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Google Dining: Part 2

google-cafe
Some of you may have read my post last week about Google dining. I was fortunate enough to be asked to have lunch on the Google campus, and while I was there, Google was incredibly accommodating. They set up a time for me to interview Scott Giambastiani, one of their Executive Chefs, and tour some of the Google cafés. But what was the food like? Eclectic, fresh, and small. Let me explain.

When I first walked onto the Google campus, I have to admit my expectations were pretty high. My friends Carol and Dan had filled me with stories of wonderful lunches they’d had there, including one day where they were met with heaping trays full of shucked oysters, buffet tables stacked with cracked crab, and mountains of shrimp. Yet although I didn’t find a “Seafood Friday Extravaganza,” as Dan and Carol dubbed that wonderful lunch they had a while back, I still had a more than decent meal and was impressed with the varied selection of dishes available and the quality of ingredients, not to mention the sheer abundance of food.

After sitting at a table outside with Scott, we journeyed inside the Big Table café for lunch. Now there seem to be two types of cafés at Google: themed and cafeteria style. Big Table is the latter. It’s a general all purpose eating facility that offers a varied menu and doesn’t really cater to any particular taste. Unlike Google’s Mexican taqueria or Spanish tapas café, Big Table has a diverse array of foods available for every taste.

sliders

Before I discuss the actual food, I should mention that Google has a small-plate philosophy. There are no heaping portions at Google. Sure they offer burgers and fries (albeit grass-fed beef burgers with organic potato fries), but the burgers come as small sliders and the fries are on proportionally-sized plates. The idea is for people to try a variety of dishes when eating, instead of gorging themselves on only one or two large items. The chefs are also hoping diners will eat a more varied diet. It seemed that in the midst of all the Google plenty, the chefs themselves advocate an aura of restraint: take what you need; include some vegetables to go with your meat; have an apple or banana; and try something you’ve never eaten before.

sushi

The first thing I noticed after getting my tray and silverware was a sushi bar to my left. Growing up in the sticks outside of San Diego, I didn’t even try sushi until I was in college, but when I did, I immediately fell in love. I therefore made a beeline to the sushi queue. While I waited for my turn, I noticed the sushi chef hard at work, cutting up pieces of salmon and eel to create fresh rolls. He seemed just as adept at his job as the guy behind the counter at my local sushi restaurant. Everything seemed to be made on the spot and I was impressed that Big Table hadn’t resorted to making a bunch of rolls earlier in the day so they’d have a stock on hand for the lunch rush. All the rolls seemed to be made fresh, right where the crowds could watch as they grabbed their small plates. Next to the sushi counter was a selection of regular and low-sodium soy sauce, along with wasabi and what looked (and tasted) like homemade pickled ginger.

After leaving the Sushi counter, the world was literally my oyster. Laid out before me were barbecued pork sliders and a variety of salads to go with them, Indian curries, pizzas, Asian rolls, calamari, meat-stuffed artichokes with a breaded topping, an enormous salad bar, soups, and other items that I just passed by in the whirlwind of food. I grabbed items here and there, completely skipping the curries as the line was outrageously long and headed to the beverage area.

Normally the drinks in a cafeteria aren’t remarkable, but of course at Google, even beverages get their moment in the sun. There seemed to be two main drink areas that on first glance seemed de rigueur, but not for long. Alongside the iced tea and apple juice sat a vat of lovely organic raspberry tea that was refreshing and sweet without being cloying, as juice teas often are. The soda fountain, meanwhile, was also unique. Instead of the normal “Coke,” “Pepsi,” and “A&W,” there was “Cola,” “Diet Cola,” “Root Beer” and so on, but with the clever inclusion of a short ingredients list for each. So instead of just grabbing a Coke, you were faced with the words “Sweetened with Cane Sugar” beneath, reminding you that your beverage of choice is laden with sucrose, although not the normal Beelzebub corn syrup.

Okay, now I’m actually going to tell you how the food tasted.

sushi rolls

The sushi was great. The fish tasted fresh and the rice was sticky but not gummy. My friend Carol said she got a tough piece of salmon in her roll, but my salmon and eel were both tender and delicious. The barbecued pork sliders were decent, but I have to admit they weren’t the best, or even great. This may be due to the fact that I like my barbecued pork laden in a tangy cider vinegar sauce and these had a sweet barbecue topping, but they were still good and I ate my entire sandwich. The stuffed artichokes were the least desirable item on my plate. The beef inside was just too dense and overwhelmed the sweet meat of the vegetable, and the tomato sauce on top was nothing of note and also detracted from the flavors of the dish. The pizza was better than your standard fare — cheesy and with a crisp crust — but not in the same league as what you’d find at Pizzeria Delfina or Pizzaiolo.

