Archive for January, 2006

An Open Letter to Fellow Wine Country Drivers

Sunday, January 29th, 2006

I’m sincerely sorry, but half the time, I simply don’t know what the speed limit is. It changes about 10 times during my 20 mile drive to school, and every other street here seems to have its own special speed limit(s). Signs such as “End 50 mph zone” or a lone “speed monitored by radar” do not help me. The speed limit is often on my mind, and yet I see the cars behind me more than I see speed limit signs. Or I see one, but it gets jumbled up with all the other speed limits around. Unless I’m sure, I tend to average it out at 45 mph. I think this is fair. I know that this dips a little when I glance at beautiful scenery or look for a turn off. You’re all very nice about it–I’ve never noticed an unkind look or gesture (and I’m not offended if you pass me and think that I’m a tourist)–but I want you to know that I’m aware of the problem and am working on it.

I also want take this opportunity to apologize for revving my engine when you fail to immediately go when a red light changes to green.

Mexican Wines at COPIA

Sunday, January 29th, 2006

COPIA is the American Center for Wine, Food, & the Arts located in downtown Napa. Yesterday, they had a free Wines of Mexico walk-around wine tasting. Paired with its free admission to COPIA for the month of January, it drew a large crowd, despite the persistent rains.The show featured the wine-growing region of Baja, California, which is comprised of three valleys near Ensenada, about 60 miles south of San Diego. Thanks to an Arctic current that pulls cold water up from the depths of the ocean to create a Mediterranean-like micro-climate in this area, it has become a wine growing region. Wine has been made their on and off for the past 300 years. Oddly enough, in 1905, it was a colony of Russians who had arrived and revived its vineyards, which have been producing and multiplying ever since.

The show was exceedingly well done. The tables were arranged on the perimeter of the room, so that all you had to do was walk up, wait for a few people in front of you, and then have a choice of about 4 wines to try. One table even had grappa. There were a few food tables and plenty of room. None of the wines were for sale, it was just a tasting. I have to admit, I felt like I was stealing–so much free stuff so graciously offered.

I wish I’d liked more wines, but I was jolted by a zinfandel with a syrupy sweet start…. a sour cabernet sauvignon…. a puckery syrah. I guess I like balanced wines, so if a strong flavor bursts out, I retreat. But I did enjoy the refreshing, crisp Chardonnay Reserva 2004 at Vinicola L.A. Cetta.


Cavas Valmar was my favorite, with its Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 and a smooth, subtly spicy Tempranillo 2003. I would have liked to buy a bottle.


Upstairs, COPIA has its museum exhibits about food and wine (including a wall of Julia Child’s pots and pans–soooo much copper).


There was also an exhibit of art made from recycled materials/junk for some reason. Outside there is an Edible Garden that I didn’t see because of the rains. Its restaurant, Julia’s Kitchen, looked like rather superb fine dining.So, is COPIA worth its regular $12.50 admission? Maybe its the modern architecture that makes it seem like there isn’t much there for the large space (although it is beautiful), so my advice would be to go when there is an appealing event. If it’s as classily done as the Mexican Wine Tasting, it’s a great value and a lot of fun. And luckily, they have events going on all time. But no matter when you go, there is wine tasting included in your visit–for instance, even yesterday, in addition to the profusion of Mexican wineries, Sonoma’s own La Crema was featured at the Wine Spectator Tasting Table.

In Pursuit of Boo-berry

Saturday, January 28th, 2006

I made strawberry marshmallows a few weeks ago, and I thought that it would be fun to try blueberries instead.They turned out satisfyingly bouncy and are slightly denser and moister than store bought ones. Blueberries have a mild flavor, esp when added into recipes, but I like the subtlety of it. Blueberries paired with chocolate is good, so I may cover a few of them in tempered melted chocolate.

If you really want a fruit flavor, though, go with the strawberries. Or perhaps, raspberries.

Marshmallows are considered a somewhat advanced confection to make at home, because it involves boiling sugar to about 240 degrees, setting the mixer to high, and pouring the hot liquid in. The only trick is not missing the bowl and pouring onto the side of the bowl, not the whisk. I find it empowering. I swear, the mixer won’t explode. I guess it also involves actually having a stand mixer and a candy thermometer. It’d probably hurt a handheld mixer to do this.

The recipe here has been halved. The marshmallow mixture in the mixer grows as it get firmer, and the original recipe made too much for my 5 qt mixer–I had to bail out about half of it from the bowl so that the pink blob wouldn’t take over my kitchen.

Strawberry Marshmallows

These are a variation on a Martha Stewart recipe.

