Sunday, July 31, 2011

Peach Cake BAKE-OFF!

I just L-O-V-E summertime dinner parties.  We're headed over to a friend's house tonight for dinner.  My girlfriend asked if I wouldn't mind bringing dessert.  As anyone who knows me, I'm always up for doing that!  I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to bring with me until my weekly shopping trip to Trader Joe's yesterday.  Much to my pleasure and joy, stacked almost to the ceiling were gorgeous peaches.  They looked delicious.

This got me thinking.  What about taking the scrumptious  Rustic Peach Cake I tried last weekend, a recipe I had gotten from a new favorite blogger Tracey's Culinary Adventures?  Or should I try Barefoot Contessa's "Fresh Peach Cake"?  Her recipes are always crowd-pleasers, don't get me started on her crazy Ultimate Brownies!

 OR, should I host my very own bake-off and have my girlfriend's dinner guests weigh in and help me pick which recipe is best?  Yeah, I thought so too...Bake-off it is!!  Ladies, warm up your ovens!

Luckily, both recipes have similar ingredients lists, which made things very easy.  The part that got challenging was managing to remember which bowls of measured ingredients were for which cake?!  If you try this at home, be careful not to mix things up!

In terms of which recipe was easier to get into the oven, I would have to say Barefoot Contessa's (BC). In my opinion, the recipe steps flowed better.  Preparation was key to having the Rustic Peach Cake happen easily.  This meant having to plan a little extra prep time (peach prep, cutting apricots etc).  If you're in a "hurry" (quotes because I dare you to find a good cake recipe, from scratch, that's quick - they all still bake for at least 30 minutes!), go with BC's recipe.  The prep for BC's peaches was just peel, pit, slice and go.  Whereas the Rustic Peach cake requires, blanching, mixing peaches in cinnamon and sugar, setting aside and working on another part of the recipe.  Overall, the difference is minimal but BC's just felt easier.

The smell while both of these cakes were baking was heavenly.  My kids and husband were going nuts. They couldn't wait for dinnertime.  Oh and speaking of nuts, BC's recipe called for pecans.  I decided to skip them because I couldn't remember if anyone going tonight had allergies.  If I had, I would've probably roasted them a little.  I'm sure they make a wonderful addition.

I should also mention that I made one little adjustment to both recipes.  I chose to use Penzey's Baking Spice, as opposed to cinnamon.  I find that any recipe calling for cinnamon can only benefit from having this mix of spices in it.  Baking Spice has Ceylon Cinnamon, China Cassia, ground Spanish Anise Seed, Mace and Cardamom.  I made this same substitution last week and everyone raved over the cake.  I think it's the surprise hint of Cardamom that does it every time.  We'll see what the group has to say tonight.

A baking note:  My 350 degree ovens required the full 55 minutes of baking time for BC's recipe.  The Rustic Peach cake only took 35 minutes to have golden brown edges and a springy middle.  Lastly, I must admit, I may have overbeaten the butter, eggs, sugar and vanilla for the Rustic Cake, making it a little less fluffy this week's version.  We're planning to serve it with some more of my neighbor's homemade mango gelato.  Can't wait to share everyone's comments!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Eating out in SF

Today I was asked by my good friend and neighbor for restaurant recommendations in San Francisco.  I had to share our exchange.  San Francisco is one of my top 3 cities.  I lived there for almost 11 years and they were the best!  If you're looking for some fun places to eat, here is what I'd suggest (mind you, things change quickly in the restaurant world in SF.  I recommend using the SF Chronicle top 100 as a great resource to check before you go.)  I would also recommend this excellent Twitter feed @bayareabites.  It's kept a foodie like me interested and excited about the constantly changing food scene in the Bay Area.  Here's the email exchange I had with my friend (she's an excellent food blogger called "LivLifeToo" - definitely check out her blog! Yummy stuff!)  Please feel free to share your recommendations with me.  I'm always looking for new places to try out while in one of the greatest cities on Earth!

LivLifeToo asks, "Just wondering if you have any recommendations for SF restaurants??  I'm at a loss.... we are staying in union square...."

