Cake baking tips

Do you bake cakes a lot? Hate to grease and flour those cake pans? Then do I have the recommendation for you. There's this amazing product called Baker's Joy (it's no misnomer) that's a simple spray, a la Pam, but with flour included. I was skeptical but I used it last week when I baked a wedding cake (three 12"x2", two 9"x2", and two 6"x"2" batches). It worked perfectly! Took less than five seconds to coat an entire pan and the cakes flipped out perfectly when done. Not one bit stuck inside. Two thumbs up. If I had any more thumbs, it would get a higher rating.

Tip two: Magi-Cake strips. You soak these puppies in water then wrap them around the outside of the cake pans. They prevent the outside of your cake from cooking too quickly (causing it to rise unevenly) and the result is a perfectly level cake. My cakes, after coming out of the pans perfectly, were as flat as boards. No messy leveling required!

If you bake at all, I highly recommend both of these products. I found the Baker's Joy at my local Andronico's and the Magi-Cake strips are available at Sur La Table.

Was it the Romas or the technique?

I made the best batch of red spaghetti sauce I've ever made last night. Perhaps it's because the ingredients are all so perfect right now? Anyway, here's (roughly) what I did:

Quartered a bunch of Roma tomatoes. Put them in a large frying pan with a bunch of torn basil. Cooked over highish heat for approximately 10 minutes, until they had all broken down. While tomatoes were cooking, minced up four large cloves of garlic and diced half a yellow onion. Once tomatoes were done, I passed them through a food mill (medium-holed disc). Heated a good amount of olive oil (1/3 c.? Maybe even 1/2 c.?) in my (rinsed out) frying pan, added garlic and onion. Cooked over low heat until onions were transparent and kitchen smelled yummy. Tore up more basil, added to pan. Added tomato sauce, post-food mill. Add good pinch of salt and several cranks of fresh pepper. Mixed together and let cook down for about 10-15 more minutes while I rolled and cut pasta and cooked it. Result: sweet sauce, nice tang, smooth on tongue. Not just tomato flavor, it was a rich melange of all the ingredients, and perfect on the fresh linguine.

Googlecooking

We've got Googlewhacking, Googlebombing and now we can add Googlecooking to our lexicon. My mother types whatever ingredients she has on hand into Google and then picks the most appealing recipe returned in the results. What a good idea!

What's funny is I've always wanted a database of all my cookbooks so I could do just this. It never occurred to me to use Google instead. If I didn't have dinner plans, I'd try it tonight. I wonder what it would return for rotten basil and an onion?

Tuscan Panzanella

The other day, a friend with a bountiful garden gave me a bunch of ripe tomatoes. Last night I finally got my butt in gear to do something with them, and I recalled a recipe that Mena shared with me a couple months ago for Tuscan Panzanella, or bread salad. All I can say is: if you like tomatoes and basil and olives and bread, make this right now while tomatoes are in season. It was so delicious, I'm about to make it again for lunch!

It’s All About Finesse

my authographed menu from the French LaundryI’ve always loved cooking, for as long as I can remember. And now that I live in San Francisco, I’ve gotten more into cooking than ever. There’s so much great quality produce available year-round, so many farmer’s markets, and so many wonderful, inspirational, restaurants to try out. But I don’t care about going to the best restaurants simply because they’re the best, or because the chef is famous or trendy. So though I’d heard about The French Laundry for ages, I hadn’t been much interested in fighting to procure a reservation or shelling out the big bucks for a meal which I assumed couldn’t live up to expectations.

All that changed last fall when I read The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection by Michael Ruhlman. Nearly a third of this amazing book was focused on The French Laundry’s chef and owner, Thomas Keller — from his cooking career and his struggles to open The French Laundry to his philosophies on cooking (he stores fish on ice in the direction they swim in the ocean!) and his approach to preparing the best food possible. I was hooked on Keller from this point forward. I couldn’t stop talking about him, and thinking about him when I was in the kitchen preparing food. There was something in his approach that resonated with me — I knew if I were a chef, I’d approach things in a similarly obsessive and perfectionistic, yet Zen-like, manner.

I started dreaming of eating at The French Laundry. Then for Christmas Jason gave me The French Laundry Cookbook (where Thomas himself explains how he prepares food and why) and I decided: I simply must eat there. So I took a tin can with a plastic top, cut a slit in it, typed a label that said, “The French Laundry Fund” and started sticking a dollar in the can every day, back in early January. In late March, I called and got a reservation. And last night, I had dinner at the French Laundry.

After a wonderful afternoon exploring Napa, we arrived early so we could enjoy a glass of Champagne in the lovely gardens. It was still broiling hot, as it had been all day, but sitting in the shade surrounded by flowers, sipping chilled bubbly Champagne cooled us a bit. Aperitifed, we headed inside to be seated. We were led upstairs, where there were only five tables, and we were seated by french doors that were later opened onto an upper-level deck, ushering in a wonderful breeze as the air cooled down.

I threw my non-dairy vegetarianism to the wind and ordered the Chef’s Tasting Menu (see photo) and even chose the foie gras option. We ordered a half-bottle of 1999 Fiddlehead Sauvignon Blanc (which was excellent, highly recommended) to begin and the food started flowing. First, little cornets with salmon tartare and red onion crème fraîche. These looked like tiny ice cream cones and were so delightful. Then I had “Oysters and Pearls”: oysters and caviar in tapioca. No words can adequately describe this dish. It was simply one of the most delicious, sweet, creamy, briny, amazing things I’ve ever tasted. I almost licked the bowl it was so good. (Oh and I got to eat it with a beautiful mother-of-pearl caviar spoon.) That was followed by the foie gras.

