Monday, December 31, 2007
Two hours until our New Year's Eve dinner, a Southern-themed extravaganza featuring a collaborative effort from our kitchen, Whit and Derek's, and Popeye's Chicken & Biscuits. We'll have black-eyed peas, collared greens, cornbread (which Todd is making now), fried pickles, mashed potatoes and Popeye's fried chicken goodness (or badness -- you decide).
And of course, cupcakes.
I spent a good portion of the afternoon testing out a recipe for chocolate cupcakes from Elinor Klivans' book, which was a Christmas gift from Carisa. My plan was to make the chocolate sour cream cupcakes, fill them with a chocolate espresso custard and then top them with mocha buttercream frosting. I didn't think it would be too hard.
But apparently I have the magic touch and turned a fairly simple, straightforward recipe into something bizarre and complicated. The batter came out extremely fluffy, like chocolate mousse, and the cupcakes didn't rise very high. And then I took the first batch out too early, so I ended up with six mini chocolate lava cakes instead of cupcakes. (They tasted fabulous, though!)
I adjusted the cooking time for the remaining cupcakes, which turned out to be delicious, but again, didn't rise very high. So I scrapped the chocolate filling idea because I was worried that cutting holes in cupcakes that were already smaller than expected would turn out to be a disaster. And I nixed the mocha buttercream plan, too, because the cupcakes just didn't look like "normal" cupcakes.
Instead, I decided to make caramel, drizzle it on the cupcakes and then add a teeny-tiny pinch of sea salt (because to me, nothing is more wonderful than that salty-sweet combo).
After wrestling with the caramel -- such a challenge, since it kept cooling and getting stringy and then I'd have to heat it up again -- I finally finished my project. I'm fairly pleased with the results. The cupcakes are moist and have a nice texture, and the caramel and salt add a little something.
Of course, the real verdict comes tonight. OK -- now to take a shower and finish getting ready! Happy New Year!
Friday, December 28, 2007
I arrived in L.A. yesterday. The weather was sunny with only the very slightest winter chill (I actually felt silly with a coat). There were no lines at the rental car pickup.
And right next to the airport was a brand-spanking-new Del Taco.
I could almost hear the choirs of angels singing as I went through the drive-through.
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Since I can't seem to click my heels together the right number of times or pick the winning Lotto numbers to magically transport myself to a tropical island, I went for the next best thing: Sol Food.
This Puerto Rican restaurant is a favorite -- so popular, in fact, that there are two locations within blocks of each other in downtown San Rafael. (Kind of like Del Taco in Costa Mesa, only not.)
I ended up sitting at a community table next to some former hippies (after all, this was San Rafael). In front of me was a plate heaping with thinly-sliced bistec encebollado, rice and pink beans, two kinds of plantains and some salad. And there was also a jar (yes, a jar!) of limeade.
It was very nice. Not the tropics, but still very nice.
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
While others dined on turkey and ham and pies and puddings, we discovered the Taqueria Santa Cruz taco truck.
Feliz Navidad indeed. This was the best burrito I've had since I moved to Petaluma!
Saturday, December 22, 2007
Usually, 95 percent of the time, Christmas is my favorite holiday. But this year, it feels like just another item to check off on the never-ending to-do list.
There was no time or space to put up a tree, not even our teeny-tiny fake one that comes with all of its ornaments and a tree skirt. In fact, we are so behind that we still have mini pumpkins on the front porch. It's like we're permanently stuck in Thanksgivingland.
And then there was the shopping -- or lack thereof. I tried to order everything online, which worked, except that Todd's present is lost somewhere in cyberspace. I don't think it's shipped yet, and I ordered it two weeks ago. And apparently I can't even make an official complaint until Monday because I have to wait until after 15 days before I can contact customer service.
And Christmas cards -- usually a tradition that I enjoy -- may end up being more like New Year's cards. Possibly even Martin Luther King, Jr., Day cards.
And I had all of these plans for holiday baking. But how to find time to make food when last night's dinner consisted of a box full of leftover fries from the marketing team lunch on Thursday?
I desperately need an eggnog latte to cheer me up.
Sunday, December 16, 2007
Here's to a great grand opening for Tillerman! (And Taoist priests with great shoes!)
The event went really well. Plenty of people showed up to check out the new tea shop and the Oxbow Public Market. (Oxbow is partially open now, but it may take awhile before the entire market is up and running; it's still missing a few tenants. But when things come together, Oxbow will be like the North Bay's version of the Ferry Plaza, a.k.a. foodie heaven. I can't wait.) Photogs from the Chron and the Register took lots of shots of the cleansing ceremony, people loved the tea (I am now officially a big fan of pu'erh, by the way) and the dim sum snacks were a hit for dim sum-deprived Napans. (I can't even tell you how many people asked me where the food came from and then shared their stories about making road trips to San Francisco just for Chinese food.)
