Friday, November 25, 2011

Baked goods in nature at The Sea Ranch

After a trip to Monterey Bay for my first half marathon, I had the chance to visit Sea Ranch, a beachside community in Sonoma County, California.  Just a quick stop at the San Francisco Airport to drop off my running buddy April and then I was driving solo, onward towards my destination.  Just a woman, a Toyota with good mileage, and a love affair with the coastline.  Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge in the late afternoon, I was lucky to make it before dark to the windy stretch of Highway 1 that would lead me towards Sea Ranch.  Along this route, cows graze with a killer view, sometimes in dangerously close proximity to the road.  

Approaching Sea Ranch, you must take care to watch for deer and wild turkeys crossing the street.  
Plus, there are seal pups!
While this drive is not for the faint of heart, it's entirely worth it if you're a fan of the beautiful surroundings.  Plus, there's the unexpected baked goods. 

When I arrived to visit family renting a house in the area, an apricot windowpane from Two Fish Baking Company was waiting for me.  While sometimes my bakery destinations are planned months or even years ahead of time, some of the best finds are the surprise spots that loved ones lead me to.  That night, we nibbled on the crumbly apricot windowpane beside a roaring fire with the promise of more baked goods to come on Wednesday.  This bakery has limited hours, so you must strategically plan your visit.  Luckily for me, I found out about Two Fish upon my arrival and just in time for their specially adjusted hours (designated for Thanksgiving treat pick-ups.)  The friendly owners, Margaret and Hilla, greeted us warmly upon our arrival and were cheerful despite the fact that Thanksgiving prep is a busy, grueling work week in the baking profession.  Hilla's enthusiastic sweet tooth even prompted her to pull out her Iphone and share a donut shop discovery from her last visit to Brooklyn, displaying a picture of the blood orange glazed variety from Dough Donuts.  I was pretty pleased that the owners' kindred spirit bakery hunting tendencies were strong enough to prompt Iphone photo shares with complete strangers like myself.  I drove away with a morning bun, a sticky bun, and a cappuccino to enjoy over the course of the long trek homeward (plus a mental note to book a flight to New York and get a donut from Dough.)  The Two Fish morning bun was soft, fresh, doughy, and delicious, and in the interest of full disclosure, I devoured it in a matter of seconds.  

The sticky bun was a different story: also delicious, but so rich that it lasted me miles of enjoyment until the very last rest stop.  
With a newly sticky steering wheel, I happily made my journey with a full belly and the perfect sweet to snack on with a cup of joe. But as it turns out, this sticky bun pairs well with other beverages too.  I squeezed this trip in right before Thanksgiving and planned to drive the majority of the way home the day before the holiday.  Notorious as one of the worst traffic days, I had visions of Carmageddon taking over all southbound lanes in a hellish rush of turkey travelers.  In preparation, I booked a hotel room so I could get some good rest in before the final hours of my drive.  As it turned out, this stop was serendipitous: before settling into my hotel room, I bought a Telegraph Stock Porter, a beer brewed locally in Santa Barbara.  I considered this beer my reward for completing a long, safe drive, but then discovered it was the perfect companion for my remaining pieces of my sticky bun.  If you weren't aware you could enjoy such decadence in a highway adjacent Best Western, now you know.  Don't miss a trip to the Two Fish Baking Company during your travels up or down the coast: grab a morning bun--best eaten on the beach, but also suitable for the car if you're in a rush.  Either way, it's perfect for nibbling on during your next seaside adventure! 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

13.1 miles until the Big Sur Bakery

Back in April, I registered to run the Big Sur Half Marathon on Monterey Bay.  As a Southern California native, my pattern is to hug the coast for most of my workouts.  I'll admit, training is way more enjoyable when you have a beautiful ocean view and (mostly) perfect weather.  My friend April, who also signed up to run, is from Maui and has a similar appreciation of the coast.