Here's my response:
Here is the resource I use before we go to get an idea of what's hot and new (this list is compiled by some very astute restaurant critics):
I also follow @bayareabites on Twitter b/c they have their finger on the pulse of hot chefs who pop up as well as your food truck variety meals.
Here is the list of places we've been to recently and loved:
Absinthe - Hayes Valley $$$1/2.  Great french fusion food and OUTSTANDING cocktails to choose from.  We had about 6 different ones and all were amazing.  My halibut was to die for.
Slanted Door in the Ferry Bldg $$ - slow food vietnamese and OUTSTANDING cocktails & wine list. The chef is committed to local and delicious.  If you're short on time they also have a take out restaurant in the hip & cool food court in the bottom of the SF Shopping Center on Market and Powell.  It's called "Out the Door".  The food in that court is not your garden variety.  Check it out on here: 
Bix - Financial district $$$$.  Usually live jazz to go with your meal.  The food and drinks are amazing.  I know that sounds cliche but the atmosphere of that place feels like you've stepped back in time and are hanging out in an old jazz supper club.  The bartenders are long-time employees and know their stuff.
Betelnut - Fillmore/Marina neighborhood $$$ - incredible asian, tough table (and parking) to get but totally worth the challenge/effort. 
Zuni Cafe Upper Market $$$ - the chef we had (they change so who knows if you'll have the same one?) was very creative and I love the atmosphere and shape of the place.  It's tricky parking too.  Great service, delicious soups & salads, and sometimes there's music.  If I remember right?
Tartine - Mission $$ - if you are a true bread and dessert lover but also want a delicious breakfast, this is the place for you.  Not in a great area and the line can be long but I covet their baked goods.  The bread is legendary.  I wish my bread pudding turned out half as good.
And my last recommendation, based on a review I read (I'll retweet the article so you can also learn about possible farm tours, farmers markets that are cheaper than the Ferry Bldg (they see you coming), etc.)
Plow - Potrero Hill $$ - and here is the yelp listing:  (this place could be your kitchen!!)
Hope that helps get you started,

Saturday, July 2, 2011

yes, we're still in Europe...

Evan’s Entry #1

With apologies for the delayed entry… the Internet in Banyuls is thankfully the lowest priority… typed this on Saturday (Jun-25) & posting on Saturday (Jul-2)

Travel from home was gratefully uneventful – a mere 20 hours door-to-door from Carlsbad to our ‘cozy’ apartment in Paris Centre (best line from Jack: “Daddy, I’ve never had dinner on a plane before!”).  The only hitch was my intrepid idea to save money & time by taking a convenient train from the Paris airport.  A flawless plan until the brusque announcement at Gare du Nord that all passengers are to depart the train (still several stops from our desired station).  Must have been some construction or, more likely, chronic labor unrest – but regardless, we then upped the adventure by finding the Metro line & hauling our bags & kids (aka luggage with legs) down the Metro stairs & onto the crowded train to get to our stop.  So we still ended up saving money & time, and got some bonus cardio/strength training.  Anyway, now our kids are fully baptized city travelers!

The best part of Europe, apologies to the MSU Humanities dept., is the food… to wit my repast thus far:
-          Fagasse – a kind of French calzone stuffed with Gruyere & bacon
-          Onion Soup – no “French” prefix here; kids agape when their giant cheesy-hot-dogs arrive
-          Fondue – Beer & Emmenthal cheese
-          Comte & Dry Salami on baguette

-          Montmarte Les Progres (our new favorite) – Claudine’s Fish & Evan’s Chicken

-          Ham & Cheese Crepe (at 1 am!)
-          Cote de Provence Rose, Sancerre Blanc, St. Estephe Bordeaux

-          Éclair, Glacier Pistache, …
… and miraculously, the natives somehow fit into those little Smart-Cars

We’ve enjoyed a handful of family events during our four Paris days::
-          Notre Dame stroll during mass – our non-food senses excited by pipe organ, incense, & stained-glass… a candle placed in prayer for our friend Jan’s recovery
-          Luxembourg Garden playground – Jack staring at cute little girl speaking French to him…
-          Metro to Sacre Couer – one of many panoramas
-          hike up the Arc de Triomphe – Maggie counting out all 280 steps
-          River Seine boat trip – 10pm sunset; kids running around with friends Kaveh & Ayda; cramming through raucous La Fête de la Musique crowds in Latin Quarter on the way home
top of the Eiffel – best line from Maggie at the telescope “Daddy, I can’t see the Eiffel 
           Tower!” (her father’s silly humor)
-          languid Champs du Mars picnic (courtesy Rue Cler markets) & nap
-          60 min. in the Musee d’Orsay – Jack oddly transfixed by depiction of Dante’s Inferno

Typing this on the morning train to Perpignan in SW-France – the expansive wheat fields & white cattle rolling by evokes more baguettes & Gruyere awaiting.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Window shopping in Paris part 1

