Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Simple strawberry cake recipe

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Southern California may have earthquakes, mudslides, fires, floods, and really bad traffic, but we also have fresh local strawberries just about all year. Local strawberries in December - that offsets a lot of natural disaster potential in my book.

December strawberries amaze and delight me mostly for their availability. They're very good, and they definitely taste like strawberries (unlike the supermarket strawberries most Americans have to deal with year-round, which taste, to me, like foam rubber). But southern California's spring strawberries, those are perfection. Big or small, sweet or sour-ish, bright red and juicy. We can go through a half-flat in an afternoon - that's six pints, for those of you who're counting.

When I overbuy, I sometimes make this simple strawberry cake. It's a quick bread with a wonderful crumble topping, perfect for breakfast or excellent with a cup of tea in the afternoon. I bake it as a loaf, but muffins would work well too.

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Simple strawberry cake
An easy quick bread studded with fresh strawberries and topped with a buttery crumble. Perfect for breakfast or afternoon tea.
2 eggs1/2 cup grapeseed or canola oil1 cup sugar2 cups fresh strawberries, sliced2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, divided1 tsp baking soda1/3 cup dark or light brown sugar, firmly packed1/2 tsp cinnamon5 Tbsp butter, salted
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a large loaf pan (or a 12-cup muffin tin) with nonstick cooking spray.In a stand mixer or with an electric mixer, beat the eggs, oil and granulated sugar together until the mixture is thick and pale, about 1 minute. Add the strawberries and beat at low speed about 30 seconds, just enough to break up the berries a bit.Sift together 1 3/4 cups of the flour and the baking soda into a small bowl. Add to the bowl and mix briefly, just until everything is combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.Make the crumble: Mix together the remaining 3/4 cup flour, brown sugar, and cinnamon in a small bowl. Cut the butter into small pieces and add them to the flour mixture. Using your hands, rub the butter into the flour mixture until it has the texture and feel of wet sand. Sprinkle the crumble generously over the batter in the pan.Bake the strawberry cake about 1 hour, until a tester or toothpick comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan about 10 minutes, then turn it out onto a rack to cool completely. Serve at room temperature.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 1 loaf or 12 muffins

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Hamptons in winter, day 3

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The lighthouse at Montauk Point
(Click here to read about the second day of my winter weekend in the Hamptons)

On the third and last day of my winter weekend in the Hamptons, I woke up, said goodbye to my wonderful hosts at the Southampton Inn, got in my rented car, and drove to the end of the earth. Montauk Point, at the very eastern tip of Long Island's south fork, is surrounded by ocean on all sides. There's not much there: an understated lighthouse, a snack bar, a rocky beach strewn with seaweed.

The deserted beach at Montauk Point

In the summer, I imagine, it's a cheerful place, kids throwing rocks into the water, all ages feeling the possibility of distant lands and adventures. On a gray day in March, with rain clouds thickening above, it felt ominous and oppressive. I stood on the deserted beach and watched dark thoughts gather in my head. Why was I suddenly obsessing about undertows and boogie men during my peaceful, solitary long weekend? I didn't know, and I didn't want to stay to figure it out. Maybe three days alone is too much for a woman used to the company of a husband, the chatter of children, the community of an office. I headed west, back toward the tony town of East Hampton.

I always crave lobster rolls when I'm on the East coast - fresh lobster tossed with a little mayo, on a buttered, grilled, split-top hot dog bun. In summer there are some fine lobster rolls to be had in and around the Hamptons. In March, not so much.

Two famous seafood shacks along Highway 27, shut up tight until summer
I'd gotten some very thorough food advice from a friend who lives in southern California now but grew up in East Hampton. He said I wanted a breakfast sandwich from Buckets Deli ("Great when you've been dancing on the tables at The Stephen Talkhouse the night before," he noted). Alas, it's closed on weekends in the winter. I stopped instead at Villa Italian Specialties, where the cases were full of the kind of Italian food it's hard to find in southern California. House-made mozzarella. A dozen varieties of sausages. Fist-sized rice balls. Ah, for a kitchen! I ordered the Villa Combo sandwich, a pile thinly sliced Italian cold cuts on a length of Italian bread with lettuce, tomato, and roasted red peppers. A mess, but it made a great breakfast.

House-made delicacies at Villa Italian Specialties in East Hampton
I'd been instructed not to miss the donuts at Dressen's Deli. But the staff was so rude that I walked out empty-handed, despite the fabulous aroma of freshly baked donuts. I was wearing a bright red coat, people. Seemingly hard to ignore, and yet you managed.

