Archive for April, 2006

Bistro Don Giovanni – Napa

Monday, April 24th, 2006

I admit it. When I have a bad meal at a restaurant, I’m not just disappointed — I’m offended. How dare a restaurant sell bad food to an innocent guest like me? It wastes food, money, and calories.

These are the thoughts that Bistro Don Giovanni brings to mind. Every dish was doused in oil and unevenly flavored. I was so offended that I didn’t even order dessert, because I care for dessert too much. Instead, Chad and I fought over the bill, volleying back and forth with “No, you shouldn’t have to pay for this meal…”

Maybe this place survives because it’s right off the highway after the town of Napa, where people who’ve just gotten to the Valley look for a place to eat; or maybe we were there on a very off day; or maybe, it’s all just a matter of taste. I prefer to use my blog as a way to share things that I like, but in a case like this, I feel like others, especially those visiting the Valley with only a few meals to enjoy, should be warned. Another warning: only one men’s room and one women’s room for the entire place. Be prepared for a line. Also, our waitress barely gave us the time of day (and I’m not usually picky about service).

Gio Martini

This is the Mintarita. Given the preparation and glass, I don’t know why it’s not called a Mintini. We also couldn’t figure out how it got onto the menu — those chopped bits of mint on top are not meant for a drink. They get stuck in your teeth and on your lips. They have bad texture in liquid. Chad said it was like drinking out of a pond. That’s why herbs should be muddled in drinks. We had no spoon to skim them off, but then the drink itself wasn’t worth drinking either. It had an unpleasantly sharp flavor combination of tequila, mint, and lime juice… even though, if properly done, I think it could work. And that lime in there is already squeezed. Is a fresh lime wedge too much to ask for?

Gio Bruschetta

My appetizer was the Bruschetta with Sonoma Duck Rillettes, Melted Leeks, and Aged Balsamic. Taste: salty olive oil and greens.


A Queen of Puddings for St. George’s Day

Sunday, April 23rd, 2006

Note: This post is part of the What’s For Pud event in honor of St. George’s Day hosted by Becks & Posh and Jam Faced.

Queen  Puddings

When I lived in London for a year, friends from the States would often ask me concerned questions about the food. And I’d share what I’d learned with them: give the English sugar, and they know what to do with it. I had wonderful desserts in England… Sticky toffee pudding, flapjacks, rock cakes, bakewell tarts, bread and butter pudding, Hobnobs, trifles (Marks & Spencers had good ones), McVities Digestives, Jaffa Cakes, Aero bars, anything Cadbury, plum pudding… I became addicted to all of them, and more.

For this event, I wanted to try something new, so I chose this recipe for a Queen of Puddings. It’s a lovely dessert with a base of custard that’s thickened with breadcrumbs (no add’l flour or starch necessary), topped with jam (I used marionberry), and covered with meringue. The result is light and fluffy, with a wonderful sweet mix of vanilla, lemon, and marionberry flavors. I couldn’t stop eating it — and I even had a box of pastries from Bouchon Bakery waiting for me on the counter that just had to keep on waiting.

Happy St. George’s Day!

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Filled Cakes Wrap Up

Saturday, April 22nd, 2006

You can now purchase my handmade candy bars and marshmallows at
Our Basic & Classical Cakes block is divided into two segments: Filled Cakes/Tortes and Unfilled Cakes/Tarts. Each one lasts 7 days (including a practical), and I was in filled cakes first. Here’s a sampling of what was made by my 3-person team (we sometimes each decorated our own cake or made one cake for the whole team). They are mostly sponge cakes with a kind of cream filling/frosting.

