Monday, April 28, 2008

The Getty Villa

If you live in LA or are planning to be here this summer, I would strongly recommend a visit to the newly renovated Getty Villa. It sits atop a small hill just off the PCH in Malibu, so close and yet so far away from the beach traffic down below. J. Paul Getty, flush with oil money, built this as a replica of a 2,000 yr old excavated Roman villa and filled it with his priceless collection of paintings and antiquities. The paintings (among the greats are Monet's Japanese Garden, one of the Haystacks and one of the Rouen Cathedral series - my favorite) have migrated to the new and wonderful Getty Center, which you should also put on your "to do" list, just for the architecture alone. What's left is an impressive (for a private collection) set of Greco-Roman statues, pottery, mosaics, etc, and several exquisite early-man artifacts, some 4.5 thousand years old.

This all sounds quite dry, unless you are an enthusiast of Greek pottery and old Roman busts, but believe me, it's a lovely experience. The grounds are shady and quiet, with gurgling fountains, the faint perfume of roses and the sun playing hopscotch on the mosaic floors. The collection itself is interesting enough and small enough not to become boring or overwhelming, but large and varied enough to keep your interest for an hour or two. The rest of the time you can spend wandering around the gardens, gazing at the ocean and having lunch at a cafe carved into the mountain, which makes you feel as if you are on the site of some extremely well preserved and beautiful Roman excavations.

We spent a couple of very peaceful hours ambling from one room to another, stopping to look at the pieces that happened to catch our eye, smelling one flower or another (ok, that was only me) and dipping our hands into the fountain. Then we stood on the terrace, away from the tourists, and let the ocean breeze cool us off (it was 90 degrees! Summer is officially here). It's a lovely legacy that the Getty family preserves for us, I must admit, and definitely one place I would love to take someone who thinks that LA is all glitz and glamor and Hollywood (*cough**New York people**cough*). Of course, one could argue that as a replica, the Getty Villa fits in with Hollywood perfectly. It's a paradox, but I think that we Angelinos wouldn't have it any other way.

I have to warn you, though -- you need tickets to get in. They are free, except for an $8 parking fee, but a ticket reservation is necessary at least a week in advance. When we drove in and presented our tickets, the security guard (who had the unmistakable whiff of an off-duty-cop) looked us over very doubtfully. "Just the two of you?" he asked, checking out our backseat, as if absolutely certain that we were smuggling some miscreants into the place. I said jokingly: "It's like Fort Knox in here!" He gave me a grim look that instantly silenced me. "I thought I heard something bumping in your trunk," he remarked accusingly. "Nothing but the two dead bodies," A. murmured, driving to the second check point.

Continued after the jump...

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Flourless chocolate cake

I don't have a picture of the cake for you this week - before I could even whip out my camera, the whole thing practically evaporated in front of my eyes. Really, I was lucky to grab a bite.

It all started with Passover. I'm not going to recount the story, other than to say that this holiday is special to me in particular because my family came here as political refugees from the former U.S.S.R., seeking, like so many other Russian-Jews, to escape religious persecution in what is now Ukraine. As a child, one is supposed to be insulated from racism and anti-semitism and live in the happy world of toy cars, dolls and play-doh, but I wasn't so lucky. I remember being called nasty names and a kid throwing rocks at me (until I threatened to get my older cooler guy friends to beat him up) because being Jewish meant that I was somehow inferior, dirty and should be ashamed of myself and my family. So Passover, during which we say the words "we were slaves, and now we are free," resonates very strongly for all of us who were lucky enough to make it to the U.S. During the Seder, Jews dip herbs in salt water to remember the tears and deny ourselves bread, the most basic of foods, to remember the pain of our ancestors and of all the people in the world who suffer under oppressive governments. The pain, for my family, is recent enough so that there is no chance we can possibly forget about it, and thus, the words "and now we are free" are particularly sweet.

In olden days, Passover meant that you really couldn't eat much of anything - European Jews especially like to make it difficult on themselves by removing from their diet not only any kind of grains and yeasts, but also rice and corn products. Aaah! That's like in 80% of my food! Of course, now, supermarkets have gotten so sophisticated that there are Kosher for Passover cakes, cookies, even PASTA and bread. For me, that takes away the whole point of the holiday, that of denying yourself something that is important and ever-present in our daily diet, so that you can take yourself out of the present time and feel a connection with the past. Most people I know don't feel this way, but I do, and I try to walk around the "Kosher for Passover" aisle that beckons with egg noodles and matzah cake meal.