pizza

What impressed me most on my plate were the salads. The greens were fresh and crisp, the beets were sweet and earthy, the carrots perfectly blanched, and the dressings subtle in taste. Overall, I would rate the food as equivalent to what you would find in a two-star restaurant. That said, it was quite good for a workplace café. Dan and Carol both insisted they have often had better meals at Google, so maybe I was just there on an off day. Whatever the case, if my meal was the norm, those Googlers are pretty lucky to get such a variety of organic and freshly-prepared food for free. If I worked at Google, I would happily eat at Big Table or its equivalent every day with a big smile on my face.

After we were done eating, Carol and I perused the dessert area, but didn’t see anything too enticing. I was hoping to find a good cookie, but as none were available, I tried the brownie which had an odd flavor (I thought maybe it had peanut butter in it, but Carol thought it was made of carob). I was a little surprised the dessert at Big Table was lackluster as we had already enjoyed some wonderful mini-banana cream tarts before lunch while touring another café. The tarts’ crusts were flaky and crisp and the cream filling had a sweet banana flavor with a luscious texture. Everything a mini tart should be.

menu at slice smoothie bar

On the way out, Carol and I stopped by Slice, the smoothie bar. She got a Mangolicious while I asked for a Banana Split. Behind the counter, a café worker whipped up smoothies and poured them into glasses for anyone interested. The mango drink had a bright and fruity mango taste, while my smoothie had fresh coconut and chocolate flavors to accent the bananas. Both were lip smacking.

In each café, the focus really did seem to be on using local and organic foods that are in season, and the cleanup was equally green. Each restaurant has an area where you return your trays, compost your compostables, recycle your recyclables, and plant your reusable plates and silverware on a conveyor belt to be washed in the back. I also noticed the trash seemed relatively empty, which was impressive given the number of people having lunch at the café where we dined.

My overall impression was that serving that many people is a huge undertaking, yet everything seemed to run with a smooth efficiency. I was happy to see an overall emphasis on healthy eating and the choice to serve organic and local foods didn’t seem like a sham. Most importantly, the food was fresh and tasty. So if you’re thinking of applying for a job at Google, put some extra effort into your resume. The banana cream tarts are worth it.

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Dining at Google: Part 1

google sign
For years I have heard people wax poetic about the food at Google. The rumors seemed unbelievable: fresh organic, sustainable and locally grown foods prepared under the tutelage of a five-star chef. Oh, and did I mention it’s all free? Well, free if you work there. As if those stock options weren’t sufficient. It’s enough to make a freelance editor and writer cry.

So when a friend of mine who works for Google asked me join him for lunch one day, I jumped at the chance. I wanted to see for myself how the food operation at Google worked, and, more than that, if the hype lived up to the reality.

I had my own employee on-site dining experience years ago, when I was just out of college and worked as an assistant in the script development department at Walt Disney Studios. I quit after a year as I wasn’t up to swimming with sharks, but while I was there, I was able to benefit from a fairly good company commissary. It was run by Marriott Foods and although it wasn’t a five-star restaurant, it had a decent burger, a nice daily fish entrée, a solid deli, and breakfast at reasonable prices. Yet while I and the other underlings were dining at picnic tables outside, Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the directors, agents and stars were all on the upper floors of the Team Disney building. In a circular dining room with views of, as Johnny Carson used to say, beautiful downtown Burbank, the mucky mucks would eat food prepared by a noted chef on china plates that had little Mickey Mouse ears around the edges. So as I walked onto the Google campus, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was downstairs-picnic-table dining for the masses and Mickey-Mouse-china dining for the brass? Just how good is the food for the everyday workaday engineer at Google?

Through my Google friend Dan, I set up an appointment with Scott Giambastiani, one of seven Executive Chefs at Google, and we arranged a time to meet. When I googled Scott from my home computer, I realized that if he was any indication of this company’s seriousness about food, I was in for a nice lunch. Scott was trained at the California Culinary Academy and then interned at The Lark Creek Inn (a restaurant I have loved for years). He has worked with Gary Danko at the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, and then spent 9 years at Viognier in San Mateo. He left in 2006 to go to Google and seems quite happy with his choice. I had a great conversation with Scott. He was very welcoming and happy to share with me the ins and outs of Google dining, give me the skinny on some Google food legends, and detail how the dining operations are run.

