Archive for February, 2010

Anticipating Cherry Blossoms

Friday, February 19th, 2010
Cherry Blossoms in Tokyo

Hanami - Cherry Blossom Time in Tokyo, Japan

When we lived in Tokyo, Japan, we learned about “hanami”, cherry blossom viewing – an annual tradition. Weeks in advance, estimates of when the cherry blossoms will bloom are published so gazers can schedule their viewing. Throngs of people descend on their favorite viewing patches, stake out their territory and picnic beneath the blossoms. It’s a beautiful ritual that signals spring – but it’s also fleeting, since cherry blossoms come and go very quickly. The story goes that Japanese samurai chose the cherry blossom as their symbol because cherry blossoms fall from the tree at the peak of their beauty… a reminder that life is fleeting. If you’re feeling philosophical, check out someĀ thoughts on cherry blossoms, grace and dignity!

You can probably tell from the picture above that people are enjoying picnics and camaraderie beneath the beautiful trees. You probably can’t tell that they are actually in a cemetery – this cemetery happens to be known as a great place for hanami. This is some of what the surrounding area looks like…


Hanami - Cherry Blossom Viewing in a Tokyo Cemetery


Hanami - Cherry Blossom Viewing in a Tokyo Cemetery

At first, picnicing in a cemetery might seem strange – but on second thought, it seems just right. Sitting among your ancestors, enjoying a meal with the people you love – how perfect.

So what made me think about hanami in Tokyo seven years ago? On the trail near my house where I take my walks, the cherry trees are blooming. The pictures above from Japan were taken in April 2003, this one below in California was taken yesterday (February).

Cherry Blossoms Pleasant Hill, CA

Hanami - Cherry Blossoms in Pleasant Hill, CA

Just as in Japan, these blossoms are a signal of spring and renewal here, too. We had a few lovely sunny days with temperatures in the mid-60s, and it just makes me ready for the warmth. We always get a little teaser like this in February and, like the cherry blossoms, it’s fleeting. Today we are back to clouds and imminent rain, but I know we’re not too far away from sunshine, warmth and lots more blooms. Maybe this year we’ll have some picnics too, and we will most definitely have some cherries.


Cherry Blossoms Today...

Fresh Cherries

...Mean Fresh Cherries This Summer! Photo from National Geographic, by Taylor Kennedy

Wherever you are, I hope spring and renewal are right around the corner for you, too.

Happy gazing,

Strawberries Romanoff… mmmm

Monday, February 15th, 2010

Strawberries Romanoff

Strawberries Romanoff - Ready for Strawberry Season

Happy belated Valentine’s Day! While this recipe is a little too late for Valentine’s Day – I decided to write this post as I was making Strawberries Romanoff for our Valentine’s Day dessert last night – it’s in plenty of time for strawberry season. Strawberries Romanoff is a simple dessert, quick and easy, with big results. It’s made with fresh strawberries, orange juice, orange liqueur, sugar and cream, and its origins are uncertain – maybe it was created by French chef extraordinaire Marie Antoine Careme (1784 – 1833), or perhaps it was French chef Georges Auguste Escoffier (1846 – 1935). I’m just glad one of them thought of it, and that I learned about it during my Australia cheffing days. I don’t have exact measurements for this “recipe” – it’s really up to you and your tastebuds, and how many people you are serving. There are three simple steps – first, marinate the strawberries; second, whip the cream; and finally, assemble – oh, then take the credit!

1. Marinate the Strawberries: quarter some strawberries into a bowl and add a little sugar, depending on the sweetness of the berries. Add a few splashes of orange liqueur (I use Grand Marnier), and then enough orange juice to almost cover the berries. Taste the mixture and make adjustments – if there is too much liqueur, add more orange juice, etc. Let the berries marinate for an hour or two.

2. Whip the cream: when it’s time to serve, add a little sugar and vanilla to heavy cream and whip to very soft peaks – in fact, they’re not even really peaks, they’re sort of pillowy, rolling hills. This step can be done at the same time the berries are cut to marinate – just keep the cream in the refrigerator until service and, if necessary, give it a few whisks right before using it.

3. Assemble: add a little of the cream to the bottom of a serving dish, top with strawberries and a little of the marinating liquid, then top with more of the cream and finish with strawberries and a little more marinating liquid.

This is a delicate, light (in taste and texture!) dessert that finishes off a meal with elegance.

I think all of February is the month of love, so make Strawberries Romanoff even if it’s not Valentine’s Day, and enjoy!


