Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Classic Strawberry Cream Pie

A few days ago I came home to a kitchen table overflowing with pints of strawberries, filling the house with their ripe perfume. My first emotion was a hit of sadness, as I'm missing some of the best weeks of Portland's own strawberry season while I'm down here in Los Angeles, but my second emotion could only be described as OH-YES-ITS-PIE-TIME!

After a brief Tastespotting search, I came across a recipe for a classic Strawberry Cream Pie from the Better Homes & Gardens Dessert Cook Book, published in 1960, the age of REAL DESSERTS, and after a few modifications (like replacing some of the whipped cream with sour cream for a cheescakier flavor), I had a really gorgeous pie that showcased the berries in all of their glory.

This was the dessert of my "Last Supper" before getting my wisdom teeth out yesterday, and it was a perfect accompaniment to big, meaty beef ribs with my dad's improvised BBQ sauce (think crushed pineapple, beet juice, chipotle hot sauce, red onions, garlic, tomato sauce, molasses, honey, mustard, apple cider vinegar, and grilled pickled jalapenos), crunchy coleslaw with my secret creamy dressing, and grilled ratatouille with lots of fresh basil.

By contrast, the past two days have been filled with frozen yogurt, mashed potatoes, and tomato basil soup, which, let me tell you, is going to get old real fast. I keep having daydreams of Screen Door fried chicken, toasted Kettlemans bagels, crispy cucumbers, and, well, anything not mushy. At least I can still write about/read about/watch movies about food. Yes, at least there's that. Eat crunchy things for me!

Classic Strawberry Cream Pie
Adapted from Laura Flowers and Better Homes & Gardens Dessert Cook Book, published 1960.

1 9-inch pie crust (I use the 'Foolproof Pie Dough' from Cooks' Illustrated)
1 recipe cream filling (below)
3 cups fresh strawberries
½ cup water
¼ cup sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch

Pre-bake pie crust using pie weights or dried beans. Let cool. Fill with chilled Cream Filling. Quarter two and a half cups of the strawberries, place in large bowl. Crush remaining half cup berries (I used a potato masher); add water; cook 2 minutes. Mix sugar and cornstarch: gradually stir into berry sauce. Cook over low heat, and stir until thick. Cool slightly; pour over bowl of quartered strawberries, mix well. Arrange over cream filling. Keep refrigerated until served.

Cream Filling

½ cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons enriched flour
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups heavy cream
1 slightly beaten egg
½ cup sour cream

Mix first 4 ingredients. Gradually stir in cream. Stirring constantly, bring to a boil; reduce heat and stir until thick. Stir a little of the hot mixture into egg; return to remaining hot mixture. Bring just to boiling, stirring constantly. Cool, then chill. Beat well; fold in sour cream. (I'd let this cool for a few hours, at least, maybe even overnight before piling the strawberries on top. That gives it more of a cheesecake-y texture that is really amazing)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Catering a Teenaged Fiesta

My little sister called me up a few weeks ago and asked if I'd cater her high school yearbook staff party. I thought, sure, why not - 35 kids, mexican-ish food for a bunch of Southern Californians, unsurpassed access to inexpensive, fresh, "seasonal" produce. Tomatoes, avocados, and citrus in May? Almost enough to make me think twice about swearing I'll never move back to the Southwest. Almost.

Some of my ingredients were incredibly local - the lemons were from my parents' back yard, and most everything else from the local ethnic stores, Middle Eastern markets and latino supermercados catering the diverse population of Los Angeles. That's not to say these kids were necessarily discerning foodies - I provided both lime crema and plain ol' sour cream, cotija and cheddar, pork chili verde and grilled chicken, fresh pico de gallo and salsa from the jar, shredded iceberg lettuce and pickled jalepenos.

Plenty of goods for the vegetarians - my trademark butternut squash and corn enchiladas, yummy black beans and spicy Spanish rice. For desert, pan dulces, cherries, berries, and watermelon. My little sister even mixed up some mock-margaritas, while parents and I sipped on not-so-mock cocktails in order to drown out the shouting of thirty seventeen-year-olds playing Apples to Apples.

No, the food wasn't super authentic, but everyone had fun, my dad got to man the grill, and I got to munch on a few hard-edged tortilla chips before getting my wisdom teeth out this morning (by the by - OUCH. This blog post brought to you by Vicodin and puffy cheeks full of gauze and bruises). A few more days and I'll be good as new, back in the City of Roses. Hopefully, by then, the rain will have subsided and we can get into that lovely Portland Summer that recharges our batteries. I hope my tomato plants have survived my absence!

Eat well, friends.

Inside-Out Carrot Cake Cookies

I have a habit of sneaking root vegetables and other clandestine, healthy foods into my baked goods, including beet brownies and a zucchini chocolate cake that once prompted my friend Calvin to exclaim, "We may be BFF forever, but I will never let you molest my desserts with vegetables."

I think even Calvin would like these cookies, seeing as carrots have somehow passed the cultural acceptability test. Why is that? What makes a carrot any less of an "un-dessert" food than a beet, or a new potato, or beans?

Since the middle ages, whenever sugar was expensive or hard to come by, certain fruits and vegetables were used to add sweetness to puddings and baked goods. Carrots (and sugar beets, I might add) have a very high sugar content and were able to add that extra something to cakes and sweets. The popularity of carrot cake peaked in the Second World War, due to sugar rationing, and by the 1970's, there was no looking back. Those little iced orange and green carrots on top of a thick layer of cream cheese frosting became a staple in bakeries, cafeterias, and American kitchens. I asked for a carrot cake year after year for my birthday as a kid, and I still love the textures and colors of the old favorite, though I'm now more inclined to favor the natural orange (or other heirloom colors) over the artificial neon colors of yesteryear.

