Sunday, June 30, 2013

Timeless Chocolate Cake

I was following an auction on Ebay this week for a set of 12 vintage Italian linen napkins.  I fell in love with these napkins as I researched prices for a similar set that I have here from my friend L, which she wants to sell and I will probably buy, as they come with a matching tablecloth.  The napkins online were 22” and so dinner size, and very pretty, with subtle beige embroidery.  They screamed Italy to me, the finest of Italy.  I really wanted to feel the fine lace of the border, and see them next to my Limoges plates.  Seeing these linens got me in the Italian mood.   They reminded me of a Venetian palazzo I had seen in a magazine a long time ago, with a table draped in delicate linens, and topped with Italian porcelain and glasses.   Running around in the house I finally found it. Looks like someone has spread meringue on the walls, right?  I LOVE this image. I love every single detail.  This magazine is now 20 years old, but it still looks timeless.

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In the same issue, of a French magazine dedicated to Italy, was an article on Lorenza de Medici.  On my bucket list is a visit to Badia al Coltibuono for a cooking class. 

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20 years ago I made every recipe in this magazine, but my favorite among them is the flourless chocolate cake.  I made this cake for many years in NYC; it was always the birthday cake everyone in the office wanted.  Here is the pic from the magazine, with the tiny fraises du bois that are minute but pack more flavor than any other berry~

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There were a few other recipes given; I bought my first copper after making this ring of peas and rice with a tarragon sauce; it’s was SO delicious.  Though not an American taste per se.  My family doesn’t like it so I never make it anymore.

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But if I have to make a chocolate cake, this is the recipe I use.  You will need:

120 grams of butter: 1 stick plus a little more

6 ounces dark chocolate; I use Valrhonna from Trader Joes (1.5 bars)

6 eggs, separate the whites from the yolks

1 cup less 1 tablespoon sugar

1/3 cup powdered almonds

Preheat the oven to 390 degrees.

Prepare your cake pan now too; lightly butter a 6” round cake pan and then sprinkle a little bit of the powdered almonds on the butter.  I swear by the Magic Line brand, and that’s what I use for this cake.  Chill the cake pan.

The almonds I am using are the powdered almonds from France.  You see them here center-left; they are from raw almonds and bake to perfection; you will notice Lorenza’s version above has a chunkier almond.  I am sorry I can not give you a better source for these almonds in the U.S.; use what you can find, and if you have any friends going to France, this is always on my To Buy list.

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Set the butter in a bowl and place the chocolate on top of it, in a double-boiler, that is, in a bowl set over very hot water.   The water should not be boiling.  Melting the butter on the bottom will prevent a grainy chocolate melt.  Stir constantly and until smooth, set aside to cool.

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In a bowl, mix the egg yolks with the sugar.  A whisk works best; whisk until thoroughly combined: about three minutes.

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Using a mixer, beat the egg whites until they are stiff.

When the chocolate mix has mostly cooled, add it to the egg yolks and sugar.  It’s fine if it’s a little warm as it will also melt the sugar in the egg yolks, but you don’t want it to be too hot, otherwise it will cook the egg yolks and deflate your egg whites.  Add the powdered almonds and mix to combine.  Your batter will look like this:

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Remove your whisk and use a spatula to add the beaten egg whites.  Fold the egg whites in, do not stir vigorously, or you will deflate the batter; just keep turning it over with the spatula.  Fill your cake pan; you can leave just a little headroom, here about an inch. IMG_0589 - Copy

The trick to flourless chocolate cake is the cooking.  If it’s underdone, the center will taste gooey.  Non.  If you cook it too long or too hot, the top will burn.  Non.  I never set the timer for a cake, I know by looking and testing if it’s done, but this is about 40 minutes.  The top will crack a little like this.  As the cake starts to look done, touching the top will feel like the center is not cooked enough.  Be patient and watch it for another ten minutes.  The top of the cake should feel firm to the touch, and a toothpick should come out clean.  And after the cake comes out of the oven, be warned that it will fall in the center.  Don’t panic, it’s ok.  Here it is out of the oven about five minutes.
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Invert the cake on a plate when it’s cooled.  This will give you a nice flat top.

