Monday, October 25, 2010

Have Your Cake and Eat it Too

I like cake, but am no fan of frosting.

When I'm at a wedding or birthday party, I happily eat around the icing like crusts on a PB&J. My mom used to make naked cupcakes for me when I was little, sparing my allotment from any icing contamination. Even ice cream cakes seem misnamed. In my mind, it's supposed to only be ice cream in the shape of a cake. Like the name advertises, right? We don't need no stinking icing on it. I think the issue is that icing's just too sugary for me. I know, the irony. . . . This is coming from a girl who drinks Coke, which has a shocking 39 grams of sugar — or almost 10 sugar cubes — in a can, but somehow it's disguised as a refreshing beverage. Icing on the other hand is just a big ole mouthful of whipped sugar that seems excessive and unnecessary. It probably won't shock you to hear that I was also not the person who would upend a can of ReddiWip and spray a mound into my mouth. Easy Cheese yes, but whipped cream no.

Since I'm talking about my food idiosyncrasies here, let me also tell you where I stand on crispy cookies. Far away from that jar. You see, I like my cookies chewy and bendy. I don't see the point in taking a bite of a cookie only to have it crumble to nothingness in front of your eyes and all over your lap. I religiously under-bake my homemade cookies in an effort to achieve the perfect point of chewiness, which is risky because it can often come out like raw dough. While I used to eat a lot of raw cookie dough (if you've ever been in a sorority, you know what I'm talking about), it's not really something to serve to guests. Although one time I did serve a truly inappropriate dessert to guests. I was in middle school and my friend Megan and I decided to make Rice Crispy treats for a barbecue. We were gabbing and stirring the marshmallows on the stove top with a rubber spatula. I lifted up the spatula after the contents of the pot looked good and melted — only to find that the spatula had melted INTO the melted marshmallows! This was obviously before the days of silicone cooking utensils! Like many thirteen year olds, we don't always make the best judgment calls. So Megan and I just kept making the treats, wondering what's the worst that could happen. Well no one died of poisoning, but the Rice Crispy treats had an undeniable plastic-y taste to them.

One of my favorite things about Halloween is pumpkin! Not pumpkins but canned pumpkin you use for pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, and other lovely pumpkin treats. I don't know why we don't bake with it year-round. I love the homey spices and the subtle sweetness — not like a mouthful of icing. My friend, Val, posted a photo on Facebook last week of a big, beautiful plate of pumpkin cookies she'd just made. In truth, I'd just returned from the gym, yet my first thought was, "Let's go to the store right now, buy all these ingredients, bake these, and then eat them for breakfast!" Sad but true. Yes, I loved that they were pumpkin, but I could also tell that these were not your average crispy cookie. Oh no, these were like mini domes of cake! With no icing to ruin them!

Well, I did manage to wait a few days to make these, and served them as dessert to a group of girlfriends who came over for dinner on Friday. They were just as good as I imagined, with a moist texture, hints of cinnamon and nutmeg, and studded with semi-sweet chocolate chips for the perfect foil.

They were truly the best frosting-free cakes disguised as cookies I've ever had. I could easily have thrown back two dozen of these, but I did the right thing by sending my friends home with the majority of these cake-cookies. I did say majority. I admit to keeping a small Ziploc bag of these delights. And I'm happy to report I ate the last one for breakfast this morning (as soon as I got back from the gym). Now I see why people bake with pumpkin only once a year. It's too tempting otherwise.

Pumpkin "Cake-Cookies"
Although I have several different recipes, which were very similar, I decided to go with this one posted at One Charming Party

1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cups shortening
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup canned pumpkin
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat over to 350 degrees. With a mixer, cream the sugar and shortening for 3-4 minutes. Mix in the egg, vanilla and pumpkin. In another bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder and cinnamon. Add flour mixture to the pumpkin mixture. Mix until just combined. With a spoon, stir in the chocolate chips. Drop spoonfuls onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper (or lightly greased) and bake for 10-15 minutes.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Little Miss Sunshine's Soup

When I was little, my parents always sang "You are my Sunshine" to me. That's what they called me, their Sunshine. They said it was because I brought so much brightness to their life. I think it was because I seemed to run off the sun, the battery to my Energizer Bunny. If it was sunny, I was sunny. Just like there are beach people and mountain people, I think there are rain people and sun people. I'm rooted fully in the sun camp. I can feel a physiological and psychological response when that Vitamin D comes into contact with my skin. If I was an animal, I'd definitely be that cat who's always napping happily in the sun.

It's probably a good thing I live in Santa Barbara, where we get less than 15 inches of rainfall and more than 300 days of sun each year. Because when it does rain, I become a walking zombie. It feels like my hands are in vats of quicksand as I type on my laptop. My eyes feel like they never really open for the day. I find myself drinking an inordinate amount of Coke even though it seems to have no affect. And I'm really not that pleasant to be around.

