Monday, January 31, 2011

"Capeando" with my Friend Frida K: Chiles Rellenos de Picadillo

Frida Kahlo: Mexican Woman, Artist & Great Cook

"A la nina no le gusta capear."  

"The girl doesn't like to batter things." 

I can almost imagine my grandmother saying that phrase to one of her girlfriends during afternoon coffee in Mexico City, shaking her head hopelessly and shrugging her shoulders, in reference to my mother, her youngest daughter.  It's an odd thing to think of, both because it probably never happened and because it's really such a shockingly unimportant thing to know how to, much less like, batter things.  And by "batter" I mean "battering" in the way that Mexican women know how, to create an endlessly fluffy mix of beaten egg whites and beaten egg yolks to coat various things and then fry them: Chiles Rellenos - stuffed peppers - are the most widely recognized and pertinent example here.

My mother hates battering things.  She hates getting her hands dirty, especially getting things under her nails - I inherited this trait, incidentally - and she also hates laborious, elaborate cooking.  So whenever I brought up making chiles rellenos and how to do it I usually got the same conclusive response after an elaborate explanation on method:

" Es una friega capear."

"It is a pain in the ass to batter things."

Fair enough.  We all have things we hate to do in the kitchen: I hate using double baths to melt chocolate, I hate having to put things in ice baths (seems so pointless when you can just run them under cold water), and I hate pouring powdered sugar into a bowl because it's impossible not to be dusted with a cloud of it.  I am very paranoid about over-beating whipped cream, buttercream icing, and am usually too lazy to refrigerate or wrap things in plastic wrap as often or quickly as I should.  So I don't blame my mother for having her battering issues.

But actually, I don't really think that the "capeando" part of making Chiles Rellenos is the hardest or most "pain in the ass" part of the whole rigmarole.  For me it's the roasting and peeling.  I hate roasting Poblano peppers (or any peppers for that matter), because I truly hate peeling the charred skin off the peppers once I'm done.  It's messy, it's never as easy as the recipes say it will be, and it's the step that always gets skipped on instructional videos.  Sure, wouldn't it be nice if a bowl of roasted, peeled, de-seeded and de-veined Poblano peppers just magically appeared next to your chopping board like in those videos?  Yeah - that's never gonna happen.

For these reasons, among others, we almost never had Chiles Rellenos at home.  In fact, the only times we ever had them was when we went out to eat at Pancho's, and that was almost never (I still maintain Pancho's has the best ever sopapillas and truly applaud the "raise & lower the mini Mexican flag on your table" method as a great way of quickly getting service from waiters).  Plus I always got given a hard time if I wanted to order them because nobody else in my family even really liked them.  It was a hard knock life, what can I tell you?

Anyway, dammit, today I was feeling homesick and determined to have some Chiles Rellenos if it killed me.  I decided that in my mother's absence (despite not liking to make them, she does know how) I would pull out the next best thing in culinary terms - a cookbook Matt bought me several years ago and which is still one of my favorite, for both its amazing recipes and its nightly aesthetically pleasing layout, pictures, and content: Frida's Fiestas: Recipes and Reminisces of Life with Frida Kahlo

This book follows Frida's style through party menus which in turn follow special occasions and holidays in the Mexican culture and the charmed but tragic life of Frida Kahlo.  It's filled with interesting biographical tidbits, original photos from La Casa Azul, and artwork by Frida, of course.  It's simply amazing.  

The book transports you to a different time, a different place, and a different way of living: a time and place where cooking for your family all day was a feminine duty and pleasure, a time of avant-garde art and revolution, and a time and place of unabashed nationalism and love of country.  It makes my heart hurt for Mexico, a Mexico that was and is no more.  But heartache aside, at least it allows me to savor some of those sorely-missed flavors, even if it does mean roasting and peeling Poblano peppers all by myself, and then battering them without my mom around to complain with. :)

* * *

Chiles Rellenos de Picadillo
adapted from Frida's Fiestas

Serves 2-3

Chile Relleno de Picadillo con Salsa de Tomate
Not to put you off, but this is not an "easy" dish to make.  Not that it's incredibly hard either, it just takes time, patience and perseverance.  My mom sure isn't kidding about "capeando" being difficult - as batters go, egg is not the easiest or least messy to work with, but it is delicious, which makes the trouble well worth it.

