Entries from May 20th, 2010

A Breath, and Then A Step Forward

May 20th, 2010 · 44 Comments · Personal


Dear readers,

This is it…two days from now I'll be walking down the aisle, and I'll officially become Mrs. Pastrygirl. Or I suppose you can call my fiance Mr. Pastrygirl from now on!

I'll be away from Dessert First for the next couple of weeks – we're not going on honeymoon just yet, but we will be taking some time off to, well, just be married! If you send me any e-mails, I hope you'll bear with me until I come back!

When I was looking through readings we might want to use for our ceremony, I came across this piece by Robert Fulghum. We ended up not choosing it, but it resonated with me all the same:

"You have known each other from the first glance of acquaintance to this point of commitment. At some point, you decided to marry. From that moment of yes to this moment of yes, indeed, you have been making promises and agreements in an informal way. All those conversations that were held riding in a car or over a meal or during long walks – all those sentences that began with “When we’re married” and continued with “I will and you will and we will”- those late night talks that included “someday” and “somehow” and “maybe”- and all those promises that are unspoken matters of the heart. All these common things, and more, are the real process of a wedding. The symbolic vows that you are about to make are a way of saying to one another, “ You know all those things we’ve promised and hoped and dreamed- well, I meant it all, every word.” Look at one another and remember this moment in time. Before this moment you have been many things to one another- acquaintance, friend, companion, lover, dancing partner, and even teacher, for you have learned much from one another in these last few years. Now you shall say a few words that take you across a threshold of life, and things will never quite be the same between you. For after these vows, you shall say to the world, this- is my husband, this- is my wife."

Surely, as one of the most popular subjects of the written word, marriage has received more than its fair share of paeans, acclamations, and criticism as well. I felt a little silly composing this post, well aware that I am not the first person in the universe to fall in love and get married! But, as they say, reading and knowing is different from the actual experience. As the week of preparations winds down, imbued with an ever-fluctuating stream of happiness, nostalgia, anticipation, joy, and melancholy, I find myself thinking not just of my own wedding, but of all the other unions that have happened before, and will happen in the future. When I get married on Sunday, I'll be partaking in a shared human experience. It's hard to explain but it makes me feel small yet exultant at the same time, like walking into a church with the light falling just so through stained-glass windows, or watching fireworks unfurl in a deep cobalt sky, or being part of a joyous crowd at a concert. You know you are participating in something bigger than you, adding your own thread to the tapestry of human emotion.

An already-married friend told me, "When you turn around after getting married to walk out, wait for a few moments and take a look to remember everyone who came to share in this with you. Everyone looks so happy for you…it's the most wonderful thing." The same happiness that has resonated at every wedding in history, that universe-affirming joy – the moments that remind us why we're all here on earth.

It's my turn. I can't wait, and I thank you all for sharing in this with me.

I'll see you on the other side.

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{SF} Taste of the Nation – The Best from SF's Chefs

May 13th, 2010 · 1 Comment · Events, San Francisco


Organizing the the San Francisco Food Bloggers' Bake Sale was not only hugely fun, but also made me (and all the other participants) feel good about helping out Share our Strength. I was further impressed by the breadth of Share Our Strength's fundraising efforts when I learned they also organize a series of culinary benefits around the country called Taste of the Nation.

In about 40 cities around the US and Canada, Taste of the Nation pulls together chefs, wine professionals, and other sponsors to put on a night of mouthwatering food, creative cocktails, music, and fun. All the proceeds from ticket sales go to Share Our Strength, just as with the bake sale.


I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to attend Taste of the Nation San Francisco a couple weeks ago courtesy of Foodbuzz, and I was able to give away an extra ticket to one lucky reader, Allison, who seemed to be enjoying the party as much as I was when I saw her! Taste of the Nation San Francisco took place in AT&T Park, our city's beautiful modern baseball stadium. The club level of the stadium had been transformed into a hall of delights, with chefs from San Francisco's restaurants offering up scrumptious little tidbits and mixologists pouring out some crazy libations! It was like a big, all-you-can-eat buffet dressed up as a an elegant cocktail party – with a thumpin, funk-and-disco tinged soundtrack to book (the fiance wanted me to make sure I gave props to the excellent DJ).


