions. If you ask any of them if they’d rather be doing something else, they’ll tell you no way. They love cooking and that’s it. There’s something to this – to working with people who do what they love in such a simple and uncomplicated way.

I want this, too. I’m determined to simplify my life. To be contented with little and to feel good about what I do, even if it’s just creating a single dish that will bring a smile to someone’s face. Just leave me with my cookbooks and some good ingredients to prepare and share with others, and I shall be the happiest girl around.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The moistest banana cake

Saturday was M.'s son's birthday numero uno and I had the honor of baking his very first birthday cake. T. has never had cake so to play it safe, M. asked me to do something with flavors he’s familiar with. He likes banana, so I made banana cake.

While digging around for recipes, I came upon a post by Dave Lebovitz begging the question, “Banana cake or banana bread – what’s the difference?” I was determined to find a recipe that would make a distinctive, light, fluffy cake rather than a heavy, loaf-like bread. I found a good recipe for sure, and the “cake” came out incredibly moist and scrumptious, but I’ve come to the conclusion that anytime you mix bananas with eggs, butter and flour, you’ll get something that tastes just like… banana bread.

The frosting here so simple, easy to make, and super-yummy. I got a thumbs from M. and her entire family except T., who doesn’t like cream cheese and unfortunately got stuck with a funky banana not-so-much-a-glaze. Poor little guy.

Recipe: The moistest banana cake
Adapted from Recipe Zaar
1 1/2 cups mashed ripe banana
2 teaspoons lemon juice
3 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup butter
2 1/8 cups sugar
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups buttermilk

1/2 cup butter, softened
1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
1-2 1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar, depending on how sweet you like your frosting

1. Preheat oven to 275°.
2. Grease and flour a 9 x 13 pan.
3. In a small bowl, mix mashed banana with the lemon juice; set aside.
4. In a medium bowl, mix flour, baking soda and salt; set aside.
5. In a large bowl, cream 3/4 cup butter and 2 1/8 cups sugar until light and fluffy.
6. Beat in eggs, one at a time, then stir in 2 tsp vanilla.
7. Beat in the flour mixture alternately with the buttermilk.
8. Stir in banana mixture.
9. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake in preheated oven for one hour or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.
10. Remove from oven and place directly into the freezer for 45 minutes.
11. This will make the cake very moist.
12. For the frosting, cream the butter and cream cheese until smooth.
13. Beat in 1 tsp vanilla.
14. Add icing sugar and beat on low speed until combined, then on high speed until frosting is smooth.
15. Spread on cooled cake.
16. Sprinkle chopped walnuts over top of the frosting, if desired.

Notes on the recipe:
• This cake bakes at a very low temperature compared to most cake recipes. Depending on your oven, the baking times may vary. Just be sure to check it for doneness (till toothpick comes out clean) at the 50 minute mark, then every 10 minutes thereafter if needed.

• You’ll notice that one of the steps is to throw the cake right into the freezer as it finishes baking. This makes the cake extra-moist. I don’t know enough about food science to explain exactly why this works, but it makes sense to me. The water molecules probably become suspended as ice particles rather than evaporating, and then releases as liquid back into the cake. Whatever. I will get back to you after rummaging through my Harold McGee for some real answers.

• The recipe makes enough for a 9”x13” square pan. I wanted a round cake, so I filled a 9” diameter pan in half and baked three additional mini cakes in little ramekins – one for me, on one for T., and the other for M.’s daugher.

• When making the frosting, don’t add all the sugar in at once. After creaming the butter, cream cheese, and vanilla, start with one cup and see if it’s sweet enough, then add more to your liking. I was satisfied with just 1 cup.

• If you’d like, sprinkle frosted cake with some chopped walnuts.

Tres leches cake

Actually, I baked 2 cakes for T.'s birthday because I was convinced this was a child-friendly recipe. Made with 3 different milks that you leave to soak into the cake overnight, this dessert is definitely a crowd-pleaser. Sorry, I forgot to take pictures of the final product, and until you’ve got the whipped cream and toasted coconut on top, it’s not the most photogenic thing.


