Love in the Time of Coriander

Thoughts on food & more.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Vegan Treats

Vegan Pumpkin Cheesecake with Sugary Pecan Sauce Posted by Picasa

In exchange for subjecting herself to prodding and poking with psychological instruments, I made my participant a treat. I offered to pay her, but the thought of money didn't entice her as much as the prospect of a vegan cheesecake. Just my luck -- I get a chance to bake! I did a good job of amending a recipe from a recent issue of Bon Appetit to suit the vegan lifestyle without compromising the ultimate flirt with the palate, a trait which, in my opinion, is what defines the cheesecake.

Here's the recipe:

1 1/2 cup pecans, toasted, cooled
3 tablespoons golden brown sugar
3 tablespoons margarine
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

3 8-oz packages of Plain Tofutti
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel
Egg replacer for 4 eggs (I used the EnerG brand, which is great for baking)
1 15-oz can pure pumpkin
1/2 cup plain soy yogurt (this is debatably vegan since it has live cultures in it, you could substitute with a little bit of soy milk maybe?)
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
Large pinch of salt

1 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
1/2 cup soy yogurt
6 tablespoons margarine
1 1/2 cups pecan, toasted, cooled

For Crust:
Preheat over to 350 F. Butter 9-inch springform pan. Grind first 4 ingredients in processor until nut mixture sticks together. Press evenly onto bottom of pan. Bake crust until golden, about 15 minutes. Cool completely. Wrap outside of pan in triple layer of heavy-duty foil.

For Filling:
Using mixer, beat Tofutti, sugar, and lemon peel in large bowl until smooth. Beat in egg replacer, then pumpkin, yogurt, flour, vanilla, spices, and salt. Pour into pan. Set springform pan in roasting pan. Pour enough hot water into roasting pan to come halfway up sides of cheesecake. Place in over. Bake until outer 3 inches puff slightly and center is softly set, about 1 hour 15 minutes. Remove from water. Cut around sides of cake to loosen. Refrigerate in pan until cold, about 4 hours. Cover and chill overnight.

For Sauce:
Melt sugar and margarine in medium saucepan until sugar dissolves. Add toasted pecans, then yogurt. Stir and cool. Remove foil. Cut around springform pan sides, remove sides. Spoon sauce over the cheesecake. Serve.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Thirty & Dirty

That's what it says on a shirt that my friend, Anne, was given for her big 3-0. This is the year for me, and the date is actually exactly three weeks from today. I remember when I was 12, I thought by the time the year 2000 had come around that I'd be hitched and, at the very least, knocked up. Alas, it seems that I am finally hitched (wow, can you believe I made it under the "30" radar?!?) but definitely not putting any non-flour buns in the oven anytime soon.

To celebrate the occassion of this momentous day, I told E that he'd have to give me 30 little "gifts"--not necessarily monetary--to commemorate me. He's already suprised me with one: the cute (Otsu vegan) t-shirt featuring a selection of dainty mushrooms pictured here. Of course, the gifts I'm most excited about are the tongue-enticing ones! E has promised a foray to somewhere -- maybe we'll return to the delicious olive-oil rich bocadillos at Cesar or try the Rockridge's rave of Oliveto! Regardless, that my restaurant-phobic hubbie is taking me out is cause to celebrate. I mean, come on, if turning 30 doesn't get him to do it, what will. Right?

I've also got the thought--time permitting--to make many lovely dessert treats. This is the year to make 3 (one for every decade) birthday cakes for myself. Not just ordinary cakes, but the sort that line the glass cases of Citizen Cake. Absolutely perfect! Absolutely fabulous! All decadent goodness! (I am obsessed with coconut shag, especially!) If any of you out there have many brewing ideas for the perfect cake, please send them along. I'm taking notes! I'd also like to hone my not-so-hot frosting skills. It's so "old school" but handling a tube like a master, piping out colorful, quaint sugary flowers, is something put on your resume. Perhaps old school is the just the ticket for this practically over-the-hill event.

