Random Bon Appétit recipes: Part 3—Apple Dutch Baby

We spent all of September—and October—camping in our house.

Yes, what used to be camping in front of our home, in the Airstream, cozy as a sleeping bag in its stuff-sack, took an abrupt left turn after Labor Day. The beautiful new floors we’d chosen turned out to be a disaster: unevenly arranged, poorly installed and sloppily stained. “Your floors pain me,” said our contractor after examining the results. We agreed, miserably.

While we cut loose the old work crew and figured out a new plan, Jon, Roxy and I spent two months perched in the house with the barest of necessities: mattresses on the floor (although Jon kindly re-assembled Roxy’s bed), folding chairs in the kitchen, shoes in a pile by the front door. No tables, no couch, no bookcases. No salad servers, recycling bins or art supply cabinet. Neither completely in nor utterly out.

Honestly, there was something liberating about not living with one’s stuff. There were fewer distractions, for instance. When a magazine or newspaper arrived, I read and recycled it pronto, rather than placing it on the ever-growing pile on the coffee table. There was less to clean and fuss over. Views across rooms were long and uninterrupted.

But then there was the somewhat plodding, uncomfortable reality of not living with one’s stuff. Assembling outfits for work and school required multiple trips to the back deck, where dressers and hanging racks sat shrouded in tarps. Tackling a project involved tools invariably buried in our Atwater Village storage unit. Even cooking a meal was no easy feat with counter space the size of a placemat.

But still I tried.

One Saturday morning, inspired by the early season fruit in our CSA box, I grabbed the latest issue of Bon Appétit and thumbed to the Apple Dutch Baby recipe. We regularly make Dutch Babies for weekend breakfast, and I was curious to see how BA’s approach might differ.

Unfortunately, in the simple BA recipe, nary a word appears as to the origins of so odd a dish name. To the Internet I went. “A Dutch baby pancake,” states Wikipedia, “sometimes called a German pancake, a Bismarck or a Dutch puff, is a sweet popover that is normally served for breakfast.” Even more interesting: according to Sunset magazine, the Dutch Baby hails from a Seattle café called Manca’s, where the owner’s daughter coined the dish’s quirky name. Sadly, the place closed in the 1950s.

All this was news to my husband, a Seattle native. “Then why wasn’t it called a Seattle baby?” he asked after I shared this new Pacific Northwest accolade. Good question. Honestly, though, with a name as awesome as “Dutch puff” why bother with Baby?

I skimmed the list of ingredients. The key difference with BA’s Baby/Puff and ours (a recipe from the November 2002 issue of Real Simple magazine) is the homemade apple syrup. Unfortunately, to make said syrup one must have apple cider, which I haven’t seen in our fridge for about a year. In the interests of eating that morning, without a trip to the store, I opted to use plain old, store-bought maple syrup and focus on the Puff/Baby itself. (For the record, BA’s syrup calls for boiling and then reducing 4 cups of apple cider and 2 tablespoons of butter, plus some cinnamon, brown sugar and vanilla…sounds delish to me.)

While Jon prepared Roxy’s breakfast of eggs and toast (she’s never been a fan of sweet breakfast foods), I preheated the oven to a roaring 425 degrees and then whisked together the bulk of the recipe’s ingredients: 3 eggs (ideally at room temperature; mine never are), ¾ cup milk (whole, says the recipe, and at room temperature, it demands; both I ignored), ¾ cup all-purpose flour (finally something we could agree on), a teaspoon of vanilla, ¼ teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon cinnamon. The results were familiar and frothy…don’t most breakfast dishes start this way?

I dragged the cast iron skillet out of the lower broiler section of our ancient oven and melted two tablespoons of butter in it over medium heat. Into that bubbly goodness went an apple that Jon had sliced thinly (he skipped peeling it, as called for in the recipe), plus 1 tablespoon of brown sugar and another ½ teaspoon of cinnamon. I sautéed all this for about 5 minutes until the apple—BA calls for a Pink Lady; ours was more Gala-ish—was soft and evenly coated. Then I scraped the contents of the pan into a small bowl.

Next, the recipe says to wipe this (burning hot) skillet clean before sticking it in the preheated oven. This step could easily become an object lesson in how to treat burned fingertips; fortunately, I was paying attention and put on an oven mitt before grabbing a paper towel and wiping the charred black sides of the pan fairly dry.