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Top with fresh berries, raspberry sauce and whipped cream. 


The taste and texture of this cake are heavenly; it has a hint of the almonds, which are not included on many flourless cake recipes.  There is no mistaking it for a brownie or any other chocolate dessert; this cake is in a class by itself.  After you have made it once or twice, you will think it’s also very easy to make.  This cake is as timeless as the Ventian palazzo above; though I love the French chocolate tarte I make, this cake is special.  I hope you will try it. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

Lavender Honey Goat Cheese Cheesecake

If there is one staple on our list for the Fourth of July weekend, it’s cheesecake.  I use my Mom’s recipe, and I need to ask her where she got it from.   On top of a partially-baked Graham-cracker crust, add the filling of 1 package 8 ounce cream cheese, 1 tub less 1/2 cup of sour cream, 2 eggs, 1 cup of sugar and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract and bake at 350; cover the top with the rest of the sour cream.  I like this recipe a lot for it’s taste and of course the association of my Mom, but it’s also very easy to make, in about 20 minutes, while I am making a bunch of other desserts.  Sometimes though, I want something a little more special, and a little more tasty.  This morning I was wide awake at 4am and so decided to make cheesecake for this weekend.  I had made another batch of goat cheese, this time adding four spoons of dried lavender in the milk, which was later strained.   So starting with that goat cheese I got to work making lavender honey goat cheese cheesecakes.  I made this in a full size last year adapting Mom’s recipe, but today I’m using a different recipe, one that will give a significantly lighter texture to the finished desserts, and I am making smaller sizes.


Regardless of which pan or pans you use, you need to make the crust first: One packet of (crushed) graham crackers, 1 stick of melted butter, 3 heaping teaspoons of sugar and a generous dash of cinnamon. I know, you can buy one pre-made, but I much prefer one from scratch.  Spoon the crumb mix into the pans.

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And using a glass, press the mixture down evenly in your pans.  For this recipe, I use crumbs only on the bottom of the pan.  Bake at 400 until the edges just start to brown, then set aside to cool. 

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For for the filling; you will need:

5 ounces (+/-) of goat cheese

4 ounces of cream cheese at room temperature

1 1/2 cups sour cream

2 eggs

1 cup of sugar (or honey; keep reading)

a teaspoon of vanilla extract.


You can use the Trader Joe variety of goat cheese for this, but what I really love is a fresh or home-made goat cheese.   The flavor tastes significantly better to me when I use about half a cup of honey instead of the cup of sugar; it’s a great way to introduce flavors such as lavender, wildflowers or orange blossom into your cheesecake.  I used my favorite Jonas wildflower honey.  Here you can also see the goat cheese is vaguely colored due to the lavender.

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Put the filling ingredients in your mixer and blend until creamy.  Fill your pans, leaving just a little headroom.

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Now here’s the trick with this recipe: it’s in the way they are baked.  Rather than putting the cake right in the oven, wrap each cheesecake with foil and set them in a pan of water and put the whole setup in the oven.  I used a 1” deep baking sheet.  The water does not have to go to the top of the cheesecakes; just keep the tinfoil up so that no water gets around the cakes (it would seep in under these two-part tarte tins).  Bake at 325 for about 45 minutes for a large cheesecake; these minis take 30 minutes each.

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You will know just by looking at them if they are done, once you have made one or two of these.


But just to be sure, I often touch my finger to the top of the cheesecake.  Problem is, that leaves a ding in the top of the cheesecake.  My family would still eat them, even with my fingerprint on top, but I disguise it with a little coat of sour cream on top~


Or, you can just pour some sauce on top.  The other problem I still have with this method of cooking is how to unmold them, because it’s nice to see the crust on the bottom and the light cheesecake on top.  I get a ragged edge like this.  I was not happy with it, but Mom had this for breakfast this morning at 7am and said it was delish~


The sauce is a puree of 1 small container of raspberries, four heaping spoons of sugar and juice of one lemon; you can strain it or leave the seeds in.


