Thursday, June 26, 2008

Making Cakes Special

I know it didn't start with Ace of Cakes on Food Network, because I had booklets showing how to make cute cakes when I was growing up. In fact, I think I remember cakes that incorporated dolls for birthdays or showers. I insisted that most of the sections of my own wedding cake, a zillion years ago, be chocolate (scandelous!) Imagine what the people who went to my first, long-ago wedding would think about the armadillo on the top of my friends Lisa Jane and Andy's wedding cake.

Yet today, cakes look more interesting than they used to. There's an extreme cooking challenge show that had a bigger-than-life sized sock monkey cake with pyrotechnics on it this season. We went to our friend Mel Gilden's birthday party last summer, and he got a cake that looked like a volcano with all kinds of dinosaurs around it. By mixing a little dry ice and water in the tube in the center, smoke rose out of the cone and down the sides of the mountain, an effect lost on the still shot I've got here. It was still fun, especially for a 60th birthday. We and our friends have never grown up.

I haven't really seen one in person, but there's a printer that can print on a cake with edible inks. My husband has gifted me with several such cakes: one had a photograph of my horse on it, another had Len's variation on last year's Harry Potter title, which was released on my birthday. In our area, Bea's Bakery in Tarzana can print from provided photographs.

I had a very simple cake made for Len's birthday earlier this month. Yellow cake with chocolate icing celebrating his 60th birthday. It wasn't until it was too late that I actually thought of some interesting graphics to pull together in Adobe Photoshop--although I might run into some copyright problems when I go to the bakery. There was a sign at the counter of the Von's bakery that indicated there could be no changes in the superhero cakes because of licensing restrictions. My choice would be a cake with both Wolverine and Swamp Thing on it, and that's an unauthorized Marvel-DC crossover, I'm afraid.

Marilyn (a.k.a. "Fuzzy") Niven was absolutely inspired when she ordered a cake for her husband's 70th birthday party, which we attended on Saturday. Using the cover of one of Larry's books, the spine celebrated the 70th edition and the opened cover of the book revealed spun sugar creatures and worlds based on Larry's stories. It was quite wonderful, as you can see from the photographs. The spun sugar elements had been sprayed with some sort of preservative, so they weren't actually edible. They might make an interesting addition to someone's crystal figure collection until they melt in the forthcoming heat.

West Valley Occupational Center, which is located in a block between where I live and where I work, has a cake-decorating class which a couple of my friends took. I don't have the time to do it this summer, but it might be a temptation when I have a little time. It's just that I'm so clumsy and I'm a bit too much of a perfectionist to want to take on something at which I'm likely to be miserable.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Cookbooks and Gamers

I have never been a role-playing gamer (RPG), so this wouldn't mean much to me except for the fact that my son, who also works as a video game tester, is. Actually, we know a lot of people who are into gaming and eating, but not cooking. I got a link to a commentary piece which, if you picture cookbooks subject to the continual updating of software, is pretty funny. Here's the link to Killjoy Cooking with the Dungeons and Dragons Crowd by Lore Sjoberg at Wired. Thank goodness that, unless you are a lawyer, your paper books are not subject to updates which can upset your life if you don't get them. As I said elsewhere, the 1970s version of the Joy of Cooking is my kitchen workhorse and the recipes still work just the way they should--even though it's been updated twice since my edition.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Birthday Dinner at Roy's

I'm very particular about whom I trust for restaurant reviews. I'm not taking about newspaper reviews. I'm talking about social acquaintance reviews. There are some people who simply cannot tell good food from bad and frequently think that quantity equates with quality. I've had some of the worst meals of my life with these people.

It was therefore with great trepidation that I made a reservation for Roy's, an Hawaiian-fusion chain with a location only a couple of miles from our house, for my husband's birthday last week. Len had expressed an interest in going based on the recommendation of friends who ate at the original Roy's in Hawaii. All of my alarms went off because I've been greatly disappointed by recommendations from these people in the past. I guess you can't be wrong 100% of the time.

The food and service was quite good. The only down-side was that we were seated in a booth next to the open kitchen, and the noise made it almost impossible to talk for a large part of the meal.

We stuck to the prix fixe menu, which had two choices for appetizer and dessert and four for the main course. Len and I had the crispy duck spring rolls (honestly too much for one person) and Michael ordered a fish dish. Both were excellent. I shared my spring rolls with Michael, whom we used to call "Marabunta Boy" for his voracious appetite and skinny frame.

