Tuesday, February 16, 2010


I'm not usually big on Valentine's Day. It's not that I don't love B; I do, very much! The holiday itself, though, is sort of overrated, often just providing a chance for restaurants to charge exorbitant amounts of money for not very exciting food. Hallmark, of course, sets up unreasonable "romantic" expectations for any couple.

Sometimes, though, I succumb to the holiday vibes. I think this might be related to the fact that my favorite color was pink throughout elementary school. (This was before princess culture had gotten totally out of control.) I very much enjoyed both the giving and the getting of Valentines, and usually labored over an arts and crafts project plus/minus a baking project for my classmates. But I date myself. Apparently, in this day and age of the childhood obesity epidemic, baked goods are forbidden in many schools.

A few days ago, in honor of this heart-shaped, red-roses-and-chocolates-filled holiday, I put on (and am still wearing) heart-shaped earrings. One year I got B boxers covered in hearts. More recently, I've steered toward an edible celebration of Valentine's Day (though my goal has not been an aphrodisiac). Last year, I made this very sophisticated and very easy cake in a heart-shaped pan I have. (I confess without embarrassment that I own a heart-shaped pan, but I must emphasize that I inherited it from my grandmother and did not purchase it on my own.)

And this year? I was inspired to make red velvet cupcakes in honor of R's birthday, and secondarily Valentine's Day.

They turned out very, very red. This was partially (O.K., completely) due to the fact that I added twice as much food coloring as the recipe called for. You see, I made a red velvet cake several years ago that called for three (three!) bottles of food coloring. Since this seemed excessive, I purchased but one bottle of red food coloring at the store last week. After I added the whole bottle, and after the batter turned a very deep shade of red, I reread the recipe and realized that I had doubled the desired amount. Oops. Too late to turn back, so I plunged ahead.

My late grandmother (she of the heart-shaped pan) used to color all sorts of cakes and frostings...in the sixties. A residency colleague of mine went through a phase where she only ate green food, so her parents were forced to use green food coloring to get her to drink her milk...in the eighties. Food coloring seems awfully dated now, doesn't it? Useful for Easter eggs, of course, but it does not occupy a prominent position as a go-to pantry item.

Many of the red velvet recipes I looked through commented on how the recipe was an old Southern tradition, but I wondered when food coloring, such an integral part of the recipe, actually originated. The answer, as it turns out, was quite some time ago. Apparently the Romans really liked the yellow color imparted by saffron. And before red food coloring was regulated by the U.S. government, those enterprising Southern cooks used beet juice. I even came across one carrot cake-like recipe for red velvet that used shredded beets.

Thank goodness for red food coloring! This time, I was even able to purchase it stand-alone, without those pesky yellows and blues and greens left to languish in the back of the cupboard. The simple buttermilk cake that forms the basis of red velvet becomes unique with the addition of a few tablespoons of cocoa powder and a few tablespoons of food coloring. What really makes it special, though, is the cream cheese frosting (which I love, and which I've already written about). Besides the delicious flavor, the contrast between the red cake and the white frosting is very pleasing.

These cupcakes were perfect for the birthday party, the leftovers were perfect for Valentine's Day, and future incarnations will be perfect for other special occasions. Enjoy!

Red Velvet Cupcakes

Makes: 24 cupcakes
Time: 45 minutes active, 2 hours total

For the cupcakes:
1 stick (1/2 c.) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 c. sugar
2 eggs
1 c. buttermilk
1-2 T. (1/2 - 1 oz.) red food coloring
1 t. vanilla
1 t. distilled white vinegar
2 T. unsweetened cocoa powder
1 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
2 1/4 c. cake flour

For the frosting:
12 oz. (1 1/2 packages) light cream cheese, at room temperature
3/4 stick (6 T.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 t. vanilla
2 1/2 c. powdered sugar

To make the cake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 12 muffin cups with cupcake liners. In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar. Add the eggs, one at a time. In a separate small bowl, add the buttermilk, food coloring, vanilla, and vinegar.

To the large bowl, add the cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and 3/4 c. flour. Mix well. Add half the buttermilk mixture, mix, add 3/4 c. flour, and mix; repeat with remaining buttermilk mixture and 3/4 c. flour. Batter will be a deep red color.

