Monday, November 30, 2009

Thanksgiving Rehash

By now everyone's turkey is probably gone.  You've eaten your turkey potpie or turkey hash.  We had ours, of a sort, last night--a big pancake of mashed potatoes mixed with browned onions, gravy, and turkey, browned 'til bored.  The cook that is.  Well, until the cook is bored, not browned.  Anyway.  Hopefully your turkey carcass is already simmering on the stovetop.  But before we get pushed into the next holiday, I wanted to linger a little bit longer over Thanksgiving.
With both my daughters in Europe this year, ours was a small affair, just the four of us (myself, husband, son, and niece).  I guess I'm a traditionalist at Thanksgiving.  For me it's not so much because I can't imagine Thanksgiving without exactly this stuffing and that pie.  It's just that I really like the meal, and it's the only time I have it.  I like its simplicity but generosity (what other meal can you think of with all that starch!).  I like the fact that it takes lots of time to prepare, but much can be done ahead.  I like the way the cranberry relishes and pickled beets sparkle like jewels on the table, and, inevitably, add their mark to the tablecloth.  And I like the way that, in the end, even if the turkey is a little dry, or the brussel sprouts are a little overdone, it's still Thanksgiving.  Nothing ever changes that.

One of the great rites of passage for exchange students seems to be pulling together a Thanksgiving dinner overseas.  Kids whose cooking experience was pretty much relegated to baking chocolate chip cookies suddenly decide they really need to prepare a feast, complete with five side dishes and desserts made out of generally unavailable, or at least hard to find, items (sweet potatoes, cranberries, brussels sprouts, pumpkin...).  Never mind that chances are their host families will fail to appreciate the value of a pumpkin pie, or candied sweet potatoes.  Thanksgiving is de rigeur.

They do it partly out of homesickness.  But mainly, I think, it's because Thanksgiving, while originally a harvest celebration, has become (at least for my city-dwelling kids) a celebration of home.  And they want to share that in their new home, with their new families.  It's their innate generosity.

So this year, Francesca, barely 17, put on her first Thanksgiving dinner, for an Italian family.  It meant that the week before my email was full of questions about making pie dough and gravy, and how many potatoes to cook (I was the wrong person to ask--I mistakenly prepared 10 pounds for 4 people this year).  Meanwhile, Grace (in the Netherlands) was putting on her fourth Thanksgiving dinner overseas, and she was sending me a few messages as well.  I had to laugh.  Fact is, I almost always call my own mother with some of the same questions. 

Both girls pulled off wonderful dinners.  Francesca wrote to say that her family dressed up for her dinner, and they ate in the dining room, reserved for Christmas and other very special days.  Her host father even put on a tie.  Grace blogged about her dinner (good reading!), and I'm pleased to report that she's learned to find home wherever she travels.  A valuable skill.

And me?  I missed my girls, but was happy to be with the rest of my family.  After dinner, we went to dear friends, who really are family, for dessert.  And then we settled into four days of leftovers, pie for breakfast, and general thankfulness for pretty perfect lives.  And a simmering turkey carcass.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Happy Birthday, Francesca

Today is my youngest daughter's 17th birthday. I am shocked. How did this happen? Where was I while all those years slipped away? I better start paying closer attention.

Francesca is away this year, living in Italy. So we can't feel too sorry for her not being home for her birthday. Besides, for this year, Italy is her home!

But we can feel sorry for ourselves. Because if the birthday girl is away, is there cake? And if there's no cake, is there a birthday?  It's a little like the old saying: if a tree falls in the middle of the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Put in birthday terms, if my daughter turns 17, and I don't get to eat cake, does she still turn 17?

Well, I didn't want to take a chance on leaving her suspended in some sort of 16/17 limbo. I'd be stuck hearing Liesl from 'The Sound of Music' sing 'I am sixteen going on seventeen' in my head for a whole year.

If Francesca were home, I'd have baked her a cake, probably banana.  It's one of her favorites. There were a couple of years when her birthday fell on Thanksgiving, and we had to eat dinner early enough to let the pie settle.  Because of course we'd have birthday cake later in the evening.  Again, it seemed unfair to her--and the rest of us--to skimp on birthday cake or Thanksgiving pie.  But I took the easy way out this year.

I bought a cake. I was at Ken's for bread anyway. And the prettiest little chocolate cake was sitting there, with a yellow pansy smiling up at me.  So I brought it home, and we'll all have a piece tonight, and wish Francesca a happy birthday, and let her cross over to 17.

Monday, November 23, 2009

My Portland Cafés Today

Extracto Latte
All this talk about cafés leads up to the inevitable question: Where do I go for coffee in Portland right now?

I have to admit that after Torrefazione closed I spent a certain amount of time moping.  I came up with all sort of plans.  For a while I toyed with having five favorite places (one for each day of the week).  I figured I'd read travel books in one place, food books in another, a long Russian novel in a third...well, you get the idea.  It just didn't catch on--too much juggling of books and bags.

I finally had to admit it was a bit ungrateful of me to spend so much time ruing Torrefazione's departure.  Portland isn't exactly Wasila (don't want to disparage almost anyone's hometown; this one seems sort of safe), there's actually a fair amount of decent coffee.  In case you hadn't heard.

