I have a confession…I’m a cooking/food show snob. With hundreds of them on the air and thousands on the internet, we are inundated from morning to night. I’ll admit I’m generally not a fan of the competition variety, like Chopped and Cutthroat Kitchen. I lost interest in Top Chef after two seasons, mainly because I got no enjoyment out of watching food “professionals” stab each other in the back week after week. It was like watching “Master Chef meets Survivor.” I see more than enough drama working in a real life kitchen, thank you very much. Sadly, a great many popular American cooking/baking competitions thrive on and perpetuate a kind of cutthroat mentally that for me takes away the joy and passion for the craft. Knife Fight on Esquire Channel might be an exception, only because the setting and premise is pretty straightforward–two chefs battling against the clock in an actual restaurant kitchen–and there is mutual respect amongst the competitors. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a healthy dose of competition to bring out the best in people–just not when it also brings out the ugly.
This is why I’m a big fan of The Great British Bake Off. Aside from the incomparable wisdom of Mary Berry, the ascerbic wit of Paul Hollywood, and the cheekiness of presenters Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, the show is all about challenging the contestants to strive for their personal best.
Yes, they are competing for the championship yet there is always a sense of sportsmanship and mutual respect. No one is fighting for equipment or ingredients. They each have their own fully-equipped, well-stocked stations. Call me sappy, but I love the fact that everyone goes in for the group hug when someone gets eliminated. Judges Paul and Mary aren’t sitting behind a table telling that week’s “loser” to pack up their tools and leave.
What I enjoy most about the show is while the bakers’ skill and creativity are being challenged every week, I’m also learning something in the process–like how to make the perfect Jaffra cake (had no idea it was something one actually made from scratch since I’ve only ever seen them prepackaged) or what constitutes an ideal arlette? I leave each episode with new found respect for the art that is my life and passion…and sometimes with a desire to whip up a batch of something quintessentially British…like crumpets.
Yield: about 1 dozen
1 1/2 cups whole milk, scalded then cooled to warm
1 tsp. dry active yeast
2 tsp. honey or sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups bread flour
1 1/2 cups warm water
1 tsp. sea or Kosher salt
1 tsp. baking soda (dissolved in 2 Tbsp. warm water)
Combine flours and salt in a large mixing bowl. Whisk together yeast, warm milk and honey or sugar–then stir into flour mixture. Gradually whisk in warm water to form a batter. Cover and set aside in a warm, draft-free space for about 30-40 mins. Whisk in dissolve baking soda.
Heat a heavy skillet or griddle with a little vegetable on medium low heat. Place greased crumpet rings onto the heated surface. Fill each ring about halfway. Cook first side until bubbles form throughout the surface and the batter is set about 1/4″ all around the other edge (about 4-5 mins.) Carefully flip the crumpets and continue to cook second side for another 3-4 mins.
It took weeks of stealth planning…endless Facebook messaging…multiple revisions…crafty, deliberate misdirections…all in an effort to throw Rina the surprise 40th birthday party she richly deserved. She did not make it easy. We all knew she wanted something special to mark this milestone, but being the suspicious woman that she is, Rina kept her husband, Ken, and Laura on their toes–tossing one monkey wrench after another in their planning. At one point, she was so worried they hadn’t come up with anything she started organizing her own birthday party!
I had it pretty easy…once Ken decided to forgo booking an event space and opted to go with a restaurant, which meant I wouldn’t be catering the party. I knew from the beginning that I’d make her birthday cake–and that it’d have to be something that would knock her socks off. Now, I’m not one for carving cakes into Mount Rushmore-like heads of people. In fact, I’m generally against fashioning any body parts out of cake. Sorry, but that’s just weird! It’s suppose to be dessert, not an episode of Dexter. Nevertheless, Rina and I had a running joke on Facebook about her wanting me to bake her a cake in the form of Lionel Ritchie’s head (circa 1980’s), so I deployed a bit of subterfuge by hinting to her sister Rachelle that I was thinking of doing just that…in case Rina decided to pick her sister’s brain about what we were doing for her birthday.
