Christmas Past

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Egad.   How is it possible that I have forgotten to document the culinary masterpiece that was Christmas 2008?   Compared to Xmas ’09, it could be described as ethereal, so how on earth could I have not written about it here on this fair-weather blog?  Flipping back through the pages of my menu book, I found the record for Christmas Eve 2008 (indeed, I record the things we have eaten so that when the world ends and future generations are sifting through the tattered remains of society, they can read about what the mortals once ate and wonder, “what is agnolotti”?)


Le Menu de Noël, 2008

Cornets of Salmon Tartare with Sweet Red Onion Crème Fraîche


Chestnut Agnolotti with Fontina and Celery Root-White Truffle Purée

Dry-aged St. Helena Standing Prime Rib Roast


Roasted Cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts and Jerusalem Artichokes

Cheeses with Quince Paste and Walnuts

A Veil of Vanilla

Marvelous, this meal.  I recall that we dragged my small desk to the living room window to act as an intimate dining table with a view of the city.  I remember the trouble we went through trying to make those damn cornets without the proper (and expensive) cornet-making tools;  and I remember being pretty pleased with myself at having made and rolled out the pasta for the agnolotti by hand, without the aid of a pasta maker, thank you very much!    But what is most dominant in my memory of this once-per-year feast is the dessert.


From Elizabeth Faulker’s book, A Veil of Vanilla is the name she applied to this multi-layered, somewhat deconstructed version of individual trifle-esque desserts.  In two glasses, we layered dark, sweet tarte tatin apples and Point Reyes blue cheese crumble with pecan caramel sauce, Napa Wildflower Honey semifreddo, and small cubes of pomegranate gelée.  Sprinkled on top were little glowing gems of fresh pomegranate seeds.  Crazy good.    Like the kind of good that warrants exclamations of pleasure between bites. With each recipe of hers that I try, I am tempted to label each one as The Best Dessert I Have Ever Had.  Maybe I should avoid the absolute declarations of “best” or “worst” and just stick with the Continuum of Like, where “best” is something that can never physically be obtained/observed, like absolute zero.  Relative that that spectrum, this dessert can certainly be classed amongst the Super-Like.

This book is like a secret weapon of desserts.  It should be printed and distributed as a little red book.  It should be included in a “How to Find a Soul-Mate” kit.  It should be sold with a napkin as a bookmark so as to manage the drooling over the photos of confectionary.

Beat the August Chill

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

It’s been chilly here for the past few days.  If we’re lucky, we get a few hours of sun in the morning, spilling over the hill to the East and into our dawn-facing windows and warming the whole flat.  Then the fog crests the hill to the West and seeps over the side, through the green belt forest, to smother us in a chilly blanket.  I swear the fog leaks through the gaps in the window frames.  It was like this on Saturday, when I started the day in a T-shirt but by noon had wrapped myself into a light sweater.  Despite it’s being August, the cool air encourages a snug and tasty lunch inside, which is how we ended up at The Alembic in the Haight in the early afternoon.

Between lunch and cocktail hour, the bar was quiet; dim with fog-filtered light from the skylight reflecting off the giant mirror at the back and onto the bar.  We chose a table and kept our jackets on while examining the cocktail menu.   It’s written as prose so it takes some time to weigh the options.  At length, I opted for the “Vieux Carré”.



I realize it was designed for hot weather, but cognac sounded warming and solid.  Besides, we were about to order some savoury  snacks that would warm the blood.  The menu here is, I think, perfectly matched to cocktails that are not shy on alcohol: salty, with lots of innards.   Organ meats are tastier, in my opinion, when chased with liquor, bringing out their dark flavours.   We started with a nibble of “Jerk spiced duck hearts with pickled pineapple and thyme salt”.  Marc’s theory is they take delivery of all the parts the other restaurants don’t want and make something creative with the discounted bits.  Perhaps-  though with at least ten little hearts skewered on our plate, how many whole ducks is the Bay Area using?


Scrumptious little bites, with a sweet tang from the pineapple.   This lit the fire and we ordered two more dishes from the daily specials board:  Sweetbreads with potato spuma topped with a quail egg, and Razor clams cooked á la plancha with parsley.