What Torrefazione did have for me was a perfect combination of proximity, ambience, and good coffee.  It also kept one demitasse spoon in the European cafe culture.  By now, Portland has its own cafe culture.  But you know, I kind of miss that old world feel.  I've made my peace with having a few favorite cafés, and trying my best to frequent them all.  It's like having a lot of kids.  Luckily, having raised three of my own, I have some experience with not playing favorites.

So here's my Portland café roundup.  But remember, there are so many other good places to try--these are just my favorites.

View Set the WABAC Machine to Berkeley Cafés: Back for Seconds in a larger map

Located on NE Killingsworth, Extracto has been a family favorite since it opened; it was the café that first gave us hope in the post-Torrefazione era.  Originally serving Stumptown coffee, this past year they started roasting their own, Cherry Coffee Roasters.  The coffee's great, they carry pastries from Fleur de Lis  (I do like those cinnamon rolls) and shortbread cookies from Baker and Spice (I'm pretty addicted to the chocolate ones, but am working on giving equal time to the coconut).  Spacious enough to stay awhile, our family likes to bring books and cards to Extracto.  Nearly every trip to or from the airport for a family departure/arrival is bookended with a stop here.  For our kids, Extracto is a part of home.

Added bonus: it's one block from New Seasons, so easy to work in a visit when running errands.  And they have what has to be the prettiest coffee machine ever, a baby blue four group La Marzocco machine that you just want to pet.

They're opening a second Extracto soon.  I'm pretty excited, because it's within walking distance of my house.   A little further than Torrefazione was, and up a hill.  But I figure that's only good--pounds are harder to keep off as you age.  I'm already trying to decide what novel to read there when it opens.

2921 NE Killingsworth St.
Portland, OR 97211

1465 NE Prescott
Portland (due to open soon)

This little café, a shoebox of a spot (one that would probably hold something lovely, like Blahniks), opened early this summer.  It's only two blocks from my house, I've clocked the distance at 4 minutes (when I walk eagerly).  Cartola (it means 'top hat' in Portuguese, and is named for Angenor de Oliveira, a Brazilian singer instrumental in the development of samba) makes me extremely happy.

Owned by a young couple, Cartola has the kind of ambience I missed after Torrefazione closed.   Music plays, but it's not loud, and it's music I like. There are two arm chairs by the front window, and 4 or 5 marble-topped tables along a long padded bench. Art work and family photos hang above on the wall covered with handsome floral wallpaper.  The attention to detail here is appreciated: water with lemons is always available, from a spigoted urn.  When it's time to bus your table, a large open tray is ready--no awkward crouching and piling of dirty dishes--and they keep it regularly cleared off.  That kind of attention is also evident in their coffee: espresso drinks carefully made with Stumptown beans.

2723 NE 7th Ave. (just north of NE Knott)

Coffeehouse Northwest
I wrote about Coffeehouse NW here earlier in the year, especially about their mochas, which are made with Stumptown coffee and Cluizel chocolate.  And are one of the truly great things to have in Portland.  But like most New Year's resolutions, this one (to have a mocha every Friday), pleasurable though it was, has fallen by the wayside.  Kind of.  I still go in weekly, but usually too early in the day for a mocha.  You need to have some self-control; waiting until I've had one coffee before drinking mochas is one of the disciplines I require of myself.

Coffeehouse Northwest is a great spot--in an old brick building, with slanted worn wood floors (you need to drink a few sips of your coffee before you put the full-to-the-brim latte down) and truly nice staff.  They also will make your latte, cappuccino, or mocha with organic milk (for a small surcharge).  Well, it's a blend of organic and normal (has to do with the foaming capability).

Sometime in the next month they will be opening Sterling Coffee Roasters in a tiny spot on NW Glisan, featuring a different single-origin bean every day,  roasted right there.  The machine (a San Franciscan) is a beauty, reminiscent of one of those art deco train engine posters.  I look forward to visiting.

Coffeehouse Northwest
1951 W. Burnside
Portland, OR

Sterling Coffee Roasters
2120 NW Glisan

Ken's Artisan Bakery
It's really not a cafe.  But I go there for coffee just the same.  The kind of care they take in making bread and pastries (arguably the best in town) is repeated with their coffee, made with Stumptown beans.  Since you're sitting down for a coffee there, you might just as well get something to have with it.  Some of my favorites: their cannelés, the upside-down cake of the moment (gingerbread-pear last time I looked), a walnut bread roll, or their croissants.  If it's close to lunchtime I might just grab one of their ham and asiago sandwiches, on buttered baguette.  And if I'm not really that hungry, their mini pain au chocolats are perfect.

338 NW 21st Ave
Portland, OR 97209
(503) 248-2202

Random Order
Random Order opened in the location of Groundswell Cafe (another lost favorite of mine; Groundswell made a mean fried egg sandwich with grilled peppers, channeling Olympia Dukakis' great scene in Moonstruck, and also goat cheese on Pearl's fig anise panini--but I'm getting sidetracked) in 2004.  They make delicious muffins (something I almost never enjoy in cafes and bakeries) and pies (all-butter crusts, I like their brandied peach), serve solid Stumptown espresso drinks, and even have a liquor license.  I love it that I can go there in the afternoon and have a campari and soda.  Though their ginger toddy is calling to me now that it's cold and damp again.

