Saturday, February 27, 2010

Valentine's Day cupcakes, a little late

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Just found these pictures - the best of the Valentine's Day cupcakes my younger son and I made together:

Yes, I realize they're derivative.

In case you were wondering whether the whole Kelly Ripa / Cake Boss thing gave my cake decorating skills a big boost: uh, no. I had to make three batches of frosting to get one that came out right, and I never did get it stiff enough to pipe into elaborate swirls and stars, which was my original plan. The writing above is in white chocolate. Let's just say that these two were the best of the several dozen I tried writing on.

Ah well.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Pictures of homemade pizza

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[Scroll down for luscious pizza photos]

We go through phases with pizza. I made it a lot when the kids were much younger - such a novelty for them, playing with the dough, spreading the sauce, sprinkling the cheese. And then, I don't know, we kind of forgot about it.

But it's reappeared in the past few months, maybe because our kids' tastes in pizza toppings is finally catching up with ours. Michael and the boys always want bacon on their pizzas. I can take or leave the bacon, but I love bitter greens. We've all been enjoying the green garlic pizza I wrote about in my LA Cooking Examiner column last week. And when I found chanterelles for $10 a pound at the farmers market last week, I knew mushroom pizza was on the menu for lunch.

I would give you a recipe for my pizza dough, but I do it by feel now. It's more or less two teaspoons of yeast, three cups of flour, a healthy teaspoon of sea salt, and a slosh (maybe a quarter cup) of olive oil. Water until it's the right consistency. Let the mixer go, with the dough hook, a good 10 minutes, or even 15 if you've got the patience. Rise, divide, roll or stretch, done.

The pizzas below have no sauce; I spread a thin, thin layer of anchovy paste on the dough before adding the toppings and cheese. And another recently discovered technique seems to be working for me: I preheat my baking sheets in a blazing hot oven. I don't own a pizza peel, so I roll and top the dough on parchment. When I'm ready to bake, I carry the parchment to the oven (carefully), slide out the rack, and place it on the baking sheet. Or I bring the hot baking sheet to the counter and slide the parchment from there.

So, without further ado, pizza pictures, as promised.

Pizza with bacon and green garlic - my somewhat picky younger son preferred this one

I roasted the chanterelles in a hot oven before putting them on the pizza to intensify their flavor

Pizza with bacon and chanterelles - Michael's favorite

Sauteed chopped purple Russian kale

Pizza with green garlic and kale - this one was all mine

Spring scrambled eggs with avocado by Emery

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It all started with the avocado tree in our backyard.

This is an old, temperamental tree. We've lived here 13 years, and I still can't figure out what makes it tick and what ticks it off. Most years it flowers, then drops most of its blossoms before setting fruit. In those years we get maybe seven or eight avocados total, and more often than not the squirrels knock them down and pock-mark the outsides before we can bring them inside to ripen. Avocados, I have discovered, will not ripen on the tree - this may not be true in the world at large, but it's true in our yard.

But there have been a few magical years like this one. In a magical year, the tree is happy and generous, and in those years we get three or four dozen round, plump avocados. They hang on the tree until I borrow the long-handled picker from our neighbors. Or, this year, until eight-year-old Weston has a playdate with a new friend who casually scales the sides of buildings (I'm not kidding; my husband witnessed it). The avocado tree posed no challenge for him, though Weston had never found the route. Up the tree went the friend, up behind him went Weston, and down came two dozen avocados in one afternoon. Harvest time.

Here's the problem with picking two dozen avocados at the same time. Five days later, you're stuck with one big bowl of guacamole. So we've been eating avocados, and avocados, and avocados. Weston prefers to mash them himself on his plate with lemon and salt, then dip everything from chips to daikon radish slices to steamed snap peas. But Emery, the other morning, was thinking about the "California omelette" he sometimes orders at Norm's (the closest thing we have to an East coast diner). Thus was born the Spring Scramble.

Emery's Spring Scramble in the morning light of our kitchen

It's simple, really: Eggs scrambled with green onions, chopped bacon and cheese, topped generously with slices of fresh avocado. Emery put salsa on his, although not until after the picture above was taken. The avocado cools the heat of the eggs and the salsa and gives every bite a creamy background. And veggies for breakfast, too. There's nothing better.

