Thursday, February 25, 2010

chocolate cake, part one

The first time I got an envelope with the words AARP on it, I checked to see who it was addressed to. It certainly couldn't be me! I never thought I was old enough to receive AARP magazine, let alone read it!

And then the request came.... The food editor from the magazine called and asked if I'd share the chocolate cake recipe that my Mom and I made together on my TV show way back when I shot in the wine country.

"Sure!" I said thinking nothing of it. I love the cake, I love to write, why not?

Little did I know however, they'd need a photo of my Mom and I together. That may sound easy to you but I live in California and my mother lives in Massachusetts. "Of course!" I said in my usual way, thinking nothing of the ping pong ball I was becoming as I bounce back and forth from the West to the East Coast.

As I flew from San Francisco to Massachusetts, I took out my laptop and started to write. AARP wanted a little intro to the story about where the cake recipe came from, what it meant to me and why I loved it so much. Until that moment, I don't think I'd ever thought about all the memories that were centered around that cake.

The next morning, my Mom and I were up bright and early for the photo shoot. We chose our outfits and had our make-up done. And for the next couple hours, we sat with smiles on our faces, cups of coffee in hand, and a slice of chocolate cake between us (two forks, of course). The photographer shot photo after photo. After a while, I could see my mother's smile was less cheery. She leaned close and said, "I didn't know your job was so hard!"

Here's the story I wrote. It went something like this...

When I was a kid and it was my birthday, my mother always asked me what kind of cake I wanted for dessert? You see, she wasn’t just any mom, she was a professional cook at a private school and also tested recipes for cookbook author and good friend of Julia Child, Charlotte Turgeon. You can imagine the possibilities of what she could and would make for me were endless. When she asked, I always answered that question the same way, “Your chocolate cake!” Don’t get me wrong, I liked her Boston Cream Pie, the hot milk sponge cake she made and filled with homemade jam and her spicy applesauce cake, but it was that good old chocolate cake with a hint of coffee that I loved the most.

This was my mother’s favorite too, as well as everyone else’s in my family. She’d gotten the recipe from a family friend many years before but couldn’t recall the exact recipe anymore, she’d changed it so many times. She replaced 1 cup of the boiling water with leftover hot coffee because she loved the combination of chocolate and coffee together. She also used less vanilla and sugar to bring out more of the savory qualities of the chocolate. She upped the salt a touch and used unsalted butter to compensate. I think that’s how some of the greatest recipes are born.

When I first started baking, I insisted I wanted to make the cake all by myself. I was probably about 8 years old. I remember telling my mother that I could measure everything out myself. As I was scooping the last little bit of the baking soda out of the box, I yelled to my Mom, “You’d better put baking soda on the grocery list!” She said, “That’s funny, I thought I just bought a new box.” As I poured the last bit of batter into the pan, I licked the spatula. It tasted kind of bitter but I thought, after it bakes, it will be yummy.

We turned the oven light on to watch it bake. It rose really quickly and then in an instant, it fell! “How much baking soda did you use?” my mother asked. “Just what it said, 2 cups!” As we scraped the last bit of the cake out of the pan and into the trash, my Mom broke off a crumb and tasted it. “It still tastes good honey,” she said not wanting to hurt my feeling.

Needless to say, for the next couple years, I made the cake with my mother’s guidance.

Stay tuned for part two of this story. It gets better!


1 cup boiling water
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
½ cup unsalted butter
2 eggs
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup leftover hot coffee

½ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
2 tablespoons milk or cream
1 1/3 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted
2 ounces excellent quality unsweetened chocolate, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Place the boiling water, chopped chocolate and butter in the top of a double boiler over medium high heat. Stir until the mixture is melted and smooth. Remove from the heat.

Preheat an oven to 350F. Butter and flour 2 deep 8-inch cake pans, tapping out the excess flour from the pan. With an electric mixer, beat the eggs in a bowl until foamy, 15 seconds. Add the sugar and vanilla and continue to mix until creamy, 15 seconds. Add the chocolate mixture to the egg mixture and mix together. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together. Add the dry mixture to the chocolate mixture and mix until almost incorporated. Add the coffee and mix until well combined but do not over-mix. Pour into the prepared pans and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean and the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan, 25 to 30 minutes.

In the meantime for the frosting, place the butter, cream or milk, confectioner’s sugar, melted chocolate and vanilla in the bowl of an electric mixer. Beat until smooth, about 1 minute.

When the cake is done, remove from the oven and cool on a cooling rack for 20 minutes. Run a knife around the edges of the pan and invert the cake onto the rack. Cool completely. Using one-half of the frosting spread it onto one of the cakes. Top with the other cake and frost the top.

To serve, cut into wedges.

Serves 8 to 10

Friday, February 12, 2010

i love you beans

I'm obsessed with beans! If I had a choice of one food on a desert island, it would probably be beans. I'd have no problem eating them daily.

I love warm beans simply drizzled with virgin olive oil and sprinkled with Maldon salt or as fussed over as Rioja beans I've carried home from Spain, stewed with pork shoulder, chorizo (preferably also smuggled home from Spain), Basque choriceros, the sun-dried red peppers from the Basque Province, tomatoes, pimenton and espelette.

You can imagine my excitement this week when a box of beans was delivered by UPS from my friend, Cesare. I'm so lucky to have friends in the biz....