Recipe: Tres leches cake
Adapted from Chowhound
6 large eggs, separated
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
2/3 cup evaporated milk (not nonfat)
1/2 cup unsweetened canned coconut milk (shake well)
1 tablespoon dark rum, such as Myers’s (or 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract)
1 cup sweetened flaked coconut (optional)

1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 tablespoon powdered sugar

1. Heat oven to 325°F. Butter a 13-by-9-inch glass baking dish. Separate eggs, and place yolks in a large mixing bowl. Reserve whites in a separate mixing bowl.
2. Add sugar to yolks, and beat on high speed with an electric mixer until pale yellow and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Clean beaters, and whip egg whites to medium peaks (not too stiff), about 1 1/2 minutes.
3. Using a rubber spatula, stir about 1/3 of the egg whites into the yolk mixture to lighten it. Then gently fold in remaining whites.
4. Whisk flour with a dry whisk to aerate and break up any lumps, then sprinkle it over egg mixture. Use a rubber spatula to gently fold flour into egg mixture, just until there are no more white flour streaks. Don’t overmix.
5. Pour batter into the buttered baking dish, and bake until cake is puffed and golden and the edges pull away from the sides of the pan, about 20 to 25 minutes.
6. Remove cake from the oven and place on a wire cooling rack. With a toothpick, poke holes all over the cake. Allow to cool for 15 minutes.
7. In a medium bowl, whisk together three milks and rum (or vanilla extract), and pour mixture evenly over cake. Continue cooling cake, about 45 minutes more, then cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight.
8. For toasted coconut, heat a large frying pan over medium heat. Add coconut and spread it in an even layer. Cook, stirring often, until coconut is fragrant, lightly toasted and browned. If coconut begins to burn, reduce heat. Remove from the pan immediately.
9. To serve the cake, whip heavy cream and powdered sugar to medium peaks. (If you like, flavor it with a teaspoon of dark rum or vanilla extract.) Top each cake slice with a mound of whipped cream, and garnish with toasted coconut, if desired.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Hmm... that makes sense

So I finally met Adam's replacement. His name is Raj. He's our new sous chef. And he’s a character.

The first think that comes to mind when I think to describe him is that he peppers every sentence with the “f” word, even when his sentences are seasoned enough without it. Last night the wait staff asked what was in the bass and he said, “Some salt, some f’in pepper, and some other good f’in stuff.” I have a feeling this is the way of dialog for most chefs in professional kitchens - it’s just so ingrained in their everyday language. But the poor guy has yet to realize that this is not the way of RestoX, and I think everyone finds his way of speaking a bit jarring. I mean, RestoX’s kitchen is made up of some classy guys – some real gentlemen.

I miss Adam dearly as does Ben (one of the line cooks), who expressed this sentiment to me last night with almost teary eyes. But Raj turned out to be a pretty cool guy and my first Saturday with him was actually a refreshing change. Adam didn't want to be at RestoX. Raj does. And that makes all the difference for someone in my position. Raj clearly has deep respect for the process at RestoX, and his enthusiasm is contagious. He also seems eager to teach me anything he knows so no amount of questioning is too much. It was just a blast on Saturday. Weeeeee! Learning can be so much fun!

My Saturday list:
Cauliflower soup
Asparagus soup
Slice morrell mushrooms
Julienne carrots
Mince shallots
Julienne radishes

Cauliflower soup
In the first minute I walked into the kitchen on, Raj told me to make the cauliflower soup. And it freaked me out. I’ve never made anything from scratch at RestoX except the mashed potatoes (aka cream and butter with potato as binding agent). This was no time to be proud, so I told him I don’t know diddlydoo and he would have to walk me through it detail-by-detail. And he did.

Sauté sliced shallots with butter and white wine till wine reduces down. Pour in a quart of cream and allow it to come to a soft boil. Add small cauliflower florets to cream and cook until soft (you’re basically blanching them in the cream). Raj kept repeating that you can’t overcook the cauliflowers here since it’s for soup. In fact, the longer you cook them, the better they’ll be. When done, lift the florets out of cream and puree in blender.

