Saturday, May 21, 2011

CAVEAT: Baker, I am not

I've never been a proficient baker-- and at the grand old age of 35, I think I can pretty much write that skill off. The fact is-- I don't like baking for a number of reasons:

  1. I don't have a sweet tooth. I attribute this to my healthy parents and their somewhat hippy-ish ways where we were much more likely to eat wheat germ and keefir than eat anything with refined sugar. Not that they were beasts. My mom made the best chocolate chip cookies in the world. They just weren't a daily thing and we only got to have them as the most special treat (sometimes made with whole wheat flour).
  2. Baking and dessert making is fussy. There's lots of weird ingredients (cream of tartar??) that you don't use often or frequently. There's measuring-- exact measuring, which I do not do. And there's little room for improvisation. If you don't have a specific ingredient it's not as easy to find a substitute. And things have to be done in order. Blah.
That said, I do like to serve a full meal-- including dessert. But my lack of baking talent and sweet tooth pushes me towards things like tarts or crisps (or clafoutis, which I've recently discovered. Not only delicious but achingly simple-- it's basically pancake batter poured over fruit and baked). No-- I very rarely make my own crust.

We're headed to a bbq tonight and I wanted to bring something sweet. And since I'm an annoying perfectionist and a wannnabe foodie, I decided I'd have to make it. I've been tossing an idea around in my head based on a frozen yogurt concoction I used to love in high school. In case you didn't know, Los Angeles is the land of frozen yogurt. In the 90s, we kids would go to the movies on Saturday night and then head to Humphrey's or Pagliachi's for blended yogurts. Blended, you say? Indeed. You start with a base (nonfat vanilla or chocolate frozen yogurt-- yes, so LA) and then add mix-ins. It could be candy, chocolate chips, fruit-- you name it, they mixed it. But it wasn't hand mixing-- they had these special machines that would blend it to perfection while still maintaining the frozen yogurt-ness. I had two favorite combos: 1) vanilla with oreo and cream cheese (sounds gross, but if given the opportunity, you must try it); and 2) chocolate with espresso and cinnamon.

It's the latter that I've been musing about and pondering whether it could be made into a cupcake. I was thinking a cinnamon cupcake with chocolate espresso buttercream frosting. Only I couldn't find a recipe for cinnamon cupcakes (or even cake, for that matter). And I absolutely hate making buttercream (it has ingredients like cream of tartar), and I have no patience for it. So, improvisation, here I come. I had a recipe for vanilla buttermilk cupcakes stored away but I hadn't ever made them. Perfect-- I'd do this and add cinnamon. Err-- except I live in England and couldn't find buttermilk. A little sleuthing (and thanks to my friend Nicole's blog which introduced me to Joy the Baker), I found that you can actually simulate buttermilk. In this case I chose Joy's first method: a tbsp of lemon and a cup of milk (ironically method #3 used cream of tartar. I may have to buy this stuff). It worked! So, I made the batter and added 2 tbsp of cinnamon. Di-vine (if I do say so myself). But if I can ever find buttermilk, I may try the real-deal. I think it would make it a tad more sour / savory which would contrast nicely against the sweet...

Now for the espresso buttercream. *Sigh* after the buttermilk experiment and the whole making cupcakes from scratch, I just couldn't be bothered. A quick dig through my pantry unearthed good old Betty Crocker chocolate frosting. So I scooped it into a bowl and proceeded to add espresso. I started measuring, but then gave up and started dumping (and tasting). Chocolate overwhelms every flavor (although, take my comments with a grain of salt because I actually don't like chocolate), so I just kept adding until I could taste the espresso more than I could taste the chocolate.

The result? Yummmm. It brought me right back to being 16 and at Pagliachi's on a date with my high school sweetie. I wanted to garnish it with coffee beans, but since I don't drink coffee, they were not on hand. Thanks to my sister-in-law, I did have espresso, so in addition to using that to add to the frosting, I also dusted the top with espresso powder.

Cinnamon Buttermilk Cupcakes with Chocolate Espresso Frosting

Cupcakes (makes about 12 cupcakes-- barely)
  • 1 c all purpose flour
  • 3/4 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1/2 c buttermilk
  • 4 tsbp butter
  • 2 lg eggs
  • 3/4 c plus 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • Pre-heat oven to 350
  • Soft flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt
  • Melt btter and combine with buttermilk
  • In bowl of a stand mixer* fitted with paddle attachment, cream sugar and eggs until a thick batter forms, about 5 minutes. Beat in vanilla. Mix in flour mixture until just combined and then do same with butter and milk mixture.
  • Fill each cupcake liner 3/4 fill and bake 15-18 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool in the pan for 5 min then transfer to wire rack. Cool completely before icing.

