27 September 2010

Delectable delights in San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge
For hubby and I, one of our favourite things to do together is travel - get out there and experience new places, check out the local museums, shop (ya, that might be more "me" than hubby there), take loads of pictures and, of course, taste the local cuisine.  We like to see as much as we can of a new place, and for us, that means lots of our time is spent walking - I've gotten some pretty decent blisters in some of the most beautiful cities in the world.  This year, after a summer that ended up being far more hectic than we had anticipated, hubby and I were both in need of some serious R&R.  A brief amount of surf time on the net showed there were some great deals to be had for San Francisco, which was perfect because, while it's always been on the very long list of places we want to see, it had yet to be checked off.  I made sure we could both get the time off work, booked the flight and hotel and started counting down...

Our countdown time was still busy enough that I didn't even have time to do my customary research-everything-to-death-before-we-go.  In fact, I didn't even start packing until the night before our early morning flight, which had me freaking out just a bit.  You have to understand, I come from a family of Planners, with a capital 'P' - I can guarantee you that my mom has a packing list already started for their Asian cruise next April.  So the fact that I was so unprepared meant that hubby had to take the dogs out to doggy camp on his own while I stayed home to pack.  The irony is, by leaving the packing until the last minute (coupled with the fact that it was a short trip we were headed on), meant that for the first time in my life, I didn't overpack!  I've been a member at Over-Packers Anonymous for quite a while, and I may finally have turned a corner! Woohoo!

The famous San Francisco Cable Cars
Even though our trip was only 4 days, it felt like longer and was exactly what we needed.  Even better, the weather was perfect - sunny and 19˚C the whole time, which the locals told us was a nice change from the foggy and colder-than-usual summer they'd had.  We did a lot of sightseeing, a bit of shopping,  mile after mile of walking (of course), rode the famous cable cars and ate some absolutely incredible meals. Gastronomically speaking, here are some of the highlights:

Our first night, we decided to check out Café de la Presse, at the recommendation of Stephanie over at Desserts for Breakfast (I like the way she thinks!).  A charming French restaurant not far from Union Square, it has a simple but thoroughly French menu.  From start to finish, the entire meal was very good:  soupe à l'oignon, salade aux petit lardons, cassoulet and poulet rôti, all accompanied by the most authentic and delicious baguette I have tasted this side of the Atlantic.  For dessert, we shared a classic tarte tatin, even though we were both full from dinner (I, of all people, should know better!).  The only flaw in an otherwise evening was that the restaurant was quite warm that night, and right about the time we were waiting for our café & dessert, it became uncomfortably so.  Had it not become such a sauna, we likely would have stayed another 30-40 minutes and ended the meal at a more leisurely pace - but thankfully, the cool evening air on the walk home was the perfect fix.

Alcatraz shrouded in fog

 The next day, after returning from our obligatory-but-not-disappointing visit to Alcatraz, we immediately hopped on the ferry to Sausalito, just in time for lunch. It seems that the restaurants along the main street experience a huge surge once the ferry docks, and after passing huge lineups at a few restaurants that weren't all that enticing, we decided to wander further afield - in only makes sense that there would be more restaurants that the locals prefer, a block or two away from the touristy main drag. Sure enough, we happened upon the only restaurant that didn't have a lineup (normally, not an encouraging sign) Piccolo Teatro di Sausalito. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why there wasn't a huge wait for this place - the service was excellent, and the meal was superb. I had the Pulled Porchetta Panino, with a fennel & basic pesto, but I still had to have a taste of hubby's Lamb Burger. We capped it all off with really really good, authentic cappuccinos and sharing a strawberry panna cotta do good it made me want to weep. Sharing it was a huge mistake... I applaud Chef Amey Shaw and her staff for a lunch so good, it eclipsed our meal from the night before.

Since we were "conveniently" so close, we took a cab to the neighbouring town of Mill Valley, for a bit of shopping at the culinary boutique, Tyler Florence Mill Valley.  It is a gorgeous little shop, and the mix of elegant kitchen antiques and vintage silverware that they offer in addition to the high end cookware, tableware, and cooks tools adds a lot of charm and personality into what could have been "just another cookware store".  I read that Tyler's Mrs, Tolan, actually does a lot of the buying for the shop and she has a sharp eye for very pretty things.  I left the shop with a bag of goodies, but sadly I couldn't quite justify the price of the gorgeous cook's apron and towels that seem to have been made exclusively for the shop (of course, that hasn't stopped me from coveting them).  Mill Valley also has a number of home decor stores, antique shops and one hilarious card shop - it's a lovely town to spend an afternoon in.

