Decadence

Chocolate. Cake.

Once upon a “second time around,” (and I really do mean the second time around, since I completely destroyed the first cake batter), in a mythical land between “rich” and “too dense to handle,” a mere mortal pulled a chocolate cake from the oven. It was perfect. I felt like Hozier playing lead guitar for Annie Lennox at the 2015 Grammys.

Entering my equivalent of hell….baking. Say what you will of the stigma associated with designer boxes of cake mix, they work the same way every single time. Yesterday afternoon, I got to thinking about cravings and desserts – cookies, ice cream, cake, frozen yogurt….are they really mutually exclusive when what we want is anything made with chocolate? We seem to feel a desperate need to pick a favorite chocolate dessert to explain the random hopelessness that is staring into a full pastry display case. Usually, we choose for the sake of variety. Eating too much of the same thing weighs on the palate and nerves. After what seems like an eternal internal monologue of “I’m not really a brownie person,” we suddenly realize we’re nervous about committing to the slice of chocolate cake. Will the dessert gods smile and relieve us of guilt? Or will we sigh and grab a bottle of water and a Be Kind bar? (Not to hate on the Be Kind brand, because those things are definitely responsible for 15% of my existence.)

I put little stock in the idea of “the perfect chocolate dessert,” but I have a very strong belief in searching for the perfect chocolate cake.

Never mind that when the first cake was in the oven, I realized I’d forgotten 2 of the 3 liquid elements and vanilla extract. It was the sort of scenario I have nightmares about: the equivalent of Jack Dawson freezing to death and sinking off that piece of the Titanic into the ocean, while I’m in my seat yelling at Rose that “Myth Busters” proved there was plenty of room for both of them.

Speaking of mythology, in every myth, there comes a point where the tragic hero is given a test. Unfortunately, the way this hero responds does not determine their ultimate fate, because the tragic hero is doomed to be benefited and limited by their super-ability for all eternity.

I didn’t want my cake to become urban myth content, so I started over. Everyone in my apartment must have heard me swearing and banging just-washed mixing bowls around.

It was worth it.

Chocolate Blackout Cake

For an 8-inch cake pan (I experimented with both round and square, so you’re covered boo.)

  • 1 and 1/2 sticks Unsalted Butter, diced
  • 1 cup Sugar
  • 3 large Eggs
  • 1/2 cup Mayonnaise (Don’t question it. Just use it. Your cake will stay moist and be spoon-tender.)
  • 1 teaspoon Vanilla Extract
  • 1 cup All-Purpose Flour
  • 1/2 cup Cocoa Powder
  • 1 teaspoon Baking Powder
  • A large pinch of Kosher Salt
  • 1/2 cup Low-Fat Buttermilk (It’s in the dairy section, I promise.)

Pre-heat the oven to 350-degrees and grease whatever pan you’re planning on using.

(If you have a stand/hand-mixer or immersion blender whisk attachment, this next step will work much more efficiently. A whisk works just as well, but it will take more elbow grease.) Combine the butter and sugar together until a thick paste forms and no butter lumps remain – it will look like frosting-in-a-can. Don’t fret, you’re not reading the wrong recipe. Cake is coming.

Add the eggs one-at-a-time, whisking thoroughly after adding each egg. Remember to scrape the side of the bowl! Add the mayonnaise and vanilla, and whisk again.

In a separate bowl: Combine the flour, cocoa powder, and baking powder. Sprinkle a large pinch of Kosher Salt over the top – you can’t have sweet without some salt. Gradually add this flour mixture to the egg mixture (Add, Whisk, Add, Whisk, Add, Whisk. This process should have three-ish parts to it.) Pour in the buttermilk and whisk together.
Pour batter into greased cake pan and bake for 27-30 minutes-ish, until firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.Cool for 10 minutes before removing the cake from the pan. To complete the blackout cake process, pour Easiest Chocolate Ganache Ever over the top, recipe below.

