Sunday, August 28, 2005

Cupcakes of the Caribbean

Last weekend, my friend invited me to his tropical themed BBQ. It was a casual get together, with a bunch of his old friends, and a few of his new friends, like me. He and his wife provided a bountiful spread of themed food, and I volunteered to bring dessert. After a bit of thought, I decided to make rum cupcakes with coconut frosting. I then embarked upon a search for rum cake recipes, which led me to a recipe for a Malibu Rum cake. But here's the catch. It was by that blasphemous semi-homemade fake, Sandra Lee. I debated for a couple of days whether I should use her "recipe," since I'm normally against cake mixes because they contain so many ingredients that have nothing to do with food, like the copious amount of preservatives. In the end, time won out, and I decided that it wasn't cheating to use the mix for the cupcakes, if I made homemade frosting.

As you might expect, the cake mix turned out very good cupcakes. Her alterations of the recipe, namely adding rum (instead of water) and a package of pudding, made for very moist, rum flavored cupcakes. I'm actually reading a book right now entitled Something from the Oven, by Laura Shapiro, about the rise of the packaged food industry after WWII. It has some fascinating things to say about cake mixes, and the reservations women had about using them. I highly recommend it. As many 50's housewives did before me, I repressed my guilt about making cheaters cupcakes, and delved into the frosting preparation.

I took my recipe for frosting from the Cook's Illustrated website. Their coconut layer cake sounded delish, and the frosting seemed easy enough. I've made buttercream frosting before, and it was fairly easy, so I figured this would be similar. I thought the hardest part was whisking the eggs whites and sugar over the simmering water. I was worried I would cook them or overdo it or something, but all was well. After they reached their correct temperature, I assume to remove any chance of getting salmonella, I put them in the mixer and whisked them up to sticky peaks. The would have been gorgeous and delicious just like that, but I figured it would be wise to finish the recipe. The only warning I will give is that in the middle of adding the butter when making buttercream, the mixture looks like it's curdling or breaking or something has gone terribly wrong. It hasn't, don't worry. Add the rest of the butter and it will all return to normal and create lovely, creamy, obscenely decadent frosting.

This frosting was light as air when it was done, and it easily piped out of my pastry bag to create satisfying ploofs of frosting. I used the big round tip, because I wanted the frosting to pipe up thick and tall on the cakes. After a little sprinkle of coconut, they were finished. A little army of tiny cakes ready for battle.

Happily, they were well-received. I was shocked at how similar the frosting tasted to the etherial store-bought cupcake frosting, the ones that come in the special plastic cupcake containers. It was a little disappointing, actually. But my tasters all seemed pleased with the cupcakes, and they were legitimately homemade, so I quickly forgot about it. It's amazing how popular bringing homemade treats to a party can make you. That was a good thing too, since I knew no one but the hosts of this party. But everyone there was incredibly friendly, so I had a very nice time. Maybe I'll try making a different treat for next year's shindig.

Malibu Rum Cupcakes

1 package (18.25-ounce) Duncan Hines Moist Deluxe classic yellow cake mix
1 cup Malibu Rum
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 package (3.4-ounce) Jell-O vanilla instant pudding and pie filling mix
4 eggs

Combine all ingredients in a mixer and mix until smooth. Pour into a cupcake pan lined with cupcake papers until cups are 3/4 full. Bake according to the directions on the cake mix box. Let cool completely before frosting.

Coconut Buttercream Frosting

4 large egg whites
1 cup granulated sugar
1 pinch table salt
1 pound unsalted butter (4 sticks), each stick cut into 6 pieces, softened, but still cool
1/4 cup cream of coconut (if you don't have that, use sweetened condensed milk + coconut extract to taste—this is what I used, and it worked great)
1 teaspoon coconut extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup, or more, sweetened shredded coconut

While cupcakes are cooling, spread shredded coconut on rimmed baking sheet; toast in oven until shreds are a mix of golden brown and white, about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring 2 or 3 times. Cool to room temperature. Be vigilant when toasting the coconut—it can go from golden to burnt very quickly.

