Tuesday, March 24, 2009


I have been trying to bake more this year, cupcakes and cake cakes and cookies galore, expanding my repertoire. The March birthday party was today, and I thought I would try cheesecake. Chocolate cheesecake. For days I looked at recipes, trying to find one that looked easy, that would taste good. I walked up and down the aisles of the grocery store, grabbing the ingredients I thought I would need, cream cheese and eggs and chocolate wafers. For some reason Whole Foods did not carry chocolate wafers, so I bought a bag of Chocolate Teddy Grahams. They would have to do.

Finally I turned to Ina Garten, whose recipes have never failed me. The chocolate espresso cheesecake would be easy, even if I needed to swing by the supermarket for espresso powder and sour cream. I ground the innocent-looking Teddy bears into fine crumbs, added melted butter, spread them in the bottom of a springform pan. It went into the oven while I melted chocolate, beat together eggs and cream cheese and vanilla and almond extracts. Cut back the sugar a little, as always. The crust cooled, I poured in the custard, licked the bowl. It was delicious, a promise of things to come. Slid the cake in, crossed my fingers. It emerged cracked, deep fissures in the smooth brown surface of the cheesecake. Whoops.

In a bowl set over simmering water - a makeshift double boiler, although I actually have one - I melted together more chocolate, heavy cream. Stirred together it became a ganache. The picture that accompanied the recipe showed a smooth mocha-colored cheesecake spattered Pollock-like with dark ganache, but I would do something different. I poured the ganache into the center of the cake, tilted the pan so it formed a neat circle, like a dark pond, hiding the disfiguring cracks below. Perfect. Few things in life cannot be patched over with a smooth coat of ganache.

After lunch the next day, the cake is adorned with lighted candles, sliced and handed around. Murmers of approval rise amongst those who have not given up sweets for Lent. F. gets up from his seat, walks around to put his hands on my shoulders. You are a god, he says. I think I have a new cake for my repertoire.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Friday Lark.

I order seared foie gras, which comes with cabbage stuffed with some sort of pureed root vegetable, and scattered with mustard seeds in a sauce that seems to be nothing more than a little wine, the juices of the cabbage, and whatever fat comes out of the foie gras. I tell K. that it is the best version of foie gras I have had at their restaurant, and wipe up every last drop of sauce with scraps of caraway-studded bread.

The John Dory (which always reminds me of that Agatha Christie story about the thumb-mark of St. Peter) comes on a bed of cipollini onions tossed with sweet mussels, in a buttery, wine-scented sauce speckled with garlic and chopped parsley. Again I clean my plate with pieces of bread - we are in a Depression, no sense in wasting butter - and lean happily against the wall, turning to watch the room behind me fill with diners.

My dessert is a dense tart of coconut wrapped in caramel and dark chocolate, on a crumbly-crisp chocolate crust, with a scoop of coconut sorbet floating on a cloud of shredded coconut alongside. It is a bit like one of those Fran's chocolate bars, only bigger. And therefore better. I turn in my seat and find that the foie gras protesters are here, waving their signs and fists at us. Most people ignore them. As I get up to leave I realize I will actually have to walk past all these shouting and waving people, and M. asks if I want her to walk me to the street. I should be fine, I tell her, and open the door.

I walk outside and the wave of sound hits me like a slap. The protestors are all ages, both sexes, including a smallish person of indeterminate gender dressed in a duck costume, who skips and jumps along the sidewalk. One man politely hands me a flyer and asks that I tell the chef to stop serving foie gras. Aside from being rather loud, they seem a decent bunch of people, so I refrain from telling them that not an hour before, I had enjoyed a small portion of foie gras, one of about forty servings of foie gras I have eaten (some less happily than others) in the years since 1994, the year I encountered it at the Hunt Club as a freshman in high school.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Out of the past. red-braised beef noodle soup.

When I was growing up, we often went to Green Village restaurant in the International District for red-braised beef noodle soup. (Red-braised refers to the use of soy sauce in the cooking). After the original restaurant burned down, two new ones emerged from the ashes, a regular restaurant with cozy wood booths and live seafood, and a more casual fast-food-type joint that offered takeout and a selection of cold dishes packed in clear plastic boxes.

I found beef shank at the supermarket, grabbed bundles of spinach and scallions. Came home and immediately set to work, bringing the beef stock I had taken from the freezer a few days ago to a rolling bowl, adding soy sauce and a few stars of anise pods. J. comes over to pick up his cupcakes and lingers over a few glasses of wine and Tagore. The broth is intense, lightly fragranced with anise and heavy with beef. A few more hours pass, and the meat begins to slide from its knob of bone; time to bring some water to a boil and toss in a handful of thick wheat noodles.

It is not quite what I remember, and at the same time it is better.