Picadillo is a ground beef based dish made with chopped vegetables and tomato.  It is eaten on its own or used to stuff things with in Mexico.  I think it pairs perfectly with these peppers but if you're vegetarian or simply looking for an alternative, chiles rellenos can be stuffed with cheese (probably the most famous iteration of this recipe).  Use queso blanco if you can find it, if not throw in some cheddar or mozzarella.

* * *

4 Poblano Chiles, roasted, peeled, de-seeded & left intact
(Substitute: Anaheim chiles or bell peppers in a pinch)
Oregano Mexicano
4 eggs, separated into whites and yolks in two bowls
4 tbsp flour
salt and pepper

For the Picadillo Stuffing:
2 tbsp vegetable oil or shortening
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2lb ground beef (~250g)
1 medium potato, peeled, cooked and cubed
1-2 carrots, cooked and chopped into squares
1/4 cup tomato sauce
1 chicken bouillon cube (optional)
thyme, marjoram, oregano (to taste)
salt and pepper (to taste)

*Note: This is my picadillo recipe: Frida puts shredded cabbage in hers, which sounds great, but I don't generally do that, nor did I have any on hand.

For the Salsa:
2 tbsps olive oil
Zanahorias & Cebolla
4 large tomatoes, roasted, peeled, de-seeded
& roughly chopped  (substitute: 1 can chopped / whole tomatoes & juice)
1 medium carrot, sliced finely
1 medium onion, sliced finely
1/4 cup vinegar (white)
1 pinch sugar
salt &pepper (to taste)
1 tsp Mexican Oregano


1. Make the picadillo by sauteeing and mixing the ingredients in order above in the hot oil or shortening.  Do not add other ingredients until after the onion and garlic are fragrant and translucent.  Add seasoning while the meat is still raw.  Allow to simmer for 10 minutes to allow the flavors to meld.  Set aside.

2. For the salsa: In another small pot, heat the oil then add the onion and cook until translucent.  Add the carrot and saute for a few minutes.  Then add the chopped tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper. Simmer for 10 minutes, then add the oregano.  Simmer until the tomatoes have broken down and the sauce is, well, a sauce. :)  Set aside.

3. For the chiles: the best way to roast them if you have a gas stove is to hold them over the flame directly using kitchen tongs.  I simply set them down on the flame and turn them occasionally, then use the tongs to make sure I get every little area of the pepper completely charred.

4. Immediately put the hot, black-charred peppers into a sealed plastic bag and leave until they are cold enough to handle (10 minutes).  Using a butter knife, gently scrape all the charred skin off, leaving the pepper in tact.

Chiles Poblanos: Roasted, Peeled and de-seeded

5.  When you are ready to stuff and fry the peppers: Heat 1/2 to 1 cup vegetable oil in a pan or small pot (the oil should go about 1/2 to 2/3 of an inch up the side of the pan).  Make a vertical slit down 2/3 of the length of the pepper and remove the seeds, taking care not to rip the pepper.  Using a spoon, place 1 -2 heaping spoonfuls of picadillo into the cavity of the pepper.  Then dredge in the flour mixture (flour, salt and pepper).

6. Meanwhile, beat the egg whites until they form medium-hard peaks.  Then beat the yolks until slightly foamy.  Combine the two gently into one bowl - use immediately.

7.  Using a slotted spoon, gently place one pepper into the egg mixture and cover it in the "capeada" or "batter."  Gently remove from the batter with a slotted spoon and place immediately in the hot oil.  Fry until golden on both sides, about 2 minutes, and batter is cooked through.

Serve immediately with the tomato salsa spooned over the top.
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Monday, January 24, 2011

Italy Part I: San Martino: "Il Bel Far Niente"

Lost in the Beautiful Fog of 'Il Bel Far Niente.'