I had never before had razor clams – to what was the clam adapting that it had to become long and narrow? – and spuma was also new to me.  I ate it, so I know that it was a light, creamy, almost-bisque of potato; but now, having looked it up, I find that it is Italian for ‘foam’. I’m not sure if this is how it was done with potatoes, but the Food Dictionary on described a technique where uncooked meringue is folded into the mixture to give it a light and airy texture.   Topped with hot sweetbreads that were a little crunchy on the outside and bathed in egg yolk, this was my afternoon favourite.   Until we ordered dessert.


The caramelized brioche, with custard and peach-lavender chutney by its side, then became the favourite.  Well, maybe a tie with the sweetbreads.  It might become necessary for this foray into the Haight to become a weekly ritual, if only to keep up with the specials on the chalkboard.

Fruits + Vodka + Lard

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

p1030755There is some magic in making a good pie crust.  Even Nigella admits to being trepidatious about anything pastry.  Indeed, I’m always at least a little anxious when making pie crust because there are so many details that could result in flabby, or glutinous, or hard, or flaky crust:  the ratio of shortening to butter must be correct, the fats must be cold, the water must be icy, the dough mustn’t be massaged too thoroughly, the dough must be rested and chilled- but not too much, or it will crack when rolled out…   No wonder nobody makes pies anymore when just the crust has so many potential pitfalls and one can buy a pie so much more easily.

But there’s something to be said for homemade pie.  One earns extra points when serving pie for dessert if it’s homemade, and even more points if even the filling is from scratch.   If keeping score, Marc recently earned extra bonus points for a pie that not only had amazing crust and a scrumptious, sweet-tart filling, but which could be extracted from the pie plate cleanly and without any spill-over.   Of course, there is no human alive that would turn down a slice if, during serving, it comes apart and spills over becoming somewhat unrecognizable as actual pie, but it portends a certain suave genius to serve a piece of  pie that looks like it could be on display.   His creation was of the strawberry-rhubarb variety, my second all-time favourite;  apart from it’s perfect execution, I’m sure part of its deliciousness was owing to the absolutely perfect – truly perfect –  strawberries contained within.  Wow, those strawberries were blue-ribbon quality.   What a difference buying local and vine ripened makes; they were deep red and just the purest essence of strawberry.  The grocery store was selling them right next to a shiny basket of new rhubarb, thus making the mental leap from strawberry to rhubarb to pie that much more obvious.  We happily walked right into that one.


Before this, there was pecan pie, made only because of the surplus of pecans in the freezer.   Those nuts only last so long and Trader Joe’s only sells them in enormous bags, so having bought the enormous bag, we were committed.  Only 475 calories per slice.

The pecan pie was a revelation as it was the first pie crust we made with vodka.  Yes, it turns out, that in addition to cocktails and sauce for penne, vodka can be used in pie dough.   The recipe came from an episode of America’s Test Kitchen and explained the science behind the addition of vodka:

While gluten (the protein that makes crust tough) forms readily in water, it doesn’t form in ethanol, and vodka is 60 percent water and 40 percent ethanol. So adding 8 tablespoons of vodka produces a moist, easy-to-roll dough that stays tender (because it contains only 6 1/2 tablespoons of water). The alcohol vaporizes in the oven.

And now, forever more, I will add vodka to pie crust: partly as a practical step towards good pie, and partly as a superstitious sacrifice to the forces that grant a flaky crust.

So Very SF

Sunday, June 8th, 2008

gg_2.JPGThis week turned out to be so very San Francisco.  I patronized two exceptional restaurants, bought a bouquet of flowers I don’t recognize, heard the foghorns drifting up from the bay at night, concocted a delectable dessert, watched a naked protest and walked across the Golden Gate bridge.   “What was that, I’m sorry?   A naked protest?”   Indeed, that is what it was.   Naked men on bikes – one on rollerskates – riding slowly down Market Street at 2:00 in the afternoon on a Saturday.   We were stopped at an intersection so caught the chant, “Less gas, more ass!”   The precise details about what they were protesting was unclear, but from the chant, and the fact that they were on bicycles, I surmised that they were protesting overuse of fossil fuels.   But then why were they naked?   Oh wait-  because it’s San Francisco, and because “ass” rhymes so well with “gas”.