Buttercream Cake

We began with basic layer cakes. This is a Sponge Cake with Poire William Buttercream Icing. Puffed rice is adhered to the bottom sides. To decorate it, you cut a sponge cake in thirds (and trimming any uneven parts on top) while holding it flat on the table and slowly spinning it with one hand as you saw the knife horizontally, mostly holding it in one place as the cake moves to have it cut. Once you cut off one third, you just have to cut the remaining piece in half. Then we put it on an 8″ cardboard (the same size as the cake), and brushed each layer with Poire William flavored simple syrup before spreading icing on it as level as possible. I always tried to put slightly less icing in the middle, because that area usually wound up with too much and made a slightly domed caked (I think my slices of cake also tended to be thicker in the middle). And the height of the icing should be about half the height of the cake layers. Once all the layers were on, we put it on a rotating cake stand and put a thin icing coating on the top and sides (filling in icing between the layers), and chilled it before putting on the rest of the icing. This is called a Crumb Coat because it captures the crumbs from the cake in one layer, and lets you have a smooth finish with the rest of the icing. We then transferred it to a 10″ cardboard with a grease-proof doily glued onto it (icing under the doily gives it a messy look once pieces are taken away). We cut it and then decorated the top.

Buttercream Slice

Once you slice it and pull a piece out, you can measure the success of your cutting and icing work. Actually, now that I think about it, you could probably take most of the guesswork out of whether you filled it evenly if you establish how much filling you need per layer and weigh it out for subsequent layers and cakes.

Chocolate Hazel Cake Open

The trick with this Chocolate Hazelnut Cream Cake was that a regular sponge had to be cut into 5 slices — 5 very thin slices which had to be removed and integrated again; we put each on a cardboard round to make it a little easier. The chocolate cream (Creme Parisienne) also had to be made the day before because if you melt chocolate into cream, you have to wait a day or else it won’t whip up.

Passionfruit Charlotte

This is a Vanilla Charlotte with Raspberries and Passionfruit. The filling is a Bavarian cream, which is made from a creme anglaise that has gelatin and whipped cream incorporated into it. This cake, and most of the ones below, were assembled in a ring mold (the type I used for my 2 inch quiche) until completed. The passionfruit was too runny to simply put on top of the cake, so we added two melted gelatin sheets to it so that it would set up. It also has a gelatin glaze on top to preserve the integrity of the surface and prevent the topping from bleeding across the surface.


The thin sponge cake on the outside and bottom were cut out of a jaconde sponge that we made on the back of a sheet pan. A chocolate tulip paste was spread onto a silpat through a stencil and then the sponge batter was poured on top and baked.

Orange Charlotte

This is a Vanilla Charlotte with Blood Orange and Pomegranate. I think that the colors and design are fantastic.

Gateau Whole

A Gateau St. Honore, already discussed here.

Cognac Cake

Chocolate Cognac Cake, made with a short dough bottom covered with raspberry jam, 1/3 chocolate sponge, cognac simple syrup, cognac cream filling, dark chocolate filling, chocolate covered marzipan, and half truffles. A very rich cake. For the marzipan, we rolled it out and cut it with a ring mold, spread melted chocolate on top (which was tricky b/c it sets fast; I put mine briefly in the deck oven to melt it a little more and smooth it out), waited for it to set, and cut it. We laid the pieces on top of the cake and then cut the cake slices so that they were perfectly matched to their top.

Chocolate Mousse Cake

Chocolate Raspberry Cake, with a Japonaise brushed with raspberry jam, 1/4 choc genoise soaked with framboise syrup, 1/2 of the choc mousse, 1/4 genoise soaked with framboise syrup, rest of the mousse, and raspberries. A Japonaise is a piped (w/ plain tip) disk of meringue flavored with ground almonds.

GrandMarnier Cake

Chocolate Grand Marnier Cake, with Japonaise brushed with ganache, 1/2 choc genoise soaked with grand marnier syrup, half of choc grand marnier filling, Japonaise, and rest of filling on top and sides. We made the top by spreading out melted chocolate in a sheet pan, and rolling through it with a pastry cutter to form diamonds that we cut with paring knives into triangles. When that was cooled, we layered them on top, and sprinkled them with cocoa. For the sides, we spread melted chocolate onto an acetate sheet that had a pattern on it, and let it set just slightly before wrapping it around the cake. To cut it, we marked out 10 slices, and then warmed our paring knives with a blowtorch and touched the chocolate on the outside to melt it through. Then we went back and cut completely through the cake. This cake was a little too full of solid sheets of meringue and chocolate for me to eat.

