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Is it just me, or is anyone else feeling sort of holiday food’ed out? I never thought I would say this, but if I see another cookie, cake, or slice of chocolate pecan pie, I am going to do something crazy, like look the other way. Today, after lunch, I stood in front of the last of the cranberry upside-down cake from Christmas dinner and, fork poised in mid-air, thought, Nah, nevermind. Sometimes I hardly know myself at all.

So let’s not talk about food right now. Instead, I thought we might have a Restaurant Day. Because a major detail has been decided since I first told you about the restaurant, and we want to share it with you. Namely, the name.

The restaurant is going to be called Delancey. We chose it because it reminds us of New York, and since Brandon’s pizza sensibility is so rooted there, it seems fitting. It’s the name of a street in Manhattan, as well as a subway stop, and though it’s not in a particularly glamorous part of town, when Brandon was living in New York, it was one of his favorite stations: always bustling, packed with all sorts of people going to all sorts of places. Plus, isn’t it a pretty word? To me, it feels kind of classy and old-fashioned, like dark wood and tarnished copper and old men in tweed suits smoking cigars. Not that the restaurant will necessarily include any of those things, but we like the idea.

Also, for those of you who asked and those who have speculated, Delancey will be in Ballard, on 70th Street NW, between 14th and Alonzo Avenues. There’s a sweet little strip of businesses there, and Brandon is thrilled to have snatched a spot among them. Number 1415, to be precise.

I went over to the space a couple of weeks ago, in the midst of the big snowstorm, and I took some photographs for you. The place doesn’t look anything like a restaurant yet, so don’t get too excited. I just thought you might like to see it in all its various stages, from ladders and dust (right now) to the day the doors open (in early spring, we hope). If you’d like to view any of the photographs in a larger size, just click on them.

Right now, Brandon is working on pretty boring things: picking out toilet fixtures, submitting applications for various permits, and scraping down the popcorn ceiling. But I think there’s often something beautiful about boring things, like light fixtures and painter’s tape.

Or a mural of two ships, sailing peacefully across the wall above the main door. Once we start painting, I have a feeling it won’t be there anymore.

There are also lots of buckets. Soon they won’t be there anymore either. I won’t miss them.

Here’s a prep table. It holds the all-important bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. And in the back there, you can see the three-compartment sink that will go in the kitchen. When Brandon brought it from the restaurant supply store, it fit into our friend Bonnie’s car by mere centimeters.

And here are Brandon’s new best friends, a surgical mask and a scraper, his tools for removing the gnarly popcorn ceiling. (He had it tested for asbestos, and it came back safe, so please don’t worry.) They’ve spent lots of hours together, that man, that mask, and that scraper. Personally, I like spending time with the boom box on the chair. While I took this photograph, it played Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” for me.

I think that’s all for now, but when we have more to show and tell, we certainly will. There are more Restaurant Days to come, for sure.

In the meantime, here’s to a warm and bright New Year! I hope your 2009 is even better than you can imagine. Thank you, always, for being here.


Like winter and warmth

Hi, friends.

I’m writing this from Oklahoma City, from my old bedroom in my mother’s house, where I used to, as a teenager, write gushy poems about 18-year-old boys with sideburns. I had a real thing for 18-year-old boys with sideburns. I don’t anymore.

I now have a thing for whiskey-soaked dark chocolate Bundt cakes. They hold their liquor better. Among other things.

I can’t talk for long today, because we arrived in Oklahoma around ten o’clock last night and then stayed up too late talking, so I’m tired. I still can’t believe that we even got here, given how snowed-under Seattle is right now. The day before we left, we watched people snowboard down the hill on 65th Street in Ballard. On the way to the airport, we passed a guy on cross-country skis, making his way slowly, cheerfully, up the road. It was all pretty dreamy, really, so long as you didn’t have anywhere important to be. Like the airport, for example, or your mother’s house in Oklahoma. The fact that our flight even left SeaTac yesterday was, we decided, our Christmas miracle. So I think I should keep this short today, and get back to appreciating that miracle by crawling under the covers in my old bed.

But before I do that, I wanted to make sure that you had this Bundt cake recipe. If you haven’t yet had your Christmas miracle, well, ta daaa! Here it is.