Running a half-marathon has been on my bucket list for awhile, but beyond achieving this goal, I had one very big ulterior motive: a visit to the Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant.  While I consider myself an athlete, I am first and foremost a culinary adventurer.  So before setting out upon my journey, I emailed the restaurant my confession.  The following is an excerpt: 

Subject: Looking forward to seeing your cookbook come to life this weekend

Dear Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant, 
I am writing in anticipation of fulfilling a dinner reservation at your restaurant this Sunday.  For quite awhile now, I've admired what you all do from reading the pages of your cookbook.  Many months ago, I registered to run the Big Sur Half Marathon and I confess that approximately 85% of my motivation had to do with the fact that it would give me the excuse to eat at your restaurant (the remaining percentage accounting for my enjoyment of running and my desire to discover the beauty of Big Sur!)  I've been looking at your cookbook in anticipation of the trip and noticed that one of your goals was that the Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant be a destination restaurant-- not just a place where people pass through by happenstance.  After reading this, I thought you might enjoy learning about the true motives behind my half-marathon commitment.  Since registering for the race in April, I have been met with enthusiastic encouragement from friends.  "Good for you," they say.  "What a great goal."  Little do they know that my motives are driven largely by culinary obsession.  

Our race day preparations started at 5 am, but I suspect the day's baked goods were heating up in Big Sur Bakery's wood-fired oven long before that.  My race day breakfast was a plain bagel with a packet of Justin's honey peanut butter.  This simple meal fueled me through the race so I could experience the culinary reward of a perfect dinner in the restaurant's cozy 1930's house along Highway 1.

Around 7 am, we began to run the beautiful stretch of coast along Monterey Bay.  After much anticipation and training, our half-marathon was finally here.  Just 13.1 miles until that meal would be ours at Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant.  (In reality, it turned out to be about 15.1 miles because we walked to our hotel after the race.  But who's counting?)  Our legs pounded the pavement and rainy weather sprinkled down on us.  After crossing the finish line, I discovered that I ran a faster pace compared with my training runs.  Coincidence, or speed driven by culinary inspiration?  I'd like to think it was the latter. On the way to dinner, we took our time driving through Big Sur, stopping at just about every scenic turnout to take photos.

While I was a little weary from the race schedule, nothing keeps me going like the promise of an outstanding meal.  In the end, Michelle Rizzolo (baker) and Phillip Wojtowicz (chef) not only delivered some very delicious food to our eager stomaches, but also graciously agreed to sign my cookbook.   

We enjoyed a lovely, laid-back fireside dinner-- the perfect setting to wrap up an epic, adventurous day.  I ate every last bite of my sea bass, which was married with roasted fennel, beets, carrots, and bok choy.  I sipped on a Speakeasy Prohibition Ale and felt thankful I declined the free, non-craft beer at the race's finish line.  Like visiting this beautiful stretch of the California coast, this beer, and this meal, were both worth waiting for.  

During the dark drive home, the picturesque seaside views of the half-marathon were gone, but the night was not over yet.  We left the bakery with two brown bags of bread and pastries from the morning's selection.  Matt Glazer, the friendly General Manager, was very helpful in setting our desired pastries aside, making our pastry plot through the woods a great success.  

Our bellies were full, but not too full to celebrate our run a bit more with a pumpkin strudel and a chocolate chip macadamia nut cookie from the bakery. The next day, we skipped our complimentary hotel breakfast in favor of our bounty from Highway 1.  We would not be swayed by a hotel omelet bar, absolutely not!  We would snag a few butter patties from the buffet bar and break fresh, crusty bread from the Big Sur Bakery up in our room, because it was the right thing to do.  And no one would be the wiser.  
A special thanks goes out to April for being a great friend willing to be in cahoots with me on yet another elaborate bakery hunting plan, thanks to April's mom Janice for treating us to a delicious dinner, and thanks to my lovely mom for placing our pastry order and treating us to our Highway 1 wood-fired bounty!  And finally, thank you so much to the whole crew at the Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant for the many bites worth traveling for.  We'll be back!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Macaroons and more at IFBC Santa Monica

Last weekend, I attended the International Food Blogger Conference in Santa Monica.   Just hours into the weekend-long conference, I ended up behind the kitchen counter assisting Clemence, a teacher at the Gourmandise School of Cooking.  It only took one call for volunteers and my hand quickly shot up, much like an overly eager school kid unable to sit still in the audience of a magic show.  I was determined to get my hands in that macaroon recipe.  
Thanks to Garlic Girl for snapping this photo of me in action at IFBC!  This cooking class took place at the after hours event at Santa Monica Place's Gourmandise School of Cooking.