Easiest Chocolate Ganache Ever

Heat 1 small container (the itty-bitty-one that only looks like, 1 cup) heavy whipping cream in a saucepan over Medium Heat until simmering. Pour 8 ounces (the standard Nestle bags are usually 10 ounces) dark chocolate chips into a heat-proof bowl (that means glass, y’all). Put out 1 tablespoon unsalted butter to warm to room temperature.Once the milk is simmering, pour over the chocolate chips and let stand (seriously, don’t do anything, or I’ll cut you) for five-ish minutes or until the chips are melted. Stir in the room-temperature butter until the ganache looks like something out of a sexual fantasy. Pour over cake, ice cream, brownies, etc.

chocolate blackout cake

Do I need to caption this? Come on.

 

Pumpkin Chiffon Pie: A Ridiculous Rhyme and A Legacy Recipe

First, a poem I composed while drinking wine and packing for my Thanksgiving flight up north.

‘Twas the day before Thanksgiving, and all through the house
The scent of ground cinnamon saturated my hair and my blouse;
My apron and sweater hung forgotten in the corner;
My prep list was making me wish I were a foreigner;
A disposable pie tin nestled all snug in its plastic,
While visions of burnt crust made my task unenthusiastic;
With Jay-Z, Cher, and Blink-182 on shuffle,
I was ready to settle for buying a Godiva truffle (or twelve);
When out in the living room there arose such a sound,
It was my cell phone – as always – bringing me something profound;
An e-mail from my mother pops up with a flash,
Calming me just before my teeth started to gnash;
The recipe for my late Grandmother’s Pumpkin Chiffon Pie,
Was enough to make me heave a relieved sigh;
Losing her this year is still raw and I miss her so dearly,
Maybe by making her pie – my favorite growing up – I’ll be able to feel her presence clearly;
It’s simple enough – nothing strange or profound,
And all my holiday memories are full of me eating slices by the pound;
More rapid than eagles my inspiration came about,
Enough to rid my mind of any shadow of a doubt;
It’s pie crust, and filling, and a meringue, to boot,
The directions so simple, there couldn’t be a more clear route.

For my Grandmother, who laughed at my foolishness and never complained.

 

I apologize for the ridiculous rhyme. It’s my first Thanksgiving without my maternal Grandmother, the classic iteration of a Japanese-American farm matriarch, and I’m not quite ready or certain about what to write. The fact that I’m making the pie always associated with her – she made it last year, with the exception of the crust, since the arthritis in her hands made her unable to roll out the dough – hasn’t fully absorbed yet.

I’m tearing up, and I haven’t even written the recipe yet. Just know that this is copied almost directly from an ancient edition (1950s or earlier) of a Betty Crocker/Better Homes and Gardens/equivalent recipe book. The pie crust recipe is a combination of various experiments, and doesn’t include directions for a food-processor, since my Grandmother couldn’t afford one.

This is the lightest pumpkin pie I have ever had, and probably have yet to have.

My Grandmother’s Pumpkin Chiffon Pie

For The Crust (9″):

Don’t freak out at the weight measurements! Those proportions come from the incomparable pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini, who believes measuring cups are for sandcastles when it comes to baking. (Buy his shirt at Flavour Gallery if you agree.)

  • 1 and 1/4 cup (200 g) All-Purpose Flour
  • 2 teaspoons Sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon Salt
  • 1/2 cup (125 g) Cold Unsalted Butter – Cut in Cubes
  • 3 tablespoons Ice Water

Combine the dry ingredients with the cold butter – use your hands, get dirty – until it becomes the size of small peas/coarse meal. Add the ice water and knead lightly until the dough becomes a ball. Pat the dough into a round disc, wrap in plastic, and chill for 1 hour.

Once the dough is chilled, roll out to your liking. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes, or until light golden brown.

