Category Archives: Cookbooks and other Book Reviews

Exploring books on cooking, fooding, and other tangential topics

Jottings Inspired by “Imagine: How Creativity Works”

A good book satisfies the same spot in our middles as a good cup of tea.

I believe the urge to create is just as strong, if not stronger than even the urge to eat sometimes. I have been called the “creative type,” but Jonah Lehrer shows in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, there is no such thing.

We all have the capacity, and more importantly, the desire to create. The question is, are we answering that call? Are we nurturing ourselves by filling this need? Whether we are or not, Lehrer shows us how we can do it better.

The pages of this book hold beautifully written real-world examples of people and companies that have learned to foster creativity. Lehrer offers insight not only into how our mysteriously malleable brains work, but how we can develop our environment and follow our own rhythms to a higher art.

These are just a few hand-pickings by the chapter-full.

Chapter One: Bob Dylan’s Brain & Chapter Two: Alpha Waves (Condition Blue)

The frustration that arises when trying to find a new way to describe the color of a sunset, or the dull black of a moonless night is a good thing. It’s an important, though very difficult and annoying part of the creative process. The truth is, our brains thrive on challenge.

What to do when you’ve hit the wall? Take a few steps back, and allow for a different view so you can find a new way to climb.

Pick a meditative activity and let your mind wander. Garden. Have a cup of tea. Go for a walk. The answer will come when you relax and stop beating yourself over the head trying to force it out.

Here’s another hint: the color blue gives the illusion of space, and actually inspires creativity. I plan to paint the wall behind my art table a bright sky blue.

Chapter Three: The Unconcealing

Some insights, unlike the wall scenario, emerge slowly with persistence. There are times when you know if you keep your butt in the chair, the answers will come. As Lehrer says, “A good poem is never easy. It must be pulled out of us, like a splinter.”

I think this speaks more to the editing process. You’ve had your big idea, now you just need to chip away the rough parts and polish it to a high gloss. Sometimes, this work feels like a weed wending it’s way through hairline cracks in cement toward the sun. It doesn’t always feel plausible, but if you stick with it, you know it can be done.

Chapter Four: Letting Go

One of the biggest challenges we face in breaking through clichés to produce something fresh is finding a way to bypass the filter in our brain that keeps us from farting at dinner parties. Self-control keeps us from embarrassing ourselves, but it also inhibits creative improvisation.

One way to overcome this is to pretend you are a little kid again. Stop worrying about truth, common sense, or logic. Let yourself go. So what if the trees are pink and the sky is green? Play!

Chapter Five: The Outsider

Interestingly, creativity does not increase with experience. In some cases, knowledge can even cripple. A study discussed in Imagine finds the ideal level of education in creative fields is two years of undergrad. It seems once we’ve put on the magician’s hat and learned to pull the Ace of Spades out of our own sleeves, our brains have the tendency to just sit back and enjoy the show.

The secret is to continually seek new challenges. Our thoughts are shackled by the familiar. Travel. Seek mystery. When you start considering your art strictly as “work,” it may be time to find a new game to play.

Chapter Six: The Power of Q

Another way to encourage innovation is through collaboration. When you get the right mix of rookies and old talent sparks can fly, particularly if the group is comfortable with challenging each other’s ideas. There’s nothing like a little criticism to get you riled up, ignite the fire, and push you to refine your vision.

Chapter 7: Urban Friction

New ideas come from connecting seemingly unrelated ideas. It makes sense that the creative process accelerates in cities where random experiences and people are jostled together more frequently than they would if they lived miles away from their nearest neighbor. This explains the innovative success of companies like 3M that not only encourage the interaction and sharing of ideas amongst their employees, they require it.

While some people worry that social media puts a screen between you and the people around you, if used properly (as in not at the dinner table) it also increases face-to-face interactions. Groups are more easily organized. It’s probably happened to you; you notice a friend on a social networking site will be in town and arrange to meet up with them. Without social media, you probably would never have known they were in the area.

The more interactions between people, the more random connections are made…which morph into ideas, and when circulated, ideas can become even better.

According to a study in Imagine, there is actually a correlation between walking speed and the production of patents. Cities with unusually fast pedestrians come up with more ideas (think NYC).

Chapter 8: The Shakespeare Paradox

Innovation inspires innovation. Education, the sharing of ideas, willingness to take risks, these are a few areas Lehrer points out that we need to improve on if we want to foster a new generation of genius, and genius is no small commodity in this ever-shrinking world’s market.

Curiosity is a fragile thing. If we don’t nurture it, genius cannot bloom.

Lehrer tells us, “Unless we encourage young inventors with the same fervor that we encourage young football stars, we’ll never be able to find the solutions that we so desperately need.”

The good news is, Shakespeare did not need Cambridge, or Oxford. He did not have the college education of his contemporaries, and yet he surpassed them. What he did have was a bookstore full of ideas worth stealing, freedom from fear of censorship, and time.

One can only imagine what new ideas will sprout in this, the Age of endless Information free at the touch of a button.

Thank you Jonah Lehrer, for collecting and sharing these wonderful stories and ideas. Formally at Wired.com, he recently accepted a staff position at the New Yorker and blogs at: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/frontal-cortex

Here’s a few more blog spots and posts that have recently inspired me:

http://www.brainpickings.org/

http://theunquietlibrarian.wordpress.com/2012/06/28/makerspaces-participatory-learning-and-libraries/

What do you do to nurture your creativity?