Calabrian salame crostino by barbacco.

I've been on a bit of a food-event bender lately, as I'm sure some of you have noticed, and in my stuffed-full-belly's opinion, Taste of the Nation was a real winner. I may be a little biased since SF is my hometown, but I thought the creativity and artistry displayed by so many local chefs just as, if not even better, than what I saw at bigger events like Pebble Beach, which showcased celebrity chefs from around the country. San Franciscans are fiercely proud of their food culture, and justifiably so after what I tasted that night.

The best part of the having local chefs as well is that if you love their food, their restaurant is right in town so there's no excuse not to have more of it! The fiance and I were able to get little tastes of some of our favorite restaurants we've been to and ones we've been meaning to go to. All the chefs were also very friendly and enthusiastic – definitely prepared for a food-savvy audience and eager to bring new customers to their places.


Smuggler's Cove, a bar in SF which resembles a cross between Pirates of the Caribbean and a mai tai lounge, was serving up some of their signature rum-based drinks.

Some of the most memorable dishes for me included: Paragon Restaurant's smoked cod and corn chowder (the portions at this event were quite generous; I could have filled up on this gloriously thick chowder alone!); Slow Club's duck rillettes with red onion and kumquat marmalades (now on the top of my list of restaurants to go to);  Aziza's chicken liver mousse topped with strawberries and balsamic (decadence perfectly executed); and Piperade's egg salad with marinated sardines (so fresh and flavorful).


Duck rillettes from Slow Club.

This shot of marinated sardines on chopped egg salad is a little out of focus because I was drooling too much to keep a steady hand on the camera.

Of course I also had to check out the sweet offerings, which didn't disappoint: a shot of Valrhona chocolate pot de creme bliss, topped with a pistachio macaron, from Mayfield Bakery; cute little mini cones of pomegranate martini sorbet and creamsicle martini ice cream from Silver Moon (they were auctioning off a chance to create your own custom ice cream flavor at the event!); and Elizabeth Faulkner's rainbow of macarons, in raspberry, dulce du leche, and blood orange.


Chocolate pots de creme with pistachio macarons from Mayfield Bakery.

The Taste of the Nation event was three hours long – seems like plenty of time to pace oneself but due to all the food being so tasty and the portion size so generous I felt like I would burst! Fortunately we were able to slip outside, relax for a bit, and sip a beer underneath the stars, enjoying the cool San Francisco air and the slightly clandestine thrill of being in a mostly-empty ballpark.

Elizabeth Faulkner's crayon-bright macarons.

If it wouldn't have been the most gauche thing ever I would have totally brought some takeout containers and taken away some of the leftovers for later! However the event appeared to be a rousing success as several chefs ran out of food and shut down their stations before official closing time! I thought this was one of the best-run events I 9;d been to in a while – plenty of happy, well-dressed people but not overcrowded; beautifully crafted food and the chance to learn more about many of the stars of the SF dining scene, and the knowledge that everyone there was contributing to the same cause. I had a great time if Taste of the Nation comes around to your part of town, I think you'd have a fab time as well! See Taste of the Nation page for more information, and note you can also sign up to volunteer at the events!

Disclosure: I was given two tickets from Foodbuzz to attend Taste of the Nation San Francisco.

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365 Tomorrows Later

May 4th, 2010 · 30 Comments · Personal


There is a quote, “Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday.” Kind of puts all the late-night existential fretting in perspective, doesn’t it? Or perhaps I’m just lucky. Today was my birthday, and I knew yesterday it would be a wonderful tomorrow, with well wishes from family and friends from near and afar.

I’ve had many good tomorrows in the last year: a second book published, a house purchased, new blogosphere friends made, old friendships rekindled.

And I’m earnestly, resolutely hopeful that there will be many more good tomorrows to come. After all, my wedding is just a few short weeks away.

