molasses & moonshine

just a little something sweet.

Levain Buttermilk Waffles

It has been almost exactly 2 years since I wrote anything around here, so it seems anti-climactic to break the silence for a waffle recipe, but on the other hand maybe just a little something sweet is just the thing.
I got 2 waffle makers for Christmas this year. People who love me apparently also know me pretty well. My platonic ideal of a waffle resembles a cannelé bordelaise, dark and crispy on the outside and custardy in the inside, with a nice open crumb, and this recipe yields just that.
I adapted it from smitten kitchen’s yeasted waffle recipe here which worked really well, in case you don’t have starter lying around. (I did sub raw sugar & buttermilk when I made hers.)


levain buttermilk waffles

2 cups buttermilk
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup butter, melted & cooled
1/2 cup levain
2 cups flour (I used all-purpose this time, but this is flexible.)
1 1/2 tsp. raw sugar
1 1/2 tsp. sea salt
2 eggs
1/2 tsp. baking soda

the night before;
warm buttermilk and water separately to baby-bottle temperature (just warm on the wrist.) You may not want to add all the water, depending on how wet your levain is, so reserve that aside.
stir butter into buttermilk, gently stir in starter.
sprinkle sugar over wet, stir to dissolve.
gently whisk flour & salt into buttermilk mixture, a little at a time to avoid lumps.
the batter should resemble pancake batter in thickness- add some water if needed until you achieve the desired consistency.
cover and let sit at room temperature overnight.
in the morning;
warm your eggs to room temperature by letting them sit in a bowl of hot tap water for about 15 minutes.
sift the baking soda into the batter & stir, scramble your eggs up and stir all together until mixed in.
bake in a waffle iron- you know the drill.
eat up.


Mendocino Mushrooming.

My fingers smell like maple syrup and that’s not going to change anytime soon. I just put away a tray of candy cap mushrooms that were drying in my oven overnight, and the smell of them is so powerful and persistent that wafts of that smell will linger in my kitchen and on my person for days.
Until yesterday I had never gone foraging for mushrooms on purpose before, although I have had it in my mind to. I have occasionally picked up mushrooms on hikes with friends when the goal was supplementing our rations. In the backcountry of Big Sur once with a savvy crew we found a field of fat, pristine Chanterelles that were surprisingly radish-spicy peppery right out of the ground and rich, buttery, meaty, earthy when we grilled them on our little bunsen-burner camping stoves in the rain and ate them three meals a day for the rest of the trip. My desire for more has not faded even a little bit with the passage of years since that trip.
A crew from the restaurant has been going up North on Mondays to find mushrooms for the kitchen and they were nice enough to let me tag along. We had to go way north, partly because it has been a holiday weekend and the lower Sonoma Coast has been pretty well picked over but also because a downright tragic lack of winter rain in the Bay Area has left conditions much too dry for fungus to proliferate closer to home. So I curled up in the backseat of a cook’s Honda Civic at 4 am and headed out over the bridge to Northern California. I haven’t seen that much wake ‘n’ bake or so many 7-11 stops since UC Santa Cruz, but the bagels and lox made by headlamp in the backseat were killer and I really kinda dug the cranked-up Parliament after a few minutes. Listening to T-Rex as the sun came up over the Yorkville highlands in Anderson Valley was one of those surreal film-like perfect moments in life. I drank 4 cups of coffee.
We got way out into the woods. The roads kept getting smaller until we backed the Civic into some tire ruts off a logging road just as it was getting light enough to see in the woods. We found the first mushrooms-Hedgehogs glowing like some Hayao Miyazaki spirit creatures-in a little hollow about five feet away from the car and knew it was going to be a good day. The morning was bountiful. We had no problem filling our buckets with Hedgehogs, Yellowfoot Chanterelles, the much-coveted Black Trumpets, and my personal pet mushroom of the day, the Candy Caps (I have a little sweet tooth.) We found a little hollow about halfway through the morning that was eerily magical; carpeted with Yellowfoots and Candy Caps arranged around a stump with some incredible rainbow-colored Conks the size of a Texan’s hat brim. In that hollow were also miniscule glowing red mushrooms smaller than a pin head, yellow mushrooms hanging from the underside of a mossy log like something from Fantasia and myriad other fungus, ferns, and birds I could easily wear out my keyboard going on and on about.
After our peanut butter and jelly lunch break we headed farther back on the trail, away from the wetter areas we had hunted the morning. We were looking for oaks and pines and manzanetas, hoping to find some of the bigger, meatier Chanterelles I remembered from Big Sur and some Matsutakes that would be much-lauded at the restaurant. We found some different kinds- Pig’s Ear Chanterelles and the lethal Amanitas we are all paranoid about (Destroying Angels), but the pace flagged a little as the woods got drier and, with half-full buckets, we called it a day and pointed the Civic back towards the bay.
My Hedgehog miso soup last night was better than I expected-I didn’t know I liked Hedgehogs so much-but the Pig’s Ears were disappointingly bland. I think they were a little over-the-hill, and I learned my lesson about listening to the experts and only eating mushrooms in good condition, not matter how excited you are to have found that type.
I’m looking forward even more to the rest of my winter hikes in the woods now that I can keep an eye to the ground with a few more edibles in mind besides nettles and Miner’s Lettuce and one kind of Chanterelle. Rain Dance, anyone?

