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It was a cold and rainy January night, and my headlights cut through the fog as I headed North along winding country roads. The occasional oncoming brights seemed to flash out of nowhere, doing little to calm my nerves. I clenched the steering wheel with trepidation, knowing I’d be reporting for my first day of boot camp at the CIA before the sun came up.

Although this may sound like the opening paragraph of a bad thriller, the CIA that I’m referring to is, of course, the Culinary Institute of America. Thanks to an incredibly thoughtful gift from my husband and parents, I was headed to spend the week of my birthday in “Culinary Boot Camp: Basic Training” brushing up on my cooking skills. The course promised hands-on training in all the fundamentals from knife skills, to kitchen terminology, to basic cooking methods like roasting, grilling, poaching and braising, just to name a few. Although I’ve considered myself a pretty good cook for years, I’d never had any professional training in the basics and I liked the idea of becoming more confident in the how and why of the kitchen. Spending a whole week in a real culinary school–you might even say THE culinary school–was a dare to myself. Would I still feel passionate about this hobby under such extreme circumstances? Do I have what it takes to even allow myself to daydream of making this a career someday?

CIA Napa

Those were the questions on my mind as I pulled into the dark parking lot at 5:45 the next morning and stared up at the imposing, castle-like fortress, appropriately named “Greystone”. After a few minutes in the lobby, exchanging nervous glances with the other recruits, we were issued our uniforms: black and white checkered pants and white double-breasted jackets, and sent to the bathrooms to change. Our instructor, Rebecca greeted us in the classroom, and stifling a laugh at seeing all of our kerchiefs tied around our necks like a bunch of new boy scouts, promptly instructed us that we’d need to make “some adjustments” to our uniforms. She showed us how to tie the kerchiefs like a cravat under our jackets, and how to tuck our towels neatly into our apron strings, and before we knew it, we were well on our way to acting the part of professional chefs.

After a brief orientation to the massive kitchen and a few demonstrations on knife skills, we were split into small groups and given assignments. Day one was stocks and sauces. We made five different types of stocks from scratch, which we would use in our recipes for the rest of the week. And on my first day of boot camp, I quickly learned that I have a lot to learn. I’m no stranger to homemade stock. I grew up in a house where the smell of homemade chicken soup in winter was as constant as the sound of the furnace keeping us warm. Open my freezer at home and you’re likely to find a roasted turkey carcass being saved for a rainy day. The method that my mother taught me, and that her grandmother taught her, yields a wonderfully rich, slightly cloudy, golden brown poultry stock that’s great in soups and stews with a robust flavor. But there is so much more to the art of stock-making that was new to me. I didn’t know about the constant skimming or the blanching of bones for an end result that is clearer in color and more delicate in flavor. I didn’t know to only add the vegetables in the last hour of cooking–just long enough to render their flavor but not long enough for them to break down and cloud the texture of the stock.

These moments of enlightenment–of deeper understanding of techniques and ingredients I thought I knew–continued throughout the week. After the first day of class, I called my friend Holly and excitedly told her “everything I thought I knew about cooking was ‘wrong’!” To which she protested (as the truly supportive friend that she is), “but how can it be wrong? Your cooking has always tasted great.” And that’s why I put “wrong” in quotes. Like any creative endeavor, there’s a lot about cooking that’s subjective and intuitive. In the kitchen, the ends often justify the means. But like a jazz musician with an understanding of  the fundamentals of rhythm and melody, a cook with a deeper knowledge of the science behind the art will get more consistently satisfying results when improvising. Throughout the week as we worked our way through roasting, braising, grilling, emulsions and starches I soaked up tidbits of knowledge on everything from the shape of protein strands as meat cools, to the acids released by green vegetables when cooked. And I learned something new about even the most basic of recipes. Even mashed potatoes, which is probably one of the first things I ever ate and is practically running through my veins, yielded an “aha moment” in the CIA kitchen.

After five exhausting and exhilarating days in a professional kitchen, I had blisters on my feet, an ossobuco burn on my hand, stains all over my white jacket, and a head that was spinning with fancy french terms like concasse and veloute. But more importantly, I had a new spring in my step, a new level of confidence in the kitchen, and a hunger for more. Where this passion may lead, I still do not know, but after a week at the CIA the spark is anything but extinguished.

Since I can’t possibly share everything I learned during my week at the CIA in one or two blog posts. I thought I’d sprinkle some of my newfound knowledge throughout the next few posts as I put it into practice at home. First up: roux and bechamel sauce. Last weekend, I made the classic Greek dish, “Papoutsakia” or “Little Shoes” (aka, baked eggplant stuffed with meat sauce and bechamel), which gave me a perfect chance to practice some of my new skills.