But the best part was catching up with people I hadn't seen in awhile. The former VP of sales at Clos Du Val was there -- I think it's been about a year since I saw her. She looks fabulous! And Jessa and Matt went, too. (There was lots of reminiscing about our old impromptu parties -- man, I miss those days.)
The mini-reunion made me realize how much I've been working lately -- and how I've hardly seen so many of my friends because of it. Yikes. I know it's early for resolutions, but note to self: Make more time to see people!
Saturday, December 15, 2007
This is the photo I took in late October of the brand-spanking-new tea shop I am doing the PR for. (Yes, in addition to my full-time job at the winery.)
I'm really hoping it doesn't look like this anymore because the grand opening (complete with traditional Chinese cleansing ceremony) is tomorrow.
It's definitely challenging to launch a company. New businesses always involve a level of risk, and there's so much education involved -- not just for consumers and media, but also for the people launching the company. Up until I started working with Tillerman Tea, I pretty much knew zilch about the beverage except that you pour hot water over it and that for some reason, green tea seems to make me get well faster whenever I have a cold.
But now it's like a whole new world has opened for me. I've been reading a book called All the Tea in China, so I can get some background on the subject. (If you want to learn about tea, this is a great reference!) I am now dying to try Pu'erh, an aged and fermented tea, that apparently works wonders for the digestive system.
Funny how learning about something makes you want more than what you already have, though. I've experienced the same thing with wine -- before, I would've been perfectly happy with a non-vintage late-harvest Muscat from California for dessert. And then I met Sauternes, and worse, Yquem. How am I supposed to go back now? Same thing with coffee -- after Todd started roasting his own beans and brewing one cup at a time, the thin, woody coffee at work feels like an insult.
And now it's happening with tea. I'm realizing that most of the tea I have here at home should probably just be tossed in the compost heap. Tea has a shelf life -- in fact, I've heard green tea should be consumed within six months of harvest -- so most of the tea at the store and in restaurants is probably way past its prime: Old, dead, lacking in true flavor.
The more I know, the more I want.
Blame it all on that biblical first apple: I bet that was the best freaking apple in the history of the world. The right balance of sweet and tart and crisp. So good it was terrifying and inspiring and heartbreaking all at the same time.
Worth risking paradise for another bite.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Had my "big TV debut" today -- I did a segment on Australian sparkling wine on "The View From the Bay," a daytime talkshow based out of the San Francisco ABC station.
I can't even tell you how nervous I was. So much preparation went into this. The producer wanted three sparkling wines, and the wineries I represent only have two, so I had to track down a third -- and then learn all about it. (Crash course in sparkling Shiraz!)
I also made a list of all the potential questions I could think of and made sure I knew the answers. I even looked up Australian geography and how to properly pronounce Melbourne ("Mel-burn," not "Mel-born").
Basically, I felt like my head was spinning.
The nerves were so bad that I could barely sleep last night. I kept waking up in a panic, thinking: Oh my god, will they ask me to explain the secondary fermentation process?
Luckily, I was able to calm down by the time I got to the studio. And the whole experience turned out to be a lot of fun. (I adore Spencer Christian -- I remember watching him on "Good Morning America" when I was growing up. He is an incredibly nice guy -- one of my favorite media contacts. Doing the segment actually felt a lot like I was just hanging out with friends and talking about wine.)
Anyway, here's the segment in case you want to check it out. (And by the way, behind that counter, I am wearing stilettos and standing on a box, yet I am still ridiculously short compared to everyone else!)
Sunday, December 09, 2007
This is the "prize" that goes to the last place wine at our tasting group meetings. (It's also known as "vag-wine-a." For real.)
And tonight, our wine very much deserved the honors.
The theme for the evening was "Bargain Bordeaux Under $25." We brought a bottle of Château Les Ancres 2000 that I bought from Garagiste, my go-to wine retailer, almost two years ago. According to them, the wine arrived in "impeccable provenance" and was stored in "ideal conditions" until shipping. And when we got it here, it went straight into the wine refrigerator. So as far as I know, there were no storage or temperature problems.
And yet the wine -- which is only 7 years old -- was showing major evaporation. The fill level was at the top shoulder of the bottle (this is the part just below the neck, where the bottle starts to widen). For a wine that's 10 years old or older, the top shoulder is fine. But for a 2000, it's a little strange -- like this wine is ageing at superspeed. There was also a ton of sediment in the bottle -- looked like the inside had been coated in tar.