Shopping in Paris, well, is like an abundant feast for the senses.  It's no secret, I'm a shopping junkie.  I have loved shopping since I don't know when.  I went straight into professional buying after college for The Gap and have not slowed down since.  They have pretty big checkbooks at The Gap.  It was fun!  My husband is a pretty good sport about shopping in Paris.  He can get excited (he's going to cringe at that statement) about the eclectic mix of things to buy in Paris.  His tastes lean towards music, history, alcohol, and food.  Mine are all about color.  I cannot resist a Parisan shop window full of color.  I was looking at the pictures I took on our last trip to Paris without the kids and all of them have some sort of color arrangement that make the goods on display straddle the line between something to buy and something to eat.  It's inspiring. 

While my husband is a good sport, I'm often found short on time.  I could linger for hours.  Evan is good for 1-2, at most.  While here last spring, we wandered through the Montmatre area near Sacre Coeur Basilica.  The hilly area of town.  Great shopping, great cafes, and wonderful artists & musicians everywhere.  Upon returning home, we realized the photo we took of Le Consulat cafe was not so original.  Turns out, it's kind of like pictures of the Eiffel Tower.  Oh well, it inspired us, as much of Paris does. 

So back to shopping.  I've become obsessed with finding delicious shades of lipstick while I'm in Paris.  The women in Paris have show-stopping colors they wear.  I stopped into this vintage perfumerie shoppe and saw this whole book devoted to Lip Color.  

While there I picked up an adorable art deco-style perfume atomizer for Mom.  Evan had gotten one for me on a previous business trip from the famous macaroon and confectionery shop, Laduree.  It was a vanilla scent inside this sweet lilac-colored perfume bottle with a squeeze balloon thing to spray yourself with the perfume.  I feel like Betty from Mad Men every time I use it.

We walked further down the street and stopped by to pick up a business card from this playful lighting place.  I was imagining what my daughter Maggie's room would look like with these hanging down from the ceiling. 

Deeper into the heart of Montmatre we came upon what I would describe as the "Haight-Ashbury" area.  Eclectic shops selling things I love looking at but wouldn't have a need for.

I wish we had more stores like this near us.  I love the deer in this one.  It's very kitchy.

Yesterday while walking through the more upscale area of Saint-Germaine des Pres I had to take a double take at these windows.  A rainbow of ladies gloves.  It reminded me of the Steve Martin book, Shop Girl.  I wonder if they sell a lot of gloves?  I'm tempted...

Then, of course, you have to talk about the street vendors.  We took this shot for the kids because it's not often you can get your Moulin Rouge on AND buy some fresh cotton candy!

Shops selling colored delicious, it makes me want to buy it and learn how to do something with it!

Evan stood, mouth agape, at the "Gin, Vodka & Eaux de Vie" shop window. 

I haven't even gotten to the haute couture stores...we cruised into Hermes like we belonged there.  We were rubbing elbows with the ladies with Rolls Royces idling out front of the store.  It is a sight to behold.  YSL, Chanel, Dior...all beautiful.  It was crazy when we were here in March because it was Paris Fashion Week and it was also the time when legendary fashion visionary John Galliano had a tragic public meltdown.  As we walked by the windows at Dior, I marveled at the fabric choices and the beautiful accessories.  Wow!  Evan's colleague had recommended checking out La Perla, site of the infamous Galliano meltdown, so we stopped in to have a drink.  It's sick, I know.  If you are a fashion junkie like I am, you'd understand.  

National Lampoon's Parisian Family Vacation - day 1

Where do we begin about Paris with the family?  Talk about baptizing the kids by fire on the streets of Paris (our oldest is 8 and our youngest is 6 years old). We'll explain later in the post.

We let everyone nap and shower until around 4p after our 1pm arrival to the apartment.  We were trying to get everyone on the new time zone.  We ducked out, briefly, to the local boulanger to get fresh sandwiches for everyone.  We were famished.  After we'd eaten in our chic little Latin Quarter pied-a-terre, we took the kids for a short walk to Notre Dame.  We took the Pont Neuf route because we wanted the kids to see the River Seine.  They were wide-eyed and completely overwhelmed with the pace, the people, and the vast array of languages being spoken.  Jack, our youngest, really had trouble because in his whole life he's never had to worry about running into anyone who's walking in the opposite direction (in SoCal we drive everywhere).  Needless to say, he's quickly gotten a lesson in the pace of Paris and French people.  
Kids on the River Seine