I finally made the short journey to Citizen Cupcake, the restaurant that produces the desserts to end all desserts.  I met two friends for dinner and the rules were that we could not order the same foods.   Ergo, a berry shortcake, a lemon-drop inspired medley, and my chocolate cake-like, Brazil-nut-studded, pineapple-shot-accompanied miracle.   The other two desserts were good, but frankly, my thoughts were focused too keenly on my own plate to have justly tasted the others.  Chocolate, no less!   I have to change my self-described rule of never ordering chocolate. But what really set it apart- what really made it something extraordinary – was the spicy pineapple shot.  There must’ve been cayenne in that there drink, or somethin’, because it made my eyes widen – and then water – in delighted surprise.  Served with chocolate cake and Brazil nuts?  Who thinks of this!?   Elizabeth Falker, that’s who. rosebud.JPGMy new hero, she who created the recipe for the sweetness I built last Tuesday: condensed vanilla custard with caramel crisps and pistachio cookies.  Jaw-achingly sweet, even though the cookies are almost savory with their saffron edge.   It is, perhaps, a little much when consumed in the same day as the cherry pie Marc made (the first pie he has ever made), but somehow, we managed to find enough will-power to eat both.  For breakfast.

Art as Dessert

Sunday, June 1st, 2008

I came to the realization some time ago that I am not a dessert person. I rarely order from the dessert menu, am never tempted by the ubiquitous chocolate concoctions available for $8.00. Occasionally, I might be talked into sharing a few bites of something with a fruit compote. My after-dinner weakness takes the form of cheese, much harder to resist than sweetness: a lovely, hard, rich cheese to nibble on between sips of a dessert wine, a creamy blue cheese to melt on the tongue.

But then, from the library, I borrowed Elizabeth Falkner’s Demolition Desserts, and have been unexpectedly converted to the dark side. She’s local, this woman, owner and operator of Citizen Cake and Citizen Cupcake. I know of her, I’ve read about her in cooking magazines, seen her on TV, but have yet to walk the short distance to her restaurant to sample the art. It’s definitely on the list of places to try, indeed, walking to the library constitutes a quarter of the distance it would take to get to the café, and we practically drive past it each week for groceries, but I haven’t mustered the motivation to go out just for dessert. Now, perhaps, ça vaut le voyage.

This is a book in which I am actually tempted to try each and every one of the recipes. The pictures make my mouth water and I enjoy reading the background explanation for each creation, how she came up with the idea and the title for each. The fact that each dessert has a title should be proof that they are works of art, like “Untitled II: Chocolate with Raspberry and Fennel Tones“. The first recipe in book, and the first one I tried, was perhaps not art per se, but rather a plain warm-up to what was to come: I started wtih Chocolate Chip Cookies Straight Up. I have, what I consider, The Best Chocolate Chip cookie recipe- doesn’t everyone? – so I was curious to try another person’s interpretation of The Best, especially that of an artiste. Plus, I had on hand some fabulous Dagoba dark chocolate chips (I will never go back to milk chocolate) and turbinado sugar which, at Elizabeth’s suggestion, decided to experiment with in a cookie recipe. The one main difference I noticed in this version was that it included baking powder, which I had never put in cookies, but which yielded very pretty, puffy, chewy cookies. Alas, they were not as good as The Best. I suppose personal taste is everything.


Skipping ahead, I settled on a plated dessert to try: Norcal (An Homage to Laura Chenel) – chevre rice pudding, dates, candied kumquats, pistachios, honey. I chose this one only because we had goat cheese on the point of souring in the fridge, which turned out to be an unlikely and fortuitous happenstance. Kumquats just happened to be on sale and, oddly, Medjool dates were actually on special display at the grocery, so it was practically destined. I didn’t realize that rice pudding could taste this good. How could I ever have known that such ingredients could be combined to transform what is normally a cloudy sludge into light, fluffy, salty, sweet magic? I will never look at rice the same way again.