For the Pie Filling:

  • 1 envelope Unflavored Gelatin
  • 2/3 cup Brown Sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon Salt
  • Cinnamon
  • 1 and 1/4 cup Pumpkin (use Libby’s. Make life easier on yourself. Besides, any other variety will use a lower quality squash and not actual pumpkin.)
  • 3 Eggs – Whites and Yolks Separated and Saved
  • 1/2 cup Milk
  • 3/8 teaspoon Cream of Tartar
  • 1/2 cup Sugar

In a saucepan, combine the gelatin, brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, pumpkin, egg yolks, and milk over Medium Heat until it just starts to boil. Let cool.

Beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until frothy, then beat in the sugar 1 tablespoon at a time until the mixture is stiff and glossy. (You’ll feel it get difficult to mix.)

Fold the egg white mixture into the pumpkin mixture and pour into the baked pie crust. Cool for at least three hours.

No whipped cream necessary for enjoyment.

Pumpkin Pie

A Pitcher is a Single Serving, Right? P.S. This Cocktail Tastes Like Iced Coffee

Trivia: Two Mondays ago, it was National Coffee Day.

In preparation for this momentous occasion, I figured I would combine the taste of two favorites: coffee and alcohol.

Trivia: 57% of coffee drinkers add some sort of sweetener to their drink.
I am not one of those people. I like my coffee beverages the way I like my soul, my men, my women and my humor. Don’t analyze that sentence with the stereotypical ending, either. Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you, suffice to say I understand the desire of most female coffee (and alcohol) drinkers for something sweet.

Make that, I had bangs until age 20.

Trivia: Between 20% and 30% of coffee sales are comprised of flavored coffees (i.e. chocolate, vanilla, hazelnut, caramel, and cinnamon).

This is based on a recipe torn from inside “Cosmopolitan.” I shifted things around a bit, with feedback from one of my girlfriends, who came over this weekend for a day of cocktail experimenting, pizza-dough making, and film-noir watching. (By the way, films from 1948 have amazing “Is it Good or Is It Bad?” pick-up lines, despite their lack of cultural variety.) Don’t worry, the pizza dough recipe is coming later this week.

The original magazine tear-out called for half-and-half. While shopping for ingredients, I pulled a small carton of fat-free half-and-half, because I wanted to be mindful of the figure-conscious ladies who read this blog. (Thanks for sticking around through the numerous bacon mentions, by the way. You girls rock.) My verdict? It tastes disgusting, and coated my tongue more thoroughly than heavy cream. While searching for ingredient alternatives and cross-referencing other “coffee-tasting dessert cocktails,” I noticed how many after-dinner drinks are dairy-based. Not so much fun for people like my Mother, Aunts, or the 65% of the population who identify as Lactose-Intolerant. Raise your hand if you order your Starbucks, Coffee Bean, Peets, or anything in-between/indie with almond milk, since soy milk has the major-estrogen-it’s-actually-bad-for-you-if-you-drink-it-every-day thing going on. That’s what I thought.

Using almond milk turned out to be a phenomenal solution. Counter-intuitively, it mellows out the sweetness from the Kahlua. Add one of those hyper-feminine flavored rims, and your adult quasi-iced coffee/quasi-chocolate milk is served.

Iced Coffee Cocktail (for one, double the proportions for two if you’ve already had one on an empty stomach)

  • 1 shot Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey Whiskey
  • 1 shot Kahlua
  • 2 shots Unsweetened Almond Milk
  • Honey (optional)
  • Unsweetened Cocoa Powder (optional)
  • Graham Cracker Crumbs (optional)
  • Ice

If you’re going for presentation (and flavor) points and making the graham cracker/chocolate rim, use the tip of your finger to spread honey around the rim of whatever glasses you’ll be serving this drink in. Once the rim is suitably sticky (and you’ve made several inappropriate jokes about this), pour equal parts cocoa powder and graham cracker crumbs onto a paper plate, turn the serving glass upside down, and rub the glass around and about on the plate to coat the rim with deliciousness. (Make more sexual jokes during and after this part.)

Place ice in both the cocktail shaker. (If you don’t have a cocktail shaker, improvise with some sort of mason jar type deal. If you’ve gotten as far as buying the ingredients, there’s no going back now.)