Last Saturday it started to rain. And it's rained and rained and rained ever since. We even had lightening and thunder a few days, which is almost unheard of around here. The poor animals were ill-prepared. But I think we put a pretty good dent in that 15 inches of rain in just the past 5 days.

While normally I'd be all sleepy and pouty about it, this time I was actually happy to see the rain. It's ridiculous but I've had this lentil and chorizo soup recipe I've been dying to make. I've been traveling a lot lately, and there is something so comforting and restorative about a pot of soup simmering on the stove as you curl up on the sofa and read a book in front of a fire. And it is Fall, people. Halloween is right around the corner so it seems like a little cool, rainy weather is called for to help get us in the mood.

On an aside, I can't think of Halloween without recalling the mishap with the angel costume my mom made me when I was in kindergarden.

It was a beautiful white satin gown, and I had a sparkly halo made from silver Christmas tinsel wrapped around a bent coat hanger and cardboard wings covered in aluminum foil. We were living in Ft. Leavenworth, KS at the time, and the weather always took a precarious dip just as Halloween arrived. My mom wouldn't let me go trick-or-treating in my costume unless I wore a sweatsuit underneath. Of course when you're a kid you have no temperature gauge and I told her I'd be fine. Being the good mom she is, she refused. The real issue was not that I had to wear an extra layer for warmth. Oh no. It was that I didn't have a plain white sweatshirt. The closest thing I had was one with Mickey Mouse plastered on the front. When I put my costume on over it, low and behold, you could see Mickey through my ethereal gown! That just would not do! Who's ever seen an angel sporting Mickey Mouse on their ensemble?! I threw a hissy fit and refused to go trick-or-treating. Well, that lasted about 10 minutes once I realized I'd miss out on the one day a year where you're encouraged to go up to strangers and ask for candy, even if it meant looking like a moron angel.

So back to the soup I happily made in the rain . . . . This recipe called for lentils, butternut squash, fennel and tomatoes, which sounded delicious and quite healthy. But I was looking for some good comfort, so the addition of chorizo was more than welcomed.

I love chorizo with its overtones of sweet and smokey paprika awakening my taste-buds. I enjoy just eating it solo slice after slice, but it's also amazing to cook with, adding incredible depth and that certain "what exactly is that I'm tasting that's blowing my mind?" Uh, it's chorizo. If bacon is to the South, chorizo is to Spain. It's got just as many uses and, just like bacon, everything tastes better with it.

This recipe calls for fresh tomatoes, blanched, seeded and then diced. If you still happen to have a few lovely lingering tomatoes at the market as we do, follow this easy trick. Cut an "X" in the bottom of each tomato and plop into boiling water for 1 to 3 minutes. The cut allows the boiling water to loosen the skin so it peels off in a snap. The same technique works for peaches.

But if it's past season, you could certainly use canned whole tomatoes and then seed and dice them. I also just wanted to say that sometimes garnishes seem totally unnecessary and I shrug them off. But I must implore you to go the extra step and add the paprika dusted creme fraiche. The creaminess finishes the soup off and adds a lustrous layer to it that your tongue will love you for.

The rain did pause, at least momentarily, around sunset today, and I took a walk along the beach. For some reason I haven't spent much time there this year. But boy did it feel good to inhale that salt-water air and feel the soft sand beneath my feet. And also made me kick myself for not taking more walks on the beach at sunset. It is glorious.

With the dampness still clinging in the air and the temperatures dropping as I walked back to my car, I looked forward to going home and heating up another bowl of this comforting soup. But as I head to bed tonight I'll be praying for sunshine.

Lentil Soup with Chorizo and Paprika Cream

2 cups dry lentils
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
4 tomatoes, blanched, skinned, seeded and then diced
1 cup peeled and diced butternut squash
2 bay leaves
3 celery stalks, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 red onion, diced
1 leek, white part only, chopped finely
4 thyme twigs, chopped finely
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
4 cups chicken stock
4 cups cold water
2 Tbsp double concentrate tomato paste
4 oz Spanish chorizo
Creme Fraiche
Dash of ground paprika

In a large pot, heat two Tbsp olive oil over medium heat. When warm, add the onion, leek, celery, chorizo and thyme and sweat for 4 minutes, stirring but not browning. Add the garlic and continue to cook for 1 minute. Add the tomato paste and tomatoes and cook, stirring, for two minutes.
Add lentils, carrot, butternut squash, parsley, bay leaves, water and stock. Bring to a simmer and season with salt and pepper. Cover and simmer for 20-30 minutes or until the vegetables are soft. Salt and pepper to taste. I like my soups more pureed than brothy so I took maybe 4-6 cups of the broth and veggies out (trying to avoid the chorizo) and blended it in a blender to puree.
Add a Tbsp creme fraiche with a dash of paprika (or mix together before adding) on top of each serving of soup. Serve immediately. Yields: 6-8 people.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Girl Scout Cookies and Wine