I waited about five minutes before pulling out the now ragingly hot pan and plunking in another two tablespoons of butter. After making sure to coat the bottom and sides with the sizzling liquid, I arranged the apple slices in the center of the pan, poured the batter over them and carefully stuck the breakfast bonanza back into the oven for about 15 minutes of final cooking time.

The results: Jon pulled the Dutch Baby Puff out of the oven, so I didn’t get to see how fluffy (or not) it looked. That said, when I walked into the kitchen 10 minutes later, I was surprised by its appearance.

“It’s so gray-beige,” I said, looking at its collapsed self in the cast iron skillet.

“I’m sure it will still taste good,” Jon said, shrugging.

We perched on our folding chairs, bowls balanced on our laps, and tucked in to our slices. This Baby Puff was denser, even a bit custardy, compared with the lighter, fluffier Real Simple recipe. When I compared the recipes, however, I realized they’re almost identical. The only differences: Bon Appétit spreads the cinnamon between the apple sauté and the batter, uses a tablespoon of brown sugar instead of two tablespoons of white, doubles the butter, and cooks for only 15 minutes instead of 25. That last point—plus all that melted butter—might be the clincher.

Regardless, the apples offered a sweet-cinnamon zing that contrasted nicely with the caramelized notes of the dark maple syrup we poured on top.

In retrospect, I wonder how the apple cider syrup would change things—more fruity goodness or too much of a good thing? I’ll have to experiment once apple cider hits the stores—and we have a bit more counter space to work on.

Random cooking in an Airstream

My Auntie Em’s Cookbook sits locked inside my house, perched on a dusty, cluttered kitchen counter. I and my family, meanwhile, sit outside the house, perched (when not at work and school) in our 16-foot Bambi Sport Airstream trailer in the driveway.

Why the city-limits camping? It’s Week Eleven of our house remodel and floors are being “installed”—an odd term, as if we’re uploading software into each slightly out-of-date room. The project extends from north to south, end to end. Only the bathrooms are untouched.

I guess I could unlock the back door, twist around and grab the cookbook from the kitchen while avoiding the still-drying, stained floors. But why? Cooking has been reduced to the occasional creative pairing of one leftover with another, the inspired addition of a grilled-cheese crouton to an otherwise standard leafy green salad.

Last night, stepping into the “galley,” as Airstream calls the cooking zone (many boating terms reappear in the trailer world), I rifled through the mini fridge and found Roxy’s penne from dinner out the night before. I also spotted a carton of brown mushrooms. Excitement!

I washed them carefully in our shoebox-sized kitchen sink, pulled out a mini flexible cutting board from one of the two overhead storage bins, grabbed a knife from the drawer near my knee below the sink, and sliced those mushrooms. Next, I pulled out the mini frying pan, which we store in the microwave when it’s not in use, lifted the protective glass top from our “range” over the fridge, and lit the far-right pilot with a flamethrower (actually, a propane lighter). Then I grabbed the olive oil from our “pantry”—the roomy, long drawer that’s located under one of the bench seats in our eating area—and drizzled a swirl into the pan. Feeling fancy, I added a bit of butter, and, once the pan was hot, the pile of mushrooms and some herbs de Provence.

I love these herbs of the Provence. I bought them at a little stand in Pasadena that’s nothing but powders and teas and other dried stuff. The herbs de P smell so powerfully—a heady combination of lavender, oregano, thyme and whatever else is in there—that they put all my other tired spices to shame. Good thing those are all in the house, getting dusty, while the herbs are with us in the trailer.

While I sautéed the mushrooms for about five minutes, I marveled at the fact that we (or, I should say, some of us) even eat them. Wikipedia defines mushrooms as “the fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting bod[ies] of a fungus, typically produced above ground on soil or on its food source.” Dictionary.com goes one better, saying “any of various fleshy fungi including the toadstools, puffballs, coral fungi, morels, etc.” Take your pick: both sound like a scourge from the End of Times. And yet mushrooms are miraculous little packages of flavor, architecture and health—as well as excellent excuses to eat olive oil and butter.