For the Buttercream: Combine whites, sugar, and salt in bowl of standing mixer; set bowl over saucepan containing 1 1/2-inches of barely simmering water. Whisk constantly until mixture is opaque and warm to the touch and registers about 120 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 2 minutes.

Transfer bowl to mixer and beat whites on high speed with whisk attachment until barely warm (about 80 degrees) and whites are glossy and sticky, about 7 minutes. Reduce speed to medium-high and beat in butter 1 piece at a time. (Don't worry if it looks like the mixture is breaking or curdling, it will be fine.) Beat in cream of coconut/sweetened condensed milk and coconut and vanilla extracts. Stop mixer and scrape bottom and sides of bowl. Continue to beat at medium-high speed until well-combined, about 1 minute.

Put frosting in a pastry bag fitted with the tip of your choice, and decorate your cupcakes as you like. Or spread onto the cupcakes with a knife or frosting spatula.

Sprinkle the toasted and cooled coconut on the frosted cupcakes. Enjoy!

Recipes courtesy of Sandra Lee and Cook's Illustrated.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Wabi Sabi Yummy in my Tummy

Sushi. The great Californian obsession. Out here in the land of granola, we worship at the alter of raw fish, and the Japanese people know it. And boy do I love them for it.

My first experience with sushi was in Ohio. Really. I was in my last year of college and my friend Aleks convinced me to go to the local sushi place to try "sushi." I put it in quotes because I don't think what I ate qualifies as sushi. Even though I'd grown up in California, sushi was still foreign to me at that point, so I didn't really think things through when I agreed to eat there with her. Being far far away from the ocean, close only to a body of water that had caught fire from polution my freshman year, Ohio is not exactly the right place to try eating raw fish. So I suppose it's wise that she ordered a California Roll for my maiden sushi voyage, ironic for many reasons, not the least of which is it's the redheaded stepchild of the sushi world. Fake, cooked krabmeat and all. But I didn't know that, and I thought it was disgusting, which worried me immensely. What kind of foodie was I if I didn't like sushi? I swore that I would teach myself to like it. But I gave myself a break and decided to try again when I returned to California.

My first experiences were timid at best. I retried the California Roll, liking it only a tiny bit better now, but only when it was made with real crab. I liked most of the cooked sushi, unagi being my favorite. Mmmm, that teriyaki sauce is good. Then I started to branch out, tasting the different rolls, then different sushi, and ultimately progressing to sashimi. Now I am a fairly adventurous sushi eater, conservative by some standards, daring by others. But most importantly, I love sushi. I love sitting at the bar and watching the sushi chefs work their magic. I love ordering them beers and seeing what kind of special treats they'll bestow upon me. I love chopsticks. I love wasabi. I love the whole sushi experience.

Los Angeles is riddled with sushi restaurants. It's home to Matsuhisha, one of the most expensive sushi restaurants you can find, like at least $100 per person expensive. But cheap and sushi should not share space in the same sentence. Because cheap and sushi usually mean food and poisoning will follow. So I usually budget about $50 for my meal, knowing I'll eat well. Also knowing I can't eat out like that too often. So the other night, feeling like we deserved a treat, my boyfriend and I went to a place called Wabi Sabi and got our $50 worth. Plus some.

Wabi Sabi is a trendy little place on Abbot Kinney in Venice. Abbot Kinney is named for the man whose brilliant and crazy idea it was to replicate Venice, Italy in Los Angeles. Thanks to Mr. Kinney, we have beautiful canals decorating Venice, CA, now clean and scenic next to million dollar homes. Venice is an artist and hippie enclave. Abbot Kinney is the backbone of its unique vibe.

At night, the Abbot Kinney strip becomes one of the hipper places to be on the Westside. While we waited for a table at Wabi Sabi, I marveled at the outfits artfully gracing the lithe figures of the tragically hip people waiting alongside us. Sometimes I wonder how they have the time and energy to dress themselves so perfectly. Occasionally I wonder if they wear the same perfect outfit every night. But I digress. Once seated, I scanned the menu which featured both sushi and Asian bistro-type dishes from the kitchen. A dazzling array of options, both my eyes and my stomach wanted it all.