  • 1/2 container of chocolate frosting (if you're following recipe above for 12 cupcakes)--okay; if you're more talented than me, you can also make buttercream. A great recipe is here.
  • 4 tbsp of espresso (although, taste it as you're adding / mixing-- you may want more / less)
Frost to your heart's content. (If you're feeling especially inspired, you can using a piping bag. Or in my case, a ziplock bag with the corner cut off. Hey--cooking is all about improvisation, right?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Wannabe foodie

I'm much more of a wannabe foodie on Facebook than I am here on this blog; mostly because I love to cook and post photos of finished dishes, but not so much to blog about them. But I figured that since I spend much of my spare time cooking these days (so wonder I am not gaining weight) that I may as well combine both pastimes into one so as to 1) get some more mileage out of my painfully neglected blog and 2) well, I only really had one reason.

I have a standard repertoire of food that I pull from but will mix up once in a while (Thanksgiving in a meatball was one such mix-up that was also one big mistake), but for the most part I pull from my bible: The Barefoot Contessa. I love Ina and have all of her cookbooks (thanks to my wonderful Daves) and she's my go-to woman when planning a dinner party or when I have an itch to cook something new. But I also have some other cookbooks, one being William and Sonoma's Wine and Food book which doubled as a wedding guest book (thanks to my genius sister-- married in Napa=wine; bride who is a wannabe foodie=cookbook). This is a pretty genius cookbook, esp for those who don't know anything about wine (me) or what to serve at a party with specific food (me). Plus the recipes are delicious and relatively easy (that's one of my main caveats as a wannabe foodie / chef-- if it has loads of ingredients, takes a ton of time or requires gadgets and gizmos, it's a big skip.

I always say I'll try anything once, so I dabble in all sorts of meats and ingredients. I'll also throw in some vegetarian options (much to MRN's chagrin) just to keep it healthy and heart-conscious. This is a recipe compliments of Ina but I've changed slightly-- the big things are adding heat (I love spicy food; I actually use A LOT more cayenne pepper and crushed red pepper than I've indicated below, but so as not to burn everyone off this recipe I've toned it down) and swapping tahini for tomato paste (I'm not particularly fond of tomatoes and tahini has lots of good qualities that are good for you). This is a great alternative to salsa if you're not a tomato fan too (plus the pita is healthier than those yummy corn chips because you can control the salt).

Roasted Eggplant and Red Pepper Spread (w/ homemade pita chips)

You'll need:
  • 2 cookie sheets (with rims)
  • Food processor (or potato masher)
  • Large mixing bowl
  • 1 med eggplant (peeled & chopped)
  • 2 red peppers (chopped)
  • 2-3 cloves garlic (minced)
  • 1 small red onion (chopped)
  • 3 tbsp olive oil (plus extra for brushing on pita bread)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 1 tbsp tahini
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
  • Whole grain, wheat or seeded pita bread (cut into narrow triangles)
  • Flat leaf parsley for serving (rough chopped)

Eggplant spread:
  • Pre-heat oven to 400 F
  • Chop eggplant, peppers and onion into 1-in cubes (don't worry about being precise; it's all going to get mushed in the food processor-- that's the technical term) and add to bowl
  • Toss with garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper
  • Spread on roasting pan (cookie sheet) and cook for 40 minutes, tossing half-way through (the veggies should get brown, but careful not to burn)
  • Remove from oven and cool slightly
  • Add contents to food processor fitted with steel blade
  • Add tahini and pulse 3-4 times until incorporated
  • Taste for salt and pepper
Pita Chips:
  • While veggies are in oven, prepare pita bread by cutting into narrow triangles, brushing with olive oil and sprinkling with salt; arrange on second cookie sheet
  • Place in oven for 7-8 minutes
  • Remove and serve with eggplant


After a mishap caused by a blogger upgrade and any entries posted or scheduled on 11 May disappearing (thanks Kittie Flynn for the sleuthing!), my deleted posts are back! YAY! Unfortunately they're all in the wrong order, but better than gone completely. I have to do as my Aunty Mikie does and back up my entries on my hard drive! :) So-- back in business with a load of food posts. Yum.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Herbed lamb chops

This recipe totally ISN'T an Ina recipe-- haha! Go figure! I immediately thought it was because, well, most everything I cook does come from one of her cookbooks. But this one is actually from William-Sonoma's "Wine & Food" cookbook that we used as a guest book at our wedding (you know, since I love cooking and we got married in Napa). Whoops!