Emery's spring scrambled eggs with green onion, bacon, cheese and avocado
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 1 tsp butter
  • 2 green onions, chopped
  • 2 Tbsp cooked bacon, chopped (we cheat and use the crumbled bacon in a bag from Costco - it finds its way into many a dish around here, and it's perfect for eggs)
  • 2 Tbsp shredded Mexican blend cheese (or whatever cheese you prefer)
  • 1 avocado, peeled and sliced
  • salsa (optional)
Heat a nonstick pan over medium heat. Melt the butter, then add the green onions. Pour over the beaten eggs, then sprinkle on the bacon and cheese. Scramble gently until the eggs are cooked to your liking. Remember that the cheese will be runny after the eggs are done, so it may look wet for longer than you expect.

Put the eggs on a plate, top with the avocado and salsa if you're using it, and dig in. Makes breakfast for one hungry 11-year-old boy.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Jamie Oliver at TED: Food and our future

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Take 20 minutes to watch  Jamie Oliver's talk from this year's TED conference, on the need to teach America's children about food. Some of the statistics at the beginning seem hyperbolic, and it floors me that children in a West Virginia classroom can't correctly identify a tomato, but maybe I've been living in California too long. In any case, it's well worth the time.

And now, if this has put you in the mood for some fresh, non-processed recipes you can make for your friends and loved ones, try these:

Chicken paillards with Greek cucumber salad
"Dinner party" salmon with mustard, wheat germ and tarragon
Tilapia cakes
Broiled chicken with smoked paprika
Kale with tahini sauce
Chili bianco with chicken, white beans and tomatillos

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Trinidad in my kitchen, via Virgin America

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My trip home from Kelly Ripa's Cake Off for a Cause last Thursday didn't start well.

First there was the snowstorm. Technically, that was on Wednesday. But there was lots of anxiety into Thursday about how backed up the flight schedules would be. Thankfully, Virgin America was humming efficiently as usual, and my plane left more or less on time.

But when I got on the plane I realized that I was in the last row, aisle seat - right in front of the bathrooms. The plane was packed, so no opportunity to move. When you're in the aisle in the last row, people waiting for the bathroom end up standing with their asses in your face; there's no way around it, really. But it's not much fun for the person sitting down.

And then, to top it off, my seat-back entertainment system was broken. I could see the TV picture, but the only sound available was loud, unrelated music, which didn't respond to any channel-changing or volume adjustment. What's more, because it wasn't working properly, it wouldn't let me order any food. Sigh. The flight attendants tried to fix it, but no luck. Fortunately I had my laptop, and the in-flight wifi worked fine. But the wifi was also working for the two high-school-age sisters sitting to my right, and they spent the first four hours of the flight trying to engage (admittedly cute) young men in dorm rooms around the country via Skype. Loudly. With much giggling.

I was not in a good mood.

But food blogging came to my rescue. I overheard Bill, one of the flight attendants, say to his colleague Johann, "That chicken you made was terrific!" I butted right into their conversation. "What kind of chicken did you make?" I asked. They looked at me strangely - I guess it might have come across as rude - so I explained about my blog, how I write about other people's recipes, how I'm part of this subculture that loves hearing about what other people are cooking.

 Virgin America flight attendants Johann and Julia

We bonded, the flight crew and I. Johann let me taste his chicken - Trinidad stew chicken, a recipe he learned from his mother growing up on his native Caribbean island. It was delicious: dark, sweet and spicy, tender and the tiniest bit smoky. I loved it. I told them about the Cake Off, meeting the Cake Boss, decorating cakes with my fellow food bloggers. And then, after we'd talked about how much fun it would be to make his native Trinidadian foods together, just when I thought I'd convinced Johann to write down the recipe for me, he threw me a curve ball:

"You know," he said, "we're in town this Saturday on layover. The whole day."

And my instincts kicked in. "You should all come over for lunch!" I heard myself saying.

And, in one of those no-way-you're-kidding-are-you-serious happy endings, they did.

 Johann, Jose and Bill in my backyard

Well, two of them came over, anyway - Julia was feeling ill and stayed back at the hotel. I picked up Johann and Bill and Bill's partner Jose at a hotel near LAX in the late morning. We stopped at the grocery store on the way home for chicken breasts and thighs, okra, spinach, herbs, and "smoked bones" (we used pork necks, but ham hocks or smoked turkey necks work too). And then Johann and I made a delicious lunch of Trinidad stew chicken, callaloo, and rice. This was a particular treat because Los Angeles, unlike New York or Washington or much of the Eastern seaboard, has relatively few people with Caribbean backgrounds, and Caribbean food is hard to find here.