As Jon helped Roxy finish up her homework (she’d already scarfed a plate of chicken nuggets and green beans), I zapped the penne in the microwave, wiggled two bowls from the nested pile in our upper storage bin, and dished out equal portions of the pasta and the mushroom sauté. Then I unearthed two forks (again from the knee drawer) and poured glasses of sparkling water. Plunking down beside Jon on the bench seats bracketing the table—the table that would later be magically pulled from its slot in the wall and converted into a sleeping platform for Roxy—I took a breath and then a bite.

Magical, those mushrooms. Deeply flavored, satisfying; reminiscent of forest floor and hikes and camping.

Yes, even camping on a street in Los Angeles.

The Auntie Em’s Cookbook: Recipe #1–Vegetarian Red Flannel Hash

On the Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend, we honored our toiling fore-parents by sleeping in. This was necessary work after a month of early rises and painful awakenings thanks to our house project.

While Rox continued to doze, Jon and I wandered into the kitchen to make some breakfast. I dragged my new Auntie Em’s Cookbook with me…just in case.

I say “just in case” because we don’t exactly have a well-stocked fridge at the moment. We’ve been practicing the Ninja form of grocery shopping in which one slips in and out of the food emporium, fast as fire, to grab the three essential items from a much longer list. The one saving grace to this unfortunate habit has been our produce box, which continues to arrive on our doorstep every other late Tuesday night with lovely organic vegetables and fruits for us to devour.

“Ooo, these Pumpkin Pancakes with Persimmons & Pecans sound fab,” I said to Jon as he fed the cats. “Do we have any pumpkin?”

“Um…nope,” he said after digging around in the pantry.

“How about pears? We could make this Pear & Ginger Baked French Toast.”

“We ate all the fruit.”

“Any tomatoes? There’s a Baked Egg and…”

“Sadly, no.”

I peered into the fridge. Lurking in the crisper were some beets (greens having already been consumed the night before), a few peppers of unknown name and green-yellowy hue, and celery. We also had potatoes, eggs, cheese and the de rigueur line-up of mustards, jams and chutneys that all modern fridges come pre-populated with. Something could surely be made with this fine assortment of ingredients!

I returned to the book and almost immediately landed on the page for Vegetarian Red Flannel Hash.

I’ve always loved hash, even that crazy Hormel kind in the can with the too-uniform cubes of white and erasure-pink food material (optimists call it potato and something pig-esque). Since becoming a vegetarian in high school, that hash has disappeared from my diet, as has most other hash due to its potato and meat-stuff make-up. Hooray, then, for Theresa Wahl and her veggie-friendly cooking!

I skimmed the recipe’s ingredient list and spied beets, potatoes, onion, garlic and eggs. No, we didn’t have an onion, but we could use one of those peppers perhaps? And instead of the fresh dill and parsley Wahl calls for we could do dried herbs… Any lingering doubts were quashed as I took in the perfectly staged, colorful, close-up photo of the completed dish in all its purple, orange, yellow, white and bright-green glory.

We set to work. I preheated the oven to 450 degrees, while Jon chopped the equivalent of 2½ medium potatoes (we halved the recipe). Next, I peeled and diced the same amount of small beets. Instead of a ½ small onion, Jon de-seeded, de-veined and diced one of those yellowy, bent peppers and then measured the equivalent of 1½ cloves of garlic from our jar of the pre-chopped stuff. It was only then, thanks to our unbearably slow oven, that we tackled the recipe’s first step: pouring 1/8 cup of olive oil into our cast iron pan and heating it to sizzling inside that presumably roaringly hot, dark space.

We tossed all the chopped vegetables with a tablespoon of olive oil, sprinkled it with salt and pepper, added some dried dill and parsley, and then dumped it into the hot cast iron pan, spreading everything Zen-garden smooth. Scooted back into the oven, it all roasted for 25 minutes.

When the veggies were caramelized and the kitchen smelled more of root vegetable and olive oil than plaster and tools, Jon pulled the cast iron pan from the oven. He scraped and stirred the veggie pile, plus all the brown bits, and then made two round divots…nests, really…in the colorful hash. That’s where the two eggs went after cracking—and before the pan headed back into the oven for a final 3-5 minutes.

The results: First, I must admit that we didn’t listen to the recommended tune “Flavor” by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion while cooking. We were too focused on all the R&B coming out of Songza.