Random Order
1800 NE Alberta
Portland, OR

Olympia Dukakis in 'Moonstruck'. The egg scene starts at 1:35

So there you have it. My favorite Portland cafes.  Again, I hasten to add they're just my favorites.  There are plenty of great places to visit in just about every corner of town.  Here's links to a few others where I'm always happy to stop for a cup.

Ristretto RoastersLittle Red Bike CafeAlbina PressCremaCoffeehouse FiveBarista.

I really can't complain about the state of cafes in Portland.  I have it pretty good.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Meat at Livestock

Livestock Swag
On November the 4th,  I went to the first of two Livestock evenings, 'The Butchery of a Cow' (The Butchery of a Pig took place on the 11th; sadly I missed it).  Livestock, held at the Art Institute's International Culinary School, was billed as 'an urban conversation designed to explore the literary and literal aspects of killing our dinner'  And it was just that. 

Meat's been on my mind the last few weeks.  I already mentioned the Futurist Banquet at SFMOMA a few weeks back.  I was reminded of it last week when my father wrote on his blog about a soup my mother had made, using some beef stock he had made with a rib he'd pinched at the banquet.

And then there's been all the meat conversations and debates online.  Between Nicolette Hahn Niman and Helene York at the Atlantic Food site, addressing especially the environmental concerns of eating meat.  Articles about Jonathan Safran Foer's book Eating Animals at the New York Times Book Review (Jennifer Schuessler) and the New Yorker (Elizabeth Kolbert).

Worst of all, there was the undercover video from the Vermont slaughter house I came across from a Michael Ruhlman tweet. Warning: I could only watch about 30 seconds of it, it's that horrendous. You can read a bit about it here.  It's the kind of thing that makes me wonder why restaurants serving foie gras get picketed, but beef, pork, and chicken coming from God knows where raise no such ire.  And it makes me worry about the people as well.  It reminded me of a line from a book I read last year (and liked very much), So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell.  In it, a man tells his niece what he has against her suitor: "I saw him taking something out on his horses.  I didn't enjoy it. And you wouldn't have either."

But back to Livestock.  The brainchild of Watershed Culinary Productions and Camas Davis of the Portland Meat Collective, Livestock's literary promise was my main attraction.  I'd already had my introduction to where my meat came from years ago, when my father took me out of school for a day to help butcher a goat.  Turns out a refresher course is always a good idea.

About 40 of us had gathered in an upstairs culinary school classroom.  While B.T.Shaw, Emily Chenoweth, and Joe Strecket gave readings, Adam Sappington of The Country Cat butchered a quarter cow.  The stories were interesting--B.T. Shaw's piece about hunting and her father and having possum in her lunch box was particularly funny and moving--but my mind kept wandering.  Because watching Sappington work was fascinating.  The combinations of moves with his various knives was a little like a dance.  Nearly careless seeming flicks of the boning knife followed sure swift strokes from his chef's knife.  The movements were accompanied by sounds: sighs and exhalations, slaps and pats on the meat--at once respectful and affectionate. 

After the readings, there was a tasting of three braised beefs: Sweet Briar Farms (Hereford/Black Angus), Ford Farms (Highland cattle), and Carman Ranch (Black Angus; the only completely grass-fed beef we tasted).  The Carman Ranch, being grass-fed, was leaner than the others.  It also seemed to be the favorite of most people where I was sitting.  Its flavor was interesting, slightly gamey (in a good way).  When you ate it, you stopped and appreciated the tastes, which is exactly how I'd like to be eating meat.
And then the conversation started.  The audience was full of smart, curious people.  Butchers from local businesses, farmers, curious onlookers (should I say on-eaters?), and even a vegetarian or two wanted to talk about how the meat was raised, where it came from, and how they approached eating meat.

The Portland Meat Collective is a promising development--it aims to let people own shares of their animal before slaughter, giving them a say in how the animal will be butchered.  And they're also planning on having classes in butchery and charcuterie.

Two lines from the evening really stood out for me. The first was from Sappington, when he was asked about how he felt when butchering the cow.  He answered (and I'm poorly paraphrasing here) that slaughtering is something very different, but butchering is not emotional. "I don't know if that's okay, but I'm comfortable with it".

And Clare Carver, in the audience from Big Table Farm, responded when people started wondering about 'painless slaughter'.  She raises her pigs from the time they're weaned and slaughters them herself  She said the night before slaughter is incredibly difficult.  But she really cares about those pigs throughout their lives.  "Basically, they have many happy days and one very bad day."

There are so many arguments to be made about raising, killing, and eating meat.  In the end, we can only make our own peace with eating meat or not.  And I have.  I am a meat eater, and though I probably eat it only a couple of times a week on average, I like it very much, and have no intention of stopping.  But I also like animals--a lot.   For me eating meat is both a priviledge and a responsibility.  I'll be curious to watch the conversation unfold.