But I didn't let it get me down. A bit farther down highway 27 I found Stuart's Seafood in Amagansett, tucked off the main road behind a couple of inconspicuous houses. Four different people told me a stop at Stuart's was a must for any food lover. Even on a chilly March Sunday, people kept coming in to buy local Peconic bay scallops or furious lobsters dragged from their cozy tanks. I got one cod cake and one lobster cake, each lightly breaded and fried. I dipped them into Stuart's homemade tartar sauce and ate them sitting on the hood of my rented car. Tasty and fresh.

Lobster and cod cakes at the unassuming Stuart's Seafood in Amagansett
After Stuart's, I turned north toward Sag Harbor, an historic whaling village on the bay that separates the North and South Forks of Long Island. Sag Harbor feels completely different from the towns on the south shore beaches. It reminds me more of the river towns along the Hudson in upstate New York, narrow and pleasantly crowded, quaint and slightly artsy.

I headed for the American Hotel, which Lee Ellis, the manager at the Southampton Inn, had described to me as "the center of the slow food movement on the east end." Built in the mid-19th century, the hotel has a winding warren of dining rooms with the kind of smooth-worn wood, painted-over door jambs and slightly shabby upholstery you just never find in the bright new construction of California. I love buildings that feel their age. I took a table in a bright, narrow garden room. It would have felt almost European, except that behind me two couples were comparing the merits of the ski schools in Gstaad and Park City. Sag Harbor may not feel like the Hamptons, but it's still one of the playgrounds of the rich.

I ordered the lobster BLT. Not that I needed another meal, really, after the Villa sandwich and the seafood cakes. But lobster...I needed more lobster. The sandwich came with a bracing salad of radicchio, endive and frisee, lightly dressed, just salty enough. Were they growing greens in some hothouse on the North Fork?, I wondered. I was about to ask, and then I realized I was tired of taking notes. The salad was good. The lobster BLT satisfied my craving. A relaxed meal in a beautiful room: the perfect way to end the weekend.

I got the lobster I'd been craving at the American Hotel in Sag Harbor

As I got into the car to drive back toward Manhattan, I felt the first raindrops of the weekend. It poured all the way back to the city, but I couldn't have cared less. March may not be beach weather, but I had exactly the weekend I needed: peaceful, relaxed, and on my own.

Thanks to the Southampton Inn, which provided me a beautiful room during my winter weekend in the Hamptons. Please visit their website - if you're headed to the east end of Long Island, it's a lovely, well located and extremely reasonable place to stay.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Rhubarb crumb muffins from Tate's Bake Shop

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During my recent winter weekend in the Hamptons, I made a pilgrimage to Tate's Bake Shop in Southampton, New York. I went for the chocolate chip cookies, based on the gushing comments on Tate's Facebook page.

The cookies looked wonderful, but no one had warned me about the muffins. Muffins are my weakness. The woman ahead of me in line ordered a sour cream coffee cake muffin. "Is that what I want for breakfast?" I asked her as she turned to leave. "That's the the one," she said with a sure smile. "You won't be sorry." Of course, she was right. It was easily the best muffin I've ever had - light crumb, strong vanilla scent, brown sugar crumble with chopped pecans on top. Okay, it was cake. But who cares? Cake in the shape of a muffin is still breakfast food in my book.

I bought the Tate's Bake Shop Cookbook as my weekend souvenir. A few days later, home again, the rhubarb crumb muffin recipe caught my eye. The first thin stalks of rhubarb had just appeared at my local farmers' market - spring comes early in southern California. I chopped, macerated, creamed, crumbled and baked. The result? Let's just say that if the other recipes in the Tate's Bake Shop Cookbook are anywhere near as good, I am never letting this book out of my sight.

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Rhubarb crumb muffins from the Tate's Bake Shop Cookbook
Thanks to Tate's Bake Shop in Southampton, New York, for giving me permission to reprint this recipe.
2 cups all-purpose flour, divided1/3 cup dark or light brown sugar, firmly packed1/2 tsp cinnamon13 Tbsp salted butter, divided2 cups fresh rhubarb, cut into 1/4-inch pieces1/4 cup powdered sugar1 tsp baking powder1/2 tsp salt1/2 cup granulated sugar2 large eggs1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract1/2 cup milk
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 12-cup muffin tin.Make the crumb topping: Mix 3/4 cup flour, brown sugar and cinnamon. Mix in 5 Tbsp butter with your fingers or a pastry blender until the mixture forms small crumbs. Set it aside. (This can be made the night before and stored in a zip-top bag; you can even freeze it.)Make the batter: Mix the rhubarb and powdered sugar in a small bowl and set it aside.Mix the remaining 1 1/4 cups flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl and set it aside.Beat the remaining 1/2 cup butter and granulated sugar together in a stand mixer until they are light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat them until they are fluffy, about 1 minute. Slowly mix in half the flour mixture until it is incorporated, then half of the milk. Mix it and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Repeat.Fold in the rhubarb mixture.Divide the batter evenly into the prepared muffin cups. Distribute the crumbs evenly on top of each muffin.Bake the muffins for 20 minutes or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the center of one muffin comes out clean.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 12 muffins