But the name at least is PERFECT for this recipe. Vegetarian Red Flannel Hash is amazingly flavorful, even with our substitutions. The roasted veggie flavors—sweet-edged savory, tangy gone earthy—are the exactly right match for a poached egg and some yummy herbs. Jon and I scarfed up our portions while Roxy, awake by this time, sleepy-cute and jonesing for Cheerios, looked on in wonder.

“Why is your bowl purple?” she asked when Jon finished.

“Beets!” he sang.

My only question is why the reference to red flannel? Is this good lumberjack food? A nod to the recipe’s colors? Or a wink to the Seattle Sound of the ’90s?

Doesn’t matter. I’ll be making this again.

The Auntie Em’s Cookbook: Introduction

Even though “cooking” these home-renovation days mostly involves making a salad or sautéing up some vegetables, I actually acquired two cookbooks this past week. The first was Peter Miller’s Lunch at the Shop, which arrived in the mail thanks to a KCRW pledge-drive donation made in a fit of NPR gratitude (and corresponding FOX News horror). The second I purchased with great intent (and even greater excitement): The Auntie Em’s Cookbook: A Musician’s Guide to Breakfast & Brunch by Theresa Wahl.

Auntie Em’s is an amazing café down the hill from us in Eagle Rock. We were thrilled to discover it after moving to the neighborhood—a co-worker had rhapsodized about the soups, while another friend couldn’t stop talking about the coconut cupcakes. We tried the place and became instant fans of their creative salads, kick-ass sandwiches and baked goods. Almost as awesome was the vibe—brightly colored, fun, with a bit of a punk rock edge.

It turns out that edge is real: Founder and owner Theresa Wahl used to play in the all-girl band the Red Aunts. Her book opens with comments from café fans you may have heard of (hello, Jack Black, Kate Schellenbach of Luscious Jackson & Beastie Boys, and Josh Klinghoffer of Red Hot Chili Peppers). Following those comes an ode to Mom, Terri’s inspiration, and an introduction titled “From Punk Rock to Pulled Pork” with perfect lines like “In the Red Aunts van, instead of trashy magazines we had stacks of cookbooks and food magazines.” She also explains that, in lieu of wine pairings, her book will match recipes with songs that are particularly suited to rockin’ in the kitchen. I’ll toast to that!

As I paged through the sections, I became more and more pleased with my purchase. Organized by season—while still offering separate “Desserts & Baked Goods,” “Staples” and “Preserving the End of Summer” chapters—the book bursts with must-make recipes. Swiss Chard Gratin. Pear & Cranberry Compote. Something called Green Tomato & Zucchini Chow Chow. And while the coconut cupcakes aren’t included, the café’s famous red velvet cupcakes are.

Perhaps best of all, the cookbook includes photos from Terri’s early years with the band on the road. The best of the lot shows lots of hair, mics and a rapt front row, with the caption “The Red Aunts, rippin’ it.”

I’m totally in love with this cookbook and I haven’t even made anything yet.

Hipcooks: The results

Hipcooks, oddly enough, reminds me of The Bridges of Madison County. The book—about a Midwestern woman in a ho-hum marriage who has an indelible, four-day fling with a “just truckin’ through town” photographer—was mostly not good: earnest, overwrought and crammed with prose that went clunk in the night.

The Bridges movie, on the other hand, worked. Meryl Streep as the wife, Clint Eastwood as the hunk, lots of cool, covered bridges and actual, honest feelings, rather than sentimentality, launched it into A-minus territory. I enjoyed the film and yes, I teared-up during the rainy, heartbreaking goodbye.

So what’s this have to do with Hipcooks? The class—the experience of it—was funny, entertaining, useful, and very, very tasty. The cookbook, or, rather, the concept on the page, didn’t really gel.

My theory is that the joy of the measurement-free, confidence-in-the-kitchen Hipcooks mantra is better coming from the mouth of a true believer. As the Hipcooks host walks participants through the specific steps of creating a yummy dish, she shares tips, tricks and asides that truly work/help (or at least fascinate). By contrast, the book merely offers a “here’s the scoop” short intro plus a “Hip tip” if you’re lucky.