Cakes I’ve Known and Loved (for the most part)

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Bountiful Life

Bountiful Life Wedding Cake

To commemorate my birthday (today!), I thought I would put up a gallery of cakes I’ve made over the years. Some are better than others and there’s a little bit of everything – buttercream, fondant, gum paste flowers, fresh flowers, marzipan teddy bears, marzipan fruits, chocolate cakes, wedding cakes and birthday cakes for little ones and big ones. Many of these were done before I had a digital camera, so the pictures had to be scanned into digital format. And, once I got better at making these cakes and owned a digital camera, I apparently decided to stop taking photos of them. I mean where are Gracie’s butterfly cake, and my mom’s 80th birthday cake, and Vi’s 90th birthday cake, and Maddie’s life-size 3D soccer ball cake?! Maybe they’re just legends in my own mind, but I recall that those were all pretty special.

Christmas Cakes

Christmas Cakes

The poinsettia cakes were made the Christmas after we moved home from Australia and New Zealand. All of my specialty cake making equipment and books had been stolen with the rest of our sea shipment. Yes, the shipment made it from the shores of New Zealand to California and onto the delivery truck, and then the truck was stolen about 30 miles from my house. After I stopped crying, I thought that making the poinsettia cakes for my neighbors at Christmas would be a good way to start re-collecting what I had lost. Can you imagine the looks on the faces of the shipment stealers, their mouths watering over dreams of stereo equipment and TVs, only to find baking dishes, cookbooks and gum paste flower-making equipment? Serves ‘em right, but I’m over it – I swear (well, it’s only been about 13 years – I might need just a little more time).

Wedding Cakes

Wedding Cakes!

I guess there was a purple and pink phase in wedding cake couture. The Bountiful Life wedding cake with marzipan fruits pictured at the top of this post was an original I first made in pastry school. I entered it into competition at the Sydney Salon Culinaire – a massive food show in Australia. The executive chef I worked for at the time was a big German man, and he couldn’t really feel the California vibe of that cake. Much to the surprise of lots of people, that cake won the silver medal going up against very traditional British-style (and beautifully executed) wedding cakes. Winning that silver medal was fun, but getting the cake to the competition in the back of a cab almost killed me.

Kid's Birthday Cakes

Cakes for the Little Kiddies

Birthday Cakes

... And Cakes for the Big Kiddies

For the record, I only spent a short time of my career (about 1 year) actually working as a cake decorator. These cakes were all made for friends and family. If you want to be inspired, check out the book Cakes in Bloom by Anna von Marburg – it’s incredible.

One last thought about that stolen sea shipment – we were still in New Zealand when we got word that the shipment was “gone”. My husband, knowing I was crushed, arranged for us to fly home via Sydney (that’s the opposite direction from California when you’re leaving from Wellington, New Zealand!). We had one day in Sydney to visit a few book shops and replace some of the special (to me) items I had lost. I didn’t have the Bountiful Life cake at my wedding – I was married before the “official” pastry phase of my life. But, as I take this birthday to reflect on the name of that cake, it fits.

Happy Birthday to all of you February babies out there!


Do You Speak “(La Cucina) Italiana”?

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010
La Cucina Italiana

Somewhere along the way, I wound up with a copy of “La Cucina Italiana” magazine. Then, I actually read it – that hooked me, and now I’m a subscriber. The magazine has been in print since 1929, and I can see why. Beautiful pictures, enticing recipes and, well, Italy! Apparently I have no Italian heritage, but I sure feel Italian when I eat pasta, slather the garlic around and drink Italian wine… I think something must be missing from the family tree.

For last Sunday’s dinner I made the cover recipe, Stufato di Vitello e Verdure (Veal Soup with Vegetables). The recipe is generously shared, along with many others, on the magazine’s website. The soup was hearty, flavorful and easy to make – even easier since I left out the last few steps of separating out the meat and vegetables, removing the broth to another pot, melting butter in the original pot and stirring flour into that, then adding the broth back to thicken and, finally, adding the meat and vegetables back to the thickened broth – phew! I was too lazy (and hungry), but I don’t think I suffered for it – in fact, it was so good I made a 2.5 times batch on Monday night for a group of 9 at the parish house.

This magazine will nudge me out of my regular patterns a bit – always a good thing. I’ve never cooked with veal stew meat before and I didn’t love the process of butchering it into smaller pieces. It was a lot like working with slippery chicken, only more slippery! Or like cutting silk fabric with a butter knife! Or like… well, nevermind. The veal was very tender in the soup, and I decided that the penance of butchering in the beginning had a nice reward in the end. My husband was ogling the Vellutata di Zucca con Cozze (Butternut Squash Puree with Mussels) picture, so I’ll have to try that soon. I also enjoyed the article about Brunello di Montalcino wines – except my husband now says the few Brunello bottles we have must age more before we can drink them. Hmmm… I may have to hide future issues until I can vet them properly – chopping the veal was penance enough!

Buon Appetito,