2.11.2015

The Ethos of Eros.


Valentine's Day has some significance for almost everyone. I know I have experienced practically every variation of this day of Cupid throughout my life. I can still remember running home from elementary school with my arms overflowing with those precious little cards with illustrations like squirrels saying, “I'm pining for you!,” signed by each kid in my class. And, of course, the little candy hearts with the text... 'Be Mine'.

My dad always tried to step up on Valentine's Day. One year, I was about thirteen, he gave me a red rose and a postcard with an image of The Beatles that read; 'Scooterhead, Happy V Day from the Fab Four! Love, Big D.' Oh, Daaaad... As an adult, there have been traditional romantic dinners and getaways with loved ones, the anti-Valentine's Days with friends, vodka and Absolutely Fabulous marathons, and just as significant, a year (maybe more than one) single and snuggled up tightly with my dog, Besito, watching An Affair to Remember (ok, The Notebook), with a bottle of Bordeaux and a box of chocolates (a pupcake for Besito). Sobbing. (Well, it is THE most romantic movie EVER.)

In hindsight they all seem equally poignant, equally romantic. But don't tell that to the twenty-seven year-old me that threw all of the heart-shaped cookies I made onto the sidewalk and stomped them into powder because my boyfriend gave me socks and then went out to meet a pal at a bar down the street. What I didn't seem to consider at that time was how much he loved socks. And me. (And, well, he did work at that bar.) Hindsight, I tell you.


These days I see Valentine's Day not unlike New Year's Eve: Amateur Night – at least for dining out. Every restaurant is packed solid and offering prix fixe menus – that they are, almost always, assembly-line pumping out. Even my favorite restaurant in LA, with my favorite chef at the helm in the kitchen, served me a memorably mediocre Valentine's dinner a few years back. Ever since then I have chosen to dine in, even if 'in' is in a little cabin on the Tomales Bay or right 'in' my own cozy kitchen.

I mean, really, what's more romantic, more intimate, than cooking together? Just the two of you, dim the lights, light a candle (or ten), get some music swirling out of the speakers, pour yourselves a little bubbly and get chopping. Keep it simple in both prep, execution and clean up, and keep it rich, bold and classic in the flavor profiles and textures. Or even go straight sexy with some aphrodisiac foods, like oysters, chocolate, and red wine. Oh, and most certainly leave the clean up for the next morning or afternoon. Make the whole process, the experience, the memory.

The first two Valentine's Days Fred and I were together we went up to his family cabin in Inverness, on the Tomales Bay with our dogs. We grilled oysters, sipped wine, sat by the fire and snuggled. Last year, our first in Virginia, I was pregnant so we stayed home. But Fred did something pretty amazing – he built me a fire pit in the backyard. And there, with our dogs, we grilled oysters (I only had one!) and sipped wine (I only had a sip!) and sat by the fire and snuggled.

This year however, we have the opportunity to bring the new to the old and the old to the new. We will be spending the weekend in a cabin nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It belongs to a friend, the husband of my dear, dear Breeda who passed away two years ago. It was theirs together and it was her favorite place. What could be more special? This year, like the last three, Fred and I, with our dogs, will cook dinner - probably grill oysters, definitely sip wine and snuggle by the fireplace. But this year we will also have Emerson, the love of both of our lives. So while there may not be quite as much wine sipping, there will be exponentially more snuggling.

A side dish we plan on preparing is one I learned about through my good friends at Little House Green Grocery. It is so simple, so simple, that you think, 'sure, that's probably just fine and all, but...' But, let me just tell you this; it is brilliant. BRILLIANT. It would work well alongside steak, lamb, chicken, fish, um... everything. I compel you to make it. And then make out.

Happy Valentine's Day!


Braised Fennel
(recipe adapted from Gray Carson)

Serves 2 as a side dish

Ingredients
1 large head of fennel (or 2 small/medium heads)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup vegetable stock (or chicken stock)
¼ cup water
Finishing salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste

Optional garnishes: honey, balsamic vinegar or orange zest


Directions
Cut about 1 inch above the fennel bulb and remove stalks. Cut a few of the bright green fronds from the stalks to save as a garnish (to keep the fronds fresh, rinse them in cold water). Slice bulb in half lengthwise and then, depending on the size the bulb, cut each half lengthwise into 2 to 4 pieces so that each wedge is about ½ to ¾ of an inch in diameter. Be careful to leave the core intact.