google taqueria

Once I was on the Google campus, I was happy to see that dining at Google isn’t like dining at Disney. Google offers 18 cafés for their employees, which includes one at the San Francisco campus and one in San Bruno. There is no upstairs dining for the elite and outside dining for regular employees. It all seemed pretty egalitarian.

google veggies

The many cafés at Google are run by individual vendors who report to Google. Chefs like Scott act as ambassadors for Google and make sure all the cafés offer equivalent quality and value. As in many dining establishments, the menus are created daily and are dependent on what foods are available that day from the many farms and vendors they use. Local farms, such as Happy Boy, drop off food daily and the meals are then prepared on site. Other items, such as rolls and pastries, are purchased from local vendors and quality-checked by Google’s chefs.

kitchen snacks

In addition to its many cafés, Google has set up micro-kitchens throughout their offices. These are stocked with fresh coffee and often espresso machines, sandwiches, Naked Juice, cashews, dried fruit, It’s It cookies, and a variety of sodas and chips. As with the cafés, each kitchen is different. Although they all offer the same basic items, 20% of each kitchen’s offerings are unique to that kitchen and are chosen to meet the demographics of a specific office area, which are determined through surveys. So, as you might guess, the kitchens on floors with sales and marketing people have more raw nuts and the engineers want more chips.

its it cookies

When I walked through a few buildings, there seemed to be a kitchen around every corner. When I asked Dan about this, he said that according to Google lore, there is food within 150 feet of every office. Scott then confirmed the rumor as true. It seems that Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google’s founders, believed no one should ever be more than 150 feet from food (a philosophy I can get behind). They therefore had their offices built with numerous kitchens so workers could easily pop over for a quick bite while never needing to leave the near vicinity. I have to say that although this seems pretty convenient to the workers, I’m sure Google is getting a nice return on the fact that employees don’t ever stray far from their desks. Sort of like supplying pollen at the bee hive.

lego survey

The food choices at Google are very research-driven. Googlers (this is what Google calls its employees) can fill out online and paper questionnaires about the food they’re served; polls are taken; and they even have a Lego voting system in the dining areas where employees can vote through building a Lego structure using different colored blocks. The color you use says what you thought of your meal (i.e., red means “better luck next time,” yellow means “keep trying,” while green means “very good”). I couldn’t figure out how this actually worked as each dining area offers an abundance of food and the Legos didn’t seem to actually pinpoint a specific entrée, but it was interesting nonetheless.

The data Google gets from all those polls and surveys is crunched and then used to shape their food program. To satisfy the needs of their diverse population, they offer a variety of different dining venues. No Name offers a healthy vegetable-focused menu that includes raw food, while Pintxo has Spanish tapas and paella. 150 offers only local food grown within a 150-mile radius from the Google campus. There’s also a Mexican taqueria, a deli, and numerous all-purpose dining areas, like Big Table where I ate. These offer a variety of choices, including Indian food stations, pizza zones, sushi bars, and anything else you could really think of. Before leaving, my friend Carol (Dan’s wife) and I stopped off at the smoothie bar, named Slice, which was full of funky red and blue chairs and stools: quite a hip place to set up your laptop and work while drinking a free wheat grass shot.

smoothie bar

So how was the actual food? Read Part 2 Next Thursday where I continue my review by covering the café Big Table along with the smoothie bar. In the meantime, here’s a Google recipe for Heirloom Tomato and Summer Berry Gazpacho with Goat Cheese Ice Cream that Scott gave me.

Heirloom Tomato and Summer Berry Gazpacho
Makes: 8 servings
Ingredients:
3 lbs. red heirloom tomatoes, washed, stemmed and chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 ea. red bell pepper, washed, seeded and chopped into 1-inch pieces
2 ribs celery, washed and chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 ea. English cucumber, washed and chopped into 1-inch pieces
1-pint each fresh strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries, rinsed and picked over.
4 tbsp red verjus or red wine vinegar
2 cups club soda or cold water
2 tbsp brown sugar
8 sprigs cilantro, chopped (reserve two sprigs for garnish)
10 ea basil leaves, chopped (reserve two leaves for garnish)
12 sprigs parsley leaves, chopped (reserve two sprigs for garnish)
1 each lime, juiced
Salt to taste
cayenne pepper to taste

1 recipe Goat Cheese Ice Cream, prepared (below)

Preparation:
1. To begin this easy and delicious soup, start by making certain that all the fruits and vegetables are rinsed clean under cool running water.
2. Rough chop the first four ingredients as stated above.
3. Place the chopped vegetables, berries, verjus, club soda and brown sugar into a blender.
4. Cover and puree until smooth.
5. Adjust the seasoning with salt and cayenne to taste.
6. Next, pour the soup into a mixing bowl and stir in the chopped herbs.
7. Allow the herbs to sit in the soup refrigerated for 15-20 minutes.
8. Finally, strain the soup mixture through a fine strainer, pressing firmly with a spatula or ladle to force the pulp through the strainer.
9. Discard any pulp that remains in the strainer.
10. Add the juice of one lime to the soup.
11. Serve at once. Garnish soup with fresh berries, diced cucumber, fresh herbs and Goat Cheese Ice Cream.