Here I learned a new technique called “beurre monté” by dropping really cold chunks of butter into the puree while the blender was still running (if you were to add warm or hot butter to this mix here, the whole mixture would break into a nasty mess). Now why add the butter so late in the process using this technique? Why not just cook the cauliflower in more butter at the beginning? The beurre monté imparts the soup with a shiny, velvety finish. The way Thomas Keller explains it, “Solid butter is an emulsification of butter fat, water, and milk solids; beurre monté is a way to manipulate the emulsification into liquid form.” By poaching meats in beurre monté, you infuse them with the pure flavor of butter. I particularly like the way TK describes cooking lobster with beurre monté here.

Once pureed, pass it through a chinois and season with a little salt and acid (in this case, rice vinegar because that was what we had around). Raj likes to add acid to anything creamy to add complexity and a bit of flavor contrast. But don’t finish it at this stage. Raj’s practice is to leave soups slightly unfinished, slightly under-seasoned so that he could play around with it a bit more right before it’s served. Soup has a tendency to change over time, so you want to allow for this process to take place before you mess with it too much. In my mind: let the flavors find their chemistry, get to know one another, and marry. It makes so much sense.

Asparagus soup
Next up was the asparagus soup. Blanch 1” pieces of asparagus in the same cream mix. Follow the same process as cauliflower soup. Notice we cooked the white cauliflowers first before the green asparagus to avoid coloring the cauliflowers green. It’s these little common sense things we don’t always think about until we’ve created huge batch of green cauliflower soup. Haha.

Side note on mashed potatoes
While making the soups, Raj asked me how I’ve been making the mashed potatoes. It seemed like a trick question because it was such an easy one. I said I boiled them in a big pot of salted water and… He stopped me right there and said he does it differently. He puts the potatoes in a small sauce pan, just covered with water, and simmers them over medium-low heat for a really long time until they’re cooked through. He salts them only at the very end. This keeps them from getting all fluffy in the pot, which opens them up to absorbing all the water. In fact, steaming would be an excellent method of cooking them. You want the potatoes to absorb as little water as possible. Less water = more potato flavor. Makes so much sense!

Morrell mushrooms
Slicing 3 quarts of morrell mushrooms in half was probably the easiest task yet. They’re currently in season, but I had yet to see them. They’re wrinkly, funny looking things that feel like rubber bands. I could see how all the little crevices would soak up butter, cream and white wine quite nicely.

I think this is my favorite knife technique of the moment. I love to julienne anything into the thinnest strips possible. It helps to have the mandoline handy to slice the carrots into super-thin pieces, line them up like fallen dominos and let the knife run quickly down the row the way Adam taught me. Yahoo! I dare say it’s rather exhilarating.

I didn’t realize this, but ChefX taught me the “hard core” way of mincing shallots. When Raj saw me cutting through these, he was in awe at my fearlessness. That’s because ignorance is bliss. And bliss is bliss until you chop off half your middle fingernail and begin to gush blood all over the shallots. This one hurt like a bastard. Another new thing I learned from Raj is that without proper care and sanitation, this kind of cut could turn into a serious infection that could turn into a serious amputation. If a bloody cut won’t make you stop mincing shallots, the word “amputation” will. He made me stop, wash my cut with hot water and soap (f-!@#**) and hold it above my heart. Then he wrapped it with gauze, masking tape (standard restaurant first-aid tape), and a rubber glove. I was impressed at his deftness and he’s now earned the title of “Dr. Raj” in my mind. I felt like such a fool injuring myself left so badly, but Raj and Lupe basically turned it into a show-and-tell of their recent scars to make me feel better. They’re such cool guys at RestoX. I’m mightily fond of all of them.

This is a new salad they’re doing for scallops - radishes, daikon and apples all julienned super-thin. I was so excited to have to julienne more stuff. Take off leaves, slice off tips, thin-slice on mandoline, and stack slices like poker chips. Cut off the initial edge and throw away. Cut through stack, creating itty-bitty matchsticks. They look super-cute and delicate once cut - a translucent white with the tiniest touch of red on either end. While I was working on these, Raj got the fish delivery. He was pissed that they forgot the f’in halibut and he went into a long monolog about how these f’in fish guys have messed up every f’in week, how ChefX will probably think he’s f’in incompetent, and now he f’in has to go to look around the f’in neighborhood to find some f’in halibut. It was pure comedy. By the time he got back, I had julienned about 6 bunches of radishes. He called me “crazy” and “hard core,” about the fifth time that day. After some thought, I decided to take this as a compliment.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Rosemary-lavender shortbreads