 Johann at my stove

Johann had planned ahead. From his home in D.C., he'd brought a few essential and hard-to-find Caribbean ingredients:

 Browning, a caramel syrup; jerk seasoning; salted, smoky butter

First Johann made a "fresh marinade" for the chicken, filling the food processor with bunches of parsley, cilantro, thyme, green onions, and chives, plus a big knob of ginger, and blending it all up with vinegar. He washed the chicken in lemon water, then added some marinade and let it sit for about half an hour.

Chicken in the fresh marinade

Then Johann did something I'd never seen before: He caramelized sugar in hot oil. If you think sugar syrup on its own gets hot, you should see it bubbling in hot oil. He cooked about 1/3 cup of sugar in 1/4 cup of canola oil until it was brown and foamy:

Caramelizing sugar in hot oil

Then in went the chicken and its marinade, some jerk seasoning, lemon juice, a bit of mustard, and salt and pepper. He brought it to a boil, turned it down, covered the pot, and let it stew about 45 minutes, until the chicken was tender.

Trinidad stew chicken, ready to serve

Meantime, Johann put up the callaloo. Into the pot went frozen okra, frozen spinach, some butternut squash, the smoked meat, coconut milk, salt and pepper, and a hunk of that salted butter, which turns out to be some kind of margarine but is somehow treated so that it smells like a cross between bacon and cheese. This cooked for about 45 minutes, too; Johann removed the meat and blended it smooth with an immersion blender. It had the texture of creamed spinach, but a completely different flavor.

Top, callaloo ingredients go into the pot; above, the finished callaloo

We made some plain rice and served it all up to a hungry crowd of five grownups and five kids. Only one kid (my younger) thought the chicken was too spicy. Everyone else devoured it. One of the eight-year-olds ate three pieces of chicken, or possibly four.

Lunch is served!

It was one of the most fun afternoons I've spent with virtual strangers in a long time. We talked about everything from travel to politics to the state of the American economy. Of course, they're strangers no more; we were planning their next Los Angeles layover around the table as we lingered over the strawberry rhubarb cobbler I made for dessert. Not Caribbean, alas, but certainly emblematic of Los Angeles in the spring. Yes, sorry to rub it in for all you non-Californians: February is spring here in southern California.

So what's on the menu next time? Johann's itching to make us some Trinidad curry. And roti came up in conversation as well. We'll have to see. Meantime, you can bet that next time I'm flying across the country, I'll check with Johann and Bill to see which days they're on duty. I love making new friends - and this time I have food blogging to thank!

Chocolate heart for Valentine's Day

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I didn't buy my husband or kids Valentine's Day cards, but I did make each of them one of these.

Happy belated Valentine's Day, everyone!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Kelly Ripa's Cake-Off for ovarian cancer research: How you can help

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Ovarian cancer research is about to get a big boost from Kelly Ripa and Electrolux, and you and I are going to help at Watch the video below, then see the end of this post for details.

This week I was one of 15 lucky Foodbuzz food bloggers to participate in Kelly Ripa's Cake-Off for a Cause, a cake decorating event with Buddy "the Cake Boss" Valastro, to benefit the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. Electrolux, the very generous sponsor of this fantastic event, brought us all together in New York. 

We gathered the night before the Cake-Off at a private dinner with chef April Bloomfield at The Spotted Pig, a gastropub in the West Village. On the third floor, there's a private room with a demo kitchen, outfitted with Electrolux professional-grade appliances. So what was the first thing our food blogger group did when we got there? Whipped out our cameras, of course, and took pictures of all the food.

Chef Bloomfield and her crew made some delicious things that night, but my favorites were a rustic root vegetable soup and duck leg confit with cabbage:


The next morning we got up bright and early and headed to the ABC studios for the broadcast of Live! with Regis and Kelly. It's been a long time since I was on a TV set, and I was struck by how much smaller the whole thing looked in real life. We didn't get on TV, but even so it was fun to be in the audience.

A few hours later, we met on the top floor of Chelsea Market, which houses several studios. The area for the Cake-Off was curtained off, but there were so many lights that it was positively glowing through the door opening. When we went inside we saw why: white set, gleaming stainless Electrolux appliances at one end, and more lights than I've ever seen in one room. It was like an operating room times 100. (In a good way, I mean.) When we went in, Kelly Ripa and Buddy "the Cake Boss" Valastro were posing for a group of photographers who were there to get publicity shots for online news sites and wire services.