Too much went on to cover the subject of our November trip to Italy in one post.  I don't know how many I'll actually write, but as of now, this is Italy Part I.  Don't judge me if I end up going back and editing the title because I never got around to writing a second or third part - that's just how I roll these days. :)

* * *

November seems like twenty years ago now that Christmas and the New Year have come and gone.  But I do recall that just 3 months ago I was experiencing copious amounts of excited anticipation over our much-awaited, last-minute return to Rome after 8 years of absence (since Matt and I met, in fact).  I spent days pouring over blogs and websites claiming to have the undiscovered best of Rome's eateries.  Just choosing a hotel took weeks, and I kept going back and forth and rearranging the dates - I think the guy at reception hated me after the whole ordeal - until our itinerary was just perfect and I had a list of golden-nuggety-culinary-finds.

But before we'd even go to Rome, we were making a 3-day stop-over in a small village, just an hour or so outside of Naples in the rolling mountains and hidden valleys of Campania, the birthplace of Matt's ancestors on his father's side.  I'd been there once before, four years ago, and had fond memories of a quaint, vaguely historic little town on the side of a low mountain where people live in the homes of their ancestors and still reminisce about walking miles up the side of a mountain to work on the farm every day during World War I and II.

Our trip to San Martino was largely uneventful and yet infinitely fulfilling.  In reality, we were quite busy: catching up with distant family members, eating a lot, and walking a lot.  It seems that despite their appreciation for enjoying life, with Italian families (much like with Mexican families), you are almost never left any downtime to just observe and reflect on your surroundings.  Not because they don't see the merit, but because you're constantly being ushered from one lunch to another dinner to a coffee date or back to lunch at someone else's house again.  It's intense, but we managed to sneak away a couple of times to enjoy what we'd really been looking forward to in this rustic retreat, namely "il bel far niente" - or "the beauty of doing nothing" - enjoying the autumnal splendor of the Campanian countryside.

Here are the top 5 moments from our time in Campania, in list form. 

 * * *

Top 5 Memories of Campania
or, "il bel far niente" of our trip

5. Sleeping with History.
Matt's great aunt lives in a big house on the main street of the village.  It is two storeys and has balconies facing out onto the main street and a small parking lot (recently built) with a small shrine to and statue of Padre Pio across the street from it.  The house has been there well-since before the World Wars, and was the home of her parents.  

a small shrine and the frescoes in the parlor
The ceilings of the parlor are painted frescoes, and the main staircase, which leads you very nearly into the street, is made of solid marble (I swear it could kill you to fall down those stairs).  It has a small indoor courtyard, and side entrance with place to tether horses, and a wood-burning pizza / bread oven in the kitchen which she never uses.  In every corner is a cluster of family pictures, Carabinieri plaques, saint statues, or devotional candles.  In every room there are ash trays, liquer and limoncello cups, silverspoon souvenirs from north Italy.  There is a shelf for the home-tinned tomatoes, for the passata, and always a giant chunk of Pecorino Romano next to the grater.  And in her kitchen wash area there are always piles of new, seasonal vegetables waiting to be used, piled in baskets - at this time there were giant pumpkins, painfully ripe pomegranates, clementines, and persimmons. 

pomegranates, bursting in the fall
I love this house, even though it has been taken over thoroughly by the modern conveniences of the latter 20th Century, and even though it is cluttered and largely forgotten as a place of social gatherings.  I love it because it is a standing relic - crumbling walls and all - of a family's history and place within a community and culture that is slowly but surely shrinking and morphing - dare I say disappearing?

4. The Doors.
When I was a teenager my best friend's parents had a framed poster of "The Doors of Notre Dame" on their wall.  Her uncle, now a priest, had gone to Notre Dame, and being obsessed with it at the time myself, I never forgot the look of the doors of what would one day be my own Alma Mater.

Since then, I've been obsessed with cool pictures of doors.  I shot a series of pictures of my favorite doors in San Martino this trip.  The one I like most is an old gigantic green door with the head of a putto in the center; it has a mini door cut out of it so you don't have to open the entire thing to go in and out on a daily basis.  
my favorite door in San Martino
But there were many more that took my fancy - old, new, rustic, polished.  Doors say so much about a house and the people who live in it.  I hope one day to have a well-worn wooden door for my own residence, one that welcomes and also inspires.

3. "Stasera Mangiate Da Noi": "Tonight, you eat with us!"
I've briefly mentioned the eating that goes on in Italy when you're with family.  Nothing I say can adequately explain the amount of food you are forced to consume when in the presence of not one, not two, but more than 4 Italian matriarchs.  It's staggering while you go through it and almost sickening once you finish, but it's delicious, and it's about as true a cultural experience as you can get in Italy.

