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snack redefined

18 October 2011

dj

at the onset of this year’s late summer, our property transformed into Watership Down. rabbits of all sizes converged to scamper and graze on freshly mown grass and tasty (from what i’ve heard) green offshoots. the young rabbits hid timidly behind bushes and boulders, as i ushered the dogs out the front door for a trot around the yard; the elders briefly looked up, then boldly continued to munch on their greens. this rabbit dance went on for months. then, the first cold snap arrived, and the population went underground. oh, every now and then i see a little cottontail scurrying into the woods. but for the most part, it’s a ghost town. well, until the hootenanny.

it began last Friday night, when a great horned owl announced he’d moved into the hood. every night (and all night) since, he’s proclaimed his presence. it doesn’t take great intellect or insight to ascertain why owl arrived and how our homey little habitat came to be advertised by the Welcome Wagon.

in the summer of 2010, our human neighbor to the north and west started demolishing trees. not just underbrush, but full-size cedars, alders and cottonwoods. day and night. crash. boom. earth- and ear-shattering thuds. soon, the summer ended, peace was  restored and the rainy season began. i prayed his big heavy, yellow equipment would rust. five or so inches of water sat on top of the grass i’d babied for the previous five years. the disruption to soil caused water to drain like a babbling brook across the gently sloping backyard. with the arrival of spring came birds. i felt like i was in a Hitchcock film. summer brought more bulldozing (who would have imagined the eight acres next door still had any trees left?). more rabbits. woodpeckers. mice. moles. wait, where were the locusts?? oh, that must be what’s on tap for next summer.

today, i’m putting out the welcome mat for owl. and i giddily hope the human neighbor who completely disrupted the habitat will be the big bird’s first snack.

speaking of snacks, here’s a treat that’s great any time of year. i made it this summer with loganberries and with huckleberries (i’ve never had fresh huckleberries; they were awesome!!). it’s not too sweet. delicious for breakfast or a late-night bite. woo-hooooooo.

Classic Buttermilk Coffee Cake
a very slight variation on a recipe from molly katzen’s sunlight cafe 

INGREDIENTS
organic everything

for the fruit
2 cups fruit (i use berries or rhubarb)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

non-stick spray or a tablespoon of melted butter

for the batter
1/2 cup (1 stick ) butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup buttermilk

for the topping
use 1/3 of this topping recipe OR
1/3 of this topping recipe  OR
no topping at all

DIRECTIONS

  1. in a small bowl, toss the 2 cups fruit, 2 tablespoons sugar and 1 tablespoon flour; set aside.
  2. preheat the oven to 350F (metal) or 325F (glass).
  3. spray or butter an 8-inch round or square pan; set aside.
  4. in the large bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter for several minutes at high speed.
  5. add the sugar, and beat for several minutes longer.
  6. add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each, then beat in the vanilla.
  7. in a medium bowl, combine the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda; slowly mix together with a whisk.
  8. add the dry ingredients in 3 installments to the butter mixture, alternating with the buttermilk; begin and end with the dry ingredients.
  9. after each addition, use a spatula to stir from the bottom of the bowl just enough to blend. be sure not to over mix!
  10. transfer 1/2 the batter to the prepared pan, and spread evenly.
  11. spread the fruit mixture evenly over the batter.
  12. add the second half of batter to the pan, and spread evenly.
  13. sprinkle your topping of choice over the batter.
  14. bake the cake on the middle rack of the oven for 20 – 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted all the way into the center comes out clean.
  15. cool for at least 15 minutes before cutting and serving.

whoopie – Winnie turns 98!

5 September 2011

dj

today, Winnie the English bull terrier turns 98. that’s 14 in people years. she’s as spirited and demanding as she was at three months, when she first became a member of our family. yeah, sometimes she forgets things. like why she was walking down the hallway. but who doesn’t? she’d rather snatch a little nap before dinner, instead of gnawing on some rubbery-tasting toy. but who wouldn’t? and if she can look pitiful and manipulate someone into giving her part of his/her dinner, well, who could blame her?

Winnie spent the afternoon sunning on the deck and taking a spritely jaunt around the yard. tonight we’re serving her an appetizer of flax treats, followed by a course of organic dog chow sprinkled with pieces of  organic flank steak. for dessert? a slurp of vanilla ice cream. only a slurp, so she can retain her girlish figure. she’ll be in bed by 7:00. but who wouldn’t, after such a glorious day?

the humans took their hats off to Winnie by baking and consuming a few too many whoopie pies; you’ll find the delightful recipe below.

many happy returns of the day, pumpkin! my life and cherry coffee table wouldn’t have been the same without you.

