Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top Top Ten Dessert Bites of 2010

When I was growing up, there was no item more loathed in my household than bananas. My brothers insisted that even the smell of them made them ill, my dad expressed no interest in consuming one unless pureed into a frozen daiquiri (that contained alcohol), and my mom, the only one who tolerated their presence, would only eat one if it was refrigerated and still partially green.

Considering the anti-banana stance that dominated the Hossfeld home during my early years, it seems rather shocking that three of my top ten favorite dessert bites of the year include the potassium-rich fruit. Even more shocking is that, like last year, most of my selections don’t contain chocolate, the substance that I consider most lethal to my self-control.

Aside from wine.

Regardless of their contents, these ten desserts are the sweets that tasted the sweetest to me this year and are the ones I would happily order and consume again – ideally without the assistance of any other forks or mouths. Sharing is not an option with these tasty treats, but I will happily share them with you here today.

Bakelab's Cookies
I had no idea what I was getting into when I was invited to attend a “Cookie Party” at Pastry Chef Kristin Feuer’s Bakelab kitchen in Inglewood last May. I imagined that I’d come, take a few pictures, sample some cookies, do the whole schmoozing and awkward hugging thing, and then move on with my life as usual (eating, running, Bar Methoding, writing). I didn’t realize that I was about to taste the best cookies I’ve ever had during a lifetime spent having cookie and tea dates with my mom, baking cookies from every book I could get my hands on, and conducting extensive research to find the best chocolate chip cookie in the Southern California area. I was completely blown away upon tasting Feuer’s thoughtful creations – particularly her peanut butter sandwich cookie, lemon sugar cookie, iced oatmeal cookie, and, of course, her flawless chocolate chip. Aside from being the perfect texture – never dry, always a bit chewy in the center and satisfyingly crisp around the edges, when I eat her cookies, I don’t seem to feel the same guilt that I do when I’m consuming others. Feuer treats her baked goods with respect – like she is lovingly tending to a crop of sugar, butter and flour rather than just beating some ingredients into submission. That care shines through with every bite. Bakelab’s cookies aren’t just cookies – they are sweet presents for the mouth.

Banana Apple Pie Ice Cream from Scoops Westside
There was a time when I could easily eat half a dozen cookies in a sitting – a time when I’d eat fistfuls of gummy bears in much the same manner that people consume tubs of popcorn. Even in college, I would think nothing of manhandling an entire row of brownies or ordering the largest scoop of chocolate ice cream with mint Oreos in a cone that had also been dipped in chocolate. In recent years, however, I’ve learned how to tame my sweet tooth. I sip tea instead of gorging on half a box of See’s chocolates. I eat fruit instead of a cookie the size of my head. And I avoid temptation when possible. That said, my carefully curated sense of moderation went flying out the window when I tasted Scoops Westside’s banana apple pie ice cream earlier this month. The subtly banana-scented base mixed with the cinnamon sugar-kissed chunks of real apple pie were unlike anything I’d ever tasted before. It was so good, in fact, that I went back three hours later to get more, and have requested immediate notification when the flavor is back in Scoops’ ever-changing rotation of daily flavors. Rumor has it that it will be in stock tomorrow. And you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll be paying Owner Matthew Kang a visit for a big scoop of it.

Nakkara’s Mango Sticky Rice
Fruit and rice aren’t inherently dessert-like at all. In fact, they are more likely to be categorized at the other end of the spectrum – as “health foods.” At Nakkara on Beverly, however, these two rather basic commodities are transformed into something so deliciously decadent – warm, buttery and sweetly perfumed with coconut milk – that I would happily accept it in place of a chocolate molton cake any day of the week.

Tar Pit’s Bananas Foster Sundae
Regardless of my opinions about the sordid happenings and drama surrounding the Tar Pit earlier in the year, there is no denying that Mark Peel’s classy “Mad Men” style lounge and restaurant makes a Bananas Foster Sundae that is actually worth talking about months later. The towering parfait of vanilla ice cream, cold slices of banana (just like my mom likes ‘em), candied pecans, whipped cream, and a lofty meringue topping is soul-crushing good. It’s a grown-up sundae that manages to be both sophisticated and playful at the same time. I imagine even a child would like it – should one happen to be present in the bar.