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You may not want to hug the bug on your plate, but embrace it nonetheless

… Several years ago, in a reputable Thai fusion place not far away …

Halfway through dinner one evening I was appalled to find an inchworm doing its cute little humpbacked crawl through my noodle salad. The waiter was not sympathetic. “Our produce is all organic,” he sniffed.

I’m not particularly squeamish. I grew up a small town farm girl, and always tell my girls, “Dirt don’t hurt.”

I’m also a firm believer in the many benefits of organic produce, but that doesn’t excuse skimping on washing before service. When I insisted on a refund he just shrugged and took my plate away. Only half my meal was comped, and I walked out hungry after eating half of a worm’s playground. I hoped he wasn’t missing any friends.

The little incher wasn’t as big and hairy as this guy from the pumpkin patch last fall, but still. That was my first, and last time at this unnamed Sacramento restaurant.

… Flash forward, but not too far, to last week on my living room couch …

I read an article by Harold McGee in Issue 3 of “Lucky Peach” talking about “Handling Herbs.” Spanking mint as opposed to muddling it for mojitos to ‘liberate its minty essence without over-damaging the cells and eliciting a vegetal quality’ was a surprising tip, but I was most intrigued by his discussion of how bugs can make organic produce healthier and even taste better.

Maybe that’s why my backyard sage is so wonderful…

According to McGee, the flavors of herbs and spices come from the chemicals they make and store for chemical warfare against bugs, animals, and microbes. You wouldn’t munch on a cinnamon stick because it doesn’t taste good on its own, but if you simmer apple cider with whole cloves and cinnamon sticks, the resulting infusion is autumn comfort in a cup.

Thus, if a plant is damaged by pest invasion, that sends a message to boost its chemical defenses (aka antioxidants, aka flavor). McGee suggests reconsidering buying the less-than-pretty bug-eaten produce at the farmer’s market as it may be tastier and healthier than it’s more presentable neighbors. (!)

I’ve often heard food is only as good as the soil it’s grown in, but this was the first I’d heard that bugs can actually improve a plant’s nutrients and flavor. I guess it’s true for people and plants alike; whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

… And then, at a restaurant recently nominated for a James Beard award …

I had my second meet and greet with an unexpected critter in a restaurant setting. A few minutes upon arrival, while admiring the trays of artfully laid black trumpet mushrooms, locally grown oranges, key limes, and Persian cucumbers, I spotted a tiny mite-like thing crawling near my place setting. I wasn’t offended, but I didn’t really want to share my dinner with him, so I asked my husband to “get it.” He brushed his thumb over it, leaving a dark brown paint stroke on the white linen. I didn’t bother mentioning it to the waiter, and the entire meal was unforgettably decadent.

… Checking out the rearview …

I doubt that Thai-fusion waiter was up on his McGee so many years ago, but maybe I’ll reconsider my boycott. I’m can’t say I’m ready to slurp a scorpion lollipop like these insect treats we discovered at Pismo Beach last summer, but maybe it’s not such a bad sign if a healthy critter hops on my plate.

What do you think?

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Filed under Cookbooks and other Book Reviews, Obsessed with Produce, Techniques

Thanksgiving Improv

This post may seem a bit after the fact seeing as Thanksgiving is over. In my defense, it involves leftovers, super quick roasted nuts perfect for any occasion, and an epiphany: Jazz and Thanksgiving are soul mates.

Jazz by nature is so fluid it resists definition, but I tried anyway. Jazz could be defined as two conflicting cultures finding beauty in each other’s musical traditions, an embrace that results in music new, surprising, and glorious.

Thanksgiving could be defined as two conflicting cultures brought together by their mutual celebration of the harvest bounty (so the story goes).

Solidly rooted North American traditions, both are the result of two cultures in direct competition finding a common ground through art. Through mingling, new culinary and musical legacies were born.

I’m not sure exactly why jazz came into play. I wanted to write about Thanksgiving, but have been singing mostly blues notes as of late. There is so much to be thankful for, but instead of the usual lilting melody, this restless body is composing a cacophony that doesn’t match the love in my life.

Maybe I need to reinterpret my time signature. Just because it is dark when I wake, and dark when I leave work doesn’t mean there is less leisure time. Dark spaces feel smaller, but that’s what flash lights and desk lamps are for.

There is one thing that usually makes me feel better. In the jazz lexicon it would be called improvisation through syncopation; being open to new melodies (aka a dish) by using an unexpected deviation (combining ingredients not usually combined).

I set out on a culinary mission last weekend with that very thought in mind. Winter squash and nuts were the riff (repeated refrain). My plan was to make Maple Chipotle Nuts, and my very first homemade pumpkin pie. I began by making the nuts, and roasting and pureeing a sugar pumpkin. As I set out to make a pie the next day, it seemed only natural to make a Maple Chipotle Pumpkin Pie. The real surprise was my latest creation, an Acorn Squash Pumpkin Pie.

Maple Chipotle Nuts is a recipe I adapted from the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op biweekly ads. I first made them as part of a clean-out-the-freezer project, and have since made them three times in the last week and a half. They are sweet, a little spicy, and seriously addicting.

Maple Chipotle Nuts

1 pound unsalted raw nuts (any mix of pecans, green pumpkin seeds aka pepitas, almonds, walnuts, peanuts)
1 cup maple syrup
¼ cup dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground chipotle chili powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1)   Heat oven to 325. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil.

2)   Mix maple syrup and brown sugar in a small microwave safe bowl. Heat in microwave till sugar is dissolved, about 1 minute. Stir in chipotle powder, salt, and pepper.