Goat Cheese Ice Cream
Makes: 4 cups
Ingredients:
2 cups Heavy whipping cream
½ cup Whole milk
4 egg yolks
¼ cup sugar
3 Tbsp corn syrup
6 oz goat cheese, Laura Chenel brand if possible
Pinch of salt

Preparation:
1. In a heavy-bottomed saucepot, bring the cream and milk to a scald.
2. In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar and slowly pour in some of the hot cream to temper the eggs. This keeps the eggs from scrambling.
3. Pour the eggs into the cream and continue to cook for 2 to 3 minutes over medium-low heat, while constantly stirring the gently scraping the bottom of the pot with a rubber spatula.
4. Continue cooking until the mixture coats the back of a spoon and steam rises from the top.
5. In a separate mixing bowl, whisk together the corn syrup and goat cheese and then whisk this mixture into the cream mixture until smooth.
6. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer and chill this mixture in an ice bath.
7. Once chilled, place the ice cream base into a single serving ice cream machine and follow your manufacturer’s instructions for spinning.

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Biscuits

This post is for my lovely cousin-in-law Beth, who is in need of an easy biscuit recipe. Resist the urge to buy Pillsbury rolls. They’re full of hydrogenated fats and have a fake butter flavor. Once you eat a real biscuit, you’ll never want the refrigerated store variety again. Real biscuits are buttery and crisp and have a flavor unmatched by anything you could buy in a store. And, once you get the hang of them they’re fast and easy to make.

Here are a few key points to remember when making biscuits:

  1. Make sure your butter is cold. Like pie dough, you need to use chilled butter.
  2. Don’t overwork the dough, which will only make your biscuits rubbery.
  3. Make sure your oven is nice and hot before you begin.

So here’s my recipe. Good luck, Beth!

Biscuits

Makes: 10 – 12 biscuits

Ingredients:

2 cups flour

1 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp cream of tartar

1/2 tsp kosher or sea salt

1/4 cup butter (cold and cut into cubes)

1 cup buttermilk or whole milk


Preparation Using a Food Processor:

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
  2. Using the pastry blade, pulse flour, baking soda, cream of tartar and salt together.
  3. Add the butter and pulse around 10 times, or until the butter and flour are incorporated so you have little pebbles.
  4. Add the milk and pulse 2 – 3 times, or until you have a rough ball.
  5. Scatter flour onto a solid counter surface or a cutting board and pour the biscuit mixture on top of it.
  6. Roll dough into a 1/2-inch thick piece and cut individual pieces using a biscuit cutter, glass, cup or ramekin.
  7. Place biscuits on a baking sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes, or until biscuits are lightly browned.

Preparation Using Your Hands:

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
  2. In a large bowl, stir flour, baking soda, cream of tartar and salt together.
  3. Using a pastry cutter or your hands, blend the butter into the flour mixture until the butter is fully incorporated and you have little pebbles.
  4. Add the milk and mix until you have a rough ball.
  5. Scatter flour onto a solid counter surface or a cutting board and pour the biscuit mixture on top of it.
  6. Roll dough into a 1/2-inch thick piece and cut individual pieces using a biscuit cutter, glass, cup or ramekin.
  7. Place biscuits on a baking sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes, or until biscuits are lightly browned.



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Cherry Turnovers

cherries

I recently wrote about turnovers and posted my apple turnover recipe. I love apple turnovers, but also adore cherry. Unlike apples, however, cherries are only in season for a very short time each year, from about June through July. If you want to eat cherries the rest of the year, you need to use frozen or preserved. Although cherries are amazing when fresh, and fresh cherry turnovers are beyond compare, you can make delicious cherry turnovers with some frozen cherries and jam. I also use these same ingredients when making cherry pies out of season.

Here’s the recipe. It’s easy, fast and yummy.

