Monday, December 22, 2008


Every year for Christmas we get a box of toffee in the mail. It’s actually sent by someone, it doesn’t just randomly come, don’t worry. In spite of this annual happening, toffee has never meant Christmas for me. I’ve never been too crazy about it either. But let me let you in on a secret: it’s delicious. Really delicious. I mean the two main ingredients are butter and sugar, so although it’s stored in the freezer, it melts in your mouth. And it’s topped with chocolate for good measure. There’s not much to not like, and I wonder why I’m only now getting hooked.

My mom has always loved it, and I guess the mail was running slow this year, so I decided to make her some. I guess part of the reason I had shied away from it is because it required a candy thermometer. Just seeing that word in recipes means that there’s going to need to be a lot of whisking involved and extreme focus, not a degree overcooked. That’s slightly intimidating. Something I learned after making this recipe was candy thermometers are great. There’s no guess work. You won’t take the cake out of the oven underdone. It tells you exactly when it’s done. You do have to stir like crazy, but that just gives you a little more muscle.

I found a recipe that got really good reviews so I gave it a try, but just a half batch incase something went awry. It didn’t. Actually it turned out great, so great I made another full batch a few days later. The first time I only used almonds, and the second time I used almonds and pistachios, although you couldn’t really notice the pistachios, they always add a striking color. My one complaint and I’m still not sure the explanation for this is that the second time I made it, upon breaking the toffee into pieces, the chocolate layer on top wouldn’t stick, so I would in effect break off a piece of toffee and break it from chocolate. To get the full effect, you’d have to take a piece of chocolate and hold it on top of the bottom layer to enjoy your toffee. I had no problems with this the first time, I’m wondering if I spread the chocolate on too thick. I guess I’ll have to wait and try again, with a little less chocolate. I think you could also make this with any kind of nut, but almonds worked perfectly.

And one last thing, after spreading the chocolate on, I had some ground almond praline I had made that I sprinkled on top, for appearance’s sake of course.

Almond and Pistachio Toffee

1 c chopped almonds, skins on and toasted
1 c chopped pistachios, toasted
1 lb. (4 sticks) unsalted butter
2 c sugar
2 Tb water
pinch of salt
7-8 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped or chips

Butter a baking sheet and set aside. In a large sauce pan over medium high heat, stir together the butter, sugar, water and salt. Until everything is melted together, you don’t need to keep your eye on it at all times, but once it does, get ready to whisk. Get out your candy thermometer and whisk together constantly until it reaches 300F. This actually takes a long time, you’ll watch the color change to a dark camel, but you don’t want it to burn to the bottom so you need to stir continually. When it does reach 300F, take off the heat and stir in the nuts, then pour immediately into the buttered baking sheet. Once it’s spread out, pour the chocolate over it, and after a minute or two it should start melting. Take a spatula and spread the chocolate to cover every bit of toffee. If you do have bits of praline (recipe follows), you can sprinkle that on. Put in the freezer and let harden for at least 30 minutes before eating, then store in the freezer.

Almond Praline

1 ½ c sugar
1 c almond

Grease a baking pan, or line with foil. In a small saucepan, heat sugar on medium heat and stir until melted. Add almonds and continue to cook, without stirring but swirling instead, until the sugar is deep golden. Pour into the pan, let cool and then pulse in a food processor until in a fine powder. Store in an airtight container.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

New York

New York is an obvious and inevitable choice for anyone’s list of favorite cities to eat in. It should have been in mine before Rome or Sevilla or any of those, but proximity from Barcelona gave way to European cities. I’ve been to New York more times than I can count on two hands, probably because my sister lived there for the past five years. But on this most recent trip, I visited some pretty touristy restaurants that I had never been to before, because there are some you need to check off your list at some point. I have some favorites, that I always try and go back to when I’m in Manhattan, but it’s always a toss up when you want to try new places, given that there are about a jillion restaurants on the island. And as it was a family trip, there had to be the requisite ‘nice’ restaurant. Nice translating to upscale, expensive, press-worthy. I’ll save this one for the last because there are many pictures but not much description (explained later).