So I flipped through pages and pages of posts on Passover desserts; I opened magazines that gave me tempting names like "Apricot-orange Passover cake with chocolate glaze"; I wandered aimlessly around my kitchen, surveying my ingredients and waiting for a flash of brilliance. Mmmm... yeah, right. I finally just gave up and decided on my old nemesis - the flourless chocolate cake. You see, I must be one of the only people on the planet who is not that crazy about chocolate. All the flourless chocolate cakes I've ever had at restaurants have been the consistency of a brick, or at best, reminded me of a truffle (which, while is certainly wonderful in a small candy, gives me the shakes when presented in the form of a block of chocolate that stares at me from the plate). So I've never made a chocolate cake - any kind of a chocolate cake. Not even a chocolate glaze or filling, nothing. To me, cooking with chocolate is intimidating, to say the least.

With wilting enthusiasm, I clicked through pages of flourless chocolate cake recipes until I came to Epicurious, my last and best resort when it comes to recipes. I closed my eyes and pointed at the page. I read the ingredients - butter, chocolate, eggs, sugar, vanilla extract (not technically Kosher for Passover, but I could omit that)... okay, okay, I think the ancient Jews might have had all of these on hand, right? What especially enticed me was the whipping of the egg whites and folding them into the cake before baking. I felt like this might take care of some of my "brick" fears and well, I could just tell my mom that the cake had egg whites, thus obscuring the exact proportions of butter/chocolate/sugar (that, if she knew, she would have a heart attack about).
I was very skeptical of the whole process of melting the chocolate and the butter, but it did all come together in the end and I even enjoyed stirring the dark, velvety mass, sneaking a few strawberries from the refrigerator and dipping them on the side of my spatula. I didn't have a spring-form pan, so I just baked it in a regular cake pan lined with parchment paper. It came together beautifully and puffed up like a souffle (oh, how much, self control it took not to eat it right then and there!), but then deflated to lovely, un-intimidating proportions. I packed my other dessert (more on that later), whipped some cream (Land O'Lakes, kosher for passover, if you want to know) and with fingers crossed, I brought the whole thing to my mom's house. In the loud, wonderful chaos that followed (as per usual during our family gatherings), I really didn't have time to worry about my cake, and by the time dessert came about (hurry, hurry, cut and plate the cake! make tea for your grandfather! wipe the invisible spots from the dessert spoons! put the fruit on the table!) I was resigned to the idea.

I guess I shouldn't have worried so much (but I'm Jewish, so I worry, I worry! especially about food), my family loved it. It wasn't brick-like at all, not even a little bit. Maybe it was the egg whites that gave it an extra lift and airiness, maybe it's because I whipped and folded the heck out of everything very conscientiously, tiptoeing around the cake as it baked so as not to deflate it, but my grandfather asked for a piece (the last one, the one I was meaning to take a picture of) to take home, and my grandmother -- are you ready for this? -- she asked me for the recipe. I think the ground shook a little; my grandmother NEVER asks for the recipe because she is completely convinced she can do it better (and it's not an idle boast, she can). I was too flabbergasted to reply and she patted me on the shoulder sympathetically, thinking that maybe I was in a food coma or something from the hundred dishes she and my mom made. Of all the food-related things I've achieved in life (whipping egg whites stiff, making lemon curd of just the right tartness and texture, baking bread), I felt that this was the pinnacle, like maybe, I should just put away my tart pans and fold my towel because I'm not sure this sort of thing will ever happen again. Not too shabby for an unassuming flourless chocolate cake, the ingredients of which you can count on the fingers of one hand.

You can find the recipe at Epicurious. I used Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate, omitted the vanilla extract and tossed the idea of the chocolate glaze in favor of slightly sweetened whipped cream and fresh fruit, and served the cake slightly warm. It's not very difficult to make, and it tastes just lovely. After all, Passover is only one part remembering the sufferings - the second part is enjoying our sweet, chocolaty lives. :)

Continued after the jump...

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Enzo & Angela

It is often said that all the greatest discoveries are spontaneous, and so it was tonight, when a simple invitation to have dinner with my mom and my sister gave my palette a long needed feast.