Chocolate Whoopie Pie with Mint Buttercream Filling
a variation on a recipe found in whoopie pies by Sarah Billingsley and Amy Treadwell
a really cool whoopie pie cookbook 

makes about 40 2-inch cakes = 20 2-inch whoopie pies

INGREDIENTS

for the cakes
1 2/3 cups organic all-purpose flour
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (i use Scharffen Berger)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons organic butter, at room temperature
4 tablespoons organic vegetable shortening (i use Spectrum)
1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk

for the filling
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
4 tablespoons organic butter, at room temperature
3 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon mint extract
1/4 teaspoon salt

DIRECTIONS

  1. preheat oven to 350F.
  2. line two baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside.
  3. in a small bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt; set aside.
  4. in the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter, shortening and brown sugar on low speed until just combined.
  5. increase the mixer speed to medium and beat until fluffy and smooth, about 3 minutes.
  6. add the egg and vanilla; beat for another 2 minutes.
  7. add half the flour mixture and half the buttermilk to the batter in the work bowl and beat on low until incorporated.
  8. scrape down the sides of the bowl.
  9. add the remaining flour mixture and the last 1/2 cup of buttermilk, then beat until completely combined.
  10. using a 1-tablespoon cookie scoop, drop the batter one tablespoon at a time onto the prepared baking sheets, spacing the cakes at least 2 inches apart.
  11. bake one sheet at a time for about 10 minutes each, or until the cakes spring back when pressed gently.
  12. remove from the oven, and let the cakes cool on the baking sheet for about 5 minutes, before transferring to a rack to cool completely.
  13. to make the filling, in the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat together the confectioners’ sugar and the butter, beginning on low and increasing to medium speed, until the mixture is crumbly, about 1 minute.
  14. add the heavy cream, vanilla, mint extract and salt.
  15. beat on high until smooth, about 3 minutes.
  16. to assemble the cakes, spread the filling onto the flat side of one of the cakes using a knife, spoon or pastry bag with a round tip to pipe the filling.
  17. top with another cake, flat-side down.
  18. repeat with the rest of the cakes and filling.
down cakes with a tall glass of icy-cold whole milk.

ode to tomatoes

16 August 2011

dj

thick, juicy slices of deep red summer tomatoes
artfully sprinkled with sea salt
dribble down our chins
and splash onto shiny gold and white Formica
got napkin?

a summer celebration
begin with a base of zesty pepper – parmesan crust. top it with a layer of light, fluffy chèvre from Bow, Washington’s Gothberg Farms. and then a layer of basil-pecan pesto. finally, a layer of gorgeous heirloom tomatoes, roasted low and slow in the oven. that’s the heirloom tomato tart. poetic, indeed.

missing the mother-daughter tomato-eating ritual this summer, ma. can’t say the same for your ’50s-chic Formica.

Roasted Heirloom Tomato Tart
a mashup of recipes adapted from epicurious and Ashleigh Rodriguez’s beautiful not without salt blog
makes one 9-inch tart

INGREDIENTS

roast the tomatoes in advance
2 – 3 firm, medium-size heirloom tomatoes (this may leave you with extra slices, but that’s not  a bad thing)
olive oil
sea salt

for the crust 
1 cup organic all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 stick good-quality butter, very cold, cut into 8 pieces
2 cups grated parmesan (i use Parrano)
2 tablespoons ice water

for the pesto (this will leave enough left over for pasta!)
3 garlic cloves
1/2 cup pecans (or nuts of your choice)
2/3 cup parmigiano-reggiano, coarsely ground (again, i use Parrano)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
3 cups loosely packed, fresh basil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

for the rest
8 oz chèvre at room temperature
fleur del sel
freshly cracked pepper