Oh, and the swag: Adam Sappington's beef jerky

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

More Café Memories: Torrefazione Café

The first years I lived in Portland, it was hard to imagine hanging out in cafés.  Which was just as well, because there weren't that many.  But a few years and three kids later, something exciting happened.  Torrefazione came to town.  If Starbucks created a widespread thirst for espresso drinks (Berkeley cafés did it for me), Torrefazione focused that thirst.

(For info on the second and third wave coffee movements read this and this)

For a long time, Torrefazione had just the one café on NW 23rd.  It was not a part of town I frequented, so my visits there were reserved for showing Portland off to out-of-town visitors.  But rightfully so.  Torrefazione was perfect.  The coffee was delicious, and served in Deruta ceramic cups.  The round wooden tabletops had round Deruta tiles set in the center, plants sat on Deruta pedestals, and Italian baristas carefully pulled shots (this was the first place I routinely saw baristas dumping expired shots), steamed milk, and spoke Italian amongst themselves.

View Set the WABAC Machine to Berkeley Cafés: Back for Seconds in a larger map

But I was to be even luckier.  Torrefazione opened a second branch, just a few blocks from my house.  By then, my kids were only a little older than my siblings and I were in that picture taken at the Piccolo.  I was thrilled to introduce them to cafe life.  Instead of grenadine and tamarindo sodas, the kids usually drank a small bottle of Sanbitter soda or chinotto (a bitter citrus).  Perfect training drinks.  The Sanbitter mimicked bitter aperitifs (I figured some day I'd like to have a before dinner drink with them), while the chinotto was slightly reminiscent of tamarindo (my childhood favorite), with its cola-esque flavor.

Our local Torrefazione was connected to a produce market, a fish market, and a small delicatessen.  I loved the way I could escape home to pick up something for supper and then, oh well, might as well have a cappuccino since I was already there.

Torrefazione somehow attracted a mix of society you don't always see in cafés.  Waiting in line you'd see couples stopping for coffee while walking their dogs, retired gentlemen giving their wives a break, tattooed college students, high school girls dressed uniformly in Uggs and expensive jeans, and Eritrean cabbies waiting for their next fare. This branch was also managed by an Italian, who kept the place neat in the way Italian cafés always seem to be.   He was never without work.  If no one was in line, he'd zip around, wiping off chair rungs or sweeping the floor.

And it was something of a training ground as well.  Chris Brady worked as a barista there before starting Portland's Extracto Coffeehouse and Cherry Coffee Roasters.  And Jeremy Tooker was there before he started first Ritual Coffee and then Four Barrels in San Francisco.

There was one year, a magical one, when my kids were all in school, and I had more time on my hands than I had since before college.  I took to walking to Torrefazione every day with a book.  I never read that book at home.  Instead, I gave myself an hour a day to fall into it, to read without distraction.  The first book I chose was Anna Karenina.  It wasn't until this week that I connected reading Anna Karenina in a café with my first date at the Med with Pavel.  Okay, it's a tenuous connection, I'll admit.  But I like it.  I'm going to keep it.

Things had started to go wrong after Starbucks acquired Torrefazione in 2003.  Laying off the Italian managers was the first bad omen.  Sometime in 2005 I walked in to find the baristas packing the Deruta ceramic cups into boxes.  Food industry health requirements mandated that they'd have to start using normal china.  The pottery, which was of course chipped by now, could apparently not be cleaned properly.  The silver lining to this sad state of affairs was my timing.  The baristas packed 5 of their cups and saucers into a box and gave it to me.  We've suffered no ill-effects drinking from those cups daily for 4 years.

By the time summer came, it seemed clear that sooner or later Starbucks would shut down the cafes.  My daughter, Grace, got a summer job at Torrefazione, and a few weeks later was summoned to a meeting at Starbucks.  They served coffee that had been made with both Starbucks and Torrefazione beans, "to symbolize our merging".  They were told the cafés were closing, and were offered positions at local Starbucks.  Out of the 4 local Torrefaziones, I didn't hear of any workers who took Starbucks up on their offer. 

The last day came, a sad one.  Long time locals went to say good-bye, tears were shed.  Grace was able to buy some of the Torrefazione wares, after promising none would turn up on ebay.  I'm keeping her table for her, hoping she might just forget it's really hers.  And the last day at our branch, Gretchen Milhaupt, a painter who was a regular,  came in with a bunch of pastels she'd done of the café in 1998.  I got one of the last ones.  It hangs opposite our espresso machine at home, I can't tell you how often I glance up at it and let my mind wander back to those quiet afternoons spent with Anna, a cappuccino, and myself. 

And that espresso machine at home?  Pavel had decided he wanted a particular Olympia Maximatic machine.  He took a day off from work in the mid-1990's, and called stores around the country.  Finally, someone at Zabar's in New York City told him they had a new one that had been returned, and was therefore affordable.  Did he want to look at it?  Normally, that would have been out of the question for us.  But my parents happened to be in New York that week, so they took a cab over and checked it out.  And picked it up for us.  Like the Anna Karenina story, it's only today that I realize and appreciate us getting our machine the same way my parents got theirs: with our parents' help.  I hope one day we can pass the favor on to our kids. 