In a medium sauté pan, heat butter on medium heat. Add fennel slices and cook until golden brown (about 5-7 minutes).

Reduce heat to low and add stock and water. Continue to simmer on low until most of the liquid has evaporated (about 15 minutes).

Salt and pepper to taste, garnish with chopped fennel fronds and serve immediately.


Optional: top with a drizzle of honey, balsamic vinegar or a little orange zest.




Two years ago: Mimi's Baked Broccoli
Seven years ago: Yang Chow

1.19.2015

Me vs. Cleanse: 2015


Two weeks of 'cleansing' has come to a triumphant conclusion. It hardly felt like a cleanse. I was never hungry and I never had any insurmountable cravings. I truly was sated. In fact, the portions were often so plentiful I couldn't finish some meals – even skipped some scheduled afternoon snacks and desserts. Which, I believe, makes up for the bit of cheating on the wine consumption. I didn't drink tons, but maintained a glass or two each evening. I cut myself some slack on that, especially considering I swapped morning coffee for tea. And I love, need, my morning coffee. These days, with the baby and not much sleep, I feel that I need coffee to make coffee. But no, it has been tea. With almond milk and occasionally agave nectar. Meh.

Anyway, it's over. Some of the eating restrictions during the cleanse we will attempt to maintain. The big shocker: Butter. I never would have thought we could last two weeks cooking every meal in our home without butter. But, as it turns out, its absence went virtually without notice. The cleanse recipes layered so much depth and flavor, pulled from both fresh and dried herbs and spices and elegant oils like walnut and grape seed, that really kept the palate interested and happy - thinking. And using ingredients like barley, quinoa and whole grain rice kept me from pining for, craving or needing pastas, potatoes and breads. No, really.

But my morning coffee with full-fat cow milk is already back, boyeee.



I will say that this two-week food lover's cleanse is not for every one. It's title is apt. To really, really execute this cleanse, one's love of food must be infinite. Also beneficial is employment in the food field (writer, photographer, recipe developer et al). In fact, one may find it difficult to pull this off above fifty percent if one has an actual nine to fiver that is not in the food arena. And here's why: these past two weeks required an inordinate amount of time in the kitchen. A few hours a day. Even though it was extremely well conceived - using elements from the previous night's dinners for the next day's lunches, certain components prepared in batches or the night before to simplify the process of some breakfasts and parts of other meals (like the barley and dressings and compotes) it was still a bear. Oh, and try popping off to the market to grab a bit of orange flower water, why don't you? Hell, I had to try four different ones here until I landed the Bhutanese red rice. At times it was kind of like a scavenger hunt.

Another note of mention: it is not cheap. This was easily a $600 initiative (for two people, mind you). I will add that many ingredients were optional or could be substituted for others. For example, you could reasonably use walnuts in lieu of pistachios or extra butter lettuce or watercress in lieu of arugula. And admittedly, that orange flower water was on the optional list. But really, that's nickel and diming. Many of the big dollar items are pantry ones – specialty oils, dried spices and herbs and things like chia seeds and pine nuts. These are also presumably things that will last long after the cleanse. And we did not eat a single meal out for two solid weeks. So maybe it balances out. It depends on how you live your life in food, I suppose. But it's good to know what your bottom line is likely to be.



But for me, a lot of good came out of this cleanse. For too long now I have been absent in the kitchen. This new(ish) life, with this new(ish) baby chews me up and spits me out at the end of each day. By the time I get her to sleep, I'll eat whatever is easiest, first available or what Fred feeds me. My meals are sporadic and, as a result, randomly portioned – usually far too big. This cleanse has taught both Fred and me to plan better with meals, batch cook, eat smarter and seriously rein in the portions. Four ounces of protein is a gracious plenty. But it has been fun: we looked forward to each of our meals. The chopping, sizzling, and stirring, the news or music on the radio (oddly, we found ourselves in a Cat Stevens mood often while cooking these dinners), a candle lit on the table, and actually eating the meal at the table. I guess you could say we have returned to food. We even used a good deal of the surplus produce - the carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, and butternut squash - to start Emerson on solid foods. Everyone wins.

And here's one more thing: I lost ten (10) pounds(!). How you like them apples? 
(Apples with almond butter = often the 'afternoon snack' of the cleanse).