DIRECTIONS

  1. preheat oven to 225F
  2. cover a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  3. slice tomatoes ¼-inch thick; place on baking sheet.
  4. drizzle olive oil lightly over tomatoes; sprinkle lightly with salt.
  5. roast tomatoes for approximately 4 hours or, as Ashleigh instructs, until shriveled around the edge while still maintaining a bit of juice.
  6. refrigerate the tomatoes in a container overnight.
  7. day two, prepare the crust.
  8. in the bowl of a food processor, combine flour, salt, pepper, butter, and cheese, pulsing quickly to get a coarse texture, with some pea-size butter pieces remaining.
  9. with a few speedy pulses, incorporate the ice water until the dough begins to form and sticks together, when pinched between your fingers.
  10. press dough into your tart pan, evenly across the bottom and up until you reach the top of the sides.
  11. chill the dough in the frig for 15 minutes.
  12. preheat the oven to 350F.
  13. remove the tart pan from the frig, and prick a few times with a fork.
  14. cover the tart with non-stick foil, and fill with pie weights or dry beans.
  15. place the tart on a baking sheet, then on the middle oven rack.
  16. bake for 15 minutes.
  17. remove tart from oven, and carefully remove the foil and pie weights (these will be hot!).
  18. return the uncovered tart to the oven for another 10 minutes, or until golden brown; let cool completely.
  19. to make the pesto, drop the garlic into a bowl of a food processor and finely chop.
  20. stop the food processor and add nuts, cheese, salt, pepper, and basil; process  until finely chopped.
  21. add lemon juice.
  22. with motor running, add olive oil, blending until incorporated; set aside.
  23. now for assembly!
  24. spread an even layer of chèvre over the surface of the cooled tart shell.
  25. spread an even layer of pesto over the chèvre.
  26. top the chèvre with as many roasted heirloom tomato slices as you deem artistically appropriate.
  27. top with sprinkles of fleur de sel and freshly cracked pepper.
toss on a few basil leaves, and call it good. very good.

strawberry fields and bikes forever

7 August 2011

dj

i didn’t learn to drive until i was 21. while  all my high school friends gleefully participated in drivers’ training, i hiked or biked. on those rare occasions that i needed a lift, my dad, then semi-retired, willingly obliged. i think he was just happy to get out of the house. he shuttled me to Saturday morning football games, where i played piccolo in the marching band. as an undergraduate living in Denver, i relied on my beloved, baby blue Gitane Mixte 10-speed for transportation; she and i were one. even when i got knocked off by a car driving too close to the curb. helmets? back then, we didn’t need no stinking helmets. well, we did. but i don’t think there was any such thing. regardless, we both survived and went on to have many wonderful adventures together. like this one.

soon after i earned my undergraduate degree, i returned to New England. by then, i’d learned to drive. bless my friend Janet for the grace and patience to teach me how to manage a stick. but early on this sunny summer morning, i headed out with a co-worker to pick strawberries. cars? we didn’t need no stinking cars. we hopped on our trusty bicycles, donning knapsacks in which we planned to stow our precious cargo. five miles later, we arrived at the farm.

we began picking berries, gingerly placing them in our baskets. when one basket became full, we grabbed another. we were having so much fun, we hadn’t noticed the temperature had risen. it was hot. and muggy. we paid for the strawberries and went to load our packs. gulp. how were we going to get all of these back to the house?  carefully and strategically, we maneuvered the strawberry containers into the packs and placed the rest in the front basket of Susan’s old touring bike.

the canvas packs, heavily laden with strawberries, slowed our ride. both in great shape, even we gritted our teeth as we pedaled over the hilly streets. of course, we eventually made it back to my parent’s place. packs stuck to our shirts, shirts stuck to our skin. we looked at each other, grinned and unloaded the berries. i gave most of them to Susan, keeping just enough for me, mom and dad. i didn’t bake much then, but wish i had. because i would have been able to make the amazingly rich and flavorful strawberry pie recipe that follows, courtesy of Emily and Melissa Elsen of Four & Twenty Blackbirds.

these days, i buy Washington strawberries from local farms. no more pickin’ and haulin’ them home on my bike. i ride when i can, and i still love to feel the wind through my hair. even if it’s through the vents of a Giro.

Four & Twenty Blackbirds’ Strawberry Balsamic Pie
a recipe generously shared by pie goddesses Emily and Melissa Elsen
makes one delicious, 9-inch pie

INGREDIENTS

for the crust (after years of searching, Emily and Melissa’s crust recipe is the best ever)
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 pound (two sticks) of good-quality butter, very cold, chopped
1/8 cup of sugar
3/4 tsp spoon salt
1/2 cup (or more if needed) ice water
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

for the filling: step one (presoak)
four to six cups of in-season, ripe strawberries, washed and quartered
1/4 cup white sugar
1/4 tsp salt

for the filling: step two
1/4 cup cornstarch
3/4 cups brown sugar
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
a dash or two of Angostura Bitters
several fine grinds fresh black pepper