I also ended up picking dud recipes. The Spanikopita was ok, but not awesome; the grilled veggie salad a disappointment, and the almond meal-laced tzatziki downright weird. I’d like to give the book a truly fair shake and try a few other dishes, but a good chunk of the recipes include meat, so the pool of potential candidates isn’t huge.

Honestly, I feel unmotivated when I look at the book. It’s time to move on.

Overall cookbook rating: 3 spatulas

Hipcooks: Off the book—Hummus; Candied Almonds, Cashews and Walnuts

We’ve started to remodel half our house—the living room and dining room, the garage, part of Roxy’s room, a third of the kitchen’s cabinetry and countertops. Not surprisingly, all enthusiasm for cooking has dwindled to previously unimagined micro-levels.

“Well, we could sauté this gyoza from Trader Joe’s,” I suggest flatly Monday evening after returning from work to rubble and dust. “And, um, maybe make some greens or rice to go with?”

“No greens in the fridge,” says Jon, pulling out the rice cooker.

It’s exciting to be embarking on this long-awaited fix to our funky, ’60s house. And how fun to all be sleeping in one room…just like camping! But the thrill of impending New and Awesome is tempered a bit by the three-month-long project plan, blanch-inducing payment schedule and ever-present, low-level chaos.

Before the first mallet was swung on the project, and we were still in blissful box-filling, packing mode, I did make two additional Hipcooks recipes to share. Interestingly enough, these are my favorites of the lot—and neither appear in the book itself.

The first is the hummus I made during the Hipcooks cooking session last December with my co-workers. As our unflappable, chatty, knowledgeable host made clear then—and my mother taught me when I was 14—it’s a crime to buy hummus when it’s so incredibly easy (and so much tastier) to make.

This version begins with dumping a can of chickpeas, a clove of garlic and “the juice of at least one lemon” into a food processor. Back in December, I was relieved when our Hipcooks host Kyrsten made clear that, while the home cook was welcome to soak and boil garbanzos lovingly selected from the bulk bin at a favorite health food emporium, the tacky canned option really was a-ok.

As these simple ingredients whirl into a paste, the home cook takes a bottle of  extra-virgin olive oil—preferably one with the cool, cork-and-metal pour spout—and inverts it into the food processor’s lid chimney. (I’m sure Cuisinart has a fancy term for this part of the contraption; I like lid chimney.) This most delicious of the oils makes the hummus smooth and creamy, so Kyrsten urged us to keep pouring way longer than our inner olive-oil clocks deemed decent.

After the oil, sprinkle in some sea salt, stop the food processor, stick in a spoon and taste to determine what, if anything, needs adjusting. At this point, one can also add a bit of tahini for a stiffer consistency; minced fresh herbs; roasted red peppers; bacon; cold-pressed juice…really, hummus is a canvas.

Me, I prefer my hummus simple and smooth, so I skipped the tahini, added some salt and then dusted the top with paprika. The first time I made this at home, Jon and I hovered over the Cuisinart bowl with bits of pita bread dipping, ooing and aahing over the delicious, light, earthy-creamy concoction. The second time I hauled a container-full on a camping trip to beautiful Pinnacles National Park with friends. During our second afternoon, we dove in with raw veggies, fancy crackers and cheese, barely coming up for air. Everyone loved it.

My second favorite Hipcooks recipe is the Candied Almonds, Cashews and Walnuts number we again made during the December cooking class.

“Candied” foods usually don’t interest me—they’re over-sweet, sticky, hard on the teeth and, frankly, completely unnecessary in this Age of Refrigeration. I watched skeptically as Kyrsten asked our small groups to start sautéing raw, unsalted walnuts, cashews and almonds in a pan with a tablespoon each of butter and brown sugar, plus a dash of sea salt. What would this all taste like? The holidays at Grandma’s?

Once the nuts had browned and the sugar caramelized, we removed the pans from the heat and sprinkled in Tabasco, as well as a pile of minced parsley. Other herbs would work well, too: rosemary, probably tarragon. To cool the nuts, we spread them onto cookie sheets as thinly as possible and stuck them into the freezer. An hour or so later, as we were finishing up the other dishes in our class, Kyrsten pulled out the nuts, broke them apart and put them into bowls for us to devour. And Holy Squirrel, were they devourable.