In the months before going, I had seen a show on the Travel Channel where they talk about the Brooklyn Ballpark food. First I must tell you, I was staying in Brooklyn, and second, I try never to eat Mexican food outside of Texas or Mexico. So I heard about this very authentic Latin food provided by people who come to watch the soccer games on Saturdays and prepare food from their native countries, be it El Salvador or Peru. I was willing to try, and wanted to, since it wasn't strictly Mexican, but many other cuisines I hadn't tried. As I researched more and read more articles, I found that they were almost not allowed to come back by the Health Department and had to undergo changes to abide by the guidelines and codes. I’ve heard that this has dwindled the vendors' numbers and the crowds of hungry people, but I still wanted to see what the fuss was about. So one Saturday morning, pre-matinee theater, I went down with my sister and it was not nearly as crowded as I had imagined. A few trailers parked along the block, with posters outside each advertising their food. I went for a pupusa, a Salvadorian dish. I had never had one, and wanted to try it.

It’s like thick corn cake stuffed with cheese and meat (mine was pork) and served with pickled cabbage. It was good and greasy, but mostly corn cake and I prefer mine to be heavier on the stuffing and lighter on the tortilla-bit. We got a huarache, a large Mexican burrito, that strangely enough you don’t see in Austin. Also got an order of chicharrones, or fried pork with the bone on. These are always delicious but very fatty, and only advised for those who don’t mind biting it off the bone and getting their fingers a little messy. For dessert? Mango with lime juice and chili powder. Would’ve been great if the mango was a little riper, but they had all kinds of fresh juices, which I like to see. My sister’s dessert was corn on the cob slathered in mayonnaise. I have it pictured here, and from that you’ll get as much as I did because I can’t stand mayonnaise, so do what you will with it. The down side of going out here is it’s kinda out in the middle of nowhere Brooklyn, and if you go, you’re going for the food because there’s not much else around.

I hope I don’t loose all credibility here as someone who likes to delve into something different (because I do) but I’ve got to get my cupcake fix when in New York. And I’m not talking about Magnolia, although this is comparable. Actually, Billy used to work at Magnolia, and that’s where this Chelsea bakery gets its namesake: Billy’s. Something about the buttercream is magical, I can’t recreate it at home even with all the cookbooks. It’s not too sugary, doesn’t taste like butter, but is a perfect compliment to the small cupcake. And it looks so much cuter in those pastel Easter-egg colors. I am a chocolate lover hands down, but I can’t peel myself away from the white cupcake with vanilla buttercream. That will make you smile.

The last time I was in New York my sister and I were debating between Blue Hill and Gramercy Tavern. We went with Blue Hill. If you haven’t heard of it, google it and no doubt you’ll find plenty of reading material. This time, I wanted to try Gramercy Tavern. There are two rooms, one is the dining room and you get a choice of tasting menues, and the other is off the tavern room which is more casual and from an a la carte menu; my family did this for our last night. To sum it up before I tell you what we had, the space was warm and classic, it was busy enough to have a nice low buzz on a Sunday night but not too loud. The upper walls were painted with bright images of fruit and vegetables, somewhat abstract. It was very comfortable while still fancy. None of us were very hungry, which worked out fine since we weren’t doing the tasting menu. I had Jerusalem artichoke soup, which was just enough for me (I would show you, but it did not photograph well, as it was a light yellow/cream color served in a white bowl).My sister had a beet salad with mixed greens, Grana Padano and lemon vinaigrette, and my mom had some sort of fish (I do love online menus, but I can't find a dish that resembles hers on the menus) with corn. Everyone liked what they got, but the real kicker was the dessert. We all split this chocolate pudding with salted caramel, vanilla bean whipped cream, and brioche croutons. It slightly reminded me of a dish I learned about in Spain that was a simple bread with chocolate, olive oil, and salt. This was delicious, especially with the salted caramel. It was simple but nicely presented.

