Thursday, March 25, 2010

SXSW: Eating like I'm on vacation

Since outgrowing Santa, the week of SXSW holds the closest thing to holiday magic I've found. When else does simply setting out to see a band lead to trekking under the impassive concrete of I-35, then coming out on the other side in the welcoming, green haven of the French Legation and finding a grassy spot directly behind Ira Glass? True 2009 story! 2010's French Legation story: I got a bad, patchy sunburn. Still, lots of good music. And though I may not be as nimble as this guy, I did eat pretty well this week:

SUNDAY: I made these Mexican wedding cookies for a potluck picnic held in honor of friends getting married next month. Later at the Austin360 Texas Social Media Awards, I was wishing I had some in my pocket. (P.S. I was there taking photos for work — no one would mistake me for a social media socialite. P.P.S. They're way too crumbly to go into a pocket.)

MONDAY: Free popsicles from an Ice Cream Man with an altruistic mission

TUESDAY: Margherita pizza from The Onion after seeing Skateland

WEDNESDAY: Nacho dog from Frank

THURSDAY: No time for fun. Work!

What beet home fries look like when you're standing with hungry friends.

FRIDAY: Making up for Thursday with Korean barbecue tacos from the Chilantro trailer, blackberry- and clementine-flavored Izze for the price of $free.99, more pizza from The Onion and, much later that night, sharing menu items one through four from the East Side King trailer: Thai chicken karaage, poor Qui's buns, beet home fries and fried Brussels sprout salad.

SATURDAY: Espinacas con garbanzos at home before seeing Peter Wolf Crier at End of an Ear, then Eddie V's for a birthday dinner that was such a good time, it lasted four hours.

This is the first year I've taken part in SXSW events in the early, pre-music part of the week. Thanks to an invite from Addie, I attended Austin360's Food Blogger Bash, where I talked with Austin food bloggers Birjis and Shelley and had that pineapple basil popsicle, which fell on the ground as I opened it. Dropping ice cream is normally heartbreaking, but because the spirit of SXSW makes everything good and fun free, in this case it was an opportunity to get another flavor: chili mango this time. I think I liked the taste of the first one a bit better, but the chili mango did go nicely with my (free!) Mexican martini.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Assembled, then quickly eaten

Vows were said, toasts were made and cake was eaten! And the three tiers even turned out looking the way I'd envisioned. I'd had this picture in my head for months, and I'll tell you what, it was pretty satisfying to pull it together and see it served and polished off.

It's a big cake for a big day, so although no one put real pressure on me, I did want to get everything just right. One small panic (of several) came the day after I baked the top layers when I realized too late that I should have strained the seeds from the puree — subbed with blackberry in this recipe. But I couldn't worry about it too much because the purple layers were already baked and the pans were due to be returned. By the way, the woman I rented them from at a shop called The Frosting took an opportunity to give me a life lesson. While recommending doubling the cake boards for the largest — and heaviest — cake, she said "You need a good foundation, just like in the home." That's right. In the home.

I have to say, the green tier brought mixed reactions. I heard one older guy say, "Hey, this is pretty good — despite its color." At least he didn't hear Miguel, my too-good-at-lying-with-a-straight-face boyfriend, convince a friend that it was lettuce cake. One particularly cute detail is that Caitlin got married in pale green shoes she picked out to match it!

It was the orange tier that proved to be trickiest. Being the widest, it had the most potential to crack in the middle and fall apart. After lots of flipping from one large, flat surface to another — we used all the good foundations we could find in our home — Miguel and I finally got them in place and covered with enough cream cheese frosting to fill a kiddie pool.

A note on that frosting: I'd tested two more traditional ones beforehand — a Swiss buttercream and a mousseline buttercream from The Cake Bible — and immediately knew they weren't right. With each of those, when I dipped in a fingertip for a taste, it was like eating sweetened butter — way too greasy. It wasn't far off from some frosting I've had at weddings, but it wouldn't do for what I wanted this to be. A fancy, thin-spreading slick of icing just isn't the right complement to a homestyle, naturally flavored cake. Fluffy cream cheese frosting totally is.

As fun as it was to take on the challenge of making a wedding cake, of course it was only one contribution to a magical night of celebrating friends. We filled fruit jars with champagne and talked and danced with friends who'd come back to town from Houston, Brooklyn, Seattle and the Rio Grande Valley. Two women — relatives, I think — who sliced the cake at Caitlin's parents' wedding 30 years ago took charge of slicing and serving, then we raised our jars for toasts and got to contra dancing. With so much love in the air, my heart couldn't help but swell a little.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

A cake for Naitlin, part 2

After separating approximately 70 eggs this week, I'm getting pretty good at it. No errant shells or broken yolks here! The wedding cake recipes require only egg whites, so in an effort not to let all those yolks go to waste, I've decided that green tea ice cream will be a byproduct of these cakes.