When I made the nuts in late May for a BBQ, they were just as tasty: crunchy, salty-sweet, with a tangy heat from the Tabasco that’s absolutely perfect. The parsley prevents the mix from being overly cloying—and the use of brown sugar rather than white ensures that, along with the butter, the “candying” is a mellow, deep-note wonder rather than something brittle, red and sharp. I’m not one to go spelunking in the nut bowl during parties or book club, but these spicy-hot winners could turn me into a Savory Snacker yet.

Hipcooks: Recipe #2—Grilled Veggie Salad

I stuck a “didn’t work” flag on this recipe and here’s why.

Grilled salads are hard to pull off. There’s a crap-load of oil (both from the dressing and all the grilling). Everything looks kind of dingy (disappointing when one hears the word “salad” and imagines fresh, crisp, cool and light). And the flavor gets stuck on one note  D minor, maybe?  with all those ingredients heaped together without a crunchy green counterpoint, umami protein chunk or fruity burst.

Sure, I like grilled zucchini and grilled eggplant (sort of, in small doses). But add roasted red peppers, which were already a bit slimy from the jar, and a heap of caramelized onions that our over-eager oven turned into something approximating the glistening exterior of a sticky bun and you’ve got a “salad” in theory only. We ate it, we did. And with the other dishes of our Greek feast, particularly the fish, it wasn’t all that bad. But make this again, we shall not.

Hipcooks: Recipe #1—Spanikopita

I’ve been under a rock—a rock of work, travel, end of school—and behind on this blog. So, bear with me as we travel back in time…to Easter (that was last month, right?).

This year, for the holiday, I decided to make a feast. Often, we just go on a hike with a picnic—or do the egg hunt in the morning and then forget about food for the rest of the day. But this year, with Hipcooks burning a hole on my countertop, I was ready to cook.

After flipping through the book’s many chapters—A Night in Casablanca (Moroccan), La Belle Epoque (fancy French), Shortcut to Nirvana (pot brownies? chocolate fondue? Nope…Indian)—I decided to go Greek. From “My Big Fat Greek Dinner Party,” I chose:

  • Spanikopita
  • Grilled Veggie Salad
  • Tzatziki

We’d grill fish to go along with it and call it a meal.

I felt brave tackling a layered, complicated food like Spanikopita. I’d never even bought phyllo dough, let alone manipulated it into a sweet or savory masterpiece. Thus, I felt quite sophisticated as I headed to Whole Foods the day before the holiday with that phyllo—plus other exotics like Maldon salt and almond meal—at the top of my shopping list.

Whole Foods being Whole Foods, I was only able to find whole wheat phyllo dough (it was in the freezer section). I also couldn’t find cognac, of course (they don’t sell liquor), or fresh dill, which seems like an always-on-the-shelf item for such a Significant Produce Purveyor but is actually frequently out of stock. Jon got those later at Fresh & Easy.

The following afternoon, relaxed and full of sunshine after the de rigeur holiday hunt followed by a family stroll around the neighborhood, I found my apron and started cooking. First up: the Spanikopita.

Author Monika Reti describes her version as “different from the norm…light, airy, and fresh with lemon zest.” That all sounded good to me, especially since typical spanikopita offers a greasy, flake-riddled, gluten-packed, cheese-and-spinach-bomb eating experience.

To make the filling, I combined 8 ounces of frozen spinach (thawed and squeezed somewhat free of liquid), with 2 chopped cloves of garlic, the zest of one lemon and a bit of nutmeg (Reti calls for fresh; I used dried). Atop that, I dumped ½ cup of crumbled feta cheese, ½ cup finely grated parmesan cheese, 1/3 cup toasted pine nuts and some freshly ground pepper (she maintains the cheeses rule out the need for salt). I stirred the mess into a loamy mound and set it aside.

Next the home cook must assemble the pastries. This is the part of a recipe that normally breaks the deal between me and it. Why assemble food into complicated packages when you can just toss it into a kettle, boil and serve? Of course, I know the answer to this—it’s to experience the majesty and creativity of our rich culinary universe. To which my better (lazier?) half counters, Well then, eat out.

Reti instructs, “Lay a single sheet of phyllo on a flat surface.” Emboldened by this straightforward start, I attempted to peel a piece of the defrosting phyllo dough from the rectangular block it arrived in. The results looked like a storm-whipped flag—edges shredded, with a hole near the center. I tried again, peeling up a fresh slice more or less intact.

