The cool thing about writing single-subject cookbooks is being able to go deep into the subject. In Cookie Love, the book I wrote with Mindy Segal of Hot Chocolate in Chicago, I could talk about the best cookie sheets to use, the secret to shaping and cutting out cookies, and how certain sugars or salts could change the game. I baked through an entire chapter all about shortbread cookies—and wrote two pages about the best ways to mix, roll out, and bake shortbread dough. From that experience, I can now use Mindy’s basic shortbread recipe as a template to make up my own shortbread. It’s pretty cool. And that’s exactly what Mindy wanted to do in this book: get people to riff off her recipes. To do that, though, you need to give people a foundation from which to work.
With general books that also include recipes for pasta, vegetables, roast chicken, and so on, cookies get reserved for a few pages in the back, and the instruction has to be a little more general, a little shorter. There is nothing wrong with this! Sometimes that’s all you want. But when I get to do a deep dive—especially with someone as thorough as Mindy—I walk away with a lot more tricks of a very specific trade. Especially after baking batch after batch of cookies with her.
Mindy’s tricks are woven throughout the book, but I wanted to point a few of them that can be overlooked. Especially now that the weather is cooling off and we can comfortably think about baking again.
Tricks and tips from Mindy’s Cookie Love [click to continue…]
While at the dentist last week, the dental hygienist and I got to talking about the challenges of learning how to cook, i.e., how to get something to taste better.
“I’ll taste it and not know what it needs,” she said. “How do you know what to add?”
The hard answer is it takes trial and error and time. Learning how to season is the single most important thing a chef and home cook learns how to do. And there are so many ways to add balance to a dish, whether it means adding more vinegar or lemon juice or a splash of hot sauce.
But let’s back up. There’s an easy answer, too [click to continue…]
The New York Times has this NYT Now app, which is useful for a couple of reasons. It sums up the things I need to know about when I wake up (including the local weather), and it links to content outside of the NYT for cool stories I missed, like this one. But the reason I remember to click on it is because it has these quickie crossword puzzles. This morning, when I stood on BART while heading to do some Burmese ingredient recon at the Oakland Chinatown farmers market, I tackled a crossword.
One of the clues: “Why do they call it ___ if it’s hot?”: Carlin.
Earlier in the week, I had a conversation with another Oakland resident about chili. She had made a batch, and she told me she was coaching her co-worker, a rookie cook, on how to make it. Chili is one of the best things to make when you’re learning how to cook because it’s hard to go wrong. You could dump everything in the pot at once, walk away, and after a few hours of simmering you’d have something decent. If it wasn’t quite right, you’d just have to adjust with some seasoning.
All this reminded me that I can’t remember the last time I made chili. Time to change that. [click to continue…]
With friends of mine that freelance, Labor Day weekend is sort of bittersweet. You can certainly take it off and head for the hills or whatever, but so often there’s that “if only I can get ahead while everyone else is gone” kind of feeling.
I’ve been on the road so much this summer that heading to a crowded mountainside or beach didn’t hold the same appeal as it might have on other occasions. I did, however, have a gig housesitting in a kitchen bigger and brighter than mine. So why not give some Burmese recipes for this book a run-through? [click to continue…]
One week into returning home from Myanmar and I’m into the toughest part about writing the Burma Superstar cookbook, which is how to make sense of all the newly acquired information. Here’s an example: on our trip, we tasted a lot of great Burmese sweets, and I want to include some in the book.
The trouble is that many of the sweets rely on techniques and ingredients that are a bit unorthodox compared with more Euro- and American-style sweets. Recipes also start with “take a coconut and make milk from it…..” That’s been the case with a funny little book called Bamar Snacks that we found in a hotel gift shop. The author, Ohnmar Shirr, wanted to create a record of these recipes so that these traditions wouldn’t disappear as western eating habits begin to slowly filter into the country.
This part made me laugh:
“Snacks enjoyed by westerners contain high calories and fats. The westerners therefore gain more weight due to high-calorie snack, that mostly leads to obesity. They suffer from after effect of their calorie-rich snacks. But Bamar snacks are comparatively harmless to consumers.”