As I stated, we will try to carry on some of what we learned during the course of the cleanse. But the reality is, life is happening, too. We won't always have as much time and energy to put into each and every meal. Plus, it will be nice to have a social life again, share meals, coffee and drinks with friends and family, and Good Lord, eat a meal out again! But I really appreciated that Fred and I stuck this out and I can probably place a safe bet that we will do it again next year. Each year deserves a fresh start, right?



After we completed the cleanse, Fred and I sat down – over chia pudding and fresh fruit, mind you – to settle on our favorite and least favorite foods of the cleanse. Here's where we landed:


Elliott Bests:
Snack: Egg with Furikake (pictured)


Fred Bests:
Snack: Egg with Furikaki (pictured)
Best Entree: Roasted Pork Tenderloin with Porcini Broth (pictured) OR Red Rice Congee with Chicken, Kimchi, and Mushrooms OR Roast Chicken with Butternut-Tahini Purée
Side: Aromatic Red Rice OR Gochujang-and-Sesame-Roasted Winter Squash
Dessert: Spicy Orange Hazelnut Chocolate Bark (pictured)

Worst (we both agreed on this): 
Beet and Escarole Salad with Avocado and Walnuts (a big weak sister of a dinner)

To see the entirety of our meals during the cleanse and how all of the recipes turned out in real life, take a tour on both my and Fred's Instagram feeds.



Roasted Pork Tenderloin With Porcini Broth

4 servings

Ingredients
½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms (about ¾ cup)
1 1¼-lb. pork tenderloin
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 small shallot, finely chopped
4 ounces wild or cultivated mushrooms (a combination of black trumpet, maitake, chanterelle, beech, oyster, and/or shiitake), trimmed, halved if large
2 medium carrots, thinly sliced on a diagonal
1 cup homemade chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth

Directions
Preheat oven to 425°. Place porcinis in a heatproof bowl and cover with 2 cups boiling water. Set aside until porcinis are tender, about 20 minutes. Strain, reserving liquid and mushrooms. Finely chop mushrooms.

Season pork with salt and pepper. Heat 1 Tbsp. oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add pork and cook until browned on all sides, 6–8 minutes. Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet and roast until an instant-read thermometer inserted into center of pork registers 140°, 15-20 minutes. Transfer pork to a cutting board and let rest 5 minutes before slicing ½” thick (about 15 slices).

Meanwhile, heat remaining 1 Tbsp. oil in the same skillet over medium heat. Add shallot, mushrooms, and carrots, season with salt and pepper, and cook 1 minute. Add porcini broth, chopped porcinis, and chicken stock, season with salt and pepper, and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 4 minutes.

Divide pork among shallow bowls and ladle broth and vegetables over top.



*ALL recipes from the 2015 Bon Appétit Food Lover's Cleanse can be found here.

Printable recipe.



One year ago: Tom Kha Gai
Two years ago: Bagels
Five years ago: Chicken Pot Pie
Seven years ago: Oyster Stew


1.04.2015

This is Forty.


It's a new year. Happy New Year. I've never been one to make resolutions. I don't like to have hard and fast rules for myself. And yet I seem to constantly make hard and fast rules for myself. But never with food or wine; the ones that usually end up on a lot of people's resolution list. I did do that cleanse once...

But this year is a little different. Between the move, the pregnancy, the having of the baby, and the life of one who has a baby, I have not exercised much at all. I bought a bike a few days before I found out I was pregnant and I think I can count on one hand the number of times I've ridden it in over a year. And now it's Winter again. And though I eat well – fresh, local, organic - I haven't practiced a lot of control with portions and cravings. I've craved a lot of red meat. I've craved a lot of cake.

Oh, and in the middle of all of this I turned forty.



So in this new year I am resolved to reclaim control of my body as much as I can while still nursing and caring pretty much full time for a six-month old *teething* baby. My dad set Fred, Emerson and I up with a family membership at a gym (with salt water pools and daycare!), and Fred and I are changing our diet for a couple of weeks, maybe longer. We're doing a type of a cleanse, but it doesn't really have any hard and fast rules. My cup of coffee, fine. A glass or two of wine, that's okay. And we eat three squares a day, with an afternoon snack. It's just all very healthy and balanced. With portion control.

BUT. Over the holiday I went a little cookie-making crazy (just take a look at my Instagram feed). I kept trying to make the perfect shortbread Christmas cookies. I never quite got them right. And I don't like not getting something right. I'm very competitive with myself. So I had to get them right. Even with all my resolutions. Those damn hard and fast rules I keep making for myself.

