An Attempt at San Francisco Stuffed French Toast

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Back in June we enjoyed a tasty breakfast at Starling Diner in Long Beach.  They serve this amazing dish called San Francisco Stuffed French Toast, which is a baguette filled with mascarpone cheese, dipped in creme anglaise, and broiled – not fried! – until golden and crisp.  (Full entry about that meal here.)  Ever since that visit, I’ve been curious to try making that dish, just to see if I can understand its mechanics.

Finding myself with an extra half of a baguette last week, I turned to the internet for potential recipes.  While there wasn’t an exact recipe, I was able to piece together a few recipes to guide me.  I had to resolve three key issues: make a creme anglaise, create a tasty mascarpone cheese filling, and then figure out how to construct and cook the baguette so it came out with a crispy exterior and moist but cooked interior. 

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The ingredients were pretty simple: a slightly stale baguette, mascarpone cheese, milk, cream, egg yolks, and vanilla, and some fruit to serve on the side.

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A creme anglaise is basically a custard sauce.  In and of itself, it isn’t terribly complicated, although I suspect that my technique would improve if I had more experience making it.  I whisked three tablespoons of sugar into three egg yolks until pale yellow.  Ideally, you would use ultra-fine sugar rather than regular granulated sugar, to make it easier for the sugar to dissolve.

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Next, you heat a mixture of half cream and half milk until it is not quite to the point of boiling.  Then, pour the milk into the egg mixture slowly, whisking constantly so the eggs do not scramble.  The mixture is then returned to the stove and cooked gently (stirring constantly) until it reaches 160 F. It can then be strained through a wire mesh to remove any clumped bits of egg and then allowed to cool.

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While the creme anglaise cooled, I whipped the mascarpone cheese with a little sugar, a tablespoon of juice from some canned peaches, and a pinch of salt.  Something about that caused it to coagulate a bit, so next time maybe I’ll just stick with a splash of honey and leave the salt out. 

The big challenge was figuring out how to stuff the baguette.  Slicing it open seemed problematic as the cheese would easily ooze out while cooking.  I tried sticking a serrated knife into one end of the bread, cutting a small pocket.  Then, I piped the mascarpone mixture into the bread.  All in all, this worked fairly well although it makes the dish a little more complex and dirties a few more kitchen implements.  

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Next, I let the stuffed baguette rest in the creme anglaise, turning about once a minute, for a total of about four minutes.  I then place the baguette pieces on a parchment lined baking tray and put under the oven’s broiler, turning once, for a total of about eight minutes or until crispy and golden. 

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While the bread broiled, I whipped a little cream to use as a condiment.  You could also prepare any fresh fruit – berries, bananas, peaches, etc. – to go with the dish.  I opted for canned peaches as I had a jar open in the refrigerator.

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The finished product.  The mascarpone filling melted, which I recall being the case with the original, and gave the interior a rich sweetness.  The outside was crispy, although I’m not sure the baguette was really stale enough to get the right texture; it was still a little soft when I started this process and not as dry as would probably be best.  All in all, I think it turned out nicely and would be worth playing around with a bit more.  However, it definitely takes more effort than other versions of French toast I’ve had!

 

A Healthy Start

In an attempt to add a little (relatively healthful) variety to my usual breakfast of oatmeal, I bake batches of granola made of rolled oats and barley, nuts, wheat germ, dried coconut, and flax seed, all of which is lightly moistened with a mixture of canola oil and maple syrup and then roasted until lightly browned.  After cooled, I add raisins, dates, or other dried fruit.

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Served with some plain yogurt and some fresh fruit – in this case, passion fruit pulp – it makes for a nice breakfast, no?  I’d like to believe it is also a healthful but in addition to the whole grains and good fats, I think it is pretty high in calories.  Thoughts?

 

Food in Long Beach: Starling Diner

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Near the end of our trip to Los Angeles last month, while driving down the Pacific Coast Highway to visit Janet for tea, we stopped for brunch at the Starling Diner.  Located on East Third Street in Long Beach, the look and feel of the Starling Diner is that of an old-time neighborhood institution.  The food is comforting, the service friendly, and the fellow diners are, well, neighborly.