To continue the spirit of my fogie-ness, I am attempting to learn the words to "Churaliya," desperately hoping to sing my heart out, desperately trying to conjure the lovely spirit (and she is quite a spirited person!) of the 72-year old Asha Bhosle. Though I'm years younger than her, I'll simply never (heredity did not bless me in this respect) be able to croon the way she does. Cheers to her! By the way, for those of you who haven't yet done so, pick up a copy of the new Kronos Quartet homage to Bhosle & Burman. You won't be sorry.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Emotionally Yours

I don't want anyone to think that I have completely lost interest in visual imagery. Moreover, I want to make it clear that I'll be trying to commit myself soon to helping the aesthetically disabled aspect of my blog become rehabilitated. If only I could carve out a chunk of time . . .

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Ending the Debate of Chocolate or Sex

E & I received these lovely chocolates as a wedding gift from a good friend, Jen Hofer. She had purchased them from a place in Sante Fe called Todos Santos. Apparently, they do other special stuff, such as making religious, especially Catholic, imagery in chocolate, too. Hence, the name: Todos Santos.

I've looked up the company online, but they are--to use a neologism I just learned on an episode of NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me"--ungoogelable. Well, that's not quite true. There are a few posts about them, but they don't have a website. Perhaps that means they are unwebsiteable.

Trouble is, the chocolates are so stunning that we're hesitant to consume them. After having sat in the fridge for two months, brought out to be paraded among friends who echo our admiration for such artisty but don't dare to partake of them, I finally initiated eating one of the positions. I chose the one on the upper far right (what does that say about me!), while E ate the "wheelbarrow" in the lower right corner. Friends have suggested we try and perform the positions before consuming them. But in case you hadn't notice, that would require inviting a few extra folks over. . .

This Just In

My friend, Leon Lee, sent this along. At first glimpse I find myself gawking at the idea of such rigid "scientific method" study of food. On the other hand, isn't it always fun to hear about the huge gap between our folk knowledge and what research tells us? Who knew that Iron Chef had science behind its eccentric combos . . .

Food: his passion, his science
Hervé This, a French researcher, helps chefs around the world really sizzle

By Émilie Boyer King Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

PARIS - Cooking a cheese soufflé can be tricky. Despite following the recipe meticulously, using the finest ingredients, and heating the oven to the perfect temperature, you can still end up with a cheese cookie instead of a fluffy, brown-topped soufflé intended to impress your guests. The result, it seems, is often arbitrary.

But help is at hand. Tucked away in their laboratories, a bunch of dedicated scientific foodies are toiling away to solve the soufflé problem and other culinary conundrums: Should jam be cooked in a copper pan? When gnocchi come floating to the surface of boiling water, does that mean they are cooked? Molecular gastronomy - a branch of food science that focuses on cooking and food preparation (rather than on the chemical makeup of food, as traditional food science tends to do) - has the answers.

The term molecular gastronomy was coined in the 1980s by a French scientist, Hervé This, and Nicholas Kurti, who was a professor of physics at Oxford University in England. Both men were interested in food science, but they felt that empirical knowledge and tradition were as important in cooking as rational understanding.

"We realized there was a growing gap between food science and home cooking," remembers Dr. This, who, since 1995, has worked at the prestigious Collège de France in central Paris, perhaps one of the only science labs in the world to smell of freshly baked cake. "Classic food science ... succeeded in giving the Western populations enough to eat. But it slowly became more interested in food than in cooking."

So This, whose training was in physical chemistry, an area of research that spills into both chemistry and physics, began casting a scientific eye on cookbooks. He started by collecting food-related sayings and old wives' tales to find out if there were a rational explanation behind them.

"Some people think a law is a law. But if a law doesn't work, then you change it. Some traditions don't work, and so you have to change them," This says.

For instance, should roast beef be covered with mustard an hour before putting it in the oven, as an 18th-century cookbook suggests? Should the head of a suckling pig be cut as soon as it is taken out of the oven - so that the skin won't lose its crunch? To this day, This has recorded more than 10,000 adages, each of which he jots down in a notebook. He tries to test as many sayings as possible, and after many lab experiments and a number of failed dinner parties, he has managed to disprove (as with the examples above) or improve upon many maxims.