3)   Combine nuts and maple syrup mixture. Stir till evenly coated. Spread nuts on lined baking sheet.

4)   Bake 6-7 minutes. Stir, then bake another 6-7 minutes till bubbly. Put nuts in a heat safe bowl and allow to cool, stirring occasionally to break them up.

5)   There’s plenty to snack on, sprinkle on a salad with bleu cheese or feta, and make Maple Chipotle Pumpkin Pie.

Maple Chipotle Pumpkin Pie

Even though it was my first time making a pumpkin pie, that didn’t stop me from tweaking the recipe. (Never does!) I got a small sugar pumpkin in my CSA box a couple of weeks ago, and finally got around to doing something with it. My 8 year old loves pumpkin pie, and begged me to make one. I warned her I was going to put nuts on top, but she could take them off. She allowed me to proceed.

You can use any piecrust you like. I used the “No Fear Pie Crust” from Cook’s Country. (This is a subscription website, but this particular recipe is free! Although it might be just be free during the holidays.) I highly recommend it. I took the recipe title for granted, and let my three year old help me make it with great results. Also, it stayed nice and crisp even though it took us a few days to finish the pie.

The filling I used is another free one from Cook’s Country, their “Pumpkin-Praline Pie.” You can click on the link or just follow my simplified instructions:

In a medium saucepan, combine:

15 oz plain pumpkin puree (canned or homemade)
¾ cup dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground allspice
pinch ground cloves
½ teaspoon salt

1)   Once all the filling ingredients are in the pan, turn heat to medium high. Stirring frequently, heat till bubbling and thickened, about 4 minutes.

2)   Remove from heat and whisk in 1 cup evaporated milk, 3 eggs and 2 teaspoons vanilla.

To finish the pie:

1)   Pour filling into warm piecrust. (The filling is actually a little too much for a 9” pan. Save the leftovers! I’ve got a great use for it down the screen.)

2)   Bake at 350 till the filling puffs up, and barely jiggles at the center, about 35 minutes.

3)   Top with Maple Chipotle Nuts, then bake another 10 minutes or so until toasty, and you just can’t handle the aroma-torture any longer.

4)   Let cool on a wire rack till set, 2 hours or so.

Next time I make this pie, I plan to kick up the spice by putting a little chipotle powder into the filling.

Acorn Squash Pumpkin Pie

So, you may be wondering where the acorn squash comes in. I’ve had this beautiful Carnival acorn squash on my table as a fall decoration for a few weeks. It’s almost too pretty to eat.

But, when I made the piecrust, I realized I didn’t have any pie weights (because they would get used less often than my children ask for a bath). So, I improvised. I used a foil-lined pie tin with half an acorn squash to weigh down the crust and roast it at the same time. I put the other half face down in another pie pan, and essentially killed two birds with one stone.

But wait, there’s more! Once the acorn squash starts to caramelize, and is tender enough for a fork to pierce easily, flip it over and pour the rest of the pumpkin pie filling in the center. Bake another 10-20 minutes until the filling is set. This would be great in a butternut, or any other squash you like to prepare on the sweeter side.

Back to the Blues:

Maybe I need to take this syncopation thing more seriously. One way of making an unexpected deviation in music is with a rest where a stress is expected. Slowing my tempo makes sense, but seems impossible. Family life means trying to synchronize the rhythms of four people into one composed day, every day. Of course I can stop doing the extras I love (like writing, baking, little things that help me maintain sanity), but I can’t not participate in my family’s song. How do you do it all, or stop trying to do it all?

In jazz, some songs use a call-response format. The lead singer will sing an improvised line or two, and the chorus responds with a refrain. As the lead singer in this scenario calling to you, the chorus, what do you do when you find yourself singing the blues?

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Filed under Cookbooks and other Book Reviews, Culinary Travels, New Recipes, Obsessed with Produce, Parties, Holidays, and Holiday Parties, Techniques

Interview with Middle Grade Author Dawn Lairamore, and “Chocolate Fairy Cakes,” an Ivy-Inspired Recipe

I am very honored to share with you my conversation with middle grade (books for 8-12 year olds) author, Dawn Lairamore. Dawn’s debut novel, Ivy’s Ever After, was released in 2010, and named A Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year in 2011.

Her follow-up book, Ivy and the Meanstalk, was just released October 2, 2011. She describes her books as fractured fairytales. (I just love the imagery in that expression.) They are fun, spirited stories that whisk you away with Ivy, a fourteen-year-old princess whose love of books and the outdoors inspire high adventure with the most unlikely of friends, Elridge, a rather un-ferocious and smaller than average dragon. Together, they find their fire to help save their kingdom (and themselves from conventions that just don’t fit.)

Isabella, my 8 year old, liked Ivy’s Ever After so much we read it twice. We had recently started reading the Harry Potter series, but she insisted on taking a break from it when I brought home Ivy and the Meanstalk.

Also, to give you a little background on this latest tangent, i.e. how a food blog comes to interview a children’s author whose books are completely unrelated to food: I met Dawn through SCWBI, a wonderful organization for children’s book authors and illustrators. They organize fantastic conferences and networking opportunities locally, on up to the international level.

I joined SCBWI because I’m developing a kid’s cookbook that encourages picky eaters to explore fruits and vegetables. My obsession with produce stems from my own pickiness. At 18 months old, my daughter started refusing to eat anything green. I challenged myself to find ways to prepare a greater variety of vegetables so that I actually like them as a way to provide a better example for her. It has been quite effective! She gets just as excited when I make artichokes as she does when I make cookies.

