October 24, 2010

all's well that ends well spice cake

We talked bean soup last time. Today we talk about cake. It all started with this cake recipe, Faulknerian Family Spice Cake via Food52. Before I get into anything else, let me start by telling you this: this cake is dangerously good. The crumb is tender, finely textured and not at all dry and the spices are lovely without being overpowering. The cake is sweet, as is the caramel frosting, but the combination of sweet and delicately spiced is a good one in my book. And, although the frosting is optional, I think a thin layer really adds something; I even found myself missing frosting on the bites that didn't have any. And I invariably scrape sickly sweet or greasy frosting off restaurant/bakery cakes, so a pro-frosting recommendation is not something I take lightly. 

spice cake w caramel frosting

Funnily enough, however, this cake was almost never to be. I made it last week and I was excited until, after an hour and 15 minutes, it came out of the oven: a fragrant, golden, dense, bundt-cake shaped brick. I figured that I had overmixed the batter. Disappointment #1.

I let it cool, came back 30 minutes later and had a taste. I can now say that I have tasted failure and it is gross. When it dawned on me that I left out the sugar (and wasted 5 eggs, 2 sticks of butter and 3 cups of flour), I almost cried. I may have vowed never to bake again. Mark took my hand and solemnly said: Kim. It's ok. It's ok to throw it away. It's ok. And then we played an impromptu game of cake frisbee, while singing the song from Arrested Development: "Solid... solid as a rock!" It really made me feel better about the whole thing.

We made it again last night, in the spirit of righting wrongs. Also, after a long hike and a virtuous dinner, Mark wanted cake. You know how it is. I brought in the big guns this time (Mark really knows how to make a cake) and he made a few changes, namely using cake flour and changing around the steps. I almost succeeded in mucking it up again (I missed the instructions to add the shortening; oops) but we rallied and, in the end, the batter was beautiful: glossy, mousse-like, light.

This post would be 3 more paragraphs long if I went into more detail about my other issues (my frosting seized; the oven mysteriously shut off mid-cycle -- are you freaking kidding me?) but all you need to know is that the errors were mine, and the cake is totally worth making.  My family is a pie-only Thanksgiving family but if your family prefers cake, I think this spice cake would be a crowd pleasing addition to your table. Or, like us, you can nibble on thin slices with a cup of black coffee and offer a healthy portion to your neighbors and friends.

a teeny sliver for me

Faulknerian family spice cake with caramel frosting (hereafter referred to as "all's well that ends well cake")
adapted from ENunn at Food52
Serves 12-15

As I mentioned, Mark made a few small changes. He used Swan's Down bleached cake flour and changed the order of the steps, based on techniques adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum's Cake Bible. ENunn's recipe is sound (and awesome!), though; our recipe is just a variation in technique. We also added weight measurements.

I've also substituted coconut oil for the shortening, and it worked quite well; the texture was light and moist, without having any scent or taste of coconut. If you aren't familiar with coconut oil, it is a plant-based saturated fat. I don't go so far as to substitute it for butter, but I'm happy with the result of substituting it for vegetable shortening. If you bake with coconut oil, the general rule is to to add 75% of what the recipe originally calls for.  

Last note: you can easily halve this cake and bake in round 9 inch cake pan. Mine took slightly less time, closer to an hour, but you'll need to check and test occasionally.
For the cake:
1/2 pound butter, softened
1/2 cup leaf lard or shortening (95.5 grams); or, if using coconut oil, 72 grams (1/4 cup plus 2 TB)
5 eggs, at room temperature
1 cup plus 2 TB whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups granulated sugar (600 grams)
3 cups cake flour using the dip and sweep method (435 grams)
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground mace (don't leave this out)
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, preferably grated with a rasp grater from a whole nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves 
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder

For the frosting:
1/2 cup butter
1 cup packed brown sugar (217 grams)
1/3 cup cream
2 cups confectioners sugar (230 grams)
1 teaspoon vanilla

1. In a large mixing bowl, sift together all the dry ingredients: sugar, cake flour, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, cloves, sea salt, baking powder. (She calls for sifting it twice; we did it only once.) Set aside. 