I should've taken this as a warning sign, but I brought the bottle to the tasting group anyway. Man, it was not good. Not good at all. It smelled like cough syrup, and the taste was bizarre -- like a combination of overripe (prunes, raisins) and underripe (green, vegetal).
Our group ranked it last. (Although I have to admit I ranked it second-to-last because there was another wine -- the Château Brandey 2006 -- that I just didn't like at all -- tutti-frutti flavors, too much wood, no finish.)
Overall, this tasting was tough. Seemed like there was a lot of flawed wine. Here are my rankings and notes:
1. Château Falfas 2004: To me, the most complex of the group. Pretty nose of berry, vanilla and clove with a hint of green pepper. Voluptuous mouthfeel, good tannin. Slightly young, but to me, definitely drinkable. I would order this in a restaurant.
2. Château Loudenne 2001: At first, I thought this wine was a little too barnyardy, even for my taste (and I tend to like poopy wines). But I ended up liking it better than the other wines we tasted. I wouldn't say it was very Bordeaux-like, though -- more like a Pinotage.
3. Château Lestrille-Capmartin 2003: A light-bodied wine, but balanced with bright cherry and spice flavors. This was the group's favorite wine. I liked it, too, but I thought the Falfas was more interesting and I have a soft spot for the flavor profile of the Loudenne, so I ranked those two higher.
4. Château Faure-Beauséjour 2003: An OK wine (and a lot of people voted it first in the tasting), but for me, too much wood and too much vanilla. Not enough complexity.
5. Château Peyraud 2005: At first, I really liked this wine and thought it was going to be one of my favorites. But when I tasted it a second time, I found something really off-putting in the finish -- something slightly bitter.
6. Château Les Ancres 2000: See my notes above.
7. Château de Brandey 2006: Like jungle juice.
Sunday, December 02, 2007
Also known as How I Keep Warm When It's Ridiculously Cold Out.
Today was chilly, overcast and all-around ugly, so I stayed indoors and made a ridiculous amount of food. Sautéed chard (so pretty, so colorful!). Pot roast. Gingery cauliflower soup. Fried rice with sausage.
I couldn't stop.
Saturday, December 01, 2007
I don't know what it is. Maybe the wrestling with the electric hand mixer. Or the way the batter looks when it's reached ideal consistency. Or the sight of those little cakes in the oven -- like soft, happy pillows peeking out over the edge of the pan.
Whatever it is, I can't stop baking cupcakes. I fantasize about it during the week. What flavor am I going to make this weekend? I wonder if there's a recipe for [insert random ingredient here] cupcakes. I am thinking about putting the cupcake courier on my Christmas wish list, second only to the pink Kitchen Aid stand mixer. (This mixer makes me drool. I like to go to cooking supply stores and touch it. I have done this several times.)
Today, the marriage of two things I am completely obsessed with at the moment: Cupcakes and egg nog.
Hence Egg Nog Cupcakes with Bourbon Caramel Cream Cheese Frosting.
This recipe presented several things I have never done before in the kitchen: Cooking with bourbon (and rum -- the recipe actually calls for both), making caramel and adding filling to cupcakes.
Everything turned out pretty damn well, though. The cupcakes have this gorgeous, extremely fluffy texture -- almost like a sponge cake, which makes it really easy to eat too many of them. They're so light that you don't even notice you're stuffing your face. (I'm wondering if the texture is the result of the egg nog since egg nog already has a lot of egg in it initially.) And the bourbon and rum in the actual cupcakes isn't overwhelming. (I was worried about this, since just smelling the rum brought back bad memories and kind of made me want to barf.)
However, the caramel sauce turned out to be a different story. The bourbon was almost overpowering. This was toned down quite a bit when I combined the caramel with the cream cheese and butter to make the frosting, but I wouldn't recommend eating the caramel on its own. (Too bad, since the recipe suggested drizzling any leftover caramel over the frosted cupcakes. That probably would've made them look very pretty, but there was no way I was going to do that; the bourbon was way too strong.) I think if I make these again, I might take the bourbon down to 1.5 tablespoons or even just 1 tablespoon.
Stuffing the cupcakes was fine, too, although I did mangle the first cupcake pretty badly. (Thank goodness for frosting to cover it up!) Making the custard was really similar to the way you make custard for ice cream. The only tricky thing was that this custard cooked really, really quickly (again, I suspect this is because of the egg nog). I had to move fast and use a strainer to get any lumps out.
One final note: I dusted my cupcakes with nutmeg after I frosted them. I think it added a little sumthin'-sumthin', plus everyone knows egg nog and nutmeg are a match made in heaven.
Here's to the first day of December -- and Christmas just around the corner!