Another Ina recipe, this dish is the absolute EASIEST thing to make-- and perfect dinner party fare because it's 1) super-fast and 2) super impressive (because really, who makes lamb at home?). From fridge to table we're talking about maybe 30 minutes so it's also host/hostess-friendly because you won't be spending the whole night in the kitchen rather than enjoying your guests.

Herbed Lamb Chops

You'll need:
Broiler or grill pan (or i use a cookie sheet lined with alum foil for easy clean up with a grill rack on top)

  • 4-6 lamb chops (budget 2 per person)
  • 1 tbsp dijon mustard
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup mixed fresh herbs, minced (whatever you have on hand is fine-- I usually only have thyme and flat leaf parsley and it's great; but for the picture you see here I happened to not have killed the rosemary and mint growing in the garden yet, so included that in addition to the thyme and parsley and it was AWESOME-- so get some of this is if it's convenient)
  • 1 tsp salt and pepper
  • Pre-heat oven to 450F (230C)
  • Mix together all ingredients
  • Spread mixture on both sides of the lamb chops
  • Place on grilling rack
  • Pop in the oven for 15-17 minutes for med (check with meat thermometer-- should be 135F)
  • Remove from oven and tent with alum foil for 5 minutes
  • Serve warm
Seriously. That's IT. And it's delicious. I served the lamb with a cauliflower gratin (cauliflower cheese for you Brits) using gruyere (my favorite cheese) and parmesan, and a spinach and pepper salad with onion crisps. YUMMMM.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Missing posts?

Ummm... for some reason posts that I've recently put up are now missing (even those that people had commented on) and though I'd written 4 to be posted in the future, and scheduled them, they have somehow disappeared. Huh?!? Anyone have any ideas?


Autumn has always been my favorite time of year-- it still is for the most part although living in the UK significantly reduces the joy due the rather temperate climate where you don't go from a blistering hot summer to wonderful cooler Fall where even the air smells different. Not to mention the lack of celebrations that mark a typical US Fall season-- from Halloween to Thanksgiving. Plus the leaves aren't the same amazing colors as in the Northeastern US, somewhat diminishing the effect. So, you would forgive me my surprise at finding that I may be converting to a lover of Spring and, gasp! Summer! I think Summer mostly because it's so mild here and never really exceeds the 70s (Fahrenheit), which is my ideal temperature (I hate heat-- funny from a girl who grew up in the desert). But I'm especially enjoying Spring this year because all the flowers are coming into bloom in my little garden (well, the ones that I haven't killed or are hearty enough to have somehow lasted through the Winter). My favorite is the hearty little lilac tree that's now survived two Winters and still thriving. These are some early buds chopped to accompany the ranunculus (that I still haven't killed!). The tree itself is beautiful-- I'm a sucker for flowers (my mother's daughter), so a flowering TREE is even better! I'll post a photo in a few days when it's in full bloom.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Paint is not always just paint

I love interiors almost as much as cooking (which if you're my friend on Facebook, you'll know is A LOT). Thankfully I have an uber-talented friend, LWC, a designer who is my guide and style guru when it comes to all things interiors (and cooking for that matter). Whether it's furniture, arranging space, colors, design, fabrics, picture hanging... you name it, her impeccable taste always knows best. She's my go-to person in more ways than one.

When I lived in NYC, in addition to taking me shopping for my first apartment, she gave me a stack of her business cards so I could browse around the famous D&D building-- NYC's premiere design center with 120 showrooms. What a treasure trove of decorating! Furniture, fabric, decor, lighting, everything that you could possibly think of was there. Unfortunately at the time (or, who am I kidding-- even now) I couldn't afford to purchase. But oh, did I like to look. I would take notes and snip ideas from catalogues that I would put into a "wish book" that I still reference when doing up my own house.

LWC recently turned me onto this amazing paint and paper company: Farrow and Ball. I know you're thinking, paper and paint? But, oh-- if you love design and decorating, you'll love this company. I actually got to go to one of their shops when I was in London a couple of weeks ago, and oh the delight. The most beautiful paint colors and wallpaper patterns. Paint is not always what it seems. It has the ability to transform a room-- whether you use color or just add a fresh coat of a neutral. It can clean up a space and add interest (for those who've followed this blog for a while-- both of you, you'll remember my Chicago apartment make-over a few years back...). If I had a plethora of rooms to paint and paper, I would have placed an order right there. As it turns out, I was looking for some paint for a little DIY project (a cabinet makeover that I am HATING-- more on that to come), and picked up some sample pots (I love sample pots) to test out. Of course, you really have to be committed and love the color-- F&B is not cheap-- about $80 (50GBP) for a 5 liter can of paint. But the options are divine. Plus, their website is super cool-- if you pick a color, it will give you suggested "color schemes" to go with that color. Brilliant for the person who is a little afraid of color and tends to stick to neutrals (in design and in dress). Plus, who except the uber-talented (like LWC) can tell the difference between the 20 different kinds of white that you can choose from?

I'm not yet sure if I'll be brave enough to paint my new cabinet... but if I do, these are the two colors I'm considering for the inside of the cabinet. I like gray lately, so leaning toward the Oval Room Blue since it has more of a gray undertone. We shall see!

Monday, May 09, 2011


I'm a total sucker for service. Always have been, always will be. I can go to a mediocre restaurant and think it's the most amazing place if the service is amazing. And I'll keep going back over and over again. Is it this way for everyone? Presumably not-- but it certainly can't hurt.

I complain (a lot) about horrible customer service. And not in silence. I write letters, e-mails, complete surveys. I am my father's daughter. I would say that 99% of the time it does absolutely nothing. But every once in a while, someone-- or something, surprises me.

For those who know me, I'm extremely polite-- and smiley. I'm nearly always in a good mood and I'm very "please and thank you" even to the rudest of people (I find it annoys them which ultimately pleases me-- I mean, why ruin everyone else's day because you're having a bad one?). But in a customer service situation, I'm rarely met with the same courtesy in return. I thought it was bad in the US-- especially in NYC; but it's WORSE in the UK. People simply cannot be bothered. Why work in customer service if you cannot be customary or service-oriented? Find a job where you sit at a desk or don't interact with people.

Companies underestimate the power that positive customer service can bring to a brand-- and at very little, if any, cost. Just having someone greet you, offer assistance, remember who you are (even if they're faking it), being responsive and saying the four small words: "Have a nice day" can go a LONG way. It can inspire loyalty, return customers and, the all important and often elusive and overlooked, "word of mouth" marketing. I'd all but given up on having anyone so much as smile at me here until two experiences this past weekend bolstered my faith: one from an expected place, and another from a most unexpected.

The first was at the Four Seasons in London. Okay, okay-- cheating, I know. The brand is all about service, and they did not disappoint. I LOVE the Four Seasons. It's my favorite hotel and I would live there if I could. I've only ever stayed there for work but a rockin' weekend rate (since Canary Wharf is sort of out of the way and primarily a business district) allowed for a leisure stay. Literally from the doorman to the maid service, this is the best example of customer service across any industry hands down. We arrived at 9 a.m.-- well before their designated check-in time (3 p.m.) because we had an event to attend in the morning. But rather than point out their check-in time in a "you should know better" kind of way that you typically get, they tried to find a room for us. But as they were fully booked the night before, they were unable to do so. We weren't expecting to check in-- just to drop our luggage; but were pleasantly surprised when before even asking us if we wanted to check our luggage, they inquired as to if we wanted to use their workout facilities which had a fully-stocked bath and shower-room to freshen up. Umm-- yes please! We were ceremoniously shown to the lovely bathroom with all the L'Occitane amenities where we freshened up (from our 2 hour train journey-- well, why not) before returning to reception to check our bags. From there one of the staff took our bags and then walked us to the front door, apologizing for the "inconvenience" of our room not being ready 6 hours ahead of schedule and to make up for it, they'd upgraded our room which included an amazing view of the water. Okay, okay- so I'm not that much of a sucker that I don't realize that obviously they were not full and they had rooms to spare. But why don't I care? Because MOST places wouldn't do this. And that my friends, is why the Four Seasons is incomparable not only in the hotel industry, but in any industry.

The next came from an unexpected place-- GHD, the hair straightening super tool dominating the market today. Mine had broken-- there was some sort of short in the electrical circuit (which was causing some concern of potential fire). Now, these are not cheap things. At 99 GBP (before the 20% sales tax-- making the total price about $180 US), you expect these things to last. So when mine petered out a little over a year after purchase (and I nowhere near use this thing daily), I was a little miffed. I knew it had a 2-year warranty, but darned if I could find it. So online I went and found information about repairs and returns which required a proof of purchase only. Thwarted again. I knew I had bought it at my hair salon, but obviously didn't save the receipt. I was able to find what could have been the purchase in my bank statements, so I crossed my fingers, threw caution to the wind and sent it off to the designated returns address fully expecting it to be rejected or at best, to be charged for the repair.

A loud knock on my door early this morning found the Royal Mail standing at the door. "MRN! Did you order another power tool?" I shouted up the stairs. The negative reply had me opening the box to find-- a BRAND SPANKING NEW straightener-- the latest on the market and more expensive version than my current (which they still retail). Huh?! A letter confirmed that they had received my broken straightener, apologizing profusely for the problem and confirming that they follow the strictest safety regulations. AWESOME. Now I am a GHD loyalist-- not only for product quality but mostly for freaking good customer service. What can I say? I'm easy.