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or using a large mixing bowl and an electric mixer), cream the butter and the lard well. Add 1 egg and 3/4 cup of the milk, reserving the remaining milk and egg for later. Mix on low speed until the mixture is mostly emulsified/uniform, 1 minute or so. (It may not look completely uniform but get it as close as you can.) Add the dry ingredients in 3 batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition to moisten the dry ingredients. Then, raise the stand mixer speed to medium (or high, if you are using a hand mixer) and beat for 1 1/2 minutes to aerate the mixture.  Scrape down the sides. Gradually add the remaining milk (1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons milk), 1 teaspoon vanilla and 4 eggs in 3 batches, scraping down the sides and beating for 20 seconds after each addition

3. Bake in a greased and floured tube/bundt pan (at least 9.5 inches in diameter) at 325 for 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack. When cool, invert cake onto a platter and use a spreader to smooth a thin layer of frosting over the top and sides.

For the frosting:
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and stir in 1 cup packed brown sugar and 1/3 cup cream. Remove from heat and stir until the mixture is smooth. Return to heat and bring to boil for 1 minute. Let the mixture cool and beat in the confectioners sugar and the vanilla. The frosting should be smooth and spreadable.

**Note: Our frosting seized and looked like caramel hummus. Eek. (I think I cooked it too long. The recipe wasn't totally clear about whether to count the minute from the time bubbles first begin to appear or once the mixture is fully boiling, which makes a difference.) Should you experience any seizing, our solution was to dump all the frosting into the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the whip attachment, we whipped it and dribbled in a little whipping cream, a tablespoon at a time, until it became smooth and spreadable. I spread a thin layer of frosting all over the cake and had several tablespoons of leftover frosting, which you could serve on the side.

a cross-section shot

October 22, 2010

Rancho Gordo yellow eye bean soup

After 5 days of traveling, I wanted -- no, needed -- soup. While we were in New York, we did things like eat apple cider doughnuts for breakfast (only because it was too late to run over to Petrossian for my favorite croissant) so I came home craving super wholesome food. Bonus: eating steel cut oats for breakfast makes me feel way better about avoiding piles of laundry and unopened mail.

After oatmeal, the first thing I made was a bean soup recipe from Ubuntu, a vegetarian restaurant/yoga studio in Napa, CA. My normal bean soup strategy is to simmer beans with aromatics and pork of some type (pancetta, ham bone, etc.) but I opted against meat this time; I had Rancho Gordo beans in the pantry and I wanted a soup that would let the beans and their broth shine. 

rancho gordo beans

For me, soup making is a leisurely business, not to be rushed. This soup takes a little time but it's all fairly straightforward: you soak the beans for a few hours and then simmer them in water, which is fortified with carrot, onion, dried chile, parsley stems, garlic and lemon zest. Meanwhile, in a separate pot, you cook chopped carrots, leeks, onions, garlic, minced rosemary, more dried chile and some whole canned tomatoes that you crush with your hands. It's a little fussy, I know, using two pots to make soup, but you get better flavor and tender, not mushy, vegetables. A little more simmering, a sprinkling of parsley, a drizzle of olive oil -- done.


I must admit I didn't have great expectations for the soup. I mean, rosemary, olive oil, garlic, lemon zest, tomatoes? Nothing new to see here; snooze. But. Mark picked up his glass of wine and made a solemn toast to "the best bean soup ever" -- high praise coming from someone who isn't the world's biggest fan of beans. Those people at Ubuntu, though, they know what they're doing. The yellow eye beans are creamy, and the broth is incredibly flavorful: you get earthiness from the beans, heat from the chile, tang from the lemon zest and sweetness from the vegetables. I'm a sucker for tasty broth and this stuff is bright tasting and restorative, just the kind of soup I'd like to have on the stove when friends or family come over on a chilly night. Elbows on the table, soup spoons in hand, rustic bread for dipping. I can't wait to make this again.