I am not, under ordinary circumstances, a great fan of alcoholic desserts. Many of them seem to involve Amaretto, and I just don’t like it. This admission makes me sound sort of boring and unfun, I know, as though I sit around on Saturday nights and read the Oxford English Dictionary with a magnifying glass, but I say it so that you will understand how special this particular alcoholic dessert is. I am a great, great fan of this Bundt cake, or boozy cake, as I like to call it. You have to pronounce that as one word: not boozy cake, but boozycake. Just so you know.

The recipe comes from the New York Times, from an article by Melissa Clark that ran about three weeks ago. It’s a riff on an old Maida Heatter recipe, a rich, dark chocolate cake punched up with not only a quarter-cup of instant espresso, but an entire cup, a cup, ONE CUP, of whiskey. It has a soft, moist, tightly woven crumb, and it makes the kitchen smell very sophisticated, like winter and warmth and the dinner parties my parents used to throw when I was little, after they put me to bed. It smells very chocolatey and very boozy. Because it is very boozy. The night I made it, I cut a slice while it was still a bit warm, and eating it, standing over the kitchen counter, I actually felt a little woozy. And no, I did not intend to make that rhyme. Although once I saw it happening, I didn’t exactly stop it, either.

If you can, try to make this cake a day before you want to serve it, to allow the flavors to mellow and meld. On the first day, the flavor of the alcohol threatens to drown out the chocolate, but after a little overnight rest, they reach a sort of compromise, complementing each other instead of competing, the deep darkness of the chocolate rising to meet the heady afterburn of the whiskey. If you, like us, haven’t trimmed your tree yet, this would be just the kind of thing for that, for eating with one hand while you hang ornaments with the other. To add to the festive feeling, you could even turn on that old Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album, the one that came out in 1984 and that my family continues to trot out every single December. If you eat enough boozy cake, the synthesizers might actually sound kind of nice. Imagine that! What a cake.

Whiskey-Soaked Dark Chocolate Bundt Cake
Adapted from The New York Times

I used St. George whiskey for this recipe, but next time, I think I would use bourbon. Whatever you choose, be sure to use something that you like to drink on its own; its flavor is the real centerpiece here.

2 sticks (8 oz.) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for the pan
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the pan
5 oz. unsweetened chocolate
¼ cup instant espresso powder
2 Tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup bourbon, rye, or other whiskey, plus more for sprinkling
½ tsp. kosher salt
2 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. baking soda
Confectioners’ sugar, for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 325°F. Grease and flour a 10-cup-capacity Bundt pan (or two 8- or 9-inch loaf pans).

In a heatproof bowl set over – but not touching – a saucepan of simmering water, melt the chocolate until just smooth, stirring occasionally. Let cool.

Put espresso and cocoa powders in a 2-cup (or larger) glass measuring cup. Add enough boiling water to come up to the 1 cup measuring line. Stir until the powders dissolve. Add the whiskey and salt. Let cool.

Using an electric mixer, beat the butter until fluffy. Add the sugar, and beat until well combined. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla extract, baking soda and melted chocolate, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

With the mixer on low speed, beat in a third of the whiskey mixture. When liquid is absorbed, beat in 1 cup flour. Repeat additions, ending with the whiskey mixture. It may seem like there is too much liquid, but don’t worry; it’s okay. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, and smooth the top. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 1 hour and 10 minutes for a Bundt pan. (Loaf pans will take less time; start checking them after 55 minutes.)

Transfer the cake, still in its pan, to a rack. Unmold after 15 minutes and sprinkle warm cake with more whiskey. (I did this by pouring a little bit into a teaspoon, and then shaking the teaspoon over the cake. I’m guessing that I used 3 teaspoons’ worth in all.) Cool completely before serving, garnished with confectioners’ sugar, if you like.

Note: This cake tastes even better on the second day, when the intensity of the alcohol mellows a little bit.

Yield: 10 to 12 servings.


Look at that

I’ve been sitting here for the past twenty minutes, trying to figure out how to start this post. I hate it when this happens. I have nightmares about it, even.

Well, let’s see. How about a photograph? Maybe it will jump-start something. One can hope.

One can also, while hoping, tiptoe over to the fridge and steal some of the peppermint bark in that photograph, even though it’s supposed to be saved for holiday gifts. That’s another option. Just don’t tell Brandon, because I told him earlier today that he couldn’t have any. Then again, he’s over at the restaurant space right now, drinking a beer and eating Cool(!) Ranch(!) Doritos(!) while he rips out the carpet, so it’s really only fair that I should have a snack here too. Like peppermint bark. Which is, for the record, very refreshing. And inspiring! Look at that. I just wrote a whole paragraph.