Though we now combine carrots with the sugar they were intended to replace, it's hard not to feel a little virtuous when you pour in a cup of grated, raw carrots to a bowl of cookie dough. This take on carrot cake is a really fun, portable way to bring individual, hand-held desserts to a BBQ. I incorporated more spices and mixed carrots directly into the frosting, which gives great color and texture to the sandwich filling. If it feels a little decadent to eat two cookies at once, slathered with icing, just think of it as a small portion of cake. But don't argue with yourself too much over the merits or demerits of the inside-out carrot cake cookie, or they'll disappear before you make up your mind.

Eat well!

Inside-Out Carrot Cake Cookies with Carrot Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from
Gourmet, April 2004


1 1/8 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups coarsely grated carrots, divided
1 cup pecans, chopped
1/2 cup dried cranberries
8 ounces cream cheese
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup powdered sugar or 1/4 cup honey


Put oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 375°F. Grease 2 baking sheets or line with parchment paper (these can get sticky, I recommend the parchment).

Whisk together flour, spices, baking soda, and salt in a bowl.

Beat together butter, sugars, egg, and vanilla in a bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Mix in 1 cup of the carrots carrots, all of the pecans and cranberries at low speed, then add flour mixture and beat until just combined.

Drop 1 1/2 tablespoons batter per cookie 2 inches apart on baking sheets and bake, switching position of sheets halfway through baking, until cookies are lightly browned and springy to the touch, 12 to 16 minutes total. Cool cookies on sheets on racks 1 minute, then transfer cookies to racks to cool completely.

While cookies are baking, blend cream cheese, butter, and sugar (or honey) in a food processor until smooth. Add the other cup of grated carrots to frosting, mix well.

Sandwich flat sides of cookies together with a generous tablespoon of cream cheese filling in between.


Saturday, May 22, 2010

Family Dinner at Bar Avignon

Last weekend, I donned a silly black cardboard hat and a dour wizard cloak and received a piece of paper with shiny gold lettering from the President of Reed college. Today, I'm staring up at the ceiling fan in my parents' Southern California home, with absolutely no responsibilities, plans, or job prospects to my name, save impending oral surgery on Monday (grumph).

I anticipated this moment, and brought with me an arsenal of novels, magazines, photo equipment, and recipes to try, but I haven't been able to peel myself away from the self-contemplation and worry that hits me after big life moments. No. More. School. Ever. Unless I decide to do more... but still. I don't even know how to wrap my mind around this. So instead of trying, I thought I'd share some photos of the amazing dinner I had with my family at Bar Avignon last Sunday.

I had the pleasure of hosting Avignon's chef Jeremy Eckel in the Chef in the Market demonstration last weekend. I like to make it a point to visit the restaurants of the chefs I meet, especially when my family is in town and I don't have to pick up the tab. Hey, need I remind you of that "no job prospects" thing? But I digress. We were seven for dinner, which can be a bit of a quagmire when the restaurant of choice is, quite literally, a bar. So imagine our extreme pleasure when we walked into Bar Avignon, ready to sit at different tables scattered around the place, to find a near-private wine room with a huge wooden table practically calling our names.

It was idyllic, to say the least, and the food was amazing. At the Farmers' Market, we had made three vegetable salads for spring BBQ's (because Portland is Portland is Portland) so I knew Jeremy had some local-produce tricks up his sleeve, but was absolutely floored by the quality of every dish, cocktail, and desert we tasted. Every meal in my family becomes a "family-style" meal - we coordinate our orders so we are able to try almost everything on the menu, forks and plates are passed around like a game of Hot Potato, everyone tastes every dish (except for my little sister, currently a vegetarian who looked stricken with every word of praise over the chicken, pork, and steak), and desserts are shared with mathematical precision. Oh, and every gamely puts up with my snapping photos of each dish before they get to try them.

It's a bit crazy, coupled with our loud conversations and even louder laughter, but it was a great time. Avignon's delightful owners Nancy Hunt and Randy Goodman were more than amazing, and it is always a pleasure to spend time with the raucous group of characters I have the joy to call my next of kin. I may be completely listless, jobless, planless, and scared, but my family is the wind in my sails.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Flowers of the Portland Farmers' Market

Although the farmers' market is always one of the most colorful places in Portland, it seems as though this year is the most vibrant yet. Flower vendors are more abundant than ever, and farmers that once sold your typical fruit and veg fare are now stepping it up with a large selection of potted and cut flowers. All told, this makes for some stunning sights, as the colors catch the Saturday morning light on my weekly rounds of the market blocks. My sister and her partner Mike were visiting me last week, and as it was Mike's first time in Portland, he was amazed at the amount of flowers that line the streets, from landscaped yards full of tulips and irises, to corner flower shops bursting with colorful displays, to the marigolds and cosmos that are the cornerstone of my early balcony garden. We're entering the time of year when Portland is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful towns in the world - when all that water pays off and the clouds lift (at least for a few days at a time) - and nothing makes the City of Roses quite as beautiful as her flowers.

I thought I'd share a few shots of this year's floral offerings at the farmers' market. We're already seeing the first strawberries and early zucchini, and lettuces are now standard, but flowers are still taking center stage. Take a moment and feel yourself in the sun today - we've made it safely out of the winter, and it's going to be a beautiful year.