To celebrate Meanstalk’s release, I thought it would be fun to create a recipe inspired by Ivy. “Oh, fairy cakes!” is a charming little expression used throughout both books (in the same way as one would say, “Oh, darn it!”).  My kid-friendly recipe for “Chocolate Fairy Cakes,” made in a magical, most unconventional way (in the microwave), will follow the interview.

Dawn’s books are not about food, but in true kitchentangents style, I couldn’t help but ask her about my favorite subjects: writing, food, and the little things that make life sweet.

On Writing:

kitchentangents:  In both of your books, you’ve taken a familiar fairytale and turned it on its ear. In Meanstalk, (a riff on Jack and the Beanstalk) rather than Jack being a lucky boy who gets his hands on some magic beans and treasure from a kingdom in the clouds, you tell the story with more sympathy towards the giant whose treasure was stolen.

What inspired you to write this kind of story?

Dawn Lairamore: I love fairy tales, but I also love stories that do the unexpected or have some sort of twist, which is why I’m often drawn to retellings of traditional tales.  A very common fairy tale motif features a princess being saved from a dragon or other monster by a handsome prince or courageous knight.  I thought, what if the princess wasn’t so helpless and was perfectly capable of rescuing herself?  What if the dragon wasn’t a ferocious beast but a timid creature with a heart?  What if the handsome prince wasn’t a hero but a villain?

And what if the princess and the dragon actually teamed up against him?  And so, Ivy’s Ever Afterwas born—a fairy tale about a princess seeking out her own “ever after,” rather than having one thrust upon her.  Ivy and the Meanstalk continues that idea of twisting a traditional fairy tale.  Jack and the Beanstalk has always been my least favorite fairy tale, because Jack never seemed like much of a hero to me.  He seemed a lazy, thoughtless boy who stole and did some other not-so-nice things.  So Meanstalk is my revisitation of the Jack and the Beanstalk tale with a rather dim view of Jack.

kt:  I was so excited when I found out we share a common profession (paralegal by day, creative writer by night). It’s reassuring to know that not all artists are starving, and that it is possible to have a creative life even if you have a not-so-imaginative day job. Do you have any advice for balancing work demands with creativity?

DL:  Make writing a priority!  So many people would like to write but find that life gets in the way.  It’s so easy to let other demands pull you from a little time to yourself to work on a chapter or a few paragraphs.  But if writing is close to your heart, you have to make time for it the way you would any other important task or job, even if that means putting off doing the laundry for another afternoon or turning down the odd lunch invitation so you can park in front of your computer and write.

kt:  How often do you write creatively? Do you have a scheduled time, or are you more of a go-when-the-creative-juices-flow style of writer?

DL:  Schedule, schedule, schedule!  I think it’s the best way to absolutely make sure you have time to dedicate to writing.  I try to schedule at least several hours every week where I have no other demands on my time and I can focus solely on writing.  Of course, sometimes inspiration strikes at random and odd moments, and you just *have* to sit down and write!

kt:  Writing is very much about painting a picture in your reader’s mind with specific, meaningful details.

“They sailed over the broad windowsill and into a vast hallway that stretched as far as a hay field in either direction. Suits of armor as tall as ships’ masts stood at attention against the walls, along with iron candelabras the size of tress.”

Your stories are very easy to visualize, and yet move along at a nice clip (as a good adventure story should). Are there any editing secrets you can share that you use to strike a nice balance between action and detail?

DL:  This is a tough one because some readers–like me–love detail, but some find a lot of detail distracting and would rather a story focus on more “urgent” components like action or dialogue.  I think, as a writer, you have to do what feels right for the story.  I felt that the Ivy books, being fantasy/fairy tales with some rather fantastical and magical settings, warranted special attention to setting and detail.  But, yes, you have to be careful not to overdo it.  Description and detail shouldn’t overpower other elements of the story.

As far as action, young readers often have a shorter attention span than adult readers, so I think stories for young readers especially need to move at a good pace.  When writing for this age range, I think it does help to focus on the external (actions and events) over the internal (thoughts and emotions).  Don’t get me wrong–the internal *has* to be there, emotions and conflict have to be part of the story, but perhaps not at same level as you’d expect in an adult book.  Long internal monologues or scenes where characters reflect upon their feelings probably isn’t going to fly too well with a middle-grade audience.

kt:  How was writing Meanstalk different from Ivy Ever After? Was it any easier the second time around?

DL:   It did feel a little easier, actually.  I had already spent a good deal of time with these characters, so I didn’t have to get to know them the way I did when I was writing the first book.  We were already great friends!

kt:  I would love to ask what you are working on now, but I don’t want to spill the (magic) beans!

On Food:

kt:  There seem to be a fair number of pies, cakes, and giant gooseberry tarts in your stories. What was your inspiration for the food you describe?

DL:  The Ivy stories are fairy tales at their core, so they’re not meant to take place in any real-world, historical time period.  That being said, Ivy’s world felt very medieval to me, what with the castles and swords and suits of armor, so I researched medieval recipes and used a lot of what I found for inspiration.  And, of course, I think food in a fairy tale should have an appropriately fantastical and feast-like quality to it.

kt:  If you could try any of the food in your books, which would it be?

DL:  I’ve never tried a gooseberry tart–or a gooseberry anything–so I’d go with that.  I love experiencing new tastes!  Elderberry is a flavor mentioned in the book as well, and I had never tried anything elderberry until recently, when a friend of mine brought me a bottle of English elderberry cordial back from her vacation.  Delicious!

kt:  Are your food preferences similar to any of your characters’?

