Summer Fruit Mashup, and Clafoutis

Blueberry Apricot Clafoutis

Grocery stores in Berkeley are generally frenetic places, but during the summer when they are also overflowing more than normal with produce, they become obstacle courses. Apricots! Plums! Yellow Plums! Plumcots! Dino Pluots! Attack of the stone fruits and their mashups.

Earlier this week, I walked by an enormous bin of blueberries and scooped up a couple of pounds. They were a good price. I needed some for a compote for cookies from Mindy’s book (blueberry kolachkes) and the rest would be for me. And then I passed pretty red-orange, semi-soft apricots. So what the heck? Into the cart they went. I didn’t sample either before buying; I was on a mission to get out of Berkeley Bowl in under 30 minutes.

I got home, unloaded the goods, and popped a few blueberries in my mouth. Disappointing. They were sweet but flabby, with none of the acidic spine that all good blueberries should have. If you put these in a smoothie, you’d have bland, lightly sweetened (but very purple) goo. They would make a lackluster blueberry pie. Maybe I could turn them into a syrup, but I’d need a lot lemon or lime juice to make it all worth it.

Blueberry Apricot Clafoutis
Onto the apricots. They tasted as if they’d been injected with lemon juice. Too sour. Those were going to be a challenge, too.  What to do…

Bingo. I’d combine them. [click to continue…]

Gallo Pinto: The Stuff of Surf Vacations

gallo pinto, costa rica
I was not born to surf. That calling went to my brother, Joe. Surfing always looked a tad scary. It’s one thing to stare down a wave and know that you can dive underneath to avoid getting caught in an oceanic tumble cycle. It’s another when you have a big board strapped to one ankle that could bash into you and knock out a tooth or an eye. Swimming, boogie boarding, snorkeling—I was comfortable with those water sports. But my sister and I left surfing all to my brother.

But challenges are good, and so is a tropical beach vacation. That’s how I found myself at surf camp in Tamarindo, a beach town in Costa Rica. A group of us from San Francisco arrived in town for one thing and one thing only (mostly): To surf.

tamarindo sunset

[click to continue…]

Spaghetti Bolognese, Revisited

eggplant "spaghetti bolognese"
This entire spring I was either glued to my computer or hovering by the oven, all in an effort to meet the deadline for Mindy Segal’s cookie book manuscript. We made it, just. I don’t think I’ve ever typed so many words in a month as I did this past May. I certainly have never sampled so many cookies. Nearly everything else in my life went on hold so I could think cookies, cookies, cookies. (This blog was one casualty.)

There were times when I felt it would be impossible to finish the book on time. But when we galloped through four chapters in two weeks, the ideas coming at us fast, I started to wonder: What if I could be that productive all the time?

eggolant on the stove

Sadly, I can’t be. Working under the gun gives you something akin to a sleep deficit, setting you up for exhaustion. Instead of sleep, you’re cheating rest, the down time your brain needs in order to maintain its ability to function at optimal levels. It’s the law of diminishing returns: Too much cheating and productivity inevitably drops off. By the time I started assembling all of the chapters in one document, my brain was cheap toast. It was all that I could do to write up a strung-out email, attach the manuscript, and send it to the editor. [click to continue…]

Music Memory

The other day, when we were deep in a conversation about writing cookbooks with chefs, a friend recommended listening to the same music as the chef. This would help get in her head. It made sense. Music, or lack of it, can define a kitchen.

Chefs usually fall into two categories. Those that want music in their kitchens to help them get into the groove and those who feel it is a distraction. When I cook and bake at home, I fall into the “listen to music” camp, but most chefs I’ve worked for have not been supporters of a greasy staff boom box. Yet most of the kitchens tended to have at least one resident music geek who did his share of talking about bands, shows, trivia.

It took working with food for me to truly listen to music. I spent my undergrad years at the kind of university that excelled in training future food scientists, engineers, veterinarians, and sports psychologists. The most musical nook on campus was the tiny theater/art/music department, where a music appreciation class  had us singing Gershwin’s Summertime on the first day. Otherwise, our campus was not musical, and neither were my friends. Dave Matthews Band and Phish loomed large and no one thought there was anything wrong with that. Toad the Wet Sprocket was the biggest show to come to campus. But UCDavis wasn’t really about music. It had Picnic Day dachshund races instead.