What I learned in culinary school about roux and bechamel:

-The basic ratio of roux is 6 parts flour/4 parts fat by weight
-At the CIA, we used clarified butter  (butter with the milk solids removed) because you can cook it a higher temperature without risk of burning. I must confess, I was lazy at home and just used regular unsalted butter.
-There are four stages of roux (cooked at varying lengths) which are used to thicken different sauces: 1) white roux, only cooked for about 8 min, just until raw flour taste is removed and the texture is like wet sand. Used in white sauces like bechamel. 2) Blonde/light roux, cooked another 2-3 minutes until color is golden and it smells like shortbread cookies. Used in thinner sauces like chicken veloute or gravy. 3) Brown roux, cooked until it’s the color of brown sugar and it smells like toasted almonds. Used in sauce Espagnole (tomato-based sauce with veal stock). 4) Black roux: cooked until it’s the color of molasses. Only used in Cajun/Creole cooking.
-The longer the flour cooks, the less thickening power it has.
-Classic bechamel sauce is made by adding scalded milk to white roux. Heating the milk with an “oignon pique” (whole, peeled onion, with a bay leaf “tacked” onto it with a few cloves) adds flavor.

Papoutsakia Recipe from “Modern Greek” by Andy Harris

6 small italian eggplants (mine were about 7-8″ long and 2-3″ in diameter. You can use any kind of eggplant. The recipe called for two large eggplants, but I chose the small variety for prettier individual servings.)
2-3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cups meat sauce (recipe follows)
2 cups bechamel sauce (recipe follows)
3 Tablespoons finely ground bread crumbs
2 Tablespoons finely grated parmesan cheese
chopped parsley for garnish

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Half eggplants length-wise. Score flesh with a knife to create a diamond pattern, and then scoop out flesh with a spoon, taking care not to break through the skin. Chop flesh into small pieces, and saute in a skillet with olive oil over medium heat until cooked through and slightly browned around edges. Add cooked eggplant to meat sauce. Place eggplant halves skin-side down on a lightly greased baking sheet. Fill each eggplant with meat sauce, then top with a generous layer of bechamel (meat should be fully covered with bechamel sauce.) Sprinkle bread crumbs and parmesan evenly over stuffed eggplants and bake for about 40 minutes, until topping is bubbly and golden brown in spots. Garnish with parsley and serve.

Meat Sauce (yields about 5 cups)
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 small/medium yellow onions, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 stalks celery, finely diced
2 pounds lean ground beef
15 oz can of diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2/3 cup red wine
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 sprig fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
3 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

Heat oil in a large skillet and saute onions, garlic and celery over medium heat until translucent. Remove to a bowl and set aside. Brown the ground beef in skillet over medium high heat, pouring off excess liquid/fat if needed. Add sautéed onion mixture back to pan and combine with beef. Season with salt and pepper. Add remaining ingredients and simmer for about 45 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. Consistency of sauce should be thick and not too liquidy.

Bechamel Sauce
(yields about 4 cups)
4 cups whole milk
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon all spice berries
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1 cup flour
8 tablespoons finely grated parmesan
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste (white pepper preferred)

Scald the milk in a saucepan with bay leaves and all spice berries, and turn heat off. Heat the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat, until melted and frothy. Add the flour all at once. Stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, cook over low heat until the roux is a pale ivory and the consistency of wet sand. About 8 minutes. Whisk the scalded milk into the roux (pour through a strainer to remove the bay leaves and all spice berries), and increase heat slightly to bring sauce to a boil, then reduce again and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, for about 15 minutes. Sauce should be thick and smooth. Remove from heat and stir in parmesan. Add nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste.The bechamel for this recipe is thicker than the standard–it should be about the consistency of pudding when it cools slightly. If it’s too paste-like, add a little more milk.

The ratios listed above will make a lot more meat sauce and bechamel sauce than you need for the papoutsakia. You can either half the quantities, or use the extra for something else. I used the leftovers in a greek-ish lasagna layered with pasta, bechamel sauce (added a little more milk to thin it out), meat sauce, diced, roasted butternut squash, with a layer of mozzarella on top. It was delicious and definitely not your typical lasagna recipe.