A Tavola with Vino Casalingo
(homemade wine) & Aperitifs
You have the aperitif with nuts and other munchies, then the antipasti - usually some kind of cheese or cold cuts with pickles or olives -, then the primo piatto - a pasta dish or two -, then the secondo piatto - meat with vegetable contorni or side dishes.  Wine and soft drinks are served throughout.  At the end you have dolce, a homemade dessert, usually a cake.  Then people will bring out fresh fruit to peel and eat, fresh nuts to crack, and maybe some store-bought pastries, as well as the coffee and digestifs.  You're lucky if you make it out awake. :)
Chiodini Mushrooms (little nails): freshly foraged; Antipasti, laid out and ready to serve

Roman, in typical my-child style, went on a hunger strike our entire time in Italy with one notable exception - a plate of pasta and homemade tomato sauce simmered with beef bones that Matt's great aunt made for him.  At the big family dinner he was offered fresh buffalo mozzarella, all sorts of pasta, and even candy, and he pretty much refused it all.  But he did sit there and look pretty cute with his 2nd (or is it 3rd?) cousin, Greta, eating patatine (potato chips).

The kids' table.

2. La Grottola: The Little Cave
Matt's grandmother always referred to a little place called "la grottola" where she used to work with her family and neighbors before and during the wars.  "La Grottola" is probably dialect and we can't be entirely sure of the meaning to her, but literally it translates into "the little cave / grotto."  
La Grottola
On this trip we were lucky enough to be taken there - to a small patch of land on the side of a mountain, mostly overgrown but still boasting a beautiful small olive grove, with scattered chestnut trees all over.  It has a well and a small barn with a fireplace.  Only one of the original family members still goes there to "work" growing native fruits and vegetables, chopping wood, and maintaining the land which overlooks the Caudina Valley and is marked with a 10-foot crucifix.
the olive grove
chestnuts, waiting to be found
It was like going back in time going there.  And as we approached, another family member passed me with a giant bag of fresh olives she was taking home to make oil out of.  Before we left San Martino a few days later she handed me a 1-liter bottle of homemade olive oil, the perfect, edible souvenir of an afternoon well-spent.

the olives of our oil

1. La Nebbia: The Fog
One morning when we woke up and walked outside, the entirety of the village was covered in an almost unbelievable, ethereal fog.  

view of San Martino
We wandered around for an hour or two, enjoying the still quiet of a weekday in a small Italian village.  There are no tourists there, and so as we walked by the creek, and the old mill where peopled used to grind their own flour for bread, and the old bakery, and the castle and the church where Matt's grandparents were married, we felt almost transported back in time. 

near the mill
Cell phones and computers were forgotten and of no use to us in those moments - and even though brief, they were just the kind of "bel far niente" we'd been hoping for.

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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My Fictitious Mad Men.

I don't know why but I felt the need to write this post a couple of days ago as I sat in my car waiting in the 20-minute line at the gas station.  Not that I was taking inspiration from my surroundings, because, let's face it - I can't actually recall the last time I saw a shockingly good looking man here in Abu Dhabi (husband excluded), but I can say with a certain degree of certitude that it was not at the local ADNOC.

Matt and I started watching the television drama Mad Men about a week ago or so.  We are about 4 years late in jumping on the bandwagon with this, much to my now-horror.  Matt's dad had mentioned the show before but only in the context of how people used to smoke and drink in the office all the time and that in and of itself never piqued my interest.  It was only when I was faced with unfathomable possibility of suffering through 8+ hours of Paul Giamatti as John Adams (great story but seriously, kill me now), that I desperately searched for another series to dive into and found Mad Men.

Much to my delight, Mad Men is far more than just men drinking and smoking in the office (though I will admit that's about 75% of the show): it's an intriguing account of Advertising and Life in 1960s New York City through the lens of the "Mad Men" themselves: the Madison Avenue Males Elite.  Even luckier for me, the main Mad Man is a man by the name of Don Draper, or Jon Hamm if you must be petulantly accurate.