On day two of the cleanse, of course, I saw the recipe that seemed perfect. It was very simple, had what looked like just the right amount of butter (considerably more than two parts to the one part sugar) and added a great little twist of dipping the cookies halfway into tempered chocolate. So yesterday, after our breakfast of Steel-Cut Oats with Cacao Nibs and Figs, while Fred (who has a flu-like situation going on) and Emerson (again, teething) grabbed a mid-morning nap, I put on my apron and some Ahmad Jamal and got to it. It felt good. To be alone, in relative quiet, no one needing anything from me at all. With the house beginning to smell buttery and snuggly I had a horrible realization: I CAN'T EAT THE COOKIES. Well, I really shouldn't eat the cookies. I mean, I needed to save my appetite for my exciting lunch of Watercress Salad with Snapper and Kimchi and the possibility of some apple and almond butter later.

I ate exactly two. 


And they were indeed perfect.

As luck would have it, Paz had a Downton Abbey party to attend this evening and nothing to take (let's not try to think too hard about that sentence). The recipe made about fifty of the little domino-sized cookies. Shortbread is super British and great with tea. That just seems so, so, very Downton Abbey, right?

And like a whisper in the wind, all of my beautiful, delicious, perfect shortbread cookies disappeared into the night. Never to ruin my resolutions, and probably killing it at Paz's dumb party. And best of all, I simultaneously broke and kept a hard and fast rule.

Now, I must run off to enjoy my dinner of Brussels Sprouts and Tofu Stir Fry over Aromatic Red Rice and call back Parker, my trainer, to set up my first session.


Chocolate-Dipped Shortbread
Recipe from Epicurious, December 2005
Developed by Tracey Seaman

With its cloak of pure chocolate, this buttery cookie is sublime. For the best flavor, use a high-quality pure vanilla extract and the best chocolate you can find — preferably Valrhona. Melting the chocolate in two stages helps keep it at an even temperature — insuring that it will set evenly.

Makes about 3 dozen cookies

Ingredients
2 sticks (1/2 pound) unsalted butter, at room temperature
     2/3 cup sugar
     2 teaspoons vanilla extract
     1/2 teaspoon salt
     2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
     8 ounces high-quality semisweet chocolate, finely chopped

Directions
Arrange racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat to 325°F. Line 2 large cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In electric mixer, beat butter, sugar, vanilla, and salt at medium speed just until smooth. Add flour and mix at low speed until combined. Divide dough in half and shape into 2 disks.

On lightly floured work surface, roll out 1 piece dough to 1/4-inch-thick rectangle. Using fluted pastry wheel or large knife, cut into 2- by 1-inch rectangles. Transfer cookies to baking sheets, spacing 1 1/2 inches apart. Repeat with remaining dough.

Prick each cookie several times with tines of fork, then chill 10 minutes. Bake until edges are golden, about 15 minutes. Cool on pans 5 minutes, then transfer to racks and cool completely.

To decorate: Line baking sheet with clean parchment or wax paper. In medium heatproof bowl set over saucepan of simmering water, melt half chocolate. Add remaining chocolate, remove bowl from heat, and stir occasionally until smooth. Pour into small bowl.

Dip each cookie halfway into chocolate, let excess drip off, and place on baking sheet. Let stand until chocolate is set, about 1 hour. Store in airtight container at room temperature. (Do not refrigerate.)



One year ago: Butter Croissants
Three years ago: Cheebo
Seven years ago: Mozza & Dominick's



11.25.2014

Field of Dreams


While I am patently aware of the dearth of new content on F for Food, it nonetheless hit me hard to receive an e-mail last week with an offer to buy the blog. Someone clearly took notice of the lack of activity and exhibited interest in taking it over and 're-aliving' it, so to speak.

Well folks, F for Food isn't for sale. Even though I have not been able to find the time to put the proverbial pen to paper consistently for over a year, I really, really plan to. I think about it all the time. Not only did this blog keep me relatively sane, relatively grounded, during some very bumpy periods for half of a decade in LA, but it has also been huge part of my identity, my creative outlet, my escape, my happiness and, now, my new career.

My New Career.

If you build it, they will come.* Whether you are referring to a ghost to play catch with in a field of dreams or a version of yourself that you are projecting, creating or recreating, I find this mantra, if you will, to be true. Sort of a fake it 'til you make it kind of thing, you know?