The best part of today? The fiance and I went to pick up our wedding bands, and as we rolled their smooth, cool weightiness over our palms, he murmured, “I can’t wait to put this on.”

Ladies, if you find a guy who’s willing to say that about a wedding ring, I say, hold on that one.

I haven’t been able to carve out the space to bake more than the basics, but for my birthday I made myself a little tart: a buttery, orange-scented crust speckled with raspberries, then filled with a framboise-kissed chocolate ganache. It’s a combination I’ve loved and I’ll love for days to come.

Thanks to all of you for sharing in Dessert First with me. I look forward to many more sweet tomorrows with you!

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Where Strawberries Come From

May 2nd, 2010 · 12 Comments · Events



Ok, a couple weeks late, but I wanted to do a recap of my visit to the land of strawberries – or, at least, the next best place – Cassin Ranch in Watsonville, a producer of berries for Driscoll’s.

The plastic clamshells with the Driscoll’s label are a familiar sight in grocery stores in the Bay Area, but as they were “supermarket berries” I never gave much thought to where they came from. All that changed when I was offered a spot on a group tour of Cassin Ranch, where I’d get to learn about what goes into growing a perfectly succulent, luscious strawberry.

Cassin Ranch is located in Watsonville, just above Monterey, close enough to the ocean to receive the fog, ocean breezes, and chilly temperatures necessary to grow strawberries. Above is the stunning view of the foothills behind the ranch – so verdant and springlike!


Our hosts were Patrick, one of Driscoll’s berry farmers, and Phil, who works in Driscoll’s R&D developing new varieties of strawberries. Although Driscoll’s grows and sells strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries, the largest crop at Cassin Ranch is strawberries, so that was the berry we focused on that day.

Although the containers at the supermarket may just say “Strawberries”, there are in fact thousands of varieties of strawberries grown, and even more being cultivated and studied at Driscoll’s berry farms. Strawberry varieties are developed and chosen for several factors, including taste, shape, and shipping strength.

Phil (who, by the way, has one of the coolest job titles ever – Strawberry Breeding Manager), has the enviable task of taste-testing the results of his research. He says that he has tasted up to 180 berries a day, determining the ones that are most delicious (highly scientific criteria, he admits).

The fruits of his research were undeniable, though, in the gorgeous display of fresh-picked strawberries arranged for us to sample, every berry irresistibly ruddy, plump, and perfectly formed. Although different strawberry varieties are grown at Cassin Ranch, after harvest all the containers of berries are combined together, so which variety ends up at your store is unknown to the customer. However, at the ranch, where several varieties were presented separately for us, it was really easy to see the differences between them.

One of my favorites was the San Juan variety, a classic that’s been around for years, as Phil explained. They had the iconic strawberry shape, full and plump, tapering to a point without being too long or conical, and their taste was pure sweetness, the way I imagine strawberries taste when I’m missing them. (I asked Phil if there were specific terms for describing how different strawberry varieties taste, but he said no, so I don’t feel too bad for my less-than-technical descriptions!)

Another interesting one was the Takara variety, which was specially developed for the Japanese market. In accordance with their passion for aesthetics, the Japanese wanted a small, not too ripe berry that was very uniform in size and would not leak too much juice, for use in their desserts. Hey, there’s a market for those berries here too  – what about all of us bakers and dessert lovers in the US!

There were also mystery “test” varieties only labeled by code numbers, ones that might one day be selected to be grown commercially. It can take years for a test variety to make it from research garden to small test plot to being chosen to include in Driscoll’s crops – these people take the quality of their strawberries very seriously.


Another fascinating strawberry-in-progress was a white strawberry – it may look unripe but it tastes fresh and woodsy. Phil said they were developing this strawberry for a potential market in weddings and fancy events. Once you get over the fact that these aren’t anemic berries, I can see how they could add an unusual and elegant touch to a dessert presentation. Not available yet, though!