to prepare the pie pan
1 tablespoon flour
2 tablespoons sugar

for the topping
1 egg
1 tsp heavy cream
1 tablespoon raw sugar

DIRECTIONS

  1. whisk together the dry ingredients.
  2. with a pastry blender, combine the dry ingredients with the cold, chopped butter; be careful not to overwork.
  3. combine the ice water and vinegar; slowly add to the butter mixture by hand, being careful not to overwork.
  4. divide the pie dough into two discs, wrap in plastic and chill for at least one hour.
  5. coat the cleaned, sliced strawberries with the 1/4 cup white sugar and 1/4 tsp salt; let soak for at least one hour, up to 3 hours. (the pre-soak stage will help release some of the juices from the berries and yield a less watery pie.)
  6. after soaking, drain the berries thoroughly and place in a large mixing bowl.
  7. combine the berries with the balsamic vinegar.
  8. add the Angostura Bitters and black pepper.
  9. add the brown sugar and cornstarch; combine gently and set aside.
  10. roll out one disc of dough and place in pie pan.
  11. dust the bottom of the crust with the tablespoon flour and 2 tablespoons of sugar.
  12. using a slotted spoon, scoop the filling from the bowl, allowing each scoop to drain most of its liquid before placing into the pie shell.
  13. continue filling the pie shell until it’s even with the top edge of the pie pan.
  14. roll out the second disc of dough and cut into 7 – 8 strips.
  15. weave the strips on top of the pie, forming a lattice.
  16. preheat oven to 400F.
  17. while the oven is heating, whisk the egg and cream.
  18. with a pastry brush, coat the entire top of the pie with the egg mixture.
  19. sprinkle the top of the pie generously with raw sugar.
  20. place the pie on a cookie sheet (critical step to keeping your oven free from burning pie filling).
  21. bake for 20 minutes at 400F on the bottom oven rack.
  22. reduce heat to 350F, and bake on the middle oven rack for 35 – 45 minutes more, checking for browning throughout the baking process.
  23. if the crust edge begins to brown too much, gently cover the pie with foil.
  24. the pie is done when filling begins to bubble, and the crust is golden brown.

allow to cool before slicing and devouring.

little bird baking company takes flight

29 July 2011

dj

some things never change. like my commitment to following my own true north. consistently choosing that road not taken has likely taken me considerably longer than most would care to tread. but i’ve strived to savor the journey. guided by that true north—inspired by and celebrating my mom—i plan to spend more time blazing trails in my kitchen, bringing little bird baking company to life.

my mom was witty. hip. smart. generous. warm. funny. with a wicked sweet tooth and an equally wicked New England stubborn streak. with an open heart, she embraced and enchanted nearly everyone she met. from the beginning until the very end, my mom was my champion and confidante. it is in her honor—and with gratitude and love—that i dedicate little bird baking company.

for a while, i’ll be practicing tried-and-true recipes and perfecting new ones. with friends and family as judges, i know i’ll receive honest feedback to help refine and uplift my results. as always, i’ll share my experiences with you through recipes and stories. and i’ll keep you informed as this new baking adventure unfolds.

breathing life into little bird wouldn’t have been possible without the talent and generous spirit of my friend Todd Connor of yellow plum design. Todd gently kept me from sliding down many a slippery slope in these past 10 months; i’m blessed by his presence.

if you spot a cairn of chewy chai-spice sugar cookies along some byway, know that i’ve left it for you. i look forward to hearing about your adventures.

dj davisson

addicted

9 April 2011

dj

i used to walk among the fragrant flowering plum trees that gracefully line my driveway, savoring their aroma and admiring delicate blossoms.

i used to wait with anticipation for the breathtaking tulip fields to set the northwest Washington countryside ablaze with color. i used to welcome spring by grilling fresh, thin asparagus and wild King Salmon, chased by a dense shortcake topped with the season’s first juicy strawberries.

i used to be a person of moderation, content—even happy—to consume small bites.

FUGGEDDABOUTIT.

now there’s nothing. nothing but the intoxicating scent. the buttery, spicy flavor. the chewy, rich, dense texture. i can’t sleep. i can’t stay out of the kitchen, where they’re neatly tucked in an airtight container. i’m addicted. addicted to the most insanely incredible cookies i’ve ever eaten. my ordinarily disciplined existence? completely gone. forever. immense pleasure permeates my entire being. move over Lay’s potato chips: chewy chai-spice sugar cookies give new meaning to no one can eat just one. bake at your own risk.