Cesare Casella, a NY chef friend, owner of Salumeria Rosi on Upper West Side in Manhattan, grew up in Tuscany, the land of the bean eater. He loves beans like I do! The smart guy that he is, started a company called Republic of Beans, selling all kinds of heirloom beans he grew up eating in Italy,--cannellini, barlotti, fagioli del papa, corona, diavoli, rosso di Lucca and zolfino, just to name a few.

Cesare is really a character... He's very funny, very crazy (in a good way), a fantastic chef and truly Tuscan. Though he's been in this country for a few years, he still has a strong Italian accent. I really have to concentrate sometimes to understand him. He seems to add an "a" onto the end of every English word.

He was in San Francisco this week and we had dinner together with a few other friends. We got on the subject of beans. The first thing he said was "You have to sucka the beans." I looked at him for the longest time trying to figure out what he was saying. "Sucka the beans?" I said. "Yes," he said "Sucka the beans." Finally I realized, "SOAK the beans!"

"Why do some beans cook inconsistently?" Mariangela asked. "Is it the age?" Cesare said that it had to do with the amount of water the beans are cooked in and how you store them. "Where should you store them?" I said. We were all surprised when he told us he stored his beans either in the refrigerator or freezer. They dehydrate less.

"And what about the cooking process? Should they be cooked in a small amount of water or a lot of water?" Cesare said beans like a lot of water. "Temperature?" we asked. "Maka sure the beanza waltz-a in the water nota do the rock and rolla." Now that's true Cesare style.

So today I cooked up a batch of fagioli del papa, a large flat purple and beige speckled bean. I soaked them for a couple hours, drained them, put them in the pan with plenty of water and let them waltz for about 40 minutes.

Just now I took a big scoop of warm beans, drizzled them with Tuscan olive oil and sprinkled them with salt. The flavors are rich and deep, almost tasking like chestnuts, and the texture is dense and meaty. Am I happy of what?

Friday, February 5, 2010

nettle recipe

"Ouch, something bit me!" I said to my mother. "Nettles, yes, stinging nettles!" she said as we walked near the stream at my grandparent's farm in the food hills of the Berkshires.

I was scared to death. I was just a kid and I didn't want to get stung. I hated bees. What was a nettle anyway? I couldn't imagine. Was it an insect or an animal? Could it be a plant? I'll tell you... From then on, I walked close to my mother's side whenever we walked near that stream.

Years later, when I was cooking at Chez Panisse, it was springtime and nettle pizza was on the menu. There was that word again. Nettles! I couldn't help but flashback on that walk I took with my mother so many years before. Obviously, knowing that we were serving nettles at Chez Panisse, made me realize they had to be safe. And yes, when I saw them, I realized they were a plant.

Right now is the time of year when young, tender nettles come into season here in the Bay Area. You may have to either forage for them yourself or find them at your local farmer's market because you're definitely not going to find them at your local Whole Foods. I usually get them at Star Route Farm at the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market or in my CSA box.

You'll laugh... I was so stupid the first time I worked with them at home. I didn't use gloves and my hands were itchy and almost numb afterwards. What happens is the leaves and stems are very hairy and those little hairs have tips on them that come off when you touch them. This kind of transforms the hairs into little needles that injects chemicals into your skin that cause a stinging sensation or itching. Usually it lasts for only a few minutes but I've heard people say it lasts much longer. Want to avoid the pain? Wear latex gloves!

Here's a fantastic recipe for risotto with nettles. People always ask me, "What do nettles taste like?" All I can say is GREEN! Really GREEN. I just love the fresh flavor and they're so good for you!

By the way, last time I made this risotto for friends from Paris, I served an Albarino, a crisp, dry white wine from Galicia in Spain. It was a fantastic combination. I would imagine an herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc or Soave Classico would work equally as well.


6 ounces nettles, stems removed
2 cups homemade chicken stock
2 cups water
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion, minced
1 cup arborio, vialone nano or carnaroli rice
3/4 cup dry white wine, preferable Sauvignon Blanc
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
¾ cup finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1 tablespoon unsalted butter

To remove the stems from the nettles, be sure to use latex gloves.

Place the chicken stock and water in a sauce pan and heat until it is hot but not boiling. Reduce the heat to low and maintain the heat just below a simmer. Place a ladle in the pan.

Warm the olive oil in a large heavy casserole over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, 10 minutes. Add the rice and nettles and stir for 2 to 3 minutes to toast the rice and coat with oil.

Add the wine and simmer, stirring constantly, until the wine has reduced by half, 3 to 4 minutes. Add a few ladlefuls of stock to the rice and stir to wipe the rice away from the sides and the bottom of the pot. Continue to stir until most of the liquid has been absorbed. Add another ladleful of stock and continue to stir until the liquid has been almost absorbed. Continue to add stock and stir in the same manner until the rice is no longer chalky, 20 to 25 minutes total, depending upon the variety of rice. Season with salt and pepper. Remove the pan from the heat and add another ladleful of stock, the butter and the half of Parmigiano. Cover the pan and let sit covered off the heat for 5 minutes.

Remove the cover and stir. Place the risotto in a bowl and serve immediately. Pass a bowl of Parmigiano alongside

Serves 4