Thus initiated, it took little time to decide on the next experiment: Lovelova: Persian Strawberry and Saffron Pavlova. This, now this, is quite possibly the best dessert I have ever tasted. img_0013.JPGIt is rose-perfumed bliss, every bite enveloping my senses with strawberries and saffron, roses and pistachios; it is something to taste with the whole mouth. I am astonished and continue to be astonished with how good this is. I have not, as yet, bought the twenty-two dollar bottle of pistachio oil which is the only thing I skipped in the presentation of this dessert, but now, I feel that the droplets of dressing to surround the sweetness warrant the purchase. It certainly won’t expire because there will be no shortage of occasions to use it. This sensational dessert and I am only three recipes in! We have some amazing 3-course meals in our future.

By the bye, I include this photo of Coconut-Lime Cake with Mascarpone Frosting. It sounded good in the magazine, but the dry, heavy cake is an example of why I don’t normally go in for dessert. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the picture. And the frosting.


Anatomy of A Bunny

Sunday, December 30th, 2007

In terms of dog teasing, I doubt that there is a joke that could ever wear thin. When Sam was a puppy, and I lived on the outskirts of a suburb on the outskirts of the city, the wild hares were regular visitors to the backyard. He could see them clearly from the kitchen window and would drive himself bonkers barking his head off and whining at the bunnies. They, of course, would barely look up from their foraging and would all but laugh “na na na na na” as they skipped around the yard. Sam’s long-suffered vendetta against these rabbits was never fulfilled, but that didn’t stop me from teasing him ruthlessly, asking him excitedly if there were bunnies outside. “Outside?! Bunnies?! Go see!” And still, this joke has not lost its punch, even now; we live where no rabbit would ever be outside the window, but where one has been unlucky enough to join us for dinner. That was rabbit the upon which he was most recently fixated and about whom I teased him relentlessly. “Bunnies?! Sam, is there a bunny in the kitchen!?” whereupon he would fly to the window.

Christmas Day Menu

“Bacon and Eggs”

Rabbit Fricasée

Haricots Verts

Tarte Tatin

We picked up the very last rabbit at the butcher (who the hell is cooking rabbit?) and the first thing the recipe for rabbit fricasée instructs one to do is divide the rabbit into eight pieces. So, now, just think about that for a minute: what exactly are the eight pieces into which a four-legged rodent should be divided? Umm… 2 front legs, 2 back legs, 2 “breasts”, a back and… a tail? I don’t know, I’ve never divided a rodent before! Seems logical for a member of the poultry family but a member of the rat family..?


So Marc did it.


I’m not even sure now how he managed it, to be honest. I think there were tenderloins. I know there were “wing”/front legs. It’s kind of a blur. The rest of the preparation was much more straightforward: sautéeing the bunny bits in a hot pan with mirepoix, roasting it in the oven and finishing the sauce with cream and egg yolks, which I suppose is what makes it a fricasée..? We even deep fried some sage leaves as garnish for what turned out to be illuminating example of how good wild hare can be. Marc couldn’t get enough of it, picking up the bones and [politely] gnawing the tender meat. If I didn’t think too hard about how cute was the animal that I was eating, it was delicious. Sam was nearly inconsolable, having spent all day racing to the window only to be denied the pleasure of crunching on the bones of his arch nemesis. He did, however, snarf down the few shreds of meat we left on our plates.


Prior to the main course, I put together another French Laundry objet d’art, condescendingly referred to as “Bacon and Eggs”, which is really “Soft Poached Quail Eggs with Applewood Smoked Bacon”. True to form, San Francisco readily provided us with both quail eggs and applewood-smoked bacon; we didn’t even have to veer from our regular grocery shopping course. Though we did go back to the Berkeley Bowl, because we were across the Bay anyway and wanted to treat ourselves for Christmas with a visit to mecca.

Allow me to provide an excerpt from The Book so as to demonstrate the details with which one must contend if one is to cook as they do in heaven:

“The best method for poaching eggs is in a deep pot of water. As the weight of the yolk pulls the egg through the water, the white encircles the yolk and sets. The deeper the water, the farther the egg travels before it stops, and the more the poached egg will resemble its original shape. Hold each [tiny, fragile, quail] egg on its side on a towel and use a serrated knife to cut halfway through the larger end of the egg.”