Chewy Chai-Spice Sugar Cookies

a slight variation on a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated
makes 24 cookies (that’s 1/hour, if you exercise restraint)

INGREDIENTS
i use all organic ingredients in these babies

2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 heaping teaspoon table salt
1 1/2 cups sugar, plus 1/3 cup for rolling
1/4 heaping teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cardamon
1/4 heaping teaspoon ground cloves
2 grinds (a generous pinch) black pepper
2 ounces cream cheese, cut into 8 pieces
6 tablespoons butter, melted and still warm
1/3 cup vegetable oil (i use sunflower oil)
1 large egg
1 tablespoon milk
1 teaspoon vanilla

DIRECTIONS

  1. preheat oven to 350.
  2. line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.
  3. in a medium bowl, whisk flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt; set aside.
  4. in a large bowl, add 1 1/2 cups sugar, cream cheese, cinnamon, cardamon, cloves and pepper.
  5. pour warm butter over ingredients, and whisk to combine (some small lumps of cream cheese will remain).
  6. whisk in oil until incorporated.
  7. add egg, milk and vanilla; continue to whisk until smooth.
  8. add flour mixture, then mix all ingredients with a rubber spatula until a soft, homogenous dough forms.
  9. place the remaining 1/3 cup sugar on a plate.
  10. form the dough into 24 equal pieces, about 2 tablespoons each.
  11. with your hands, roll each piece into a ball (should be about the size of a mutant/large walnut).
  12. roll each ball in the plated sugar, then evenly space on the baking sheets.
  13. using the bottom of a drinking glass (or in my case, my hand), flatten the dough balls until they’re each 2 inches in diameter.
  14. sprinkle tops evenly with sugar.
  15. bake, one sheet at a time, for 11 to 13 minutes, rotating after the first 7 minutes.
  16. edges should be set and just beginning to brown. (i actually take them out before the browning phase.)
  17. cool on baking sheets for 5 minutes.
  18. transfer to wire rack and cool to room temperature.

little bird flies home

6 April 2011

dj

witty. hip. smart. generous. warm. as glamorous as any movie star of her era. my mom was the mom other kids wanted to have. on school field trips, at Brownie meetings and at birthday parties, my friends flocked around her, jockeying to be in the position of holding her hand. a shy kid, i hung back and observed as she split her attention between her many admirers. um, i might have been a little jealous. as a teenager, i simply didn’t understand the attraction. she certainly didn’t seem cool to me. but even as a young adult, i realized she was, indeed, the coolest.

a child with spindly legs and a petite appetite, my grandfather nicknamed her Faygeleh (or little bird). the baby of her family and a daddy’s girl, she worshipped her brother, ten years her senior. with an open heart, she embraced and enchanted nearly everyone she met; i think this ability to readily accept others was her greatest gift. her engaging sense of humor and razor-sharp timing rivaled that of her redheaded contemporary, Lucille Ball (well, they both dyed their hair red and were incredibly funny). disciplined and hardworking, mom did equally well in school and the workplace, making her parents beam with pride. until she met my dad.

oh, yeah. he was a bad boy. a fabulous dancer/crooner. a Catholic. and he had his own car. my grandparents’ perceived three strikes. i’ve heard  that they might have been concerned about what lay ahead for their daughter. but madly in love, my parents married in the early ’40’s. while not an entirely perfect fairy tale, mom and dad were gloriously happy. they’d spend occasional weekends traveling from Boston to New York City,  where they danced the nights away to the big bands of Benny Goodman and Count Basie. Duke Ellington’s Satin Doll later became their song. then WWII came along, accompanied by a long separation. mom kept the home fires burning in their little apartment near Fenway Park, as dad hit the ground with the Allied forces in Italy. eventually (a relief for those of us to come), they reunited.

heretofore unheard of by city dwellers (my cousin Pete confirms this), my parents moved to the ‘burbs. in their idyllic subdivision (another term foreign to my relatives), my mom thrived. with her signature style and panache, she planted gorgeous perennial and rose gardens, complemented by carefully chosen annuals. she delighted in her lilacs, rhododendrons and azaleas. and perfected recipes she found in the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. into this bliss, came i, and then my sister.

the reason i shave my head today

i never knew my parents didn’t have a lot of money because they gave us everything. i was lavished with ice skating lessons, ballet lessons, horseback riding lessons, swimming lessons, music lessons. clearly, i had a lot to learn. i excelled only at the latter two, but from my mom’s point of view, i shone in every undertaking. a voracious reader, she taught me to how to read at a very young age; i mirrored her enthusiasm. hand in hand every Friday afternoon, we’d walk to the elementary school parking lot, where we entered the magical world of the Bookmobile and left with a tall stack of treasures. in her kitchen, i began my love affair with cooking. she sent me to girl scout camp for a month every summer. attended every one of my multitudinous—and generally less-than-virtuosic—concerts. helped me to get settled in my college dorm—2,000 miles away from home. made the gown for my junior recital and flew the 2,000 miles to deliver it. she never asked for anything in return.