Step 2: “Brush the surface with melted butter.” I love a recipe that involves painting! I put about 4 tablespoons of butter in a Pyrex dish and warily approached the microwave.

As many of you know, heating butter with this ubiquitous household appliance requires the finesse of a Tibetan monk poised over a mandala sand painting. Too few seconds and the butter is merely shiny of coat and puddle-free. Too many, and the entire stick blasts with a rather innocent-sounding pop into a thousand golden splatters dripping from the top and down the sides of the appliance’s interior.

With the last 500 melting attempts seared in my memory, I gingerly heated the butter for 20 seconds, and then another 10, followed by 8…

POP!

“What can I do?” asked Jon, waltzing into the kitchen as I was pulling the mostly empty Pyrex dish from the dripping cave of Butter Land.

“Well, you could clean the microwave.”

Using a silicon pastry brush, I covered the phyllo dough with a bit of the melted butter, and, following Reti’s instructions, folded the piece in half. She calls for lengthwise, I did the otherwaywise. Oops.

I painted more butter on the surface, put a teaspoon of the filling near the right corner, folded over the corner to form a triangle and then kept folding up and over, up and over, until I had a cute, puffy phyllo package (yes, more scalene triangle than isosceles or equilateral, but one’s first attempt is always a bit strange). My next spanikopita attempt looked much better, and the one after that even better, especially once Jon leaned over and said, “I think you’re supposed to fold it the long way.”

I placed the finished spanikopita onto a Silpat-covered baking sheet. When I’d created a baker’s dozen, I stopped, painted more melted butter over everything with the casual, calorie-disdaining ease of a French chef, and stuck the sheet into a 400-degree oven for about 20 minutes. When the clutch of pastries looked golden at the edges, I pulled them out and let them cool on the stovetop while I chopped some parsley to artfully sprinkle over their tops before serving. Reti is big on the chopped herb sprinkle, as was Kyrsten when we took our class back in December.
 
The results: The spanikopita looked Greek tourism-bureau-approved with their perfect tans and cute shapes (baking seemed to improve the looks of even my first pastry-folding attempts). I popped one into my mouth the moment it was cool enough to not burn a hole through the roof. On first bite, the pastry layers shattered into a million little buttery pieces—they were just the right combination of crisp and greasy. On second bite, I hit some filling. The salty-green duo of feta and spinach usually so dominant in spanikopita still played a role, but they were overshadowed by the citrus bang of the zest and the warm brown notes of the toasted pine nuts. The combination was tasty…and just different enough to inspire some head-shaking between me and Jon.

Me: “Interesting!” [chew, chew, chewing; contemplative nodding] “I like that!”

Jon: “Yeah!” [chew, chew, chewing, nod, nodding] “These are good!”

One final point, an hour later: I must say that once these had cooled a bit, I wasn’t quite as in love. The pine nuts became the dominant flavor and my favorite part—the spinach and feta—quietly retreated to a back corner.

Still, these spanikopita would make an impressive dinner party course or potluck addition: they’re easy to grab, not too big, and look the part (rather than a sympathy-inducing, homemade approximation). It would be easy to tweak the filling, too. What would these be like with a different nut, a second type of cheese (gruyere could be good), or tarragon instead of nutmeg?

I’ll experiment and let you know.

Hipcooks: The introduction

Last December, the managers of my team at work decided we’d have a bonding experience over open flames, sharp knives and mixing bowls, because what better way to get a bunch of professional communicators (writers, editors), developers (coders, tech-minded people) and designers (artsy, visual) to shelve their native comforts and relax for a bit than through food prep and, ultimately, feasting? (Actually, there are many ways to do this…and frankly, it doesn’t take much. Our little team of 12 is a friendly group that enjoys its outings and birthday lunches without much effort.)

Our bonding adventure led us to Hipcooks, a cooking school located in a lovely loft at The Brewery, an artist and creative person collective near Downtown L.A.