O.k. this is just a warning that you'll be seeing a lot of recipes with lavender in the coming months. I'll be volunteering in the kitchen of a lavender festival this coming June at a place called Highland Springs Resort in Cherry Valley, California. It's a beautiful property laden with an olive grove, fig trees, hiking trails, an old oak tree that's merely hundreds of years old, and fields of lavender. The festival will take place every weekend of the entire month of June, and of course all the food there will be lavender-inspired. I can't even begin to tell you just how excited I am about this event.

Since they're still looking for some additional menu ideas, I'm testing out some tried and true recipes with the addition of lavender. This shortbread turned out quite divine last time, and since rosemary and lavender give off a similar scent, the thought was to replace just a bit of rosemary with the lavender and it worked. The flavor was mostly rosemary, with a hint of lavender and no sign of soapiness whatsoever.

You'll see here I rolled out the dough and shaped them into individual cookies to make them a bit prettier this time. This called for a drastic shift in baking time. The ones I took out after 11-13 minutes came out a lovely pale gold with deep gold edges, but any I baked beyond that were a bit too dark to be passed as proper shortbreads. So watch them closely, o.k? It may also help to attempt these before midnight when your mind is at its full capacity so you'll remember to set the timer at the appropriate time and perhaps even remember to put a tray of cookies in the oven at all. It's a dangerous life I live in this kitchen of mine.

Recipe: Rosemary-lavender shortbreads
Adapted from Epicurious
3/4 sticks (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1 tablespoons honey
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary leaves
1 teaspoon dried organic lavender

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line cookie sheet(s) with parchment paper.

In a bowl with an electric mixer beat butter and honey with sugar until light and fluffy. In another bowl whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, chopped or dried rosemary and lavender. Beat flour mixture into butter mixture until just combined.

On a lightly floured surface knead dough about 8 times, or until it just comes together. Roll out flat with a rolling pin to 1/8" thickness. Cut dough with cookie cutters. Press just a few buds of lavender on top, if desired. Carefully lift cut circles of dough with a pastry scraper and place on cookie sheet 1/2" apart. (they don't spread much).

Bake shortbread in middle of oven for 11-13 minutes, or until pale golden (be sure to watch closely). Transfer onto cooling racks and enjoy with a cup of earl gray tea.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Mom's trunk persimmons

My mom has always been a feeder. Yes, many children of feeding moms think their moms are extreme cases, but ask anyone who's passed through our home while growing up and they'll tell you that my mom's a particularly extreme case. It used to grate on me so much when she would make our whole family late because she was cutting mangos and melons for the half-hour ride to church. And until these recent years when I've had to plan my meals ahead and cook for myself, I didn't correctly understand why my mom always asked us what we wanted to eat for lunch while we were still working on our breakfasts. I just thought she was just a food-obsessive, or what we would now call, a "foodie."

Well, now that she has two beautiful grandsons to feed, I'm no longer the object of her feeding mania, at least not in her kitchen. In fact, the tables have turned and now I'm the food-obsessed maniac who approaches her every week with bags of something new to eat. That doesn't mean she's completely retired from the kitchen. She's opened a traveling food cart of shorts out of her Volvo wagon trunk. Whenever I see her she automatically opens up the trunk door, rummages through a dozen or so grocery bags and fruit boxes, and pulls out enough food to feed 6 people for a week. Since it's just me with not much room for storage, I usually have to do a little editing out of stuff. But she doesn't make it easy an easy process and I inevitably end up tossing much of it in the trash.

Last week I shamefully found myself with a whole basket full of overripe persimmons. I tried to cut them up and finish them off, but they would just collapsed into a pile of mush. Then I realized these had a nice hard shell that could serve as their own cups, and that's when the fun began. I lopped off the stem with a paring knife, nestled the fruit in a little bowl and dug in with a little spoon like a pint of ice cream. They were so much fun to eat I managed to finish off the entire basket - about ten of them. So if you ever find yourself with too many ripe persimmons that your mom tried to force feed on you, you now have a good technique for finishing them off.