Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas Bakery Hunters!

Ah, the obligatory Christmas post. Today was a gorgeous Christmas day in Southern California, and I had plenty to be thankful for-- I was surrounded by my whole family and an excess of baked goods.

My family was more than generous in their holiday giving, and many of their gifts will help me to contribute more content to The Great American Bakery Hunt in the future. I acquired an entire library of treasures including:
  • A 2-year subscription to Nordic Reach, a magazine dedicated to Scandinavian culture. (In its own words, Nordic Reach "covers people, places, and stories of interest to everyone with a foot-or soul- in both the Scandinavian and American cultures, as well as to those who wish to appreciate them more deeply.") With articles like "In Cod We Trust", how can I go wrong?
  • A selection of expatriate novels, including Peter Mayle's Provence A-Z (I really enjoyed reading his book French Lessons because of all of his adventures with French food, so I'm hoping it will be another good read)
  • Not one, but three, repeat three books about the greatness of cheese! My selection includes The Cheese Plate, Cheese: A Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Best, and The Cheese Board: Collective Works. Oh happy day! (Side note: The great thing about a cheese book is that it will always pick you up when you're feeling down. A good friend of mine once mailed me "The Cheese Companion" after I suffered a break-up. Since she had temporarily relocated and couldn't provide a shoulder to cry on, she sent the Companion to me as a substitute. Perhaps the healing power of cheese doesn't work for everyone, but that cheese companion sure saw me through some tough times. God knows my Connoisseur's Guide will come in handy one of these days!)
  • The Cake Bible. I have been wanting to get the Cake Bible ever since acquiring the Bread Bible about a year ago. Clearly they belong sitting side by side on my bookshelf, in holy baking communion with one another.
  • A pastry cookbook from the La Brea Bakery
  • A cupcake cookbook, titled "Crazy about Cupcakes"-- Just how crazy will it get? Only time will tell.
  • the Tartine cookbook, from the San Francisco bakery I have been dying to try- one of the bakery's founders has Scandinavian (Swedish) roots, so I am already a fan...
  • The 3rd edition Food Lover's Companion, an alphabetized culinary reference book from which I have already learned that "Abbacchio" is Italian for a very young lamb. I sneaked a peak at the end of the book, confirming that exciting discoveries await me throughout the whole reference guide. Zwieback, my friends, is a "twice-baked" German bread often served to people with digestive problems. Who knew?

Aside from all this reading, I really do need to make more time to bake, especially because my parents also got me three silicone Le Creuset pastry brushes! They are so adorable, and go perfectly with my new "drop, smidge, pinch, and hint" measuring spoons. A new whisk, measuring cups, and ceramic pie weights will also be welcome additions to the kitchen.

As we approach the New Year, I am armed with plenty of reading materials and baking tools to aid me in future bakery hunts and baking endeavors. Time to get to work! Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good pastry...

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Live each season

It's my first semester after college and officially in the working world, which means there is no nearing "Christmas vacation" to speak of. I will have two days off for Christmas, two days off for New Years, and then it's back to reality. It is clear that four days is simply not enough to fully appreciate the good tidings and cheer of the holidays.

To address this dilemma, my friend and I started brainstorming several weeks ago. We needed to have a low-key celebration for the ages, one that would end 2006 with a jolly good helping of food and some drink to toast the coming new year. We planned it for a Saturday night, since I work Saturday mornings at the farmer's market. I was to work the market, pick up any fresh market goods that struck my fancy, and head down to his house.

I must say, I gathered a particularly delicious array of farmer's market loot that day. Among the culinary booty, there were fresh tomatoes, potatoes, and onions from Jacque the produce vendor, amazing hickory and chile lime almonds from Andre (who recommended these flavors as his favorite with beer), fresh sea bass from Marvin the fisherman, and German bakery cheese bread from Eddy.

To go along with the food, I picked up a selection of craft beers at Hi-Time Liquor (a Costa Mesa legend!), where the staff gave me some friendly advice about their seasonal (winter ales) and all-season favorites. (My favorite ended up being The Three Philosophers by the Ommegang Brewery, a Cooperstown, NY based brewery that makes Belgian style beers. I have heard this brewery is a mecca for beer lovers, so naturally I am already planning a trip in my future.)

I tried to make a cheese dip with my "Cooking with Beer" book, an impulse buy I snatched up while waiting for a price check at the grocery store. The dip turned out horribly (I secretly knew it would), but there was plenty of other good food to go around.

The great thing about the night was the spirit behind it--good friends and good eats. It mattered little if there were a few flops in the kitchen. We stole our inspiration from Thoreau: "Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each."

At the end of the night, we ended with some chocolate kalua cake, made by the cake company I work for. It was the perfect late night snack, but not as good as my early morning, on- the- way -home A & W Root Beer Float. As I changed lanes to pull into the parking lot and slowed to the drive-thru ordering spot, I fully acknowledged that this craving was ridiculous. But then I thought to myself, it's never too early for a root beer float. It's five o'clock somewhere. Mostly it reminded me of how different my lifestyle is here in the United States versus when I lived in Denmark. Surrounded by the metal heap of my Volvo station wagon, I am at one with my American roots, slurping away at my sugary-soda concoction. I pause at a stoplight, and think "My dear readers! What would they think if they were here with me, patroning fast food establishments while driving around in my not so fast '88 Volvo??" I have taken a picture for you all, to appropriately capture this very stereotypically American moment. It's at times like these that I am reminded how much I miss wandering the streets of Europe and interacting with people outside of the constraints of a moving box. While I have the convenience of personal transportation and fast food here, I miss the contact of the outside world, and the pleasure of being free from an automobile.

Someday I will go back to Europe. But no matter where I am living, my worlds will continue colliding in American-European fusion. As I drive along the 405, I often get the urge to hear the sounds of Europe, and I reach back to grab my Danish listening CD's. The next day, I use the French ones. And in January, I'll attend the Scandinavian film festival in Los Angeles, crossing the barrier from Orange to LA County in none other than a Scandinavian made automobile. Fitting, no?

"Blind cookie justice for all"

A recent LA Times contest named Sherry Yard of Spago the proud maker of the "Cookie of the Year". The winning cookie was an Austrian- American version of a macaron, with an influence of Lebkuchen (a traditional German gingerbread recipe).

Do not mistake this contest for some food entertainment holiday fluff piece. Competitors were serious, and one even sent in an entry anonymously, with a note that read : "Blind cookie justice for all"! It doesn't get much better than that.

This contest has inspired me...My King Arthur Flour cookbook includes a Lebkuchen recipe I have been eyeing for weeks, so this reminds me that I need to get to the oven and start baking.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Sugar is not the enemy

For all you baking fiends out there, take a look at this humorous campaign for sugar. The marketing slogan rings true for champions of sugar everywhere: "Who wants a world where sugar is forbidden?". For a bakery hunter, such a world is nothing to joke about.