It’s especially excellent on flourless chocolate cake! Something else I must make soon…


For today, here is my little goat cheese cheesecake; it is lightly perfumed with lavender and honey, and I prefer them in these small white ramekins as I don’t have to unmold them, and they look pretty on a dessert tray.


This batch however, is going to my Sis’ house today.  I want to borrow some wine glasses for some photos and so will leave these for her family; I know they will love them.  I can see these with red raspberries and blue-blueberries for the Fourth.  Her family will eat these by tonight, so maybe we’ll make one of Mom’s cheesecakes for the Fourth.


Enjoy your weekend and bake something delicious if you can!!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Homemade Goat Cheese

I have long been a fan of fresh goat cheese.  I will gladly use the logs that are found at Trader Joe’s; they can’t be beat on pizzas, or for a nice addition to a cheese plate, rolled in fresh herbs or dried herbes de Provence.  But if you have ever tasted fresh goat cheese, you will be thoroughly spoiled.  R and I eat plenty of it in Beaune from the gentle young man who sells it at the Saturday market.  He is bearded and soft-spoken; I can see him lovingly tending his goats.  I love to take friends to see him at the market, and select the cheeses which our guests prefer: very mild, very fresh, aged or rolled in ash.  Chevre at the local market is not expensive, and I like to buy five or six kinds that we will eat over 2-3 days; tasting them side-by-side will help you decide which you prefer.  As with wine and many other foods of France, it’s a matter of taste.  If you ever get a chance to sample a lineup of farm-fresh chevre cheeses, please do so. 

Last weekend we had a small serving of fresh goat cheese before dinner, with a Myers’ lemon gelée studded with blueberries, and on the lawn were several goats, not to mention a small baby goat which was hand-carried and bottle fed all day.  I’m not a huge fan of commercial cow milk production, and I left the party with the idea to give home-made goat cheese a try.  Though some say goats can be moody, many people tell me they are very attached to their people, when socialized, and make wonderful pets.  How about this sweet face?~


My research on Monday took me about five minutes.  I decided right away to use raw milk if I could find it, which I did, at Mothers Market,  $7 for one quart.  You can also use pasteurized goat milk.  I think that pasteurized milk is heated longer than this cheese recipe, so I opted for the raw milk base as I favor the least-processed product:


Rennet is often used in making cheese, and it’s origin and types are something I won’t go into here.  Many recipes for goat cheese call for vinegar or lemon juice.  I used two small lemons from our tree~


To make the cheese, put one quart of milk in a non-reactive container; and heat it to 180-185 degrees, then remove from heat.


Add 1/3 cup of lemon juice.


The milk will start to curdle a little.  Cover it and set it aside for 8 hours or more.


The next morning, 8-12 hours later, strain the mixture.  You can use cheese-cloth, but I used a thin French linen towel.  If you use a towel, make sure it is clean and not dried with any fabric softener.


At this step you are separating the curds (solid) from the whey (liquid).  Wrap the end of the towel up and turn the spoon so that the whey can drain.  At first this is a steady stream, but it will drip for hours over the bowl after that.  Be patient!


Hours later, you will have this, strained curds about the size of a ball of fresh mozzarella~


Salt it a little with a high quality salt; I used a little fleur de sel;  you can also add honey or other flavors at this point. 


The cheese is very light and the texture is not like the Trader Joe’s version at all.  I rolled a ball of it by hand and then rolled it again in fresh herbs from the garden, served on a slice of toast drizzled in olive oil from Akram of Thyme of Essence


Next time I will smash this down just a little. My parents ate all of this tonight.