It’s as though formulae of physics are being applied to the poaching of a quail’s egg. I love it! I gleefully used the knife to serrated-ly open the quail eggs, I used the pot of deep water, I gently “lifted one egg at a time from the ice water and used a pair of scissors to trim their ‘tails’ of egg-white”. The result was that I spent three hours preparing the elements of a dish that was consumed in three mouth-fulls. Three hours, three bites, totally worth it.


As the eggs were being poached and the rabbit fricassed, Marc assembled the tarte tatin. This is another of those intimidating classics about which I am apprehensive. tarte-tatin.JPGSo many things could go wrong with a dish that cooks for so long on the stove top and then has to be baked and flipped out onto a serving dish. Usually, we’re happy to use an easy, cheater’s short-cut tarte tatin that is just sliced apples layered on top of puff-pastry and drizzled with honey (exceptional, by the way). But in the true spirit of the holidays, we went through way more trouble than was necessary in order to deliver perfection. Indeed, though he was too chicken to roll out the pastry dough and place it gingerly on top of the caramelized apples for fear of ruining the pastry, Marc’s efforts were rewarded with a sugary, apple tart with all the lovely, dark flavours that caramelization proffers. And it turns out that tarte tatin, in addition to being a crowning glory of a dessert, is also a magnificent breakfast.

Xmas Eve

Sunday, December 30th, 2007

Let’s see— so, November 26th was the last time I posted to this blog. That seems sterotypical of blogdom: start off strong, interest gradually wans, topics fade and the next thing you know, it’s 2008. Well, if December went by in a blur, it’s because we had so much food to prepare and eat that I was too busy to write about it. Or, I was too lazy. Either or. Therefore, I’m re-starting the posting with a bang, the climax of our December, indeed, the climax of our epicurean year: Christmas Eve dinner.

Long has it been tradition in my family to have a heavily “sauced” happy hour, followed by an elaborate dinner on Christmas eve before attending atheist mass (a.k.a. a James Bond movie). This is when the good dishes make their annual appearance, when no cut of meat is too expensive, when four-course meals are warranted. I relish this dinner and look forward to it with more anticipation than any other Christmas treat. Presents? meh. Eggnog lattes, sure, I’ll have a few. Three days worth of menu planning, grocery shopping and food preparation? Be still my beating heart.

This year, since Marc and I decided to have a California Christmas on our own, we opted to continue those traditions, minus the mass, which we substituted with Christmas music by a crackling wood fire. The menu planning actually started about a month and a half earlier when we finally made the big-ticket purchase of The French Laundry cookbook, signed by Thomas Keller. Oh, The Book. How I am enamoured of The Book. It calls to me in the mornings, when the sun in shining through the window onto the love seat by the fireplace, where I can sit with my cappucinno perched on the armrest and reverently read it, relishing every page. I take such pleasure in perusing the fastidious recipes, all the labour-intensive details that go into making one dish, trying to imagine how a person can be so singularly focused on food as to come up with such fantastic ideas for preparation. With much anxiety and trepidation did I construct my first French Laundry dish (which I shall describe in a subsequent post), but the first try gave me the confidence to attempt and FL recipe for this hallowed feast. I could only imagine having the stamina for one such dish, though— for the rest, we turned to simpler fare. Thus, our menu:

Dungeness Crab Salad with Cucumber Jelly, Grainy Mustard Vinaigrette, and Micro Arugula

Duck Confit with Fried Arkansas Black Apples

Lentils with herbs and garlic

Brava Ginger Cakes

Guess which one is Thomas Keller’s. I mean, who makes cucumber jelly? Who even thinks up such a thing? We had to make cucumber juice and cut wee cucumber diamonds to delicately float in the gêlée. We drove across the Bay in order to go to our favourite butcher for the duck legs and found the whole, cooked Dungeness in the fish market next door. It took several hours to de-meat the crab and put together the whole layered affair. It was ridiculously laborious and wonderfully decadent which, I suppose, is really à propos of Christmas.


