Sunday, May 21, 2006

When Life Gives You Dates, Make Sticky Toffee Pudding

Mom was given a box of dried dates from a mystery guest at her house. She brought them to a family dinner and attempted to get rid of them by telling all of us of the alleged delicious properties of dates. No one appeared to buy it. We joked that whoever had given the dates to Mom had received them as a gift and was passing them along—similar to the traditional Christmas fruitcake. Being the lover of food that I am and attempting to show my knowledge of it in general (even though I’ve had limited exposure to dates), I too tried to convince my siblings that they should try the dates—after all, dates are used in Middle Eastern cooking and we love that cuisine. It was unanimously decided (well, I didn’t have a vote) that I would be the lucky recipient of the dates. I took them home determined that I would make something tasty out of them (even though I had my doubts). I remembered eating an English pudding once that I vaguely recalled consisted of dates. Ah, the beauty of the internet, and voilà, I found a recipe for sticky toffee pudding. It’s a delicious date cake (yes, I said delicious) that is topped with a toffee (or caramel) sauce. Served warm with vanilla ice cream, it becomes a tasty temptation. And who knew such a treat could come from a rejected box of old dried dates?

The Recipe (I’m giving you the altered recipe—I change recipes as I’m making them. The original that I found can be located at

1 cup finely chopped pitted dates
1 cup boiling water
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ cup softened butter
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten

Toffee Sauce:
6 tablespoons butter
10 tablespoons light brown sugar
¼ cup half and half

Preheat the oven to 350°. Lightly grease/flour a 9X13 pan with Baker’s Joy. Place the dates in a small bowl and cover with thee boiling water; mix in the baking soda and vanilla; set aside. In a separate bowl, mix the flour and baking soda; set aside. In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Add the egg and mix well. Stir in the flour mixture and mix well. Last, but not least, add the date mixture and mix well. Pour batter in prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake for 30 minutes or until a knife inserted comes out clean.

To make the toffee sauce, melt the butter in a small saucepan and add the sugar and half and half. Simmer gently for 3 minutes. Poke the top of the hot pudding with the tines of a serving fork and pour the sauce on top. Place under a hot broiler until it bubbles. Take care, as it burns easily.

Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

Yields 10-12 servings.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Sunday Family Dinners

Yesterday was Mother’s Day and our family got together at my sister’s house for lunch. After lunch, my mom asked me to go with her to see my grandmother at the nursing home. I couldn’t go this time. I don’t know if it’s because it was a Sunday or Mother’s Day, but either way, I couldn’t bring myself to go and visit my grandmother who now, because of her Alzheimer’s, no longer has an awareness of what day it is, much less what holiday is being celebrated.

Every Sunday during my childhood we would go to my grandmother’s house after church and I would help her to make the family dinner. She would always joke with me that I must have been born in the kitchen like she claimed to have been. Abuela had around four dishes in her repertoire amongst which she alternated for each Sunday meal: piñon (a plantain and meat pie), papas rellenas (potato dough patty stuffed with meat filling), pollo asado con papas asadas (roasted chicken and potatoes), and arroz con pollo (chicken and rice). Each dish was served with habichuelas (red beans) and white rice cooked in chicken broth (unless rice was part of the dish already). On occasion, Abuela would try a new recipe venturing away from her traditional Puerto Rican fare. At these times, she would make things like lasagna or spaghetti—both were served with rice and beans and tasted very similar to her repertoire dishes because she used exactly the same seasoning for all of her entrees. Relentlessly, we teased her, but we always ate everything she made.

As we entered adulthood and started our own homes, my Dad decided that we would alternate homes for Sunday dinners. We ended up eating at Grandma’s only once a month. I went away to college and then law school and came home only occasionally—secretly hoping to hit it at a time when we would be at Abuela’s for that Sunday night dinner during my stay. Grandma noticeably started getting ill six or seven years ago. She started burning all of the food, forgetting how to make things, and leaving out ingredients from food. With Grandma’s illness, Sunday dinners started to wane and attending/hosting them became a chore.