Shake the whiskey, Kahlua, and almond milk over ice, and strain into the serving glass.

coffee drink

 

 

 

Shrimp, Corn, and Brown Butter Pasta: I Tried Classic Comfort Food

In 2011, the United States was seventh in the world in pasta per capita consumption, but consumed more total pounds of pasta than Italy. Pasta is everywhere, all the time. It’s a date night classic, easy to throw together when you’re too lazy or tired to cook, and the majority of things it can be mixed with for flavor even comes in cans, jars, or some combination thereof for maximum convenience.

I recently had a conversation with a good friend and chef during which he described making pork bolognese to feel better after a bad day. I came home from that conversation to our former roommate sitting on the sofa, drinking beer and describing bolognese as the ultimate comfort food. Deja vu.

I mean, I get it. It’s warm, hearty, rich, meaty (or vegetable-y, depending on what school of thought you follow), and like a good relationship, gives back exactly what you put into it. I’ll be honest, though. This culinary force is not strong within me. To be blunt: I have never associated pasta with being a comfort food. I do not crave it after a bad day. I do not crave it after a good day. I do not crave it here or there, I do not crave it anywhere.

All right. What were we talking about?

Right.

I realize my wolf pack is going to dwindle to a minuscule number after I reveal I’m “not into pasta.” This acknowledged, I wanted to drink the Kool-Aid and try making something recognizable to the general public as a pasta dish. The focus was flavor. If the dish ended up being comforting, it would be a bonus.

I find comfort in….

  • closing my eyes on the sofa with The Beach Boys, The Ventures, or other instrumental surf music playing in the background and a glass of nice Tempranillo (preferably a Crianza….and Reserva….) on the side.
  • a long massage followed by a leisurely cappuccino.
  • curling up with cheese toast and a juicy book.

Which translated itself in my notebook to something rich (but not necessarily creamy), simple, and relaxing (i.e. very few steps) to make. I don’t have a new comfort food, but at least I’ll be able to whip something together for a last-minute date night.

Shrimp, Corn, and Brown Butter Pasta

  • 1/2 pound Shrimp – Peeled and Deveined
  • 2 ears Corn
  • Unsalted Butter (3  and 1/2 Tablespoons Total)
  • 1 tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 1/4 cup Dry White Wine (I used Francis Ford Coppola’s Director’s Cut Chardonnay. Remember, always be willing to drink the wine you’re cooking with.)
  • 1 stalk Celery – roughly chopped
  • 1 and 1/2 tablespoons Celery Leaves
  • 1 Shallott – 1/2 left whole, 1/2 finely diced
  • Parsley Sprigs (Grab a large handful)
  • Paprika
  • 1/2 pound (usually half a box) Fettuccine, Pappardelle, or other long pasta

Melt 1 and 1/2 tablespoons of butter in a pan over Medium-High heat and saute shrimp until pink and fully cooked through. Season with kosher salt and pepper to taste and set aside.

Cut the kernels off the corn cobs. SAVE THE COBS! YOU NEED THEM. Repeat, YOU NEED THEM.

Melt 1 and 1/2 tablespoons of butter in a pot over Medium-High heat until the butter starts to brown. Add the wine and bring to a boil. Toss in the corn cobs, celery, whole shallott half, parsley sprigs, and 3 cups of water. Boil this again, and reduce by 1/3. (30 minutes-ish)

Strain the vegetable stock (congratulations! You made stock without realizing it!) into a bowl and save.

Melt 1/2 tablespoon of butter (it’s not that much, I’m just mentioning it a lot. Do you want to feel better or not?) over medium heat, saute the diced shallott half until soft, then stir in paprika to taste until everything is a rusty red color. Pour in the reserved vegetable stock and 1 additional cup of water. Reduce by 1/3 (20 minutes-ish).

Stir in the corn and let boil and toil in the butter/stock mixture until fully cooked. If you’re stressed about scalding the bottom of your pan, add more water by the 1/4 or 1/2 cup….I didn’t need to, but you might, depending on how volcano-like your stovetop is.

