Monday, October 24, 2005

Cheesecakes, Custards, and Cremes

On Saturday, I took a class at the California Culinary Academy called Cheesecakes, Custards, and Cremes. I have made creme brulee many times at home and I am also well versed in making custards, but the cheesecake is one dessert I have not conquered. My first attempt was a New York style cheesecake with a sunken top and the Grand Canyon plowing right through it. It was probably my biggest failure in the kitchen since I was 8 years old when I burned some chocolate on the stove top and stunk up our whole house. The second attempt was a Philadelphia style cheesecake that actually turned out all right but was a bit too jello-y. It was light and fluffy and I like a rich, dense cheesecake.
With expectations of perfecting my cheesecake making skills, the class on Saturday was sadly disappointing. We were given recipes and left to experiment, something I do myself at home all the time without paying for it. To add to my dissapointment, my questions on why one of the cakes collapsed and how we could prevent cracks went unanswered.
When I returned home on Saturday, I pulled my trusty On Food and Cooking the Science and Lore of the Kitchen off the shelf and did some research of my own. It turns out, there are a few strategies that will prevent both the cracks in the surface and a fallen cake. According to Harold McGee, you want a cheesecake to rise during cooking as little as possible. Therefore, you don't want to incorporate too many air bubbles in the mix and so beat the batter just until all the ingredients are fully incorporated. Second, it should be baked slowly in a low oven. Third, don't overbake. And, finally, cool the cheesecake gradually. Harold McGee recommends allowing it to cool in an open oven.
I made pumpkin bars with cream cheese frosting on Friday, so I will have to wait a few days before making another dessert. When I do attempt a cheesecake, I'll let you know how Harold's recommendations work out.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

A City that Cooks

There is a real evolution of food occuring in London. The availability of fresh produce, seafood, and cheese makes it a great city for a home chef. We stayed just 2 blocks north of the Marble Arch in the neighborhood called Marylebone. On Sunday morning, we walked to the Marylebone farmer's market and toured Marylebone High Street's gourmet food shops, all of which were swarming with inspired chefs. The high point of this walk was the cheese room in La Fromagerie Cafe. This separate climate controlled room with a heavy sliding glass door was a vault keeping the prized cheeses safe. We walked in and stared with awe at the wheels of mostly French fromage and their hand-written descriptions. As my mouth started watering when I realized England does not ban un-aged raw milk cheeses like the US, Lou was getting in trouble for taking pictures of me and the cheese. We asked for a slice of the non-pasteurized brie wheel along with a Coeur de Lion and got the heck out of there. I'd post the pictures for you, but since they didn't want us to take them, they probably wouldn't appreciate it if they found them on the internet.

Fish eat fish at the Marylebone farmer's market. The fishmonger didn't mind me taking the picture below, although he did freak me out by putting a live lobster in my face.

Monday, October 10, 2005

London Dining

So much has happened in the two months since I've written. I've been focusing on other writing projects and therefore have neglected to post to the blog.

Lou and I traveled to London and Ireland in August. It was just the two of us for a week in London and we had a blast touring the city's museums, palaces, and parks, and a few farmers markets and cheese shops. To our surprise, Lou and I ate quite well in both London and Ireland, for a price. In London, we visited The Ivy on a whim and they graciously seated us in the bar even though we were dressed in jeans and T-shirts. A non-celeb normally needs a few months notice to eat here. Not completely sure why because my fish was very mediocre, although the updated Shepherd's Pie that Lou ordered was fabulous. For dessert we had a creme brulee topped with berries that did not complement the flavor of the creme, but instead completely dominated it. The lack of consistency in the food was probably offset by a very good PR rep. A lone "regular" dining a few tables away who had sparked up a conversation with us asked if we had noticed the "nicely dressed" lady who came in trying to get a table for tomorrow's lunch and was turned down. I guess the maitre d' must have sensed my inner celebrity. The "regular" lived in Boston, but traveled to London often and recommended we also go to The Wolseley. Owned by the original owners of The Ivy, The Wolseley is another much written about hot spot. Now with a personal recommendation to boot, we of course decided to check it out.

Since a portion of the tables are left for walk-ins, we were seated after having ample time to drink one drink and order a second in the Wolseley's small and very expensive bar. Precious real estate was saved for tables here in this see-and-be-seen theatre of dining. Housed in what was once an automobile showroom, it is not a small space nor a small bill for them or I. Their reportedly 50,000 pound per month rent trickled down to me in the form of one 10 pound martini, and a dinner bill of about 90 pounds for two of us-no dessert and only glasses of wine. The food was good, but nothing of the calibur that I would expect from a place so well produced. PR at work again I suppose, or perhaps we in San Francisco are spoiled by so much good food in one little city.