Baumkuchen
Photo by Ben Rhau

One night last week, I sat at home wondering about wedding presents. It was the night before two of my friends were to be married at City Hall and I had no good ideas. The wedding was to be minimal and casual (both the bride and groom are from Germany and they are planning to have a more elaborate celebration back home later on), so good ol’ standbys like blenders and fancy plates just seemed wrong. In fact, the “reception” would just be a bunch of friends drinking at a bar, so imagine how out-of-place a gift of say, a giant silver serving platter would have been. Then suddenly, a brilliant idea!! I will bake them a cake!

Off I go, then, to search for some sort of German wedding cake recipe on the internet and that’s how I came upon Baumkuchen or to us Americans, “Tree Cake”. Apparently known as the “King of Cakes” (not to be confused with King Cake), this multi-layered cake is usually baked on this crazy, spit-like contraption that some professional bakeries have that result in a cylindrical cake with rings in it like a tree. While I might be an engineer, I’m also not about to fashion a spit in my kitchen and risk personal (and Nathan-al) injury. So thank goodness there’s a revised version where the layers are built vertically in a cake pan – even someone as clumsy as me can manage that!

This cake was so delicious and so much fun to make that I’m sure I’ll do it again sometime, for another special occasion. Except, next time, I won’t underestimate the amount of time this recipe takes and will start before 11pm. That is, unless I’m mentally prepared to stay up until 2am again.

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Many apologies for the severe lack of posts, but weirdly enough, I’ve been traveling an extraordinary amount lately. I find this turn of events quite strange because on the job description of a grad student, travel is usually at the bottom of the list (unless you’re in anthropology and work for someone Indiana Jones-esque, of course). I left in early October for two weeks in Hong Kong (3 days of conference, then 1.5 weeks of touristy fun with Nathan interrupted by 1 day of laying in bed with stomach flu – bleh!). Then, while still recovering from jetlag, I had to spend a weekend at Asilomar for my graduate program’s retreat. Now, I’m off again to Boston for another meeting next week. Whew!

It seems that while I was gone, summer has officially left us and we’re well into the rainy season here in SF. As much as I will miss the bounty of heirloom tomatoes, I’m excited for the arrival of winter squashes, which have already started appearing in our CSA box. I have grand plans to go totally soup-crazy soon enough, but until I have time to fill the freezer with tub after tub of chicken/vegetable stock, I have to think of other fun things to do with squashes.

So how about a simple butternut squash lasagna, to start?

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There are two benefits to getting a sourdough starter going. One: you have a working starter and can bake yummy breads when you like. Two: you can stop talking about the starter all the time. OK, so I cannot guarantee that I won’t post about making bread with the starter again, but hopefully, you’ve seen the last of foamy, frothy starter pictures. And I know at least one of you is happy to hear that!

I’ve been looking around for a good mac and cheese recipe for a while and have even attempted a few. So far, I would say that this recipe, adapted from one by the always-trusty Ina Garten, is the best I’ve tried and will probably be the basis of all my future mac and cheese endeavors. It’s got an excellent bechamel sauce, a decent sauce-to-pasta ratio, and a really crunchy breadcrumb topping.

Of course, since mac and cheese is so conducive to variations, I have no intention of making the exact same recipe twice. This time around, I omitted the bacon in the original recipe for the sake of eating less meat, but next time around, I might not be as disciplined. A couple handfuls of peppery arugula would be excellent here too, as would green peas, wild mushrooms, corn, etc etc. The list just goes on.

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Citrus Tart

Part 2 of the saga that is the Sourdough Starter is forthcoming, I promise. But having just gotten back from a weekend of camping beneath redwoods and barrel tasting at wineries in Russian River Valley — I know, what a tough life I lead — I will instead tell you about one of my favorite dessert recipes. Besides, you probably need a break from looking at pictures with jars of foamy liquids anyway, no?

The combination of oranges and lemons in this tart makes it sweeter and less intensely acidic than a pure lemon tart (which I also love) and also gives the tart a pretty orange-y glow. Just make sure not to overcook the tart – it should still be quite jiggly in the middle when you take it out of the oven, since it’ll continue setting as it cools. The first couple of times I made this, I kept thinking it’s not done and ended up with a tart with a cracked top and dense overcooked filling. It wasn’t awful and we certainly gobbled it all up still, but if you’re a little more careful, you’ll be rewarded with a soft, custard-like filling that is much, much better.

ps: Check it out! I joined a Foodie Blogroll!