Then it was time to get to work. We were divided into teams; my team included Jessie of Cakespy and Kelly of Evil Shenanigans. There were five cake themes. We were assigned the Snow Day cake, which was covered in blue fondant, dusted with coarse sparkling sugar, and decorated with embossed snowflakes cut out of white fondant. If you've never worked with fondant, here's a hint: It's edible Play-doh, and it's fun. You can roll it, cut shapes out of it, sculpt it, and then pop it in your mouth. Except you probably don't want to eat it straight, because it tastes like pure corn syrup. Sure is pretty, though.

Chris, one of the guys in Buddy's bake shop (in the black shirt, below), helped us with our fondant rolling and draping techniques - he was a sweetheart. While we worked, Kelly and Buddy wandered around, chatting and giving advice. Oh, and posing for pictures, of course.

I've decided that if I ever become a famous food personality (or, I guess, a famous anything), the part I will hate the most is posing for all the pictures. Buddy looks gorgeous, and pretty much the same, in every single one. How does he do that without looking totally plastic? I'm in awe.

Here's our team with our finished Snow Day cake:

And a close-up of our masterpiece:

All in all, a really spectacular day I'll remember for a long time. Meeting the other bloggers, chatting with Kelly Ripa and the Cake Boss, getting to know the Electrolux team - the whole experience was really special, and I feel lucky to have been part of it.

So now we're down to the important bit, raising money to beat ovarian cancer. I need you to do two things:

First, go to and vote for our Snow Day cake. You can vote once a day until the end of February. Next, on the same site, click on the "Cakery" and send an e-cake to a friend. For every vote you cast and e-cake you send, Electrolux will donate $1 to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. That's a really painless way to raise money for an important cause, don't you agree? What's more, you'll be entered into a drawing for a fantastic Electrolux induction range. I saw it in action. It's incredible: energy-efficient, easy to use, and beautiful to boot.

What are you waiting for? Go vote!

Note: Thanks to Electrolux for paying my way to New York, and to Foodbuzz for giving me the opportunity to participate in this fantastic event!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Top 10 reasons why I like the Cake Boss

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I would really like to tell you all about today's Kelly Ripa's Cake-Off for a Cause, which was loads of fun and is going to raise TENS OF THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund with your help! However, I am so exhausted that falling into bed is about all I will be able to handle tonight. I'll post more details soon. For now, let me share with you the top 10 reasons why I think Buddy "the Cake Boss" Valastro is a total dude. And thanks, Rachel, for getting me hooked on the Top 10 genre.

10. He sat on the couch after the event and chatted with our group of starry-eyed food bloggers for a good half-hour with no indication whatsoever that he felt it to be an imposition.

9. He stood next to me in our group photo.

8. He brought his crew to help us with the cake decorating, and they were all dolls.

7. Even after the competition was over, he and his boys helped those of us who still wanted to practice our buttercream and fondant skills. (Notice the overturned bucket covered with buttercream borders in this photo of my teammates Jessie from Cakespy and Kelly from Evil Shenanigans.)

6. He admitted that he curses like a sailor in the shop (this New York native has a soft spot for rough-mouthed men - reminds me of my early days in magazine publishing, for some reason).

5. He can make buttercream roses like you've never seen before.

4. He signed the aprons Electrolux gave us to wear at the event, Cake Boss t-shirts, publicity shots, and I think even a few napkins. Ad infinitum, gladly and without complaint.

3. He posed for pictures with each of us individually, in our teams, as a large group, with many cameras. Ad infinitum, gladly and without complaint.

2. When one of the members of the Electrolux marketing team called her mother to tell her she was standing next to the Cake Boss, he took the phone and left a message on her mother's voice mail.

1. He autographed a picture for my kids.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Coundown to Kelly Ripa, day 1: Ellen's cupcake party

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One day to go until I'm decorating cakes with Kelly Ripa and Buddy "The Cake Boss" Valastro to raise money for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund! Get ready to help me spread the word about the contest, because I'll need lots of mouthpieces out there rallying the troops to bring in the votes. Photos of the cakes we decorate at Kelly Ripa's Cake-Off for a Cause tomorrow will be posted on the Kelly Confidential website, and for every vote cast, the wonderful and generous Electrolux will donate $1 to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. Can you imagine a better reason to bug your friends?

Today, my last Countdown post, is devoted to Ellen, one of my best friends from college, and the cupcake decorating parties she's thrown for her sons' birthdays. It's a great idea: Cover the table with newspaper, set out blank cupcakes, fill a bunch of zip-top bags with brightly colored frosting, add bowls of sprinkles and nuts and other decorations, and there you go - instant party. And at the end, you've got cupcakes! Can you tell which ones the grownups made?