Tyler Florence ~ Mill Valley
Saturday, we walked down to the SFMoMA for a dose of art and somehow managed to get back onto desserts (I'm as shocked as you are!).  We stopped at the MoMA Rooftop Café for something to drink and discovered the ingenious dessert creations of Blue Bottle Coffee Co's pastry chef Caitlin Freeman; a stunning display of desserts inspired by current exhibits featured at the museum.  Hubby had already ordered me what turned out to be the best affogato I have ever had, but I'm sure that every one of the sweet treats are as delicious as they are beautiful.  To support my thesis, I present the following mouth-watering evidence....

Dessert imitates Art....
Mondrian Cake... definitely on my "to-do" list!

if only the wrapper were edible...

AKA "Eat Your Own Richard Serra"

I want this cup of million dollar hot chocolate!

the Ellsworth Kelly Fudgsicle

the blueprints for a cool, caffeinated treat

On Sunday, we started out towards Golden Gate Park, but got sidetracked by a shoe sale - which I left empty handed, but hubby scored two new pairs. This meant we would have been pretty rushed for the rest of the afternoon, so we just walked and wandered: making our way through Chinatown and several shops on Market Street. In Westfield Centre, we found a fantastic and ingenious chocolate boutique called Cocoa Bella. It's unique because they don't actually make any chocolates of their own - instead, they source high quality, delicious chocolates from artisanal chocolatiers from around the world. Averaging about $2 apiece, I could have spent a *lot* of money on chocolates that afternoon, but after about 10 minutes of drooling on the display case, I finally selected a handful of flavours to try: Rosemary Caramel, Strawberry Balsamic, Crème Brulée, Key Lime, Lemon Cup and Rose Caramel.... every one of them, exquisite. Had we found this shop on day one instead of 4, we'd have brought home even more of them to try. With only two shops, both located in San Francisco, I'm not sure when I'll get back to try some more. Sure, they have an online store, but they only ship overnight within the US. Maybe I'll get some shipped to Sis's place when we're there for Christmas...

San Francisco's Chinatown
For our last meal in the city by the bay, we made reservations at Tyler Florence's brand new restaurant, Wayfare Tavern.  From the moment you enter, it's clear that a great deal of thought went into absolutely every detail of the restaurant.  From the decor of the room, right down to the etched glass water bottles, napkins and cast aluminum charger plates, sugar & cream set - not a single thing has been overlooked.  My only hope is that is stays this way... I tend to be a detail person, and hubby and I are always surprised when we go out to a nice restaurant only to find the handle on the cream pitcher is broken or the table is wobbly, etc.  It's pretty clear that Tyler and his team spared no expense on elegant touches like custom dishes and linens, so it would be shame to see that aspect of the restaurant go downhill as time passes and things naturally start to wear or dishes get broken - our server told us the restaurant only opened at the end of July, so it's all still shiny and new. As for the food (because let's face it, that's really why we were here)  the food was absolutely fantastic: the popovers served for bread were perfection - crisp and puffy with a custardy interior... so good that hubby actually enjoyed seconds before our appetizers arrived.  Dinner itself was off to a great start with the Salt Roasted Bone Marrow for him, and the Figs on a Plate for me.  Just writing this post, I am craving another taste of that creamy burrata cheese with fresh figs, onions & dressing (soooo good - I want to eat that every night).  For dinner, I went with the incredibly moist and tender Fried Chicken & Fries, while hubby had the Smoked Pork Chop - incredibly tasty with grilled peaches, almond butter and fennel.  The entire meal was impeccable, so of course we had to make sure dessert was equally good.  Hubby had the Pineapple Upside-Down Cake, and tried to sway me from my choice of the Fig Semifreddo, since I had the figs as a starter.  As good as his cake was, I did good by going with the figs again - it was incredible.  We were absolutely stuffed, but the entire meal had surpassed my expectations, so it was a pleasurable pain... right up until our server delivered two warm, soft ginger cookies to our table - the customary treat they serve at the end of a meal at Wayfare Tavern.  Of course, I couldn't say no but hubby couldn't eat another bite, so I tucked his cookie into a napkin for him to enjoy later, and to the hotel we waddled to pack for our early morning flight home.