Starling Diner is all this despite having been around for less than five years.  It is no surprise then to learn that owner Joan Samson made a very conscious effort to create a space that had that neighborhood institution feel.  From their website:

In times past, neighborhoods were Communities where everyone casually knew each other and the gathering places were icons such as the front porch, the corner store and the neighborhood diner. It has always been our personal mission to create gathering spots that provide a sense of place along side the highest quality food and drinks. We live in and love Long Beach. We just made a place where we would like to meet our friends and connect.

My cousins had first brought me here in 2009 and I was eager to share the cute restaurant and tasty dining experience with Tawn.  He wasn’t disappointed.

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This pale green cruiser parked outside seems to exemplify the Starling Diner.  Located amidst houses on a quiet street, this is the type of place you would hop on your bicycle and ride three blocks to meet some friends for breakfast at.

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The tables are crowded with little tin tubs of all the condiments you might need.  Interestingly, they serve water in these biodegradable corn-based plastic cups in order to save the environment.  As I pointed out to the server (in a friendly, non-complaining sort of way), they would do more to save the environment to serve their cream, jellies, sugars, etc. in bulk containers rather than individual sachets and packages. 

The fact that our server took that suggestion with a thoughtful smile and remained friendly and welcoming is a good example of the type of consistent service I’ve enjoyed during both my visits.

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The highlight of the menu is the San Francisco stuffed French toast.  Unlike most French toast, this is broiled not fried, and is made from baguette, not square loaf bread.

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It does not disappoint!  The result is something that is light and crispy rather than heavy and soggy like most French toast.  This is a recipe I would like to learn to recreate at home.

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Tawn had the crab cakes sandwich, which had these wonderful, large lump crab meat and tons of fresh greens.  This was really tasty, too.

All in all, the only disappointment at the Starling Diner was that there were just the two of us and, as such, we were only able to try two items on the menu.  Mark this on the list of places to come back to on a future visit!

 

Food in BKK: Gastro 1/6 at RMA

San Francisco, the area I come from, is a great place to eat breakfast.  Since moving here more than five years ago, I’ve regretted the lack of good San Francisco-style breakfast places and if I had the money and free time, I’d probably open one myself.  In the meantime, I’m glad to have recently learned about another candidate for my breakfast baht: Gastro 1/6.

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Located at the RMA Institute, a gallery and art space buried deep in Sukhumvit Soi 22, Gastro 1/6 is just a small cafe, really.  It is already busy on weekends and I suspect will become so popular that its charm will quickly wear off.  That said, it is a charming place in a way that eludes most restaurants in Bangkok.

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All the seating is in an outdoor, although covered, space that is thick with foliage and decorated with a motley assortment of chairs and tables.  There is no table service – you order at the counter and pick up your own food.

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The kitchen is a tiny, open affair with a limited selection of dishes.  Pastries are available from Le Blanc, a local bakery that is improving the quality of baked goods available to us denizens of Bangkok.  There are both breakfasty type dishes as well as specials more suitable for a lunch, making this an appealing place for brunch and those who can’t decide what they’re in the mood for.

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The grounds are home to a friendly dog who greets visitors and generally manages things.  We arrived at what we thought would be a bit late – about 10am – on a Sunday and were surprised to find things not very busy yet.  Some other people breezed through, mostly it seemed for a quick bite and then on to whatever else was on their docket for the day.

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Tawn had French toast with a side of bacon, which was very tasty.  There’s a drop of syrup about to drip from the bacon on the right end of it.  Caught it with the camera!

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My breakfast came with a bowl of toasted bread, thin slices that definitely wouldn’t appeal to the Thai palate, which doesn’t seem to like crispy and crunchy.  Perfect for me, though, who likes his bread willing to fight back a bit.

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I had the traditional English breakfast, which was spruced up so nicely I barely recognized it.  Scrambled organic eggs with fresh cracked pepper and sea salt, homemade baked beans and baked tomato, salad with a lovely dressing, homemade sausage, and some bacon.  This was really tasty and just the perfect serving size.

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Afterwards, relaxing with my latte as an English family with three adorable children decide what they want to order.