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A few years ago, I stopped making New Year’s resolutions. No matter how good my intentions in January, before long I always found myself holding a bag full of broken promises with nothing but a guilty heart to show for it. In an effort to make our commitments for the new year a little stickier, instead of a long list of resolutions, my husband and I started coming up with a simple word or two that we want to hang on to for the year. A motto of sorts. Something we can repeat to ourselves or each other throughout the year when we need a little kick in the pants. In 2011, it was “Jump In”, meaning “take risks”, “try new things” (like starting a blog, for example), “what the hell are we waiting for?”.

On January 1, 2012, with the year’s mantra still up for grabs, we decided to start the year with an impromptu adventure. We put the kayaks on the roof of the car, packed our overnight bags and headed north towards Pt. Reyes. It was one of those weekends that was good to the last drop: a late afternoon paddle, followed with cold beer and fresh oysters on the half shell, sleeping late under a pile of quilts at the Olema Inn, a hike that was long enough to make our legs ache for days, and lots of time to reflect on the ups and downs of 2011 and hopes for the year ahead. During one of those moments, we settled on the catch phrase for 2012: “Savor.” A reminder to slow down and enjoy. To appreciate the fleeting moments that threaten to pass by unnoticed. To find joy in simple pleasures.

And with that in mind, the recipe I want to share with you is simple and sweet. For all the wonderful restaurant meals and elaborate home-cooked feasts of 2011, our simple New Year’s eve dinner at home in front of the fire was one of my favorites. Our main course was Dungeness crabs, steamed with champagne, butter, garlic and fennel, inspired by this beautiful post on The Year in Food. For dessert, the limes from our backyard tree were the stars. After two years of nurturing and fertilizing, our little tree is finally beginning to yield some fruit, which seemed just right for our last taste of 2011.

Inspired by the Vanilla Lime Posset at Twenty-Five Lusk in San Francisco, and using mrslarkin’s Lemon Posset recipe from Food52 as a guide, I made a Lime Posset, which is a rich and creamy custard. With only three ingredients, fifteen minutes of active prep and cooking time, it really could not be any simpler…and yet so elegant and cleansing. Not a bad way to end the year. And it just so happens to taste great with champagne. Also not a bad way to end the year.

Lime Posset

2 cups heavy cream
2/3 cups granulated sugar
1/3 cup lime juice (you’ll need 2-3 limes)
zest from two limes

Heat cream and sugar in a small, heavy saucepan over medium-high heat until boiling, stirring to dissolve sugar. Continue cooking at a gentle boil for five minutes. Watch the heat closely, and turn it down slightly if the cream begins to froth up–you don’t want it to boil over. The mixture will still be very liquidy, and you might be tempted–as I did the first time I made this–to keep boiling a little longer to let it thicken, because it’s hard to believe that this hot, runny liquid will turn into the beautiful, creamy custard you envision. Have faith. Five minutes, no more, no less, will get you the perfect texture.

Remove pan from heat and stir in lime juice, and half of the lime zest. Let cool for 5-10 minutes, and then pour custard into small ramekins, espresso cups or port glasses. Sprinkle a little of the remaining lime zest on the top of each serving. This is a pretty rich and flavorful dessert, and a few bites go a long way. I like using a dish that holds about 1/4 cup if liquid, in which case, the recipe makes 6-8 servings.

Happy New Year! May you have many moments that are worth savoring.

PS- Right after I published this post, my friend The Wimpy Vegetarian turned me onto the concept of a bloghop, where the food blog community connects with other blogs to share recipes. It just so happens that the theme this month is “Citrus Love”, so I joined in on the fun. To read more about it and discover over 100 great citrus recipes from other food bloggers, pucker up and check out this post on The Wimpy Vegetarian.

This year, we hosted a mellow Thanksgiving dinner with a few friends. I cooked for days, and all the usual suspects were at the table: turkey, stuffing, green beans, the works. But my surprise favorites of the day were the butternut squash soup and sun-dried tomato shortbread that I served as appetizers.

Maybe it was my favorite because the soup looked so pretty in those espresso cups passed down from my mother-in-law. The ones her mother brought back from Vienna, which had been sitting in my cabinet for ages just begging for a chance. Maybe it tasted so good because we had just come in from a long hike, rosy-faced and ravenous, and hot soup was waiting. Maybe it was the smell of turkey in the oven, and the anticipation of the feast still to come. The sound of laughter and wine glasses clinking. The sun setting on the cusp of a four-day weekend…

Okay, let’s be honest, it was probably the bacon. Culinary cheating. Maybe it’s wrong, but it tasted so right, and I’ll definitely be making this combo again.