And so while sitting there in my Nissan Murano, waiting to request a full tank of "special" grade gas, I deeply pondered whether I'd rather - in another life - end up with my previous crush, Stringer Bell of The Wire, or  my current one, Don Draper of Mad Men (who, oddly, kinda looks like a better-looking Steve Carell).  That's when this list was born.  These two men, or rather their characters - and let me be clear that I don't think I'd like either of them much in real life - to me are infinitely attractive for one reason or another.   And just for the record a disclaimer:  No offense or disrespect is intended with this list to the only non-fictitious Mad Man of my life and dreams. :)

* * *

My Top Six (Fictitious) Mad Men
as in, the very fictitious men of my dreams

6. Jimmy Darmody of Boardwalk Empire
Sorry, no matter how good of an actor, nothing in the world could entice me to include Steve Buscemi on this list.  I feel infinitely sorry (and kinda grossed out) for Kelly Macdonald in having to kiss him as much as she does in this show (even if it is her big break).  No, let's leave Enoch out of this conversation.
While I will admit to the somewhat tangential nature of this crush, I do find something intriguing and attractive about the troubled Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt, not of Brad Pitt-relation, fyi).  This actor is about as close to a full-on typecast as anyone.  He only plays weird, screwed up young men with ghost-like complexions. It was true in that episode of Law & Order SVU, it was true in Murder By Numbers, and it's true in Boardwalk Empire.  And yet, there's something endearing about Jimmy: he went to Princeton, then fought in the Great War, then omes back to Jersey to try to be a father and husband only to find he has lost himself along the way.  Oh and he's kind of cute.

5. Michael Scott of The Office (American version)
Is this so wrong?  Is it wrong to think Steve Carell is kinda good looking?  I know my Tia Ita agrees with me, but is she really the only woman out there who does?  Michael Scott is an idiot, but he is so genuine and desperate that you almost can't stand but want to give him a hug.  And I know he has unconventional looks, but I do think he's good looking actually (go ahead and judge).  I felt a serious dislike of Jan in those episodes when they were living together and she'd lost her job and was essentially running him into the ground by funding Candles by Jan.  And I rejoiced with him when he almost got the job at corporate, or almost got fired but didn't with the sell-out, and I continue to love him, through the female-suit wearing incident, despite him crying at the office olympics award ceremony, and because of the way he said "I do delcare!" in the Murder Mystery episode.  Ah Michael Scott, if you didn't inspire real loyalty, even Dwight would have left by now. :)

4. Jeffrey Lebowski, The Dude of The Big Lebowski
Wild card! I know.  There's not much attractive about Jeff Bridges, much less his incarnation of the bowling, pacifist, doobie-smoking Dude.  But there is something very appealing about him - and I don't mean in the way Maude Lebowski found him appealing.  He's funny (though he doesn't mean to be), he's constantly alternating between being completely frazzled and completely high, he's smart enough to know Walter is full of shite, and yet, he accepts the offer to be courier in the very-obviously fixed case of the missing trophy-wife.  Oh and he compulsively drinks White Russians, which is both tasteful and ridiculous at the same time.  I can't even begin to count how many times this guy made me laugh aloud, and that has to count for something in a man.

Always privy to the new shit, the Dude abides.

3. Tony Soprano of The Sopranos
Was it just me or did you also alternate between loving and hating this guy?  I will be unequivocally clear about kind of really hating James Gandolfini (isn't his last name nauseating?! Mini-Gandolf[s] is what is means!), and also feeling that he has essentially turned into Tony Soprano, never to return to normal life again since the series ended.  But, there reached a certain point in the twisted tale of sex, murder, and family-life where I actually found myself feeling attracted to this monster!  It was like I had temporarily turned into Lorraine Bracco (slow accent and all), oscillating between disgust, pity and affection for a probably legitimately screwed up, yet kind of sweet, Italian-American Mafioso.  I guess the producers did their job.  Ah well, whattayagonnado?


