Mystery item: The Hostess Diary’s first contest

Does anyone know what these are? A small prize (possibly involving the mystery thingamabob itself) goes to the first person to correctly identify them—and I want specifics, not just the general category. (If you are one of the kind souls that gave them to me, or if I’ve already shown them to you or told you about them, please keep mum and give others a shot.) Click on the image for a larger view. More on these later when I’ve had a chance to play around with them, but for now leave me a comment if you think you know what they are.

Don’t mess with grandma’s cornbread stuffing

I’m convinced that, for most Americans, stuffing is the food most bound by tradition. When I’m eating with new friends around the holidays, I like to ask them what kind of stuffing they ate when they were growing up. (Well, usually I ask about what kind of “dressing” they ate, but then, unless they’re Southerners, they get confused and tell me about what kind of salad dressing they used.) Often the answer is “You know, regular stuffing. The usual kind.” But one person’s “regular stuffing” is another person’s culinary abomination, an affront to a traditional Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. I, for example, cannot abide New England oyster stuffing, while some people have never tasted stuffing that didn’t come out of a box of Stouffer’s.

Since my mom and grandmother grew up in Oklahoma, “stuffing” in our house means a simple cornbread stuffing, preferably cooked outside the bird so that it develops crisp edges. The first several times I made it myself, I would call my mother for the recipe, only to be reminded that there is no recipe. After you make a pan full of cornbread, you add a handful of this and splash of that and keep testing it until it tastes like … well, grandma’s stuffing. So, with all the precision that my mom and grandma would use if they were telling you how to make it, here’s how it’s done.

You start by making a pan of cornbread. Two pans, if you’re making a double batch, as we always do.

After letting dry out a bit overnight, crumble it into a bowl and assemble the other ingredients: white breadcrumbs, celery, onions, chicken stock, milk, butter, salt, pepper … oh, and poultry seasoning, which is very important but I forgot to include in the picture.

For each pan of cornbread, melt about a stick of butter. And here’s where I got a little crazy and changed things up. I substituted a big dollop of bacon fat for one of the sticks of butter. I like to think my grandma would approve.

Throw in a mess of chopped celery and onions.

While the onions and celery are sauteing, throw the cornbread crumbs, white bread crumbs, a handful of poultry seasoning, and salt and pepper in a bowl.

Add the sauteed veggies to the bowl, along with enough stock and milk to make it fairly moist. You’re going to have get in there with your hands and squoosh it around to make sure everything is thoroughly combined.

Spread it all in a baking dish and you’re good to go.

At what temperature should you cook it, you might ask. Well, whatever temperature your oven happens to be set, because undoubtedly the candied yams or roasted brussels sprouts or a 14-pound turkey will be competing for space in your oven. But if you like the edges crunchy (a must in my family), you’ll want to turn the temp up to about 450 for the last 10 or 15 minutes, or you could put it under the broiler for a final blast, too.

So what sort of dressing (whoops, sorry, “stuffing”) did you grow up eating? And how would you feel if you were served a different kind on Thanksgiving or Christmas?

Cake vs. cupcakes

Now that the weather has turned cold and rainy and everyone is hunkered down roasting turkeys and making pumpkin pies, it’s hard to imagine that 10 short days ago we were having an Indian summer in San Francisco and I was attending a delightful picnic in celebration of my roommate’s thirtieth birthday.

But what sort of dessert to make for such an important occasion? Those who roam around the food blogosphere have probably heard about the cake versus pie wars, a competition that is most neatly summed up by this graphic posted on Jezebel.

Cake vs. Pie

Although the readers of Jezebel decided that pie was the winner of this competition, I confess that I’ve always been an enthusiastic cheerleader for Team Cake, and I especially think birthdays deserve big two- or three-layer cakes slathered with a thick coat of buttercream. Like a German chocolate cake covered in brown-sugar buttercream and chopped pecans. Or a moist devil’s food layer cake coated with vanilla buttercream. But, a picnic in the park can mean only one thing: cupcakes!

Time was short, and I had to finish baking and frosting the cupcakes while my roommate was out for the afternoon if I wanted them to be a surprise, so I decided against making my usual (and a bit laborious) buttercream made using a Swiss merengue. Instead, I chose an easy-peasy recipe with a fun little twist: Mexican chocolate cupcakes with dulce de leche frosting.