DL:   Well, I certainly don’t want to catch and eat wild goats like the dragons!!  The food served in the castle is probably more along the lines of my tastes.  I’m pretty adventurous when it comes to trying new foods (within reason), so I might even go for the roast pigeon that was served at the feast at the beginning of Ivy and the Meanstalk. (I had read that roast pigeon was often served in medieval times while researching foods of that period.)

kt:  This is a very important question. If you had to choose, which is your absolute favorite: Dark, milk, or white chocolate?

DL:  Milk chocolate.  Not as bitter as dark chocolate or as sweet as white.  Just right.

kt:  On a similar note: If you had to choose between savory and sweet, which would you prefer? In other words, if you had to choose between your favorite dinner, say lasagna, and your favorite dessert, say chocolate cake, and you could only have one, which would you pick?

DL:  Probably the dinner. My sweet tooth kind of comes and goes.

kt:  What is your comfort food?

DL:  French onion soup with toasted sourdough bread when the weather is cold; a big bowl of chilled, juicy, sweet ripe watermelon when the weather is hot.

kt:  If we could sneak a peek, what would we find in your refrigerator as we speak?

DL:  Lot and lots of microwavable dinners.  I appreciate good food, but chef I am not!

On The Little Things:

kt:  What were your favorite stories or authors while you were growing up?

DL:  The Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Secret Garden and The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry.

kt:  What kinds of things do you like to collect?

DL: Books!!!

kt:  What smells or tastes remind you of childhood?

DL:  My dad was in the military when I was growing up, so my family moved a lot and lived in a lot of different places.  We moved to the Philippines when I was a year old, so my earliest memories are of our time there.  I associate many tastes of that region with my childhood.  I remember getting my face and fingers all sticky with mango and guava, and sucking on fresh, raw sugar cane.

kt:  When you like to treat yourself, what do you do?

DL:  So many things–sleep in or take a nap in the middle of the day (I don’t get to do either very often), have a lazy day where I do nothing but read a good book, visit someplace beautiful where I can take a long walk in gorgeous scenery.  Shopping is always good, too, or treating myself to dinner at one of my favorite restaurants.

kt: Thank you so much for sharing with us Dawn! Where else can we find you (links, bookstores, etc.)?

DL:  I hope your readers will visit my website: www.dawnbooks.com.  Here you can read chapters from both Ivy books, watch the book trailer, and see all sorts of fun stuff, including some “behind the scenes” info about the books. You can also visit my author page at Amazon.com.

And for our final course, Dessert!:

Fortunately for us topsiders, this dessert fit for the fairy realm is almost as easy to make as waving a magic wand. This bit of domestic magic is performed entirely in a microwave. It properly serves two princesses or princes. If a dragon guest comes to call, it may do to conjure up at least twenty.

It’s particularly important with this recipe to always level your measurements!

Chocolate Fairy Cake:

2 Tablespoons semisweet chocolate chips
1 Tablespoon butter
1 Tablespoon milk
3 Tablespoons flour
2 teaspoons cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 egg
3 Tablespoons sugar
¼ teaspoon vanilla

1)    In an oversized teacup (or cereal bowl, but something with high sides is best), melt chocolate chips, butter, and milk in the microwave for 20 seconds. Don’t stir it quite yet, just let it cool while you work your magic.

2)    In a separate bowl swirl together flour, cocoa powder, and baking soda.

3)    In yet another bowl whisk egg first till uniformly yellow, then twirl in sugar & vanilla until golden brown.

4)    Now stir melted chocolate chip mixture until dark and glossy. Add egg mixture to the chocolate (use a spatula to get all the eggy goodness out of the bowl), and stir till smooth. Sprinkle in dry ingredients and blend with a fork till there are no lumps in sight.

5)    Microwave for 1 minute, possibly another 10-15 seconds, but stop once about half of the cake top is dry. Don’t worry if the edges are moist, it will continue to cook even once it’s removed from the microwave.

6)    Immediately loosen the edges with a knife and turn the cake upside down onto a plate. Eat while still warm and steamy as the Isle of Mist. To make multiple cakes, just wash out the baking bowl and repeat.

The cake is delicious on its own, but if you wish to feast in true fairy style, top the warm cake with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream.

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Filed under Cookbooks and other Book Reviews, Interviews, New Recipes, Techniques

Before You Make Instant Ramen Gnocchi Parisienne…

Despite my epic failure a few weeks ago attempting homemade ramen, aka alkaline noodles, I still wanted to try making instant ramen gnocchi found in the maiden voyage of “Lucky Peach.” (See my notes on homemade ramen and Arzak eggs here.) This recipe is the equivalent of a triple dog dare. I mean, how could it taste even remotely good? And yet, that’s exactly what is promised-indistinguishably good gnocchi parisienne.

Should I have attempted this feat after a proper night’s sleep? Absolutely. As a result, I spent all Sunday afternoon making mistake after mistake, probably four hours total. (Yes, I stopped to take pictures, but I did that between steps.)

Most of my mistakes had to do with bad equipment decisions, stemming in part from my late night Glee induced haze, and partly from poor directions. I will give you my notes so you can make this dish for yourself (in much more reasonable time, certainly not half a day). And yes, you should make it, at least once. The transformation from this:

to this

is stunning.

Here are my suggestions on how to save time, batter, and sanity while making this recipe:

1)   ‘Bring 2 cups of milk to a boil and then immediately remove from heat.’