For our main courses, Len got the filet of beef with wasabe mashed potaotes, Michael got the beef short ribs, and I had grilled prawns stacked over a small serving of pasta with a lemon-caper cream sauce. Since I no longer eat most read meat (I quit one day after looking at a new-born calf in the eye,) I didn't sample either of my guys' dishes. I hear they were excellent, although the wasabe cleaned out Len's sinuses. My prawns were just fine.

For dessert, we all had the molten chocolate souffles, which Michael described as a brownie with hot fudge sauce inside. It was served with vanilla ice cream, which I really appreciated. The staff also presented us with a family photograph, since it was a birthday dinner. That was charming--along with the "happy birthday" wishes on arrival, at seating, and when leaving.

The prix fixe was $35 and it would have been hard to get three other courses on the menu for less than that. We didn't have drinks, so the experience wasn't bank-busting by any means. The decor is modern deco, the staff attentive, and free parking was plentiful in the evening. The restaurant is located in a medical-professionals office building at the corner of Topanga Canyon Boulevard and Victory Boulevard in Woodland Hills. Reservations can be made on-line for any of Roy's locations nation-wide.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Joy of Cookbooks

One can never be too rich or too thin--or own too many books. One of my mottoes is "a room without books is as a body without a soul" and I used to be able to quote it in Cicero's original Latin. We own one of those houses where people ask "have you read all these books?" Harlan Ellison's response to that question is "No. Who wants to live in a house filled with books you've already read?" The truth is, each of the three of us has read most of our own share of the books which reside with us, leaving plenty more to try on a rainy day.

The first time I stepped into Phyllis C. Richman's office at the Washington Post, I knew I wanted to have a cookbook collection like the one I saw there. My collection was only a shelf or two at the time, but it has grown substantially. Most libraries and bookstores don't have as good a selection. I buy them new, but I've had pretty good luck haunting thrift stores, antique shops, flea markets and yard sales in order to expand it.

There are frequently cookbooks on my nightstand, along with the other books I'm in the process of reading. Andy Rooney of 60 Minutes did one of his commentaries about cookbooks and couldn't understand why people would have more than a few and certainly didn't believe people actually read them for pleasure. We do.

There are certain cookbook writers I collect like I do some fiction writers. Marcella Hazan is at the top of that list. I think I own every one of her books and I use them repeatedly (Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, which combines two earlier volumes is the best Italian cookbook I own.) Julie Rosso and Sheila Lukins, together and alone are big favorites (it is possible to throw an entire party using the two Silver Palate Cookbooks) and Viana La Place, Julie Sahni, Madhur Jaffrey, and Nancy Silverton also rank. For my husband, Len Wein, it is Rachael Ray--Len probably owns every one of her books. What he didn't buy, I bought for him. I also collect cookbooks on certain topics: Italian food is the big one--without counting I know that dominates my shelves. I'm also prone to picking up books on baking bread, Indian cooking (even though Len can't eat it) and other ethnic cuisines, dim sum, holding tea parties, appetizers and other finger-food.

For my son Michael, I keep looking for cookbooks which will make him want to investigate the kitchen, not just the refrigerator. I've bought him Alton Brown's books (which are largely about the science of cooking, which Michael can relate to), some on Japanese cuisine (he's a Nipponophile), and some aimed at kids in college (I had The Campus Survival Cookbook when I was in grad school which I just loved and have passed on to him.) So far, he makes a nice banana bread.

After September 11, 2001, I spent a year working my way through Nancy Silverton's Breads from the La Brea Bakery. This book is not for the faint of heart, which is why I probably had it on the shelf for four years before I tried it. I started by cutting grapes from my arbor to make sour dough from scratch. After several aborted attempts to learn to make sour dough, Nancy Silverton's method actually worked. The smell of fresh bread brought comfort to me when things were crazy. Of course, Len took to calling the sour dough starter "Audrey Two" since I was constantly having to feed it and I never quite got the knack of keeping it dormant in the refrigerator. So I had lots of it bubbling away in a six-quart tub on the counter for a long time. It lived several years before I finally screwed up. Now, if I need starter, I call my friend Karen who is planning to open a bakery when she finally moves out of Los Angeles. She's doing some contract baking and she always has starter available.

I wouldn't be without my 1970s edition of the Joy of Cooking. Although it is on my shelf, I find the more recent update impossible to read--it uses a kind of type which is not kind on my old eyes--and it just isn't as friendly as my falling-to-pieces one. This is the book I go to every Thanksgiving for its reminders on the right way to roast my turkey and a great pie crust for my apple and pumpkin pies.