Fill muffin cups 3/4 full with batter. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean. Once cupcakes are cool enough to transfer to a rack (about five minutes), place new cupcake lines in muffin tins. Fill with remaining batter, and bake. Allow cupcakes to cool completely (about one hour) before frosting.

To make the frosting, beat cream cheese and butter together in a medium bowl. Add vanilla and powdered sugar. Frost each cupcake generously. Cupcakes can be made 24 hours ahead of serving if stored tightly covered.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Last Saturday was one of those capricious weather days of San Francisco; it started rainy and dreary, but ended sunny and blue. When I awoke that morning, I had a sick husband in bed, a paper to edit, and the aforementioned rain endlessly pounding on the skylight. It didn't seem like an auspicious start to the day.

By lunchtime, however, things were looking up. B was out of bed, though still coughing every time he took a deep breath (and sometimes coughing just spontaneously). The paper was edited (one draft, at least), and I'd started on a long list of chores for the day: laundry, straightening up the house, picking up the dry-cleaning, grocery shopping, and making the peppermint meringues for an ultimately disappointing cake. I'd also fixed a nice brunch for me and B, with cheese scones and an insalata tricolore. He was well enough to partake by that time, downing four scones without a problem.

The scones I've already told you about, and they were as good as usual, so today I want to tell you about the insalata tricolore. This devastatingly simple salad is complex and delicious. The salad items are awfully patriotic (if you're Italian, that is), with appearances by each of the three colors of the Italian flag (green arugula, white Belgian endive, and red radicchio).

And by arugula, I mean rocket. Rocket! Isn't that a funny name for a salad green? I lived in England for a year right after college, and besides drinking a little bit too much and rowing intramural crew and meeting lots of new people from around the world, I immersed myself in British vocabulary. I of course learned the standards: boot, lorry, lift, jumper. But what I found most poetic were the British names for vegetables. Rocket I've mentioned, but did you know that zucchini are called courgettes? Or that eggplant is known as aubergine? I like eggplant now, but I despised its slimy nature and numerous seeds when I was younger; my dad swears, however, that if eggplant had been known as the more romantic, mellifluous "aubergine" in our house, I would have grown up liking it. Too bad we'll never know, since the names aubergine and rocket are pretty much confined to the other side of the Atlantic.

The rocket salad, if you will, is inspired by one at Pizzeria Delfina, a restaurant I very much enjoy (and which has previously provided inspiration for posts on this blog). There are only two differences that I can detect between their salad and mine. First, their chefs have perhaps better knife skills than I do (and perhaps more patience), and the radicchio and endive are sliced into very fine ribbons. Second, the salad components are served separated by color, making the flag resemblance even stronger, before being all tossed together.

The salad works really well at dinner, with pasta or panini, and I know now that it makes a great brunch with cheese scones. It's tangy from the lemon in the dressing, and flavorful from the slightly bitter greens and salty Parmesan. By later in the day Saturday, the sky had turned blue with flecks of cumulus clouds, B's cough was at least partially controlled by Ricola, and our bellies were full of hearty cheese scones and lighter insalata tricolore. Enjoy!

Insalata Tricolore
Inspired by Pizzeria Delfina

Time: 10 min active and total
Serves: 2

2 cups arugula
1 head Belgian endive, ends discarded and thinly sliced crosswise
1/4 head radicchio, cored and thinly sliced
juice from half of a lemon
2 T. olive oil
1/4 t. salt, or more to taste
1/4 t. dried oregano (optional)
Parmesan shavings

Add arugula, endive, and radicchio to a salad bowl. In a small jar, mix together lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and oregano (if using); cover, and shake vigorously to emulsify. Dress salad with lemon juice mixture, and toss. Top with Parmesan shavings for serving.

Monday, February 1, 2010


Now that it's February, work has calmed down a lot. I have a whole luxurious day of research stretching ahead of me. Because I can make my own schedule on research days, I've already taken my car in to get the brakes replaced (which I'm sure will cost a pretty penny, but I have been plagued, for the past few weeks, by a sinking "what-if-they-don't-work-this-time" feeling every time I press the brake pedal; that, at least, will be vanquished, even if my pocketbook will suffer). I've eaten breakfast, and now I'm reflecting back on my busy January, a month that was packed with my least favorite part of residency: thirty-hour overnight calls in the hospital.