Corkbar’s Breakfast Bread Pudding
I was admittedly a little disappointed when Matt from Dig Lounge hinted that he was hoping that Chef Albert Aviles at Corkbar would send out their signature breakfast bread pudding during a media dinner at the wine bar and restaurant this past November. I was so disappointed in fact that I may have been shooting mental daggers at his heart – especially when not one, but two of the souffle-like specimens appeared at our table. My heart was set on the restaurant’s other bread pudding – the banana bread pudding that I’d enjoyed so much on a previous visit. Or at least it was until I took my first bite of “breakfast.” The delicate poof of cinnamon roll brioche bread topped with crème fraiche, caramel sauce, and bits of well-rendered bacon completely eradicated my previous lust for the banana bread version. I fought Matt tooth and nail for the last bite. And in the end, I won.

Marché Moderne's Macaron Dessert
Not only was Pastry Chef’s Ameliz Marneau’s deconstructed macaron the prettiest dessert I ate this year, it was also one of the most distinct and memorable. The delicate macaron cookies combined with the cassis berry sorbet, fresh strawberries, and vanilla ganache was the perfect way to end my mom’s celebratory birthday lunch at the Orange County restaurant. Refined, modern, yet still true to the essence of a traditional macaron, the dessert is more than worth the trek south on the 405.

Magnolia Bakery’s Banana Pudding
When I first heard that Magnolia Bakery was opening on West Third Street – a mere half mile from my apartment – I was most excited about finally getting to sample their famous cupcakes that are often credited for starting the whole cupcake trend. It didn’t even occur to me that I would be interested in anything else – especially not plain, old, boring banana pudding. But Magnolia’s banana pudding isn’t boring it all. It’s life-changing. The fluffy, sweet folds of whipped vanilla pudding are thickly stacked with vanilla wafers and cool bananas to form a mind-blowing hybrid of pie, cake, pudding, and sundae. This is the dessert I think about every time I walk by Magnolia on my way to and from Bar Method across the street.

BLD's Blueberry Ricotta Pancake
My friend Sook calls it “cake.” I try to pretend that it’s not – that BLD’s epic plate-size buttermilk pancakes that are studded with chunks of dried ricotta and plump blueberries barely contained by their skins are merely an oversized version of toast. But it’s a lie. These pancakes are cake. Delicious cake. Cake that I would gladly frost with BLD’s real maple syrup and consume for brunch every single day. With the requisite mimosa on the side, of course.

Pizzeria Ortica’s Babà al rhum
Simply put, I wanted what she was having. As soon as I tasted my friend Anna’s choice for dessert at Pizzeria Ortica – the Babà al rhum – I knew I had to replicate her order. The rum-soaked brioche with pistachio gelato and candied orange peel, essentially bread pudding with a little extra pizaaz, was everything I look for in a dessert. The warm, sweet brioche was majestically paired with the bitter tang of orange peel and the nutty hit of cool pistachio ice cream. Sally would definitely (vocally) approve.

Sweet Lady Jane’s Triple Berry Cake
There is no dessert sweeter than a cake that your dear friends got you for the birthday that you didn’t want to have and didn’t want to remember and didn’t want to celebrate at all. Served with Bastide’s vanilla rum ice cream, the vanilla sponge cake, dressed with tufts of whipped frosting and whole fresh berries, was memorable not just because I inhaled my slice and half of my friend Lauren’s, but because someone had cared enough to get it for me.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Top Ten Bites of 2010

After weeks of contemplation, penetrating periods of silence punctuated by the scurry of deep thoughts running in and around my overly conscientious brain, and countless minutes of pictorial review, I have come to one firm conclusion about my overall experience as a diner in 2010.

I ate way way too much this year.

In the past, making this list – my top ten bites of the year – has been a joyous and relatively easy task. While I usually have some sort of internal debate over whether to include a certain item (mostly because I fear the vitriol from those who don’t think a Chopped Chinese Chicken Salad is a gastronomical achievement – shocking, isn’t it?), this year the entire process seems vastly more unsettling. I keep wanting to up the number – to make it the “Top 15 bites,” or “Top 20 bites,” so I can include all of my favorite bites instead of being forced to pick between, say, Angeli Caffe’s gnocchi and Momed’s duck schwarma.