I was introduced to this particular peppermint bark by my sister Lisa, who always, always, finds the best recipes. For a few years now - or maybe even several; I can’t remember - she has made it for the holidays. She gives most of it away to friends, but she usually sets aside a tin for the family to eat during Christmas, when we’re all together. Last year, when we spent Christmas Eve at her house on Long Island, I’m pretty sure I ate more peppermint bark than dinner.

Lisa and I were on the phone the other day, having a marathon catch-up session, and while we talked, I made a batch of chocolate blocks. I happened to mention that I was working on my holiday gift-making, and Lisa confided that she was running behind on hers. She usually makes both peppermint bark and bittersweet almond bark, handing out small sachets of each, but this year, she told me, so many people have asked for the peppermint bark that she is thinking of skipping the almond one entirely. I was sad to hear that - last Christmas Eve, I also ate more almond bark than dinner - but I understand. That peppermint bark is special.

Before I tasted Lisa’s version, the words peppermint bark weren’t even in my vocabulary. I guess I thought of it as one of those cutesy things you get in a gift basket but never eat, like tiny jars of cheese spread or plastic-encased summer sausages. Most of the time, it was simply a sheet of pallid white chocolate with crushed-up peppermint candies mixed in - or, in a slightly fancier incarnation, a layer of dark chocolate topped with a layer of white chocolate with crushed-up peppermint candies mixed in. I know this will sound like sacrilege to some, but I couldn’t get excited about it.

But then, THEN, there was Lisa’s version, which is really Bon Appétit’s version, a recipe that ran in the magazine ten whole years ago, in 1998. It consists of not one layer, not two layers, but three layers. The top and bottom are white chocolate, onto which you sprinkle crushed peppermints, and the middle layer is a bittersweet ganache, ever so slightly soft and truffle-like, spiked with peppermint extract. It’s pretty, for one thing, but it’s also unusually delicious: heady with mint, only moderately sweet, and surprisingly sophisticated, crunchy in parts and smooth in others, like a proper chocolate confection. It’s Americana, yes, but Americana in a vintage designer dress. If the butter cookies I made last week bore a faint resemblance to my grandmother, this peppermint bark is my fantasy great-aunt: the one who lives in San Francisco, wears Jackie O. dresses and glasses with vermilion frames, makes hot chocolate from scratch, and always knows what’s showing at SFMOMA. What a lady she would be. I wish she actually existed. At least I have peppermint bark.

This recipe takes a bit more time than the average bark specimen, what with the layering of chocolates and the required chilling in between, but it’s worth the effort. Once you have your ingredients ready, it’s really very easy: you just chop, melt, smear, and repeat. And while it cools, you can do any number of important things, like washing dishes, or chiding your husband for eating Cool Ranch Doritos without you, or calling your sister to thank her for her brilliance.

Three-Layer Peppermint Bark
Adapted from Bon Appétit, December 1998

When you’re shopping for white chocolate, make sure that the words “cocoa butter” appear in the list of ingredients. When I went to buy mine, I was shocked by how many brands contain absolutely no cocoa butter. (Instead, you get only sugar, hydrogenated oil, artificial flavorings, and the like.) I wound up using Callebaut, which isn’t cheap, but it was a worthy splurge.

Also, to crush the peppermints coarsely, Bon Appétit advises tapping the wrapped candies firmly with the bottom edge of an unopened 15- to 16-ounce can. I used a heavy glass jar, and that worked fine too.

17 oz. white chocolate, such as Callebaut, finely chopped
30 red-and-white-striped hard peppermint candies, coarsely crushed
7 oz. bittersweet chocolate, such as Ghirardelli 60%, finely chopped
6 Tbsp. heavy cream
¾ tsp. peppermint extract

Turn a large baking sheet upside down, and cover it securely with aluminum foil. Measure out and mark a 9- by 12-inch rectangle on the foil.