Now we have Sunday dinners (or lunches because it’s less effort) once every few weeks, sometimes less. We still alternate homes, but none of the dinners are ever held with Abuela in attendance. Sometimes it feels like the glue that held us together as a family is gone; or perhaps it’s the joy in the coming together to break bread that has vanished. Abuela always cooked with love and an exuberance for life that is lacking from what is now looked upon with dread by many of the hosts and attendees. The glue that is missing from our family is the feeling that eating at Grandma’s gave each of us which warmed our hearts while simultaneously filling our bellies. I would pay any amount of money or give anything to have just one more Sunday dinner at Abuela’s the way it used to be. Since I know that’s not possible, when I cook I try to infuse my food with love, in hopes that dinners at our house will be ones that would make Abuela proud.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Imitation Isn’t The Sincerest Form of Flattery—It’s the Best Way to Learn Technique

When art students learn technique, they are required to imitate the great masters. It is in the process of imitating the master that the young artist becomes more experienced and learns to develop his or her own techniques while establishing a firm artistic foundation. Indeed, during our last trip to Paris, hubby and I saw art students copying masterful paintings in the Louvre. Their paintings looked exactly like the originals and their technique had obviously been perfected. So too, do good cooks copy the dishes of masters or at least of good restaurants. It is through imitating those who are good at what we want to be able to do that we can learn how to do new things well and get ideas for improving the things we already do well, including but not limited to: plating, food combinations, the importance of combining textures, food color combinations, service techniques, creating ambiance, unusual food combinations, table settings, napkin folding, the balance of dominant and recessive flavouring, etc.

Many times, it’s through another’s success at creativity that I get inspired to be bolder and more creative in my own food combinations and experiments. One of my favorite things to do is to go to a restaurant, eat a great meal or dish, and then recreate the dish or meal at home. When I’m served a great dish, I eat it more slowly and try to distinguish each individual flavor comprising the completed dish. Once I figure out what is in the dish, I can go home and experiment with different techniques and recipes. I especially like to recreate dishes that creatively combine different foods and spices. And, even when my dish at home does not come out quite like the one I ate at the restaurant, sometimes I end up creating new dishes, or if it’s a failure, I end up learning from the mistake. Either way, I end up adding new dishes, methods, and techniques to my repertoire and continuing my cooking education.

The other night for dinner when I got home I decided not to prepare the salmon and decided instead to make omelets. I remembered a great omelet I had in San Francisco a few years ago while on a business trip at a small café off of Nob Hill. I told hubby that I would make him an omelet but that he needed to allow me to add anything I wanted to it. It’s amazing how even after three years of marriage and one year of dating, all the while eating my cooking, hubby still doubts me when I combine foods he’s not used to having combined. I imitated the Nob Hill dish and made a delicious brie and apple omelet, one even the doubting Thomas could not deny.

The omelet was easy. I just sautéed peeled, thinly sliced apples in butter until soft. Then added the apples to a beaten egg, milk, salt and pepper mixture in the pan. And just before turning the omelet when done cooking, I add slices of brie, folded the omelet, pressed down to help melt the brie and VOILÀ, the omelet was complete. It brought back memories of riding the trolley cart up and down the Hill, walking along the wharf, photographing the seals, eating chocolate at Ghirardelli, and just taking in the ambiance of a great city.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Guest Menus

In French or Foe, the author suggests writing a menu for French dinner guests because, according to the author, the French do not like surprises and having a menu allows them to prepare themselves for the dinner they are about to receive.

While I disagree that dinner guests, French or otherwise, do not like surprises (I think a good surprise is always appreciated), I do agree that guests appreciate a menu when attending a dinner party.

Last year my husband and I had six friends over for dinner. I had centered the menu around two dishes—a phylo dough blue cheese and raspberry pocket (recreated from an anniversary dinner hubby and I had at a local French restaurant) and crème brulee (one of my absolutely favorite desserts—found an easy and tasty recipe in How to Be a Domestic Goddess—plus it gave me a great excuse to use the kitchen torch). I came up with two other dishes (a spinach salad with pistachio crusted goat cheese and rosemary lemon salmon). Hubby had a great idea to print out individual menus. Hubby wrote all of the names of the courses and dishes in French. We printed them on this beautiful blue/gray vellum we had picked up in a store in Paris and used a calligraphy script font. When each guest entered into the dining room that evening, they were greeted by a menu on their dinner plate. The guests started oohing and ahhing before the dinner was even served.

The week before last hubby and I had another dinner party—this time with twelve guests. It was Lebanese—part of hubby’s ancestry. Hubby wrote the menu in Arabic (the beauty of which of course is that none of our guests would know whether a mistake was made). We served spinach packets, stuffed grape leaves, apricot and cheese bundles, cheese baklava, tabbouleh, and hoummus with pita and levash bread for appetizers; cinnamon and allspice orange chicken with couscous and sweet potato/zucchini kebabs for dinner; and crepe cake for dessert. Once again, the guests were impressed with having a menu tailored to the language and culture of the food being served.

Printing a menu in a nice font, on special paper, and placing a copy at each place setting (either next to the plate, on the dinner plate, or on the charger) is an easy yet sophisticated way of letting your guests know you care and setting the mood for your dinner party.