Butternut Squash & White Bean Soup

Adapted, ever so slightly, from this recipe, posted on Food52 by Brussels Sprouts for Breakfast. I first tasted the soup when someone made it for a Food52 potluck party that I was lucky enough to attend. (more on that in another post). I reversed the balance of the flavors a bit here by increasing the squash and decreasing the beans–mainly because I have to be sneaky about the use of beans in my cooking if I want to fool “Mr. T” into eating it. (Which worked beautifully in this case. Again, it’s probably the bacon.)

1 medium-sized butternut squash
6 slices thick bacon, each strip cut into about 4 pieces
2 shallots, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 stalks celery coarsely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed slightly
1/4 cup sherry (optional)
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves
15 oz can of cannellini beans
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 shallots, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 stalks celery coarsely chopped
2 carrot, peeled and coarsely chopped
4 cups chicken or turkey stock
1/2 cup half & half
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut the butternut squash in half the long way, brush with olive oil and put on a baking sheet, cut-side up. Roast for 30-40 minutes, until squash is soft all the way through when poked with a fork, and a little brown around the edges. Allow to cool slightly, then scoop seeds out with a spoon and discard.

Heat a little olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add bacon and saute until sizzling and cooked through. (Don’t worry about getting it crisp, as it will all be pureed in the end.) Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and place onto a plate lined with a paper towel. Pour off all but one tablespoon of bacon fat.

Add  shallots, celery, carrots, and garlic to pan and saute over medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon. Add a little olive oil if necessary to prevent burning. Add salt, pepper and red pepper flakes and cook for about 10 minutes until vegetables are softened and just beginning to brown. Add sherry to deglaze pan, stirring with a wooden spoon to scrape up brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Cook for a minute or two to allow alcohol to burn off. Transfer mixture to a large pot.

Add beans, bacon and rosemary to pot and cook over medium heat for 1-2 minutes to allow flavors to meld. Add all the stock to the pot, raise the heat and bring to a simmer. Cook for about 10 minutes, and then turn heat off, allowing mixture to cool slightly.

Using a spoon, scrape the flesh of one half of the roasted squash from its skin and place it into the bowl of a food processor. Ladle a few spoonfuls of the soup mixture on top of the squash and blend until smooth and then return pureed mixture to the soup pot. Repeat until all the soup and squash have been pureed. If you have a hand-held immersion blender, lucky you, you can skip the food processor and just blend it all together in the soup pot. If you want to make the soup ahead of time and freeze it, stop here, and follow the final steps just before serving.

Heat pureed mixture over low heat. Mix in the half and half and stir to combine. Add more broth and/or half and half to achieve desired consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Savory Shortbread with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Thyme

These little riches were inspired by Rhode Island chef and caterer, Chris Whirlow. I had his savory olive shortbread at a party and asked him for the recipe. (He calls them “Scourtins aux Olives de Nyons”, which I must admit sounds way fancier, but I like the simplicity of shortbread.) I decided to swap the olives for sun-dried tomatoes and thyme to complement the flavors of my soup.

1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 cup powdered sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, finely chopped (I used the kind that come in a jar with olive oil, and left them pretty wet with oil. If you’re using the dried out variety, you’ll want to reconstitute it first, and may need to add some extra fat.)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt

Cream  butter and sugar. Drizzle olive oil and mix in with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Stir in the flour by hand just until the dough is smooth. Add the sun-dried tomatoes, thyme and salt and stir just until they are evenly
distributed throughout the dough.

Dough will be a little crumbly. (Ok, at this point in the recipe, I must fess up. Chris’s recipe said the dough would be a little sticky and my plan was to roll it into a log, freeze it, and slice and bake. Sounds easy, right? But my dough wasn’t a little sticky. It was a lot crumbly. Probably because I converted his recipe from weight measurements since I don’t own a kitchen scale. It’s on my Christmas list! If you are a better baker than I, you can probably tweak this recipe back into shape. But the crumbly version was really good too, so I’ll call it a happy accident.) Press the dough into a baking pan, using your fingers to make it hold together and to get an even thickness. I used 9″x12″ pan. A little larger would be okay for thinner shortbread. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate the dough for at least 45 minutes, or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, until ever so slightly brown around the edges and evenly dry on top. Allow to cool for a few minutes and cut into squares. As you can see in my photo, I didn’t end up with perfect squares, but the rustic-looking crumbly shapes were okay with me. Now you know the truth about why I couldn’t give them a fancy name like “scourtins”. Whatever you call them, they taste pretty delicious dipped in soup, with a fire in the fireplace and some good friends to be thankful with.

Today is my mom’s 60th birthday. That’s her on the left in the photo below, with her brothers, circa 1955.