Cherry Turnovers

Makes: 9 turnovers

Turnover Ingredients:

1 sheet frozen puff pastry 2 cups fresh or frozen cherries

1/2 cup cherry jam or preserves

1/2 cup bown sugar

2 Tbsp flour

1 tsp lemon juice


Topping Ingredients:
1 egg scrambled
2 Tbsp white sugar

Preparation:
1. Bring puff pastry to room temperature.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
3. Place frozen cherries, jam, lemon juice and sugar in a bowl and mix thoroughly.
4. Roll out pastry dough on a lightly floured surface into a 12- by 12-inch square and then cut it into 9 equal pieces.
5. Scoop cherry mixture onto the lower half of each square, being sure not to overfill.
6. Turn the upper half of the dough over the cherry mixture and pinch the ends. If the dough doesn’t seal, you can lightly coat the edges with an egg wash and then press them down.
7. Lay the filled dough onto a baking sheet and coat each turnover with an egg wash and sprinkle with sugar.
8. Place the baking sheet in the oven for 12 – 18 minutes, or until golden brown.
9. Serve immediately or store for later use.

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When in Rome…Eat Prime Rib

prime-rib-dinner_square2

In college I was always broke and ate very little meat. Ironically, I spent my freshman and sophomore years working at a prime rib restaurant called, of all things, The Gentleman’s Choice. As I couldn’t actually afford the beef dishes we served, I usually ate a free house salad and bread while escaping the cigarette smoke in the kitchen during my breaks. Since serving slabs of prime rib at The Gentleman’s Choice, I have eaten at a prime rib house only twice. This is partially due to the fact that I try to eat only grass-fed beef, and there’s nary a prime rib house that does that, and also because steakhouses aren’t my cup of tea.

My first prime rib experience after waitressing at the Gentleman’s Choice was about ten years ago in Santa Cruz. While visiting with my family, my Dad insisted we all eat at the Hindquarter — yes that is really the name — because, according to Dad, “Nothing else looks good.” I rebelled by ordering fish, which was dry and tasteless. The next occasion was last weekend when I was visiting our friends Mark and Margaret in San Diego and they wanted to use a gift certificate they had won for Red Tracton’s in Del Mar, a 60-year old landmark from the days when Hollywood icons like Bing Crosby and Jimmy Durante came to watch the ponies.

As soon as I entered the building and walked up to the hostess stand next to the bar, I was thrown back to my days serving at The Gentleman’s Choice. The décor was dark, the room smelled like beef and butter, and there were old white retirees everywhere drinking cocktails. The only thing missing were the wafts of cigarette smoke, which I am sure would have been there had it been legal.

Under normal circumstances, I try to purchase and eat only grass-fed beef. But what do you do when you’re faced with a social situation that is in disagreement with your general food philosophy? Do you walk out and say, “Sorry,” or do you stay mum and participate? I suppose the answer to this question depends on how vehemently opposed you are to what’s being served. A vegetarian in my situation most likely would have walked out (and rightly so), but as I eat meat, this seemed a bit extreme. So as I was handed the menu, I thought “when in Rome,” and put my personal beef ideology in a little mental box in the back of my head. This seemed the best thing to do, particularly as I had learned a very important ordering rule years ago.

While driving cross country a year after graduating from college with my dearest childhood friend Margaret and her husband Mark, we stopped in Monahan, Texas for lunch. Margaret’s black curly hair and her husband’s dangling cross earring stuck out in the little diner just as the ten-gallon hats on the male diners would have on Haight Street. As Mark ordered his hamburger, Margaret and I decided on turkey sandwiches. While Mark devoured his juicy all-American meat patty, Margaret and I picked the grayish turkey with a big black vein down the middle from between our sliced bread. Mark looked up and said, “We’re in Texas. Just get the burger.” Words to live by.

It’s easy to be a food snob in a steak house. There is no magic behind the dishes; no culinary expertise; and no tantalizing use of fresh ingredients. There are just large slabs of Grade-A beef (industrial food complex beef at that), lots of butter, and mayonnaise-based salad dressings. But I had learned my lesson in Texas and so realized I should just embrace the situation.

The gift certificate covered the price of two full prime cuts. Just one of those babies could feed a family of eight easily, although Mark and my husband handily finished most of their dinners plus a good portion of the chocolate cake afterward. I opted for the huge iceberg lettuce chunk with blue cheese and a much smaller steak. Did I enjoy my dinner? Not really, and I actually felt a little sick afterward. But did I hate the experience? No, and here’s why.

It’s simply more fun to eat up and drink your wine, than complain or walk out, especially when someone else is using their gift certificate. The Red Tracton’s (or any Gentleman’s Choice equivalent) is not my restaurant of choice, but we there for the great company, not the food. I can pretty much guarantee you that I won’t be eating in another prime rib house anytime soon, but sometimes it’s good to be reminded of your past. And sometimes, when in Rome, it just makes sense to get the prime rib.