Finally, bring a large pot of water to a boil and add a large pinch of salt. Cook pasta until al dente according to package directions, drain, and return to pot. Stir in the corn mixture and cooked shrimp until heated through.

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“Excuse me, dude….are you Chuck Bass?”: A Morning Wine Tasting at Duckhorn Vineyards

Duckhorn became one of my favorite vineyards shortly after graduating from UCLA, when I was gifted a bottle from an extremely generous friend. The Duckhorn company encompasses five different wine programs: Duckhorn itself, Paraduxx, Goldeneye, Migration, and Decoy. Decoy is the most widely distributed, Paraduxx only does red blends, and so on and so forth.

I despise being one of those people who comes back from vacation full of gloat about the perfect weather….but I had no complaints. It was 76 degrees and sunny with a breeze.

Real talk.

All wine programs under the Duckhorn umbrella provide tasters with take-home notecards about the wines they’ve tried. Before you claim this is done all the time – it’s not. Trust me, I’ve been around the block and down the street. Wine programs providing this level of detail to people coming in are indicating their trust in your palate. I’m a huge fan of wine programs that allow tasters to come to their own conclusions.

After checking in for our tour, we were poured Duckhorn Napa Valley 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, which I’ve had in LA. I’m a fan of Sauv Blancs from California, because I’m usually not partial to tasting grass, cucumber, and jalapeno in my wine, the way I can with varietals from New Zealand. Call me a California girl, but I love citrus flavors in my white wines. This one started smooth, finished with acid, and tasted like a combination of grapefruit with crystallized ginger cutting through it.

Notes from the Winemaker Card:

-Duckhorn has been crafting Sauvignon Blanc since 1982

-Varietal Composition – 83% Sauvignon Blanc, 17% Semillon

-100% French Oak – 15% barrel-fermented in new oak

“This is a classic expression of our Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc with aromas of grapefruit, lemon curd and nectarine, as well as rich, underlying notes of vanilla and homemade marshmallow. A smooth-textured entry gives way to tingling acidity that shows off the citrus elements beautifully, while adding length to flavors of cantaloupe, Asian pear and Fuji apple.”

Props to our tour guide Sally for being a rad human. She was articulate, well-versed in broader Napa Valley history in addition to that of the vineyard, and actively sought questions. She made sure to emphasize the diversity of Napa Valley soil, climate, methodology, etc. It was the type of tour that encourages visitors to actually learn something, rather than passively nodding and waiting for free wine. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

There was only one other couple on our tour who were about our age, and they were pretty….snooty….from the beginning. We’ll start and end with the guy ending every sentence with mention of his trust fund and promising to buy multiple cases of wine. If only he’d had Ed Westwick’s “Gossip Girl” demeanor and looks. By the time we headed back to the tasting room for our five flight wine-and-cheese pairing, Chuck Bass, Jr.  was commenting on the personal appearance of everyone in the group, and attempting to answer questions by himself.

Damn that mother-Chucker.

Feeling like adults in our private tasting room. Was trying to sneak a shot of Chuck Bass Jr.’s blazer and *ascot*, but realized I should be soaking up the experience and acting mature.

One of the wines we chose to take back to L.A. with us was the Duckhorn 2010 Merlot from Three Palms Vineyard in Napa Valley (paired with manchego cheese from Spain for the tasting). The flavor profiles were extremely familiar to me, since Spanish food is one of my favorite things. This wine was beautiful – lush and subtly spicy. (I like my wines with a little sass.)

The Three Palms Vineyard is rocky, which means the soil drains well and the vine roots are able to spread and draw out nutrients deep within the earth. The stones also serve to protect the vines from the warm and cool temperatures of day/night.

Winemaker Notecard:

-Varietal Composition – 82% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot. (By the way, if anyone can tell me as much about Cab Franc, it’s my newest wine-snob obsession. I want to know everything about it.