The confit is something I’ve never tried. Years ago, when Mom & Dad were first living in France, Mom received a gift from someone that, no doubt, seemed normal to a Norman but confused the hell out of a Canadian: a large jar of duck fat. Mom offered to give it to me when we visited as she had no real use for it and I turned it down as couldn’t think of what I would ever do with several pounds of duck fat. Now, I get it. Confit is duck cooked in its own fat for, like, ever. For such a simple dish, this is one of the classics by which I have been somewhat intimidated in the past. It’s so French and, therefore, carries an air of complication about it. I had never even attempted to find a recipe for duck confit as I figured it was something beyond reach of the home cook- don’t you need special tools or applicances or something? Some secret underground technique for masterfully crafting this ancient dish? A Julia Child? And then I saw the recipe in a Bon Appétit magazine, where they proclaimed it the “Technique of the Year” and promised “rich results” for a “surprisingly simple” preparation. That was enough for me— first, because I simply coudn’t finish 2007 without having partaken in the technique of the year, and second, if ever there was an occasion to make such a meal, it was here and now: San Francsico at Christmas.

We weren’t too worried about finding duck fat hereabouts and indeed had no trouble in getting some from our butcher, purchased by the pound from an enormous bucket of fat at the base of the refrigerated case. duck-confit.JPGAfter marinating the duck pieces in salt and garlic overnight, Marc melted down the fat (I suppose I should refer to it as “rendered”), threw the duck legs in and chucked the whole thing in the oven: that is basically all that it needed, which makes me wonder how it is that I could have been so intimidated and misinformed about it in the past. Many deliciously aromatic hours later, we had the most unctuous, flavourful, outrageously extravagent duck that I’ve ever had. With the lentils and the sweet-tart apples, it absolutely melted in the mouth. Clearly, duck fat is the way to go. And as an added bonus, we got to keep the leftover duck sealed in its own congealed fat in the back of the fridge, ready for a quick meal any time this month. Amazing!


ginger-cake.JPGThe ginger cakes, modeled off of our old favourites at Brava bistro in Calgary, have never disappointed. Slowly steamed on the stove top, they emerge from their ramekins as moist puddings to hover in our homemade caramel sauce. This is my desert island dessert, certainly befitting of a Christmas Eve repast. They are so good, in fact, that they may make an appearance on New Year’s Eve. Ginger totally goes with champagne.

And over glasses of port, all snug by the fire, we languished in our gluttony as we contemplated our Christmas Day feast.

Cheap and Happy

Friday, October 5th, 2007

cimg7158.jpgOfficially, this wine has no name. That, perhaps, should have been our first clue. The fact that it has a smiley face instead of a label, and that the description on the back speaks of the “flavour of happiness” should have warned me against buying it. I don’t know what I was thinking except that we needed two more bottles of wine in order to get the bulk discount at Trader Joe’s, this one was $5.99, and I was being lazy and silly. I have learned my lesson. Better to have been short a bottle and to not have gotten the discount rather than buy this swill and have to drain it down the sink. After the first puckering sip, I hoped that it just needed air but that was a fool’s hope. It was heinous. Not since Shanghai have we had to pour an entire bottle down the sink because the wine was simply awful.

Speaking of China, though, we ordered chinese take-out last night after we opened a fresh bottle. With a name like “Andy’s Chinese Cuisine”, what is one to expect? It’s kind of hard to know because the eponymy could be on purpose, giving the illusion of humble when it is really divine. Of course, it could be genuinely humble, a hole-in-the-wall with a greasy kitchen, mismatched tables and chairs and cheap, too-thin paper napkins. One cannot necessarily judge by the name or the look of the restaurant- the food from either could turn out to be a fabulous bargain or a disastrously bland, or MSG’d mistake. Sometimes, the nastiest of dives makes the tastiest of take-out and the places that look posh could serve sad, Americanized imitations of the original cuisine. cimg7159.jpgIt turns out that Andy’s is someplace in between. After Marc had placed our order, we noticed that our photocopied menu had been trying to tell us that Andy’s had been voted as the Best of the Bay for its Kung Pao chicken. Luckily, we had ordered it. I don’t exactly know what Kung Pao chicken is supposed to taste like (unless I count the version we ate while in China, but I can’t, really, because it was likely a tourist-ized version of the original), but Andy’s was pretty good: a little spicy, nicely oniony, lots of chicken. The best part about the meal was the take-out boxes. You just don’t see these in Canada where every place seems to use styrofoam containers. These are the classic Chinese take-out containers, the kind you see in the movies, the kind I thought were perpetuated only by movies and TV but were not actually in use anymore. How very quaint.