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Homemade Chocolate Pudding

I posted this article last year on Bay Area Bites, but after making it last night, decided I should list it on this site as well. Chocolate pudding is very easy and fast to make from scratch, so resist the box!
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custard_pudding

I’ve been having deep thoughts about pudding lately. It all started when I was watching Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix with my daughters. Twice in the movie, Luna Lovegood refers to eating pudding at a Hogwart’s feast. Every time I heard the word “pudding,” my mouth watered and I knew I had to make some soon.

But what type of pudding? Although Harry Potter takes place in the United Kingdom, land of the bread pudding and baked pudding, I imagined Luna sitting down to a lovely bowl of rich chocolate pudding. I mean, what kid dreams of bread pudding? Well, forget about Luna — I have pudding dreams of my own and they are all creamy and chocolaty.

Once I decided to make pudding, I had a lot of questions. Whole milk or heavy cream? Eggs or no eggs? Nonfat or super fat? The options are endless and I began to feel a little like a puddin’ head thinking about it all. The one thing I knew for sure was that I was going to make it from scratch.

Now before you scoff and say that you don’t have time to make pudding from scratch, let me wag my digital finger at you. Making homemade pudding takes only about five minutes longer than mixing together a box of the instant stuff. Years of watching Jell-O commercials may have convinced you otherwise, but it’s true. Not one of the three recipes I made took more than twelve minutes to cook. Honest. Plus, unlike the boxed variety, you can pronounce all the ingredients, which is always a plus.

Nonfat Pudding

I started my pudding adventure wondering if I could make a pudding with nonfat milk that tasted creamy and rich. I made one from the Cooking Light web site and was sadly disappointed. The pudding was flat in both texture and taste. The wonderful creaminess you get from milk fat was missing and although I used a nice bittersweet chocolate, its nuances were drowned out. After a few bites, my husband and I agreed it wasn’t worth eating so we threw the whole thing out and made ice cream sundaes. If you’re interested in trying this nonfat milk pudding, here’s the recipe, and I wish you better luck.

Whole Milk Pudding Made with Cornstarch

The next night I made a chocolate pudding using a recipe on the New York Times web site by Mark Bittman. I am quite a fan of Mr. Bittman’s and so wanted to try his version. The recipe called for whole milk, sugar, cornstarch, chocolate, and not much else. I used a nice Michel Cluizel Mangaro Lait milk chocolate, because I thought my daughters would like it. When I make this pudding again, however, I will use a bittersweet chocolate instead as the milk chocolate lost its character once it was added to milk and sugar. Don’t get me wrong; it was still lovely with a nice caramel undertone. It just wasn’t chocolaty enough for my tastes. The recipe itself was smooth and rich, although with the occasional gelatinous blob of cornstarch even though I tried to thoroughly whisk it into the cold milk. Here’s the recipe. If you’d like to make a first-rate pudding and don’t want to deal with eggs, this is the one for you.

Custard Pudding

The final pudding would actually be considered a custard by some, although for me it had the best flavor of the bunch and seemed the most pudding-like. I used egg yolks, whole milk, cornstarch, bittersweet chocolate, and a few other minor ingredients. After looking at about fifteen custard and pudding recipes, I ended up cobbling this one together on my own as the others seemed to use either too many egg yolks or called for heavy cream, while I wanted to use milk. Others required a double boiler, which seemed like a lot of work for what is supposed to be a simple dessert. This pudding was the most time intensive, but it still took under 12 minutes to make from start to finish. The texture was velvety; the taste complex yet balanced. I used a combination of cocoa powder and bittersweet chocolate, melting them in at different times to give the pudding a fuller chocolaty flavor. I used a nice cocoa powder along with some Grenada Organic Dark Chocolate. This one definitely hit the spot.

I asked some friends over for a blind taste test and all agreed that although the New York Times recipe was quite good, the custard pudding was superior. We felt the Times recipe was a great choice for parents who wanted to make good and fast pudding for kids, but that the custard pudding had better consistency and flavor. One of my friends called it a pudding for grownups, which seemed to sum it up nicely.

So, please, get rid of the Jell-O box and try some homemade pudding. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how easy and fast it is to make, and much happier with the results.