First jobs tend to always be this way. Waitress? Gotta start somewhere. Just fib a little bit in the interview, say you've done it before. At that little cafe. They're closed now, though. You get the job, and after a few months, you're Flo. In my own life I have found myself in this field of dreams scenario quite a few times. It seems that I usually hit the ground running and end up taking off just fine. A few hiccups here and there, of course, but that is to be expected. (Dig the mixed metaphors, here.)

Upon moving to Richmond I decided a few things. One of them was that I was going to be a Food Stylist to Fred's Food Photographer. Or rather that we already were. So we had cards printed up saying as much. Done.

Cut to a few months back, standing in a studio with Fred, each of our assistants, one for styling and one for photography, a production assistant scuttling around, and a cluster of people from The Martin Agency looking over our shoulders as we style and shoot a holiday ad campaign for Oreo Cookie Balls. Surrounded by dozens and dozens of said balls for days with little rest and trying to care for a six week-old baby, you can imagine the slap-happy-terrible-taste ball jokes flying around.

And then jump ahead to a week ago: I'm alone – that is, sans Fred, standing in a frozen yogurt shop, after hours, filled with twenty people, cast, crew and clients, along with truckloads of cameras, equipment and gear for a Hamilton Beach blender video shoot. I was The Stylist.

In addition to these high falootin' gigs we've kind of become the go-to food photographer/stylist team for our local magazine's food spreads and we even spoke at a local event recently, giving a how-to workshop on food photography and social media. Like, suddenly we're the experts, for crying out loud!

If you build it they will come.*

So, between all that stuff and our five month-old baby girl, the blog has gotten a little dusty. But not forgotten! I have been bugging Fred every week about us needing to get new work up here, and we keep saying we will. Life will regulate again at some point – I know it will. Bikes will be ridden. Books will be read. Maybe even a movie. In a theater.

A couple of days after the offer-to-buy email, I received an email with an offer to publish sponsored content. Us bloggers receive these with some frequency and with varying degrees of appeal, but this one caught my eye for a number of reasons. First of all, I know and respect the source. Secondly, the company, Rakuten, to be sponsored was new to me and I was pleasantly surprised with its bounty of offerings. Third, the post was to be Thanksgiving-themed.


That's right! It's Thanksgiving!

How could this have happened? How could it be this close to Thanksgiving with my hardly given it a thought? I am a food writer! A food stylist! This is the food holiday! Even though I have never had a tradition for this holiday, that is I have never really done the same thing twice, I always host and always cook. A lot. Except this year. This year Fred, Emerson and I will be flying back to LA. On Thanksgiving day no less. I don't know what we will be doing or what we will be eating. I don't even know if Emerson will allow for much anyway, it being her first flight, her first new time zone.

At best we will be able to make a humble, yet noble, side dish for the holiday. So we turned to the beautiful new cookbook Heritage from fellow Virginia native, Sean Brock, for inspiration. We didn't have to look far. He had us at Farrotto. To be specific, Farrotto with Acorn Squash and Red Russian Kale. This dish is all kinds of Autumnal, it's healthy and with kale and farro, it's super IN. A perfect winner of a choice for Thanksgiving, if I do say so.

It will be interesting to return to LA, to my old friends, my old stomping ground, as a new mother with a new career, a new life. It will be interesting to head right into a Thanksgiving I have no concept of and no control over. I guess Thanksgiving's tradition for me is its non-tradition. That works. Thanksgiving is the holiday that I am constantly projecting, creating or recreating. If I build it IT will come.*

In addition to the cookbook, many of the key tools and ingredients for this recipe are found on Rakuten's website.


*The original quote from Field of Dreams is "If you build it he will come."


Farrotto With Acorn Squash and Red Russian Kale
(Recipe from Heritage by Sean Brock)


Servings: 6 as a side or 4 as an entree

Ingredients

Acorn squash
1 small acorn squash (about 2 1/2 pounds)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
Scant 1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1 cup vegetable stock
1 bunch Red Russian or other kale (about 3 pounds)

Farrotto
2 quarts vegetable stock
1 1/2 teaspoons canola oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup diced white onion
1 garlic clove, sliced paper-thin
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese



Directions

For the squash:

Preheat the oven to 425°F.

Cut the squash in half. Remove and discard the seeds and rinse the squash under cold water. Place the squash cut side up on a rimmed baking sheet. Divide the butter between the two halves and sprinkle with the salt and white pepper. Roast the squash for 35 minutes, or until fork-tender.