Put the white chocolate in a metal (or other heatproof) bowl, and set it over a saucepan of barely simmering water. (Do not allow the bottom of the bowl to touch the water.) Stir occasionally until the chocolate is melted and smooth; if you take its temperature with a candy thermometer, it should register 110°F. Remove the chocolate from the heat. Pour 2/3 cup of it onto the rectangle on the foil. Using an icing spatula, spread the chocolate to fill the rectangle. Sprinkle with ¼ cup of the crushed peppermints. Chill until set, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the bittersweet chocolate, cream, and peppermint extract in a heavy medium saucepan. Warm over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture is just melted and smooth. Cool to barely lukewarm, about 5 minutes. Then remove the baking sheet from the refrigerator, and pour the bittersweet chocolate mixture over the white chocolate rectangle. Using an icing spatula – make sure you cleaned it after using it for the white chocolate, above! – spread the bittersweet chocolate in an even layer. Chill until very cold and firm, about 25 minutes.

Rewarm the remaining white chocolate over barely simmering water to 110°F. Working quickly, pour the white chocolate over the firm bittersweet layer, using your (again, clean) icing spatula to spread it to cover. Sprinkle with remaining crushed peppermints. Chill just until firm, about 20 minutes.

Carefully lift the foil from the baking sheet onto a large cutting board. Trim away any ragged edges of the rectangle. (These are yours to nibble at, a little prize for your efforts.) Cut the bark crosswise into 2-inch-wide strips. Using metal spatula, slip the bark off of the foil and onto the cutting board. Cut each strip crosswise into 3 sections, and then cut each section diagonally into 2 triangles. Or, alternatively, just cut each strip into smaller pieces of whatever size you like. That’s what I did.

Pack into an airtight container, with sheets of wax paper between layers of bark to prevent them from sticking to one another. Store in the refrigerator. Serve cold or, to emphasize the slight softness of the bittersweet layer, let stand at room temperature for 10 minutes before serving.

Note: This bark will keep for up to 2 weeks, if not more. If you plan to pack it in a tin or baggie with other holiday sweets, be sure to wrap it separately in plastic wrap. Or maybe wax paper and then plastic wrap, so that it doesn’t sweat. If you left it naked, so to speak, to mix and mingle with other cookies or candies, everything might wind up tasting and smelling like peppermint.

Yield: about 36 pieces, or more, if you cut them smaller


For that very reason

I don’t know where to begin. You people spoil me. Do you know that? Brandon and I cannot even dream of how to adequately thank you for the immensely kind and utterly galvanizing comments you left in response to The Big Restaurant Announcement. Some of you even sent e-mails, offering advice, encouragement, and hands-on(!) help(!). I’m still trying to pick my jaw up off the floor. Thank you. Or rather, I mean, THANK YOU. If I could hire a plane to write it in the sky, I would, because that would best capture the magnitude of the sentiment. But we have a budget to stay within, you understand.

So, onward we go, right? I will keep you posted, I promise, as the process moves along. This week, Brandon’s main project is to design the layout of the kitchen, which is a rather fraught endeavor, as you can imagine. And soon I’ll be spending some time over there with my cameras, documenting the construction process, which I’m pretty excited about. I like taking pictures of messes - it’s the neatnik in me, I think, trying perversely to impose order - and what we’ve got right now definitely qualifies as a mess.

As does, conveniently, this photograph. These Danish butter cookies are not only one of the most wonderful things I have eaten lately, but they are also among the most difficult items I have ever, ever, tried to photograph. For one thing, they’re plain and monochromatic, as butter cookies generally are. They’re lovely to eat, but sort of boring to look at. Also, I’m almost positive that while I was washing the dishes, they held a secret meeting on the cooling rack and decided, just for fun, to wiggle a little bit each time I tried to take their picture. I think they also got the sun in on the game, because the light today was awful. Don’t even ask about the close-up shots. If I had a dime for every time I cussed at these blurry naughties, I would have, well, like, a dollar. That may not seem like much, but it could buy me a first-rate bagel at Absolute Bagels. To punish the cookies for their disobedience, Brandon and I ate about a half dozen of them, and then, take that, I put the rest in the freezer. Something tells me they won’t act up again.

This weekend, and these cookies, marked the beginning of my annual holiday baking ritual. Those of you who have been reading for a while may remember that a cloud of powdered sugar generally hovers over this site each December, and this one is no exception. For the third year in a row, I’ve decided to give handmade gifts for the holidays. Mainly because it makes me feel good, but also because it keeps me out of the mall, which is good for everyone, I assure you. I’m making a number of candies and cookies, like this and this and this and the recalcitrant specimens above, and I’m also making a few non-food things that I won’t reveal here, because their recipients might be reading. And because handmade doesn’t necessarily mean homemade, I also bought a few things from this beautiful shop, and from this one too. If money were no object, I would also buy a ban.do for my cousin Sarah, who loves to wear tiaras, because ban.dos are sort of like tiaras, only better. Sadly, I think she will have to settle for something a little less impressive, but it’s the thought that counts, I hear.