Friday, March 18, 2011

Radish leaf pesto with green garlic and pumpkin seeds

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When basil is out of season (a short time in southern California, longer in the rest of the world, you poor souls) I look for other greens to turn into pesto. Last weekend I bought some amazing radishes at the farmers' market. "Use the leaves, too," said the grower.

Radish leaves? I tasted one when I got home and it had a nice bite to it - like arugula with more texture. I ground the leaves in the food processor with some young stalks of green garlic, a handful of pepitas (pumpkin seeds), some grated cheese and a slug of olive oil. The pesto emerged bright green and held onto its color for days in the refrigerator. And the taste - assertive, peppery, and completely mysterious.

I spread the pesto on fresh mozzarella grilled cheese sandwiches, mixed it with goat cheese to pipe into little cucumber cups, served it on pasta, and ate a whole lot of it on baguette slices straight up. Divine, every time. And the best thing about radish leaf pesto: You can make it all year long.

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Radish leaf pesto with green garlic and pumpkin seeds
You'll never throw away your radish leaves again. Use this pesto just as you would basil pesto. It will keep at least a week in the refrigerator.
2 cups radish leaves1 large stalk green garlic (or 1 clove regular garlic)1/4 cup pumpkin seeds (pepitas)1/2 cup parmesan cheese, gratedjuice of 1 lemon1/2 cup olive oil salt and pepper to taste
Wash the radish leaves well to remove any grit. Place the leaves, green garlic, pumpkin seeds, grated cheese, lemon juice and olive oil in the food processor and whizz until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 1 cup

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Hamptons in winter, day 2

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Coopers Beach in Southampton - just me and the seagulls

(Click here to read about the first day of my winter weekend in the Hamptons)

The second day of my winter weekend in the Hamptons was cloudy but not too cold, so I decided to walk to the beach. The beach in New York in March? I love it. When I was little and my parents had to get us out of the house during the winter, they'd dress us in our snowsuits and boots, pack up the sand toys, and drive to the beach. I like the way the gray sky meets the more gray ocean. I like the smell of cold, damp sea air. And I really like being the only one on the beach.

The walk from the Southampton Inn, whose owner Dede Gotthelf invited me for the weekend, took me through the toniest part of Southampton. Those movie star estates you read about? I walked by them. And here's my absolute favorite thing about winter in the Hamptons: no leaves on trees and hedges. Which means you get a close-up look at these:

What I heard as I walked: chainsaws (landscapers pruning trees), hammers (construction), seagulls, and...freeway noise. I was so confused: How could there be a freeway in the middle of Southampton village? The closer to the beach I walked, the louder it got, a droning whoosh, steady, substantial. And then it hit me. Not a freeway. Not cars. The ocean. Man, I thought, I have been living in Los Angeles way too long if the ocean sounds like a freeway.

Coopers Beach was all mine. I walked along the water, stopping to pick up the beautiful smooth white rocks that had washed up with the last high tide. Pacific beach rocks are so different, rough and craggy. These were elegant, buffed, a pure white with a few golden yellow ones mixed in for kicks. I didn't know rocks could glow. I slipped a few in my pocket to take back to my boys.

I headed back to Main Street toward another Southampton landmark: Tate's Bake Shop. I discovered Tate's through a Facebook friend and had heard tell of Kathleen's legendary chocolate chip cookies. The legends are accurate. I tasted the whole wheat dark chocolate chip cookies - amazing. I sampled a gluten-free brownie: incredible. And then, on the advice of the woman in front of me in line, I bought a sour cream coffee cake muffin for my breakfast. Oh. My. "Muffin" clearly referred only to the size and/or the pan in which it was baked, because this was 100 percent cake. Light and buttery, with a heavy dose of cinnamon streusel on top. I think I might have fainted a little after the first bite.

Loot from Tate's Bake Shop: a sour cream coffee cake muffin and the Tate's cookbook
In the afternoon I went to Wolffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack to taste some Long Island wine. Most of the wineries on the eastern end of Long Island are on the north fork, whose real estate was historically less pricey than the south fork. The north fork towns have worked hard to protect agricultural acreage from the rising tide of land values over the past 20 years.