We started with the shrimp potstickers. (Pictured above with orange sauce.) They looked like raviolis to me, but they tasted like potstickers. The sauce was quite good, sweet and savory. I would have like a bit less sauce so I could taste the fresh shrimp whose flavor peeked through a bit, but it still tasted delicious. Then we began our array of specials for the night. The first was the halibut with citrus dressing. (See fish with yellow flower.) So delicious and light, it was tangy and lemony with a strong wasabi spanking at the end. Yum. Then we enjoyed the albacore sashimi (pictured above with pointy shaped fish) and the garlic tataki, (pictured above, kind of dark, sorry), and both were amazing and delicious. I felt like they could do no wrong. Every dish they brought us was better than the first. We wanted to try a few more of their specials, but it seems that other diners had the same idea and we were out of luck, so we chose a few other options. My boyfriend loves toro, so after dining on the best toro I've ever had, we selected a toro roll with green onions, (we'd already eaten the last toro sushi), and Japanese mackrel, since they were out of Spanish mackrel, one of my personal faves. Both were superior, leaving me sated and blissfully happy, especially since I'd grown incredibly hungry during our walk to the restaurant and subsequent wait for a table.

Normally at the end of a sushi meal, I'm not interested in dessert. But tonight we decided to take a peek at the dessert menu. I was surprised by the options, particularly because none featured green tea ice cream, the usual staple. After a bit of negotiating, we decided to try the chocolate fudge cake with hazelnut ice cream. And it was good. So good, I thought it was out of place at a sushi restaurant. But I just went with it, eating more than my share since the boy is a savory, not a sweet person. Dense, brownie-like, and oh so chocolatey, the cake was one of the better chocolate cakes a restaurant can offer. I know they're popular and reasonably easy to make, but it's shocking how often restaurants get it wrong. So it was that much more exciting that Wabi Sabi got it right.

In my haste to discuss the food, I've neglected to mention our unexpected dining partners, the couple sitting next to us at the bar. He was a macho, loud-talking, opinionated nutball, and his girlfriend was a prissy dieter who would only live in LA or Florida. At one point during the meal she told him that he had to stop dating other women, or he was going to lose her. Straight up now tell me is it gonna be you and me together, or are you just having fun. Paula Abdul style. His comment when she left for the bathroom after dropping that bomb was, "Do you ever know when you've really fucked something up big time?" They were fascinating.

To sum up, the food here is fantastic. Everything was uniformly great. Service was good. Present, but not overwhelming. Our placement at the counter left a little to be desired, since we were up against the wall and I didn't have good access to the sushi chefs, but the chefs were attentive regardless, and the food made up for it. There is a wait for a table if you don't have reservations, but it was only 30 minutes on a Saturday night, which isn't that bad, especially in Venice which seems to move in its own time zone. It was an expensive meal, over $100 for the two of us. But we ordered a lot of special sashimi, which was pricey and so worth it. Overall, I highly recommend Wabi Sabi. If you go, ask to sit at the counter, and hope you get some delightfully weird neighbors.

1637 Abbot Kinney Blvd
Venice, CA 90291

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Coop and The Rice Candy

I grew up in Palo Alto, CA. Palo Alto is an idyllic suburban town just 30 miles from San Francisco, part of the hotbed of technology called Silicon Valley. Filled with incredibly smart and interesting people, it is also home to one of the country's best and most beautiful universities: Leland Stanford University. When I was growing up there, in the late 70's and 80's, it was more relaxed than it is now. It had more of a professorville feel to it, with trickle-down hippiness from Berkeley, and elbow-patched, blazer-wearing intellectuals living in modest homes on tree-lined streets. Palo Alto is fancier now. The Varsity Theater is now a Borders Bookstore. Stanford Shopping Center no longer has a Woolworths or any fleeting sign of stores of that ilk. And places like The Co-op have disappeared, to be replaced with Longs Drugs on site, and Whole Foods in spirit. I don't long for the old days, I'm simply explaining the change. It used to be about station wagons, Big Wheels, and changing the world. Now it's about SUVs, stock portfolios, and landscaping. At least The Prolific Oven is still there.