Vanilla-Scented Quince and Pear Pie


the original vanilla-scented quince and pear pie

A few months ago I happened to come home from Bi-Rite Market with a few beautiful pears and quince. I didn’t know exactly what to do with them, but I had pie on the brain (as usual), and ended up putting together this one. My sister-in-law had sent me a link to a Saveur magazine pie recipe contest with a covetable Sur La Table gift certificate as a prize. There are endless combinations of things that I could spend $500 on at Sur La Table, (not hard) but I immediately thought of a large food processor. I have coveted one for years and am always having to work my way around recipes that call for their use (ahem. all of Alice Medrich’s cookies!) And maybe one of those beautiful Emile Henry pie dishes that I am always picking up and putting down…

I wrote down the recipe and took a few snaps of my pie. I had never written a recipe from scratch from beginning to end like that, and it took a few hours but mostly because I was having so much fun tinkering. I think the scientific method training I got from my ornithologist parents trickled in. I submitted it among a host of beautiful, well-loved pies (I was fairly sure the clementine cloud one would take the cake) and hoped for the best.

A few months went by and I honestly hadn’t thought about it much, what with Christmas and a new job. My husband kept hinting about the Christmas present he got for me- something that really put a twinkle in his eye and brought out his dimples. Christmas morning came and lo and behold, it was a 7-quart food processor!! With all the blades and accoutrements I had ever dreamed of.

And then I got an e-mail from Saveur a week later saying that I had won the pie recipe contest! They had tested the recipe in the test kitchen and apparently it was a hit! It was almost as exciting to me that they had been able to faithfully re-create my pie as it was that they had liked the pie itself. I called my mom and jumped up and down for awhile. I might have squealed a little bit. Okay- I squealed.

So now I have my food processor and a whopping gift certificate to the kitchen store. I have a million ideas, but let’s start with the pie dish. Blue, white, or red? Wait… or all three?!

See the recipe here: Announcing the Winner…

An Ode

the petite version

The first time I ever had Red Velvet Cake was after a crazy-busy waitressing shift at the Front Porch, and I remember that bite clear as day.

The Front Porch is an itty-bitty restaurant; half-lit, canted dizzily towards the street, tin-ceilinged and always packed.  When I worked there, back when it opened, the chef was a brilliant woman named Sarah Kirnon.  I regularly still reach back to things I learned from watching her work.  Her way of putting a dollop of the perfect salsa verde or chili sauce or homemade Habanero sauce-not too much, just perfect-is daily inspiring to me.  The restaurant was famous for her fried chicken, doused with buttermilk, lime, and said salsa verde and fried crackly-crispy, but the dishes I loved most about her were her Bajan-style stews, her way with fish, the things that came from her native Barbados.  There was always such a strong sense of surety in those dishes, as if there were some kind of cultural muscle memory there.  Sarah grew pots of broad-leafed thyme in the back of the restaurant so that she could get the exact flavor she was looking for her in her salsa verde.  Not for the sake of grow-your-own chic, but in pure pursuit of flavor.