Now, I know these aren't necessarily crazy examples of people performing virtual acts of God in the name of good customer service. Maybe just another example of getting what you pay for-- or perhaps it just speaks to the lower (jaded) expectations that we as a society have. But I say hurray for the Four Seasons and GHD for their gold standard, above and beyond approach to service. Keep fighting the good fight. Leading by example, I think, is the way we change the world. Small steps.

Friday, May 06, 2011

House Guest

I've had very few house guests since moving to the UK, and none longer than a couple of nights at most. This guy is with us for two weeks while my sister-in-law and new brother-in-law are on their honeymoon. While it's not giving me any sort of urge to have a pet (my house is too small and my aversion to mess and smells is not doing well under the pressure although I have to say I'm coping remarkably well with the hair), this little one (he's still an adolescent) is certainly a lover. He is seriously the most cuddly cat I've ever come into contact with and wants to be in your lap and petted all the time. Plus he looks remarkably like my childhood cat, Max (with the exception of his amber eyes; Max's were green), making me instantly fall in love with him-- cat hair and all. This is him within an hour of his arrival with us-- helping me out with work. I have to say, analysis of health care spending across the G7 has been a lot more pleasant with his company.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Demographic Depression

I'm kind of depressed. It must be the first time that I've completed any type of survey since my last birthday, but in filling one out for a recent hotel stay, I realized that I've now officially bumped into the 35-44 age bracket. And that is a little depressing.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Both Sides Now

Seems apropos after the Austen post-- I love Mindy Gledhill's cover of Joni Mitchell's classic "Both Sides Now."

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Sense or Sensibility

I love me some Jane Austen-- well, I'm partial to most 19th century English romantic novelists. But Jane is the one I return to time and time again. I suppose living in England brings more of this period of time to life-- especially in light of the recent pomp and circumstance of the Royal Wedding. But whether it's re-reading my already dog-eared novels or watching a BBC (or Hollywood) interpretation, they make me laugh and inevitably make me cry-- both from happiness and also from nostalgia. What is it about these characters that so resonate with me?

Perhaps with Jane (may I call her Jane? Or is Miss Austen more appropriate?) it is because her own history is so often reflected on the pages of her novels, giving her characters soul. If you've studied Austen and know anything of her early life (or if you've seen the "historical" film "Becoming Jane") her personal misfortune (not being able to marry the man she loves because of her station in life and his needing to marry someone of fortune to provide for his extended family) inspired the characters she wrote to always live happily ever after-- regardless of class, money, pride or prejudice. For Jane's characters, love always triumphed. A surprisingly modern notion in such Victorian times.

I've always related to Jane's more sensible characters-- Elizabeth Bennett, Eleanor Dashwood... the slightly stubborn but entirely proper ones where the right thing far outweighed the heart thing. But the older I get, and the more I re-read the novels, I get the impression that there's more depth and dimension to Jane's characters and like real life, things aren't always black and white.

"Sense and Sensibility" is by far my favorite of Jane's oeuvre. The circumstance of the Dashwood family, the women produced through a second marriage being turned out of their luxurious life because the heir-- a son, was product of the first marriage. The proper Eleanor suffering silently at the loss of her beloved Edward while the headstrong and passionate Marianne loves fully and unconditionally for everyone to see and then later suffers painfully outwardly in all of the same glory. The spectrum of the women's lives converge in the novel; Eleanor begins in a place where her head and propriety rules, and Marianne at the opposite end of the spectrum only meet in the middle before diverging again, their roles having switched. Eleanor, now believing that love ultimately wins out and Marianne more sensible and practical, marrying not without love, but without the abandonment that your first, true love brings. It turns out that Eleanor is the Cinderella character-- the stuff of fairy tales. While Marianne is the reality. The more I contemplate this, the more I realize that perhaps there is more Marianne in me than I'd thought. That perhaps the more sensible ones are so because they were formerly all sensibility, and that the sensibility has, in some ways, been beaten out of them... due to bad experiences, disappointments or I guess what we call life in general. I guess that's the trade off for growing wiser-- losing your blissful innocence. But sometimes I do wish I had hearkened the day where you believed there was only good in the world; and that no one would ever hurt you and no one you loved ever got hurt. I suppose that I see myself in both women although I can't help but feel that Eleanor's circumstance was luckier-- that maybe the surprise of love winning out is better than the defeat that it does not always.

Do you have an Austen (or other literary) doppelganger? Who is it?