Even the kids' artwork was coffee-driven; these hang above our Olympia

Years later I finally made it to New York.  It was a short visit only, so one afternoon, while Pavel took the kids the the Natural History Museum, I made the trip to Zabar's, to see the place responsible for our Olympia machine that had become the hearth of our home.  I spent some time wandering the aisles, and then stepped out of the store.  Just for a minute, but it was enough to miss the best 10 seconds of fame ever, thanks to Pavel's message to me over the PA system:  "Giovanna, your family will meet you in the salamis".  It has a nice ring to it.  Family, salami, coffee memories.  What could be better? 

  At a café in Venice with Pavel.  It's not Torrefazione, but it's Italy.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Set the WABAC Machine to Berkeley Cafés: Back for Seconds

At the Piccolo

 With my brother, sister, and mother (I'm in Dad's sunglasses) at the Piccolo, training for a life at cafés

I might have lied, just a little bit, when I said I could trace my appreciation of time spent in cafés to those hours in that nameless café.  I should have said I rediscovered my appreciation in that café.  But me and cafés?  We go way back.

All the way back to afternoons at the Piccolo on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. My parents occasionally took my sister, brother, and I there, usually after an afternoon browsing at Moe's and Cody's bookstores.  In those days, Telegraph Avenue was a different place.  This was before People's Park and the riots of the late 60's.  In the early 60's, clean cut Free Speech Movement activists gathered at the Piccolo. The street had a bright scrubbed look, the same look my childhood has in my mind.

Of course, in those years I didn't drink coffee.  My parents took us to the café for a treat, an Italian soda.  They didn't believe in training wheels on bikes, but training drinks were a good idea.  My favorite was the tamarindo, which tasted faintly of cola, and came with a fat lemon wedge to squeeze.  At least in my memory.  In the picture above, my glass seems to have a blue liquid in it.  No idea what that could have been.

You know those bottles lined up on café counters today, for making ill-advised flavored lattes?  They seem to have every flavor imaginable, from Almond Roca to peanut butter.  But when I was little, the San Francisco-based Torani made grenadine and tamarindo syrups (sadly, neither remains on their current list of offerings).  That was it.  And no one thought of putting them in a latte.  Oh.  And that latte?  Those were first made at the Piccolo, a bow to American taste, which found cappuccinos too strong.  The Piccolo was renamed Caffe Mediterraneum (and referred to as 'the Med') later in the 60's, but my family called it the Piccolo for some time after.

I'm not really a coffee dogmatist; I do make an exception for one flavored cappuccino, of sorts.  On the rare occasions we went to North Beach in San Francisco, we usually had our coffee at the Bohemian Cigar Store.  Once I was a bit older, I liked to order their cappuccino con Vov the Italian egg and Marsala liqueur, like zabaglione in a bottle.  To this day I try to keep a bottle of Vov on hand, to pour a small float atop an afternoon cappuccino.  It's perfect for the hour when the caffeine/alcohol line gets fuzzy (another word waiting to be coined), when you still need a little boost, but are starting to think about winding down your day.

Another café we visited was the Espresso, on the northside of the campus.  Set back from the street, cavernous and just a little aloof, it was nicknamed 'the Depresso'.  But I always liked it, with its dark, cool interior.  Perhaps I was predisposed to living in Portland?  Later, when I lived a couple of blocks away from the Espresso, I went every Sunday (a laundromat was thoughtfully situated next door). Their cappuccino came in a heavy footed glass, which freed up table space for the Sunday paper.

By that time I was drinking coffee.  My parents had found a beautiful chrome Faema machine in a thrift shop for $25--a lot of money for them.  It sat on its own pedestal (later a small round café table) to the side of our dining table.  Each night after dinner, one of us kids would grind the coffee (from Peets, back when Mr. Peet presided over one coffee and spice store) in the manual grinder for my father's espresso. 

Incidentally, I have no idea what kind of coffee was used at all these cafés.  I have a feeling that if someone from Portland 2009 really set the WABAC machine to Berkeley cafés in those decades, they might find their coffee to be lacking.  But I suspect it was still pretty darn good.

(At all i've seen, Richard Friedman has a collection of Berkeley photos from the late 60's to today; about halfway down the page are a few interior shots of Caffe Espresso, and an exterior of Caffe Mediterraneum).

View Set the WABAC Machine to Berkeley Cafés: Back for Seconds in a larger map

By the time I was a student at Cal (for one year only, one of 9 colleges where I took classes before getting my bachelor's degree), there were two more cafés I frequented.  My friends and I spent many evenings at the Intermezzo, on Telegraph.  I still remember a barista (though they weren't called that then--what did we call them?) named Massimo who I always thought looked a bit like a thuggish blackshirt, though I'm sure he was anything but. 

The other was Caffé Roma. Almost all of Roma's seating was outdoors. Students, professors, professional students, and slightly (and not-so-slightly) crazy people mingled over caffe lattes and pieces of carrot cake.  You never knew who you'd run into there.  Speed-chess players, violently slapping down the timers on their clocks after each move, sat alongside young students flirting with one another.  Professors sat quietly reading, or engaged in vigorous discussions.  TAs held office hours at choice corner tables.