All the baking was finished late Tuesday night: I've made four 16-inch orange layers, two 10-inch matcha layers (not counting the one I was about to put in the oven when I realized I'd forgotten baking powder) and two very purple 6-inch blackberry layers. And I disassembled the inside of my freezer only partially to shoehorn all these things in there. Here's a warning that I read many times before starting this project but didn't heed: measure your oven and freezer!! It's only because of luck that mine can barely fit in things that are 16 inches across — I'd guess the oven must be 16.2 inches front to back. What would I have done otherwise? Panicked, that's what.

But that hasn't happened (yet), and in fact a lot of this project was done with great ease thanks to Melissa's borrowed KitchenAid, a library copy of The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum and this spreadsheet made by my friend Joanna.

The spreadsheet was a lifesaver. You see, unlike rice or meatballs or pretty much everything else edible, making a bigger cake isn't as simple as making more batter. Instead of just doubling the recipe, it must be scaled to the size of pan with — most direly — the right amount of baking powder. Beranbaum has spent years of her life perfecting charts for all kinds of baking situations, and her work on what she calls Special Occasion White Butter Cake really saved me from a lot of guessing. I should point out that she is a woman who, according to the book's introduction, wrote a masters dissertation on sifting flour for yellow cake, got an A+ for it, then dumped her boyfriend after he read it and told her the subject was trivial.

She's kind of like a teacher who says "look it up in the dictionary" when a kid asks about a big word. Beranbaum invites you into the madness that surely went into creating her charts by requiring you to do your own dang math for your particular size of pan. She has you refer to the chart to determine your pan size's "Rose factor," by which you multiply the ingredient amounts of the base recipe. However, I know Joanna. And Joanna knows Excel. And she embedded some formulas into some columns so that I had an ingredient list for each tier multiplied by the correct Rose factor. Then, she went the extra mile and figured out how much of each ingredient I'd need to buy, i.e. 84 tablespoons means I should pick up 11 sticks of butter. She's great.

So, to bring you fully up to date: the wedding is this afternoon! Right now, I have 96 ounces of cream cheese coming to room temperature so I can whip up the frosting, frost and box the layers, then take them over to the house where the wedding's being held. I'm hoping that's as easy as it sounds condensed into one sentence!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Around town: Call for kale

This much is true: Austin is full of people who would really rather not do things the regular way. And I happen to be interested in more than what comes out of my own kitchen — even while in the middle of a gigantic baking project. So, in an effort to return to the idea that this blog began with, I'm getting out of the kitchen and talking to folks with big ideas about the way they eat, share and grow food.

A new project I recently heard about fits this big-idea bill so perfectly that I had to pull out my reporter's notebook. Daily Juice is looking to make some of its fresh juices using organic kale grown in pretty much the most hyper-local origin possible: Austinites' back yards. Is that innovative or what?

The way it's planned, even those like me who aren't too confident in their growing ability can join in. Resolution Gardens is in the business of installing raised bed gardens to get folks started in growing all kinds of vegetables, and they can be hands-on (or -off) in maintaining the garden once it's going. They're pitching in by leading kale-planting seminars specifically for this effort.

Resolution Gardens plans to buy the harvest from growers all over town, then sell it to Daily Juice, where it could end up in a salad or be transformed into a Green Party smoothie, for example, by blending with organic celery, cucumber, romaine, spinach, parsley, cabbage and cilantro.

You can imagine how healthy a juice blend containing kale must be, and growing its main ingredient in a way that puts urban yard space to use and contributes to the local food infrastructure sounds pretty karmically healthy, too. The cool thing is that this is just the pilot phase of a larger idea: Resolution Gardens' founder, Randy Jewart (also of Austin Green Art), told me he's collecting info on cost and time and yield for kale crops during this planting season so that the whole plan can expand by this fall.

"If we're supplying kale for a juicing operation, we could supply other things they use," he said. "What we'd like to happen is we could have thousands of people growing things for lots of restaurants and small grocery stores. This is just the beginning."

Interested in playing farmer? Johnny Barnett, a green-thumbed guy I talked with at the farmers market last weekend, wants to hear from you: