Friday, March 27, 2009

Chocolate Tart for Catherine's Birthday

Yesterday I was lucky enough to have a surprise birthday party to plan, bake for, and attend. Otherwise, I would have stared at the wall all day.

Shane McConkey, a friend from Squaw Valley and my boyfriend's best friend and ski partner, died yesterday in Italy. I don't really know what to say, if this is the forum or what. When I found out, time stopped. My heartbeat was audible, my chest heaved with pain. I wanted to sleep for the rest of the day. Yet, I had promised Catherine's husband I would be at her birthday party with a homemade cake and a smile. I was glad to have the task of baking in front of me.

When I am upset or unable to deal with things, deeply sad or just plain angry, I like to have my hands busy with a task. For example, I will frequently do dishes or clean the bathroom to occupy myself. Yesterday, with a heart full of sadness for my boyfriend's loss and for Shane's wife and 3 year old daughter, I tried to focus on my close friend Catherine and her wonderful family. As my brother said to me while I cried over the phone, "Be thankful for your friends you do have and that you can still celebrate with them."

I had already picked an intriguing recipe from the February issue of Food and Wine Magazine (an issue aptly titled "Comfort in The Kitchen") a Milk Chocolate Tart with a Pretzel Crust. (See recipe below.) Take a chocolate-covered pretzel, that "I just want one handful more" mixture of savory and sweet, and extrapolate it out to a full size tart. Instead of graham crackers for the crust, the recipe calls for crushed pretzels. Instead of powdered sugar for garnish, sea salt.

With Shane on my mind and Catherine's party that evening in my sights, I grabbed a mortar and pestle and started crushing pretzels into a salty flour. With every crush, my anger intensified. I don't know whom I am angry with; it just seems so wrong that a three year old girl will grow up without her father. I pulverized handful after handful of pretzels. I beat an egg and lots of butter and a little more flour into the pretzel mixture and I flattened the crust with a rolling pin. I had stopped crying.

Next, I chopped 12 ounces of milk chocolate into bits to be mixed with simmering heavy cream. I used just plain Hershey's Milk Chocolate, and it melted into the heavy cream to a perfect smoothness. After baking the crust for a half hour and brushing the inside of the tart with melted dark chocolate, I poured the filling in and let the tart rest and harden.

In my emotional haze, however, I had failed to keep track of time. It was 7:30pm. I had to leave for the surprise birthday party by 8:40pm. The tart was still liquid chocolate. Had I been thinking clearly, I would have read that the tart needs 4 HOURS to cool and harden. With a schizophrenic mix of haste and extreme care, I moved the still-soupy chocolate tart from the counter into the freezer, and prayed it would harden in time.

I drove to Catherine's house with a mostly hardened tart and sliced strawberries for a flavor contrast. We garnished the tart with more crushed pretzels and sea salt. Catherine came home with her husband Tim to a house full of friends with glasses of wine in hand and a beautiful chocolate tart on her kitchen table. The crust was too thick, probably due to overzealous pretzel crushing. I was a little shy on the salt garnish, not wanting to overdo it. Next time, I would go liberal with the sea salt. Though the tart was not perfect, the joy on Catherine's face erased any misgivings I had about my confection's quality.

Though my mind was full of thoughts of Shane, his lovely wife and their angelic daughter, and my dear boyfriend who was with Shane when he died, I took refuge in the birthday revelry. I drank pinot, I peppered Catherine with questions about her upcoming trip to Las Vegas and I enjoyed a rare but necessary cigarette with the birthday girl.

A death makes everything else seem trivial. What's a dessert when a man has lost his life? Why even sit down to write a blog? However, yesterday a chocolate tart was my illogical goal, my "keep going, just keep going" reminder that life must go on. At the end of a tragic day filled with sadness, I smiled, at least for a moment, knowing that I had made something special for a friend and I was able to celebrate with her.

We will miss you, Shane.

Milk Chocolate Tart with Pretzel Crust

from Food and Wine Magazine, Feb 2009. adapted from pastry Chef Collen Grapes- the Harrison, New York City

active time: 45 minutes (more like an hour)
total: 2 hours plus 4 HOURS chilling- read: do not start the evening of a birthday party.

1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 1/4 cups coarsely crushed thin pretzels (3 1/2 oz)
3/4 cup confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 large egg
2 oz bittersweet chocolate, melted

1 1/2 cups heavy cream
3/4 pound milk chocolate, chopped
coarse sea salt and crushed pretzels for garnish

Beat butter and 3/4 cup of pretzels and sugar until creamy. Beat in flour and egg.
Add remaining 1/2 cup of pretzels, leaving some pretzel pieces intact. Flatten dough between two sheets of plastic wrap, and chill 30 minutes in refrigerator.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roll out dough into a 12 inch round. Invert into fluted tart pan with removable bottom. Press dough into corners and patch any holes. Refrigerate again 30 minutes.

Line shell with parchment paper and fill with pie weights. (I used uncooked brown rice.) Bake 30 minutes, until nearly set. Remove parchment and weights, and bake for 10-15 minutes more. Let shell cool completely. Brush bottom and sides of crust with melted dark chocolate; refrigerate to set, 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring cream to a simmer. Remove from heat and add chopped milk chocolate. Let stand for 5 minutes, then whisk until smooth. Transfer to a bowl and let cool to room temperature, about 1 hour.

Pour filling into shell and refrigerate until set, at least 4 hours. (I put mine in the freezer for 70 minutes and it held alright.) Sprinkle with sea salt and crushed pretzels.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Whoopie Pies Recipe Test

Everyone loves cupcakes these days. I'm guilty of buying a $5 mini-cupcake with all local organic ingredients from Kara's Cupcakes. They are so ubiquitous that they substitute for cake at weddings- "everyone gets a beautiful little cupcake. " However, there is something a little dressed-up, a little too precious about them. I just admitted my bias by saying "guilty of..." because deep down I know it's ridiculous to pay $5 for a small sweet unless you're sitting in a ballpark. And even then it stings.

Last week's New York Times Dining section has suggested the new cupcake, albeit humbler but just as tasty: the whoopie pie. Not likely to be found in a posh bakery in The Marina in San Francisco, the whoopie pie tends to pop up on gas station counters in Maine or in baskets by the check out at the WaWa in Pennsylvania. I had never tried one, nor had I ever considered making a batch. Until I saw this article. Oh, the NY Times food stylist had me with the glass cake platter and the descriptions of rich buttercream filling. I went for it.

NY Times article:


The recipe says it takes one hour to make these little guys, but it took this novice a bit longer.

Making buttercream filling (similar to frosting) from scratch takes a while. Don't be discouraged by the mention of double boilers and thermometers- you can improvise with a metal bowl over a regular pot. Also, just observe the egg-and-sugar mixture until the sugar is melted, no need for the technical complication of a thermometer at 180 degrees. You can use a regular hand-held mixer, not a heavy duty stand up mixer, but yes, it takes a little longer.

Also, there are two sticks of butter in the aptly named buttercream filling, but I would recommend cutting that down. Instead of using the full 16 tbsp, I will probably use 10-12 tbsp. Since the butter is added incrementally, you can choose how much to use. In hindsight, the buttercream was already rich, smooth and creamy by about 12 tbsp.

The chocolate cakes are a delight to make, springy and barely sweet. They are as moist as a rum-soaked cake, but as fluffy as angel food. A difficult consistency to describe, but a delight on the palate.

They didn't turn out perfect: some of the chocolate tops were massive, others were flat discs, the buttercream filling was a bit too buttery. However, they were a crowd-pleaser and I would be proud to serve them again as a dessert to make guests feel special. Though they have no raspberry filling, no espresso-infused cake, no lemon-scented egg whites or whatever, whoopie pies are just black and white- and simply delicious.

A friend, former roommate and culinary enthusiast Jordan Rundell, told me last night "This is the best thing you've ever made for me." I'll take it.

What could be better than making a tasty, novel dessert? Enjoying it with your friends.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Darbar Indian Restaurant- short review

If the Dutch Goose, the Oasis or Rosatti's used to be the Stanford student hangouts, I think I've found the current Stanford choice for dinner on a Friday night: Darbar Indian restaurant in Downtown Palo Alto. Judging from the number of Stanford undergrads on awkward dates and the graduate students cross pollinating ideas at large round tables, Darbar is the place to be. I open with this line of commentary because my overwhelming impression of the restaurant was dominated by noise. It was as loud as a college dining hall.

The food, however, shared nothing with a dining hall experience. The masala dosa pancake was perfectly thin, but just strong enough to hold in its lentil filling. The chicken vindaloo was hot enough to call the fire department but perfectly paired with the yogurt raita. "If there is a heaven," my dad shared at one point during dinner, "I hope they serve naan." Darbar has mastered the naan baking, in that they avoid the thinness of pita bread but also stop short of the overly doughy pasta-like naan that passes in grocery stores. The tandoori grill was delicious in that the flavor of the tandoor didn't obliterate any moisture in the meat. The chicken was full of flavor and the piquant red typical of tandoori, but it was still moist and soft, two characteristics than often disappear with lesser tandoori plates.

Though the service was prompt and the food delicious, it's too bad the acoustics of the cavernous dining room affect a diner's experience so markedly. Questions to our server were often misheard; dinner conversation was strained. Perhaps the answer to enjoying the wonderful food at Darbar is to avoid the Friday night scene.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ingredients for Ruth in Food Blog

Time: All day, thinking about what to write and mentally editing and erasing and backtracking before sitting down at computer

Active time: the 10 minutes I can find between swimming rehab and getting fitted for bridesmaid dresses

1- injured girl with lots of time on her hands. (broken back or similarly severe injury to provide plenty of writing time)

17- contradictory articles in NY Times Dining, Food and Wine, Sunset and Gourmet about the poor job prospects in the food industry, the great new restaurants opening in the city, the daring feats of Jose Andres, and the cheese shop in San Francisco's Ferry Building. Articles should be fascinating, disheartening and hunger-inducing.

2- failed attempts to set up blog without really helpful blogspot template

A pinch- of friends and family who will read (or claim to read) blog when bored at work, or only when I directly email them with blog post in body of email, instead of expecting them to click on link which I also provide.

To taste: desire to write about good food, customs and history of preparation, and the pure sensual pleasure of cooking and then eating the fruits of my labor.

Mix all ingredients haphazardly. No folding. No whisking. Splattering and spilling encouraged.

Yield: yet to be seen...