But about the butter cookies. I hope I didn’t make them sound too maddening, because the truth is, so long as you don’t come after them with a camera, they are completely docile. And they’re very, very delicious, which is all that matters. They may be modest little ladies - yes, somehow, they seem female to me; I can’t explain it - but they’re beguiling: delicate and not too sweet, rich with the flavor of pure butter and tender enough to melt the second they meet your tongue. The first one I tasted made my eyes roll back in my head, and that doesn’t usually happen unless there is chocolate involved. I found the recipe in this month’s Gourmet, and it sounded so perfectly simple that I had to try it. It was sent to the magazine by a reader in New Jersey, who explained that it was a fifth-generation family recipe from Denmark. Having now tried it, I can well understand its longevity. It is, without a doubt, a keeper.

It begins with a pound of butter. The key, I think, is that it calls for Lurpak butter, a particularly delicious - if pricey - brand produced, of course, in Denmark. I know that sounds fussy, but it’s worth the trouble to seek it out and pay the extra pennies, because it really is a wonderful butter, and these cookies are all about the butter. If you’ve ever eaten store-bought Danish butter cookies, you will recognize the concept, only the homemade version is worlds - entire universes, even - more delicious. To make it, you start by creaming the butter in a mixer, and then you add flour, baking soda, and sugar. Like I said, perfectly simple. You roll out the dough between sheets of plastic wrap, and then you chill it briefly, until it feels firm to the touch. Then you cut it into rectangles, brush it with egg and sprinkle it with coarse sugar, and bake until the edges go barely golden.

The finished cookies are dainty as sand dollars, with the familiar, irresistible, and profoundly reassuring fragrance of warm butter. If these cookies wore clothes, I’m pretty sure they would wear roomy blouses and long, full skirts with pastel flowers and, underneath, flesh-colored pantyhose and white satin slips with fine lace trim. Actually, now that I’ve typed that, I notice that I have just, in essence, described my grandmother. But it fits, and it’s how I feel about these cookies. They’re not hip or flashy or even photogenic, but I sort of love them anyway, and maybe even for that very reason.

Real Danish Butter Cookies
Adapted from Gourmet, December 2008

These would be really, really wonderful with a cup of tea. If you plan to give them as gifts, be sure to package them carefully, since they’re so delicate.

4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 lb. unsalted Lurpak butter, at room temperature for 1 hour
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, beaten
3 to 4 Tbsp. sanding or other coarse-grain sugar, such as Turbinado

Set racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven, and preheat to 325°F. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and baking soda.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter until fluffy. Then add the sugar and beat briefly to combine. Add the flour mixture, and beat on low speed until just combined. (Unless you have a plastic guard that sits around the rim of the bowl, this will make a big mess at first, with flour flying everywhere. I found that carefully holding a dish towel around the top of the bowl helped a lot.) The dough will appear crumbly, but if you squeeze a bit in your hand, it will cohere. Divide the dough in half.

Roll each half between large sheets of plastic wrap into a rectangle approximately 10 by 15 inches, about 1/8 inch thick. Transfer, still in plastic wrap, to a baking sheet, and refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes. Then remove the top layer of plastic wrap and cut into
2-by-1 ½-inch rectangles. (I tried this with some of my dough, but I found that the finished, baked cookies were a little larger than I wanted, so I wound up cutting next batch of rectangles in half, and I liked that size better. You might want to play around and decide for yourself.) Arrange the rectangles 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheets. If the dough becomes too soft, chill or freeze until it is again firm enough to handle.

Brush the tops of the cookies very lightly with the beaten egg, and then sprinkle with sanding sugar. Bake the cookies, 2 sheets at a time, switching positions of the pans halfway through baking, until they are very pale golden, 12 to 15 minutes. Cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes; then carefully slide the cookies, still on the parchment, onto wire racks. Cool completely. Make more cookies with the remaining dough, baking on cooled, freshly lined baking sheets. Reroll scraps once.

Note: Cookies will keep at room temperature for up to a week. Because I don’t plan to give mine away to friends for a week or two, I froze mine, and I’ll bet they’d be just fine that for a month or two, easy.

Yield: about 9 dozen cookies