Four days in San Francisco proved to be the perfect remedy for our summertime exhaustion, but we're already itching for another get-away.... guess we'll just have to hang in there until Christmas, when we head back to California to spend the holidays with Sis & her family.  For now, I'll leave you with a couple of shots of the fabulous vintage trolley cars of San Francisco, still in operation but living in the shadows of their cable car cousins....

San Fran's super-cool trolley cars

Very retro and still running!

05 September 2010

Summer's disappeared

S'mores... they're not just for camp fires anymore!
So here I am, writing my first post in over a month.  It seems like I fell off the face of the earth, but I managed to pick myself up and dust myself off.  The last 6 weeks have been a blur of house-guests, out-of town visitors, errands, dinners,  more visitors, meetings, work functions, appointments and all on top of the regular day job.  Yep, I've been running on fumes, and I sincerely apologize to you, my readers, for the long pause in posting.  For my "tasters",  a sincere apology to you as well, for the long pause in baking... In fact, the past month has been so busy that, for more than a week,  I had no flour in the house, and the shiny new All-Clad pan that my sister brought me when she arrived, stayed in it's package for almost 10 days before it felt the heat from my stove.  When I finally did re-stock my pantry with staples, I started with some basic chocolate chip cookies.  Gooey and warm, I piled them into a pretty glass apothecary jar as a housewarming gift for a friend, before heading off to see her new place.  I was also hired to bake a carrot cake for a summer garden wedding - the best kind of wedding to have, in my opinion.  It's just too bad that the weather has been so unseasonably cold for August.  I'm sure when the bride was planning her August wedding, she probably wasn't envisioning October weather.

Even though my kitchen hasn't been getting the work-out it's accustomed to, August did bring some really nice foodie surprises...  I received lots of lovely surprises from some blog buddies I met at Food Blogger Connect in London in June.  Gourmet sugars, heavenly scented tea and coffee, beautiful textiles, and an incredible selection of chocolates from around the world.  YUM!  There really is nothing better than finding sweet surprises in your mailbox... it sure beats the crap out of the usual bills and junkmail.

In getting back into the swing of things, I was struck by inspiration earlier this week on Twitter, when a friend re-tweeted some interesting trivia about graham crackers:

RT @Foodimentary  Who knew? Graham crackers,originally "Dr. Graham's Honey Biskets" 
were conceived to suppress "unhealthy carnal urges"(sex)

Huh? Can someone please explain to me how honey-flavoured biscuits suppress "unhealthy carnal urges"? Some incredibly decadent chocolate could probably distract folks for a while, but dude, graham crackers aren't exactly one of those foods that people go nuts for. On their own, they're pretty boring; a dry, crisp mildly sweet honey & brown sugar flavoured biscuit. You can't even call them a cookie! In my world, graham wafers have existed for only two reasons: to be ground up, mixed with butter & pressed into a pan as a crust for cheesecake and flapper pie, and for s'mores. Even then, you only really need them so you don't burn your hand on the molten marshmallow & oozy chocolate when you're sitting around the campfire. So, no, I can't really get too wound up for graham crackers, and I certainly wouldn't be denying my {ahem} carnal urges in exchange for one.  Anyway, a conversation ensued, in which it was suggested that the homemade version were tastier and I should give them a try.  All right, I'm game.  After all, what store bought biscuit is better out of a box than it is fresh from the oven?

I have to admit that these are incredibly simple to make, with a much shorter ingredient list than I anticipated.  So much so, that I doubt I will ever buy graham crackers again (Geez, I hope Honey Maid doesn't go bankrupt! Ha, like they're really going to notice the lost sales of $2.49 every 8 years).  And while I was rolling out dough and cutting them into shapes, I started brainstorming about s'mores, and how to turn them into something that could wow and involves less potential need for a burn kit.  {idea} S'mores Tartlettes!  Aha! Now we're onto something!  