The restaurant we went to is on the second floor of one of those small neat plazas with the ubiquitous sushi place and three very eager valet guys, smiling and trading jokes as they drive your car (a little too cavalierly) into the underground parking lot. The moment I walked in, I knew I was somewhere special. Maybe it was the white table cloths, crisp and fresh as if just laundered. Maybe the soft lighting or the enticing smells coming from the kitchen, or the low hum of content voices and the quiet clinking of glasses and utensils... I was too tired and too tense after a very full day at work to really notice the details all at once -- they permeated my consciousness gradually and I felt some of the tension leaving my shoulders. I was late, as usual, and my mom and E. had already ordered wine, which, seeing my face, they pushed in front of me and made me take a sip. I never did find out what the wine was called, but it was fantastic and, more importantly, it woke up my taste buds. It made me sit up and take notice. I wasn't even hungry the minute before, but after a sip of the wine, I was perusing the menu with renewed interest.

Our waiter was my favorite kind of waiter -- the kind you would love to invite to sit down with you and have a bite to eat himself. Maybe if there hadn't been other people there and we weren't going to talk about "girly things" (as my husband phrases it), I would have made him sit and have a glass of wine. The poor guy was as unobtrusive as we would let him be (which, if you know anything about my mother, was not much). We made him, positively made him linger at our table, and he told us stories of the restaurant, the food, the wine and Enzo, who is the Chef and who is from around Naples (there were paintings, beautiful paintings, of Positano and the Amalfi Coast on the walls that made me want to take the next plane over the pond). I haven't enjoyed a restaurant experience quite like this for such a long time. It was a great pleasure to be in the company of the wonderful people who run Enzo and Angela.

I had thin, tender pieces of chicken breast lightly sweetened with plum-colored port sauce and garnished with a few hot, crisp roast potatoes and fragrant stems of broccoli. Even describing it makes my mouth water for it again. Mom ordered chicken ravioli that were so completely differed from the thick, gooey ravioli that one sees at Italian restaurants, that the other ravioli would have just been ashamed to stand up next to its cousins. With barely a hint of sauce to enhance the flavor, these little al dente pockets held perfectly spiced chicken (yes, I stole one from my mom, what?).

My sister's dish, however, completely transcended the ... well, it just transcended, trust me. In prosaic terms, it would be called risotto with Maine scallops (Maine scallops are cooked fully, they sear the sea scallops, ok?), shrimp and crab, but you guys, it was out of this world. I don't know what Enzo put in the risotto to make it so fragrant, so beautiful for the palette, the flavors merging in such complex unity... Angela, whoever you are, my dear, you are one lucky woman. If I had a husband who could cook like this, I don't know if I would ever let him out of the house.

But wait, oh, wait. We had dessert too! The portions were actually medium sized and allowed us a leeetle room to splurge. We got slightly tipsy off of some lovely port and tasted a heavenly Frutti di Bosco, which the menu describes as "layers of short pastry filled with Chantilly cream covered with blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries." No, no no no. Can these words really give you any idea of the thin layers of moist, sweet pastry paired with the light coolness of Chantilly cream and finished off with a tzing of fresh fruit? It is a linguistic travesty.

I am already plotting my return. How soon is it polite to come back? Is two days enough of a wait? Maybe next time, I will have the Risotto with porcini mushrooms and a hint of fresh tomatoes, and I will deny the existence of calories and order the Torta di Ricotta & Cioccolato (home made ricotta cake made with a hint of dark chocolate bits, fresh ricotta and mascarpone in a flaky pastry base, served "just" warm). I think tonight, I am going to dream of home-made bits of sweet, flaky things together with hints of cream and fruit and oh my goodness, I need to stop, I just ate for goodness' sakes.

Enzo and Angela
11701 Wilshire Blvd # 12
Los Angeles, CA 90025
(310) 477-3880

Continued after the jump...

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Most Impulsive Decision I've Ever Made

I'm just going to come right out and say this -- I am going to PARIS. Deep breath. I can't quite believe it yet -- the whole idea seems too much of a dream to have finally taken tangible shape, and I want to pinch myself a little just so my head doesn't float away into the clouds.

