Inspired by Booze - Yes, That's Me.

My sister and I didn't really "get it" growing up, but our Mom's personalized license plate was "BLAKLBL" (I won't even go into what our Dad's was...). We knew there was always a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label in the house, and we knew it was Mom's favorite aperitif of choice, but we never put two and two together that her license plate reflected the actual bottle. I guess mine today would be "WINO101", if it was available, but I don't think that police would look to fondly on that choice.

About a year ago, I stumbled upon a Johnnie Walker event that was being held at Fort Mason in San Francisco, CA. Greg, Eric, and I went, not knowing what to expect but knew that we would be enjoying some libations. And, the fact that Greg and Eric were huge scotch and whiskey fans, I knew that I was going to learn a lot by just sitting next to them and hearing their thoughts on the scotch's.

The Johnnie Walker "ambassador" (aka coolest job ever...) walked us through all four labels of Johnnie Walker - Red, Black, Green, and Blue. Up to that point I thought Black Label was the only one that existed, but I was proved wrong, not only with the event, but also with my palate. Greg and Eric and I got to talking about whiskeys and scotch, and I told them I had made a Jack Daniels cake - they suggested I try to make a Makers Mark or Johnnie Walker cake instead. I was very inspired and started to do drawings for both cakes. But, I never took the time to actually make them. The idea always stuck in the back of my mind, but I used the excuse that my kitchen was too small to create these cakes.

Recently, being FUNemployed, I decided to finally make a Johnnie Walker cake, using the recipe that I had used for years that called for Jack Daniels. But, this time, I was going to shape it like a bottle of Johnnie Walker and use the JW in the recipe. I intended on making a Blue Label cake, but I got to the supply store and they were out of royal blue coloring. Then, I found out they were out of black AND red as well. I felt slightly defeated. I thought, well, I know that JW makes a Green Label, and the supply store wasn't out of forest green, so I decided to make a Johnnie Walker Green Label cake (...on the outside, but I used Red Label for the batter for the cake on the inside).

It was so therapeutic - I was in my kitchen for about five hours working on the cake. Most don't understand the time that goes into the shaping of the cake, the coloring of the fondant, the coloring of the icing, the trimming of the pieces, and the final touches to make a cake like this. I must admit that I am slightly rusty on my piping, but that is a whole other entity - NO ONE realizes how difficult it is to pipe A STRAIGHT LINE, let alone letters, on a cake.

It's RED LABEL, but it still served as an inspiration (and ingredient).

My initial drawing based off of pics I saw online (a bottle of GREEN LABEL is about $65 to start, and I really don't' drink hard booze).

Putting the base of the cake together:

Shaving the neck of the bottle, love all of the scraps to the side:

The base of the cake finally coming together:

Adding the "pieced" together pieces of fondant to the cake:

The fondant pieces "pieced" together:

Final product:

Most people don't know, but you have to use different sizes of tips for this kind of piping (i.e. cursive, block, etc.)

I showed the pics to my sister and Mom in real time via pics from my cell phone. All they could say was wow, and my sister now wants me to try out a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cake (for no reason except she just thought it sounded fun). I didn't think I could get inspired to make cakes like this again, but when booze inspires you, might as well drink it (or eat it).

Releasing Creative Anxiety

When I was in culinary school, I fell in love with the cake decorating portion of my Baking and Pastries courses. I loved the precision and attention to detail required to make something that obviously tasted delicious look delicious. During our Pastry final that covered the course of two days of baking, cake decorating, confection making, ice cream creating, meringue piping, cookie cutting, and plate design, I was more excited about the extra credit we could accumulate: create a celebration cake.

I already had pictured the cake I wanted to make. Screw what I HAD to do for my actual final, to me that felt like a piece of cake (HA!). I wanted to make a cake that "celebrated" my class of 36 student friends. When I realized that I was three hours ahead of schedule on my final (like, I was done with everything three hours ahead of time) I went to work on my celebration cake. I colored some fondant a nice royal blue (Le Cordon Bleu color) and started to roll it out to put on my styrofoam rounds that would create a small two-tier cake. I then built the cake and started to pipe out each of my student friend's names in different fonts all over the cake. I still managed to finish with 30 minutes left of time, and my chef instructors and friends loved the simple cake, and the fact that I had had the time to do it! It was an extra sense of accomplishement, and I was able to channel out my creativity.

I started picking up wedding cake books and cake design books, buying piping tips in every shape and size, and even making a faux children's cake "on a whim" just because I felt like it. I started to love working with fondant, even though I detested the taste, just because you could fold it over cakes and use it to make shapes, designs, etc. I sketched cakes and even helped to design one for a girlfriend's wedding.