It’s days like today that really make me wish I lived closer. But since I couldn’t be there to celebrate with my mom, I wanted to send something that would really make her smile. Something homemade and thoughtful. Something you couldn’t buy at Amazon.com. That’s when I stumbled upon this recipe for homemade Oreos on the smitten kitchen blog.

My mom has always had a thing for Oreos. She grew up in a 1950’s household with two parents who were astonished and amazed by the conveniences of “modern” food. Jell-O, Cool Whip, Velveeta–anything that came in a package and never ever lost its color or “flavor” held a special place in my grandmother Phyllis’ heart and kitchen. (Let’s just say that neither my mother nor I got our love of cooking from Phyl.)

When my mom got older and started her own household in the 70’s, the pendulum swung in the other direction. We were a home-grown, home-cooked, health food kinda family before the word “organic” was even invented (or discovered by marketers). Even our peanut butter required laborious stirring before it could be slathered on whole grain bread and dutifully gummed down.

Junk food was strictly verboden. Except of course, when we visited my grandparents. Their house was always stocked, and my grandmother made sure the cookie jar was filled to the brim with Jaynie’s favorite: Oreo cookies. My mom would go on a three-day bender of Oreos and Hershey’s kisses, only to repent with kale smoothies when we got home.

Now that my grandparents are no longer around, it’s probably been years since my mom’s even had an Oreo. So I hope that today, on her birthday, she pours herself a tall glass of ice-cold milk and enjoys a few of these–hell, maybe even the whole box. And I hope the sugar rush kicks in and makes her feel like she’s 6 years old again. Not that she’s ever had any problem looking or acting like a kid. If my mom is any indicator, 60 is the new hip.

Happy birthday, Mom. Thanks for teaching me that home cooking always trumps junk food. But today, you can have your cookies and eat them too.

      

For the Oreo cookie recipe, go to smitten kitchen, since I definitely can’t say it any better than she did. And you should see her mouth-watering photos. It’s a great recipe, and she is right: you’ve been warned.

I recently spent a lovely week in New York, combining business and pleasure–which for me of course, means friends + food. The October weather could not have been more perfect: crisp, sunny and heart-breakingly fall. Living in California, I really miss fall. Winter, not so much. But sunny October days on the East Coast fill me with longing and make me want to do all kinds of cliché autumn things like apple-picking and pumpkin carving (which I checked off my list during this trip with my friend’s daughter Gabbie, who is missing her two front teeth, just like the Jack-o-Lantern we carved.)

Fall also brings cravings for warm, stick-to-your-ribs meals savored leisurely over good wine and good conversation in cozy, tucked away nooks. Another item checked off my list in NYC, thanks to my friend Jenny’s excellent dinner choice: Fedora in Greenwich Village. It was one of those small little spots hiding below street level in a brownstone building on a tree-lined street, contributing to the feeling that we had discovered a great little secret. Which apparently is not so secret after all, because the place was packed and Jenny and I practically had to lean nose-to-nose over our table to hear our own conversation above the Saturday night barroom buzz. Despite the acoustic challenges, we enjoyed an immensely satisfying meal of comfort food with playful twists. I couldn’t stop thinking about my entrée: a juicy pork chop with roasted figs and crispy kale chips scattered on top. So I tried to recreate the magic at home.

After searching online for some good pork brining recipes, I stumbled upon this mouth-watering recipe for Cider Brined Pork with Calvados, Mustard and Thyme by Oui, Chef on Food52. I used this recipe as my jumping-off point and made a few modifications inspired by my meal at Fedora. I followed the brine recipe precisely (except I only brined for about 8 hours because I hadn’t planned far enough in advance for an overnight brine. It was still good, and I’m sure would only get better if allowed to bathe longer.), and then made a few modifications to the sauce and pork preparation, as detailed below.

I still have not mastered the art of food photography after the sun goes down (which makes it especially hard to get good shots in the winter), so I’ll have to leave most of this to your imagination. You’ll have to trust me that it’s a very pretty dish. Fresh figs and kale chips make lovely accessories.

Cider Brined Pork Chop with Figs and Kale Chips
Serves 2.

Oui, Chef’s Cider Brine:
2 cups apple cider
1 1/2 cup water
1/4 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup lightly packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
2 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds
3 sprigs fresh thyme

Place all brine ingredients in a medium saucepan, and stir over low heat until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool. Place pork in a in a shallow bowl, cover fully with brine, wrap and refrigerate at least 8 hours or overnight. When ready to cook, remove the chops from the brine, rinse well under cold water, and dry with paper towels before continuing.