I made a second plate of toast, tomato, peach and herbs.  The tomato and peach was drizzled with Arakm’s Fig Balsamic before I added the cheese; the balsamic will stain the cheese, so I add the cheese last.


And in its most simple form, the first cherry tomato from my garden, a sliver of peach and a taste of fresh chevre are magnificent on a sprig of garden basil with a sprinkle of fleur de sel and pepper.  My family would pop these in their mouth just like this~


Please don’t think of fresh goat cheese just for appetizers.  While I think it’s better in a more raw state than cooked, I used fresh lavender-honey goat cheese from Soledad at my dinner bash last summer, in a goast-cheese cheesecake, and it was the first dessert to be gone.  Tonight I made a plate for my parents with two scoops of the strawberry-cheesecake ice cream we have on hand, two pieces of nut fudge, and a ball of goat cheese.  Drizzled with chocolate and topped with a fresh violet.  Violets in classic times were the way to reveal your love.  They are also edible, and my sister and her girls will eat every flower I put on the plates, for garnish or not.  Sis also loves violets, and on Sunday I gave her this $3 plant from Trader Joes. The two blossoms I saved were put to good use this evening~


Dress it up more with a few pistachios.


This is all just what I have on hand, Imagine what we can do with a little taste of tangy-lemony goat cheese if we try!!

This will figure heavily in my summer menus.  Ounce per ounce, I think making this at home is better than buying at a farmers market; and my parents ate all of the samples I prepared tonight and are demanding more soon.  It’s a great food to have on hand for summer.  It will last about a week fresh, but you will have no problem consuming it by then.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A Berry Good Night in La Jolla

This is the second year that I have directed the table decor for a grand annual event in La Jolla.  I have styled a few other small events here, but this one is the largest of the year.  The host and hostess have a jaw-dropping estate, on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean with a view of prime beaches and downtown La Jolla.  They also happen to be among the nicest, most gracious and generous people one could ever meet, and routinely open their home to support non-profits and many worthy causes.  How would you like to see this view each day?~


This area of La Jolla is also well known for the paragliders that circle the bluffs.   Single or tandem, they glide by, far above the beach but just above the palm trees of the estate.  I’ve no desire to try this, but it looks like fun; there was a small bar area setup outside yesterday, next to this cliff, and as one glider passed close above, he shouted, “Make mine a Margarita!”


There is a beautiful courtyard on the inland side of the house, protected from the sun and ocean breezes, lushly planted with all sorts of shade plants and flowers.  The marble friezes and other art on the walls of the courtyard give just a hint of what lies inside the beautiful home: the owners’ collection of museum-quality tribal and Oceanic art. 


The  star of this party, however, is the garden.  It wraps around the bluff in a series of paths; this time of year, the agapanthus are in their glory.


The berries grown on the property are featured in the menu; hundreds and hundreds of vines are planted: many varieties of blackberry, boysenberry, blueberry and strawberry to start the list.  Each segment of the walk begs you to walk just a little farther and discover what is just out of sight; a feature of a wonderful garden.   I love this walk~


There are berries everywhere, including in hanging planters~


The edible section of the garden is noted as organic, and is densely planted with vegetables: in summer, kale, gourds, tomatoes, basil, corn and dozens of other plantings.  This perfect white gourd is the one in my French cookbook, hollowed out and filled with hummus, so I took a photo; the plants here are very happy and well-tended.


Looking back up the walk from the bottom of the vegetable garden, you can see how dense it is; full of lots of great stuff.  It is a small farm.


Looking up the coast, framed by flowering arugula~


You can find everything here, including plenty of citrus and stone fruits~


As well as chickens and a very large aviary full of dozens of tropical birds; yes, it’s a beautiful Toucan, in Southern California.  These birds are all lovingly attended~


OK but back to business.  It’s Berry night, and I had to get to work…


I had eight amazing helpers, and I first put them to work finishing the napkins while I sorted out the crates and the electric.  The last thing you want to do is cross anyone on the electrical setup, as no one wants to blow the power and by the day-of it’s all been tested.  Each of the eight dinner courses was paired with a wine, and this year as with last year, I wanted to display all the wines.  There was debate as to whether the power would be maxed out, but in the end, the men worked it out and the chief electrician gave it his blessing.  This shot was during setup~


Berries from the garden and lots of corks were used to accent the crates.