Then I started to get creative. My sister's boyfriend at the time was about to turn 30. He was and still is a very big fan of Jack Daniels. I immediately was struck with the idea of making him a Jack Daniels cake. And a large one at that. There was a party being thrown for him, and I knew what I was going to make. Everyone thought I was slightly nuts for attempting this, but really it was just a way of channeling the creative energy I have.

I began building the whole thing on styrofoam, just to do a test run. Note the size of the real bottle vs the styrofoam mold.

Building on the styrofoam...

And here was the finished "test run" - not perfect, but that is the point of the test run.

So the next pics are a sequence of putting the cake together. First up, my favorite - a bottle of Chardonnay and my pillowcase all make it into the picture.

The look of intensity. And, yes, the pillowcase and glass of wine make it in the shot. Thanks, Party Marty. The main part of the cake ended up being three layers.

Took me a few hours, well, more than a "few" hours, but here was the finished product.

I was a proud cake designer.

One more pic of the final product before it was put in a box.

I was so proud of this cake. And all of the friends at the party were amazed. I got a lot of praise for what I had done, but really the thing I remember most (besides the compliments) was the sheer exhilaration of releasing that creative energy. I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I realized then that doing cakes like that was one of the best forms of therapy for myself.

I then did a Champagne cake for my girlfriend's birthday as well:

Most people ask where I find the time or effort to do these cakes, and I always say it is just a way for me to release creative anxiety. It was just the other day I realized I needed to release this anxiety, as I haven't really been baking much in the last two years. And I just have to say my inspiration was a bottle of Johnnie Walker. Yes, I am inspired by booze - but at least I know how to create a bottle of booze out of nothing but sugar, flour, and a lot of TLC.

So, a new post and pics to come. Stay tuned!

"Tale of the Cork"

When I was growing up, my parents had a cork board that was hung to the left of our kitchen door. And I should mention that this is not your ordinary cork board - what I mean by cork board is an actual "cork board"; as the story goes, it was a gift from their friends reflecting the wines that they had consumed. Here's a pic I found mimicking what I am talking about:

I don't know why I was so enamored with it as a child, but I do remember it so well. Probably a foresight into my future wine consumption, but that is entirely another story.

My parents never used it for posting things or hanging things; rather I remember it as something that just hung in our kitchen. I always stared at it and as I got taller I could actually read the wineries listed on the corks. I couldn't tell you any of the names now, but there was probably a Mondavi, Grgich, Opus One, Kendall-Jackson, and, quite possibly, a Silver Oak cork (or a few) that made up the board.

I don't know where that cork board is or if they ever saved it, but I thought about it through the years while enjoying a bottle, and thought it would be fun to make a cork trivet for my pans. Alas, I never did. Reason being at the time I was drinking wines that I didn't necessarily want to advertise (i.e. the Calloway Cab and Chardonnay that sufficed at $5.99 in college).

I can't tell you how many corks I have thrown away over the years, but it was recently that I discovered I wished I had held onto them. For some reason about 6 months ago, instead of throwing the corks away, I decided to keep them in a drawer in my kitchen. I don't know exactly what convinced me to do this, perhaps one too many glasses, but I started saving them.

On a recent driving trip from San Francisco to Southern California, Greg and I decided to do some wine tasting in Paso Robles. We stumbled upon a Pinot Noir boutique winery called Windward Vineyard. Having been in the car for a while I definitely needed to use the Ladies Room. I opened up the door to the winery restroom and was overcome with the musk scent of wine. My jaw dropped as I closed the door behind me -- the walls were covered with corks. Just like the "cork board" but free-form. It was still a work in progress, but it was inspiring.

It was like a light went off - birds and angels started singing (well, not really). I was going to continue to collect corks so one day I could do a wall like this:

I was thrilled, ecstatic, and yes, all of this emotion over a wall "paper" made of corks. I resent not taking any pics of the wall, but the images in my mind speak for themselves. There were vintages upon vintages, showing the history of when the wall probably started; there were many different wineries represented, showing a variety of memories. Perhaps some individuals added their own corks to the wall over the years. Whatever the history, it was a wall of wine stories to be told.

I continued to save my corks, and now, when I look at the labels of the wineries (even if it is $2.99 Trader Joes Chardonnay...) each cork does tell a story. Some bottles were opened to cook with, some to celebrate, some just to drink for the sake of it being 5 o'clock. But they are a tangible reminder of an experience. I have many more in a drawer, but here is one of my coffee table "focus points":

For my most recent birthday, my Mom saved one of the best, most original gifts for last:

She, along with my Dad and sister, along with our country club, had been saving corks for my future cork wall. The picture does not even do justice for just how many corks are in that bag.

We continue to save the corks for my future wall, and I know when I put it up finally I will be reminded of the original cork board that fascinated me so much growing up. It inspires me to visit wineries that I may not really think about and those I have yet to visit; because I know when I do go to put together that wall, I will look at each individual cork and be reminded of a bottle/glass/experience that has shaped my life.