Velvety Bittersweet Chocolate Pudding

Makes 2 – 4 servings

Ingredients

2 large egg yolks

½ cup sugar

3 Tbsp corn starch

Dash of salt

2 Tbsp good cocoa powder

2 cups whole milk

1 tsp vanilla extract

2 Tbsp butter

3 ounces finely chopped bittersweet chocolate

Preparation

  1. Heat the milk on medium-low heat until it starts to steam with small bubbles around the edge. Turn off the heat.
  2. Whisk egg yolks with sugar in a bowl until the mixture is a light yellow color.
  3. Add the corn starch, cocoa, and salt to the egg mixture and whisk thoroughly, making sure there are no lumps.
  4. Add about a half cup of the warmed milk to the egg mixture, whisking vigorously to temper the eggs.
  5. Add the egg mixture to the milk and incorporate thoroughly.
  6. Cook on medium-low just until the mixture starts to bubble. Be sure to frequently stir or the pudding will start to burn at the bottom.
  7. Lower the heat to simmer and cook for five minutes, stirring often.
  8. Once the pudding is thickened, turn off the heat and stir in the butter and vanilla.
  9. After the butter has melted, add in the chopped chocolate and stir until it is thoroughly melted and incorporated.
  10. Divide into serving bowls, or place in one large bowl.
  11. Cover with plastic wrap, being sure to let it sit directly on top of the pudding to avoid a skin forming.
  12. Refrigerate for at least two hours.
  13. Serve with whipped cream.

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Recall Free No-Bake and Baked Granola Bars

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Peanut butter is the ultimate kid food. From sandwiches made with little jammy hands to apple slices dipped into a creamy mess, peanut butter makes up its own kid food group. Unfortunately, right now we are in the midst of a major peanut butter recall. It’s on the news all the time and grocery store shelves have gaping holes where peanut butter items once sat. Even dog treats are being recalled.

But families should take heart. Except for a few brands of peanut butter I have never heard of (such as King Nut and Parnell’s Pride), the recall is mainly for processed foods made with a mass-produced peanut butter paste. According to the FDA’s web site, “Major national brands of jarred peanut butter found in grocery stores are not affected by the PCA recall.” This is why jars of peanut butter still sit ready for purchase at your local store. From Jif and Peter Pan to organic creamy and crunchy, those jars are still available and deemed safe by the FDA for consumption.  If you don’t believe me, listen to Dr. Stephen Sundlof of the FDA.

But what do you do if your kids love peanut butter granola bars — which are definitely on the recall list –like mine do? Each week I break my no-trash lunch rule and buy individually wrapped Trader Joe’s Peanut Butter Chewy Coated & Drizzled Granola Bars because my kids just can’t get enough of them. They are the preferred treat for snack time after recess, and I like that they give my daughters both protein and carbs, which in turn gives them the energy to continue sitting and learning until lunch arrives. Yes, I hate the wrappers, but what’s one little wrapper (each), I ask myself?

Well, those granola bars disappeared from our pantry and my daughters lunches after the recall was announced. I tried to substitute their favorite treat with everything from yogurt and granola, to blueberry breakfast bars (more wrappers!) and extra fruit. After a couple of weeks of having my kids doggedly ask each morning if they could have their favorite peanut butter granola bar — “Is the recall over Mommy?” — I gave up and decided to make them myself. I had a large jar of organic peanut butter sitting in my refrigerator. We’d made our way through about a 1/3 of it by the time the recall was announced, so I knew it was safe as we’d all been eating it and no one had gotten sick. Plus it wasn’t on the recall list.

As I no longer had a box of the beloved Trader Joe’s bars, I had no idea what they contained, so struck out on my own. I opted for using granola — you can purchase some or make your own — to get a nice crunch and added an equal amount of puffed rice for added crunch and also a little chewiness. I really wanted a nice nutty flavor, so recommend crunch peanut butter if you have it. And, because I needed the whole thing to stick together, I threw in a healthy dollop of gooey honey. Finally I added some chocolate chips, because who doesn’t love chocolate with peanut butter?

The resulting bar was, according to my husband, hands-down better than the store-bought variety. My daughters, on the other hand, thought it tasted almost as good. The proof, however, was in the fact that they each devoured their bar and then asked for more. If you are avoiding peanut products all together, you can still enjoy this recipe with cashew or almond butter.

I then began to wonder how difficult it would be to make baked granola bars. I loosely based my first batch on my Nut and Fruit Oatcakes recipe, but without the leftover steel-cut oats, it was a bit dry. After adding some corn syrup and also honey, the recipe turned out moist with a nice texture. Unlike the first recipe, I think this one tastes better with almond butter, so you don’t even need to worry about the peanut butter recall. If you prefer peanut butter, however, that would also work just as well.