As I kid, I loved going to the supermarket with my parents. When The Co-op was still open, we went there most often. I thought it was cool because you had to be a member to shop there. It was like a secret food club. I have the worst memory in the world, but I can still remember how it looked, every inch of it. The pristine, symmetrical piles of produce. The artisan breads in baskets at the end of the aisles. The international foods aisle. That was my favorite aisle to walk down. The variety of different packaging was a sight to behold. Shiny tins. Odd shaped boxes. Slim sacks. All containing new and exciting foods I'd never tasted.

One day I discovered the Asian candies. What weird flavors! Red bean? Lychee? Salty plum? I was seduced by their funny boxes and foreign imagery. But none kept me coming back for more like the Botan Rice Candy. The label says it has orange and lemon flavors, but I think they taste like something entirely their own. I loved the soft, chewy texture and the sweet pink flavor. Before the overparenting lawsuit craze, they also had toys inside, like tiny plastic cars or dolls. Now they have fake tattoos and stickers. But I admit, I liked the fake tattoos the best. I still like them.

Oh, but the very very best part of the Botan Rice Candy was the inside wrapper. As the box says, each candy has an edible inner wrapper that melts in your mouth. With considerable effort, you can peel the edible rice paper from the candy and let it disappear on your tongue. At first it feels like a coating, and then it dissolves completely. If you leave it on the candy, you simply chew right through it. I don't know why they added the rice paper, but I love that they did. It's a tiny little detail that makes the Botan Rice Candy experience special.

After I discovered the rice candy, I would go through the elaborate begging ritual every time we shopped there. Can I puhleeeeeese have some? Puhleeese? I promise I'll be quiet and good the whole time. I promise. Yes I'll wait until we leave before I eat the candies. I will. It usually didn't take too much convincing to get my parents to buy me one box of candies. Not like the monumental effort it took to get them to buy fake American cheese slices, or as my dad calls them: American Cheese Food. What they feed cheese. No, the Botan Rice Candy became a ritual at The Co-op. Along with a deep appreciation for excellent, fresh produce, specialty bread, and home cooking. It was a pretty nice way to grow up, if I do say so myself.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

FuRaiBo. Rhymes with Tai Bo.

The Westside is home to a variety of neighborhoods, each with their own distinct flavor. In my neighborhood, with its uninspired name of West LA, there is a little stretch of Sawtelle that my friends affectionately call NanoTokyo. Being about 1 billionth the size of Tokyo, give or take, it seems to be a fair assessment of the neighborhood, which over the course of about two blocks is filled to the brim with Japanese restaurants, along with a few other variations to spice things up.

My current favorite restaurant in the area is called FuRaiBo. It’s located on the corner of Sawtelle and Mississippi, just caddywompus from the main strip mall on Sawtelle at Olympic. (Side note: caddywompus is delightful word that I learned while visiting the town of Solon, Iowa. It means “diagonally across” as in the restaurant is diagonally across the street.) As you enter FuRaiBo, assuming there isn’t a crowd of people waiting for tables and/or smoking out front, you’re greeted by a panoply of smells and a vibrant atmosphere of happy, satisfied diners. FuRaiBo serves Japanese bar food, meaning small plates of tasty treats served tapas style. The most popular beverage accompaniment to the meal is a large Sapporo or sake.

On this particular trip to FuRaiBo, I was treating my boyfriend and his friend to dinner. They had just helped me fetch my 75lb. new desk from Pottery Barn (see picture) and assemble it in my apartment, and I felt that deserved a delicious meal. Knowing my boyfriend’s preference for Japanese food, I suggested this place just to see his face light up. On this particular night, we were seated promptly. Normally the wait is long, but during the week it seems to be a bit better. Upon sitting, we noticed the ad for sparkling sake sitting on our table and ordered a bottle immediately just to taste it. It was sparkly and sweet, with a light sake aftertaste. I liked it best on the first sip, and felt it had diminishing returns. But I’m not a big sake drinker, I prefer beer.