For those of you who haven’t tried Hipcooks, it is wholly and completely awesome. Our host, a bubbling, funny, food-wise individual named Kyrsten welcomed us to the colorful space with large smile, open arms and very clean hands (we’d be reminded many times during our four hours there that it’s essential while cooking to wash after doing anything other than moving one’s fingers gently through the air). After donning colorful Hipcooks aprons, we learned that our theme for the day—Una Noche en España—meant we’d be making an assortment of Spanish tapas: Tortilla Espagnola; Candied Almonds, Cashews and Walnuts; Manchego con Membrillo (I know that membrane-sounding word can set off warning bells, but rest assured, it was yummy); Empanadillas de Carne (and, fortunately, sin carne as well); Gambas Bravas; an arugula salad; hummus; and, for any remaining nooks and crannies, flan.

While Kyrsten cracked jokes and pulled ingredients out of an enormous fridge, we got to work melting sugar for the flan’s caramel over individual hot plates arranged around a large kitchen island. And that’s pretty much how the day progressed: Kyrsten would talk and demonstrate, we’d hover and try. Three hours later, we sat down to our amazing spread at a large farmer’s table and tucked in.

Overall, I’d give the class a 10. It was fun from Moment One, I learned and then promptly forgot a bunch of useful cooking tips, and everything was incredibly delicious. At the end of the meal, many of us even went shopping in the “store” at the front of the loft grabbing ceramic juicers, vanilla paste and other handy tools we’d just used…as well as the Hipcooks cookbook.

Subtitled “Around the world in 12 dinner parties,” the book doesn’t replicate the classes. In fact, there are no recipes included from my December Hipcooks visit (those you get, via email from Kyrsten, after attending). In a way, this doesn’t matter much since the mantra of Kyrsten and the entire Hipcooks enterprise is “wing it.” During our class, she fearlessly dumped salt, poured olive oil and shaved truffles as the Type A among us winced and tried to guestimate the end result.

The founder of Hipcooks and author of the cookbook, Monika Reti, faces this seeming contradiction—a cookbook of recipes from a school based on a free-form, easy approach to cooking—head-on. “Go ahead, poke your fun,” she writes in the introduction. “The recipes in this cookbook are Hipcooks-style, meaning that you can be as exacting or as free-form as you like while cooking.” Her casual approach, however, comes on strong. “Why use measuring cups when you can use your hands instead? They say that when food is delicious, it is because the person preparing it has sweet hands.” One wonders what our county food safety inspectors would have to say about all those sweet hands displacing measuring cups in L.A. restaurants, but I certainly get her drift for my own cooking.

It’s hard to know what I’ll try first in Hipcooks. In the India section, there’s a Sag Paneer recipe that looks easy and tasty, as well as a Mango Chutney. My Big Fat Greek Dinner Party chapter features Sauteed Halloumi (a type of cheese described as “squeaky”) which one can ignite with Ouzo if feeling particularly bold; Spanikopita, a Grilled Veggie Salad and Baklava. And under Ragin’ Cajun, the homecook can make Sweet Cornbread, Spicy Turnips and Greens, a gumbo, and Bananas Foster with Butter Pecan Ice Cream.

Me and my sweet hands are ready to get started.

Super Smoothies: The results

If you’d like to teach a child the importance of not judging a book by its cover, you could trot out the following reliable examples:

  • Cracklin’ Oat Bran cereal (looks like kibble, tastes divine)
  • Trendy, multi-hued macarons (fancy-party-ready arranged in the box, indistinguishable packing peanuts once in the mouth)
  • Benedict Cumberbatch (pale and ferrety, yet oddly sexy)
  • Super Smoothies

The slim Chronicle Books paperback couldn’t look more appealing with its frosty, jewel-toned smoothie emblazoned on the front. The pages of the book have a slightly luxurious matte finish, while the attractive, color-coded sections suggest order, variety and fresh-produce-fuelled health. And the smoothie options stagger—the index alone is 7 pages long.

And yet.

Super Smoothies is rife with inane comments, stereotypical maladies, commonplace advice and, most disappointingly of all, un-delicious smoothies.

Really, how could that be? Aren’t smoothies just a bunch of frozen fruit in some kind of juice? Basically, yes. Which is why, as I continued to try smoothie after smoothie from the cookbook only to shrug (Constant Cravings, Vita Pack) or slightly recoil (Beta Boost), Roxy kept reminding me that the best smoothies have strawberries, blueberries, banana, juice and spinach—and couldn’t I just make that?

Super Smoothies is going in the give-away pile.

Overall cookbook rating: 1 spatula