Raspberry Mousse Cake

Raspberry Yogurt Cake, with a short dough bottom covered in raspberry jam, 1/3 of a sponge cake soaked in Framboise syrup, raspberry yogurt filling (the yogurt here takes the place of creme anglaise), and raspberry mirror glaze. The cake has to be on a perfectly level surface for the glaze to set evenly, or else some areas are darker than others.

By the way, cutting these cakes was a challenge in itself. For 10 slices, you have to cut it in half, then estimate a fifth of one half and cut all the way across the cake, and then cut the remaining two large pieces in half across the acke. Not only is it hard to get the slices teh same size, but finding the middle of the cake is tricky. We made stencils to put under the cake to cut it, but even that had plenty of room for error.

Looking back on these cakes, I think that they look pretty nice, but except for the Gateau St. Honore, I wasn’t too thrilled with their flavors or textures. Bavarian cream is a bit too bland and gelatinous to me; I prefer looser creams. And I never did make my peace with sponge cake, which I find dry and bland no matter how much simple syrup is brushed into it; we made no moist American-style cakes.

We made the last four cakes at about the same time, and it was a bit tricky to remember which components went into which cakes because it seemed pretty arbitrary; the cognac cake could have been flavored with grand marnier as far as I was concerned. It’s fine that the flavorings are interchangeable, but I like it when the form of the cake is more linked to its flavor.

I think that the techniques used for these cakes still gives a good amount of food for thought for cake assembly, though, and I think they can be applied to many other desserts that I could play around with.

Farmgirl Susan’s Super Spinach Soup

Friday, April 21st, 2006

Spinach is one of my favorite foods, and I can only wish that I’d thought of this recipe at Farmgirl Fare myself because it uses it to such great effect. Back in my college days when I barely cooked, sauteed baby spinach and rice, with salt and pepper, was a rather common meal for me; the flavor combination was enough for me to enjoy such an ascetic meal (oh, how my palate has developed). So, this soup builds on that meal and makes it much, much better — it has a small amount of rice cooked into it and a rich background of onions and stock. It’s so easy, and so satisfying.

Susan doesn’t have a picture posted, apparently from soup pic overload, but its color is one of my favorite aspects… Emerald, it is.

Spinach Soup

I followed the recipe for the most part, except that I substituted 4 out of the 6 cups of chicken stock with vegetable stock because I was reluctant to let chicken flavors dominate my spinach, and I left some chunks of onion and little bits of rice just for some textural contrast. I’m usually a little reluctant to add good olive oil for cooked foods, but I’m glad that I used my Stonehouse Extra Virgin Sevillano Olive Oil that I bought at the SF Ferry Building. I think that its punch of grass and pepper came through very nicely.

As far as variations go, there are many… and by variations, I mean adding one or two elements to it after you’ve had it as is a few times.

It’s fantastic hot, but I’ve also been eating it cold. For me, the chilled quality adds an element of Spring, and the flavor remains quite sprightly. I think that this would make a great simple amuse-bouche at a restaurant. Served in a shot-sized glass, maybe topped with creme fraiche, to get guests excited for a fresh, flavorful meal to come.

When hot, I once added a dollop of homemade mayonnaise, which added a spiciness from dry mustard and cayenne, as well as a creaminess; I used adding aioli to bouillabaisse as a model.

I added chopped sorrel to it once, but it almost overpowered the soup. A conservative garnish of more subtle herbs, like chives or parsley, or maybe a even little roasted fennel, would work better, though.

I also once had it as a backdrop for some Trader Joe’s Thai Shrimp Gyoza, which worked fine, but I think little ravioli or dumplings, like beet or cheese, would be even better.

It’s also a very good snack in the afternoon.

And then, for a variation on a variation, I’d be happy to eat it plain and hot again…

Learning to Write All Over Again

Thursday, April 20th, 2006

This is the first time I’ve written with icing/gel. At least it’s more legible than my normal handwriting.

Writing Icing