And then there’s the whole matter of those special meals where the tastes are tied to specific memories. What do I do with the fried ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms at Pecorino from that epic six-hour night when I was supposed to be meeting my friend for just one drink at the bar at Tavern so I could rush home to eat a sensible quinoa dinner while watching something mindless on television like all those responsible citizens with jobs and priorities and respect for their waistlines do.

What of that? Surely such an iconic item deserves some sort of representation on my list for its inherent connection to a night when I mocked all sense of propriety to have fun.

And what of the five-course tasting menu I finally enjoyed at Providence in June after years of gastronomical lust? Or the 11-course feast prepared by Michael Voltaggio at Test Kitchen where I ate sweetbreads disguised as McNuggets and tongue disguised as prosciutto, and then giggled my way into the kitchen to meet the famous "Top Chef" winner while KevinEats cheered me on with his all-telling photographic lens.

And I should certainly pay tribute to Starry Kitchen’s balls – those sly green, crispy fried tofu spheres that left me weak in the knees on more than one occasion. (Six balls is a lot for one girl to handle in a single sitting.)

But there’s just not room in a list of ten for everything I enjoyed cramming into my overly active pie hole this year.

Which, again brings my back to my original conclusion – I ate way too much in 2010.

That said (and re-said), I still forced myself to whittle down that seemingly never-ending parade of bites into a list of ten. Because “Top Ten Bites of 2010” sounds far better than “Top One Hundred.” Nobody wants to see that.

AOC’s Curried Cauliflower

It only took one taste of AOC’s slickly lubed and seasoned curried cauliflower for my party of four to request a second order. Even though we all shuddered at the grease stains that were imparted on our hands after passing the shared plate around the table, we couldn’t get enough of the aromatic vegetable. It outshone every other dish we ordered that night – even the bacon-wrapped, cheese-stuffed dates – proof that sometimes, bacon isn’t always better.

Pizzeria Ortica’s Cavolini di Bruxelles
While the Salsiccia pizza with house-made sausage, caramelized onions, marscarpone, red onion and buffalo grano almost made me forget about the other pizzeria in my life, it was the restaurant’s roasted Brussels sprouts with bread crumbs, hazelnuts and lemon zest that I still can’t get out of my head six months later. With their slightly charred skins and crispy centerfolds, these sprouts are as sinfully addictive as a fresh basket of fries. I can’t imagine going back to David Myer’s pizzeria without ordering them. In fact, I kind of want to go back to order just them.

Bastide’s Bread Basket and Butter
Want to know the real reason I went back to Bastide two times in a one month period after my initial visit in July? It’s not because of the patio – the most romantic outdoor enclave in the city – or because of the steak tartare – the only version I’ve ever truly enjoyed. Oh no, it’s because of the freshly baked bread served with their house-churned salt-dusted butter. I can think of few things in this life that are more satisfying than one of Bastide’s crusty, warm onion foccacia roll smothered with a liberal layer of their supremely spreadable lard.

Starry Kitchen's Malaysian Pineapple Coconut Chicken Wings at Test Kitchen
Even though I had a ball eating Starry Kitchen’s tofu balls, these sweet and spicy, coconut sauce-bathed wings stole the show when Thi and Nyugen Tran took over the reins at Test Kitchen this September. I felt like Oliver Twist every time I saw another plate coming out for a different table – I wanted more, and had I not been in the company of self-respecting humans, I might have leapt from my seat and charged the waiter like a rabid boar. Simply put, those wings gave my mouth wings.

Osteria Mamma's Trenette Nere alla Bottarga

Even as I stared into the cocky face of the guy who didn’t think I was good enough for him (I take photos of my food and eat carbs), I was still overwhelmed with joy as a forked my way through the tangle of Osteria Mamma’s homemade squid ink linguini. Every slick, bottarga-kissed strand was pure joy and completely eradicated my disappointment that my date was not my perfect match. I’d found my perfect pasta match, and in that moment, nothing else mattered.

Fraiche’s Bucatini Carbonara
There’s nothing particularly fancy about new Executive Chef’s Ben Bailly’s Bucatini Carbonara at Fraiche Restaurant. It’s composed of the same ingredients that almost all carbonaras are – egg, pancetta, parmesan, pasta. I should really be thinking about the Taglieneri Neri with Maine Lobster instead. Or the Lamb Pappardelle that’s saturated with pungent bites of tomato, olives and goat cheese. Those are exciting – different. But as I ruminate over the 15-course feast – one of my favorite dining experiences of the year – I keep returning my nostalgic gaze to that humble bowl of bucatini slathered in the natural sauce of one yolk from one slow-poached egg. Divine simplicity.