Rustic Rancho Gordo Yellow Eye Bean Soup
adapted from the San Francisco Gate and the NYTimes
6-8 servings, at least

Try to seek out good dried heirloom beans for this recipe. Rancho Gordo beans are a little more expensive than supermarket beans ($6/lb at Bi Rite Market in SF) but the texture and flavor of the pot liquor is worth it. Plus, they cook quickly, this recipe makes a lot AND I suspect it will freeze well.

For the beans:
1 lb Rancho Gordo or other yellow eye beans, soaked 4 to 6 hours (this was between 2 1/2 to 3 cups of beans)
1 large carrot, peeled
2 ribs celery
1 small onion, quartered
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
Stems from 1 bunch Italian parsley, tied with kitchen twine
1 dried red chile de arbol
lemon zest, about 1/4 of the surface area of a regular sized organic/nonwaxed lemon
1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons kosher salt
a few turns of a pepper grinder, to taste

For the soup: 
1/4 cup olive oil
2 large carrots, peeled and diced, about 1/2 inch
2 large ribs celery, cut in half and diced, about 1/2 inch
1 thick leek or 2 thin leeks, well cleaned, cut into quarters and sliced (white and light green parts only) 
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon red chili flakes, more or less, depending on your tolerance for heat
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
1 cup canned whole tomatoes, drained and squeezed/chopped into small-ish chunks
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling

For the beans:
1. Drain the beans and add them to a large pot (my soup pot is 5.5 quarts). Add 3 quarts cold water, along with the carrot, celery, onion, garlic, lemon zest and parsley stems. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to a slow simmer.
2. Cook until the beans are soft and creamy, but not falling apart. Start checking after 25 minutes. Mine took about 30 minutes, as they were very fresh but older beans can take several hours.
3. Turn off the heat and discard the parsley stems and vegetables. Add 1 1/2 tablespoons salt and a few turns of a pepper grinder. Allow the beans to sit for at least 10 minutes. The beans will absorb salt as they sit so, after 10 minutes, taste a bean to make sure they are salty enough. You may wish to add more salt -- I had to add another half tablespoon of salt at this point. The broth should taste earthy with a little zip from the lemon zest.

For the soup:
4. While the beans are cooling in their liquid, add the olive oil into a separate large pot set over medium heat. Add the carrots, celery, leeks, garlic, dried chile and rosemary. Cook until the vegetables are translucent and just cooked through. Add the tomatoes and cook until slightly caramelized.
5. Add the beans and their cooking liquid, bring to a boil and simmer until the vegetables are tender, 5 to 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper and, if desired, a little more red chile and lemon zest. (I didn't find it needed any more seasoning, actually.) Just before serving, add the chopped parsley and a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

October 19, 2010

NYC notes: eating and fun

view from Lynh's apartment, NYC
[view from my sister's apartment]

Last week, Mark and I flew to New York for 5 days of fun in the city. (Well, for me. Mark had to work  for 2 of those days.) We got to see my sister and her boyfriend and several friends, including our friend Jyoti who took the bus up from Boston to spend the weekend with us, our friends Robin and Ilan and my friend Frieda from Paris.

Activities included lots of walking, park and museum visiting, lollygagging, gallivanting, aimless wandering, a little shopping (Lynh and I I tried on jeans at Madewell and Uniqlo) and a little celebrity sighting (Elisabeth Moss, Mo Rocca and, least excitingly, one of the Real Housewives of NY).

And one of my favorite parts of our trip was Friday night, when we were lucky enough to be invited to Shabbat dinner at the home of our friends Robin and Ilan. They cooked us a most delicious dinner and we drank wine and Scotch and basically laughed nonstop for 5 hours. It was so, so fun. 

Washington Mews, NYC

Washington Square Park, NYC

Central Park, NYC

Central Park, NYC

East Village, NYC

East Village, NYC

East Village, NYC  
Oh yes, and we did some eating:

Totto Ramen (366 West 52nd Street)

Totto ramen, NYC

I was on my own Thursday, so I made my way to this teeny ramen shop for a solo lunch. If I'm eating alone, I like to eat at the bar so I can watch the cooks (in this case, I watched them stir enormous pots of broth and use a blow torch to singe slices of pork). I had the chicken paitan ramen and it was excellent: springy noodles, minced onion, fatty char siu pork, a little nori and lots of green onion.

