spring risotto

Not to pour salt in the wounds of those who live in parts of the world that are not full of sunshine and Spring, but the weather in the Bay Area has been extra sparkly and glorious the past two weekends. And great activities have resulted, including a handful of day trips to the North Bay and a fruitful morning at the farmers market.

I was just telling a friend at work that I had not been up to wine country in FOREVER. And within a matter of days I got a call from Adrian and Dan asking if I wanted to join them for a day of antiquing and lunch at Bouchon. Twist my arm! Needless to say, it was a perfect day. While doing a little shopping on our way to Yountville, I fell halfway in love with an old table I spotted at Artifact Design Salvage. After a few days of obsessing and measuring and obsessing, I decided I had to have the table. So I went back to Sonoma the following weekend, only to discover that TomatoMania! was in full effect, which was the best surprise ever, especially since I’ve got all my little baby seeds sprouting right now. I happily brought home a Genovese seedling and two ginormous peat pots, along with the table, aka my new office.

I headed up North once again this past Saturday to do a little scouting for an event I’m helping plan this summer. This particular area, between Santa Rosa and Petaluma, is the land of farm-grown, homemade, antique stores galore. There were a whole lot of “cute” and “quaint” sightings that afternoon, which left me completely smitten. One day I’ll convince myself to give up city life and grow old in the country. In the meantime, I’ll settle for a weekend home or even a friend out thataway.

Before making my way up to the land of cute and quaint on Saturday, I had to stop by the farmers market. Let me just say, for the record, that everyone (and their dogs and their babies) was at the farmers market that morning. And understandably so. Who could resist all of the springtime bounty that overfloweth in these parts? Certainly not I. Somehow, I managed to get in and out of there in a record twenty-five minutes, bags filled with the goods: three pints of strawberries, green garlic, kale, three pounds of fava beans, a few pounds of English peas and a custard currant danish for the road.

The peas and favas made their way into the Spring Risotto that I had bookmarked in the Big Sur Bakery Cookbook. As I mentioned a few months ago, I love this book, and couldn’t help but go back to it. I made a few small changes, like substituting asparagus for corn kernels and adding a little lemon juice and zest to give it a bit of a brighter flavor, but ultimately loved the combination of the creamy risotto and the fresh produce. Oh Spring, how I’ve missed you!

spring risotto

adapted from The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook

serves 4

kosher salt

1-1/4 cups shelled English peas

1-1/4 cup s shelled fava beans

1 cup asparagus, spears trimmed and cut into thirds

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 medium onion, finely chopped

freshly ground black pepper

1-1/2 cups Arborio or Carnaroli rice

1/4 cup dry white wine

3-1/2 cups chicken stock, warmed

2 whole scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced

2 ounces Parmesan, grated ( about 1/4 cup), plus extra for serving

1 lemon, zest grated and juiced

2 cups rich beef broth

rich beef broth

1 quart beef broth

1/2 onion

1/2 carrot

1/2 celery stalk

1/2 red bell pepper

1/2 garlic clove

1 bay leaf

1 flat leaf parsley stem

kosher salt and black pepper

prepare the beef broth:

Combine all the ingredients except the salt and pepper in  a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and let simmer for 40 minutes.

Strain, put the liquid back into the saucepan, and reduce by half. Season with salt and pepper.

for the risotto:

Fill a medium bowl halfway with water and ice cubes. Set it aside.

In a small saucepan, warm the chicken stock and keep on low heat until ready to use.

Bring a quart of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add 1 tablespoon salt , and blanch the peas in the boiling water until they’re bright green and tender, about 3 minutes. Immediately strain out the peas (reserving the hot water for the other vegetables) and place them in the ice water. Let them cool for 2 minutes. Reserve the peas and repeat the same process with the fava beans (3 minutes in the boiling water) and the asparagus (3 minutes in the boiling water).  Place in ice water. Remove the favas from water after 3 minutes and remove the skins. Place skinned beans in a bowl and set aside.

Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, and add the onions. Season them lightly with salt and pepper, and sweat until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add the rice, and stir to coat with the butter. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes to “sear” the grain – this step will ensure that the risotto will have a bite to it. Deglaze the pan with the wine, and simmer until it has evaporated. Add the warm chicken stock, one 1/2 cup at a time. Stir continuously until the rice has absorbed the liquid, then add more stock. Continue this process for about 15 minutes, until 3 cups of the stock have been added and the risotto is tender. If necessary, continue cooking, adding the remaining chicken stock if the risotto starts to dry out. The risotto is ready when it’s al dente, with a thick and creamy consistency.