Sarah brought in a Red Velvet Cake to sell for dessert that her neighbor in Oakland made.  To my knowledge it was my first time in the same room with one, and at the end of the night when there was a piece left over I split it with some of the other girls.  I had never had anything like it, and the moment stands out to me in time, snapshot crisp.  It was tangy and coy in a way that I had never known cake to be.  It wasn’t too sweet, wasn’t slutty with oil or butter or outrageously decadent.  It was dressed with an old-fashioned buttercream and with a restrained hand.  I have recipes in my arsenal for dark chocolate devil’s food that will make your eyes roll back in your head and recipes for lemon cake that will make you shiver, but before I even knew those I had to have this perfect girl-next-door of a cake for my own.  Unfortunately, getting the recipe out of Sarah’s octogenarian neighbor who got it from where-she-wouldn’t-say was never, ever, ever going to happen.  So I had to figure it out on my own.  It was one of the first recipes that I sought to create myself, with the end result in mind but the path to it murky and obscure.  I wasn’t a baker then like I am now.  I made banana bread sometimes and baked out of the Tassajara Bread Book whenever I got the chance, but I didn’t bake all day and then take my baking books to bed with me like I do now, to read and re-read them until my eyes cross.  I found a few recipes and did some research, but the early attempts were not even from the same planet as Sarah’s neighbor’s.  They were too sweet, not cocoa-y enough, certainly didn’t have that elusive tang.  Over the course of some years, every time I had an excuse I would try a different one, try tweaking it.  I slowly realized that there were keys; unfiltered, unpasteurized apple cider vinegar, just the right amount of just the right cocoa, everything just so, in just such an order.  After years of trying I have a recipe that I love now, that works every time, that bakes up perfectly and sells out no matter how many cupcakes I put in the case at the bakery.

Red Velvet is a polarizing cake.  Everyone I talk with about it seems to either love it or truly disdain it.  There are historical arguments and cultural anecdotes presented both for and against.  I am the first to admit that I am sentimental about it, which certainly colors my opinion.  And I will heartily agree that there are plenty of throw-away Red Velvets out there: white cake loaded up with white sugar, with two more tablespoons of food coloring than cocoa.  But it’s like a first love for me.  I will always be a sucker for it. And don’t misunderstand me: mine is still not as good as Sarah’s neighbor’s.  Happily, I will just have to keep trying.

late girls and sweet juliets

summer's bounty. all two pounds of it.

It’s time to change out the garden.  I hung  onto my tomatoes far longer than was reasonable, hoping that I would get some yield out of the crops.  I was so careful with them this year- you wouldn’t have recognized them as belonging to the same person who grew my tomatoes last year.  Last  year I was a devout subscriber of the “ laissez-faire“  style of gardening. This style involves putting a bunch of things together in a way that seems intuitively to make sense and then not trimming or watering and letting nature have its way.  I ended up with a primeval forest of tomatoes, corn, beans and squash that even I was a little intimidated by.  I got some vegetables, and the ones I got were good, but I also had too much of a mess to really negotiate I attracted all kinds of pestilence and even lost my dog in there a few times, (this is a 24 square foot garden and a 75 pound dog.)

So this year I subscribed to the Linda Worthman style of gardening.  Linda is my neighbor, great friend and gardening and rabbit-raising guru.  Her tomato plants grow beautifully neatly, evenly, and efficiently.  She builds a frame in her raised bed and ties pieces of rope between the frame and anchors in the beds.  As the plants grow she wraps them (widdershins) around the rope and they twine happily up.  She showed me how to pinch off the suckers (branches that won’t grow fruit and just suck the plant’s energy) and keep the plants to one large stalk with some fruit-bearing branches.

I edited my tomatoes this year.  I limited the water on the recommendation of my husband, who says it works for grapes, planted fewer plants, interplanted them with basil and marigolds.  I got NO pests at all which is astounding to me, considering how profoundly vexed I was by aphids and rats last year.  (Rats apparently like tomatoes.  So  do hound dogs, for that matter speaking of pests.)  I dutifully pulled suckers and wound stems and trimmed back wildness.  I added compost, rabbit poop, and coffee grounds to the beds.