For This and his colleagues, working in close collaboration with cooks is essential, and This regularly teams up with chefs to exchange information. Every month, he picks a theme based on his research and challenges his friend, three-star French chef Pierre Gagnaire, to invent a recipe from it.

"We work very hard, and Hervé's research helps us to find new perspectives," says Gagnaire, who is known for his innovative cuisine and food combinations.

As a result of this crossover between science and cooking, outstanding restaurants around the world are serving unusual dishes such as tobacco-flavored ice cream made with liquid nitrogen and sardines on sorbet toast. Utensils such as blowtorches, pH meters, and refractometers, which were previously relegated to science laboratories, are now creeping into the kitchen.

Heston Blumenthal, chef at the Fat Duck restaurant at Bray-on-Thames in England, has long been interested in the use of science for cooking, and works closely with molecular gastronomists.

"In late 1999, one of the most widely reported of our discoveries was the combination of caviar and white chocolate," says Chef Blumenthal. "I demonstrated this combination to one of the world's leading flavorists, who was amazed at the marriage.... He went off and came back with a printout [of the chemical makeup] of cocoa and caviar, and surely enough, they both contained high levels of amines.

"This's research helps the Fat Duck staff blend some unusual ingredients. Spice bread ice cream and crab syrup, smoked bacon and egg ice cream served with French toast and tomato jam, and oysters and passion-fruit jelly are a few examples. They may sound odd, but these are winning combinations. Last month the Fat Duck was awarded three Michelin stars, one of only two restaurants in Britain to hold this distinction.

Scientists and chefs alike believe that with the help of science, cooking can be improved. "One of the best ways of standardizing techniques is to use science as a starting point," says chef and cooking teacher Neil Armstrong. "A comprehension of these more scientific principles prior to a practical breadmaking demonstration, for example, enhances understanding and allows the student to understand how successful bread can be made."

In his book "Une Théorie du Goût" ("A Theory of Taste," 1999), This described a set of basic cooking rules, based on his scientific research, to help the chef and everyday cook. The rule of juxtaposition, for example, explains that one ingredient will seem tasteless if it is served with another, more tasty ingredient. Conversely, the flavorful ingredient's taste will be sharpened.

Another rule, the law of dominance, states that an ingredient with a dominant taste (a very sweet-tasting ingredient such as chocolate, for instance) must always be "awakened" by an ingredient with another dominant taste (an acidic food, for example). This principle is confirmed by the popular combination of orange and chocolate.

Molecular gastronomy is gaining momentum throughout Europe. The INRA, France's national agronomic research institute, has made this science a discipline in its own right. The European Union recently backed a three-year research project, Inicon, which is developing innovative technologies to help modernize cooking. And in Italy, the ecological group the Slow Food movement will open a university this year, the first one devoted to academic courses on food. The new University of Gastronomic Sciences will offer topics ranging from the principles of sensory evaluation to nutrition.

Recently, This was awarded an honorary medal by the French government for his services to French culture. But for This, his work has only just begun. Referring to his old friend Pierre Gagnaire, he explains his motivation: "Pierre laughs when I tell him this, he thinks I am far too ambitious. But my real aim is for cooking, by the time I die, to have become far better than it is now."

For the less ambitious, a little scientific help in the kitchen can go a long way, starting with how to make the perfect soufflé. The key, This says, is to heat it from the bottom up to let evaporating water from the cheese and eggs push the soufflé mixture upward. The egg whites must be whipped as firmly as possible so that air bubbles move more slowly through the mixture, pushing it up higher.

Success is guaranteed because the recipe has been tested - scientifically.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

This American Life

In the spirit of Ira Glass' brilliant show . . .

Act 1

Has it really been two weeks? Secretly, it feels like I've been away much longer than that.

As I wrote in my previous post, I've been struggling with the balance of blogging about food with the other writing-related endeavors and multiple school responsibilities. I've begun my work again this year as a therapist-in-training. Most of the time, I find it exciting to be given a wonderful window into the struggles that people face. It leaves me in a state of awe and humility. That people actually thrive amidst such trying circumstances encourages me. My own petty worries (of having gained an extra five pounds, for instance) seem miniscule in relation to more elemental concerns of safety and health.