Let me tell you how it came about. My sister and I are going to be in Europe in May, and we just happen to be flying Air France (love) with a lay-over in Paris. We thought nothing of it until my sister, for reasons of her own, decided to extend her Paris lay-over from two hours to two days, my parents freaked out (because my 23 yr old independent sis certainly can't take care of herself, right?), there were numerous phone calls back and forth (mom: please talk to your dad, he is driving me crazy! dad: please talk to your mom, she is so worried! both: me? what? I'm not the one who is worried, he/she is worried!). I love my parents, they are too cute. Anyway. I get on the phone with my dad for the umpteenth time and start telling him not to worry. I'm almost on auto-pilot at this point, but suddenly, my dad cuts me off: "Hold on a second," he says, "I'm on the phone with Air France trying to change your sister's ticket."

You know how in movies, someone says a word and time kind of slows down and everything falls into place? I kid you not, this is what happened to me. An eternity passed, or perhaps a second, and I blurted out (before I could re-think): "Dad, is there another ticket for me?" My long-suffering father sighs very, very deeply... and finds me another ticket. "I'm never going to get bored with life with the two of you," he says, half jokingly and half despairingly. And that's it, that's how it came about that I'm going to spend two whole days in Paris. Since the decision was made, I've felt like my feet have barely touched the ground. All I can think about is, "I'm going to be in Paris!"

This will be my second time in the city of lights (I wonder if Parisians hate us calling it that?), and I'm glad that I don't feel obligated to go and "see the sights" as I did last time. I can just wander around the beautiful parks and avenues of Paris and go where my fancy calls. If you were to spend only two days in Paris and you could do anything you wanted to do, what would it be?! My mind is a-whirl with possibilities... Paris, Paris, Paris.

Continued after the jump...

Monday, April 7, 2008

Frutiest Fruit Tart

Spring is here! Yes, the morning mists are still cold and depressing, and the thermometer barely makes it past 60, but I can tell you absolutely and unequivocally that "it" has finally come, with all its unmistakable sounds and smells and the unrestrained joy of music. The bare branches of the tree outside of my window were covered with tender green buds one day, and the next, there was a virtual explosion of a thousand different shades of color so bright, your eyes hurt to look at it -- it seems like spring came overnight this year. I pity you, those unlucky cities where Spring is still flirting capriciously with good weather. In my city, the flirtation has developed into a full fledged romance, an affair of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall proportions that sweeps every old vestige of winter away like old cobwebs. In short, goodbye, my November guest. Take your clinging silver mist and retire for another year in dignified silence. This is a time for new tastes, new colors, new life.

To celebrate spring, I made my very first ever fruit tart. Now, you must know that fruit tarts are my all time favorite dessert. Especially wee little ones, that I just think are so cute and adorable, with the not-low-fat-fantabulous pastry cream, the crumbly sweet crust and the taste overdose of fresh fruit. And I live within minutes of a French bakery that makes ooh la la fruit tarts. So it is no surprise that I've been too intimidated to make my own. It's like a date with your favorite movie star -- if it goes badly, your fantasy will be ruined forever (Christian Bale, call me. I'll take my chances with the ruined fantasy). However, I am not one to shrink from my fears, and the arrival of my Dorie Greenspan cookbook gave me hitherto unknown courage and a foolhardy optimism in my abilities. I love Dorie, and not only because she shares a last name with Alan Greenspan.

You may remember that last time I made pâte sucrée, it shrank on me like ... well, I'll let you pick your own analogy, but I'm sure you can imagine what I'm thinking. This time, I decided to entirely put my fate in Dorie's capable hands, and wow, let me tell you guys, it was a revelation. I followed the instructions to the T, using the "press in" method, and my crust DID NOT SHRINK. Yeah. Maybe it's the spring air that gave it staying power? Maybe it's my magic touch? (I suspect it's the freezing it for 1/2 hr, but please be kind and let me imagine the best). I also made her pastry cream and really, there is only one way to describe it, and the word is decadent. Juicy, crisp strawberries straight from the market, bananas salvaged from the refrigerator and tart blueberries finished off my creation. I gotta say, I was pretty proud of myself, and when we cut the tart, I was even prouder for it was amazing, although I think the credit goes all to Dorie's fantastic recipes. Hello and welcome to my bookshelf! I'll stop gushing now. Seriously, though - make the tart. It tastes like Spring is finally here, and that's the best I can say about any dessert.