My friendships with Italian TA's, nurtured at Roma, paid off when one introduced me to Pavel--my future husband.  And indeed, much of our early courtship took place at Roma.  Though our first date, seeing Greta Garbo in Anna Karenina at the old Telegraph Repertory Theater (Pavel's suggestion), was capped with tea at the Med, sitting up on the mezzanine.  We still end most days with a shared pot of tea.

So you see, I did lie a bit.  Back at that Portland nameless café, I was no newbie.  I'd been trained from an early age in the art of sitting in cafés.  I had these skills down: nursing a cappuccino or latte, watching the regulars, and eavesdropping--just a bit.  Rather, at the nameless café I realized how much I had missed that connection since moving to Portland.  I was ready to have it again.

The Piccolo became the Med, and the Espresso closed.  Roma is now Caffe Strada.  And we moved to Portland.  Everything changes.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Molasses Creole Cake

A lot of people have it in for Twitter. "What's the point? I guess I understand Facebook, but Twitter is just a waste of time."

Well. I disagree. Last Saturday dawned here a little overcast, but the sky soon darkened. And the deluge came. People probably think I should be used to rain, living in Portland and all. But this was no Portland rain, this was the kind you don't go out in. And the rain wasn't all. One household member got an H1N1 diagnosis, another looks as if he's about to come down with it. Everyone was just in a funk.

I checked in with my TweetDeck, and, thanks to Kim Severson of the New York Times, this tweet came across my screen: "Great advice from a 77-year-old Alabama cook: When you're feeling down just get in the kitchen and bake someone a cake."

It was the perfect day to read it.

The only problem. How do I bake a cake in a house with a husband, son, and niece, and then give it away? Then it hit me. I'd bake them the cake. And it would only be polite to join them for a piece.  Luckily, they were nice enough to share.

After spending the better part of the morning leafing through cookbooks, trying to figure out what I wanted (not chocolate, maybe spice?), I made what I'm calling a Molasses Creole Cake. Two thin molasses layers, filled and iced with coffee creole boiled icing. The boiled icing was less sweet than normal, as it had espresso in it. And the molasses cake layers were dark and soft. Since I used blackstrap molasses, the cake had a slightly iron-like flavor that also helped temper the sweetness.

It was even better the next day.  But gone the third. And you know, we all did feel a bit happier.

Molasses Creole Cake
adapted from The Joy of Cooking and the Fannie Farmer Baking Book

Cake layers:
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup molasses
2 cups cake flour (sift before measuring)
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 egg whites
1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
Pinch of salt
2 egg whites
1/4 cup espresso or strong coffee
2 teaspoons rum
1/2 cup pecans
1/4 cup candied orange peel
  • Preheat oven to 375º; grease and flour two 9-inch layer cake pans.
  • Sift the cake flour with the baking soda.
  • Combine the water and vanilla in a measuring cup. 
  • Beat butter until soft, add sugar gradually. Continue to beat until light and creamy.  Beat in the two egg yolks, one at a time.  Beat in the molasses.
  • Add the sifted ingredients to the butter mixture in 3 parts, alternating with the water-vanilla mixture.
  • Whip the egg whites and salt until stiff but not dry.  Fold them into the batter.
  • Divide the batter into the two prepared pans. Bake about 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Cool for 5-10 minutes in the pans, then remove from pans and let finish cooling on a rack.

When the cake is cool, prepare the frosting.
  •  Toast the pecans for about 5 minutes at 350º.  When cool, chop them and the candied peel coarsely. 
  • Combine the sugar, cream of tartar, salt, egg whites, and coffee in a mixing bowl (at least 2-quart capacity) over the top of a double boiler.  Set over simmering water on low heat.
  • Beat with a electric hand mixer until the frosting stands in peaks--this should take about 5-7 minutes.
  • Remove from heat and continue beating a few more minutes, to stiffen the frosting.  It will stand in smooth peaks.
  • Beat in the rum.
  • Remove one-third of the frosting and put in a mixing bowl with most of the chopped nuts and peel (save a little of the nuts and peel for decorating the top of the cake).

Once the cake is cool, put one layer, flat side up, on your cake plate.  Spread the frosting mixed with chopped nuts and peel almost to the edges.  Put the second cake layer on top, and frost the sides and top with the remaining frosting.  Decorate the tops with the reserved nuts and peel.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Name That Café: Part II

Lil' Mama at Two Tarts

I'm afraid my kids never did learn to play the violin.  My husband figured out that piano lessons made more sense.  "You can't throw the piano on the floor!".  True, no one ever threw down the piano, but getting the kids to practice was never fun.  So Pavel and I, basically fun-loving and not altogether good at carry-through, probably didn't push hard enough.

It didn't all end badly; our son turned out to be quite good at focusing when he was interested in something.  Composing has been one such thing; and lately he's been working hard at teaching himself to play the piano. 

Wouldn't those long fingers have been great on violin?

Sadly, I can't tell you what name of that café was, I've never figured it out.  But I can tell you where to go in Portland today if you need to hunker down with cookies and coffee, and you don't happen to have any at home. Or you have some at home, but need to get out of the house for a while.  Because maybe someone won't stop playing the piano.