The tasting room at Wolffer, one of the few wineries on the south fork, was packed, even on an overcast Saturday in winter. Young couples on daytime dates, sedate gray-haired locals in riding pants smelling faintly of horse, a smug-looking tour group, and a polished couple with a preschooler and a baby: That's who was tasting wine with me. (The little girl got grape juice.) Given how crowded the tasting room was in March, I found myself thinking that I was awfully glad not to be there in July.

I sat at my table, watching, listening, and trying to concentrate on what was in my glass. Did I smell apricot? Grapefruit? Blackberry? Nail polish remover? Okay, I don't have the best nose, and I'm not the most discriminating wine drinker. But the overall experience impressed me. Between the time I left Long Island in the mid-80s and now, an entire culture of wine appeared and matured. Long Island wines get high scores from Robert Parker and win medals. My server at Wolffer told me that the Long Island wine country is going to be the third most popular tourist destination in New York state within a few years, behind Manhattan and Niagara Falls. I wouldn't be surprised.

I really could have used a nap after all that wine, but I'd promised to stop by the Plaza Cafe in Southampton for an early dinner. And I'm glad I did. "It's art," said Southampton Inn manager Lee Ellis of the food at the Plaza Cafe, and he was right. I got my first taste of local Peconic Bay scallops, one transcendent razor clam,
a creamy sunchoke bisque. And then, finally, the lobster I always crave when I go back to the East coast, this time in a creamy, unique shepherd's pie. I couldn't finish it, but I shamelessly picked out all the lobster. Who needs dessert when there's seafood? Not I.

I walked back to the Southampton Inn tired and completely satisfied. I love my husband, I love my family, but I love a weekend alone. One more day to go. One more day to savor.

Read more: The lighthouse and the lobster

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Irish potatoes for St. Patrick's Day: Twice-baked potatoes with pesto

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I'm not fantastic about marking holidays. I forgot my first wedding anniversary. I've been known to let birthdays go by. And I never really got into St. Patrick's Day - not a drop of Irish blood in me. But others feel differently. I realize that.

So, to celebrate the luck of the Irish, I give you these green twice-baked baby potatoes. The green of the pesto faded a bit in the oven, but you get the idea. Use tiny new potatoes and you'll have a perfect finger food snack for...hey, what do people do on St. Patrick's Day, anyway? Oh yes - beer. These go very well with beer.

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Twice-baked potatoes with pesto
Easy twice-baked potatoes with pesto - a perfect green snack for St. Patrick's Day. Use tiny new potatoes for bite-sized finger food.
12 baby Idaho potatoes3 Tbsp pesto sauce (prepared or homemade)1/4 cup mozzarella cheese, grated1 Tbsp butter salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Wash the potatoes well and place them on a baking sheet. Bake the potatoes about 40 minutes, until they are soft enough that the tip of a knife slides in easily. Let the potatoes cool until you can handle them without burning yourself. Leave the oven on.Cut about 1/4 inch off the top of each potato lengthwise. Discard the top slices. With a small spoon and working very carefully, scoop out the insides of each potato, leaving about a quarter-inch layer of potato flesh all around. Be careful not to pierce the skin - you need the potato shells intact. Put the potato flesh into a small mixing bowl.Mash the potatoes with the tines of a fork, then stir in the pesto, cheese and butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper (be more generous with the salt than you think you need to be). Using the same small spoon with which you scooped out the potatoes, fill the potato shells with the filling, mounding it above the opening.Return the potatoes to the baking sheet and put it back in the oven for 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are sizzling and browned on top. Serve immediately.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 24 pieces

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Hamptons in winter, day 1

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Long Island's highway 27 heading east - a parking lot in summer, gloriously empty in March
I am the kind of working mother who, from time to time, needs a few days to herself. I love my husband, I love my children, but I cannot spend every free moment in their presence. I wish I were more proactive about planning these absences. The need builds up. It's only when I'm cranky for days at a time that I realize I need to get away and recharge. In the past few months I've started a new job, caught two bad colds, and worked through the normal events and stresses of life. It all caught up with me, and a few weeks ago I was cranky indeed.

And then it appeared: the offer of a late winter weekend in the Hamptons, the summer home of the very rich and often famous at the eastern end of Long Island, courtesy of the very generous Southampton Inn. I said yes before looking at the calendar, then realized that the weekend coincided with a New York business trip. Kismet, I thought. It was meant to be.

