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!