Friday, October 22, 2010

Nick Malgieri sits down with The Great American Bakery Hunt in Santa Monica

Imagine my delight when I was recently contacted to arrange a meeting with Nick Malgieri, a legendary American baker who is currently visiting Los Angeles to teach some local classes and spread the word about his latest book Bake!.  We met for lunch at Huckleberry during an uncharacteristically rainy Wednesday in Santa Monica.  While Santa Monica's outdoor exercise and tanning enthusiasts might protest this sentiment, I appreciate that the weather gods provided the perfect setting for enjoying a cozy cafe lunch between two baked good devotees.  

One thing I truly appreciate about Malgieri is that he encourages readers to ignore the intimidation factor associated with various doughs, baking techniques, and kitchen tools. Whether you put on a chef's coat every day or not, you should feel empowered to craft food that is elegant, delicious, and special-- and his writing really speaks to that.  And while there are many times when my passion for baked goods has led me to consider studying pastry professionally, I also love the idea that each day in my studio apartment kitchen is an opportunity to learn.  And this explains my immediate connection to Malgieri's newest book, as the title "Bake!" is imploring me to do so.  Good baking takes commitment, and Malgieri's advocacy for the home baker and his willingness to teach us quality baking is just the encouragement we need.       

In our convenience-driven society, many people turn away from baking either due to the time involved or the techniques, which they may assume are too complex.  Malgieri hopes to ease the worries of home bakers who sometimes "pick up their rolling pin as if it were a grenade." Bake! features beautiful step-by-step photography to confront any inklings of this pastry-related apprehension.  Bake! also offers handy tips including how to store your creations, which is an incredibly helpful bonus if you're serious about leftovers.

One standout recipe is definitely his quick version of homemade puff pastry, something I hope will start somewhat of a puff pastry paradigm shift.  This recipe is particularly symbolic, since frozen puff pastry has become such a standard in American recipes.  "No one makes their own puff pastry," you always hear people say.  And perhaps that will always be mostly true, but it's another frustrating reflection of our convenience-obsessed society and lowered expectations when it comes to baked goods.  As one more example, consider that it is rare to find a coffee house or cafe that serves a non-appalling version of a scone-- more often than not, they are dry, soulless, and attempting to mask their lack of freshness with an icing drizzle.  In Bake!, Malgieri similarly laments the commercially made muffins sold in airports, and provides alternatives for us via much more fulfilling recipes.  In Malgieri's earlier book, "A Baker's Tour", he will tell you that scones of the less- than- fresh variety are not acceptable for serving to guests.  Therefore, The Great American Bakery Hunt asserts that such scones should be illegal to sell to the public.  The man has standards, and we should too.

Aside from our mutual reverence for fresh scones and our passion for baking, I also learn that Malgieri and I have another thing in common: an avid cookbook collector, he has over 9,000 cookbooks in his apartment.  While my collection falls short of 9,000, I love cooking and baking so much that this amount is in no way excessive to me.  In fact, all I can think to myself is that I should strive to someday call my own an absolute minimum of 9,000 cookbooks.  Like Malgieri, I hope to travel enough so that I too can interpret my cooking texts in many languages beyond English.  As he advised, knowing just a few basic words opens up new worlds in baking and cooking, and these are worlds I believe I am destined for. 

Among everything else, we discussed with excitement a Danish meatball recipe I've been craving ever since 2005.  This topic naturally came up since I was eating lunch with an author and chef known for pursuing recipes all over the world and incorporating these into his food writing.  While Malgieri travels to Switzerland most frequently,  he has an enviable list of culinary experiences from his many travels across the globe. In my personal travels, I experienced the perfect meatball, a meatball made so lovingly in a Danish family kitchen that it's worth writing about and hopefully one day, recreating.  Since studying abroad in Copenhagen and living with a host mom who is an outstanding chef, her frikadeller (meatball) recipe is one I have ached for ever since my now 5 year absence from Scandinavia. And with Malgieri being an advocate of savory baking as much as sweet, who knows if he might one day translate such a recipe into a savory tart-- a Los Angeles bakery blogger can dream.  (Note: If this meat and pastry combination appeals to you, make sure to reference the empanada recipe he includes in Bake! using leftover puff pastry.)

Bake! is truly a wealth of recipes I look forward to experimenting with and it was a true pleasure to meet the man behind so many great recipes and compelling food writing.   If you're lucky, perhaps you'll catch this modern baker in your own city as he spreads the word of Bake!  Now if you'll excuse me, I have some baking to do...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Everyone should be so lucky...

Everyone should be so lucky as to have coworkers who bring in slices of homemade fresh peach pie to share, ever-so-carefully transported to the office in a tupperware.  Thanks April, friend, coworker, and longtime supporter of The Great American Bakery Hunt!  We salute you!

This pie is a recent apple number that April whipped up...

Monday, October 18, 2010

The moral of the story: gifts of ingredients will surely result in more rides to the airport

Tonight, I ventured out to LAX to pick up my friend Bryan from the airport.  While a lot of people hate airports, I find perfection in them.  Being around people from all over the world and experiencing the rush of travel is exciting-- and waiting time during travel is the perfect time to catch up on old newspaper articles, podcasts, and food writing.   You have no obligation to be anywhere other than on your plane at the required boarding time, so you can enjoy whatever media you want. And if reading doesn't entertain you, the people watching might.  Now I'm not saying I'm perfectly patient 100% of the time-- but I do think I have an unusual appreciation for airports. Needless to say, I envied all of the travelers at LAX tonight, and wondered where they were coming from or going to, where they would settle for the night, and naturally, the meals they would eat when they got there. 