View Back for Seconds at the Nameless Café in a larger map

Two Tarts Bakery started out as so many food shops in Portland do: with a stand at the Portland Farmers Market.  Then, last year, they opened their shop on NW Kearney, just off of NW 23rd Avenue (with parking!).  Tucked into a mini-mall next to a toy store, Two Tarts is cozy, a little like walking into a gingerbread house.  If I had little kids, I'd take them here after school every Friday.  The walls are painted the color of café au lait, and 4 small tables fill the seating area.  Then comes the counter, with its inviting case, carrying more than a baker's dozen of types of cookies.  The kitchen stretches back from the counter, open to the customers.

Unusually for Portland, Two Tarts does not serve espresso drinks.  Instead, they offer milk, cocoa, the local Foxfire Tea, and  Courier Coffee (local roasters who deliver all their coffee by bicycle).  Two Tarts brews a solid French Press, and give you a timer so you know when to push down the plunger.  It's the perfect cookie accompaniment.

Clockwise from the back: Hazelnut baci, ginger molasses, fleur du sel choc chip, double chocolate chew, Lil' Mama

And the cookies.  They are dainty, about 1 to 1-1/2 inches in diameter, each variety thoughtfully flavored.  Such a pleasure in this era of massive, clunky cookies, where one cookie is so often made with enough dough for three cookies.  Of course, you will probably eat more than three of these little ones.  How would you choose just one or two?  And the pricing encourages gluttony: 75 cents for one, $7.50 for a baker's dozen.

That's why I try to bring a friend to Two Tarts.  The other day I dragged my son away from the piano and went for cookies and coffee.  We picked out a baker's dozen, optimistically expecting to bring some home. Somehow we forgot to save any.

Clockwise from top: lemon bar, s'more, cappuccino cream, pumpkin seed macaroon, peanut butter cream, maple shortbread in center

I love Two Tarts' mix of cookies.  You'll find updates on old favorites, such as their chocolate chip with fleur du sel, but also cookies that remind you of old favorite store-bought cookies, heavily improved.  Their Lil' Mama, vanilla buttercream filling sandwiched between two chocolate cookies, are everything you wish an Oreo was.  The Peanut Butter Creams are peanut butter oatmeal sandwich cookies, tasting like a particularly delicious Nutter Butter.  And then there's their S'mores: two square graham cookies with housemade marshmallow in the center, the corner dipped in chocolate.

Many of the cookies benefit from being small.  Lemon bars, so often oversized, gloppy squares, are delicate and complex tasting at Two Tarts.  Others might be too rich in a bigger cookie.  Their baci are like hazelnut Mexican wedding cakes filled with chocolate ganache; specialty macaroons (pumpkin seed yesterday) are also often filled with chocolate ganache.

 Pumpkin Seed Macaroon

And their shortbread?  I've tried a few over the last year.  The lemon clove tastes deeply of cloves, a flavor that always makes me think of the Middle Ages.  Now they also have a delicate maple (made with maple sugar).  I've tried their vanilla shortbread, with a dollop of concentrated apple butter.  And yes, on a couple of very lucky days, I've walked in to find a plate of brown sugar pecan shortbread.  Sandy texture, rich with the nuts and butter, and just sweet enough.

Thinking about getting back to the piano

Monday, November 9, 2009

Name That Café: Back for Seconds

Back in the early 1990s, I discovered the Chamber Music Society of Oregon, and its incredible program offering free instrumental music classes to Portland children. Pavel and I quickly signed up our two children for classes.  I can't remember whose idea it was that they study violin, or even where we got the violins.  What I do remember is the painful attempts at getting them to practice.

I enjoyed the classes, especially the hour and a half that I had to kill downtown.  I started my escape at the pre-renovation (1994-1997)  Central Library.  Back then, so many books were stored in closed stacks that I often had to fill out a call slip and take it to the clerk.  He would put it into a plastic cylinder, and lift it up to the pneumatic tube, which would suck my request up and away to a librarian working the stacks.  Don't start me on the silent 'p' in pneumatic; I have similar feelings about the 'p' in pterodactyl.

View Back for Seconds at the Nameless Café in a larger map

Anyway.  The icing on my cake, as it were, on those Saturday mornings by myself was a visit to a café whose name I've sadly forgotten.  It was across SW 10th Avenue from the library, close to Willamette Week's old offices.  It was the kind of place I considered, then, very Northwestern, different from the cafés in California.  The inside was dark and cozy--there was no attempt to hide the fact that Oregon is dark and rainy.  I think this café was where I learned how much easier it is to give in to the rain, and hunker down with a hot beverage and a comforting cookie, than to pretend it's sunny.

I took to hunkering down with a cookie and coffee like, well, a duck to water.  The café made a brown sugar shortbread cookie that I ordered each time.  The color of light brown sugar, it was (at least in my memory) dipped in caramel.  The cookie was crumbly and slightly sweeter than regular shortbread, but still less sweet than most cookies.  The caramel picked up any sweetness slack.

The café, sadly, is gone.  Its name is forgotten by me, and by the people I've asked.  But the cookie is remembered and still appreciated, as is the luxury of a snatched hour spent by myself in a warm space.  I'm pretty sure I can trace my appreciation of time spent in cafés to those quiet hours I spent there, nursing my coffee and nibbling my cookie.  