This direction sounds quick and easy, and yet it took those little bubbles 45 minutes to skim the surface. I set the heat at medium to avoid scalding. Perhaps medium is too conservative? The recipe doesn’t specify heat level.

My suggestions: One: Before pouring the milk into a saucepan, microwave it in a shallow bowl for 2 minutes, stirring at least once halfway through. Liquids boil faster when starting at a higher temperature. Why I haven’t tried my own advice yet is beyond me. Two: don’t use a 2 qt saucepan. Use a 10” or 12” skillet. The large surface area encourages faster boiling.

2)   ‘Steep two packages of instant ramen (sans flavor packets) in the hot milk for a minute, noodles should still be firm.’

It made sense to just add the noodles to the saucepan for steepage, but the noodles don’t fit well in a 2 qt saucepan. I then tried a 2 qt casserole dish, which was wider, but only slightly better.

Revision: If you don’t use a skillet, pour hot milk into a long, shallow pan that can accommodate submerging both packages of noodles at the same time.

3)   ‘Strain noodles and put them into a blender with 1 cup reserved milk. Blend for half a minute.’

(Because it took so long to boil, much of the milk evaporated. I had to add an extra ¼ cup to make a full cup.) I have an excellent KitchenAid blender capable of crushing ice, but it completely choked on the dough, even after adding another 3 Tablespoons of milk!

Revision: Unless you have a Vitamix, do not use a blender. A food processor fitted with a standard blade works well.

I never thought I would see ramen noodles in my blender.

4)   ‘Add 4 egg yolks and blend till the dough has the consistency of “loose toothpaste.” You might need to add 1 Tablespoon of milk if the mixture is “dry.”

Is “loose toothpaste” a patisserie term I’m just not familiar with? I had no idea how to apply this description to dough. I added another tablespoon of milk to make the dough “looser.” (After the previous 3 added in a vain attempt to get my blender blades moving.)

Texture note-I thought the finished gnocchi were “creamy” in the middle, in fantastic contrast to the butter browned crispy sides. My husband, however, found it “smooth” and “custard-like,” and therefore didn’t like it because custard makes him gag. Although he did say it improved (firmed up) once it cooled. My 8 year old didn’t like it because it tasted “doughy.” My three year old liked it, but then she likes most things. So depending on your texture preferences, you may want to stick with, ‘no more than one extra tablespoon of milk.’

5)   ‘Transfer batter to a pastry bag with ½” wide tip or sturdy plastic bag with ½” corner snipped from the end. Refrigerate the dough for the time it takes to bring a large pot of water to boil.’

(Once I had a “dough,” I had to taste it. It was decidedly pasty, and only slightly better than plain cooked ramen noodles.) I spoon fed the dough into my pastry bag, thinking the tip was big enough, and of course it wasn’t. Instead of fat, happy gnocchi dropping into the gently simmering pot, I had fat little squirts of toothpaste. I transferred the batter to a ziploc with the corner cut out, and it worked perfectly.

Suggestion: Don’t mess with a pastry bag unless you are a piping expert.

6)   ‘Work in batches, piping dough directly into simmering water. As they rise to the surface, remove them to a greased plate. You can cool and store them as long as overnight before finishing.’

As I wrestled with the gnocci, I was also reducing stock and thought it would be cool to cook the gnocchi in that instead of water. I still like the idea, but the stock had reduced so much that I had to start a big pot of boiling water just to finish.

Revision: Start a big pot of boiling water when you are ready to cook. Use your biggest pot and a generous amount of water so you don’t have to wait for it to re-boil if you need to add more.

7)   ‘Before serving, brown gnocchi in 2 Tbsp butter. Finish with another Tbsp butter and fresh lemon juice. Garnish with grated Parmesan and fresh herbs.’

I debated on making a different sauce. I had visions of a roasted butternut squash based sauce, but I’m glad I didn’t. The simple flavors were perfect. I used a little fresh basil from my garden, and about a tablespoon of lemon juice. (The recipe tells you to finish with lemon juice, but doesn’t say how much.)

This meal would’ve been truly magical, if I hadn’t known (and done) all the work involved in the transformation. The good news is, I’m positive if I make it again, it won’t be such an ordeal. Hopefully these notes from the trenches help (and don’t scare you off.) I’m almost tempted to make it again just to see how much time, dishwashing, and dough I would save. Almost.

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Edible Boston

In Part I of my Boston series (The Rauch House), I began with thanks and a poem for my hosts. Part II was my tour of America’s Test Kitchen, the meat and potatoes. Now here we are, Part III, the last of my Boston series. Last only until my next trip out (hopefully much sooner than this last ten year gap). Here I offer you an edible tour of the city, finished with a new recipe chock full of New England.

Two years ago, my soon-to-be-8 year old made “Boston Cream Pie” with vanilla wafers, vanilla pudding, and chocolate frosting in her school’s summer program. Ever since, she’s been asking to go to Boston for the real thing. (She also asked to go to China when she found out that’s where her Disney princess toys were made.)

This trip marked many firsts for her. First: 1) plane ride, 2) subway ride, 3) trip to the East coast, and many more. Our first order of business when we landed at 5 p.m. EST? The Parker House hotel, home of the original Boston Cream Pie. We started with calamari as an appetizer (mostly to appear as if I don’t feed my child dessert for dinner). As picky as she is, she actually likes squid. Probably because it’s not green. Although I still haven’t talked her into trying crab or lobster, go figure.

Boston was love at first bite.

and second, and third…

The next day we went to the aquarium down by the harbor.

The highlight of the day was getting to touch stingrays and a shark!