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Tawn, fresh off his fashion show, looks so much more relaxed without the stress of an impending deadline looming over him.

My impression?  Gastro 1/6 is a cute and satisfying choice for brunch or even pastries and a cup of coffee.  Probably not the place to linger for a long time, but a good start to your morning.  Cash only, closed Mondays.

 

Sunday Date Brunch

This is going to be the final word on dates for the time being.  I invited two couples, Doug and Bee and Ken and Chai, over for Sunday brunch.  Since I had been on such a roll this week with date-themed recipes, it became something like an Iron Chef challenge.  This meal’s challenge ingredient: dates.  In all humility, it turned out pretty darn good.  Let me share the menu with you.

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An amuse bouche of sedai dates stuffed with a little French chèvre (soft goat cheese) and a sliver of almond.  What a tasty combination!  The orange rind, which I should have salted, was more for presentation than flavor.  Had it been salted, I think it would have been a nice contrast and would have really stimulated the appetite.

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Two of our four guests – Doug and Bee.  Doug is a fellow American who lives in our neighborhood.  Credit goes to Tawn for the elegantly understated table setting.

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Two types of flatbreads.  Both were brushed with melted butter and sprinkled with coarse sea salt.  The one of the left has freshly chopped rosemary.  The one of the right has za’atar, a Middle Easter spice mixture that contains oregano, thyme, basil, savory, and sesame seeds.

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Greek style salad with fresh romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes, roasted red peppers, olives and Feta cheese.  Served with a homemade lemon vinaigrette dressing.  (The dressing recipe is here)

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The main course was the Moroccan style braised chicken.  This picture doesn’t quite flatter the dish, which I thought was the standout of the meal.  Wednesday’s Moroccan Pork Chop dinner (my blog entry about it and the original recipe I followed) was the starting point.  Based on what I learned from that recipe, I repurposed it for chicken.  Zakiah suggested a recipe for tamarind-date sauce (thank you – what a great idea!) and I extrapolated from that and braised the chicken instead of just pan frying it. 

The chicken was brined for four hours in a mixture of buttermilk, salt, and cayenne pepper.  While it was brining, I created a tamarind-date sauce.  This was a learning experience as I haven’t worked with tamarind paste before.

Tamarind paste comes from the flesh of the ripe fruit of the tropical Tamarind tree.  The flesh is very sour with just a hint of sweetness.  Mashing the paste in a little warm water, you can extract a thick liquid with which you cook.  A little goes a long way!  To make the sauce, I sauteed an onion with the same spices I used for the chicken.  Once the onion was soft I blended it with chopped dates and the tamarind water.  Then I thinned this mixture with broth and cooked it down for a few minutes.

While the sauce reduced, I rinsed, patted dry, and dredged the chicken pieces with a spice mixture, then pan fried them a few pieces at a time.  Once all the pieces had formed a nice crust, I returned them to the pot and added the tamarind-date sauce, covered the pot and cooked for an hour at low heat until the chicken was tender and cooked through.  The nice thing about this recipe was that it could be prepared the day before then reheated.  Tender, flavorful, and convenient.

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To accompany the chicken, I made another batch of the Moroccan style rice.  (Recipe I started with but I modified it a lot as I don’t cook with a microwave.)  I was out of apricots so used dates, raisins, and dried mango to accompany the rice.  Interestingly, this batch turned out much softer and mushier than the one I made Wednesday.  I used the same type of rice and proportion of rice to liquid as before, but the rice was from a new bag.  All I can figure is that this bag of rice was younger and didn’t need as much liquid.  Still, plenty tasty!

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For dessert, we has two items.  The first was a date nute bread (recipe) from Ina Garten of the Barefoot Contessa series of cookbooks.  This is a quick bread similar to banana bread or zucchini bread.  I think I overcooked it a little as it was dry.  Tawn, however, likes his food drier than I do, so he thought it was perfect!  Toasted, I think it would make no difference.  On the side is a tub of butter whipped with a little honey and orange zest.

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The final dish was a Greek Yoghurt Panna Cotta with dried apricots reconstituted in a white wine and honey sauce.  (Recipe) This turned out very nice as the panna cotta is not overly sweet and has a nice tanginess from the yoghurt.  Of course, by this point we were stuffed, and smaller servings would have been fine!