Best of all, I could wear my enthusiasm proudly because I was in a room full of food fanatics.  When Clemence warned me she would put me to work, I was thrilled.  (I've been not so secretly obsessing about staging in a bakery for way too long. I haven't made it happen just yet, unless you count a short post-college stint selling a local baker's cakes at the Laguna Beach Farmer's Market.)  With such a busy work schedule lately, this opportunity for macaroon making was a golden one.

This was my third time attending an IFBC conference, so the experience of transitioning from informative sessions tapping away at my laptop to an activity like sifting flour seemed normal.  Perhaps it takes a crowd of bloggers to fully appreciate this dance of thinking and writing about food, then getting into the kitchen.  We spend a lot of time transitioning between the virtual space and our kitchen base.  As much as we're addicted to internet gastronomy, we're not afraid to get our hands dirty: we follow food editors on Twitter and we peruse recipe sites, but we also willingly and bravely jump into the kitchen ready to try to gain another and then another morsel of knowledge or skill.  

At the conference, the crowd is an interesting mix, with terms like search engine optimization and fois gras peppering the conversation in equal measure-- and I wouldn't have it any other way.  I am thankful I had the chance to go to IFBC, and felt at home surrounded by a huge group of people, hungry for food and for the opportunity to learn about this delicious niche.  Thanks to the folks at Foodista for a great conference, and thanks to Clemence for letting me lend a hand in the kitchen!

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Fall Empanada Night

Thanks to Karin, friend of The Great American Bakery Hunt, for whipping up this from-scratch-batch of fresh empanadas.  These empanadas are inspired by her Argentinian host mother's recipe, a recipe she brought to her Los Angeles kitchen after studying abroad.  If you don't have an Argentinian host mom, don't worry.  If you're willing to get your hands a little dirty, you too can create some empanada dough of your own!  

Monday, October 24, 2011

My recent Po Boy Marathon in New Orleans, Louisiana

While the title of my blog confirms my respect for baked goods, I have a reverence for baking and cooking alike.  I also have a deep respect for the construction of a good sandwich, so much so that I will travel to different destinations to taste the best local ingredients stuffed between two slices of bread.  My recent travels to New Orleans provided the perfect opportunity to indulge in great sandwiches, more specifically great po boys. When you travel to New Orleans, eating local food is as valid an exploration of the city's history as stepping inside a museum: and po boys are the perfect example of this.   Some say the the legendary po boy sandwich originated during the New Orleans streetcar strike of the late 1920's, when restauranteurs Bennie & Clovis Martin fed strikers their hearty sandwiches as an act of support.  For me, an independent, thoughtfully executed sandwich shop is more than a place to get a no-frills, hearty lunch. These shops tell the stories of a city's food traditions, treasured recipes, and community.  

Any sandwich lover in any American city has their favorite hometown sandwich shop.  For my family, it's Giuliano's in Gardena, maker of Italian deli sandwiches that were as much a part of my California childhood as days spent boogie boarding in the Pacific Ocean.  To this day, we still nibble on their sandwiches with satisfaction-- though, only after dunking the edge of our bread in their signature oil and vinegar mixture so each bite is transformed into a juicy explosion of dressing and meat and spices.  This shop became a part of my family's history when my grandpa's contracting business led him to create the woodworking of the original Guiliano's location-- and my family has enjoyed their sandwiches ever since.  

New Orleans is a city where sandwich history is especially honored, local mom and pop businesses are treasured culinary gems, and down-to-earth food and service will fill you up to the brim.  But especially since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the kitchens that re-opened and continue to cook up New Orleans cuisine are a symbol of the city's resilience.  According to the book Gumbo Tales by Sara Roahen, New Orleans locals "continue to pitch in elbow grease to help their favorite food businesses reopen."  