S'mores for grown ups... toasty marshmallow tops

I cut the dough into rough circles and pressed them into my mini cheesecake pan.  "Why a cheesecake pan" you ask? Because it turns out I don't own a mini-muffin pan.  Not sure how that's possible - and I gotta say, it's a little alarming to someone like me who takes pride in her incredibly well-stocked kitchen tool arsenal. After all, I own a mini-cheesecake pan, for crying out loud!  Anyhoo... I baked up my little graham wafer crusts, made a thick fleur de sel dark chocolate ganache and then got to work on my homemade marshmallows for the top.  Homemade marshmallows?!?  Hang on, lady!  Isn't that just a tad overboard?  You know what?  It's not.  Unless I'm sitting around a fire with a nice marshmallow-toasting stick in my hand I'm about as fond of store-bought marshmallows as I am of graham crackers, but homemade ones - those are incredible!  When you taste one, you can see how marshmallows pop up in gourmet stores all over Europe - because they're delicious!  And if you have a stand mixer, they take a whole 10 minutes of actual effort on your part.

The end result looks pretty impressive, and tastes pretty incredible too.  It's one of those things where the individual ingredients themselves don't have a lot of wow, but put those components together, and you have a hit.  I think these would be a huge hit on the dessert table at your next party.  Great finger food, not as messy as their original counterpart, and they look as though you spent hours and hours making them, when in fact it should take you less than one.  So here's the recipe, tuck this one away for the upcoming holiday season, when party trays need some a little inspiration.  These are bound to be a huge hit.

Happy Baking!

S'mores - all dressed up with nowhere to go!
Graham CrackersAdapted from Nancy Silverton's Pastries from La Brea Bakery

375g all-purpose flour 
175g dark brown sugar, lightly packed
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp kosher
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cardamom100g unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes and frozen
115g honey (mild honey is recommended, but I used Manuka honey, which is strong and dark and caramelly, because it's my favourite)
75ml milk
30ml vanilla extract

Adjust the oven rack to the centre and preheat the oven to 350°F.

Combine the flour, brown sugar, baking soda, salt and spices in the bowl of a food processor.  Pulse  several times to combine. Add the butter and combine, using 1-second pulses, until the mixture is the butter is about the size of small peas.

In a small bowl, mix together the honey, milk, and vanilla. Add to the flour mixture and pulse on and off a few times or mix on low until the dough just comes together.  If you want to make these into regular cracker-type biscuits, turn the dough out onto a sheet of plastic wrap and chill it until firm, about 2 hours or overnight.  If you're making adorable little tartlettes like I did, press a small amount of dough into your tart molds, then chill the entire pan for about 20 minutes.  Because the dough puffs up quite a bit, I recommend lining the tarts with parchment paper and then filling them with pie weights before baking.

While the dough chills, you can make the ganache:

Fleur de Sel Chocolate Ganache
120ml heavy cream
200g dark chocolate (chopped) or high quality chocolate chips
2tsp fleur de sel
1/2 tsp vanilla

Place the chocolate, vanilla and fleur de sel in a heatproof bowl.  In a small saucepan, heat the cream until it is steaming, but do not allow it to boil.  Pour the cream over the chocolate and allow it to sit for a few minutes.  Gently whisk to combine, until the mixture is thick and silky.  Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.

Just add chocolate...
Back to the tart shells:
Bake for 15 -20 minutes, until browned and slightly firm to the touch.  Transfer them to a cooling rack and allow them to cool for about 10 minutes before filling half to 2/3 full with the chocolate ganache.

While the shells are baking up in the oven, you have time to make the marshmallow:

Adapted from Gourmet Magazine's Toasted Coconut Mashmallows

1 envelope gelatine powder
80ml water
100g sugar
115g light corn syrup
1/2 tsp vanilla
pinch of salt

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, put 40ml of the water, and sprinkle the gelatine overtop.  Set the bowl back on the mixer, but leave the mixer turned off so the gelatine can "bloom".  
Pour the remaining 40ml water into a heavy-bottomed saucepan.  Gently add the sugar to the centre of the pan, then add the corn syrup.  Place over medium high heat and, without stirring, bring mixture to a boil.  Check the temperature and measures 240˚F on an instant-read or candy thermometer.  Remove from heat and set aside until the bubbles dissipate. Turn the mixer to medium-low and, with the mixer running, pour the hot syrup mixture into the bowl in a slow and thin stream .  Once all of the syrup has been added, turn the mixer to high and continue to beat until the mixture is very thick, about 15 minutes. Spoon the mixture into a piping bag and pipe marshmallow on top of the ganache-filled graham cracker shells.  The marshmallow will be extremely sticky, but will set up immediately.
Using a small torch, gently toast the tops of the marshmallow topping.  Alternatively, you can do this under the broiler in your oven, just keep a very careful eye on them so they don't burn.

.... and devour!