What I really wanted to do was create a cake that showcased both Rina’s talent as an artist and her love of classic Hollywood movies. The perfect place to start was to pull from her extensive and prolific drawings on the subject. Ken helped by secretly emailing me some of her movie-themed “post-it” drawings. I gathered more from her website, Facebook, and even her postings on this blog, which I then assembled and printed out on edible ink.
I did run into one minor glitch–the yellow ink wouldn’t flow out of the cartridge so all the images came out in shades of pink, blue and black! Not exactly true to her original artwork, but since I was unable to unclog the cartridge, I decided to just go with it. At least the color scheme was consistent, which created a kind of flow from her more vibrant drawings to the monochromatic ones. Originally, I envisioned something along the lines of frames from movie strip circling the cake, but then I realized that I had far too many images (after all I was only making a relatively small two-tiered cake), so I went with the art gallery design. Each image would be “glued” to a fondant plaque and displayed at artful intervals around the 10″ and 6″ cakes.
Thanks to Laura’s investigative skills, I found out that our birthday girl had a fondness for tiramisu. Normally tiramisu is too delicate to be turned into a decorated cake. However, I’ve created a version that is not only delicious but firm enough to be used in a tiered cake. For Rina’s birthday cake, I settled on a light and fluffy vanilla chiffon cake, soaked with a rum-spiked espresso syrup and layered with a rum and marsala flavored tiramisu filling dotted with bittersweet chocolate curls, frosted in coffee Italian buttercream.
My vision for Rina’s cake didn’t end with the art gallery of her drawings. Oh no. I needed an extra element to send it over the top. And that extra something came in the form of Mr. Darcy…or rather Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy (who Rina would argue was the ultimate incarnation of our beloved Jane Austen hero)…gloriously wet, rising out of a pool of chocolate on the top tier! It seemed simple enough. All I had to do was screen shot a stock photo Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy standing in the lake. How hard could that be? Well…really hard as it turns out…because the scene never actually took place. To be exact, that particular sequence in the mini series begins with Colin diving into the lake and cuts to him drenched, walking his horse across the greens towards Pemberly! The only image I could find of Firth’s Darcy in that scenario was of that bizarre “fan art” sculpture made in his likeness which stands in the middle of a lake in Lyme Park, England.
Needless to say, it’s just a little too creepy. So, I had to be creative and photoshop (with the help of my friend, Clara) the head of Colin Firth onto the body of the sculpture…then print him up on an edible frosting sheet.
I then made a hard sugar paste called pastillage, rolled it out like fondant and cut it in the outline shape of his body. The pastillage was allowed to dry out for three days, then I attached the cut-out image of Colin onto it. For the cake top, I piped a nice thick border of buttercream dots along the edge to hold in the “lake” of melted chocolate ganache.
After an interminably long drive through ridiculously bad downtown San Francisco traffic to Berkeley, with the cake strapped to the backseat of Laura’s Toyota, we thankfully arrived at Spenger’s with everything still intact. Rina was indeed very surprised.
And this is what was left…before everyone went in for seconds…and thirds.
Yield: enough to fill one 10″ and one 6″ cake
1/4 tsp. sea or Kosher salt
1 1/3 cups sugar
1/4 cup light rum
1/4 cup dry marsala
12 oz. mascarpone cheese
5 cups heavy cream
2 1/2 tsp. gelatin powder dissolved in 1/4 cup cold water
In a heat proof bowl, whisk together the yolks, salt, 1 cup sugar, and liquor until smooth. Set the bowl over simmering bowl, whisking continuously until the mixture is very pale and thick and registers 160°F. Remove from the heat and whisk in the softened gelatin. Place the bowl over a larger bowl of ice and water to chill, whisking occasionally to distribute the cold. Meanwhile, in a mixer fitted with a whip attachment whip on medium speed the mascarpone, remaining 1/3 cup sugar and 2 cups of cream until the lumps of mascarpone have been smoothed out, then lower the speed and gradually add the remaining cream. Increase the speed to medium and whip until the mixture forms medium soft peaks. Carefully fold chilled egg mixture into the cream.