This city honors its local recipes and food traditions as an essential part of its cultural landscape, arguably more so than any American city.  Our visit to the Southern Museum of Food and Beverage highlighted this reverence for food culture throughout its exhibits.  A quote featured by Judy Walker, Food Editor of local paper Times Picayune and author of Cooking up a Storm, examined the communal recipe recovery project initiated after Hurricane Katrina: "Restoring recipes after so many were lost in the floodwaters following Katrina was an educational process for me.   I came to wonder if this project would have been necessary anywhere else in the United States.  If 80 percent of another major American city was destroyed, would there have been a need to re-locate the recipes that the citizens held dear?  I tend to think not."  And if you need more evidence, take a look at these entertaining posters (photographed in the Southern Museum of Food and Beverage.)   The posters advertise the Po Boy Preservation Festival, dedicated to the sandwich born in New Orleans. 

So I bet you're wondering: where do you go to eat a po boy in the city that champions the sandwich as a historical artifact?  

Since this was our first trip to New Orleans, we had a lot of ground to cover and only three meals a day.   Among other dishes we set out to conquer, a po boy marathon commenced.  It was a whirlwhind of carbohydrates, meat, and seafood, one that still makes me salivate as I recall the adventure.  Let it be known that we said goodbye to our California ways for the duration of our trip: there would be no sushi bars, no salads adorned with avocado, no salmon tacos, no artichokes.  We would certainly not disgrace our palates with any meal we might have access to at home. A slice of pizza or a quesadilla?  These were poison to our cause.  Low-carb, low-fat, vegetarian, we abandoned each category with zeal!  We would eat only local decadence for a week and a half, washing down each meal with local cocktail specialties and beers in equal measure. 

Our first two stops were suggested to us through Gumbo Tales, which is a must-read for anyone desiring an eating tour of the city-- particularly if you're the type of person who appreciates the small business owners, restauranteurs, and chefs within communities near and far.  I suggest finishing her book before you go so your taste buds are fully prepared to appreciate (and likely fall in love with) the gems of the New Orleans food scene.  At her suggestion, we started off the trip at Liuzza's by the Track in pursuit of the BBQ shrimp po boy that in her opinion, would "change our life."  She even goes so far as to draw the comparison between New Orleans residents taking visitors to Liuzza's just as New York dwellers take their out-of-town guests to the Statue of Liberty.  (She clearly appreciates a good po boy.)

It's important to note that BBQ shrimp in New Orleans takes on a style all it's own, and at Liuzza's this special version of BBQ shrimp is their signature dish.  Imagine a mountain of shrimp, stuffed into a French bread pistolette, and you can start to picture the feast at Liuzza's (the sandwich made even more famous when John Goodman devoured an order on HBO's Treme.)  

My mom and I ordered one bbq shrimp po boy, and one oyster po boy, splitting them in half so we could each try each version.  For the record, the perfect travel partner is the one you can share po boy halves with, thus you can take full advantage of the food varieties at your fingertips.  Similar to most of our meals in New Orleans, we enjoyed this one washed down by goblet-sized Abita beers.   

We also shared a bowl of gumbo at Liuzza's, just for good measure.  The menu warns you to taste before you season this bowl, filled with "a savory New Orleans standard stock with sausage, chicken, and a cornucopia of seasonings." In case you're in doubt, the menu will tell you that Liuzza's sautees fresh shrimp "right before we send it to your taste buds."  We were grateful for the love and care put into this meal, and for their attention to our experience. Being at Liuzza's by the Track felt immediately like being a part of the neighborhood. We ran into friendly folks whose regular status afforded them the honor of having their names "practically carved into the bar stools." Rather than treat us like tourists, they welcomed us as one of their own and gave us advice on the best local food we should eat next.  When I went outside for the food papperazi stage of the meal, a man who I believe was the owner spotted me taking exterior shots of the restaurant.  

"Are you looking to buy the place or are you just hoping to remember a good meal?"  
"The second one, " I said, with a smile.  "But you never know."  Whether he was the owner or  just another local with a sense of humor about life, we may never know.

After eating at Liuzza's by the Track, we were in the mood for a ferry ride and hopped across to Algiers, a historic neighborhood that was spared from Katrina's floodwaters.  A pleasant walk led us to take in the quaint sites of this area: charming houses, flower gardens, outdoor ceiling fans on balconies-- this felt like a good place to call home. 


On our way back to the ferry, we came across a pub, and ever the curious beer-drinker I stopped inside to see what was on tap.  After explaining to the bartender that we were on our way to catch the ferry and just wanted to take a look inside, she offered that we could take a to-go cup.  It's easy to forget the to-go cup courtesy of the Big Easy when you're a couple of Californians recently unchained from the strict public consumption laws of your home state.  And if not before, it was then that we felt the freedom of life in Louisiana: the most European of American cities, indeed.