Respect thy Restaurant Chef

...especially if you are a creature of habit. As in you always order the same thing whenever you go to a specific restaurant. There is a reason you always order the same thing, and one reason is whoever is cooking YOUR dish for you is doing it right, or rather, doing it right consistently.

I am a creature of habit when it comes to specific restaurants. Hey, I know what I like. I also can be a creature of habit in my own kitchen because, once again, I KNOW WHAT I LIKE. A few weeks back while thinking about what I wanted to eat I started to think of a simple pasta dish I used to get at California Pizza Kitchen that included spaghetti, sun dried tomatoes, broccoli rabe, and a parmesan-garlic-cream sauce, and I always asked to add chicken. I decided to re-create it for my lunch.

While shopping, I realized that I was purchasing enough of each ingredient to make the dish about three times, and, living on my own, I am always trying to stretch my food budget. So I started to think like a restaurant chef and challenged myself to re-create the same dish exactly the same each day - same amounts, same ingredients, same cooking method, same pans.

It is not the easiest thing to do; and when you think of the cooks in the restaurant's kitchen they have more than putting one single dish together for you. The only difference is that they usually have everything for each dish prepped out way ahead of time to cook each dish to order. They are also are working on a few items from each ticket at a time. It's not rocket science, however it is a challenge. Especially timing it perfectly.

I prepped all of my food - mincing my garlic, blanching my broccoli, boiling my pasta, searing my chicken, deglazing the pan and making my garlic cream sauce, timing it to a "t" so that as the pasta was ready 12 minutes later I was done with my sauce, folding in my broccoli, chicken, and sun dried tomatoes and then adding my just-drained pasta to plate into a bowl. There is a bit of a whimsical dance that you do when timing a dish perfectly, and I was able to do it the same way, three times in a row.

I decided to take a pic each day to show the consistency of my dish. I have also included a few of my prep.

Folding in the ingredients to the sauce

Folding in the pasta

Meal One

Meal Three

I was definitely satisfied by simple perfection. If you think about all of the restaurant cooks and chefs (especially places like California Pizza Kitchen, where they are based on prefecting repetition from location to location, customer to customer) and the work that goes into the simplest to most extravagant dishes, staying consistent is a key ingredient for their success. And, most importantly, your satisfied craving for your favorite dish.

Five Simple Ingredients

My mom reads this blog and she loved the entry I made referring to our lunches of filet and avocado. Really, I mean, it is so simple, yet it seems that the simplest items can always be the most satisfying and comforting. And, when your Mom is involved in the cooking process, you know there is some major TLC involved.

I was recently home for my birthday and one day while I was working from their home my Mom and I got to talking about memories during my catering days. These were the days that I was cooking so much food at one time that I completely lost my appetite. My mom was always there, asking to help, keeping my "glass half full" (ahem...), and making sure that I was eating something. We reminisced about how she would always ask me what I wanted for lunch and I never could decide, only because I was surrounded by so many other food items. She would then make the executive decision that filet and avocado would be the most satisfying. I didn't hesitate to change her mind.

Off she would drive to our neighborhood Gelson's market where she swore by their center cut filet mignon steaks and their Haas avocadoes. I mean, she SWEARS by Gelson's and claims that they have "the best", a fun statement my family loves to joke around with. As a chef, I should pay attention to where the avocados are grown and where the beef comes from, but because it is such a special shared moment between my Mom and me, I just forget to care.

So being home my Mom asked what I wanted for lunch, and in that moment, I knew what I wanted. Filet and avocado - Party Marty style. With a smile she whisked herself out the door and came back with her center cut beef filet mignon and what she claimed were avocados that she sent the produce men to the back to pick out because she wasn't thrilled with the selection on the floor. Gotta love Party Marty - she means business.

She picked the "best" center cut filet:

My mom liberally salts the filets and uses no oil to sear the meat, just a non stick pan.

Here is a shot of Party Marty fixing up the plate. She insists on letting the meat rest for 10 minutes. So I patiently wait.

The "best" avocados generously "dusted" with Lawry's Seasoning Salt.

Diggin' in and no knife required. Another part of this is we always used to eat standing up, which I always reminded my mom wasn't a good thing. Well, some habits can't be broken.

Simple goodness.

So, five simple ingredients is all it takes - beef filet mignon, Lawry's Seasoning Salt, Lawry's Garlic Salt, avocado, and a glass of chardonnay.

Learning to Love thy Butcher. Chapter 1.

This day in age, I feel like I am very lucky to say I am friends with my butcher.

Butchery is an artisanal trade; Gordon Ramsay did a bit on his F Word show relating to the fact that the art of butchery, though still a learned "art", is not as popular these days. We, as a society, are left with few but mass-consumption options while visiting the convenient super market for meat, fish, and poultry cuts.