I didn't futz with the recipes this time (I was too much in awe), but these have been reproduced a number of times on the web, and Dorie Greenspan likes people making her recipes, so I don't feel bad re-printing them here. Really, if you think about it, it's a service to humanity, because fruit tarts just make people happy. Don't let the length of the recipe fool you, it's really quick and easy. I made the pastry cream the night before (a breeze) and let it chill overnight.

1 fully baked sweet tart crust (recipe below)
2 cups (approx.) pastry cream (recipe below)
8-10 oz strawberries, hulled and sliced
1 banana
6 oz blueberries

Bake the crust and let it cool to room temperature. Make the pastry cream and chill it (preferably the night before), and then spread chilled pastry cream inside the tart shell. Arrange fruit on top. Yeah, it's that easy.

Dorie Greenspan's Sweet Tart Crust
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick plus 1 tablespoon (9 tablespoons; 4 1/2 ounces) very cold (or frozen) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 large egg yolk

1. Put the flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse a few times to combine. Scatter the pieces of butter over the dry ingredients and pulse until the butter is coarsely cut in—you should have pieces the size of oatmeal flakes and some the size of peas. Stir the yolk, just to break it up, and add it a little at a time, pulsing after each addition. When the egg is in, process in long pulses—about 10 seconds each—until the dough, which will look granular soon after the egg is added, forms clumps and curds. Just before you reach this stage, the sound of the machine working the dough will change—heads up. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and, very lightly and sparingly, knead the dough just to incorporate any dry ingredients that might have escaped mixing. Chill the dough, wrapped in plastic wrap, for about 2 hours before rolling.*

2. To roll the dough: Butter a 9-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. Roll out chilled dough on floured sheet of parchment paper to 12-inch round, lifting and turning dough occasionally to free from paper. Using paper as aid, turn dough into 9-inch-diameter tart pan with removable bottom; peel off paper. Seal any cracks in dough. Trim overhang to 1/2 inch. Fold overhang in, making double-thick sides. Pierce crust all over with fork.

3. Freeze the crust for at least 30 minutes, preferably longer, before baking.

4. To fully bake the crust: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 375°F. Butter the shiny side of a piece of aluminum foil (or use nonstick foil) and fit the foil, buttered side down, tightly against the crust. (Since you froze the crust, you can bake it without weights.) Put the tart pan on a baking sheet and bake the crust for 25 minutes.

5. Carefully remove the foil. If the crust has puffed, press it down gently with the back of a spoon (or prick it with the tip of a small knife). Bake the crust about 10 minutes longer, or until it is firm and golden brown, brown being the important word: a pale crust doesn’t have a lot of flavor. Transfer the pan to a rack and cool the crust to room temperature.

Storing: The dough can be wrapped and kept in the refrigerator for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 2 months. While the fully baked crust can be packed airtight and frozen for up to 2 months, the flavor will be fresher bake it directly from the freezer, already rolled out–just add about 5 minutes to the baking time.

* Alternate press-in technique: If you want to use the press-in method, you can work with the dough as soon as it’s processed. Just press the dough evenly over the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Don’t be too heavy-handed–press the crust in so that the edges of the pieces cling to one another, but don’t press so hard that the crust loses its crumbly texture.

Dorie Greenspan's Pastry Cream
2 cups whole milk
6 large egg yolks (I'm going to use a few less next time to cut some calories)
1/2 cups sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch, sifted
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into bits at room temperature

Bring the milk to a boil in a small saucepan.

Meanwhile, in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan, whisk the egg yolks together with the sugar and cornstarch until thick and well blended. Still whisking, drizzle in about 1/4 cup of the hot milk– this will temper, or warm, the yolks so they won’t curdle. Whisking all the while, slowly pour in the remainder of the milk. Put the pan over medium heat and, whisking vigorously, constantly and thoroughly (making sure to get the edges of the pot), bring the mixture to a boil. Keep at a boil, still whisking, for 1 to 2 minutes, then remove the pan from the heat.

Whisk in the vanilla extract. Let sit for 5 minutes, then whisk in the bits of butter, stirring until they are full incorporated and the pastry cream is smooth and silky. Scrape the cream into a bowl. You can press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of the cream to create an airtight seal and refrigerate the pastry cream until cold or, if you want to cool it quickly–as I always do–put the bowl into a larger bowl filled with ice cubes and cold water, and stir the pastry cream occasionally until it is thoroughly chilled, about 20 minutes.

Continued after the jump...