Totto ramen, NYC

I am picky when it comes to broth but their chicken-based broth won me over, as it was verrry rich but had the sweetness that a good chicken broth should have. A little bird (aka the reporter waiting next to me) told me the Times is about to write it up. I was the first to be seated at lunch and, by the time I left 30 minutes later, there were at least 25 people waiting outside for a spot. Update: The NYT article is up! (Excuse the bad phone picture.)

Massawa (1239 Amsterdam Ave)

My friend Frieda is in film school in NY and she suggested we meet at this Ethiopian restaurant near Columbia, where we shared a vegetarian dinner (extra lentils), lots of injera and some spiced tea. I wished the food was a little spicier (and I maybe wished we had ordered some meat) but the restaurant was full and fun and the flavors were complex.


Shang Weng, NYC

Lynh took me to Sheng Wang (27 Eldridge Street), a tiny dumpling and noodle shop in Chinatown, where we ate intricately folded pork and scallion dumplings and hand pulled noodles in broth. The noodles and dumplings were fantastic, but the broth left something to be desired. After dumplings, we checked out a few shops and bakeries, settling on a fluffy chiffon cake. We came back later and, from a street cart on Grand Street (no name), I bought steamed rice noodles with fish balls, sesame sauce, oyster sauce and sriracha for the princely sum of $2.50. Awesome.

papabubble (380 Broome St)

Lynh and I did our best to sample every flavor of hard candy they make in this artisanal candy shop. The sweets are pricey, but they had many fun flavors (watermelon chili!) and sleek packaging. I couldn't help picking up a small package for my friend Jyoti's birthday.

Xi'an Famous Foods (81 St. Mark's Place)

Xi'an food in Tomkins Square Park, NYC

We took a walk through East Village where we picked up Western Chinese food: cold liang pi noodles, a lamb and cumin "burger" and a couple of soups with hand pulled noodles. We took our food to Tompkins Square Park and feasted at one of the chess tables. This food was so very, very good. My liang pi noodles had starchy noodles and sponge-y gluten, and the whole mess of noodles, cucumbers and bean sprouts was slicked with salty chile oil. The flavors of the lamb burger made us think of a fusion between Chinese and Middle Eastern flavors, and the texture of the hand pulled noodles reminded Lynh a little bit of those you sometimes find in Eastern Europe. Memorable and utterly delicious.

Momofuku Milk Bar (207 2nd Ave)

Momofuku Milk Bar, NYC

My friend Jyoti and I were set on stopping at Milk Bar to try out the soft serve, the cookies and possibly the pork buns. After our Xi'an lunch, we nixed the pork buns and went for sweets. I sampled the black sesame soft serve and the cereal milk soft serve -- and, well, I may be going against the crowd here but I hated them both. I love sesame stuffed dim sum but I actually wanted to rinse out my mouth after sampling the black sesame soft serve. Of the cookies I tried, I thought the salty chocolate chip cookie was fairly tasty (maybe because it reminded me a bit of Dorie Greenspan's World Peace Cookies!) -- but I didn't love the compost cookie (chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, pretzels, potato chips). It was greasy, super rich and not so enjoyable to eat. 

Grand Sichuan (229 9th Ave)

Mark and I have been craving Sichuan ever since we left Houston, and Grand Sichuan was a decent find. Their cucumber sesame salad is refreshing and the Chongqing chicken and stir fried pea shoots are especially tasty. I also ordered the fresh killed Gui Zhou chicken, which the table liked, but it was maybe sweeter than it should have been.

Otto (1 Fifth Ave)

Otto is one of Lynh's favorite restaurants in the city and I was excited to go. The good: The food, the price, the conversation. The bad: though the restaurant wasn't busy, the service was distracted. We made the most of it, though (and maybe I should have expected as much since this is a pretty casual place). We ordered an assortment of verdure (lentil salad, roasted beets and spicy broccoli rabe) and a fennel, apple and walnut salad to share:

Otto, NYC

Otto, NYC

All were excellent, but the salad was my favorite.  On to the pastas:

Bucatini alla Gricia:

Otto, NYC

Penne alla Norma:

Otto, NYC

Rigatoni, fennel sausage, escarole:

Otto, NYC

Spaghetti carbonara:

Otto, NYC

I am very partial to fennel sausage so of course the rigatoni was my favorite. Everything was delicious, though.