from the beginning until the very end, my mother was my champion and confidante. but when i decided to come out, i feared telling my mom the most. what if i damaged our relationship beyond repair? it would be like losing my lifelong best friend. i picked up the phone countless times to call her, and placed it back on the receiver. finally, i let the call go through. what was i thinking? my cool, open, liberal mom said, “i just want you to be happy.” like, yes, dear. whatever. what are you making for dinner tonight? how’s the weather there?

i had the privilege of having my mom live with me the last five years of her life. oh, it wasn’t always perfection. in fact, at times, it was completely contentious. with age, came change. and i think we both fought it. in as much as she taught me the values by which i live, we also shared a wicked New England stubborn streak. despite the adversity, i’m grateful for every day she was here. when i forgetfully leave the television on, or 1/4-inch of juice in the bottom of a bottle, or can’t find where i left my glasses, i lovingly say, i’m doin’ a Fran. in my memory and heart, she remains my champion. and the love we’ve shared for a lifetime, is for all time.

miss you every minute, little bird. see ya on the flip side.

“one is glad to be of service”

24 February 2011

dj

my very first blog post doled out accolades to Frost Doughnuts, a then-new local purveyor of sublime treats. since then, Frost’s sweet creations have won numerous awards and press recognition, and the shop’s popularity has continued to grow. while the doughnuts remain the greatest, customer service makes Frost float to the top of greater Seattle’s vat of bakery establishments. and it’s customer service that’s compelled me to reconnect with my laptop, after taking some down time following my mom’s passing. truly, everything i know about exemplary customer service, i learned from her. and i imagine, everything she knew, she learned from her parents, who maintained their own wholesale and services businesses during the Great Depression.

my mom didn’t have an MBA (she actually acquired knowledge through experience), but she possessed great business savvy. more importantly, she had a genuine interest in other people, which endeared her to almost everyone she met. mom spent more than 25 years in retail selling cosmetics for Estee Lauder (ever-glamourous, my mother WOULD NEVER have been caught dead bringing her trash down the driveway without all her makeup on—seriously). as a teen, i frequently watched her in action as she enthusiastically greeted customers, listened to their stories, answered their questions—and made sales. she gained a loyal following, who remained steadfast until she retired.

when it became my turn to serve my clients, i followed mom’s example; i credit her with any measure of success i’ve achieved over the years. like her, i’ve humbly felt a sense of accomplishment in having been able to help others.

perhaps mom is putting out some pretty strong messages to the universe. but in the last few weeks, i’ve been surprisingly barraged with customer service encounters of the amazing kind.

  1. the Teno necklace i had worn for years broke the day of my mom’s service. fortunately, i found my dad’s wedding band that had been suspended on it at my feet. i gave the eulogy feeling naked and displaced. later, i mailed off the necklace to the Teno team in Las Vegas, and they replaced it in just a matter of days.
  2. American Express immediately interceded on my behalf when they learned i had been harassed by the customer service team at The Seattle Times (story to follow). the AmEx rep reversed the Times charges and initiated an investigation that was quickly resolved in my favor. i can’t speak as highly of their financial practices; perhaps they can take some cues from their customer service group?
  3. Campbell Nelson Volkswagen sales manager saved the day when i wasn’t able to get my car for service for two weeks. he scheduled the appointment on the day and at the time that best fit my needs. the service advisor gave me prompt and frequent updates, and the service team completed the work in record time.
  4. our new Seattle Times delivery person repeatedly ran over one of  our gardens and drainage areas (four times in a week), so the water could no longer flow into the ditch. i called and spoke with customer service. no action was taken, no phone calls placed to management returned. i canceled the subscription i’d had for five years. no one cared. didn’t i hear something about newspaper layoffs and subscriptions in the dumpster? i guess i was mistaken.

as Isaac Asimov’s Bicentennial Man Andrew Martin said—and my mom might echo—one is glad to be of service. cheers to those who continue to happily support their customers. to those who aren’t glad to be of service, you should probably go find something else to do. right, ma?

the Italian hurricane

11 October 2010

dj

balancing a stack of hefty textbooks (don’t ask me why we either didn’t use, or hadn’t yet invented, daypacks), i swung open the front door. my glasses immediately steamed, obscuring, in part, what lay ahead. directly to my right, my dad stood at the stove, stirring something in a very large skillet. “hi, dad.” “he-ey,” he replied, with a big grin on his face. then turned his attention back to the frying pan.

as the fog cleared, i gasped: nearly every pot and pan from our cupboards protruded from the kitchen sink. it felt like a nightmare of mammoth proportions. not only would i have to wash and dry all the Revere Ware, my mother would expect me to “Twinkle” (as if it were a verb) the copper bottoms of each piece. i didn’t know anything about cursing back then, but if i had, i would have. i set my books on the kitchen table and gritted my teeth. “so, what are you making,” i asked in as calm a voice as i could muster. “well,” dad said, “spaghetti and meatballs. sausage, onions and peppers. oh, and eggplant.”

