Archive for October, 2011


A test run of Pioneer Woman’s lemon-blueberry pancakes

Maybe a couple times a year, I’ll get a mad craving for pancakes. But it doesn’t strike often, because pancakes are like matzoh balls: eat too many, soon it feels like you’re packing a musket. [Aside: I usually go for the blueberry pancakes from Silver Diner. They’re good without being overly heavy.]

A food stylist once told me the secret to making pancakes look good in ads: dark corn syrup, which is gooey-er so it doesn't soak into the pancakes as quickly. (That's maple syrup pictured here.)

When I saw Pioneer Woman’s recipe for lemon-blueberry pancakes in People magazine (the Steve Jobs issue), I thought I’d give it a go. For one, I wanted to see if she of the wildly popular blog—now a Food Network show—knows what she’s doing in the kitchen.

Two, looking at the ingredients, these aren’t your run-of-the-mill starch bricks. The recipe calls for cake flour, which is lighter than all-purpose. The lemon juice doesn’t just add flavor, it creates a “buttermilk” for fluffier pancakes. Brilliant, because I hate buying buttermilk. I seldom end up using the whole container, and freezing it turns it into smeg. (Another fluffy-pancake secret is egg whites, like at Clinton St. Bakery. But do you really want to spend your Saturday morning separating eggs and whipping them?) I also liked that the recipe uses almost exactly 1 can of evaporated milk. Unlike the fresh kind, it lasts for eons.

Don't over-stir the batter or your pancakes could get tough.

Verdict: Worth adding to your recipe files. The brightness of the lemon, along with bursts of blueberries, make you feel like you’re eating a food-pyramid-approved version of the classic. Also, there’s just a few tablespoons of sugar in the batter to balance the lemon juice. So you’re in control as far as tweaking the sweetness later with your maple syrup.

Recipe notes:

  • Don’t buy cake flour: I substituted pastry flour for cake flour, because that’s what I had in the pantry. If you only have all-purpose flour, you can simulate cake flour by cutting it with corn starch.
  • Don’t overmix: The batter doesn’t have to be perfectly smooth. Otherwise, the pancakes could get tough. I mixed the ingredients by hand.
  • Fold gently: Be careful to fold in the blueberries gently as a last step, or you’ll get purple batter, along with battered blueberries.
  • Use frozen blueberries, if you can’t find fresh: By the time I made these pancakes last weekend, I couldn’t find fresh blueberries at prices I’d actually pay.
  • Zest as many lemons as you want: I used the zest of 2 lemons. Might even go with 3 next time.
  • Use a nonstick pan in addition to greasing the pan with a pat of butter.
  • Go small: Smaller pancakes = easier to flip and eat.

A taste of La Boulange & Samovar, before the mad dash to the airport

One day on our San Francisco trip, we got off from an overcrowded cable car sweaty and ravenously hungry. I needed to get some food down my gullet, and quick. There was a Taco Bell nearby. Tempted as I was (yeah, I know I’m in in the minority as far as being a Taco Smell fan. But I’d still consider eating their taco supremes even if I found out they were made with Alpo. I said consider.), we were in the city of tasty foodstuffs, so we felt obligated to try harder. That’s how we ended up at La Boulange.

While I was in line, a glass case of pastries and macarons stared me in the face. Since I couldn’t get it out of my mind for days, we made a point to stop by again on the last day of our trip.

The almond croissant–while topped with lovely roasted almonds–was stingy with the filling. The pastry, not as flaky as we’d hoped. Solid showing, but not a stunner.

As for the macarons, the poor things endured a 12-hour trip back to the East Coast, including a layover in Dallas. They were in a dilapidated, soggy state by then. Luckily, we took these photos while they were still presentable.

The other place we tried on our last day was Samovar, a “tea lounge.” Because the online reviews of this local chain were mixed, we were on the fence about making the effort. But I’m glad we did.

The Yerba Buena Gardens location is in a serene spot overlooking the gardens. On a nice day, it’s probably a prime place for getting cozy with a kettle of tea. We sat inside, where the air was heady with incense–the smell actually turned my stomach a little.

This rosewater-tinged Greek yogurt combined some things I’m not crazy about: dates and walnuts. Yet it was so, so good: spoonfuls of Middle-Eastern flavors perfectly melding together.

Mr. X-sXe had the quinoa waffles, which are described as “pillowy” on the menu. That, they were. The syrup that came with it almost tasted of molasses, but our waitress said it was made of palm sugar. Either way, it had a caramelized flavor that made us want to do shots of it.

The tea at Samovar is pricey, but we shared a pot of pu-erh that the nice waitress kept refilling with hot water. The earthiness of the tea was a nice complement to our treacly breakfast dishes.

It’d be pretty accurate to say we left our palates in SF. All our food choices after we got home to DC seemed just blah. *Sigh*


Unhappy endings @ Chez Panisse & Commonwealth

Let’s say you’re out at a fancypants restaurant, the type that offers a tasting menu. You have an enjoyable meal. Then the desserts come out. And–pfffffft–your gastronomic high is deflated due to the lameness of this final course. Sound familiar?

Here are a few things that might end a nice meal on a down note:

1)      A “unique” ice cream flavor. Frankly, it’s a copout. Haven’t we learned this from Iron Chef yet? Please, no more curry/tarragon/whatever ice creams. There are plenty of gelato places where we can get inedibly exotic flavors.

2)      Overly rich chocolate desserts. I’ve seen leftovers of gorgeous chocolate mousses/tortes at Elizabeth’s Gone Raw and CityZen that met a tragic end in the trash. Don’t serve a brick of chocolate at the end of a long meal. Your patrons may explode.

3)      Something reminiscent of a Sara Lee product. See Chez Panisse almond torte below.