We finally reached Notre Dame and the kids were amazed.  The 5:30p bells were ringing as we walked up and the tourists were out en masse.  We took a bunch of photos of everyone in front of the church.  We took a tour through the church which had a mass happening.  It was ethereal because a soloist was singing this melancholic rendition of a hymn while the Padre was swinging a smoking vessel through the air.  We stood watching for a while as the smoke wafted above the congregation into the ancient air of Notre Dame.  Evan's phone rang and he quickly jumped over to the side.  Our friends called to let us know they were all on bikes near the Louvre.  We made a quick plan to circle around the Eiffel Tower somewhere and try to hook up.
Notre Dame

We'll talk about the kids' first Metro ride later but needless to say, Jack is not a big fan of the people on the Metros of Paris.  We were on our way back down to the Metro to catch a ride to the Eiffel Tower as Jack started groaning, "Oh no, not the Metro again?!  It's too crowded!"  Little did/does he know it's going to be our mode of transportation for the next 4 days!  We made it to the Eiffel Tower, and we met our friends in a cute little cafe and had a glorious meal.  The kids got their first world famous, Parisian, cheesy hot dogs with frittes.  The adults enjoyed some much needed yummy Cote du Provence rose and Sancerre blanc wine with dinner.  Our friends casually mentioned during dinner that it happened to be the "Fete de Musique".  He went on to tell us it was the one night musical artists were allowed to perform on the streets of Paris without obtaining a permit.  
Cheesy Hot Dog avec Frittes

We finished dinner and made our way up a little alley to the sound of music in the park adjacent to the Eiffel Tower.  A great little cover band with some long-haired, hippy-looking Parisian youths were playing.  The kids ran around chasing each other in the little grassy area behind the band.  Our friend's 3-year old danced away to the musicWe all enjoyed watching everyone swigging their wine out of bottles while listening to the scratchy sound of music coming out of the garage band's makeshift Marshall stacks.  

It was starting to get late so we decided to head over to the Eiffel.  When we got to the base it started "sparkling" as our friend's toddler put it.  Our son, Jack, kept saying "Wow! Mommy!  Wow!" "Look, Mommy!".  You can imagine how stoked he was at seeing it for the first time in all its sparkling glory.  We took pictures and decided we'd better hit the Metro because Jack was getting crazy and tired.  
"Sparkling" Eiffel Tower at night

Once we reached the Metro we had an uneventful trip to our stop.  However, when we got off the train all we saw were mobs of people being held back by french Metro officials.  We couldn't figure it out.  Where did all these people come from?  Evan thought a show must have just gotten out or something.  Our apt is on the edge of the Latin Quarter so it wasn't that far-fetched an idea.  We struggled our way out of the Metro and once on the street started freaking out because the masses were EVERYWHERE!  It was "FETE du MUSIQUE" in Paris!  Again, we didn't realize exactly what this meant to the thousands of struggling French musicians.   For ONE night a year, ANY musician or ANY streetband can play ANYWHERE on the streets of Paris!!  We are staying literally near the epicenter of hip bohemian culture in Paris so every single corner we turned onto had a band playing on it.  Our kids had their feet barely touching the ground behind us as we hung tightly onto their hands just trying to get near our street.  Mind you, any normal person would have been excited to have this night happen while they're in Paris...for us it meant an extra 30-45 minute walk to get the already falling asleep kids home to bed.  As luck would have it, Maggie woke up at 11am this morning and said, "I really liked the one girl singer who was singing Bon Jovi, Mom."  Poor Jack didn't open his eyes until 1pm-ish.  Oh Paris...

Today we got our start at around 3pm.  We ate at a delicious Swiss mountain-themed place with yummy fondue.  The kids have never eaten food on a stick that you dunk into yummy goat cheese and french Emmenthal cheese with beer.  We took them to Luxembourg Gardens and they played for about  4 hours.  We stopped in at the local grocery store on the way home and grabbed a bunch of stuff to make an apartment picnic.  It's 10:30pm now and Maggie is busy reading a book to Jack in bed.  They are both complaining of sore feet.  Oh Paris...
Luxembourg Gardens

Evan and I are enjoying the last few drops of a delicious Sancerre Rouge wine we picked up to go with dinner.  Paris, as you would expect, has been amazing so far.  We'll post about the Street Art fair we accidentally walked through in front of Saint Sulpice later.  Tomorrow, if the weather holds up, we'll be on top of the Eiffel Tower (as promised to Jack before touching Paris' soil).  We plan on taking them to our favorite open air market on Rue Clare and then we'll have a family picnic in another great park - Champs du Mars.  We're teasing Jack that he has to walk up the Eiffel stairs, and that only his family gets to ride in the elevator.  He's saying it's going to be "no problem"!  Oh la la!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Paris - day 6 Montmarte - Sacre Coeur!!