For me Happy Hour can happen any day of the week, though more often than not it’s the weekend when I can really kick back and enjoy a cocktail (or two) since I usually don’t get out of work in time during the week to take advantage of Happy Hour. And since the Rio Olympics has been dominating my television viewing of late this week, my drink of choice has been the caipirinha. Yes, I finally got into the spirit of the games, but then who wouldn’t given the stellar performances in women’s gymnastics and all-around swimming.
Hey, when you’ve got a big bottle of cachaca and a bag of limes laying around just begging to be used…well, what can I say? To keep things interesting, I’ve come up with another inspired variation on the classic Brazilian cocktail–Guava-Raspberry Caipirinha. I got the idea to use guava in the cocktail from the quintessentially Brazilian specialty, guava paste. Adding a few ounces of guava nectar or puree and some fresh or frozen raspberries to the cachaca and muddled lime gives the drink a gorgeous blush of pink and delicately sweet tropical note.
2 oz. Cachaca
1/2 lime, cut into quarters
2 tsp. turbinado or raw sugar
2 oz. guava nectar or puree
4-5 fresh or frozen raspberries
chilled soda water
slice of lime for garnish
Place the sugar and lime pieces at the bottom of a highball glass and muddle together to release the essential oils. Add the Cachaca and guava, along with 4-5 ice cubes and the raspberries. Top off with soda water and garnish with a slice of lime.
Happy Hour without food is just a cocktail–and pretzels don’t count. I want something a little more substantial to nosh on with my drink…an hors d’oeuvre perhaps…something like a MiniToad in the Hole. Now there many interpretations of “Toad in the Hole.” It can be a breakfast dish where you cut a hole in the center of a thick slice of bread, crack in an egg and fry it up.
The British version of Toad in the Hole is cooked sausages baked in Yorkshire pudding, served with gravy, which is the springboard for my hors d’oeuvres. Instead of serving it with gravy, I top my mini toads with a little balsamic caramelized onion, horseradish sour cream, and fresh chopped parsley. It’s a mouthful of savory deliciousness that is perfect for soaking up all those Happy Hour cocktails!
Process eggs and milk in a blender until smooth. Whisk together the flour, salt, thyme, and peppers, then add to the blender and process until smooth. Blend in half of the melted butter and rendered bacon fat. Transfer the popover batter into a measuring cup or pitcher and refrigerate for at least one hour.
I’m trying to get into the spirit of watching the Rio Olympics…really I am. I must admit, though, the opening ceremonies left me more than just a little bored–so much so that I ended up switching over to The Great British Bake-Off (hey it was the semi-finals!) about an hour into the broadcast. Maybe it was all the commercials and endless commentaries or maybe it was the surprisingly underwhelming production values (perhaps attributable to budgetary constraints?), but I simply wasn’t feeling it. Alas, I missed the glorious parade of nations…including the fabulously bare-chested flag bearer from Tonga, which was, according to Rina, her mom’s favorite part of the ceremony. I’m hoping that once my favorite competitions–women’s gymnastics and swimming–are underway my enthusiasm will get reignited. If not, I’ll have to settle for the highlights and entertain myself with movies (partially) set in Rio. Okay, to be fair, they don’t authentically reflect Brazilian culture–strictly popcorn Hollywood fare–but engaging nevertheless.