But, yes, alas, I am the shopper that will go to a Safeway or Trader Joes (or Whole Foods) to get my "mass-consumption" meat, fish, and poultry when it's needed.

Reason I say this is I recently met Dave the Butcher here in SF. He spends his time between Marina Meats (Marina area of SF) and Avedano's (Bernal Heights area of SF). He is the one who hooked me up with the pork belly weeks back (pics and story still to come). Since then I have become a fan of @davethebutcher on Twitter, and have visited Avedano's for meat for the 4th of July.

Ever since our first meeting, Dave has provided me with so much information about the meat that I am buying, where it is coming from, and, in the pig's instance - the fact that he broke the animal down himself. I have since told Dave that I will be contacting him once a week to see "what's good".

I recently was in Avedano's to get some trip tip for the 4th, but the boyfriend and I saw some Kobe culotte steaks and immediately looked at each other and said "dinner!". We bought both the grass-fed tri tip and the kobe beef. The boyfriend simply seared the kobe culottes in some olive oil and butter to a perfect medium rare, and I have to say, honestly, it was one of the tastiest cuts of beef I have had. As you look to these pics, please note the spinach and brown rice in the picture (our attempt at being healthy...). Believe me, there was plenty of brown rice and spinach left over as we just wanted to take in the succulence of the kobe beef.

I Twittered with @davethebutcher the next day saying a huge thank you. He concluded that it was an amazing cut. I have to agree...with my butcher.

A full plate of spinach, brown rice, and a lovely, succulent culotte steak of kobe beef:

Slicing into the goodness. Seriously, melt in your friggin' mouth.

My quest for the perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie

A few days ago, I saw this posting from Serious Eats come through my Twitter feed:

Thomas Keller's chocolate chip cookie recipe:

Without hesitation, in a blink of an eye, I clicked on the link. Turns out his new cookbook,
Ad Hoc At Home, will be released this fall. However, I could not resist to try out the chocolate chip cookie recipe, not only because of my sheer admiration for Thomas, my addiction to Ad Hoc (I am on their mailing list for their daily menu emails), and my new found passion about cookies for my new business plan.

So, I set out today to follow his recipe to a "T". According to the web site, here is the recipe, with my pics appropriately placed:

Chocolate Chip Cookies

(makes about thirty 3-inch cookies)

Thomas Keller writes in the book: This is our version of what is arguably the best cookie ever. I like to use different chocolates, one sweeter, one with a more complex bittersweet balance. After you chop the chocolate, sift it to remove any tiny fragments to give the cookies a cleaner look. If you like softer cookies, don’t underbake them, just mist them with water before baking.

2 1/3 cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon kosher salt

5 ounces 55 percent chocolate, cut into chip-sized pieces

5 ounces 70 to 72 percent chocolate, cut into chip-sized pieces

8 ounces (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1 cup packed dark brown sugar, preferably molasses sugar

3/4 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs

Position racks in the lower and upper thirds of the oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with Silpats or parchment paper.

Sift flour and baking soda into a medium bowl.

Stir in the salt.

Put chips in a fine-mesh basket strainer and shake to remove any chocolate “dust” (small fragments).

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle, beat half the butter on medium speed until fairly smooth.

Add both sugars and the remaining butter, and beat until well combined, then beat for a few minutes, until mixture is light and creamy.

Scrape down sides of the bowl.

Add eggs one at a time, beating until the first one is incorporated before adding the next and scraping the bowl as necessary.

Add dry ingredients and mix on low speed to combine.

Mix in chocolate.

Remove bowl from mixer and fold dough with a spatula to be sure the chocolate is evenly incorporated.

The dough or shaped cookies can be refrigerated, well wrapped, for up to 5 days or frozen for 2 weeks. Freeze shaped cookies on the baking sheets until firm, then transfer to freezer containers. (Defrost frozen cookies overnight in the refrigerator before baking.)

Using about 2 level tablespoons per cookie, shape dough into balls.

Arrange 8 cookies on each pan, leaving about 2 inches between them, because the dough will spread.

Bake for 12 minutes, or until the tops are no longer shiny, switching the position and rotating pans halfway through baking.

Cool cookies on the pans on cooling racks for about 2 minutes to firm up a bit, then transfer to the racks to cool completely.

Repeat with second batch of cookies. (The cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2 days.)

Note: If your brown sugar has hardened, soften it in the microwave for 15 to 30 seconds.

So, I followed it to the exact measurement, didn't use vanilla extract (felt very strange), and voila.

Honestly, I think I would add back the vanilla, but truth be told, I do think Mr. Keller has a point with the whole butter thing. 5 hours later, the cookie is still extremely chewy. Folks, I think we have a winner.