For dessert, we ordered 3 to share: the seasonal fig dessert (figs, fig gelato, concord grape gelato, caramel crema), the black and white dessert (milk chocolate chip gelato, hazelnut croccante, crème fraiche gelato, chocolate sauce, caramel crema) and an assortment including vanilla, dark chocolate and hazelnut stracciatella.

Otto, NYC

For me, the most special flavors were the Concord grape (it reminded me of grape bubblicious bubble gum in the best possible way) and the hazelnut stracciatella.

Murray's Cheese
Shop (254 Bleecker Street)

Murray's Cheese Shop, NYC

My sister's boyfriend likes to say that Lynh spends half of her salary on cheese. She took us to her favorite cheese shop, Murray's, to show us why and how. I totally understand! We sampled olive oil, cheeses and charcuterie and made out like bandits -- I left with two kinds of raw sheep's milk cheese, a soft Tomme Crayeuse and a salami tartufo. 

Bouchon Bakery (Ten Columbus Circle, third floor)

We made a quick pre-flight stop here to pick up a demi baguette and salted butter to accompany my bounty from Murray's. I always try to pack tasty travel food so I don't have to rely on the miserable choices in the airport terminals and I can't imagine better fare for a picnic at 30,000 feet, can you?

picnic at 30,000 feet

Cafe Mingala (1393 2nd Ave)

Our last dinner was a low key affair at Cafe Mingala on the Upper East Side. I'd never had Burmese food, so I was excited to try dishes like tea leaf salad. The service was nice and the food was not bad, but not great either. I've been planning to check out the Burmese options in SF, so this was a good intro to Burmese cuisine at least.

We ended the evening with a quick stop at the Hudson Hotel and then back to Lynh and Steve's, where Lynh mixed us cocktails with gin and celery bitters and we watched the season finale of Mad Men. Perfect. I always get sad to leave my sister (who, along with her bf Steve, is always an amazing host). Until next time, New York. 

October 10, 2010

a good old-fashioned road trip -- travel log

When Mark and I were deciding what trip we should take after he finished his Ph.D., we threw around a lot of ideas: Cambodia and Thailand, Eastern Europe, Israel and southern India were the front runners. But, in the end, we decided we want to spend at least a month in all those places and 2 weeks (all we had) wouldn't do them any justice. Those are on the back burner for now, trips for another day.

Instead, Mark planned a fantastic road/hiking trip that spanned through Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California. Though Mark and I get really excited about international travel, this country also has some amazing scenery (all the foreign tourists we encountered seem to agree!) and the best way to discover it is on a road trip. Our entire trip was also cheaper than a single ticket to Cambodia.

The trip through West Texas was surprisingly neat, with fields of windmills and lots of tumbleweeds and a Texas-style thunderstorm (love these). We stopped for the night in Amarillo, where we bypassed the 72 ounce steak at the Big Texan and sought out our last Texas dinner, which ended up being extra moist brisket and a few Shiner 101's. The next morning we got up early to photograph Cadillac Ranch at sunrise. Who knew an empty field full of old, graffiti'd Cadillacs off the highway would be pretty, in its own way?

From Amarillo, we drove to Santa Fe, where we ate great New Mexican food: green and red chile, carne adovado, excellent chile rellenos and sopapillas drizzled with honey. Santa Fe is worth a trip just for the food, but imagine how Disney would interpret the Southwest and you have downtown Santa Fe. We opted to take a stroll down Canyon Road, drive through the mountains and seek out the best chile we could find. Mark preferred the green, but I couldn't decide and invariably asked for both, Christmas-style. Amazing food and views to be seen in New Mexico.