After our ferry beer journey, we went on to have more po boy adventures throughout our trip.  Out of any place we went to, the next po boy establishment on the marathon tour, Domilise's, really went out of their way to condone my sandwich seeking nerdery.  "Do you want to get a shot from behind the counter?" my sandwich creator asked, as I timidly snapped photos of my po-boy in progress.  

He even went so far as to relocate bags of Leidenheimer's bread (loaves famous for their airy po boy quality) that were blocking my shot of the Domilise's menu.  "Everyone gets their sandwich dressed with catsup," he guided us, knowing that we were out-of-towners yet in pursuit of the local's experience.  And just when I thought our warm welcome couldn't get any warmer, they offered us the extra oysters from the freshly fried batch, the surplus that couldn't quite fit into our po-boy "There's some extra oysters.  Would you like them?"  

Since we're not the kind of people who say no to questions like that, an entire plate of oysters was plopped down next to us.  

From the moment I stepped foot in Domilise's, I felt so at home-- the only problem was that I wasn't.  So while I left with a happy and full belly, I also left feeling sorry I couldn't patronize their business more frequently.  Luckily, I can show my support over here on the West Coast by wearing my Domilise's t-shirt, a definite favorite souvenir of the trip (I wholeheartedly confess, I'm also hoping I might meet some po boy loving kindred spirits by sporting this tee.  Any Louisiana transplants out here on the West Coast? Because I've got a fryer and I know how to use it!)  

Hurricane season brought some stormy weather to our po boy marathon, but we persisted.  During some heavier rains, we hung around the French Quarter, took in some museum visits, and landed at Stanley's, home of a soft-shell crab po boy that I still see in my dreams.  We've got great food in California, we sure do-- but we don't have this:  

Unless Hollywood starts up a soft-shell crab fad diet, I fear Los Angeles will never see the likes of such a beautiful boy.  Seeking shelter from the rain, we devoured this beast of a cornmeal-crusted soft-shell crab with cole slaw, spicy remoulade, and creole cocktail sauces on toasted french bread.  There may have been some french fries ordered on the side, but we'll never tell.  Inside Stanley's, we spied on visitors braving the rain, sporting Bud Light ponchos and contemplating their next move: I imagine they were trying to figure out whether drinking a giant frozen daiquiri in the rain was the right decision. 

We also landed at Johnny's in the French Quarter, a no-nonsense little shop that served up po boys and lunch specials (and whose shrimp and grits is only served at breakfast, which I regrettably missed out on.)  

While we devoured po boys here, I daydreamed about being a local and stopping for my morning coffee and shrimp and grits.  Does anything sound better than waking up to local seafood at your fingertips for three meals a day and walking down the street to the beat of live jazz on your way to work?  No doubt there is a Los Angeles food truck somewhere with shrimp and grits, but there's no tuba in your face reminding you to love your life and your city.  I love Los Angeles, but New Orleans has us beat in this way: we can't compete-- their city moves to a beat.

And now, some historical facts for you:  In the 1930's, a 20-inch half-loaf po boy sandwich cost 15 cents.  In 2011, po boys might cost anywhere from $6 to $15.  Perhaps a "po boy" no more according to its price-- but every bit as delicious.  I strongly encourage you to get to New Orleans now and embark on your own po boy marathon-- whether in the name of history, or just in the name of a good sandwich, you owe it to yourself.

Thank you:
Southern Museum of Food and Beverage
Author of Gumbo Tales, Sara Roahen, Source:
And...All the lovely folks who made me po boys throughout my travels!

Liuzza's by the Track.  
1518 N. Lopez
New Orleans, LA 70119
5240 Annunciation St
New Orleans LA
**Note: Domilise's is right down the street from legendary Hansen's Sno-Bliz, which you MUST make a priority during your New Orleans visit.  And since Hansen's is getting its own separate blog post, that's all I can say for now.  I just wouldn't want you to miss this gem if you hop on a flight to New Orleans tomorrow.
547 St Ann Street
New Orleans, LA
511 St. Louis Street
New Orleans, LA