Some endorsement. Unfortunately, Shirr’s recipes are not easy to replicate. I tried making “Mandalay Greasy Sweet,” a coconut caramel chew that is truly delicious despite this weird translation, but the results of this particular recipe were terrible—pale and slimy—and nothing like what I tasted in Mandalay. The semolina cake was closer but not perfect. I was starting to go a little mad, so I thought it would be good to step away for an afternoon and enter a more familiar world of baking. [click to continue…]
We are back from our second research trip to Myanmar for the Burma Superstar cookbook. The last time I was in the country, it was the dry season. Bagan—the medieval archeological zone famous for its pagodas (pictured above), was arid. Yangon was sunny. Mandalay was downright cool in the evenings.
This time around, Bagan and the surrounding plains were lush—but nearly too hot to do much outside of morning and evening. Mandalay was steamy. And Yangon rained buckets at 2pm nearly every day. The rains have brought major flooding to parts of the country especially in the western states, and bags of rice and other aid relief was piled in the domestic terminal at Yangon Airport. While downtown Yangon was safe from the floods, I could tell that residents were looking forward to October when things dry out.
We were lucky that the wet, steamy weather did not get in the way of our travels. The rain helped green up cities, too. Mandalay, which had felt a tad tired in January, was alive with leafy trees covering some of the nondescript 1960s architecture. We also visited Namhsan, a rural mountain township in the Shan State known for its tea and dramatic views. To get there, we drove through rainclouds.
We also had a great crew of international travelers, including two additions from the previous trip: Jett Yang, who can entertain kids using magic tricks that require little more than a couple of rubber bands, and John Lee, the photographer shooting the cookbook. John took one for the team when he helped push a car out of the mud-and got covered head to toe in it.
Here are some observations and non-pro snapshots from the trip. The one photo that we all regret not taking was the large Asian dude standing next to the wall air conditioning unit in the sweltering Bagan airport wearing a baggy tank top with a huge cat face in the center.
The shirt tagline: “Check Meowt.” Dude, we totally did. [click to continue…]
Take this as a public service announcement. Baked peaches are amazingly delicious, and peaches won’t be around forever. Before they’re gone, try baking them.
I’ve done this a few different ways, and it’s worked every time. It’s especially revelatory on OK, not very tasty peaches, taking the bland pulp and making it taste sweeter, with complex, near-caramel flavors. Gotta hand it to the Maillard reaction on this one–as the peaches bake and the natural sugars caramelize, their flavor becomes concentrated and enhanced.
You could do this with solely peaches: halve the peach, remove the pit, put on a rimmed baking sheet cut-side up, and bake at about 350 to 400F for 20 minutes.
But it’s even better to drizzle a little honey or maple syrup before baking. Peach juice does get sticky, so I like to line the pan with either foil or parchment paper; whatever I have handy.
For texture, add some unsweetened coconut flakes and/or slivered almonds in the final few minutes of baking.
And that is it. I’ve done this for quick desserts in summer rental cottages and my own kitchen. I’ve eaten leftover baked peaches with yogurt for breakfast the next morning, too. With this granola. Now that combo is really hard to beat.
PS- I leave for Myanmar today for more research on the Burma Superstar project. Can’t wait to share some facts when I return.
Ice cream and I were best buds right up through college. And then we did the fade out when I gradually realized that we were incompatible. Like a lot of dunzo relationships, I don’t really miss milk-based ice cream—there are so many other great treats out there. But I do miss is that creamy, cooling, rich-but-never-cloying sweetness that great ice cream delivers. [click to continue…]
When family or friends face challenging circumstances, it is easy to say things like “everything happens for a reason”—but guess what? Things don’t. They happen, and then you deal with them. So when family in Seattle needed help, my mom and I headed north to take care of easy stuff so they could focus on their challenge.
While there, I got into a daily rhythm of [click to continue…]
My parent’s backyard plum harvest is short and sweet—leave the Bay Area the wrong week in June or July and you miss it completely. And if no one is around to claim the fruit, it all goes to the birds.
A couple of weeks ago when I was watching their house and taking care of King Henry, the family cardigan welsh corgi, the plum tree was entering its peak harvest level. I took action: in the morning, I’d go out and pick all the ripe fruit, which was smaller this year than last because of the drought. I ate plums plain (over the sink to catch the juices dripping off my face) or sliced them up and put them on yogurt or in galettes.
By the end of the week, I still had a lot of plums, and most wouldn’t keep much longer in the refrigerator. It felt wrong for me to be the only one in the family to enjoy them. It’s been a tough summer for us. The least I could do was sweeten the pot a bit by preserving some plums.
So I made plum jam the easy way. [click to continue…]