While the squash is roasting, prepare the kale: Remove the stems and ribs from the leaves. Make stacks of the leaves, roll them into cylinders, and cut them into very thin ribbons. Wash the kale in a sink of cold water, changing it several times, to remove any sand. Drain and dry with paper towels.

When the squash is done, remove it from the oven and pour the butter and juices from the cavities into a container. Let the squash cool enough to handle.

Warm the stock in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the butter and juices from the cavities of the squash.

Peel the squash. Place the pulp in a blender, add the warm stock and juices, and blend on high to a very smooth puree, about 3 minutes. Set aside.

For the farrotto:

Preheat the oven to 425°F.

Heat the stock in a partially covered large saucepan over medium heat; keep warm over low heat.
Heat the canola oil in a medium ovenproof skillet over medium heat. When the oil is shimmering, add the farro and stir to coat it with the oil. Place the skillet in the oven and toast the farro for 8 minutes, stirring after 4 minutes. Transfer the farro to a bowl and reserve. Wipe the skillet clean.

Put the empty skillet over medium-high heat. When the skillet is hot, about 2 minutes, add 2 tablespoons of the butter and reduce the heat to medium. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until soft, about 2 minutes. Add the wine, increase the heat to high, and cook until the wine is almost evaporated, about 2 minutes.

Add the toasted farro to the pan and stir to coat. Add 1/2 cup of the warm stock, reduce the heat to medium, and stir until the liquid is almost absorbed. Continue cooking, adding 1/2 cup of warm stock at a time, stirring to prevent scorching and letting each addition be absorbed before adding the next, until the farro grains have expanded and are al dente, about 1 hour. The farro will look creamy like risotto. (The farro can be made up to 3 days ahead. Cool to room temperature, cover, and refrigerate. Reheat over low heat before proceeding.)

To complete:

Remove the farro from the heat, add the squash puree and kale, and stir until the kale is wilted. Put the skillet back over medium heat and add the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and the cheese. Stir and serve.




Three years ago: Cranberry Nut Bread
Five years ago: Bouchon Beverly Hills

10.20.2014

Piece of Cake.


Ever since Emerson was born I have felt my own insistence to get her to Roanoke to meet her, my, extended family. And then one night recently, my new friend, Stephanie, and I were talking and getting to know one another over some food and wine and words and I discovered she grew up in Roanoke. She spoke of writing a Roanoke food roundup sort of thing. And, like that, my brain went all Rube Goldberg. It was perfect. Emerson and I would drive to Roanoke for a beautiful Fall weekend; mother and daughter, on our first - just us - trip together. We would visit our whole family, everyone would ooh and ahh over her and I would meet up with Stephanie for wine and food and ten cent words about said wine and food. Like I said, perfect.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well first off, let it be said that Emerson is not exactly that quiet, docile, easy baby. I seem to keep forgetting how many times seemingly simple, banal undertakings must be aborted because of my cherubic, smiling beauty turned frowny-Stay-Puft-Marshmallow-Man-faced daughter's protests. How so many people look at me sympathetically while offering up their advice: 'try some cereal with applesauce,' or 'mine did that until eight months and then, poof, it was over' or 'I would stand over the sink with the water running while mine was strapped to my chest to calm her down' or 'rub some brandy on her gums and then pour the rest for yourself.'

*sigh*

Okay. So I would definitely need help to pull this weekend off. Fortunately my mom readily signed on. Wait, this would be even perfect-er: three generations of women, on the road, visiting their family. I could already see the movie version, starring Susan Sarandon, Charlize Theron and Dakota Fanning (playing the older version of Emerson). There would be laughter and tears in the profusion of colorful fall leaves. And, at some point, there would be a scene with us all reminiscing the adventures of that weekend and laughing – all culminating with us singing to I Hear a Symphony using hairbrushes as microphones.

What could possibly go wrong?

I saw the drive as a great sign for the weekend ahead: smooth and peaceful, mountainous with beautiful fall colors. Emerson slept most of the way to Roanoke, waking up just as we pulled up to Aunt Connie's. After changing Emerson's diaper and feeding her, I settled in and asked Connie if she had any wine. A cute, individual-sized box (pre-portioned to be the equivalent of no more than three modest glasses of wine) of merlot appeared before me.

*Two arenas in which I am definitely not a snob: coffee and wine. Bring on the box.