When I finally waved down Bryan in the line of passengers at Terminal 5, he said he had a surprise for me.  As you can see, I was gifted some Kentucky Chocolate Nut Pie mix in return for converting my Toyota into a temporary airport taxi for his departure and arrival.  This gift was incredibly thoughtful and brings me to the moral of the story: while I am always willing take a friend to the airport, gifts of ingredients bind me via the laws of food blogging to guarantee more future airport rides.  Thanks Bryan!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Farmer's market nostalgia

When you're a food lover, sometimes a craving strikes and the rest is history.  You convince other people that the item you're craving is one they should desire as well, sometimes persuading them with a fervor misunderstood by more moderate food seekers.  Such was the case this Saturday when I forced my body out of slumber mode and went to the Santa Monica Saturday farmer's market in search of one thing: the alligator.  Now, it's been months since I have sought joy from the Bread Man's alligator pastry, which in the past I have savored while walking sleepily through the market.  On a day where you want to explore, go breakfasting in your flip flops, and swill coffee, the alligator is the perfect treat.  And this was the experience I wanted for others to whom I had promised a sublime breakfast experience.  But sadly, when I arrived to the market this Saturday, the Bread Man was nowhere to be found.  I had definitely heard news of some farmer's market vendor reshuffling, but I know now I was in denial.  I learned the hard way that rolling out of bed and sacrificing groomed hair to get my hands on one of the often sold-out alligators is no longer an option for me on Saturdays.  I'm planning on showing up to Bread Man's other markets with hope in my heart and a little bit sleepier eyes since now it will require long distance travel to hunt the alligator. 

This Saturday, since I was left lacking alligator, with bad bed head and an increasingly growly stomach, I was happy to try the new kid on the market block, Valerie Confections.  After picking up a few bunches of cilantro, I nibbled on their strawberry hand pie, both pictured below.  Delicious, and buttery, this tasty morsel lasted just long enough to comfort me during my defeated exit to the parking lot.  Don't get me wrong, not all change is bad.   I was excited to see Valerie Confections at the market--their galettes and hand pies are beautiful, and I'll be visiting their storefront soon.  But it's definitely the end of an era, and the alligator and I, we had a lot of great times.   

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The pâté that launched a thousand words...

We interrupt the typical bakery hunting news for a brief announcement about a new food blogging project!  The inspiration for this project was born long ago, with a sudden culinary spark at the age of 9 years, way before the food blogosphere existed in our collective vocabulary.  

In preparation for my tenth birthday, my parents invited friends and family for an afternoon at the local roller rink.  In planning for this momentous double digit celebration, my mother asked me: "What should I make to eat?"  

While most kids in 1990's America would have demanded pizza, I exclaimed "pâté"!  At the time, I didn't think anything of requesting pâté to serve to a cluster of middle school children alongside blueberry slushies, popcorn, and other roller rink fare: I doubt any of them noticed it or dared to seek out a taste.  Nevertheless, my mom's lovingly crafted pâté was how I chose to celebrate, my pâté birthday if you will.  Years before the blog frenzy of the internet age, this was the pâté that would later launch a thousand words.  I'm certain I wouldn't be the food blogging, baking, and cooking fanatic I am today without it.  As you can see below, this recipe was recently enjoyed in the present day at my grandfather's birthday celebration, albeit this time with more age-appropriate beverages (the blueberry slushy pairing was not missed.)

The passion for food my family instilled in me was heightened with the opportunity to live abroad in Denmark and travel throughout Europe.  From the wonderfully stinky fromage shops of Paris, to the bakeries of Copenhagen, to the cafes around every corner of the maze-like Seville streets, I discovered a reverence for food and an enthusiasm for the art of culinary travel.  Wherever I am in the world, my brain is wired to hunt down the best local food my surroundings might hold.  Rather than simply consuming this food, my aim is always to celebrate and savor it, in the true spirit of Pâté Birthday.   

My travels sparked the idea for this blog, The Great American Bakery Hunt, a blog I have dedicated to the aggressive pursuit of bakeries.  And while this blog focuses on using my killer sweet tooth to hunt bakeries around the world, I have an appreciation and commitment to all food. Fascinated by learning how to work with new ingredients and explore cooking techniques, I plan to leave no stove top unturned in life's cooking explorations.  And to help document this journey, I am launching a sister blog, Pâté Birthday, where I will focus on exploring as many recipes as possible, particularly ones that connect to family food traditions from all different cultures.

Throughout my life, I hope to seize any opportunity to cook or bake up a storm and to continue to widen my understanding of the world through the vehicle of food.  I'm certain I'm up for the challenge since after hours at work, I often come home excited to cook, spending hours making fresh soup and from-scratch cornbread, mixing up a new homemade hummus flavor, or crafting a quiche or a tart.  Simply, I am driven to blog because food is what I love, and I hope I can share that with others. 

My own family's table is shaped by many different cultures, including roots in Louisiana to the farmlands of the Midwest, from gumbo, okra, and red beans and rice, to the hearty history of American meat and potatoes tradition.  As a native Southern Californian, I am also fortunate to have grown up on delicious Mexican food throughout my youth.  And while I call Los Angeles my home, I am likely to show up in your city one day, toting a baguette from a local bakery and hunting for my next meal.  

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Settling into the fall routine with flatbreads...

Onion and fennel flatbread

Zuchinni and red onion flatbread