2 envelopes gelatin
1/4 c strawberry puree (or raspberries or blueberries; frozen is actually better than fresh unless you have access to very flavorful local berries)
5 oz water
1.5 c sugar
5 oz light corn syrup
1/8 tsp salt
1/8 tsp orange flower water (optional)
powdered sugar and potato or corn starch for dusting

Lightly butter or oil a shallow baking pan, about 13 x 17, and sprinkle with sifted cornstarch. Fit the mixer with the whisk attachment.

Mix the strawberry puree, orange flower water (if using) and 1/2 cup of the water in the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle the gelatin over to soften.

Put the sugar, corn syrup, remaining 3/4 cup water and salt in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook until it reaches the soft-ball stage (234-240 F).

With the mixer at full speed, pour all of the hot syrup slowly down the side of the bowl. Be careful as the mixture is very liquid and hot at this point and some may splash out of the bowl – use a splash guard if you have one. whip until the mixture is very fluffy and stiff, about 8-10 minutes. pour mixture into the prepared pan and smooth with an oiled offset spatula so that it’s level. Allow the mixture to sit, uncovered at room temp for 10 to 12 hours.

Mix equal parts powdered sugar and potato or corn starch and sift generously over the rested marshmallow slab. Loosen the sides with a spatula. Turn it out onto a cutting board or counter and dust with more sugar/starch mixture. Slice with a thin-bladed oiled knife or oiled cookie cutters. Dip all cut edges in sugar/starch mixture and shake off excess. Marshmallows will keep several weeks at room temp in an air-tight container.

Variation – Chocolate Marshmallows:

Replace strawberry puree and initial 1/2 cup of water in mixing bowl with 1/2 cup of cocoa disolved in 1/2 cup boiling water in a separate bowl. Soften gelatine in an additional 1/4 cup cold water in mixing bowl. Add cocoa mixture to mixing bowl and procede with recipe as above. This will produce a marshmallow with a strong chocolate flavor, but somewhat denser than the strawberry version. To get a lighter texture as well as a lighter chocolate flavor, reduce cocoa to 1/4 cup.

Variation – Vanilla Marshmallows:

Replace strawberry puree and initial 1/2 cup of water in mixing bowl with 3/4 cup water and 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract or the seeds scraped from 2 vanilla beans.

Conversion, via Prune Gateau Basque

Friday, January 27th, 2006

Having all the ingredients for a recipe is half the challenge of baking. Almost having all the ingredients is frustrating, but at least lends itself to some innovation.I’ve been wanting to make this Prune Gateau Basque for quite a while. Prunes have become a pariah in the world of dried fruits, unless they are specifically bought for their digestive properties. But sometimes I get bored of all the common flavors, and the prune seems like a candidate for some innovative uses. It is, after all, a dried plum, and I like plums.

There is a movement now to market them as dried plums, but I think this new move is confusing an issue. Prunes are always whole dried plums, but what’s marketed as dried plums can either be whole dried plums or plums that have been cut in half and dried; and in some case, completely different varieties of plums are used depending on the wholeness or the halfness. In the world of apricots, Turkish apricots are whole dried apricots while California apricots are apricots that have been cut in half and dried. So, I am going to put my foot down and think that prunes are to turkish apricots as dried plums are to California apricots.

Anyway, in this case, prunes were in order, and since I’d bought a bag of prunes a while ago, I thought I’d use that. And this is where my journey into conversion-land began. The recipe calls for 8 oz, and I had 6 ounces of rather dry organic prunes. That’s 75% what I need. When you put the filling in, you’re supposed to leave a 1/2 inch border, so I figured I would just have a wider border and thinner fruit layer.

Then it calls for armagnac, rum, and anise liquor. I didn’t have any anise liquor. Ok. Cointreau seemed like a very assertive substitution, so I settled on maraschino liqueur. It has a floral, almost pistachio-like flavor, even though it’s made of cherries, and is great in a cocktail called an Aviation. And since I used 75% of the prunes, I cut the alcohol by 75% each. There are 3 tsp in every tbs, so I used 2 tsp instead. I don’t like alcohol to overpower desserts, so I was ok with the slight decrease. I did increase the water, though. I boiled the mixture and let it cool, but the prunes still seemed very tough, so I set it back to boil and added yet more water to compensate for the water that had steamed off. Eventually, they were soft, and I was happy.

Until I looked at the almonds. 1/2 cup sliced blanched almonds. I had whole almonds and almond meal. This is why measurement by weight rocks while measurement by is shaky ground. I googled the weight of the almonds called for, and found 40 grams. So I substituted 40g of almond meal since the almonds were to be pulverized in the food processor anyway.

I also used the Plugra butter instead of regular butter, but I decreased the amount just a touch, because it does have higher fat content, and I didn’t want it too saturated with butter.

I also used less almond extract and more vanilla extract, which in total equaled 2 tsp, because I like vanilla better than almond and knew that the almond flavor would be plenty prominent anyway.

I was able to follow the rest of the recipe without a hitch.