-100% French Oak, 18 months in the barrel

“Filled with lush red and black fruit and classic early undertones, this is a rich and weighty expression of Three Palms Vineyard, bursting with flavor and structure. The aromas are warm and inviting, highlighting dark cherry, plum, cocoa and sweet Asian spices. The palate is equally layered and expressive with pure, intense notes of ripe plum, currant, candied cherry, mocha and red licorice.”

Has anyone else noticed how extremely over-the-top wine and art jargon is? Lovely. But a bit much occasionally. Quite a fine line.

The fourth wine we tasted was where time stood still and I had to do double and triple-takes toward my wine glass like a crazy person. It’s one of the best wines I’ve ever tasted. It’s going to be my new favorite red in my personal collection. ….And it’s not available for public sale. Typical. One trip to a winery and I morph into a “members only” loon. I’m sorry! It was so delicious!

Duckhorn Vineyards 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. [!!!!!!]

Howell Mountain is my new obsession. I’ve developed a huge affinity for the way wine from Howell Mountain tastes after this trip.

Howell Mountain isn’t in the main part of Napa, Sonoma, Santa Rosa, or  the Russian River Valley. It’s located at the top of a mountain (duh, look at the name), above a fog bank. It’s the Kona Coffee of California red wines. If you don’t understand that analogy, do some googling. Howell Mountain is only about 100 acres worth of land, and Duckhorn has about 60 of them. It sounds big, but it’s small enough where only about 150 cases of this wine were made….ever.

WHAT.

Winemaker Notecard:

-Varietal Composition – 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 1% Cabernet Franc, and 1% Petit Verdot

“As the debut vintage of our Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, this wine was blended to showcase the structure and complexity of Cabernet Sauvignon from this storied winegrowing region. Crafted around a core of older vine fruit from our Stout Vineyard, there is an unmistakable wildness to this wine with wild berry layers supported by earthy undertones, fresh herb layers of mint, eucalyptus and sage, and an oak-inspired note of coconut macaroon. A study in power and restraint, this mountain-grown wine is broad and lush on the palate with a big, yet elegant, finish.

I mean, even the description is awesome. Bonus points to the vineyard for provocative jargon. This wine was luxurious. I was ready to recline in some sort of velvety boudoir or library in a black silk bathrobe while listening to a string quartet on the veranda of my balcony, with double doors thrown open to the breeze. 

So good, it made me have an overly-feminine fantasy.

The final wine in our flight was one of the best the vineyard has to offer. The price tag was three digits, i.e. something I can only wildly dream about being able to purchase at this point in my life. Being able to taste it was an honor and only moderately surreal. My favorite was still the previous one described, but this one made Mr. Right’s taste buds go wild.

Duckhorn Vineyards 2009 Estate Grown “The Discussion”

Winemaker Notecard:

-Varietal Composition – 71% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 2% Petit Verdot

-100% French Oak, aged 26 months in the barrel

The Discussion was blended using the very best barrels of wine from the finest blocks of our estate vineyards. While the wine is abundantly rich and flavorful, it is defined by its refinement and complexity. Aromas of mulberry, plum, leather, cassis and cocoa offer a beautiful prelude to a rich, velvetymouth feel with fine-grained tannins.”

Have you seen the “How I Met Your Mother” episode with the tannins joke? Can’t read a wine label without laughing. Very bad form.

This wine was so complex, my palate didn’t know what to do. Was I tasting red fruit? Black fruit? Was it something floral? Or something spicy? Mr. Right is better at these sorts of things because he and Awesome Roommate brew their own beer, so they’re used to smelling and tasting the layers of flavor that come from the raw materials/ingredients, fermentation process, aging, pouring style, year, etc.

I learned so much on this trip to the Napa Valley and want to share as much of it as I can with you. Please don’t hesitate to send me a message with any questions about Napa Valley recommendations, wines I like, and so forth. Maybe life in general? It doesn’t matter to me. Anything I can’t answer will be directed to a couple of sommeliers I know in that area who have graciously agreed to answer your brain-picks.

Cheers!

Duckhorn, I’ll be back soon. Until then, I’m glad we decided to split the cost of your wine club.