All in all, the brunch was a success.  Pleasant company and conversation, most importantly, and the food turned out nicely, too!

Eggs Benedict

Tawn and I enjoy poached eggs and find Eggs Benedict to be a nice weekend brunch treat.  For some reason, though, we haven’t had a lot of luck learning how to poach eggs.  Everyone has a special secret or tip to share – put vinegar in the water, stir the water in a clockwise motion before introducing the eggs, use only the freshest eggs, put the unopened egg in the hot water for ten seconds to firm up the whites – but we still come up with wildly inconsistent results.  So we recently bought a non-stick poaching tray and set about learning to make Hollandaise sauce.

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The Hollandaise sauce was surprisingly easy, employing a technique similar to making the wonderful French dessert sabayon, also known in Italian as zabagione.  You whisk egg yolks with lemon juice (I managed to use a little too much, thanks to eyeballing it rather than measuring) in a baine-marie – a bowl set over a pan of simmering water.  The gentle heat of the steam cooks the eggs slowly and as you whisk them, you keep them from scrambling.

Then, once doubled in volume, you add a stream of melted butter, whisking all the while to emulsify, or incorporate, the butter into the egg yolk mixture.  This produces a thick, rich sauce that can then be seasoned with salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper.

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On the back burner, the sauce is set to a low heat to keep it warm and I’ll add a few teaspoons of water to thin it out before serving.  The egg poacher in on the front burner, with simmering water halfway up its side.  In about four minutes, the eggs will be nicely done with firm whites and liquid, but warm, yolks.  On the right, Tawn fries some ham slices.

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The finished Eggs Benedict, employing a slice of homemade whole grain bread in lieu of an English muffin, accompanied with some fresh papaya.  Tasty.

 

Sunday Mediterranean Brunch

There’s a cookbook I bought years ago called San Francisco Flavors, compiled by the Junior League of San Francisco.  While I never thought I’d have much use for something that seemed so high society, over the years I’ve found a lot of useful recipes.  The recipes make good use of locally available ingredients and given the Bay Area’s Mediterranean climate, many of the dishes have flavors that echo those found in the Mediterranean region.

This afternoon we had two friends over, Tammy and Roka.  Tammy is the sister of a friend I worked with during my high school days spent tearing tickets and popping popcorn at a cinema.  She’s now living here for a few years.  We’ve known Roka for a few years now and she’s recently moved back after a year in Australia.  They made for perfect company on a Sunday afternoon for brunch.

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Above, Chris, Tawn, Roka and Tammy.  I don’t think Roka and Tawn coordinated, but maybe.  I need to think more carefully about my placement in photos – I look huge!

The meal centered on two dishes from San Francisco Flavors, both of which I ended up modifying just a little.  The first one was a cauliflower dish served at room temperature.

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The ingredients are interesting because the flavor of the sauce is very savory.  A closer look:

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Clockwise: kalmata olives, capers, garlic, chili flakes and anchovy paste.  In this case, not having anchovy paste I just minced several anchovy fillets.  Add some tomatoes, parsley, rosemary, and thyme and you have your dish.

You sauté the cauliflower until just starting to brown but still crisp.  Remove from the pan and then cook the savory ingredients for several minutes until soft.  You then add the cauliflower back and cook for a few more minutes until starting to get crisp-tender.  In a small saucepan you bring a bit of balsamic vinegar, sugar and tomato paste to a boil then pour it over the cauliflower mixture.

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The whole thing is allowed to marinate overnight before serving at room temperature with some additional thyme added to it.  This turned out to be a very tasty way to serve cauliflower.

The main dish was crepes stuffed with a chicken, apple, and mushroom filling.  The original recipe called for regular crepes but I used buckwheat flour mixed with all-purpose flour, which lent the crepes a little more heft.  When making the crepes the night before (something I like about crepes is you can make them in advance) they were a little delicate.  I need to look for a better buckwheat crepe recipe, one that tears less.