After that glass of wine, it was time to get in touch with Stephanie and figure out the dinner plan. I mean, once I got Emerson to sleep, around right before I left, it seemed perfectly reasonable that I could run out and meet up with Stephanie for a nice meal at a sweet little spot I liked the last time I visited. Mom and Connie could catch up and look after the sleeping baby. Piece of cake.

So I headed out to meet Stephanie – kind of already grasping that this seemed better on paper... In the car I immediately realized how unfamiliar I was navigating Roanoke; my destination was a good thirty minutes away. Damn. I was late. And once I arrived, though we had a reservation, there was a wait. The restaurant was slammed. After almost another thirty minutes we were seated at the bar and I ordered a glass of lovely bordeaux, I get the text from Connie, “Sorry but we can't calm her down.

I put the phone on silent, face down on the bar and took a slug of the wine. And then I can see it - though it probably wasn't the most brilliant plan of plans, and yes, we both wanted to see each other (how fun to have dinner in a whole different city together!) - this was perhaps one of those 'best laid plans' kind of situations.

Then another text from Connie, “Hold on! She's asleep.” The sweet relief washed over me just as our foie gras appetizer appeared. Then Stephanie announced her stomach didn't feel so good. 

*sigh*

At least I got to house that foie gras...


Another thirty minute drive back. Back to Connie's finish off my little box of merlot while I did the math: thirty minutes there, thirty minute wait, thirty minute 'dinner', thirty minutes back. Best laid plans indeed.

And then cutting through the quiet, Emerson woke up crying. My desperate, sleep starved heart ached as I knew then we would both be up through most of the night. 

The next day rolled in and was impressively, vividly difficult. Both Emerson and I were utterly exhausted after our sleepless night, but this was our one full day in town and we had people to see. Things to do. Like go visit my mom's long lost cousin, Kelsey. They hadn't seen one another in decades and decades. So much to catch up on! So much family history to talk about! Emerson wasn't having any part of cousin catch-up. Time to leave. 


While driving away I realized I hadn't eaten a thing and was beginning to shake with hunger. It started to rain. Emerson had settled down in the car, seemed as though she was finally getting some sleep, so I wanted to go to a spot, Wildflour, where I had lunched on a previous visit. Memories of a nice, fresh salad, sandwich, and a coconut cake that I never could get out of my head sounded dreamy. Turns out this was also one of Stephanie's favorite places in town. Turns out she was going to be there at about the same time. Perfect? (I was becoming dubious) We parked and got snoozy Emerson all loaded up in the stroller – in the rain – when, of course (because my daughter has comedic timing), she began to cry. Volume increasing. Nonononono. I couldn't have Stephanie see me, us, like this. Hell, I couldn't foist this upon the peaceful, little cafe.

We got back in the car and drove off, my fingers white knuckled around the steering wheel.

I drove around, lost, looking for food, crying (both Emerson and me), delirious with hunger (both Emerson and me) and sleep deprived (both Emerson and me). We pulled into a shopping mall where, surprise!, there was another outpost of Wildflour. Mom ran into the restaurant, cut in front of the line to order “Anything! Now! Fast! And a slice of coconut cake! My daughter is in the car in the parking lot with a crying baby and hasn't eaten all day!” Somehow, for her, they parted the line like the Red Sea.

You know those moments in life where, even then you know you will absolutely look back and laugh? You have to. You know that you are presently in a memory, a story? Well, when you're spending a Saturday afternoon sitting in a running car, in a mall parking lot in Roanoke, Virginia, in the rain, with your left breast out, nursing your inconsolable baby, cramming a cold grilled cheese sandwich and coconut cake into your mouth with your free hand that your Mommy went and practically killed for to get you...


And then Emerson slept on the way back to Connie's.

Connie, as it turned out, had already made the executive decision to cancel dinner plans with the rest of the family. She recognized that I was cracking and Emerson was not having any part of family functions (functionality?). Instead, there was a very brief family visit during which I received sympathetic glances as I passed her around... And then they were gone.

That night, Emerson went right into a sound sleep. Connie, Mom and I ate microwaved Marie Callender's chicken piccata, watched The Hunger Games and gabbed about guys and life and girl stuff. And how thoughtful that Connie picked me up some wine; pinot grigio in my own little box. Emerson and I both slept all the way through to the smell of coffee brewing the next morning. Mom made us all breakfast and we were on our way back to Richmond. And, of course, Emerson slept all the way home. Actually, so did I. Thanks, Mom, for driving.