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Cranberry Harvest Muffins

When I was in college, I never really ate breakfast. But nowadays, I can’t even leave the house until I munch on something, even if it’s something little. I have no idea when this change happened or why, but I think in general, I like it because I like breakfast foods. Honestly, how can anyone not like eggs and bacon and sausage?

However, most weekdays, I don’t really have time to make any sort of fancy eggy dishes before rushing off to work. So I like to make sure the house is stocked with a few easy and quick breakfast options. Muffins are great for this purpose – you spend a little time baking a batch on a weekend or weekday evening, let them cool for a bit, then throw them in a freezer bag. Then, whenever you feel the urge for a quick breakfast, you pop them in the microwave for a minute or so. Ding! And you’ve got a steamy-warm muffin, almost as if they just came out of the oven.

Since winter is not exactly the season of delicious fruits and we’re good little consumers who eat with the seasons, let’s turn to our favorite contessa, the Barefoot Contessa. On one of her shows, she gave a recipe for Harvest Muffins, loaded with tart cranberries and gooey dried figs. Mine’s basically the same, except I said no to hazelnuts and replaced them with almonds instead.

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Linguine with Arugula and Black Pepper

You know what? I used to be addicted to those super-quick pasta packages you find at the supermarket – you know, the Kraft mac-n-cheeses and the Pasta Ronis in assorted flavors. When I was in college, my roommates and I had a little hot plate in our dorm room, to which we would resort when the food at the dining hall was especially terrible that day. When all you have is a single hot plate and a little saucepan (and a whole night of homework ahead of you), those instant pasta things came in pretty handy. When I graduated from college, I would still turn to those pasta packages when I didn’t have time to really cook. When I moved to Berkeley and decided to eat healthier and more organic, I started buying Annie’s mac-n-cheese instead.

Today, I’m proud to say I’ve been Kraft-free (and Pasta-Roni-free and Annie-free) for about 2 years. How did I kick the habit? By discovering some awesome pasta dishes that literally take as little time to prepare as those pasta packages but taste ten times better. My favorite one to turn to is still this linguine dish I learned from the lovely Giada De Laurentiis, back when I still watched Food Network. Cheesy, buttery, and peppery (both from the black pepper and arugula), pasta doesn’t get simpler or tastier than this.

With a grand total of six ingredients (three of which you should have already lying around your kitchen) and a preparation time clocking in at 10-15 min, you too can kick your instant pasta habit. The first step, of course, is to admit you have a problem in the first place.

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spitzbuebe

The other day, Nathan and I finally watched the movie ‘Hot Fuzz,’ a British comedy/parody of Hollywood-blockbuster-style buddy-cop flicks. e.g. ‘Bad Boys’, ‘Point Break’. The movie started out a bit slow but then ended up being one of the funniest movies I’ve seen.

How does this relate at all to Christmas cookies? It doesn’t really, except that Spitzbuebe means ‘bad boys’, so I would have that stupid ‘Bad boys bad boys, whatcha gonna do …’ song in my head when I make these. Hopefully, that won’t happen to you. Anyway, Spitzbuebe are light and buttery shortbread cookies sandwiching a layer of raspberry jam and dusted with confectioners’ sugar. The only downside to them is that these delicate little things get stale relatively easily, so you can’t really keep them around for the whole holiday season. But this makes them the perfect cookies to bring to holiday parties and dinners!

Spitzbuebe cookies are a bit labor- and time-intensive to make at home, because you need to keep dough relatively cold or it becomes really difficult (read: sticky) to work with. What this means is that you can only work with a little bit of dough at a time, forcing you to bake in multiple small batches versus a few big batches.

One trick I’ve found to keep the dough cold, especially if you have a warm kitchen, is to stick a rimless cookie sheet in the freezer and use that as your work surface when rolling out the dough. Whenever you put another batch of cookies in the oven and are waiting for them to bake (~12 min), put the cookie sheet back in the freezer to rechill it for the next round of dough work.

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