While the pork was soaking, Mr. T and I decided to take the kayaks for a little spin along the waterfront to work up an appetite. (Okay, October days in California can be pretty sweet too.)

Then back to the kitchen…

Pork Chop and Fig Sauce (Modified from Oui, Chef’s recipe):
A large 2″ thick pork chop
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup brandy
1 shallot, finely minced
6 fresh figs, stems removed, cut in half
1/3 cup apple cider
1/4 cup chicken broth
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, finely minced

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Heat oil in a heavy (preferably iron) skillet over medium-high heat. Season pork with a little salt and freshly ground pepper. Add pork to skillet and sear until nice and brown, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer pork chop to plate and set aside.

Reduce heat to medium-low. Add shallots to pan and stir with a wooden spoon for 1-2 minutes, allowing them to brown slightly. If it seems dry, or like they are starting to burn, add a splash of oil or a pat of butter. Add figs and cook for one more minute. Turn heat up slightly to medium and de-glaze the pan with the brandy, scraping the brown bits off the bottom of the pan. Stir in broth and cider, then mustard, stirring well to combine. Add thyme, then return pork chop to the skillet, and place the skillet in the oven for about 15 minutes, or until center of pork chop reaches 16o degrees.

Remove skillet from oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Carve pork chop into thin slices and plate (I served it over a creamy polenta) with fig sauce spooned on top and kale chips scattered on top and around the sides. We enjoyed this meal in our backyard, with a nice bottle of wine by the fire–savoring a crisp California fall night.

Other food highlights from my trip to NYC: A great dinner at Craft with David & Gary (everything was delicious. The octopus with harissa was a revelation, hen of the woods mushrooms were to die for, and I wouldn’t mind a chance to bathe in the vermouth sauce they served with the scallops); I’m still dreaming of the chocolate caramel pignoli tart with sea salt that Julie, Sharyn and I shared (fought over?) at Recipe; and oh how I wish I had been hungrier when I stumbled upon Donna Bell’s Bake Shop in Hell’s Kitchen. I could’ve climbed into the coconut layer cake for a nap (after my vermouth butter bath, perhaps?), but alas, I only had room for some sweet tea. Just another reason to return soon.

This month, Erica invited our cooking club to explore the theme “Quintessential San Francisco” during one of our epic four-hour eating fests. The meal did not disappoint: sourdough bread made from scratch, bay shrimp salad, an Alice Waters-inspired goat cheese souffle, and a hearty cioppino with lots of fresh seafood, including (of course) Dungeness crab.

I signed up for dessert duty and took my inspiration from the classic San Francisco treat I fell in love with when I first moved here years ago. No, I’m not talking about Rice-a-Roni (but wouldn’t that be an interesting dessert challenge?). I’m talking about “It’s It” ice cream sandwiches: vanilla ice cream sandwiched between two oatmeal cookies and dipped in chocolately goodness. Developed in 1928 at Playland-at-the-Beach (San Francisco’s version of Coney Island), and still available at any respectable corner store in SF.

I didn’t want to drift too far from the original combination–why mess with a good thing?–but I did dress it up a bit. This is cooking club after all, which is nothing if not over-the-top. After a little rummaging around in the spice cabinet, I ended up with a creation that was sort of like It’s It‘s sassier granddaughter. And It was good. Damn good. Which is why I feel compelled to share the recipe with you.

I’m not gonna lie. This was an all-weekend commitment. If you’re looking for quick and easy, you’re better off getting your It’s It at the corner store. But if you like an excuse to spend the day making a big mess in your kitchen, and licking all kinds of yummy spoons along the way, It’s totally worth It.

“It’s It” Vanilla Bean Ice Cream Sandwiches with Oatmeal Molasses Spice Cookies, Dipped in Mexican Chocolate 

Step 1: Make your ice cream custard (see vanilla bean ice cream recipe below), and stick it in the fridge to chill. I chose to make vanilla bean ice cream, but I have to admit, once it was all said and done, the other flavors kinda stole the spotlight, so I’m not sure it’s worth wasting two expensive vanilla beans for this recipe. You might be better off with a simple vanilla ice cream, made with extract. But I’ll leave that up to you. Vanilla bean certainly sounds fancier, for when that sort of thing matters.