So, maybe Emerson wasn't quite ready for her journey. Or maybe I wasn't. Or maybe babies are babies – they cry - and no one expects any different. Maybe I was the only one feeling exasperated and defeated (apparently only when it's your own does your baby's cry make you feel as though you're trapped in a room with an alarm blaring and no way to turn it off).

It all makes one hell of a story. One that could, perhaps, be directed by Lawrence Kasdan, or Chris Columbus. Or, if we want to take it in another direction, Martin Scorsese ala After Hours... I'm still thinking Susan Sarandon, Charlize Theron and Dakota Fanning. Connie would be played by Jane Fonda and Stephanie would be played by either Ellen Page or Natalie Portman. 

There would still be laughter and tears amongst all those colorful fall leaves. And at some point there would be a scene with us all looking back at that time in the mall parking lot with my boobs out and laughing. I'd buy a ticket.

Once we got back, Fred gave me a day off, of sorts, because, of course, me, all I wanted to do was make that coconut cake. And that day – which turned into a week and multiple coconut cakes (also starring Stephanie!) we will save for the sequel.

Until then...


The World's Most Amazing Coconut Cake


Ingredients

For the cake:
8 egg whites
1/2 cup whole milk
¼ cup sour cream
1 tablespoon coconut cream
1 1/2 tablespoon coconut essence
4 1/2 cups cake flour
3 1/2 cups sugar
6 3/4 teaspoons  baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups unsalted butter, room temperature
1 ½ cups unsweetened coconut milk

For the frosting:
1½ cups granulated sugar
6 egg whites
1½ cups unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup sour cream
⅔ cup coconut milk

For the Garnish:
2 cups sweetened shredded coconut, lightly toasted

Directions

To make the cake:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour three 8-inch (or 9-inch) cake pans, line with parchment paper and dust with flour.

Put the egg whites in a bowl and lightly whisk. Add the milk, sour cream, coconut cream and coconut essence and mix thoroughly. Set aside.

Using a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add the butter and coconut milk and combine on low speed until moistened. Jack up the speed to medium and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the egg white mixture in 3 parts, scraping down the sides of the bowl and mixing just long enough to incorporate between additions.

Divide the batter among the prepared pans and bake for 45-50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Allow the cakes to cool in their pans for 10 minutes, then turn them out onto cooling racks to cool completely.

To make the frosting:
In a small, heatproof bowl, whisk together the sugar and egg whites. Place the bowl on top of a saucepan with about an inch of simmering water (do not let the bottom of the bowl touch the water). Heat the mixture, whisking occasionally, for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the mixture is hot to the touch and the sugar is dissolved.

Remove the bowl from the heat and transfer the mixture into the bowl of an electric mixer. Using the whisk attachment, whip on medium-high speed for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the mixture becomes a light, white meringue and the mixture is cool to the touch. Reduce the speed to low and add the butter a couple of pieces at a time. Increase the speed to medium and mix for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the butter is thoroughly incorporated and the frosting is smooth and glossy. The frosting may initially look curdled after adding the butter, but continue beating and it will come together, looking smooth and creamy by the end of the mixing time.

Add the vanilla extract, salt, sour cream and coconut milk and whip for another few minutes on medium speed, or until the coconut milk is thoroughly incorporated and the frosting is smooth. Again, the buttercream may look thin and separated, but continue mixing until it comes together. It will end up being quite satin-like, light and lovely.

Note: Use the frosting within 30 minutes, or transfer to an airtight container and store at room temperature for up to 1 day, then beat with a mixer until smooth before using. You can also store the frosting in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks, then bring to room temperature and beat with a mixer for 6 to 8 minutes until smooth before using.

To assemble:

Remove the cooled cakes from their pans and level the tops, if necessary. Place one cake layer on a cake stand and top with 1 cup (or so) of the frosting, using a spatula to spread it evenly to the edges.

Place the second layer on top, top-side down and top with 1 more cup (or so) of the frosting, using a spatula to spread it evenly to the edges.

Repeat with third cake.

Spoon the remainder of the frosting onto the top of the cake and use a large offset spatula to spread the it on top and over the sides of the cake, covering it with a very thin layer. Press the shredded coconut onto the top and sides of the frosted cake. Refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Store in the fridge or an airtight container at room temperature and cake will keep for about three days.


Printable recipe.


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