When you spend that long in the hospital at any one stretch, it's important to be prepared. I have a little case with toothpaste and a toothbrush that lives in my locker. I also bring lots of snacks, as the hospital becomes a ghost town at night, and, if you come without fortifications, midnight cravings can be sated only by a vending machine. Trader Joe (a.k.a. Jose or Giotto) provides many of the snacks that keep me and my team going through the night, but I also like to bring in homemade treats.

The goal is for home to seem like it's not far away while I eat these goodies, goodies that I would normally be eating at home with B and the cats. Sometimes, however, the strategy backfires. I sit at 2am in a sterile, windowless room, filled with basic office furniture and fluorescent lights, wondering why I'm awake typing orders into the computer and getting endlessly paged, when I would rather be asleep in my own bed. Home seems very far away at a time like that.

At least, on one recent overnight call, I had spiced caramel corn to see me through the night. Crunchy, sweet, and just a little bit spicy with cayenne, it's pretty addictive stuff.

Like popovers, I've been looking for a caramel corn recipe for a long time. Lucky, then, that I stumbled across two within the period of a month (here and here). I didn't really do a fair experiment on each (my mom always taught me to try a recipe to a T the first time around), but I'm pretty happy with the outcome regardless. I like to think I took the best parts from both of the recipes to make one that's better than each of them alone.

You start with one half cup of popcorn. It doesn't look like much, but popcorn is kind of amazing. Every time I make it, I am literally astonished. Popped in a big pot on the stove, you end up with cups and cups worth of deliciously light and airy popcorn from this little starting amount.

In addition to the impressive bowlful of fluffy white popcorn, you will also end up with a few unpopped kernels at the bottom of the pot. One of the keys to this recipe—and certainly the biggest pain about it—is separating the popped from the unpopped, or the wheat from the chaff, if you will. Learn from my mistake: I was not careful the first time I made the caramel corn, and had several unpleasant bites that ended with me almost cracking a tooth on an unpopped kernel that had glued itself invisibly to a lovely popped one. Avoid this situation. Leave the unpopped kernels behind. Your dentist will thank you.

Once you've made the popcorn, a simple caramel sauce is boiled on the stove, and then tossed with the popcorn. The second secret to this popcorn is the next step: baking the caramel-covered kernels on a parchment-lined sheet in the oven for an hour, mixing every 20 minutes or so. This method keeps the kernels nice and dry, as well as allowing them to be evenly coated them with caramel sauce.

Cayenne was the only spice I went for, but I think you could add a little bit of cumin or coriander if you have adventurous eaters around. The heat from the cayenne cuts the cloying sweetness of typical caramel corn, making a really special snack.

Here's what I envision: you'll make this spiced caramel corn, and, instead of being in the hospital on a long night, you'll be able to enjoy it at home, sitting on the couch with your loved ones and your newest Netflix disc. That's how I plan to make it next. B and the cats and I will snuggle together while we eat it. Enjoy!

Spiced Caramel Corn

Time: 1 1/2 hours total, 1/2 hour active
Makes: about 2 quarts

2 T. canola or other neutral oil
1/2 c. popcorn
1 t. salt, or more to taste
1 c. light brown sugar, packed
1/4 c. light corn syrup
6 T. unsalted butter (3/4 of a stick)
1 t. baking soda
1 t. vanilla extract
1 t. ground cayenne

First, preheat oven to 250 degrees. Line a rimmed cookie sheet with parchment.

Heat the oil in a large pot on the stove. When hot but not smoking, add the popcorn, and cover the pot. Lower the heat, and move the pot back and forth continuously for several minutes, until the popping decreases in frequency. Sprinkle salt to taste. Transfer popped kernels only to a large bowl.

In a medium-sized saucepan, add brown sugar, corn syrup, and butter. Stir continuously to form the caramel, stopping when mixture reaches 250 on a candy thermometer. Turn heat off. Quickly add baking soda, vanilla, and cayenne (mixture will rise up). Pour caramel mixture over popcorn, mixing evenly with a spatula.

Turn caramel corn mixture out onto parchment-lined sheet. Bake for 1 hour, stirring mixture twice during cooking. Cool completely. Caramel corn keeps, in a tightly-sealed container, for 2 weeks.