Foie gras. I’d only had it once before, didn’t like it one bit. But I knew I had to try again. It was my favorite course of them all: a big round disc of poached foie gras, so smooth it spread like butter. I spread it on toasted brioche and topped it with pickled field rhubarb, greens, and some balsamic glaze. Accompanied by a glass of Château Reynon Cadillac (so smooth and sweet, almost like a glass of honey), this dish was the most amazing thing I’ve ever eaten in my life. No words can describe the combination of crispy toasted buttery brioche, creamy foie gras, and the tang of the pickled rhubarb. Phenomenal.

Our bottle of 1998 Château de Fonsalette syrah arrived and the food kept coming: sautéed sea bass and sweet New Zealand langoustine tails, “pork and beans” and delicate slices of rib-eye (My God, writing all this is making me hungry again!) accompanied by morels and a fried piece of bone marrow (which looked like a tater tot but tasted rich and creamy).

Our waiter, Michael, used to work as a chef at the restaurant but was now working the front of the house so he could get more experience, as he’s hoping to open his own restaurant one day and thinks chefs need to know what it’s like to be a waiter. He’d seen the French Laundry Fund can sitting on our table, and I told him about my interest in Thomas Keller. He suggested we take a break after the meat course to go outside and peer into the kitchen. The kitchen is off the back of the building, surrounded by windows, so you can look in and watch the chefs in action. So at this point, we went outside to look through the open windows into the bustling kitchen.

Then we were back for more: a cheese course of “Brie de Nangis” with poached dried pears, a superb Watsonville strawberry sorbet (you have no idea — sorbet isn’t even close, imagine the full flavor of strawberry but creamy and cold, icy but not watery), and a chocolate concoction with chocolate sauce topped with “Chibouse à la vanille”. At this point, I was so full, I couldn’t eat another thing. Not one more bite. Until they brought out this baby crème brûlée (for the ladies, gentlemen received a pot de crème) which was so cute and tiny, and amazing.

Sated, I was happily enjoy a cup of coffee when a final round of treats arrived: meringues and baby little tartlets. I managed to squeeze in one. And then, sadly, that was it. I asked Michael if I could get a copy of the evening’s menu and we paid the bill (oy! luckily my savings covered all but $50). Then we thanked our waiters and headed downstairs.

In the lobby I stopped to sign the guest book when Michael appeared behind me.

“Would you like to meet Thomas?” he asked.

(With my eyes bulging out of my head) “Uh, yeah!” I replied, dumbfounded.

He led me down a long sloping hallway towards the kitchen, and there he was: Thomas Keller, standing behind a work bench, plating eight orders of “Pan Roasted Rib-Eye of Prime Beef” as people swirled all around him.

“He’s a little busy right now, but don’t worry. He’ll get to you eventually,” Michael said.

He pointed out the different kitchen stations and the names of the people operating them: the poissionier, the sous chef, etc. Then he stepped back, leaving me pressed against the doorway to the kitchen, as wait staff and chefs rushed back and forth with food and plates. I stood and watched everything: Thomas moving the order tickets along a little rack, someone wiping the edge of a pure white plate so that not a speck of sauce was out of place. Thomas plated another set of dishes and I just stood, mesmerized by all the action, by the smoothness of it all. I think I was grinning from ear to ear. And then, the next set of dishes was whisked away and he looked up towards me, extending his hand.

I don’t remember exactly what he said, I think he asked my name. We shook hands and chatted, I told him the meal was amazing, wonderful, beyond expectations. I told him I’d been saving a dollar a day to experience his food. Jason stepped forward to show him the French Laundry Fund can and he got a kick out of it. He smiled and said he never heard of anyone doing that before. Then he looked at the menu I had clutched against my chest and asked if I’d like him to sign it.

Meg + Jason
It’s all about finesse
Thomas Keller

My cheeks were beginning to hurt from the giant smile. I don’t think my eyes have ever been open so wide. We thanked him again, shook hands, and said good-bye and then Michael led us back down the hall to the lobby and out the door. We stepped out into the warm scented garden and looked up at the sky filled with stars, the kind of stars you see out in the country away from all the bright lights of the city. I looked at the stars as we walked back to the car, holding my menu, still tasting all the food on my tongue. It was the most amazing night of my life.

Headed to the French Laundry

You may recall that I began a French Laundry Fund at the end of last year. It has been growing steadily (with $1 deposits nearly every day) and has reached the point where I was ready to call to attempt to procure a reservation. After twenty-five minutes of furious double-fisted phone dialing (cell phone in the left hand, land line in the right, hitting redial over and over and over), miracle of miracles, I got through! I was so panicked when I heard the ringing tone rather than the busy signal that I couldn't move for fear my cell phone would drop the call. More patience was required as I waited on hold for another six or so minutes, but now I am the very proud possessor of a dinner reservation at The French Laundry in May.

I'm so addled by the excitement of it all, I can't concentrate. I don't know how I'll get anything done today and I don't know how I'll be able to stand the wait!