Step 2: Make cookies (see recipe below). I experimented with the cookie recipe. I looked up a bunch of recipes and then more or less decided to do my own thing. I thought that using molasses might help keep the cookies soft when frozen. I’m not really sure if that worked, but I did like the flavor. Kind of like a cross between an oatmeal and a ginger cookie. The dough really spread out a lot on the cookie sheets while baking, so I used a 3″ cookie cutter to trim all the cookies into uniform circles. I can be obsessive compulsive like that sometimes. If you’re going the OCD route, it’s easiest to do while the cookies are still a little warm. And you can save the cookie scraps to munch on or crumble over ice cream. (As if you’ll need any extra calories after devouring a chocolate-dipped ice cream sandwich or two…or three.)

Step 3: Freeze ice cream custard in your ice cream maker. BTW, don’t forget–like I did–to put the bowl of your ice cream maker in the freezer the day before you want to use it. Oops. Any sane person probably would have said “oh well, I guess I’ll use store-bought ice cream.” But not me.  My Martha Stewart gene kicked in and I was up until 12:30 am making ice cream sandwiches.

Step 4: Assemble sandwiches. I didn’t measure, but I’d guess that I put about 1/3 cup of ice cream in each sandwich. Next time, I’d put a little more, since I had plenty left over and the proportions of the final sandwich leaned a little too far in the cookie/chocolate direction. Wrap them up in plastic and freeze at least 3 hours, or overnight. I devised a little system to keep the ice cream from oozing out too much that–depending on how you look at it–was either incredibly anal (see Martha Stewart gene above) or incredibly lazy (because it was after midnight and I didn’t want to wait for my soft ice cream to harden up in the freezer). Regardless of your verdict on my motive, it worked incredibly well, and it went a little something like this: I took ramekins that were 3.5″ in diameter and 3″ deep, and lined them with plastic wrap, leaving a generous amount of plastic hanging over the sides. As I assembled each sandwich, I placed it into the ramekin, put a little wax paper in between, and then layered another sandwich on top (2 sandwiches in each ramekin). Then I closed the plastic wrap tightly over the top and stuck the ramekins in the freezer as I filled each one. This allowed me to get the sandwiches into the freezer faster as I worked, and it was also much easier to make room in my freezer than if all the sandwiches were on one tray.

Step 5: Make the Mexican chocolate coating.

20 oz. bittersweet chocolate chips (I used Ghirardelli, of course!)
6 oz. milk chocolate chips
2 tablespoons vegetable shortening
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
dash cayenne pepper

Melt the chocolate and shortening in a deep saucepan over very low heat, stirring constantly. Add spices and stir. As soon the mixture is smooth and melted, remove from the heat and set aside, letting it slowly come to room temperature.

Step 6: Time to dip! This is the fun/messy part. I looked at a few different references for technique, and the idea of adding shortening to the chocolate, but relied most heavily on Merill’s recipe for Mint Chocolate Harbor Bars on Food52.

Get a baking sheet that will fit in your freezer and line it with wax paper. Working with one sandwich at a time (keep the rest in the freezer), place the sandwich onto a slotted spoon and lower it into the melted chocolate. Turn the sandwich over with your fingers and lower it back into the chocolate to coat the whole sandwich evenly, and then lift it out with the spoon, letting the excess chocolate drip off. Transfer sandwich to the baking sheet and quickly repeat with the remaining sandwiches. Immediately return the sandwiches to the freezer until the chocolate sets, at least 15 minutes.

At this point in the recipe, me and my entire kitchen were covered in chocolate. It wasn’t pretty. All my sandwiches had little white finger prints where the chocolate didn’t cover and the ice cream was peeking out, so as soon as the chocolate covering hardened up a little, I re-dipped the bald spots. They looked pretty goopy gloppy, like a kindergarten art project, and my Martha Stewart side worried that I’d be kicked out of my cooking club. But in the end it didn’t matter. It just made them look legitimately homemade, and they were so damn delicious that nobody seemed to mind the fingerprints. It didn’t hurt that we were in the middle of a glorious mini-heat wave in San Francisco, and ice cream sandwiches seemed just the right thing to do.

Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
Makes about 1 1/2 quarts

2 vanilla beans
3 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 large eggs

Cut vanilla beans in half lengthwise. Scrape seeds into a large heavy saucepan and stir in pods, cream, milk, and sugar. Bring mixture just to a boil, stirring occasionally, and remove pan from heat.

In a large bowl lightly beat eggs. Add hot cream mixture to eggs in a slow stream, whisking, and pour into pan. Cook custard over moderately low heat, stirring constantly, until custard is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. (About 10-15 min.) Pour custard through a sieve into a clean bowl and cool. Chill custard, its surface covered with wax paper, at least 3 hours, or until cold, and up to 1 day.