A wise woman once said, "God never slams a door in your face without opening a box of Girl Scout cookies." After admitting I'd been in a funk for most of September, these words couldn't ring more true. The problem is there are no Girl Scout cookies to be found right now. While Thin Mints are my absolute fave, I felt like I needed something a little more indulgent. That could only mean one thing: I was in desperate need of some Samoas. I think these may be called Caramel DeLites now, but they're still the same vanilla cookies dipped in caramel, rolled in coconut and striped with chocolate. I recall having a friend sleep over once in middle school where we each devoured a box of these beauties in about an hour. We may have ended up doubled over in pain afterwards, but all I remember is the richness and delight of these square cookies with a hole punched out of the center — and wondering why they didn't give us the holes to eat too because it was an utter shame for those to go to waste.

Since I consider myself a resourceful person, I turned to the internet to see if I could find a recipe for Samoas. I found an intriguing one for Samoa blondies that seemed quick and easy. [*Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner!*] The reviews were glowing too so this seemed like the perfect solution. The recipe included the core ingredients (brown sugar, chocolate, coconut. . . ), even though they were being presented in a more unconstructed manner. How bad could it be? Well, let me tell you. Awful. Inedible is actually the word I'd go with. As bleak as things seemed for me, I still couldn't force myself to get a whole one down. So into the trash these went. . . .

I then recalled a recent quote from another wise woman, which was, "From now on, let's just drink our dessert!" In that moment, this seemed like a much more appealing approach to soothing myself. As luck would have it, just then my friend invited me to join him for the Santa Barbara County Celebration of Harvest. While it may not be Girl Scout cookie season, it is harvest season in Wine Country and that's definitely something to celebrate! And by celebrate I mean the opportunity to sample 112 wineries on a stunning day in the Santa Ynez Valley. That trumps even a box of real Samoas!

We made the beautiful drive out to Rancho Sisquoc, the event host, which is a treat in of itself. Although the Santa Ynez Valley is just an hour away from Santa Barbara, you feel completely transported to another world when you cross the San Marcos Pass.

You enter a world of rolling, golden hills; row after row of grapes growing like wild hair out of the Earth; and cows making long, dark shadows on the hillside. When I think of the "Happy cows come from California" ad campaign, I'm pretty sure they are referring to these particular cows.

The day was gorgeous and the winery was the perfect backdrop for the event. Olive, oak and walnut trees line the rustic property with white tents popping up every few feet showcasing some of the county's best wines. Many people were exposed to the Santa Barbara Wine Country through the movie Sideways. It resulted in Sideways tours, memorabilia, menus and lots of inside jokes with the locals. [BTW, I heard this is happening in Bali now after the release of Eat, Pray, Love.] Thankfully the attention didn't go to our winemakers' heads. It's really just given them some long overdue recognition for indeed making some of the finest wines in the United States. The region's unique patchwork of microclimates has created a "perfect storm" for growing amazing grapes, ergo amazing wines. I love the winemakers for keeping it real and keeping it small. It's an honor to routinely taste a boutique wine with only 500 bottles produced. It's artistry in the highest sense.

Although I'm a staunch red lover, the 90 degree temperatures made me long for some light whites or ros├ęs, which are a little harder to come by in this area known for its Pinot Noirs and Syrahs. But when you're tasting the best, who can complain?!

Highlights from the day were: having Kurt Russell (actor and now new wine maker!) pour me a glass of wine, every single Ken Brown wine I tasted, a beautiful white Rhone varietal blend from Curtis, and watching a group of drunk twentysomethings from LA hit on all the cute wine pourers. Poor girls. Great entertainment though.

After a late afternoon drive through the country, the day ended with a stop at one of my favorite foodie outposts in Los Alamos: Flatbread Full of Life. This gem is open to the public only on the weekends when they convert their production bakery space into a restaurant and invite the neighbors and community to gather around the stone hearth and enjoy freshly prepared flatbreads.

The menu changes according to the fresh ingredients they pick up at farmers' markets and local artisan food producers. The result is some of the most simple yet sublime food you'll put in your mouth. While they also have an insane wine list, after a long day of wine tasting, nothing beats an ice cold beer!

So I'm healed. Well, maybe not all the way, but it's been a whole week since I searched for Girl Scout cookies on ebay (as I type this with a glass of wine in my hand). And I'm back in the saddle and looking forward to cooking more and sharing it with you. Happy Fall!