From Santa Fe, we drove through the colorful state of Colorado on to Moab, Utah. You guys, Utah is amazing. Amazing. AMAZING! I had no idea, so I was blown away. Everywhere you look is a photographic opportunity. Even if we hadn't hit any national parks, I would have been happy just with the beautiful scenery on the drives. We bought an annual parks pass, which I think is $80 or so and grants your car access to any national park for an entire year and it has already paid for itself. First stop: Arches. To break in my hiking boots and acclimate to the altitude, we did a series of short hikes (2-4 miles) here.  My favorite hike was near Landscape Arch. At that time of day (mid-morning), the sky was insanely blue.

The Windows at sunrise was another beautiful sight. As the sun's rays hit the arch, the rock literally glows.

After several days in Moab, we drove on towards Bryce Canyon, with a detour through Capitol Reef park and the Burr Trail, an old cattle trail.

The scenic drive to Bryce Canyon was pretty spectacular. I think this was the best driving day. We reached Bryce Canyon that evening, so we just did a short hike down into the canyon to take some  pictures of the moon rising over Bryce. 


Bryce was a little difficult to photograph, and I don't think our photos even come close to capturing how gorgeous it is and how colorful the hoodoos (rock formations) are. After a quick dinner, we drove back into the park to star gaze. I've never seen so many stars (and planets!) in my life. Amazing.

The next morning, we did a super hike down into the Canyon just after sunrise. This was the most pleasant hike -- it stays cool in the canyon since Bryce is at such high altitude.

From Bryce, we drove to Zion. Mark hiked in Zion several years ago with his brother, and he promised me it would be incredible. Of course, the first day sucked. It was uncomfortably hot (100+ degrees) and we picked a boring/crowded hike. I also started to doubt whether I could physically hike to the top of Angels landing -- a park ranger psyched me out with tales of how narrow and terrifying the ridges are, how brutal the switchbacks are, how hot it got, etc.  I told Mark about my fears but, ultimately, I decided it would be lame not to try. To make it easier for me, Mark said he would carry all the water, the camera and tripod, our first aid kit, etc. (Mark said he used to carry 80 pounds of backpacking gear back in his Seattle mountaineering days so "this is no big deal" but believe me... that backpack was heavy.)

We got up at 4:45 the next morning to take the bus into the canyon and started our hike while the stars were still out. We saw glowing animal eyes in the brush and a huge buck startled us on the trail. In the end, the trail to Scout's Lookout, with all the elevation gain and the 21 switchbacks, was grueling but doable -- my expectations were way, way worse than the actual hike. Anyway, how could I have been intimidated by something called Walter's Wiggles?

Once you get to the Lookout point, you can choose to continue to the top of Angels Landing or stop.


To get to the top of Angels Landing, you have to navigate a series of narrow, steep ridges with somewhat scary drop offs. Luckily, neither of us are afraid of heights but I can totally understand why the height-phobic would turn around here (on the way down, we saw more than a few people stop and turn around).

When we got to the top, we were the only ones up there and the sun was just beginning to rise over the mountains on the opposite side of the canyon -- and I finally saw for myself why people like to climb mountains. It was so awesome and peaceful, truly the best way I have ever spent a morning.


After 45 minutes (spent taking pictures and protecting my Kind bar from an enthusiastic chipmunk), we were joined by two guys and, as my best friend Julia later noted, nothing ruins a good moment like other people. So we made our way back down. We did a few other hikes at Zion, but Angels Landing was the most rewarding by far.

You might have noticed I haven't said anything about food in Utah, so atypical for me. About that -- the coffee and food options were uniformly miserable (though we had some decent beer). But we came to Utah to hike, relax and see something new. Not to eat. However, we did our best to make up for it with an incredible lunch at Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas. If you go at lunchtime, avoid the buffet and order from the menu. We ordered so much food that the waitress laughed at us, but the food was super and authentic -- we ate every bite. I'm still thinking about the khao soi (Northern Thai coconut soup with chicken, pickled vegetables and springy egg noodles), the crispy panang duck and the mango sticky rice. Say what you will about Vegas but you can eat extremely well there.

I already posted some pictures from Death Valley and Yosemite and you can see all of our vacation pictures here, if you are so inclined.