Is it just me, or is there something wrong with eating seafood at an aquarium? I pondered this as I enjoyed my very first lobster roll (from a little hot dog stand called “Dogs N Claws” of all places) just outside of the aquarium. It was pretty spectacular, tons of meat, very fresh and simple.

That night for dinner we went to Tantric, an Indian restaurant in the theater district. They had some of the most unusual, amazing dishes. My photos don’t do it justice. The lighting was perfect for ambience, not so perfect for photography.

Freeze, a tiny ice cream shop way out on the green D line at the Waban stop, has the best ice cream I’ve ever had. They serve giant, old-fashioned scoops of ice cream. Picture perfect peppermint stick ice cream, heavenly blackberry frozen yogurt with dark chocolate chips…I’m telling you this because I couldn’t be bothered to take a picture before devouring it. Ice cream doesn’t make a good model anyway. You will just have to go and see for yourself.

The next day was the big tour of America’s Test Kitchen, which ended with a lovely lunch at Cutty’s. This deceptively simple sandwich shop is run by a former ATK test cook. Super fresh thinly cut Italian meats, paired with a carrot and olive salad that I must find a way to replicate at home, makes for quite the memorable sandwich.

Another fun discovery, at Cutty’s they were giving out free copies of “edibleBoston,” a magazine dedicated to “Celebrating the Abundance of Local Food.” What’s really neat is this magazine can be found in many other cities, including Sacramento! I will have to add “edibleSacramento” to my growing list of food-centric subscriptions.

As you may have noticed from previous rhapsodies, I have an affinity for farmer’s markets. I was thrilled to get to explore one near the Boston Common. I confess I didn’t have terribly high expectations since I’ve always heard produce outside California doesn’t compare. And while they didn’t have my favorite summer stone fruits, I was surprised with the variety and intensity of colors.

I tried my first gooseberries (sour!) and bought my first currants, mostly because I was so taken with their gorgeous color. I couldn’t wait, and began photographing them in my lap on the drive to our next stop.

Wilson Farm, a 127 year-old family farm in Lexington, MA, grows beautiful produce for sale in their little shop. They also supplement with a fair amount of produce from California, but I wouldn’t hold it against them. We bought some black mission figs, watermelon, and other fun things to play with for dinner later.

After swimming at Walden Pond, beautiful, beautiful Walden Pond,

Mikele and I got to play in the kitchen. Cooking with someone who truly enjoys the art of it all is such a pleasure. This phenomenal salad summed up our day, and our trip perfectly:

Summer Currants Salad
Serves: 4

Ingredients:
Baby mixed greens, a little arugula would be nice
3 black mission figs, sliced
¼ cup of extra sharp cheese, slivered
¼ cup fresh red currants
Small handful sliced baby heirloom tomatoes and snap peas (if you have them)

Dressing:
½ cup fresh currants
¼ cup mango nectar (or other tart & sweet juice)

2-3 Tablespoons mango nectar
2 Tablespoons orange Muscat vinegar (or rice vinegar if you don’t have a Trader Joe’s nearby to find this yummy stuff)
2 Tablespoons fresh lime juice
3 Tablespoons Kalamata olive oil (or your best extra virgin)
¼ teaspoon freshly cracked fennel seeds
Sea salt to taste
Black sesame seeds (optional)

Directions:

1)   Simmer ½ cup fresh currants and ¼ cup mango nectar on medium low until the currants start to break down, no more than 5 minutes if you start with a hot pan.
2)   Place a bowl under a fine mesh strainer (or tea ball if your kitchen is in chaos). Pour warmed currants and juice into the strainer. Mash the pulp around to extract as much of the juice as you can. Fingers work well for this.
3)   Add the rest of the dressing ingredients to the strained juices, saving the olive oil for last. Note-it’s much easier to crack fennel seeds if you drizzle a little water over them. This keeps them from hopping around while your knife does its job.
4)   Slowly whisk in olive oil until dressing resembles a gorgeous liquid watermelon. Season the dressing to taste. If it tastes dull, add a little lime juice. If the flavor is not quite there, add a little salt.
5)   Arrange the greens in a nice bowl with sliced figs, cheese, fresh currants, and any other random veggies you feel like adding.
6)   Dress the greens just prior to eating, preferably outside, before the mosquitoes begin to hum.

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Behind the Scenes at America’s Test Kitchen

Last Thursday, as a result of my entry in ATK’s Boston Blogger Cookie Challenge, (See my post here, I was a finalist!) I was given the amazing opportunity to take a private tour of America’s Test Kitchen along with a few other very lucky bloggers. I’ve been a big fan of the Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen series since around 2001. My very sweet Sicilian mother-in-law (who has always appreciated how much I love to cook, but more importantly, eat-mangia!) bought me my first subscription to the “Cook’s Illustrated” magazine.

My only complaint with the Cook’s series is they are a little too caught up with the method. The warmth and art of cooking is often lost in their recipes. On the other hand, the intense focus on the method is what makes this line so accessible. They lift the veil, you get to see the wizard at work, and I’m a much better cook because of it.