Freeze custard in an ice-cream maker. Transfer ice cream to an airtight container and put in freezer to harden up slightly (30-60 min)—it will be easiest to assemble sandwiches while ice cream is still slightly soft. But the ice cream can be made up to one week ahead and stored in the freezer in an airtight container (ditto for any leftover ice cream). If you make the ice cream ahead of time, simply remove from the freezer and allow it to soften up a bit before you assemble the sandwiches.

Oatmeal Molasses Spice Cookies

Makes about 3 dozen.

1/2 lb (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup molasses
2 large eggs
1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon dried ground orange peel (I happened to have this in my spice cabinet, so I threw some in. I’m sure you could use fresh orange zest—I would do ½ tsp.—or skip this ingredient)
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground white pepper
3 cups whole rolled oats (old-fashioned)

Pre-heat oven to 350° F. Cream together the butter, sugar, and molasses in a large mixing bowl. Beat in eggs until well blended.

In a small mixing bowl, stir together flour, salt, baking soda, and all the spices. Add dry ingredients to butter mixture and mix until well combined. Fold in oats with a wooden spoon or sturdy rubber spatula.

Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Scoop dough onto the paper in spoonfuls, spacing them about 2 inches apart. They will spread quite a bit while baking.

Bake until cookies are golden but centers are still soft, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven and let them sit on the baking sheet for a few minutes to cool.


I’m not ready for pears yet. I’m still trying to get my fill of peaches, corn* and juicy ripe tomatoes. You know, the summer stuff. Turning my attention to pears and apples feels like packing away my summer sandals before I’ve even had a chance to wear them. But even though I’m not ready for pears yet, the pears are definitely ready for me. The little pear tree in our backyard has already dropped about sixty of them. They drop on the ground one at a time with a little thud, and roll down the stone path towards the house, practically knocking on the kitchen door. They can no longer be ignored. It’s time to get cooking.

Pear Ginger Walnut Muffins
Makes one dozen medium-sized muffins. Recipe adapted from Applesauce Spice Muffins recipe on Epicurious, which are also delicious, and one of my favorite recipes for when the apples start falling off our tree–which I hope won’t happen until I’ve figured out what to do with all these pears.

For pear ginger sauce:
2 cups diced pears from about 4 small, ripe pears. I’m not 100% sure what variety my tree is, but I think it’s Bartlett or something similar
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons grated ginger (I keep my peeled ginger root in the freezer and grate it with a microplane when I need it, which tends to make the gratings a little fluffy. So if you’re using fresh, unfrozen ginger, you might want a little less)

For muffins:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1 stick (1/2 cup) plus 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 cup pear ginger sauce
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

For topping:
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts

Make pear ginger sauce:
Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. When butter is melted and frothy add pears, tossing with a wooden spoon to coat. Add 1/2 cup of sugar, stirring to combine. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low. Add grated ginger and cook over low heat for about 15 minutes, until pears are soft and most of the liquid has evaporated. Remove from heat and allow to cool for at least 15-20 minutes. You can make the pear ginger sauce ahead of time and store it in the fridge for a few days or in the freezer for a few weeks. The quantities listed here are perfect for one batch of muffins, but I usually double or triple the pear sauce recipe and keep some in my freezer for the next batch of muffins, or to serve over crepes, french toast, or ice cream.

Prepare muffins:
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 400°F. Grease muffin pan.

Stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda, ground ginger, and salt in a bowl. Whisk together eggs and sugar in a large bowl until combined well, then add butter whisking or blending with electric mixer until creamy. Stir in pear ginger sauce, then fold in flour mixture to combine. Stir in nuts and divide batter among muffin cups.

Make topping and bake:
Stir together sugar and ground ginger and sprinkle on top of muffins, along with chopped walnuts. Bake until muffins are golden and toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 5 minutes, then remove muffins from pan and cool slightly. Enjoy with coffee, preferably barefoot in a sunny spot in the backyard, because the apples are coming soon and you might not be able to get away with this much longer.

Once cooled completely, the muffins can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature 1 day, or in the freezer for about a week.

*Speaking of corn, even though all 19 people who read this blog are surely sick of hearing about it by now, I would be remiss not to devote a little space on this page for a squeal of delight at my recent win on Food 52. It’s been ridiculously and disproportionately thrilling to be publicly recognized for something I love to do so much. Just a few months ago, I set myself on a path to devote a little more time and energy to this passion of mine, just to see where that path might take me. Hence this blog, the contests, some fun coffee dates with professional foodies and lots of kitchen daydreaming. The encouragement I’ve received from friends, family and even strangers around the world who share my passion is intoxicating. Thank you all for being a part of that.