At my brother's engagement party at MacArthur Park, I recently bumped into an eccentric cousin, Chandrakanth. In the middle his second pint of beer, he assured me that he was getting drunk to celebrate his health. Only three days prior, he laid in a hospital bed with a throat infection so serious that he had to be fed nutrients through IVs. Perhaps because his brain froze in the delirium of dehydration, it slipped his mind to call us and let us know that he needed help! Having recovered from near death, he has vowed never to forget the little things, like being able to take a sip of water (or beer). While I think our minds don't hold onto this wisdom very long, I think it's good to be temporarily given a new vantage point.

Don't think I forget how lucky I am to enjoy the pleasures offered to me, especially those things that we swallow to make us whole. When I look at it that way, what's an extra five pounds?

Act 2

The other reason I've been avoiding the blogosphere is because I've felt inspiration dry. Like a foodie sleuth, I've been hoping to uncover a thing or two. But nothing. Well, maybe there was the noodle house on Telegraph, Slurp, that used to be Berkeley Korean BBQ. E & I had solid bowls of soup, cheap and warm enough to make it worth another visit. But our bickering over my unhealthy craving of potstickers made the evening better left forgotten.

Oh, yes! There was another highlight. Niki and Ra'ed have recently moved to the hood, closing the gap from ten thousand miles away to a mere five. We dined on a middle Eastern feast with them. Highlights included Niki's loving attention to my dug yearnings (a Persian version of salt sodas made with yogurt instead of our carbonated water) and eating lavosh with olive oil and zatar (a combination of thyme and sesame seeds). The combo reminded me of the podis (powders) that we of the Telugu persuasion love! Though chutneys are surely fun, Sami's and my favorite accompaniment to idlis and dosas has been melted butter and chutney poddi, a mysterious blend of roasted lentils with a tad bit of sugar. This, my friends, is regional variation at its finest. (I loved the zatar so much that Ra'ed poured a cup of it into a baggie and sent me on my merry way.)

The nadir was most definitely Berkeley's "Spice of Life" festival. With a muse-like nymph on the advert and a title whose play-on-words suggested food, I thought for sure I'd be entering into the territory of serious, Roman-style decadence. Instead, North Shattuck Avenue, which has earned its moniker as "The Gourmet Ghetto" for careful attention to food (Chez Panisse, The Cheeseboard, Cesar, Cha-Am, Gregoire's, Saul's, Le Coco, Cha-ya and more), was no more than an amusement park. Grilled corn sold for $4 an ear! We, stupidly hungry folk, succumbed to a $5 pupusa topped with less than a teaspoon of fresh salsa.

Supposedly, there were also cooking demos from chefs at Bistro Liaison, the soon-to-be cooking school Kitchen on Fire, and others. We made our way through waddling children and hippy jewelry booths (shouldn't there be laws prohibiting these folks from leaving Telegraph?) to arrive at the demo tent, hoping to watch an agile and creative soul concoct something sublime. But zero, nada, zilch was happening.

Eventually, after taking in a few bites of overpriced food and finding nothing else of value along Shattuck, we managed to salvage our day with a bite of a pumpkin cupcake topped with a near-perfect cream cheese frosting at Love at First Bite. Then, we made our way back down the hill.

Act 3

I forget the famous literary mind who said it, but it went something like "If you introduce a gun in the first act, it's got to go off by the end of the play." Like Chandrakanth, I, too, am celebrating my life. Especially as the days move closer and closer to my 30th birthday, I will be honoring my friends and my family with food, carefully planning the meals that I will make (and consume) and those who will surround me to share them.

This, both my approaching birthday and my craving for the world, is a bittersweet reminder of my father. A man otherwise led by his mind and his tongue (like me), his desire to ingest knowledge and food had waned so considerably in his last days that he was not the same man. Though I didn't want to believe it at the time, these were indicators that his life was coming to its close. I used to believe that symbolism, though deeply beautiful, only happened in books, plays, movies. At the end of this month, he would have turned 55. I celebrate his birthday and mine.