Patrick, a third generation berry farmer, stepped to elaborate on the strawberry growing process. Strawberries are planted every year to two years, a selection of varieties based on the farm location and its weather and soil conditions. Patrick and other farmers must constantly monitor the changing environment to determine how the plants are doing and make the appropriate adjustments.

Strawberries take about 30 days to mature. Then, they are handpicked in the field and packed directly into the clamshell containers. Patrick offered a tip to picking strawberries – snap, don’t pull. He figured that on average a field workers is able to pick 6 1/2 to 7 cratefuls of strawberries in containers per hour. The fastest Patrick has seen is 20 crates an hour – that’s amazing! To ensure that quality does not suffer, the containers of strawberries are inspected after they have been moved to the chiller to make sure they are the correct weight and also do not have damaged berries.

Chilling strawberries after they are picked helps extend their shelf life. Strawberries you pick up from the store should last at least a week in the fridge without going bad. We took home a pack of strawberries from the ranch that had likely been picked that very morning; I noticed that they definitely stayed fresher for longer in our refrigerator. If only I lived a little closer to the ranch…


We also got to see some of the raspberry plants at the ranch. A lone red raspberry nestling among the leaves. At right, Phil and Patrick, our uber-gracious hosts, pose for a photo.

I left the ranch happy to have learned a little behind the boxes of strawberries I see in the supermarket, and impressed at the passion of Phil and Patrick for their berries. Although I love strawberries, I’ve not devoted my life to understanding and caring for these wonderful little berries like they have, and it’s nice to know that thanks to them and thousands of others like them, we’ll keep getting these beautiful little fruits to enjoy!


Strawberry fields forever. Thanks to Driscoll’s and Cassin Ranch for letting us get a peek at where strawberries come from!


At part of the invitation to visit Cassin Ranch, I was also generously offered the chance to attend the Grand Tasting at the annual Pebble Beach Food and Wine, just down the road in Monterey.

The third iteration of this foodie-and-oenophile event was chock-a-block with wines from around the world and renowned chefs cooking up delectable bites to sample. The tasting tent was overwhelmingly flush with the sounds of music, wine being poured, and sizzling pans.


Angela Pinkerton of Eleven Madison Park’s strawberry and rhubarb with buttermilk sorbet and black pepper; soft shell crabs being prepared for Paul Bartolotta (Bartolotta di Mare)’s dish with octopus salad.

There are already plenty of writeups for Food and Wine, so I won’t repeat them, just say that if you’ve got the spare cash it’s definitely worth trying out once – especially if you’re a wine lover. There were so many wines there it was impossible to try them all in the three-hour event, especially if you’re trying to focus on running around sampling all the food. It also helps if you know a little about wine or what particular wineries or styles you’re interested in. I am a huge dessert wine fan (surprise!), and these were a few of my favorites there:


Far Niente 2005 Dolce – A Napa winery that decided to solely dedicate part of its vineyards to creating a late harvest wine. Dolce is the local answer to Sauternes or Tokaji, a lush mix of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, with citrus and peach notes, pleasantly thick but not overly syrupy.

Grgich Hills 2006 Violetta – I’ve been waiting for the Violetta to return since the 2003 release, and this one is a beauty – like pure honey, with almonds and peaches. Ambrosial.

Jorge Ordonez 2005 Malaga Victoria – I haven’t had the chance to try many Spanish dessert wines – there’s a lot of orange and caramel to this one, and very, very sweet.

Tokaji Classic (Loradona Wine Cellars) – This classic dessert wine from Hungary hardly needs more effusive praises, but I was happy to find it being distributed by local Loradona Wine Cellars. Apparently one of the owners likes it so much he wanted to include it in his inventory. Always a pleasure to get a sip of this old favorite!


Disclosure: I visited Cassin Ranch and Pebble Beach Food and Wine as part of a press trip sponsored by Driscoll’s.

P.S. I forgot to mention that the winner of the Taste of the Nation ticket was Allison Daugherty – when I saw her at the event, she seemed to be having a great time! Another food and wine event I need to recap – I know, my life’s been so rough lately!:)


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