And it never got hot.  This summer was another very cool summer in an area where we have typically cool summers anyway.  Growing tomatoes here is kind of shooting the moon.   Tomatoes love hot nights and stretches of heat that last for weeks.  Here, anytime it heats up at all the inland temperatures suck in fog of the cold Pacific ocean and we get socked in.  Tomatoes do Not. Like. Fog.  I will get strawberry crops that come and go from March until November, and can grow greens and other temperate crops year-round.  My olive and lemon trees couldn’t be happier. But it’s not really tomato climate.

So here it is, nearly Halloween, and I got my one and only humble tomato harvest last week.  After one final puny heat wave (a single 90-degree day here is a heat wave, and it was 50 when I got up at 4:30 that morning) I did finally get a few colored tomatoes.  The Juliets and the Sungolds fared best, and were, in the end, delicious.  Worth an entire summer of tending and fretting?  We will find out come Jaybird’s birthday in April next year, which I have designated as tomato planting season opener.  In the meantime, I have a few dozen jars of picalilli (green tomato relish) and pickled green tomatoes to get through.  Right now, I have done what Linda calls ‘The Dr. Seuss Thing’ to my plants in a final effort to get a little more fruit- I pulled off everything but the tomatoes that look like they could turn, given just a little more sun, so the stalks look like some tall twisted naked thing out of The Lorax.  Time to pull out my shooting-the-harvest-moon empty stalks and replace them with the trusty Bloomsdale spinach, nettles, Sicilian fennel, breakfast radishes, and spigarello that we will eat all winter long.  Now that the fingernail biting summer season is over, just when the rest of the world is tucking in their beds for the year, it’s my turn to plant the things I can count on to grow.  I can’t wait for the favas…

kitchen garden

strawberry lemonade cake

a slice of summer.

A cake is something that needs a good reason to come into being.  It needs a robust celebration, unlike cookies or candies which will happen with a very small excuse (I feel like cookies! will usually do.)  I think this is partially because it takes a village to eat a cake, and partially because a cake taken at all seriously is more like a work of architecture (all that building up and spackling) than it is like other baked goods.

I had been itching to bake a cake, but with no milestone events or holidays in the middle of summer I hadn’t quite mustered up the mustard to put one together.  So when Omnivore Books announced a cake contest last week, I decided that was plenty good enough reason to bake one.

I actually couldn’t sleep the first night after I heard about the contest.  I lay imagining what I was going to make; I wanted to make something summery (sorry chocolate, I love you, but not now) and classic.  I dug out all my favorite baking books and spent a few hours in my favorite blue paisley armchair and came out with a Maida Heatter recipe for a lemon cake and someone’s grandmother’s esoteric buttercream icing recipe from Chowhound. I decided I would make a few layers of the lemon cake and soak them with the same lemon verbena syrup I have been making lemonade with lately and then make a few layers of a strawberry cake using similar proportions as the lemon cake but with buttermilk and strawberries.  The icing recipe called for starting with a roux made from flour and milk and then whipping the cooled roux into creamed sugar and butter.  It called for much less sugar and butter than any other recipe I could find and I had high hopes.  I have long been looking for an icing recipe that would hold up to whimsical decorations but not make the eater feel ill after a few bites.

The cakes  came out beautifully flat, even and moist thanks to wet strips of towel tied around the springform pans and to a soaking of the lemon verbena simple syrup.  Even the strawberry, which I was kind of winging, turned out pretty pink and very strawberry flavored.  The icing turned out better than I could have even hoped; perfectly textured, very durable, and lightly flavored not at all sickly sweet.  I used an adorable tutorial from I am Baker for making simple, large roses with the buttercream.

I decorated the towering cake on an awesome Target cake plate and made an elaborate system of support involving a big plastic tub, my cast iron dutch oven for support, and very many kitchen towels.  I cranked up the AC and directed all blowers at the cake and then….

Sat on the Bay Bridge.

For an hour

and a half.

And missed the contest.

But I had gotten the excuse I needed to undertake a cake and had found a holy grail of a buttercream recipe to boot.  I cut into the cake and tried to feed as much of it as I could to anyone who would take who was left at the bookstore but I still ended up with a half of a five layer cake-no mean feat to eat.  I took it to my neighbors. I pushed it on my husband.  I took it to the climbing gym and had the nice guys behind the counter announce over the PA; “free cake!”

It’s finally all gone, but I can’t wait to do it again.  I just need a good enough excuse…

a brief history of thyme