Here comes the quintessential tourist destination part of my latest New York trip: Katz’s. I had actually made it inside the building on a different visit, but a slight disagreement prevented us from eating there, but that’s all in the past. The point of Katz’s is the sandwiches are huge, packed full of meat. Not as high as some of the deli’s in New York, but it’s not a slice or two of turkey. It’s your corned beef or pastrami or brisket (although to me, this is pure Texas barbeque), rye, side of pickles. It’s a weird process at Katz’s; you walk in and they give each customer and ticket that you have to return when you leave, whether you buy something or not, and if you lose it, it’s $50. It has nothing to do with line order, so go ahead to the shortest one. And if you tip or they’re nice, you’ll get a helper that gives you a little sample of some juicy meat. They also have all sorts of other Jewish food, matzah ball soup, knishes (I don’t really know my Jewish food, unfortunately). We stuck to a Reuben with housemade Thousand Island dressing and cheese, but instead of corned beef, pastrami. Although there’s no shortage of meat and it’s delicious, the sandwich depends on the dressing which adds so much flavor, without which you’d have a big hunk of meat and some bread. Be sure and get extra dressing, because it brings everything together and it really does make it live up to the New York deli experience. Lastly I have our meal that I insisted on, after having eaten the best of Spain at Mugaritz, I wanted to see what New York had to offer because I had yet to try a tasting menu in the States. After researching and already having some restaurants knocked off the list (my family had already been to a few like Le Bernardin), I decided on Jean Georges. I put on my pretty shoes and shiny dress and into the cab we hopped for our night on the town. Luckily, they had a couple different tasting menus, one of Jean Georges specialties, or what he’s known for, and the other of seasonal dishes that change. So with four people, we did half and half. There was wine involved, and I always intend to leave with a copy of the menu, but in a haze of lobster, chocolate, legs, and eggs, it must have slipped my mind. But I think I might’ve gotten lucky because on their website they have both the menus of Jean Georges signature dishes and the autumn menu, so I’m taking their word for it and gonna give you the photos and the accompanying menu. I’ll make my opinions known now: if you have the money and are up for a lot of food, try Jean Georges. I can’t compare it to other New York fine-dining, but we were impressed with all kind of tasty, well-thought out dishes, and not overly-bothered by the waiters. There was a plethora of food, so go hungry, and if nothing else, it was an experience. We all got an amuse bouche. And now I'll start the Autumn Menu:Egg Toast, Caviar and Dill. Kanpachi Sashimi, Sherry Vinaigrette and Toasted Pecans. Nishiki Risotto with Porcini Marmelade and Five Herbs. Crispy Black Bass, Roasted Brussel Sprouts and Spiced Apple Jus. Maine Lobster and Potato Gnocchi, Smoked Butter and Pickled Chilies. Roasted Venison, Quince-Madeira Condiment, Broccoli Raab and Cabrales Foam (although looking at the picture now, the broccoli raab and cabrales foam seem to be noticeably absent. I'm not sure what the substitute was). Signature Dish Menu. Egg Caviar. Sea Scallops, Caramelized Cauliflower, Caper-Raisin Emulsion. Young Garlic Soup with Thyme, Sauteed Frog Legs. Turbot with Chateau Chalon Sauce. Lobster Tartine, Lemongrass and Fenugreek Broth, Pea Shoots. Broiled Squab, Onion Compote, Corn Pancake with Foie Gras. I will add that the desserts were themed, for example you could pick caramel, or chocolate, or bread or some flavor or ingredient and you would get a large platter divided, with four desserts all a different take on the theme. I got chocolate, and this included: Jean Georges Chocolate Cake, Vanilla Bean Ice Cream. Aerated Chocolate Sponge, Gooseberries, Whiskey, Walnuts. Warm Chocolate Gnocchi, Grapefruit, Gianduja, Basil. Old Fashioned Chocolate Egg Cream. We also got caramel. Vanilla Soda, Liquid Caramel Sphere. Chocolate Pop, Coffee-Cardamom Ice Cream. Caramel Curd, Dehydrated Sponge, Roasted Pineapple Sorbet. Warm Caramel Tart, Crispy Olive-Hazelnut Praline, Caramelized Bacon.Lastly came the petit fours, and then we were sent home with a little bag of chocolate truffles.

I don’t think I need to draw any conclusions on eating in New York. It should be done, more than once. But if you only get once, choose wisely and do your research because who knows how many restaurants are jam packed into that tiny island.

I do need to put in my two cents on restaurants that I didn't get the chance to eat at this time, but I love and am looking forward to my return. The first is Fatty Crab, a tiny, heaving Malaysian restaurant in the West Village. It's a tiny space full of people enjoying pork belly sandwiches or waiting to enjoy them, and you want to be a part of it.

There's also a cute little place on the Upper West Side, and once again, I don't want to lose my credibility as a go-to for suggestions, but this place was featured in a film whose name will remain annonymous. Anyways, they utilize every inch of space inside Cafe Lalo, even having to move the surrounding tables to get guests into their seats. But they've got glass cases packed full of desserts, and a menu reveals even more that you can't see, as well as savory food and sweet drinks (I'm remembering hot chocolates involving liqueurs). Great place to meet on a cold night for a big piece of cake.

Also try and stop by Chelsea Market. It's an indoor market of different specialty shops, including a bakery, soup store, produce shop, Italian market, wine store, and more. You can get yourself a Fat Witch brownie or sit down to lunch.