As I recall, the classes were as painful as the practicing.  Pavel took to bribing the kids with visits to Martinotti's for candy after each class.  The classes didn't last, but Christmas isn't Christmas without a stop at Martinotti's for marzipan fruits from Italy and all sorts of Italian stocking candy.  The end finally came one day when my son threw his violin down in frustration--with the violin, with his teacher, with himself, and, most of all, with his parents.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Falling for Polenta, Landing with Polenta and Fries: Parts II and III

Part II
I think of the fried polenta I ate on cold nights in Florence fairly often.  So why don't I ever eat it?  It's not as if I can't get it; we eat polenta fairly often, especially in the winter.  And there's almost always leftovers.  But they tend to get reheated, or sliced thinly and fried in small puddle of oil in a cast-iron pan.

But I shy away from deep frying.  Partly because I don't think of it as the most healthy way to prepare food.  Partly because large amounts of hot oil are a bit frightening. Largely because it seems so expensive.

Since I generally bake polenta in a rectangular casserole (thanks to Paula Wolfert's recipe in Mediterranean Grains and Greens), the leftover polenta is already neatly formed.  Last time I had some left over, I decided to give deep frying a try.  
The piece I had was about one-inch thick, so I sliced it into fairly neat (for me) one-inch cubes.  I fried them in olive oil at 350º, just a couple at a time (full disclosure: I used a ridiculously small saucepan, so as to limit my oil expense).  When their surface hardens (you can tell by pressing them with the back of the spoon) and they turn golden, drain them on paper towels, and sprinkle with salt.

So. It's easy to go back for seconds of the actual food, and I'll be doing it often now.

But what about the big picture? Eating fried polenta in my living room, while watching a baseball game, isn't too shabby.  But where were the other adventurers?  I started thinking.  If I were a traveling 18-year-old again, and found myself in Portland low on funds but ready for adventure, what would I be eating? Where would I end up?

Part III

View Falling for Polenta in Florence: Back for Seconds in a larger map

With all the food carts in Portland, it's strange no one sells fried polenta.  But that's not to say Portland's short on spots to meet people and eat cheaply.  I like to think I would do a little research before landing in Portland; with a little luck, I made a few friends along the way, and found a place to crash cheap (sleeping in the Greyhound Station is not tempting).  If not, I'd probably end up at the Youth Hostel on SE Hawthorne.  From there, it would be a short walk (for and 18-year-old) to the food cart pod at SE Hawthorne and  SE 12th.

 Yes, that's the moon
There's lots of choices there, from Whiffie's Fried Pies, to Perierra's Crêperie.  But I'm pretty sure Potato Champion is the place I'd be getting my cheap supper (now for dessert, that's a whole other ball of string).  They open at 6 PM, and don't close until 3 AM.  The scene shifts with the hour--the later you go, the more crowded it gets.  But at any hour, you're likely to run into all ages of French fry eaters.  The pod has even made a covered area so you can enjoy the carts year round (though you'll want a jacket--the winds whip through).

Potato Champion sells Belgian style fries, which, according to them, means they are blanched first at a low temperature in the fryer, then left to sweat out the oil (they use rice bran oil), which "brings out the potato's natural fragrance."

When you step up to order your cone (and a large, $4.50, is always plenty for me and a friend), you'll see the pile of blanched fries, looking a little naked (the low temperature doesn't crisp them at all).  A few minutes later, your cone of cooked to order fries is ready.  I don't know if it's the blanching that does it, but the fries taste of earthy potato--crisp outside with slightly mealy insides, and, what do you know, plenty of natural potato fragrance.

With each order you pick one sauce--there's dijon mustard, horseradish ketchup, and various mayonnaises (I'm partial to the anchovy and the remoulade) to choose from; if it's too hard, spring the extra 50 cents for each additional sauce.  They sell poutine as well ($4.50 and $7), which would make more of a complete meal.  Maybe I would have made that my Sunday dinner.

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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Mysterious Package

Yesterday I came home to find a mysterious package on the table.  It was from my parents.  They hadn't mentioned sending me anything.

I opened it right away.  Before I took off my coat.  Inside I found this:

A bonafide Crane Melon.  Straight from Crane Melon Barn, in Santa Rosa, California.  Richard Crane, the father of Oliver Crane, the man who developed the Crane melon, was Grandma's Great-Great-Uncle; her maiden name was Crane.  Not a bad birthright, Crane melons.

After dinner, I took a knife and split it in two.  The seeds slipped out with a slurpy sound. Or at least I thought I heard a slurp.  I might have imagined it.

I wish I could take a picture of the scent of this melon.  Or find a perfume like it.

We ate it for dessert.  When I put the first bite in my mouth, it dissolved.  In another day or two, it would be past ripe.  But right then, it was perfect.  What's better than the most perfect bite of melon?

We finished it for breakfast.  When I uncovered it, I thought there was plastic sticking to it still, it was so shiny.  But it was just the melon, shimmering.

This is just to say
Thanks, Mom and Dad
It was delicious
So perfect and unexpected
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