Flying Down to Rio (1933)
No one actually flew down to Rio to make this musical and very few people remember that it was really Dolores del Rio and Gene Raymond who got top billing. What makes this otherwise lightweight musical noteworthy to film history buffs is the debut of perhaps arguably the most famous, most beloved onscreen dance pairing of all time–Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Now Voyager (1942)
Bette Davis at her melodramatic best, transforming herself from a dowdy neurotic Bostonian spinster heiress to a sophisticated, fashionable modern woman through intense therapy, who finds love on a cruise ship with a married man played by Paul Henreid. Their tentative onboard flirting culminates in a brief tryst while on a day trip through Rio de Janeiro (must have been something in air). No film at the time did more for smoking than Now Voyager. Paul Henreid’s iconic duo cigarette lighting became symbolic of the sublimated sex act.
Alfred Hitchcock spins a masterful tale of romance and intrigue centered around post WWII Nazi espionage in Brazil. To say the chemistry between Cary Grant (Devlin) and Ingrid Bergman (Alicia) was caliente would be an understatement. Rio provided the perfect setting for their love affair to blossom. The eroticism of their cleverly choreographed kisses, which danced around the Production Code restrictions of the time, were hands down some of the sexiest moments in film history.
If you’re in the mood for something completely offbeat, director Terry Gilliam serves up a big heaping plate of it in his fantastical oddball story about a low level bureaucrat’s (Jonathan Pryce) search for his dream woman in a dystopian, totalitarian world driven by rampant consumerism. It’s a film full of Gilliam’s trademark Monty Pythonish dark humor and imaginatively elaborate sets. Who knew how prophetic his vision really was in light of the recent controversies involving the IOC?
Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)
What was it about 1985? Here’s another film with dark political underpinnings centered on a riveting story about two prisoners in a Brazilian jail, involving political intrigue, espionage, sexual identity, love, and the power of storytelling.
Fast Five (2011)
If you’re just looking for some mindless fun, then Fast Five, the fifth installment in the Fast and Furious franchise, might be right up your alley. It’s an adrenaline rush of wildly preposterous car chases and high octane fight scenes set against the backdrop of modern Rio de Janeiro.
Whether you’re watching the Olympics or just a movie (sort of) set in Rio, you can always use some refreshments and snacks–two of the most characteristically Brazilian being the Caipirinha and Pao de Queijo (cheese bread). I added whole frozen blackberries and fresh mint to my Caipirinha, topping it off with a little soda water for a refreshing twist on a Brazilian classic.
2 oz. Cachaca
2 tsp. turbinado or raw sugar
1/2 lime, quartered
3-4 fresh or frozen blackberries
2 sprigs fresh mint
chilled soda water
Place the sugar, lime pieces and one sprig of mint at bottom of a highball glass and muddle together to release the essential oils. Add the Cachaca along with 4-5 ice cubes and the blackberries. Top off with soda water and garnish with the remaining mint sprig.
I would describe the Pao de Queijo or “cheese bread” as a cross between the cheesy French gougere and a popover on the outside, with the chewiness of mochi on the inside. It’s made with tapioca flour so it’s gluten-free. To jazz it up a bit, I seasoned the batter with a tiny sprinkling of garlic powder, smoked paprika, cayenne, and ground black pepper.
Pao de Queijo (Brazilian Cheese Bread)
Yield: 1 dozen
1 large egg
1/4 cup oil (e.g. canola, light olive, grapeseed)
2/3 cup whole milk
1 1/2 cups tapioca flour (aka starch)
1/4 tsp. sea or kosher salt
1/8 tsp. cayenne
1/8 tsp. smoked paprika
1/8 tsp. garlic powder
1/8 tsp. ground black pepper
1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
In a blender, process the egg, oil, and milk to combine. Whisk together the dry ingredients then process into the wet ingredients until smooth. Add the cheeses and pulse just to combine. Pour the batter evenly amongst twelve well-greased muffin molds. Bake in a preheated 375°F oven for 22-25 mins. until the cheese breads are golden brown and puffy. Cool in the tins for few minutes before unmolding.