I don’t know if they’d gotten wind of this complaint, or if they are just very clever, but ATK has just launched a new website that lifts the veil even further. If you’re the type that likes all the special features on DVDs, then “America’s Test Kitchen Feed” will whet your appetite. The best part of this website is the methodical test cooks get to let their hair down. Recipes like homemade bacon jam are proof positive! Create a login and password, and it’s totally free. I need to have a gathering as an excuse to make bacon jam to avoid the problem of wanting to eat it all at once: http://www.americastestkitchenfeed.com/recipes/homemade-bacon-jam/

The test kitchen resides in a 2,500 square foot converted camping equipment warehouse in Brookline, Massachusetts. It has been in the same location since the birth of “Cook’s Illustrated” in 1993. You can imagine how tight quarters are since two floors now house “Cook’s Illustrated,” PBS show “America’s Test Kitchen,” their newer magazine focused on regional American cooking, (everything from Hawaiian kalua pork to New England style clam chowder) “Cook’s Country” and “America’s Test Kitchen Radio,” not to mention their prolific website and cookbook publishing.

Apart from two weeks of filming the “Cook’s Country” TV series, absolutely everything is done in-house from filming, recording, and photography, to researching, developing, and testing food (and yes, if you were wondering, the staff is very well fed). Even their back alley gets its share of activity-all of their grilling recipes are tested back there (in parkas, mid-winter, since they work six months ahead of publication.)

The tour began with an unmarked, unassuming green door. I tried the buzzer, but nothing happened. Before I took another step, a friendly delivery driver asked where I was headed. “America’s Test Kitchen,” I said. (How many times do you get to say that?) I must have seemed safe, because he showed me the delivery entrance. Suddenly, there I was walking up the brick-lined stairs, which smelled surprisingly of stale cigarettes.

I then faced a second buzzer, but this one buzzed right back. I turned the knob, walked in, and there I was signing my name on the guest list! My fellow bloggers were standing nearby in an expectant circle. I joined them and seconds later Stephanie Yiu, the cheerful social media relations director, greeted us. She scored big points by remembering each of our blogs by name. And then, off we went!

The tour could easily have taken 5 minutes, but it was stretched and savored to about 45. Both floors are filled to max capacity. Tall racks of equipment line hallways and fill every nook and cranny. The open reception area begins and ends the circle of the kitchen.

A few steps to the right, and we were in the largest private collection of cookbooks in the country, over 4,000 cookbooks (drool)! What’s the point of all these recipe books made with real paper, you might ask? Surprisingly, not every recipe is on-line. (yet)

Cook’s extensive recipe development process begins with a shout-out, “5 recipe test!” A small stampede of test cooks (over 40 rigorously trained cooks are currently employed) head to the library and peruse until they get five like-minded recipes. The chosen five are then executed as written, followed by a critique of what went right, and what went wrong. And then, let the testing begin!

To the right of the library is their tiny photography studio, capable of capturing three highly edible (nothing faked here!) dishes at the same time, and a small pantry that holds every cutting board, picnic table surface, and place setting seen in their delectable photos.

just the cutting boards and picnic tables!

Straight ahead from the library is a small kitchen, with large, cheerful windows.

This is where much of the prep is done.

Mise en place – everything in its place

The sweet, earthy aroma of leek tarts wafting from the oven was a bit unfair. The tarts were destined to model in the studio before being devoured by the lucky staff.

To the left of the library is The Test Kitchen.

Lights, cameras, action! Sorry, just had to say it.

18 ovens are humming around the clock. Maintenance is no small task! Beef stew simmered away, this being July and all.

One of the most surprising things I learned on this tour was that, despite testing recipes umpteen times, commercial-sized equipment is not used (save for the walk-in refrigerator and freezer). Pots and pans, utensils and gadgets are all home cook-sized.

Now I see why their equipment reviews are so useful, particularly in this day and age of endless choices. As a working kitchen replicating the home environment, they have a vested interest in the quality of their equipment. To perform their reviews, they buy products off the shelf just like a consumer would. Rigorous tests are performed and graded on forms more complex than an SAT. They buy more of the test winners to use in their kitchen, which further demonstrate performance with real life wear and tear. (The best part is, it’s often not the most expensive model that wins the day. )

They had my pasta roller!

One of the many benefits of working at the Test Kitchen is the equipment lottery held each year. All staff members get equal chance at picking from a table brimming with leftover test kitchen gadgetry. (Sign me up for that!)

Two shoppers are employed full time just to do the grocery shopping. Over $500,000 a year is spent on groceries alone! This is partly because they shop like most consumers do rather than buying in bulk, and partly because they buy products available nationally, and are recommended in their extensive taste tests.

Upstairs is the editorial room where Chris Kimball leads very serious discussions about crepes and whether a home cook would take the time to make them. That is another thing I really appreciate about the test kitchen. They take the home cook very seriously. After taking a recipe to task and whipping it into shape, they send it out to real home cooks for further testing and review. The deciding factor is whether the home cook would make it again. If a recipe fails this test, it’s back to the drawing board. If it fails again, all that hard work goes down the drain. That’s how much we matter to them!

Chris Kimball's chair!

And with that, we walked downstairs into the reception area where we began.

that's me!

I love the feel of the Test Kitchen. It’s a great mix of traditional and modern. Stainless steel, up to the minute kitchen accoutrement, and large windows set off brick-lined walls and oak work tables that look like a freakishly long version of anyone’s dining room set. All in all, very homey.

Apparently Julia Collin-Davison walked through while we were on the tour, but I was oblivious (as usual). I was probably busy taking pictures of furniture.

In 1906, O. Henry published a collection of 25 short stories including one entitled, “The Green Door.” In this story, O. Henry uses the green door as a symbol for everyday adventures he is encouraging us to seek out. That is exactly how I would describe cooking, an everyday adventure. Thank you America’s Test Kitchen, for opening your door to me, and the wonderful world of cooking!

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Filed under Cookbooks and other Book Reviews, Culinary Travels