First I made your garden-variety chocolate cupcakes. This recipe uses cocoa powder instead of melted chocolate, which make assembling the ingredients super-simple (and even easier to clean up). Some ground cinnamon gives the cupcakes a little something special.

Ingredients for Mexican chocolate cupcakes

Once they are cooked and cooled, whip up the frosting. It’s so simple it’s a little embarrassing, but here you have it: Just mix up some softened butter, powdered sugar—and here’s the genius part—prepared dulce de leche or cajeta (carmelized milk), which comes in jars, cans, and tubs in pretty much every store in my (largely Latino) neighborhood. I imagine the stuff is pretty easy to find at a large chain grocery store too.

Ingredients for dulce de leche frosting

I used a pastry bag to pipe the frosting onto the cooled cupcakes.

Cupcakes with dulce de leche frosting

Note to self: Work on your skills with the pastry bag. Just because your favorite piping tip got munched in the garbage disposal last year is no reason for frosting that looks like a pile of … well, never mind. Just set aside some time to practice with the pastry bag.

Here’s how the first of the cupcakes met its demise…

Hunting the dangerous dulce de cupcake in the grasslands of Dolores Park

The birthday girl goes in for the kill

Sonoma County Grape Camp

A wine cask at Valdez Family Winery

Occasionally I can forget just how fortunate I am to have a job that involves traveling to and writing about the California Wine Country. When deadlines loom, my fact-checking phone calls go unreturned, or I’m spending a weekend poring over a stack of maps that need to be revised, I’m not necessarily inclined to agree with those who tell me I have the best job in the world. (Or, in the words of one rather blunt friend I met on a trip,  that I am “one lucky sack of shit.”)

Thus I got a serious attitude adjustment yesterday, when I came across the photos I took about six weeks ago, when the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission was kind enough to invite and host me at  their annual Sonoma County Grape Camp. During our two days at camp we met dozens of winemakers, grape growers, restaurateurs, and other folks who make Sonoma what it is, all while being wined and dined incessantly. It was really almost embarrassingly luxurious, as it seemed we couldn’t go for 15 minutes without being passed a plate of local food or being handed another glass of vino, usually while standing in a beautiful orchard, or a wine cave, or  the middle of a vineyard. One of my fellow campers, Lori Rackl, captured the essence of the experience in an article for the Chicago Sun-Times. I’m not going to try do a full recap here–it would take a week to write, and at any rate I’ll be using a lot of the information I gleaned on this trip in a book I’m updating right now–but here are just a very few of the highlights.

Our first night we got to know one another at a dinner under the stars in the gardens of the winery Quivira. Duskie Estes and John Stewart, the chefs at Zazu and Bovolo, two of my favorite restaurants in Sonoma, concocted some beautiful dishes, like a chickpea fettunta with white anchovies and a pork and duck cassoulet. It was stunning, and need I mention that they poured almost 30 different wines with dinner?

 

Dinner at Quivira

The next two mornings, we dragged ourselves out of bed before 7 am so we could be in the vineyards by 8 am, before the weather started heating up to over a hundred degrees. Despite having spent years traveling in the Wine Country, I had never had the chance to harvest grapes before, so I was happy to be equipped with pruning shears and gloves …

Tools for harvesting grapes

and have someone set me loose on the orderly rows of vines.

Those who actually do this for a living were kind enough not to mock our slow progress as they blazed past us using the (more dangerous) curved-blade knife that they prefer.

The pros at work

After visits to a few different wineries and a Top Chef-style cooking competition at Relish, a culinary school in Healdsburg

Jennifer Paull is a happy camper when our team wins the cooking competition

we went back to the hotel to fit in a quick disco nap. And, as if the day hadn’t been extravagant enough, we finished up with dinner at Robert Young Vineyards, where their wine cave was lit with hundreds of candles.

Dinner at Robert Young Vineyards

There was so much more that we saw and an experienced, but I think this final photo of two of us sampling a glass of pinot after an arduous (okay, not really) 45 minutes harvesting grapes. The time stamp on my camera informs me that it wasn’t quite 9 am.

Life cycle of a berry trifle

Thanks to my delinquent blogging, this recipe is already woefully out of season. But when I made this trifle for a dinner party back in August, they were practically giving away flats of blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries at the farmers’ market, and somehow it seemed a crime not to use them in a dessert.