Stir in the blanched peas, fava beans, and asparagus, along with the scallions, Parmesan, remaining 1 tablespoon of butter, lemon juice and zest. Check the seasoning, and add more salt and pepper if necessary. Place the risotto in individual bowls, ladle the beef broth around it, top with additional Parmesan, and serve.

Evidence from the land of quaint, cute and antique stores galore: a French wire ferris wheel egg server from the late 1800’s. Now at the very top of my list of “things I really, really want but absolutely do not need”. Out of control whimsy… je t’aime!

blum’s coffee crunch cake

Like most people who love to cook, I have an ongoing list of dishes I’d like to make one day. My list consists of various items found in magazines and cookbooks, classics that I have yet to tackle (like osso bucco and fresh pasta), things that I’ve eaten in restaurants that I want to recreate at home, and old family favorites. Now that I’m an adult I realize how fortunate I am to come from a family that loves food. My paternal grandparents were wonderful cooks. Because of them and their love for preparing delicious meals for their family, I really do appreciate a good home-cooked meal and homemade desserts.

My grandma’s coffee crunch cake is one of those family favorites that I’ve wanted to make for quite some time now. I think it might have been one of the best things I ate as a child. Who wouldn’t like a three layer cake covered in whipped cream and toffee? I know I’ve mentioned my grandma and her amazing baking before, but I just cannot say it enough – she was everyone’s favorite baker in her day. And now that she’s well into her 80’s, she’s become my favorite taster. If she says likes something that I’ve made, I know in my heart I’ve got a winner on my hands because she is not the kind of woman who just throws around compliments, especially when it comes to food.

A few weeks ago, while having dinner with Grandma, I mentioned that I wanted to make her coffee crunch cake and asked if she still had the recipe.  To my surprise she said she did (my mom always talks about the way Grandma could bake without even measuring ingredients so I fear that some recipes will be lost forever). And then she mentioned Blum’s. I didn’t realize what she was saying at first but then it became clear to me; the coffee crunch cake that I grew up with was actually an adaptation of Blum’s famous coffee crunch cake. Blum’s was a bakery in the heart of San Francisco’s Union Square (there were other Blum’s shops around San Francisco and also in Berkeley and Palo Alto). It was the kind of place where people would go after a long day of shopping at Macy’s or I. Magnin (the ladies who lunch set of those days likely frequented Blum’s). My grandma was born and raised in San Francisco and I can imagine her and my Great-Auntie Teiko going to Blum’s and eating coffee crunch cake. Unfortunately, Blum’s closed in the 70’s but their famous cake lives on in a few bakeries in San Francisco, including Yasukochi’s Sweet Stop in Japantown.

A few days after our dinner, I had a photocopied newspaper clipping with Blum’s recipe in my possession. After reviewing the recipe I realized that the individual elements of the cake are quite simple – sponge cake, whipped cream and a toffee like topping. Together, however, they create the most magnificent confection. It is the perfect combination of light, airy, creamy, crunchy and sticky with just the faintest lemony vanilla flavor. This cake is what the sweetest of dreams are made of. It’s the kind of cake that would’ve inspired a Wayne Thiebaud painting, full of old world charm and elegance. When I brought the cake to our last family dinner, I can’t describe to you how pleased my grandma was – she said she couldn’t believe I made it. I could see the pride on her face when everyone ooh’d and ahhh’d as it was being served. It was a delightful experience, for myself and for all of the other coffee crunch cake fans. As Grandma says, it was just delicious.

blum’s coffee crunch cake

from Flo Braker

serves 10-12


1 -1/4 cups cake flour, sifted

1-1/2 cups sugar, divided

1/2 teaspoon salt

6 egg yolks

1/4 cup water

1 cup egg whites (6-8 large eggs)

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

coffee crunch topping:

unflavored vegetable oil

1 tablespoon baking soda, sifted

1/4 cup strong brewed coffee

1-1/2 cups sugar

1/4 cup light corn syrup


2 cups heavy cream

2 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla

for the cake:

Adjust rack in the lower third of oven;  preheat to 350°F. Sift flour, 3/4 cup sugar, and salt onto a sheet of wax paper; set aside.

Using an electric mixer, beat egg yolks with 1/4 cup sugar until thick and pale yellow. Add water and beat until thickened, about 4 minutes.

Whisk egg whites in bowl of a heavy-duty mixer just until frothy. Add cream of tartar; whisk until soft peaks form. Add remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a steady  stream, whisking until thicker, stiffer, glossy peaks form – about 2 to 3 minutes. Whisk in vanilla, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Pour yolk mixture over whites. Fold together with a rubber spatula. Sprinkle a third of the flour mixture over the egg mixture; fold to combine. Repeat two more times just until ingredients are incorporated. Gently pour batter into an ungreased 10-inch round tube pan with a removable bottom (such as an angel food pan). Level top with a spatula.