with his entire arm, he gestured grandly across the breadth of the stove, where yet even more cookware held his bubbling, spattering and begrudgingly fragrant menu. a first-generation Italian-American, my father loved to spend hours in the kitchen reinterpreting Italian cuisine. his creations were actually quite delicious. but hurricane Gus left a trail of unsurpassed culinary destruction.

after dinner was served—and we were all totally stuffed—my dad washed the dishes, and i dried. i figured he had a little pang of guilt about the sheer volume of cookware he’d used. yeah, i still had to polish the copper-bottomed pots and pans, but i really didn’t mind. that much.

with end-of-summer bounty, including basil, cherry tomatoes and eggplant, i put together this glorious version of eggplant parmesan. fresh, but rich and cheesy, it tastes even better after it sits overnight in the fridge. i think my father would have appreciated my interpretation. he-ey, dad, this one’s for you.

Eggplant Parmesan
a variation based on a Tyler Florence recipe

INGREDIENTS

for the speedy sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small sweet onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
1 medium red bell pepper, chopped
3 pints cherry tomatoes, each tomato cut in half
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup red wine (i used a 2007 Subduction Red from Syncline Wine Cellars)
1/2 pound hot italian sausage, browned (optional)
salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup fresh basil, whole leaves

for the eggplant
2 medium eggplants (or 4 small eggplants)
olive oil
2 eggs
seasoned Italian breadcrumbs (e.g., Progresso)

for the filling
1 container whole-milk ricotta cheese
1 1/3 cups Parrano cheese, grated (or a combination of Parmesan and Romano cheese)
2 pounds mozzarella cheese, grated
1/2 cup  fresh basil, whole leaves
salt and freshly ground pepper

DIRECTIONS

  1. heat the olive oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat.
  2. add the onions and garlic; cook for about 5 minutes, until the onion begins to soften.
  3. add the tomatoes and bell pepper, and let simmer. tomatoes will begin to break down and pepper will soften.
  4. add the red wine and let it cook down into the simmering tomato sauce.
  5. salt and pepper to taste.
  6. stir in the browned sausage, if you’ve decided to include it, and continue to cook.
  7. stir in the tomato paste to thicken slightly.
  8. just before you remove the sauce from heat, stir in the basil leaves, then set aside.
  9. to prepare the eggplant, crack two eggs in a shallow bowl; season with salt and pepper and beat with a fork to mix.
  10. put the flour in another shallow bowl and season with salt and pepper.
  11. arrange the eggplant, beaten eggs and bread crumbs on a work surface near the stove.
  12. heat about 1/4-inch olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
  13. when the oil is hot, dredge several eggplant slices in the egg, then coat them in the bread crumbs.
  14. put as many eggplant in the skillet as will fit comfortably in a single layer and cook until tender and well browned on both sides; drain on paper towels.
  15. cook all of the eggplant slices this way, adding more olive oil to the pan as needed.
  16. stir together the ricotta and 1/2 cup of the Parrano cheese.
  17. stir in the basil and season with salt and pepper.
  18. preheat the oven to 350F.
  19. put the eggplant, ricotta mixture, tomato sauce, the shredded mozzarella cheese and the remaining 3/4 cup grated Parrano cheese on the counter.
  20. grease a 9 x13-inch baking dish with a very light coat of olive oil.
  21. to begin assembly, spoon some of the tomato sauce over the bottom of the baking dish; add a layer of eggplant.
  22. spread  half of the ricotta mixture over the eggplant.
  23. spoon another layer of tomato sauce over the ricotta,  and sprinkle with about one-third of the mozzarella.
  24. repeat the process, then finish with the rest of the eggplant, the rest of the tomato sauce and the rest of the mozzarella.
  25. sprinkle the top with 3/4 cup Parrano.
  26. bake for about 1 hour, until golden and bubbling.

let stand for 20 minutes before serving.

a little slice of heaven

27 September 2010

dj

Les Price, the great sower of all things apple at Jones Creek Farm, observed that i had a penchant for English varieties. i peered into the bags of apples i had just gingerly picked from the orchard: Ellison’s Orange and Cox’s Orange Pippins and gave thought to the 40 pounds of Bramley’s i’d toted home just the weekend before.

i began to delve deeper into my mostly subconscious affinity for all things British : Winnie, the English bull terrier, Elroy, the Old English bulldog, Ralph Vaughn Williams, a recent, torrid love affair with a certain MINI-Cooper, Hidcote lavender, and of course, my beloved friend Alex. yes, an astute assessment on Les’s part and a startling revelation on mine.