I love well-photographed cookbooks. One of the most beautiful cookbooks I've ever seen is an over-sized coffee-table book called Jean-Louis: Cooking with the Seasons. It was shot by Fred Maroon, a photographer of my acquaintance in Washington D.C., and written by Jean-Louis Palladin, a great character who died too early. I met him several times while working with Phyllis Richaman, and though I couldn't afford to eat at his restaurant at the Watergate Hotel, I did get to sample his food elsewhere. Because I am not inclined to take on French cuisine, the book is not in my personal collection. I do hope to have a copy one day, just to be inspired by the pictures.

The most valuable cookbooks in my collection are the notebooks where I've collected family recipes since I was a teenager. There should probably be a lot more, but I concentrated on the Italian holiday sweets. I discovered that some of the recipes didn't really work when I tried to make them on my own, so I had to go back and watch my mother in action in order to make notes to get them to come out right. I'm not entirely sure she was intentionally deceitful, but Mom often doesn't measure when she cooks and there was a lot more refinement needed in the quantities to make things work. Since I'm a by the book kind of baker, I'm surprised there weren't more disasters.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Nanny's Kitchen Table

Food plays a far too important symbolic place in my life. That's the kind of thing that interferes with dieting and really argues against the Weight Watchers' mantra of "nothing tastes as good as being thin feels." Not true. Not at all. Food is about family and friends, good conversation, great times, and comfort.

My mother's mother died when I was 10. Before that, she was the person who watched over us while my parents worked. Some of my earliest memories are of watching her cook for her extended Italo-Americano family in a long kitchen with an old stove and refrigerator. She had six children, a husband, and a mother-in-law who died only a few years before Nanny did. There were always lots of people around, the married children dropping in for the weekend, along with nieces, nephews, cousins, and the inevitable grandchildren. While most of the family would head out to Sunday mass, Nanny would be in the kitchen from dawn, preparing a massive mid-day meal that everyone would eat before heading home--often to New York City or Long Island.

When I think of my maternal grandmother, I always smell flour and eggs. She was constantly making pasta--or "home made macanoni" as the first of my brothers called it--on that Formica-topped kitchen table which could not have been as big as I remember it. Noodles and cavatelli, all made by hand, were a daily occupation. I still sit in wonder at the idea that she cut her long noodles evenly with a knife after rolling them out with a rolling pin. I've got a pasta machine for that, thank you. I've never really been able to master the cavatelli, rolling the little balls of dough and doing the three-finger drag that create the elongated shape that curls into itself of sufficient thinness that it cooks evenly and doesn't taste of raw flour when it is done.

My other grandmother and namesake, Nanny Christine, was Czech and had a whole different culinary heritage. I've heard tales about how she could hand-stretch a strudel dough paper thin on a table. She died when I was seven or eight, so I don't remember her well. I do have her recipe for kolachki, a time-consuming, filled-pastry cookie which I sometimes make at Christmas.

I also own a piece of furniture which came from Nanny Christine's family: the bottom half of a Hoosier kitchen. It has an enamel top which is the best surface for working dough short of a marble counter-top, I suspect. For many years, my cousins used it for storing clothes or toys and then my mother managed to get it from one of her sisters-in-law. I honestly don't remember where she had it in the house, and I'm not entirely sure how I managed to wrangle it away from her around 30 years ago, but I am awfully glad I did. It is my favorite prep space because it is about 6" lower than the kitchen cabinets' surface and I can get much better leverage when kneading bread or rolling pie crust. I sometimes wish I had the upper cabinet for storage, but if it was a choice between them, I'm glad I've got the lower half.

Homemade Pasta

2 Cups Semolina
3 Large Eggs
Pinch of Salt

Mix the semolina and salt in a mound on a clean work surface. Make a well in the middle and break the eggs into it. Using a fork or your fingers, work the semolina into the eggs until there is a mass of dough. Knead the dough until smooth, sprinkling the surface with flour as necessary. (Depending on the size of the eggs or the humidity in the air, the dough might be very stiff until kneaded. It is also possible to make the dough in a food processor.) Let the dough rest, covered with a bowl or plastic wrap to keep it from drying out, for about 20 minutes before proceeding.

To make noodles, break off a piece of dough, knead it a little more, flatten it, and use a rolling pin or pasta machine to roll it out to desired thickness (it will take several, successively narrower, passes through the machine.) Let it rest while repeating with the rest of the dough. Then, use the cutting device on the machine to cut to desired width. Or, roll up the dough unto a cylinder and use a sharp knife to slice the pasta into the desired width. Allow the cut dough to air-dry until ready to cook. Cook in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente, which can only be determined by tasting. Serve with your choice of sauce.