2. Russel "Stringer" Bell of The Wire
Ah Stringer.  I almost didn't want to admit this tv-crush to anyone (even though Matt totally called it after the first season) and not only because he's a ruthless drug-dealer-thug who double crosses his best friend.  He also wears pleated pants and 80s sweaters, which kinda weirds me out.  And let's face it, we were all a little grossed out that time he kissed Dawnette, and I was definitely put-off when he started schmoozing with nasty old Senator Davis, but I loved Stringer.  And when he died, I almost didn't want to keep watching (but I did) and even so, I mourned Stringer deeply when Omar finally "popped a cap" in him in that ridiculously intense chase-scene in the empty building.  And frankly, I'm not ashamed to say that mourning was extended further when McNulty found the Samurai swords and a copy of  The Wealth of Nations at Stringer's rather tasteful Baltimore apartment.

1. Don Draper of Mad Men
This is the real deal ladies.  I had no idea who Jon Hamm was until I saw this show, and I am still not really sure I want to know who Jon Hamm is.  I'd be satisfied knowing he was just Don Draper for the duration of Mad Men and then once it is over - poof!- he will just disintegrate into tiny little molecules and be gone with the wind.  This harshness is necessary because you and I know that Jon Hamm cannot live up to Don Draper.  He's not as handsome, not as persuasive, not as madly manish.  Don Draper would never be scruffy or wear boho chic clothes while sipping a Latte in L.A.!  No, he's got the slicked back hair-tailored-suit-neat-whiskey thing going on, even though he is seriously screwed up. 

Yes, yes, he grew up a redneck on a farm, was beaten severely by his father, then stole someone's identity in World War II, but these are all just details!  What's really important is that, despite serially cheating on his pretty little cream-puff of a wife with women of questionable taste (seriously), he manages somehow to come off as genuinely caring, interesting, intelligent, driven, and even devoted.  How is that possible?!  I don't know, I don't care.  Bring on the next episode and don't let it end!
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Saturday, January 1, 2011

A Drizzle of Joy: Lemon Drizzle Cake

A Drizzle of Joy: Mini Lemon Drizzle Bundt Cakes

Merry (belated) Christmas!  Happy New Year!  And Happy Birthday to me! 

Lots of fun and delicious things to celebrate in December, as usual, and while I've been MIA in the blogosphere, I have been nothing short of prolific in the kitchen.  Here's a post I wrote a couple of weeks ago, as I prepped for Christmas dinner (I froze these cakes and then thawed and drizzled them on Christmas eve).  These delicious little lemon drizzle bundt cakes seem almost a distant memory now, but a fond one.  I hope everyone had a wonderful season with their loved ones!

* * *

I became a cake addict pretty late in my life.  Up until the age of about 26 I'd pretty much avoided cake and sweets like the plague (except for the odd cookie or brownie), generally opting for savory foods over sweet.  I thought of cake as trite, over-used for parties and celebrations, over-decorated with cheap disgusting sprinkles, and, worst of all, covered in icing so sickly-sweet it made my lips pucker just thinking about it.  That was until I moved to London and joined the cult-following of cake as a way of life at The Primrose Bakery.

In addition to realizing that it's damn hard to keep your figure intact while professionally associated with a cake shop, I also discovered that the universal suspicion is true: there is definitely a secret, intangible ingredient put into home baked goods that actually does make you happy. It was always heartwarming to watch a child pick out his very own pink or green cupcake, or to look at faces as the first bite of that giant slice of chocolate cake went in.  Whether they'd chosen Victoria Sponge or Plum Cake, pretty much everyone who entered that little shop - celebrity, civilian or even the dogs - left looking visibly jollier than when they'd arrived.

It's that time of year again.  The time to be jolly, joyful, and spread all sorts of good cheer.  Christmas is one of my favorite times to bake, and this year I decided to make an old favorite from my bakery days, and one that doesn't seem to be all that common in the US - a guaranteed golden ticket to Smile City, or, if I can continue further with the cheesy phrases, a true drizzle of joy: Lemon Drizzle Cake (see below for recipe).

And in the continued name of random and rather purposeless Top 5 Lists: There were many perks associated with working at a bakery - most involving gluttonous consumption of sweet things - but here is a list of my personal top 5.

* * *

Top 5 Reasons Working at a Cake Shop Rocked
and no, I'm not generally a "cake person"

5. Managerial Taste-testing Privileges
As the manager I didn't just get to oversee the practical day-to-day running of the bakery, I also got to scope out our offerings and determine whether they were up to snuff or not.  This often required hands-on taste-testing.  There were certain products that always had to be tested before they even left the kitchen.  The brownies for example.  And I do not believe I am overstepping the boundaries of propriety when I say that I truly believe Americans are more qualified to determine the worthiness of a brownie than our dear British compatriots.  Let's face it, a good American-style cake shop is only as good as its worst brownie.