4)      Desserts that are heavy on concept, light on substance. See Commonwealth below.

While in San Francisco, we had a special meal planned at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ legendary restaurant in Berkeley. Known for founding “California Cuisine,” Chez Panisse is also famous for its desserts (thanks to the talents of Lindsey Shere, its longtime pastry chef who retired in 1998).

Needless to say, I had high expectations of what was billed on the menu as “almond torte with Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise sabayon.” Maybe I’m just easily impressed by foreign words.

Anyway, out comes this:

If it looks like a fluffier version of Sara Lee pound cake, it pretty much is. Was the sabayon sauce delicious? Yes. Was the fruit fresh? Absolutely. BUT it was clear that the restaurant was phoning this course in. Not the impression you want your guests to leave with.

Our other nice meal was at Commonwealth, a random discovery in the Mission. Initially we hesitated to try this place because I’m not a huge fan of molecular gastronomy. While I appreciate the creativity that goes into it, often the food leaves my taste buds high and dry. Bottom line is, if your foams-dirts-spheres don’t taste good, the interesting presentation doesn’t make up for it.

Let me explain. My first experience with molecular gastronomy was a business dinner at wd~50, celeb chef Wylie Dufresne’s place in NYC. The food at wd~50 was totally imaginative. Maybe too much so: my root-vegetable lasagna had no pasta in it—just thinly cut slices of veggies layered to look like lasagna. An edible work of art. But after a few bites, I was wishing I was at a red-checkered-tablecloth joint, digging into the real deal.

Back to Commonwealth. It was probably our best meal of the trip. Then came the desserts. I got a deconstructed apricot cobbler with a piece of meringue that’d been zapped with liquid nitrogen. But the combination of torched apricot, cookie crumbs, and meringue was hardly as spectacular as the presentation. In fact, it felt like I’d eaten a lot of air and sugar.

Mr. X-sXe had better luck with his peanut butter semifreddo, a peanut-butter candy bar with popcorn that’s actually frozen bits of cream. Commonwealth partially redeemed itself with this creation. It felt like a better balance of execution and creativity than my letdown of an apricot cobbler.


Miette San Francisco is the Zooey Deschanel of bakeries

Miette is a sweets shop/bakery that’s the pinnacle of adorableness. Stepping inside makes you feel like you’ve gone through the back of the wardrobe, into a pastel-colored world of adult-approved confections. This is a place where everyone walks away happy. (We went near closing time, so the fridge case was somewhat barren by then.)

We visited the location in the Ferry Building: a gourmet, touristy food court cross-bred with a farmers’ market. I imagine the freestanding Miette stores are even more of an immersive experience.

Their coconut cake was heavenly, moist cake with light layers of coconut frosting in between. My favorite dessert of the entire trip, which is saying something considering the caliber of the city’s food. Apparently the cake’s made with plenty of coconut milk, the bacon of the fruit world. I.e., anything made with it will invariably taste good, but not be good for  you.

We also sampled an array of cookies, starting with the French macarons.  They make theirs without food coloring, a “California interpretation” of the French classic. This caused some confusion over which one was what flavor (we tried everything from lavender chocolate to pistachio). While the cookie part was good, the flavors in the creme-y filling could’ve been stepped up.

The peanut butter cookies, chocolate sables, and gingersnaps came home with us to DC. (You can order them online.) My favorite was the latter, which were crisp and buttery with chewy bits of candied ginger. Mmmm, Miette. How I wish I’d brought home more of your delicacies.


Tartine San Francisco. Sharing not recommended.

Upon finding out I was headed to San Francisco, a coworker recommended Tartine, calling it “a transcendent experience.” He wasn’t kidding. It’s a modest-sized French bakery in the Mission District offering over-the-top luscious pastries, cakes, and toasted sandwiches.

We had a hard time making up our minds about what to try–so many temptations. Fearing that if we didn’t decide fast, we’d get trampled by the crowd behind us needing their sugar/cream/cheese fix, we landed on the lemon meringue cake and bread pudding.

The bread pudding was hands-down the best I’d ever had. Bread pudding isn’t something I normally gravitate to. It’s one of those desserts that varies too much from place to place. But this bread pudding was more like a flan or custard, topped with caramelized nectarines. Wow.

Onto the (humongous slice of) cake, a creative interpretation of  lemon meringue pie. The menu describes it as “lemon-moistened genoise layered with caramel and lemon cream.” While the caramel didn’t come through, the lemon flavor permeated the moist cake nicely. I was one the fence about the meringue icing. It was a little eggy for my liking.

By the way, if you decide to share your desserts, you might want to wait until you’ve had your fill before taking a break. I came out of the ladies’ room to find only a bite or two left of each. Mr. X-sXe had seized the opportunity to eat more than his share, spinning it as, “Look, I left this for you!” Grrr.

PS: If you can’t make it to Tartine, there’s always the cookbook.


Now this is a breakfast: Farm Table, San Francisco

San Francisco’s a city that enables gastronomic excess. When we visited in September, it definitely lived up to its reputation as a food city. You can literally eat yourself sick there by overindulging in the all-too-many options (Mr. X-sXe did, in fact, which resulted in a 3-day GI situation that I won’t elaborate on.)

The temptations start with breakfast: super fresh fruits, homemade yogurts made with local milk, simple-yet-creative preparations. That’s the strawberry-fig mascapone toast from Farm Table above, a tiny hole-in-the-wall that we ended up going to 3x. (They Tweet their daily menus, which offer 4 options each for breakfast and lunch.)

Here’s their take on yogurt: just barely tart, a drizzle of honey, the softness of the pears playing off the crunch of the almonds/cereal. Sigh. I could probably eat breakfast at Farm Table every morning and never get bored.