Speaking of “quaint” and “dive”, it turns out that a purveyor of food can be both. A couple of weeks ago, we took the car in to have its smog emission test which left us with about 20 minutes of waiting time in a gas station. Rather than sit at the picnic table in the parking lot, we wandered off for a snack and went into the first shop we saw that served coffee: The 5 Star Truffle Cafe. It’s a small, dark place with an old espresso machine, an ancient glass display case and a guy making a mountain of truffles behind the counter. It’s the truffle store next to the gas station on Divisadero. While we waited for the guy in front of us to have his order for 60 truffles filled, we perused the flavours: mocha, cognac, coconut, espresso, hazelnut, orange… there were at least 10 or 12 different kinds. The man in the front of us asked to taste the Earl Grey truffle; when he nodded and held up 10 fingers, I concluded it was good and said as much. He continued to nod and rolled his eyes to say it was fantastic. I joked he must be the most popular guy at his office to bring in so many truffles, but he corrected me, saying that his partner had just died and that he was collecting some of his favourite foods for the celebration of his life taking place that afternoon. Wasn’t really expecting to hear sad news, but I guess it means that at least these truffles were somebody’s favourite. We ordered 20. They were exquisite, especially the Earl Grey.

The One With The Pie

Friday, July 20th, 2007

A week ago I read an article about summer pies in Bon Appétit magazine and proclaimed that I would make their cherry pie. The picture alone would’ve been enough to entice me to give it a go but the recipe called for such lovely aromatic spices – cinnamon sticks, star anise, whole nutmeg – that I couldn’t resist.

Though first, I procrastinated. A pie is, like, alot of work and my experience in baking them recalls frustration, mainly directed at the crust. It just never rolls out right for me and frankly, I didn’t anticipate it being any better this time because I don’t have a rolling pin. I had planned to use an empty wine bottle – a reasonable substitute, I think – but then Marc did the recycling and I was bereft of anything resembling a rolling pin.

So we bought the cherries. cimg6822-320.jpgLike a fool, I just grabbed a bag from the bin at the Berkeley Bowl that read “$3.69/lb” assuming – and this is where I went wrong – that they were one-pound bags. I mean, I don’t know how much a pound is, it just seemed logical. Marc wanted a second bag for eating and so we came home with an unexpected cherry expense of $15.99. Which seems outrageous at first but we would’ve spent that on a bottle of wine, so relatively speaking, I guess it is reasonable.

I painstakingly pitted a pound of these fancy cherries for the filling. The recipe called for three kinds of cherries in the pie: fresh bing, dried tart, and jarred morello. cimg6829-320-3.jpgThe remainder of the dried ones are going to be great in scones or muffins and the remainder of the bings are quickly disappearing as breakfast food. Notice the aromatics; I wouldn’t have thought to add these on my own.

cimg6843-320.jpgPictured at left is the cooked filling, which took about 40 minutes to make and over an hour to cool. Meanwhile, I made the crust so that it could chill in the fridge for about an hour (see how a pie becomes so time consuming?) This particular crust recipe called specifially for hydrogenated vegetable shortening or lard. Marc couldn’t bring himself to buy lard so veggie shortening it was. Actually, this version offered some good advice vis-a-vis the shortening: freeze before adding to the dough. This is perfect because it is too fatty to freeze entirely and then when added to the dough, kept everything nice and cool. I have a feeling that this piece of advice is the lynch pin of pie crust.

The finished pie (pictured here next to our wee oven and the water heater that glamourously resides next to it) looked marvelous, if I do say so myself.


I finally figured out that to roll out pie crust dough, one must roll in alternating clockwise and counter-clockwise directions, rather than in straight lines radiating from the centre. Mind you, I had to use a Nalgene™ bottle to accomplish this but I’m pretty pleased with myself.

Sam, guarding the pie.


The final result of all the cherry pitting (35 min), filling cooking and cooling (1 hour, 40 min) , crust making and chilling (1 hour, 15 min), baking (50 min) and cooling (2 hours!) was absolutely worth it. I have made one fantastic pie and am tempted to make another with the rest of the cherries, if they last that long. (This picture makes it look as though the fork has just murdered the slice.)