For our meal we ordered a selection of dishes, from beef to squid to fish to veggies. My favorites were the fried halibut served in a deep fried fish dish, asparagus butter with spears of asparagus warm with butter, and eggplant with sweet miso sauce. I’m not sure how they make the miso sauce, but I’m pretty sure I could bathe in it and be a happy camper. The beef dishes were all delicious, except for the Beef Sashimi that I did not want to taste, although my boyfriend enjoyed it immensely. The squid was also a bit chewy for my taste (I'm a texture queen), but as squid goes, I was told it was quite good. Sadly, I have very few pictures from the meal because I forgot I even had my camera with me until after we’d made a little plate graveyard on our table. But I do have a picture of my boyfriend with squid lips. He is, as they say, a real kidder.

The pleasure of dining at FuRaiBo is multifold. First and foremost, the food is delicious. Second, there’s something for everyone. And third, they’re open late, until 11:45pm every day except Sunday, when they're open until 10:45pm, which makes it a popular late night hangout that serves a welcome change from the typical all-night diner food. With its pleasant, boisterous atmosphere and competent waitstaff, I highly recommend FuRaiBo for a casual and fun night out.

2068 Sawtelle Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90025

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Writing and eating, but not writing about eating.

Dear friends, readers, and fellow food lovers,

With minimal fanfare and an embarassed look of my face, I'm back. I can't believe it's been this long. I never intended to have such a lapse in my blog, but it happened. It's like going to the gym. Once you get out of the routine, it becomes okay not to go, and then you stop going altogether. Sometimes it amuses me what creatures of habit we are.

I'd like to thank each and every friend and new friend who commented on my blog in the past month. Your comments are all so sweet and heartfelt and I appreciate each and every one. I think part of the reason for my absence has been trying to figure out where I stand in the whole foodie dating a non-foodie thing. We are still doing well, but for a while there I felt like his blasé food attitude was contagious. I found myself uninspired to talk about food because I was embarrased to be so excited about it in his presence. But then I realized, it's okay if he looks at me funny when I wax philosophical about the amazing grapes we bought at the market. (So crunchy, sweet, tart, and delicious!) Maybe my non-blasé attitude will rub off on him! I only considered that thought for a fleeting moment. It's doubtful, but hey, it's worth a try.

Anyway, last night I made myself a little ice cream sundae because I deserved a treat. Okay, it wasn't a true ice cream sundae because it didn't have chocolate fudge sauce or nuts or a cherry on top, but it did have whipped cream (and mint chip ice cream!!). Have you noticed how whipped cream makes everything a little more special? I LOVE whipped cream. I love it sugary sweet and light from canister you can get from the supermarket. I love it homemade, with or without sugar. I love it with cinnamon. I love it plain. I am a particularly huge fan of squirting it directly into my mouth straight from the fridge. One friend even suggested ordering the new Chantico drinking chocolate from Starbucks with a large side of whipped cream. She claims is cuts the chocolate intensity just enough that you can actually finish the Chantico. I see touches of genius in this suggestion. This same friend has a professional whipped cream container at home so she can make homemade whipped cream without the whipping part. It's easy to combine the cream and simple syrup, add the pressurized gas, and voila! An almost endless supply of whipped cream. It's particularly delicious served over homemade ice cream, which we did not too long ago. If I bought an ice cream maker, I believe I would have every single kitchen appliance known to man. Maybe that's a good thing.

I would love to continue writing about food right now, but I have to prepare for a meeting. The other reason for my prolonged absence is the enormous amount of work I've taken on lately. I'm a freelance writer, and it's feast or famine in my world. Ha, feast or famine. It always seems to circle back to food. So I hereby promise to myself and to you that I will keep up with my food writing. Thank you all for your continued support. I really means the world to me.