First,  the day before I assembled the trifle, I made a vanilla pastry cream and chilled it overnight.

Vanilla pastry cream

Then, I assembled all my ingredients: angel food cake, strawberries, nectarines, raspberries, blackberries, whipping cream, and superfine sugar.

Trifle ingredients

I chopped up the angel food cake into cubes. (If I had had more time I would have baked a homemade genoise, but life interfered with these plans. So sue me.)

Cubed angel food cake

Then I threw some peeled nectarines and blackberries in the blender and gave them a whirl.

Pureed nectarines and blackberries

Finally, before the assembly could begin, I whipped up some heavy cream and superfine sugar  …

Whipping the cream ...

… until it formed soft peaks.

Cream whipped to soft peaks

Now that all the ingredients were ready …

Trifle ingredients

…the real fun started. I just started layering cubes of cake and fruit puree …

Laying cake and fruit puree

… and then added some berries …

Adding berries

… and some pastry cream …

Adding the pastry cream

… and then some whipped cream.

Adding the whipped cream

You get the idea. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Lather

Rinse

Repeat

Until it looked like this …

Finished trifle

And I had to  chase away the interlopers.

Back away from the trifle!

If you’ve succeed in guarding the trifle, it will make it to the dinner table unmolested.

At the table

Where, of course, it will promptly be ravished …

Digging in

As well it should be.

The trifle, defeated

Sharona the shutterbug and Mr. Manhattan come to dinner

Mr. Manhattan (Michael) and the Shutterbug (Sharona)

Tap, tap, tap. Is this thing on? It is? Ahem. I think I officially forfeited my right to a blogging merit badge when September rolled around and I still hadn’t written about a party that I threw in August. By the time October rolled around, it was positively embarrassing. And now that it’s November, it’s time to post the beautiful pictures that Sharona took of that dinner in August and get back on the blogging bandwagon.

So at that party in a galaxy far, far away (i.e., late last August) Sharona the Shutterbug (a recent FIDM student, fabulous photographer, and frequent guest at our house) brought her camera and mad skills to the dinner party, agreeing to snap a few photos of the party while Mr. Manhattan and I plied everyone with cocktails. Then I cooked up a few courses and we had a merry old time late into the evening.

Process shots of the dinner prep, like composing the summer berry trifle, will follow in a post shortly. For now, a brief recap of the menu. All pictures are Sharona’s.

We started with one of my favorite cocktails, the Madagascar orchid:

Sharron making a Madagascar Orchid. Photo by Sharona Gottlieb.

Madagascar Orchid. Photo by Sharona Gottlieb.

Then Michael arrived with his magical bag of cocktail paraphenalia.

Mr. Manhattan's magical bag of cocktail tricks. Photo by Sharona Gottlieb.

He proceeded to make his outrageously delightful pisco sours concocted with his homemade calamondin marmalade.

Photo by Sharona Gottlieb

Mr. Manhattan at work. Photo by Sharona Gottlieb.

The best pisco sour. Ever. Photo by Sharona Gottlieb.

For dinner, we started with a tuna tartare garnished with black sesame seeds. It’s the most beautiful and dramatic starter you can get for about 10 minutes of work … and an arm and a leg handed over at the fishmonger for sushi-grade ahi tuna.

Tuna tartare with chives and sesame seeds. Photo by Sharona Gottlieb.

For the main course, linguine with orange zest, vermouth, and shrimp. Easy as pie.

Shrimp with vermouth and shrimp. Photo by Sharona Gottlieb.

As a side dish, sugar snap peas tossed in a wok with garlic, sesame oil, and soy.

Sugar snap peas. Photo by Sharona Gottlieb.

And, for the finale, a trifle of summer fruits, which we had great fun defiling until we actually ate it. (More in the recipe for the trifle, and shots of its construction and demise, coming up soon.)

Summer berry trifle. Photo by Sharona Gottlieb.

About to dig in. Photo by Sharona Gottlieb.

Kirsten is going in for the kill. Photo by Sharona Gottlieb.

Kirsten is adorable. Photo by Sharona Gottleib.

Photo by Sharona Gottlieb.

I have many more pix and thoughts about the recipes, so look for future posts. Hopefully it wont’ take me three months to get tot them next time!