Now I know what to propose for my kids' birthdays next year. In Los Angeles, however, we can do it all outside and hose down the patio when they're done!


Sunday, February 7, 2010

Countdown to Kelly Ripa, day 1.5: Cakes by Gisele Perez

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Yes, I know I already posted my Countdown to Kelly Ripa's Cake-Off for a Cause today. But I got these great photos from LA food blogger and caterer Gisele Perez, and I wanted to share them with you. I've had so much fun in this series looking at all the different cakes, cupcakes and other sweets my friends have made!

Says Gisele:

The photo above is a birthday cake I made for a friend last year. I used easy decorations - fresh flowers and sugar  molded instruments, sombreros etc. purchased from cake decorating store. [Erika says: Good tip for those of us who can master the basic icing steps but have neither the skills nor patience to mold fondant or gum paste.]

German Chocolate cakes (below) often don't have much decoration, but I always like to finish them off by icing the sides and adding a shell border. It makes for a beautiful presentation, and I think it helps to "sandwich" the cake together- German Chocolate can be delicate. I use Rose Levy Beranbaum's Milk Chocolate Buttercream (a truly luscious buttercream) to finish. It's one of those recipes which requires the buttercream to be at just the right temp to use, but it's definitely worth the trouble. I use Callebaut's Bittersweet and Milk Chocolate.

Because the traditional German chocolate cake recipe (included on the Baker's German Chocolate packing) makes a slightly crumbly cake, I always give the  sides of the cake a "crumb coating" of the buttercream, then let it set for a few minutes in the fridge before giving it a second coating.

Crumb coat on the sides of the cake

Second coat of frosting on the sides of the cake

The finished cake with its shell border

Beautiful, yes? These are cakes I definitely think I could handle. Thanks, Gisele!

Countdown to Kelly Ripa, day 2: Cakes by Paula

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Two days to go until my adventure with Kelly Ripa and Electrolux, decorating cakes with Buddy "the Cake Boss" Valastro to benefit the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund! Our group of 15 Foodbuzz food bloggers found out a few days ago that we'll be at the taping of Live! with Regis and Kelly on Tuesday morning (that's February 9, 2010). Who knows if we'll be on camera, but even so you might want to tune in. I find it hard to believe that they wouldn't mention the event, which is happening later that day, and at least point the cameras in our direction for a few seconds. Guess all the shopping for makeup was worth it! 

Today's post is truly inspiring to me. Get ready for some of the most spectacular cakes you have ever seen from a non-professional baker. If I can make anything a tenth as beautiful and creative at the Cake-Off for a Cause, we will win for sure. These cakes were made by Paula K.B., another friend I've known since grade school. She was always super artistic - I once took a ceramics class in her mom's basement, and I remember standing there looking at the pieces she'd done, mouth hanging open. She's also a superb photographer. But lately she's been turning some of her artistic energy to cake decorating. Okay, ready? Make sure you're sitting down.


And here are Paula's notes about the cakes:

These are some of the mini (6-inch) cakes I made for the "summer birthday" kids in Emily's class last year. As you can see, I try to personalize them, so the kids feel a little bit special, especially after having to share their party with a handful of other kids. The cakes are yellow or chocolate. I try to get the "likes" from the moms beforehand! (I love when they give me a half a dozen things they like, thinking they are getting their own sheet cake or something!)

The larger cake was a challenge, but I think it came out great. It was fondant, and I loved working with it. It was like working with clay! I made it for a friend of Ben's for her 13th birthday. They ended up using it at her bat mitzvah. That was pretty cool!

Believe it or not, the icing is store-bought frosting, plain vanilla. I use the Wilton Icing Colors to decorate. There are so many colors to begin with, and they mix like paint (which as an artist I love) so you can pretty much get whatever color you're looking for.

The big cake is fondant, of course layered over buttercream. The cake layers are yellow and chocolate. The balls are fondant...I think I was crazy to do it that way! It was sooo time-consuming, but it looked so much better that way, much more "finished." As you can see, it is not that easy to roll that many and get them all to look exactly the same, but I guess that's part of the homemade charm! I have a set of mini cookie cutters that I did the hearts with...also incredibly time-consuming. I originally started out with polka dots, but it was too plain. Switched to the hearts, and it all fell into place. I also picked up a neat trick: I put powdered sugar on the board when I am working so it doesn't stick. I think it helps with the flavor also!

So - are you blown away? I think I know what Paula's next career will be....