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The filling takes onions and mushrooms (supposed to be shitake mushrooms but one of my guests isn’t a big fan of shitakes) and sauté.  Pull that out of the pan then cook the chicken, which has been cubed and dusted in flour to help thicken the mixture.  I deviated from the recipe a bit and marinated the chicken breasts in soy sauce and sake to give it a bit more flavor.  Then you clear the pan again and sauté the apples, finally adding everything together with some pre-cooked and crumbled pancetta.  I substituted regular smoked bacon.  Add some chicken broth and cook for a few minutes until the liquid is reduced.  I finished up with some parsley and salt and pepper to taste. 

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The filling process this morning was easy enough – a small scoop of the chicken mixture then fold like a burrito, tucking snugly into the dish.

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Nice colors, huh?  The spots are on the “second” side of the crepes whereas the lines that look like the surface of the moon are from the first side on which the crepes are cooked.  I mixed it up a bit so there would be more visual interest.

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The original recipe has no sauce on top and you just sprinkle cheese and bake.  This seemed a bit dry so I made a roasted red bell pepper cream sauce and poured that on first.  Almost any time I have the oven on I go ahead and roast some peppers.  They store  nicely in the fridge and add a wonderful flavor to many dishes.  The sauce was easy to pull together and the flavor and color brightened the overall dish.

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The finished dish turned out very nicely and with twelve crepes would have been enough to serve at least six people.  In fact, given how filling buckwheat flour is, one crepe per person would have been fine!

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With those two dishes anchoring the meal, all I needed was a nice salad to round things out.  I went for a Greek style salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers, and the rest of the kalmata olives, all tossed in olive oil and basil and served on a bed of greens.

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Served with a glass of Argentine Viognier, it proved to be a very satisfying meal.  A nice accompaniment to the pleasant company!

I hope your Sunday was great, too.

Finally Success with Buttermilk Parmesan Biscuits

After a few attempts at making Buttermilk Parmesan Biscuits to serve as little brunch sandwiches, I finally arrived at a recipe I like.  May I share it with you?  The original attempts, based on a recipe shared with me by W, resulted in very soft, somewhat oily spoon-drop biscuits, shown below.

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For subsequent attempts, I reverted to using my favorite buttermilk biscuit recipe as a starting point, based on a recipe my mother gave to me.  Finally, I got the recipe to a point I’m happy with for a brunch this past weekend.  I made little round scrambled eggs with some fried pancetta on top, added some spinach leaves and made a biscuit sandwich out of them.

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I bought a pair of non-stick steel rings to form the eggs.  A few chopped green onions and some cream cheese mixed in with the eggs make them nice and tasty.  The pancetta was from the market, sliced thin to order and then fried for just a few minutes to crisp it up.

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The end result were these lovely, flaky sandwiches.  The only thing I forgot was to add some chopped green onions to the biscuits themselves.  Here is the recipe for the biscuits.  I’ll let you figure out the sandwich part on your own.  You can also use smoked salmon as a filling instead of pancetta.

 

Buttermilk Parmesan Biscuits
Makes 10 biscuits (more or less, depending on cutter size)

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 tsp granulated sugar
1/3 cup vegetable shortening, chilled
2 Tbsp butter, chilled
3/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
3/4 cup buttermilk
2 Tbsp minced green onions (optional)

Preheat the oven to 425 F.

Combine dry ingredients in a bowl and thoroughly mix.  Cut the butter and shortening into the dry ingredients, forming pea-size crumbs.

Combine the shredded Parmesan cheese into the mixture, ensure that it is evenly distributed.

Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the buttermilk.  Mix with a fork until combined.  Be careful not to over-mix; the goal is to make sure the ingredients are just combined.  If desired, mix in the minced green onions.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured board and fold the dough over on itself five or six times, forming layers.  Pat the dough to an even thickness of about 3/4 inch (you can make it thinner or thicker depending on how thick you want your biscuits to be) and use a biscuit cutter to cut the biscuits.  When you cut the biscuits, don’t twist the cutter.  This seals the edges of the biscuits and retards their rise in the oven.  Better to just cut by pressing straight down.

Place biscuits on a baking sheet (no need to oil it although you can use parchment paper if you like) and bake immediately in a 425 F over for 10-12 minutes until golden brown.  Remove from oven and serve while still hot.