Yatai Ramen Twist’s Spicy Miso Ramen
I was worried it would be too fatty. Worried it would be too spicy. Worried that it would be too funky for my Americanized tongue that is used to ramen coming from a plastic bag for ten cents a pop. Instead, it was the most delightfully sour, sweet, salty, spicy bowl of comfort I’d eaten in ages. As I slurped up each spritely noodle, cherished every dissolving sliver of pork belly and mooned over the pungent spice rolling over my tongue, I felt reborn. This ramen was my gateway drug into a whole new world of noodles. I’ll never look at Top Ramen the same way again.

Comme Ca’s Seared Foie Gras with Maple Bread Pudding, Raspberry Sorbet and Turnips
It’s not even on the menu. I can’t tell you its official name, its official ingredients or whether it’s meant to be a dessert or a sweet starter to pave the way for the restaurant’s savory French delicacies. All I know is that I, the girl who still cringes at the thought of ingesting liver, couldn’t stop eating it. I wanted to horde every bite of that seared lobe of gelatinous fat and blanket my tongue with the delicate pillow bread pudding forever. Or at least until it came time for my actual dinner reservation at a different restaurant. It was the happiest happy hour, indeed.

The Great Greek’s Whipped Caviar Tarama
It was the one thing I didn’t take a picture of when I and other hungry food bloggers descended on the Great Greek for a family-style feast last March. Yet even without the photographic evidence of its existence, it’s the dish I remember the most clearly from the night. I couldn’t concentrate on anything else – all I wanted was the briny, caviar-kissed whipped dip spread in thick layers on the restaurant’s pliant, warm pita bread. It moved me like no fish egg has ever moved me before.

Rustic Canyon’s Cheeseburger
There’s nothing like your first time, those people prone to clichés say, and Rustic Canyon’s cheeseburger, an epic tower of Niman Ranch beef, sharp cheddar cheese, sweet onion fondue, bread and butter pickles, herb rémoulade, and arugula, sent me so far over the moon, I thought I might never land on my feet again. The memory of that first, glorious, drippy bite still haunts me, and in a way feels emblematic of my entire year of adventurous eating. No other burger will ever live up to this one – the first cheeseburger I ever ingested.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

My Favorite Recipes from 2010

I had great plans for my kitchen when 2009 wound its way into 2010. This was the year I was finally going to overcome my fear of working with yeast to make pizza and bread from scratch. This was the year I was going to poach an egg without hyperventilating when I released the poor embryo into a pot of boiling water (terrifying, I tell you). This was the year I was going to challenge myself to stray even further outside of my safe little quinoa and cookie recipe box to do things the likes of which my oven mitts had never before seen.

For the most part, I did find myself expanding my culinary arsenal during this past year. I mastered brioche buns, pretzel rolls, English muffins, that actually quite simple and not at all terrifying poached egg, and even did crazy Martha Stewart-type stuff like making my own nut butter, pickles, caramels, and granola. (Don’t worry, I do not and never will own a poncho. Unless Anthropologie starts carrying them…)

When the weather turned warm, I turned fresh figs into ice cream, I learned how to select a ripe honeydew and then used it to make popsicles with freshly squeezed lime juice, and I finally started taking advantage of all the produce at all the Los Angeles farmer’s markets like a good little locovore.

But for all my successes and kitchen triumphs, I still failed at making pizza – twice.

And I still can’t seem to cook a piece of fish without rendering it into a dry and lifeless commodity that I would be embarrassed to serve to anyone other than an indiscriminate pet. Or, more accurately, the roaches that took up residence in my apartment before I blanketed my unit with 17 roach motels.

May they not rest in peace.

I also couldn’t quite kick my obsession with quinoa, and found an excuse to incorporate it into every single recipe I could – even turkey meatballs.

All things considered, as I stand at the threshold of 2011, I feel excited about all I accomplished this year in my shoebox of a kitchen. Here are a few of my favorite recipes and accomplishments – heavy dose of quinoa, included.