Bake for 50 to 55 minutes, or until top springs back slightly when lightly touched. Invert pan over a long-necked bottle to cool for about 45 minutes.

To  remove cake from pan, slip a flexible metal spatula down one side of pan; slowly trace perimeter to release the cake. When sides are free, push up on bottom to release cake. Tilt cake with removable bottom still attached, and gently tap bottom against counter to loosen cake. Rotate cake, tapping a few more times, until it appears free. Cover cake with a rack and invert; remove bottom of pan.

for the coffee crunch topping:

Generously oil a large baking sheet or line with a silicon mat or parchment paper; sift baking soda onto a sheet of wax paper; set nearby.

Combine coffee, sugar and corn syrup in a heavy, 4-quart saucepan. Place over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until sugar dissolves. When mixture is clear and begins to boil, increase heat to medium-high; cook until mixture reaches 290°F on a candy thermometer. Toward end of cooking (around 270°-280°), stir occasionally to prevent mixture from scorching and becoming too foamy. Remove from heat and stir in baking soda (mixture will foam up fiercely). While still foaming, pour out onto prepared baking sheet. Do not spread; let cool undisturbed for at least 1 hour.

Crush into very small pieces. (Place between two sheets of wax paper or inside a freezer size ziplock bag and tap with a rolling pin). Store in an airtight container.

for the frosting:

Combine cream, sugar and vanilla. Whisk until cream holds soft peaks.

to assemble:

Slice cooled cake into 3 equal layers using a serrated knife. Spread whipped cream between each layer, carefully stacking layers. Spread remaining whipped cream over the top and sides of cake. Refrigerate.

Just before serving, generously sprinkle top and sides with the coffee crunch.

***Update 6/10/2012: I hadn’t revisited this post in over two years and just realized that there was a discrepancy in the instructions involving the amounts of sugar being added to the cake batter. It has been corrected. Huge apology to anyone that experienced issues with this. 

the zuni roast chicken with bread salad

The perfect roast chicken is hard to come by. I’ve tried many over the years, in restaurants and at home, and while some of them were pretty good, there was never a roast chicken that I considered to die for. All of that changed, of course, the first time I had the Zuni Roast Chicken.

Whenever I meet up with my very dear friend Lee, who just so happens to live steps away from Zuni Cafe, there is always the temptation to sneak downstairs for a bite to eat.  Because the most perfect roast chicken on the planet lives there. The Zuni roast chicken with bread salad is somewhat of an icon. It is a permanent fixture on a menu that changes daily. It’s the dish you recommend to friends who are visiting from out of town or going to Zuni for the first time. It tops the list of 100 Things to Try Before You Die compiled by San Francisco’s 7×7 magazine. People who have had it are a little crazy about it and love to talk about it. All of this is completely warranted.

You’re probably thinking to yourself, what is so special about this chicken? Let me indulge you. It’s a whole bird, perfectly browned and crisp, carved and served on a bed of this insanely delicious bread salad with red mustard greens. Every piece of chicken is incredibly moist and flavorful. And the bread salad alone is simply divine; it’s the perfect combination of crispy and chewy, scattered with pine nuts and currants, and lightly dressed with a simple vinaigrette and drippings from the chicken. It is the perfect meal. If you go to Zuni with the intention of having the chicken, it’s recommended that you let your waiter know as soon as you sit down since it takes about an hour for the bird to roast (while you’re waiting, have a martini, the Caesar salad and some oysters on the half shell).

I’d been wanting to try my hand at making the chicken at home ever since I found out that the recipe is in the Zuni Cafe Cookbook. At first sight, it’s intimidating, and long and appears to be a bit laborious. In actuality, laborious is not the word. The chicken itself is surprisingly quite easy to make. BUT, it requires preparing and salting the bird for at least a day or two prior to roasting, which might deter someone who isn’t used to planning meals that far in advance.

After having drinks at Lee’s last week and passing up the opportunity to have the chicken downstairs, I decided it was finally my time to give it a go. I found my tiny 2.97 pound chicken from Soul Food Farm and started salting. And waiting. Initially, I was a bit apprehensive. How could I possibly replicate that perfect chicken from the restaurant? But when this gorgeous bird came out of my oven, all of my doubts melted away. As it turns out, when you follow the recipe, step by step, word for word, anything is possible.  The success I had really is a testament to how well this cookbook is written. As my sister and I cleaned our plates of chicken and bread salad on Easter morning, I felt extremely satisfied and victorious.

zuni roast chicken with bread salad

from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers

serves 2 to 4

for the chicken:

one small chicken, 2-3/4 to 3-1/2 lbs. Don’t substitute a jumbo roaster – it will be too lean and wont tolerate the high heat

4 tenders sprigs fresh thyme, marjoram, rosemary or sage, about 1/2 inch long


about 1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

A little water

Seasoning the chicken  (1-3 days before serving; at least 2 days for 3-1/4 to 3-1/2 pound chicken) :

Remove and discard the lump of fat inside the chicken. Rinse the chicken and pat very dry inside and out. Be thorough or the chicken will not brown properly.

Slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making 2 little pockets. Use the tip of your finger to loosen a pocket of skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh. Using your finger, shove an herb sprig into each of the 4 pockets.

Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper (use 3/4 teaspoon sea salt per pound of chicken).  Season the thick sections a little more heavily than the skinny ankles and wings. Sprinkle a little of the salt just inside the cavity, on the backbone, but don’t worry otherwise about seasoning the inside. Twist and tuck the the wing tips behind the shoulders. Cover loosely and refrigerate.

Roasting the chicken:

Preheat the oven to 475°F. Choose a shallow flameproof pan or dish barely larger than the chicken. Preheat the pan over medium heat. Pat the chicken dry and place breast side up in the pan. It should sizzle.

Place in the center of the oven and listen and watch for it to start sizzling and browning within 20 minutes. If it doesn’t, raise the temperature progressively until is does. The skin should blister, but if the chicken begins to char or the fat is smoking, reduce the temperature by 25 degrees. After about 30 minutes, turn the bird over (drying the bird and preheating the pan should keep the skin from sticking). Roast for another 10-20 minutes depending on size, then flip back over to recrisp the breast skin, another 5-10 minutes. Total oven time will be 45 minutes to an hour.

Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off heat. Lift the chicken from the roasting pan and set on a plate. Carefully pour the clear fat from the roasting pan, leaving the lean drippings behind. Add about a tablespoon of water to the hot pan and swirl it.

Slash the stretched skin between the thighs and breasts of chicken, the tilt the bird and plate over the roasting pan to drain the juice into the drippings. Set the chicken in a warm spot (which may be your stovetop), and leave to rest. The meat will become more tender and uniformly succulent as it cools.

for the bread salad:

8 ounces slightly stale open-crumbed, chewy, peasant style bread (not sourdough)

6 to 8 tablespoons mild-tasting olive oil

1-1/2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar

salt and freshly cracked black pepper

1 tablespoon dried currants

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon warm water

2 tablespoons pine nut, toasted

2 to 3 garlic cloves, slivered

1/4 cup slivered scallions (about 4 scallions), including a little of the green part

2 tablespoons lightly salted chicken stock or lightly salted water

a few handfuls of arugula, frisée, or red mustard greens, carefully washed and dried

Preparing the bread salad (up to several hours in advance):

Preheat the broiler. Cut the bread into a couple of large chunks. Carve off all of the bottom crust and most of the top and side crust. Brush the bread all over with olive oil. Broil very briefly to crisp and lightly color the surface. Turn the bread chunks over and crisp the other side. Trim off any badly charred tips, then tear the chunks into a combination of irregular 2- to 3-inch wads, bite-sized bits, and fat crumbs. You should get about 4 cups.

Combine about 1/4 cup of the olive oil with the Champagne or white wine vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Toss about 1/4 cup of this vinaigrette with the torn bread in a wide salad bowl; the bread will be unevenly dressed. Taste one of the more saturated pieces. If it is bland, add a little salt and pepper and toss again.

Place the currants in a small bowl and moisten with the red wine vinegar and warm water. Set aside.

Place a spoonful of olive oil in a small skillet, add the garlic and scallions, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until softened. Don’t let them color. Scrape into the bread and fold to combine. Drain the plump currants and fold in. Add the toasted pine nuts. Dribble the chicken stock or lightly salted water over the salad and fold again. Taste a few pieces of bread – a fairly saturated one and a dryish one. If it is bland, add salt, pepper, and/or a few drops of vinegar and toss well.

Pile the bread salad in a 1-quart baking dish and tent with foil; set the salad bowl aside. Place the salad in the oven after you flip the chicken the final time, about 10 minutes.

With the drippings from the chicken:

Place the roasting pan over medium-low heat, add any juices that have collected under the chicken, and bring to a simmer. Stir and scrape to soften any hard golden drippings.

Transfer the bread salad back into the salad bowl. (It will be steamy-hot, a mixture of soft, moist wads, crispy-on-the-outside-but-moist-in-the-middle-wads, and a few downright crispy ones.) Drizzle and toss with a spoonful of pan juices. Add the greens, a drizzle of vinaigrette, and fold well. Taste again.

To serve:

Set a platter in the hot oven for a minute or two.

Cut the chicken into pieces, spread the bread salad on the warm platter, and nestle the chicken in the salad.