bringing it back to the apples, i put up nearly 100 pounds of English varieties. and i knew when i was finally ready to bake, i’d want to dedicate the first pie of the season to Alex. this special pie could not be ordinary, although i venture to say few pies made with these varieties would be considered as such. it had to be spectacular.

a recent segment of Unique Eats on The Cooking Channel had featured Emily and Melissa Elsen of Four & Twenty Blackbirds pie shop in Brooklyn, New York. impressed by their creativity, originality, seasonal approach and commitment to local/organic ingredients, i decided to send them a note to request the recipe for their salted caramel apple pie. Emily and Melissa quickly and kindly responded with this perfectly extraordinary culinary tribute to Alex.

Four & Twenty Blackbirds’ Salted Caramel Apple Pie
a recipe generously shared by Emily and Melissa Elsen…heartfelt thanks

set aside about four hours to tackle the recipe—it will be time well-spent.

INGREDIENTS

for the crust
1 recipe of your favorite (2-crust) all-butter pie crust

for the salted caramel
1 cup white sugar
1/4 cup water
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter (i used salted and cut back slightly on the sea salt)
1/2 cup fresh heavy cream
1 1/2 teaspoon sea salt (recommended: Maldon sea salt flakes)

for the filling
4 to 6 lemons
5 to 6 medium to large apples (recommend a mix of varieties, including some tart)
1/3 cup raw sugar (castor, unrefined, large granule sugar)
2 tablespoons flour (to me, it seems like the amount of flour depends upon how juicy your apples are, so increase accordingly. the Bramley’s exude a lot of juice.)
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon (i increased this to 1/2)
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 to 3 dashes Angostura bitters (i didn’t have this ingredient, so i don’t know what i was missing. perhaps Emily or Melissa can comment, but the pie was wonderful nonetheless.)

for final assembly
1 egg beaten
raw sugar, for sprinkling
1 teaspoon sea salt (flake)

DIRECTIONS

the crust

  1. prepare one 2-crust batch of your favorite all-butter pie crust.
  2. roll the bottom crust to fit a 9-inch pan, and cut the top crust as a lattice, approximately 1-inch in width or as desired.
  3. chill the rolled crust while you prepare the salted caramel and apple filling.

the salted caramel

  1. cook the sugar and water together over low heat until just dissolved.
  2. add the butter and bring to a slow boil; continue cooking at a low boil until the mixture turns a deep, golden brown color, almost copper. important note: this process takes awhile, depending on the heat source. keep an eye on it: if the caramel begins to smoke, you’ve burned it, and you’ll have to start over.
  3. when the mixture has turned a copper color, remove it from the heat, and immediately add the heavy cream – the mixture will bubble rapidly and steam, so be cautious as the sugar will be very hot.
  4. whisk the final mixture together well over low heat and sprinkle in the sea salt; set aside.

the filling

  1. juice the lemons into a large mixing bowl.
  2. core, peel, and thinly slice the whole apples.
  3. dredge all the apple slices in the freshly squeezed lemon juice to prevent browning and to add flavor; set the prepared apples aside.
  4. in a large measuring cup or small mixing bowl, combine the sugar, flour, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and Angostura bitters.
  5. sprinkle the mixture over the apples in the mixing bowl; use your hands to gently mix and coat the apple slices.

the assembly

  1. preheat the oven to 375F to 400F, depending on your oven.
  2. gather your rolled pie crust, salted caramel and apple mixture.
  3. layer 1/3 of the apples in the bottom of the crust; gaps between apples should be minimal.
  4. pour 1/3 of the caramel over the apples.
  5. add 1/3 of the apples and caramel for a second layer, and then add a third layer of apples, and then a third layer of caramel. important note: save a small portion of the caramel to pour on top once the lattice is assembled.
  6. assemble the lattice crust, and flute the edges.
  7. pour the last bit of caramel on top of the pie.
  8. brush the crust with the beaten egg, then lightly sprinkle with raw sugar and sea salt.
  9. bake the pie on a baking sheet larger than the pie pan for 20 minutes (otherwise the caramel will bubble over and burn on the bottom of your oven, and that would be bad).
  10. reduce the oven temperature to 325F to 350F, again, depending on your oven, and bake for 25 to 35 minutes.
  11. test the apples with a long toothpick or small knife; the apples should be just soft.

let the pie cool, then slice and revel in the sweet, buttery, salty, tart contrast and deliciousness of this truly amazing pie. cheers!