4. Buttercream.
Cakes growing up always had that should-be-illegal sugar-water concoction that grocery stores try to pass for icing.  It is stiff and flavorless (unless of course you consider pure refined sugar a flavor, in which case I wholeheartedly encourage you to make your way to your nearest Kroger and dig in).  And once you've had real homemade buttercream icing, you can never go back to it.  Learning to make buttercream icing and then learning to ice cupcakes and layer cakes with it is a simple but delicious art which I wholeheartedly embraced during my time as cake-woman, and it is one I hope to carry on perfecting for years to come.  I know Matt and Roman are glad for it anyhow. :)

3. Champagne Truffles & Crystalized Rose Petals.
Another perk of working at a "luxury" cake shop, were the "luxury" items we ordered to put on the cakes.  Supplying people like Fortnum & Mason means you get to work with (eat?) amazing things like handmade champagne truffles and real crystalized rose petals on a somewhat regular basis.  If doing this isn't already on a list of sure-fire ways to up your happy-hormones, it should be.

2. Bottomless Cappuccinos.
What is a cake shop without top notch coffee and tea to go with the cakes?  A sad, sad place, if you must ask.  And let me tell you, our bakery was anything but sad.  We served only Illy caffe and artisan teas.  I must have consumed, on average, 5-6 cups of coffee every work day.  Give me a latte to start off the day.  Then there's the mid-morning cappuccino and chat with the owners.  Move onto the late morning pick-me-up espresso, and maybe another if the coffee supplier guy comes by, while you shoot the shizzle over the week's latest gossip.  Next comes another cappuccino in the afternoon, just to get you over the hump.  And maybe an Americano before you head out, just so the tube ride isn't too unbearable.  And the best part is, I learned to make them all myself.  I was a milk-frothing, espresso-pulling, splenda-slinging fiend.  And now I know that one day when I have an unbelievably cool, industrial grade Italian hand-pulled coffee machine in my kitchen, I will be able to razzle-dazzle all my family with my mad coffee making skills.

1. A Drizzle of Pure Joy.
Of all the things we served at the bakery, my favorite was one of the only cakes Martha and Lisa chose to leave out of their cookbook: the lemon drizzle cake.  As cakes go, Lemon Drizzle is kind of a UK Institution.  Everyone seems to eat it, like it, ask for it, and have their own recipe.  It's a super simple presentation of a lemon sponge cake with a lemon juice and sugar drizzle poured over it.  I love it anytime of year, but especially when I need a little reminder of my drizzly but joyful time spent living in London. :)

* * *

Lemon Drizzle Cake
Makes 2 Loaves, 2- 8" Round Cakes, or ~16 Mini Bundt Cakes

This is a pretty standard lemon sponge cake recipe and the result is strikingly similar to the one at the bakery.  It is good enough to eat, really. :)

225g Golden Caster Sugar (or superfine sugar)
225g All-Purpose Flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
25g Cornstarch
2 sticks (225g) unsalted butter, at room temp
4 large eggs
2-3 large, juicy lemons - zest and juice

2-4 large lemons, juice
1 cup (100g) white granulated sugar

* * *

1. Preheat your oven to 375F.

2. Using a food processor, pour the flour, sugar, baking powder and cornstarch in and mix until completely blended.

3. Add the remaining ingredients (making certain the butter is completely at room temp first) and mix until combined.

4. Pour into two large loaf tins (the tins should be 1/2 to 2/3 full), dividing the batter evenly.

5. Bake for 25 minutes or until golden brown and a skewer or tooth pick inserted in the center comes out clean. DO AHEAD: Allow the cakes to cool completely then wrap in cling film and freeze for up to a month.

6. While baking the cakes, make the drizzle by combining the sugar and lemon juice.

7. Allow the cakes to cool completely in their tins, then carefully remove and place on a plate.  Poke holes all over the loaves with a skewer then spoon the drizzle over the loaves and allow it to set.   Serve in slices.
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