Yesterday we went to an area of Paris called "Montmarte".  A very hilly area to walk around with cool shops and unique churches.  We wandered through alleyways that continued up hillsides with many, many stairs.  They even have a mode of transport called a "funiculaire", which is similar to a tram up and down a hill, for people who may struggle with the stairs.  I found out about this area in a stack of "Paris City Walks with Kids" cards that my friends gave me for Christmas.  We wanted to check it out to see if our kids would enjoy it this summer.  We think they'll absolutely love it. Although Evan could imagine our son whining to be carried, which he's gotten WAY too big to do, around halfway up to the top of the hill.
 So there were big winding hills (think San Francisco), stairs, parks, shops, cafes, artists, and a lot of street musicians.  We stopped in to check out the largest collection of Salvador Dali's work.  It was really amazing,  humorous and entertaining.  He was definitely a character!  I got so inspired by a set of sketches he did about the tragic love story of Tristan and Isolde that I bought the book on Amazon.  I am not familiar with the story so I'm looking forward to reading it after seeing Dali's inspired work. 

After the exhibit, we walked up and around to the Sacre Coeur or "Sacred Heart" basilica.  Wow!

We weren't able to take pictures inside which is a bummer because it's spectacular.  The building is known not only for it's location and architectural style but also for its incredible tile work.

One of the many alters that caught my eye had this beautiful lily pad strand running all along the top of the mantel.  The greens were so vivid and realistic.  As I walked up closer, I couldn't believe the artisan had used 12 mini tiles in varying shades of green to create each lily pad.  The lily pads were about 1" across, maybe a little smaller.  I've taken classes in mosaic and have a full appreciation for the work it takes to cut those tiles.  I counted at least 50 lily pads just on this alter.  I'm telling you, it's like nothing I've ever seen.
We made our way back down the stairs to grab some much needed lunch and do some shopping.  Pricing is much more favorable in this area as compared to near our hotel (the only drawback of staying in Saint-Germain area!).  We thought our son would have a blast making his way down these stairs.  Be careful of the bracelet sellers though!  There were a few men gathered near the exit who were trying to put some colored string around my wrist, wanting me to buy a bracelet they make while you wait.  I kept saying no but got really hounded by one in particular who wouldn't take no for an answer.
I won't go into shopping detail on this posting because that requires a part deux (part 2)!  There's so much to show and tell about the shopping in this area.  Even if you're not planning to spend any money the window shopping is spectacular!  Super fun!

I'll wrap up today's post with what we had for lunch.  We found this adorable place called Le Progres.  The place was bustling and we now know why.  They have a fairly simple menu.  We opted for the "Formulaire" or their prix fixe menu for lunch. 

I got the white fish fillet served with red rice and a delicious white wine sauce. 

Evan chose the leg of lamb marinated in what they called an "american sauce" that he described as tasting like a rich french gravy made from stock.  This "bone-in" piece of meat was served over a creamed polenta.  It was delicious!!! 

We indulged in a 50mL (well maybe it was 75mL :)) carafe of yummy Cote du Rhone Rose.
and since I had ordered the "plat + dessert" (Evan got the "entree + plat") we also got to split our first french creme brulee.  Well, after Evan took his first bite, he quickly cracked a line down the middle to make sure it would get evenly split.  It was outstanding.  They had warmed it in a hot water bath and had scorched the sugar just before serving.  It was soooo good!  Here is the line he drew and his reaction to "our" dessert.
Oh and finally, I had to share this picture.  I took this without the woman's permission.  Hopefully she never reads my blog.  If not, "je regrette infiniment!"  I just love how parisian women are bold in their fashion choices.  This particular outfit (black furry beret, tight sweater with a cherry-printed corset, a glen plaid pencil skirt, fish net stockings and black pumps that had red bows around the ankles!) is somewhat of a parisian cliche but in a way she complete pulls it off!  So I say, "allez!"

That is all from Paris for today.  We're off to our last dinner before we leave tomorrow.  I'm happy to be heading home but will fondly remember this trip as one of our best.  We are looking forward to coming back with the whole family this summer!  Bon soir, mes amis!