My lovely room at the Southampton Inn
I live in southern California now, but I grew up on Long Island. An entire childhood on Long Island and we never went to the Hamptons. That was where the rich city people spent the summer. When we wanted beach, we piled into the car and drove south to Jones Beach for the day. Later, when I moved to Manhattan after college, I had friends who rented summer "shares" in the Hamptons, but that was beyond my reach. I worked in magazine publishing and made - well, not very much. The Hampton Jitney express bus stopped across the street from my office, and on Friday evenings I'd watch the happy crowd climb aboard with their straw bags and beach towels. I was jealous. Someday, I vowed, I would weekend like the well-to-do.

At the time I wasn't thinking about the Hamptons in March. But off-season in the Hamptons has a lot to recommend it. No traffic, for starters. When I left my mom's house in Nassau County on a recent Friday, the Long Island Expressway moved well above the speed limit. Mine was literally the only car on Highway 27, which follows the south fork of Long Island into the beach communities.

I drove into the town of Southampton, trying to picture August's tanned, glistening crowds. In March, Southampton looks less sleepy than abandoned. They say every storefront is taken in the summer, but in the off-season empty windows and "For lease" signs seem the norm.

I arrived at the Southampton Inn, dropped my bags, and walked around the property. Everywhere I turned I saw pastel-painted Adirondack chairs, with their promise of warm, sunny afternoons ahead.

There are lots of small, chic places to stay in the Hamptons, which, in high season, can set you back $1,000 a night and make you feel like a movie star. I can't afford places like that, and neither can most of my friends. Which is why I'm glad to know about the Southampton Inn. It's exactly my kind of place: comfortable, friendly, unpretentious, and less than $500 a night on summer weekends. At this time of year it's even more reasonable, less than $200 a night. I didn't get to try Oso, the restaurant at the Inn, because the night I arrived chef Jeremy Palmer was busy setting up the Emerald Ball, a local celebration involving ball gowns and bagpipes. I hear chef Palmer's food is notable and hope to try it next time.

Southampton Inn manager Lee Ellis and owner Dede Gotthelf with the evening's entertainment

After a chat with manager Lee Ellis and a look around the grounds, I left the winter glitterati to their bagpipes and walked out into the evening. The Southampton Inn is just steps off the main drag of town, and it only took me a few minutes to walk to 75 Main, a popular restaurant whose owner, Zach Erdem, had invited me for dinner.

A few locals raised their eyebrows when I said I was having dinner at 75 Main, but that's because the place is also known as a late-night hot spot: It morphs from restaurant to nightclub around 10:30pm. In the summer the party goes on every night - one can only imagine the scene, the noise, the sidewalk-spilling crowds - but in the off-season the clubbing keeps to the weekends, much more manageable.

Erdem, a native Turk who's worked the restaurant scene in the Hamptons for almost a decade, bought the cavernous restaurant last spring with the savings from eight years of double shifts. Hardly a day off, no drink, no drugs, no shopping, living above the restaurants where he worked: That's how he saved enough to buy a business in the Hamptons. If everything he says is true (I have no reason to doubt), he's one of the hardest working people I have ever met. In the summer he opens in the morning for breakfast service, stays all day, and closes after the crowds dance their last dance at 4am. Some days 1,600 people eat at 75 Main. "Sometimes I sleep over there," he says, gesturing to a row of tables along a side wall. He lives just upstairs, but during his sleep-deprived summer even one flight seems too much.

Dinner at 75 Main in Southampton: Sesame-crusted tuna (top) and a wicked good apple tart

Hire a manager? No thanks. Maybe someday if one of his five brothers comes over from Europe he'll share the burden. For now, he does as much as he can himself, both to save money and to keep control. The chef gives Erdem a list, and Erdem does the food shopping himself at a nearby restaurant supply warehouse, hauling cases of produce, meat and other ingredients in his own car. Erdem's insistence on fresh ingredients really shows, too. A chopped salad with gorgonzola, roasted red peppers, candied walnuts and bitter greens surprised me with complexity. Erdem sucked mussels meuniere from their shells while I tried a sesame-crusted seared tuna with green apple slaw and a delicious apple tart. House-made bread with butter came out at one point, too. Every dish was delicious, surprising for a place where people dance on tables until dawn.

I walked back along the cold, quiet streets of Southampton, belly full, enjoying the sparkling lights and the wind on my face. I miss winter weather; I love southern California's climate, but every once in a while it's nice to feel your cheeks get pink in the cold. I took my time and looked in every window I passed. Lots of emptiness, but every now and then I saw signs of summer ahead.

The bagpipes were gone when I returned to the Southampton Inn, but that was fine with me. Time to plan the next day's adventures and head for bed.

Read more: Mansions, muffins, Long Island wine, and lobster shepherd's pie