And Gateau Basque is a cake traditional to the Basque region of France, which is by the northern part of the Spanish border. The first time I bought one in Biarritz, I didn’t know what it was. It just looked like a flat yellow cake. It turned out to be a senstation of ground almonds and cherry preserves. They seemed to be made differently at every bakery; sometimes filled with pastry cream, sometime dense, sometimes light. So, filling it with prune fits in with its adaptable nature.

This one turned out very well. A moist, flavorful almond cake and deeply flavored, almost gooey prune center with delicate floral notes. I also had plenty of filling, despite the 75% quantity made.


Prune Gateau Basque
one 9-inch cake
from Ripe for Dessert by David Lebovitz

Prune Filling:
8 oz pitted prunes, quartered (about 1 cup)
3 tbs Armagnac or brandy
1 tbs rum
1 tbs anise-flavored liquor, such as ouzo, pastis, or anisette
Grated zest of 1/2 orange
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup waterDough:
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup sliced blanched almonds
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup sugar
8 tbs butter (1 stick), unsalted, at room temp
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp almond extract

1 large egg yolk
1 tsp milk or cream

To make prune filling: Heat the prunes in a saucepan with the armagnac, rum, anise liquor, orange zest, sugar, and water. When the liquid comes to a boil, remove them from the heat and let stand until the prunes are tender.

To make the dough: In the bowl of a food processor, process the flour, almonds, baking powder, and salt until the almonds are finely ground. Add the sugar and the butter and process until the butter is in tiny pieces. Add the egg, the egg yolk, and the almond and vanilla extracts and process until the dough is smooth.

Divide the dough into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other. Wrap each piece in plastic, shape into a disk, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, until firm.

In the bowl of the food processor, pulse the prunes and their cooking liquid together until the mixture forms a slightly chunky puree.

Position the oven rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9-inch springform pan, and tap out any excess.

To assemble the tart, remove the larger disk of dough from the refrigerator. Heavily dust both sides with flour, and roll out between 2 sheets of plastic wrap into a 10-inch circle. Remove the top sheet of plastic wrap and drape the dough, unwrapped side down, over the springform pan. Gently press the dough to fit into the bottom and partway up the sides of the pan. Peel the other piece of plastic away from the dough carefully to avoid tearing the dough (if you do, dip your hand in flour and pinch any tears together).

Spread the prune filling over the dough in the springform pan, leaving a 1/2 inch border uncovered.

Dust the remaining disk of dough with flour and roll it out into a 9-inch circle between sheets of plastic wrap. Remove the top sheet, invert the circle of dough, and center it on top of the prune filling. Peel away the plastic wrap. Trim any excess dough from the bottom circle where it goes up the sides of the pan and fold the edge of that circle back over the upper piece of dough, pressing down gently to seal in the filling.

To make the glaze: Beat the egg yolk with the milk or cream and brush the top of the gateau. Make a crosshatch pattern in the top by raking the dough with the tines of a fork.

Bake the tart for 40 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from oven and cool completely before removing the sides of the springform pan and serving.


Friday, January 27th, 2006

Angwin. Such a great name that makes me think of an ancient and noble hamlet nestled into the Welsh countryside. Instead, it’s a town of about 2500 people at about 2000 ft elevation that is nestled into the Napa countryside 7 miles northeast of St. Helena. It fuels the Angwin Reporter.

I’m still trying to figure out what happened on my visit.

After a beautiful ascent up the side of a hill, careening soooo close to steep dropoffs, I saw the decorative “Angwin” town sign. Then there was a strip mall with a such things as grocery market, a laundromat, and a post office. I’d heard that there was a college named Pacific Union College here, and across the street, its campus started. At the next intersection, there were signs for college buildings to the right. I continued straight in search of downtown, and found myself driving through a tunnel of evergreen trees. A sign warned me that there would be curvy roads for the next 4 miles. So, I made a left and eventually circled back through a residential area to the strip mall, which I guess is Angwin’s downtown. And that was it.

Back when I was desperately looking for an apartment, I almost looked at one in Angwin. My desperation would have remained. It’s not a bad town, but I think I missed exactly what people do there…. where people go…. where people are….

I wanted to take pictures, but the sun wasn’t right for the strip mall itself, so this is the view looking across the street….


I descended back down the road, and hopped out of the car at a turn off.






There were other turn offs with great views of the valley, but I was too busy keeping track of the curves to stop in time for them.I took the Silverado Trail back to Napa, which runs parallel to Hwy 29 on the east, and is somewhat of a locals’ road. It’s slightly curvy, right on the fields, and people drive really fast on it. Part of it looks like this.


The mustard is starting to come up, and soon the valley will be blanketed in yellow. It’s a big deal here. The Grand Opening Event of the Napa Valley Mustard Festival is being held at the CIA this weekend, and word is that it will be packed.