When I worked at La Farine, a bakery on the Oakland/Berkeley border, straight out of college, it was different. Music was everything. Corey, the afternoon bread baker, took pity on my music starvation diet and we began to work through Dylan albums (with John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline on heavy rotation) until everyone needed a break from the nasal incantation. Lanky and pale, with a skull and crossbones tattoo in the back of his head, Corey had a ghostly presence, intimidating to the unacquainted. But he hardly poked fun at my vanilla music background. When the shop closed up and we were left with our mixers and dough, Corey would switch to Anticon and other music that was percolating in the Oakland scene at the time. The memory of some sounds ties directly to the memory I have of bakery smells—eggy lemon curd for the cheesecakes, damp waxy boxes of lemons, sweet/sour  butter, omnipresent cinnamon. Jeff, the owner, studied music at Northwestern and never minded tunes in the kitchen.

After locking up for the day, the other Jeff, the manager, would stand by Corey’s table as he shaped sour baguettes. Jeff would fill us in on the neighborhood gossip. There was the woman who came in a couple of times a week for a brownie and then would berate us about how terrible our brownie was. Jeff always suggested something else—a chocolate cookie? a luscious slice of tart? She would not be swayed from her brownie purchasing or hating. Rockridge in those days was not short on strong personalities, and Jeff liked to spin a yarn. But the main topic of conversations—other than tattoos; Jeff had several and Corey was working toward becoming a tattoo artist—was music. Everyone seemed to play some sort of instrument. Sometimes, if Jeff and Corey forgot I was coming in, they would be blasting their doom metal band du jour, although they never thought it was polite to do so around me.

Today Jeff and Corey have scattered to the winds and La Farine is populated with completely new faces. But there is still a stereo. I hope someone still has fun with it.

More Testing, This Time with Frosting

oreo cookies with peppermint frosting

This week in Cookie Book Testing, I once again became acclimated to the pastry bag.

We are still working away at the unforgiving sandwich cookie chapter. I say unforgiving not because they are terrible—the opposite—but because they each have more than one component and all of the components (and their yields) have to be in harmony for the recipe to work every time. [click to continue…]

Testing: A Cookie Book in Progress

measuring cups

The Mindy Cookie Project is moving ahead with winds of gale force. This is one pastry chef who is not short on creative ideas.

Such as:

  • hot fudge as jam for thumbprints
  • brown butter in graham cookies and citrus shortbread
  • halvah pureed into a vanilla filling for sandwich cookies
  • Brazil nut cookies that pair magically with milk chocolate
  • Goat butter every which way

I spent a good part of yesterday mixing doughs for the sandwich cookie chapter. I don’t have enough room for major production in my tiny kitchen, so I packed up all of the ingredients and schlepped them to my folks’ house. This has the added benefit of being able to spend time with my favorite dog and take a short break in the garden. (Seasonal allergies be damned.) Still, making a cookbook isn’t  a tidy process. Black cocoa–which is super fine and super concentrated–gets everywhere if you’re not careful. (I promise I scrubbed the place down after.)

Here’s a peak behind the curtain: [click to continue…]

Little Butter Buns from Nordic Bakery

Little Butter Buns from Nordic Bakery Cookbook
I used to be one of those feed-the-starter every day — sometimes twice a day—types of bread bakers. Part of me misses those days. But another part of me knows that I am rarely in the same place for enough consecutive days to reliably water a houseplant, let alone feed a sourdough starter.

I still want to try making the sprouted-grain pan loaves in Tartine Book No. 3, but the reality is that I have a very real cookie book deadline looming; any projects involving a string of spare days will have to wait. So breads that are less of a commitment to make have become more of a priority.


These sturdy rolls comes from Nordic Bakery Cookbook, a collection of recipes from London’s Nordic Bakery, which has three locations in the city. [click to continue…]