Each of the accessory tables were draped in my burlap sheets, and I taught the girls how to make a simple garland.  It’s so fun to teach those who are interested in how to use greens for decor.  I let the girls have some liberty in the choices; always best to encourage them and make it collaborative, as long as it meets my basic criteria.  Passion fruit works well, and we added blueberries.


There were 20 dining tables, which held bottles of balsamic, water, bread baskets, extra glasses, cutlery, napkins and various plates and a crachoir (spittoon in American vocabulary).   There was not a lot of room on the tables after all that.  Rather than the vases of flowers used in previous dinners,  I used cuttings from the extensive gardens as well as votives; a great match for this event and the estate; when you have a garden this vast, there is no need to buy flowers. Most of the tables were florally accessorized differently, with various flowers and herbs; I took so few photos, I was busy getting the tables done, even with a lot of help it just takes time.




I decided on a sprig of mint and a spike of flowering Thai basil to finish each of the napkins; these smelled wonderful and were tied with waxed linen twine from Beaune; the cutlery is inside; the bundle was set out on the menu card like this~


I ran around for several hours with my big straw hat and two baskets, cutting carefully from the garden and giving direction to my helpers and slowly getting through all the work to be done.  The wine presentation looked like this as the day ended~


The tables were set; vintage mismatched chairs were used, as well as benches; these looked great.


Bare-legged tables were covered in burlap, wrapped and pinned behind, and one of the girls helping me brought the top of the fabric over the top to show the fringe like this.  Love it!  I threw a grain sack from Burgundy on top, then a large vase of white agapanthus, iceberg roses, white oleander and more Thai basil flowers to tie in with the napkins.  A spray of rosemary, oleander, lavender were added last, with an apple from the garden as the “bow.”   It sounds simple, but it still takes time to put together.  This is the DJ/announcer’s table, where each chef explained their course.  I made a few adjustments after this pic, here it is coming together~


And at last, after 5pm, the guests started to arrive; they went on guided garden tours and picked berries in these baskets while I continued to run around to finish just one more little detail that I noticed.

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Along the tour guests were refreshed by lemon verbena water~


As well as lavender-lemonade~


Food stations included a fresh goat cheese with Myers lemon  and blueberry gelee~


as well as a signature and pretty cocktail~


The wait staff were all impeccable; can’t say enough about how helpful and nice with all were, to me as a stylist and a dinner guest!  You are going on my Pinterest page today!

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And as the sun set, the evening played out~



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Everyone took a seat, but was asked to move to a new table and meet new friends or greet old ones after every other course; there were eight.


The full moon was rising as the dinner continued~


Eight courses, all small but phenomenal, were served.  The food deserves another post, I can’t cover all of it here~


The wind had blown out the initial votive candles, and so I asked the staff to light them as it was now dark.


all I can tell you now is that the food was beautiful and creative and delicious…


What I didn’t say upfront is that while this dinner features berries, it is also a showcase for San Diego’s best farms and farmers.  All local, prepared by San Diego’s best chefs


The dessert included a strawberry shortcake with creme and berries, as well as a macaroon filled with a subtle habanero flavor.  Delicious!!


At the end of the meal, we had coffee, and everyone was in a relaxed mood, including the baby goat in attendance, here with my new friend Cara from Specialty Produce; I’m going to tour their facility soon!


I arrived home to Laguna after 1am, up at 6am and finishing up a long day in Laguna and feeling a little flat after such a busy weekend. Lot of photos here, I know, but there is so much to say about this wonderful event.