Notes:

You can substitute 1/2 cup of the unbleached flour with whole wheat flour for a healthier, whole grain biscuit.  They won’t puff up quite as much so row them a little thicker than you otherwise would. 

If you don’t have buttermilk available, you can substitute regular milk.  Before you make the biscuits, take 3/4 c of milk less one tablespoon, and mix in one tablespoon of white vinegar.  Let sit for ten minutes and then stir.  The milk will have thickened a bit, producing a similar texture and taste to buttermilk.

Enjoy!  Feedback always welcome.

 

A Little Sunday Brunch

It was a small brunch on Sunday, just five people.  It seems that when we get more than six or seven, the table’s capacity is exceeded and the dynamic just isn’t as intimate.  Also, eating while sitting around the sofa just isn’t as comfortable.

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Left to right: Suchai, Ken, Tawn and Doug.

The menu was a fairly simple, mostly vegetarian and vaguely Mediterranean one.

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To begin with (after appetizers of celery sticks with white bean hummus), I pulled together an interesting salad based on a suggestion from Tawn.  A Hawaiian papaya half filled with a shrimp, mango and cucumber salad.  Flavored with nigella and cumin, it was really wonderful.

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The main meal included scrambled eggs; oven-roasted asparagus; a quinoa salad with feta, corn and cherry tomatoes; and a roasted red pepper fougasse.

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The fougasse, a stuffed flatbread from Southern France, came from a website I was recently recommended: Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.  It is really easy to make.  After roasting some red bell peppers under the broiler and skinning them, I rolled out a basic olive oil yeast dough.

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I cut a few slits on one side and spread the peppers on the right.  Next time I’ll roll the dough a little thinner and add more peppers.  I then sprinkled coarse sea salt and thyme on the peppers.

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Then, I folded the dough over, sealing the edges firmly.  A brush of olive oil (I would use an egg white wash next time) and another sprinkle of thyme and it went into the oven on a pre-heated bread stone.

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After about 20 minutes at 450 F / 230 C I pulled it out and let it cool a bit before cutting and serving.  Easy!

In the afternoon, after everyone headed home and Tawn went to his parents’ house, I tackled a long standing project: finish scanning various recipes from old Cooks Illustrated magazines and sorting and shredding old bills and receipts.  What an exciting Sunday, I know!

 

Nong Ryeroam ma jag meuang Paris (Ryeroam comes from Paris)

P1020912 Saturday afternoon we hosted our first meal.  Granted, Roka came over a week ago and we baked cookies, made soup, and ate some food.  But that wasn’t an official meal, just cooks eating their cooking.

Right: The marble mantle has been installed and is decorated for the party.

Saturday was our first official meal with invited guests, a champagne brunch to enjoy the bottle that Ryeroam had asked Ken and Suchai to bring to us as a housewarming, after they visited him in Paris in September.  Since Ryeroam was in town to collect his grandmother and take her to the US for his graduation next week, it was the perfect time to open the bottle.

Ryeroam and I met through airliners.net, a website for aviation enthusiasts, which is also how I met Ken and a score of other people.  He lives with his partner in Paris, although in the time I’ve known him he has lived in Mexico City as well as Buenos Aires, all the while working on his degree in the United States.  It is a global village, I tell you.

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Above from left: Chris, Ryeroam, Suchai, Ken and Tawn.

The menu was pretty simple and easy to prepare:

Individual spinach, mushroom and pine nut quiches

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Mixed green salad with tomatoes

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Homemade buttermilk biscuits (not pictured)

Assorted desserts from The Landmark Hotel

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To wash it all down, we enjoyed a bottle of Laurent-Perrier brut non-vintage Champagne and a bottle of Vallformosa methode Champagnoise sparkling wine from Spain

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I had also prepared a cherry pie, not knowing that Suchai was going to bring desserts.  Needless to say, there was no room for the pie.

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The condo really sparkles when we have guests.  There are just a lot of nice spaces and it is a lot of fun to entertain.  The kitchen is sufficiently large, although we’re short on plates, bowls and glasses.  Once we have a small china cabinet we’ll round out our collection of dinnerware so we can match.