I have a terrible sweet tooth (as you may have divined if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time), but my sweet tooth is not typical. Not for me the sweetness overload, the gooey cakes, the sugary cookies and candies. I prefer a more subtle sweetness, balanced by savory, or tart, or nutty flavors. Something that could easily be served for breakfast or afternoon tea. Enter the clafoutis. A classic French dessert that’s sometimes described as a custard, sometimes as a pancake. It is a custard with flour, a pancake with more cream. Or it’s own thing. An eggy, custardy, but not insubstantial dessert with a subtle sweetness that is braced by whatever fruit it is made with. It’s not much to look at, generally — it’s really a country casserole, with nubs of fruit poking through a golden, eggy crust. It’s practically foolproof to make, and the batter comes together almost instantaneously. And yes, I am hooked. [...]
Bread pudding. The words themselves are hardly inspiring. Stodgy, pedestrian, British, with those overtones of school dining halls and hospital food. There are some truly execrable bread puddings — dry, almost crusty, with little discernible flavor other than that provided by a few sugary raisins, and no give. And frankly, most bread puddings I’ve had in even the best bakeries and restaurants have been in this mold — cut into neat squares and utterly unappetizing. But a good homemade bread pudding is a different beast. This is spoon food, creamy and gooey and served warm from the oven in a bowl. Bread and milk and eggs and sugar combine to form an alchemy — no longer distinct elements but something altogether new and wonderful. Comforting and exciting all at once, bread pudding has the potential to hit exactly the right dessert spot. Bread puddings can range from the basic bread and butter pudding, also known as “make a dessert from things in your pantry” to the very fancy indeed. This one is somewhere in between. It is an easy bread pudding, make no mistake about that. And most of the ingredients are in my pantry, but the basic sandwich bread and milk and eggs is kicked up a notch — the bread is a brioche (the best bread for bread pudding hands down, if you can find it), spread with a sweet and tart raspberry jam. The custard is thickened with cream and scented with the floral aromas of Tahitian vanilla extract and Amontillado sherry. And to top it off, the pudding is taken from the pedestrian to the porsche with a topping of creamy, dreamy, meringue, browned to perfection. [...]
My darling daughter very recently turned two. The Nuni is growing up — getting more independent, more vocal, more affectionate, more skilled. She chatters and tumbles and climbs her way through life. The Nuni was quite pleased to have a birthday, especially one that involved bubbles and balloons and cake, and has been known to sing a rousing chorus of “HAPU CAKEY NUNI!” six or seven times a day.
I, on the other hand, now have to live with a two year old, which means that my life is now full of more drama than the Real Housewives of New York. Either a tutu is too short or a spoon is too shiny or I am not promptly answering some silent or intelligible command and then you better WATCH OUT. On the other hand, there are kisses and pretend play (“I cooking Mommy!” being my favorite, natch) and a constant source of entertainment. So it all balances out, I suppose.
But I digress. Birthdays are the name of the game, and if you are me, that means birthday cake, and homemade birthday cake at that. I asked the Nuni several times before her birthday party what kind of cake she would like — Strawberry cake? (She loves strawberries) Orange cake? (My personal favorite) Gateau d’Opera? Being two, she would only answer me with the cryptic “Green Cake”. Now I could have taken this in any one of a number of directions — all organic, local and sustainable ingredients? Chock full of spinach and zucchini? But I decided to treat this as simply a color request. I thought I’d stay simple, not only for my general sanity this year but also because I hope to establish a precedent of a rather basic cake that would become the standard, de rigeur birthday cake. (I shudder to think what I put my own mother through. My standard request throughout my childhood was something I called “purgatory cake” – angels food on top, devil’s food on the bottom, with a chocolate mousse filling and seven minute frosting. Can you imagine the number of bowls?)
I decided on chocolate cake, because, well, it’s chocolate cake, and no further explanation should be necessary. I scoured my cookbook library, websites and back issues of cooking magazines to find the perfect chocolate cake recipe, and I think this may just be it. It’s moist but structured enough to stand up to layering and frosting, chocolatey without being bitter or too intense, and relatively simple to mix (although it does take two bowls). It would take to a good chocolate frosting, but to accede to my daughter’s request for a “geen” cake, I went with a white frosting and green food coloring — cream cheese frosting because I like it better than buttercream, and white chocolate for richness and pizzazz. Finally, I dug out my old cake decorating chops and decorated it with chocolate plastic, in no small part because I can’t pipe frosting to save my life.
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People who don’t live in Los Angeles say that we don’t have seasons. The sun is always shining, the grass is always green, it’s always swimming pool weather. That’s not entirely true. We have seasons. In the winter it rains and the world is green. The spring is full of marine layers and fog, studded with purple jacaranda blooms. Summer is hot and dry and brown and ridden with wildfires. In the fall it smells of dirt and the Japanese maple trees in Beverly Hills turn glorious colors and the silkfloss trees burst into glorious pink blooms. We have seasons.
They just don’t change in September.
September in Los Angeles just an extension of summer, with less vacation and more traffic. At its worst that means triple digit temperatures, smoke filled skies from wildfires, and faded, stretched out summer clothes that need another month’s wear squeezed out of them. But I like to think of this as a little blessing of Indian summer — sunny mornings warm enough to eat breakfast on the patio, evenings with a light breeze that are the perfect temperature for gin and tonics, tomatoes that continue to ripen on the vine, and summer fruits at the markets. Simple. [...]