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No-Bake Peanut, Cashew, or Almond Butter Granola Bars

Makes 12 Bars

Ingredients:

1 cup granola

1 cup dried puffed rice (such as Rice Krispies)

1/2 cup chunky peanut, cashew, or almond butter

1/3 cup honey

1/2 cup chopped slightly salted peanuts, cashews, or almonds

1/2 cup chocolate chips

Oil spray

Preparation:

1. Mix granola, puffed rice, nuts and chocolate chips in a large mixing bowl.

2. In a separate, microwave-safe bowl, combine the peanut or almond butter and honey and then microwave for 30 seconds. If you don’t want to use a microwave, you can heat these in a pot  on the stove on low.

3. Thoroughly mix the peanut butter and honey after it is warmed and add to the granola mixture.

4. Stir until all the granola and puffed rice is evenly coated with the peanut butter and honey.

5. Spray a 9 x 9 square pan with oil.

6. Press the granola/peanut butter mixture into the pan, making sure it is even on all sides.

7. Refrigerate for at least an hour, but preferably longer, so the bars set.

8. Cut the bars into four rows and then make one horizontal cut down the middle so you end up with 12 bars.

9. Keep bars refrigerated until ready to eat.

Note: Some whole peanuts are on the recall list, so be sure the ones you purchase are safe to eat.

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Dried Fruit and Nut Granola Bars

Makes 18 – 24 bars

Ingredients:

2 cups oats

1 cup whole wheat flour

1 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

2 eggs

1/2 cup almond butter

1 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup honey

1/4 cup light corn syrup

1/4 cup canola oil

1/2 cup walnuts, almonds or cashews

1/2 cup dried cranberries or raisins

1/2 cup dried apricots or peaches

1/4 cup sunflower seeds

Preparation:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees

2. Mix oats, wheat flour, baking powder, nuts and dried fruit in a large mixing bowl.

3. Mix the eggs, peanut butter, brown sugar, honey and oil using the paddle whip in an electric mixer.

4. Mix in the dried ingredients.

5. Line a 13 x 9 inch pan with parchment paper sprayed with oil or just spray with oil.

6. Press the oat mixture into the pan, making sure it’s even on all sides.

7. Bake for 15 – 20 minutes, or until the top is golden brown.

8. Cool and then cut into bars to serve.

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A No-Hassle Holiday Breakfast with Leftovers

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One of the things I love about cooking around the holidays is experimenting with all the ingredients in my refrigerator. Although I have a great time planning our Christmas Eve, Christmas, and New Year’s feasts, I think I enjoy the impromptu ones even more. Take Christmas breakfast this year: although I had every intention of making cinnamon rolls the night before Christmas so we could have freshly-baked ooey gooey deliciousness in the morning, an ill-timed head cold forced me to bed early. So there we were, Christmas morning with no buns. What we did have, however, was a fridge full of fresh and luxurious holiday ingredients.

After my daughters had their fill of opening the slew of presents Santa left, I sidled into the kitchen and opened the fridge. As I stared at the contents, I started to get hungry. My cold was subsiding and my nasal passages were starting to be able to discern smells again. As I scanned the shelf before me, I realized I had all the makings for a great frittata: eggs, baby spinach, pancetta, ricotta, parmesan, and heavy cream. It didn’t take long to mix everything together, and once I did, my mother commented on how the pancetta’s pink color coordinated with the green spinach to make a lovely Christmas color combination. I stared at my plate and felt a bit like an accidental Martha Stewart until I looked up and was brought back to reality by my messy kitchen. Even better than how it looked, however, was the fact that the eggs, ricotta and heavy cream had merged into a gorgeous custard, with the pancetta, spinach and Parmesan adding both salty and savory flavors.

The foods I had on hand worked well for my needs, but I could have easily used a variety of other items many people have lying around during the holidays. If you have a refrigerator full of random leftovers from holiday menus, just use whatever sounds good to make your own great holiday frittata. Some items you may want to use are cheeses left over from an appetizer platter, crème freche, ricotta, heavy cream, baked ham, sausage, pate, or al dente vegetables. There’s nothing like a frittata to make the most of a 1/2 cup of leftover whatever.

I’m also including my recipe for breakfast sausage, which I made on Christmas morning to go with the frittata. I like to start with sausage meat from my local butcher, but you could just as easily cobble this dish together using mild Italian pork or chicken sausage, or bratwurst. Any sausage you like is fine as the real flavor comes from adding a few more ingredients to the meat. Sometimes I add rosemary, spring onions and mustard, but I have also tried and liked adding a tablespoon of maple syrup, thyme, and shallots. You could also toss in a tablespoon of fruit chutney.

Most of us don’t have heavy cream and aged cheeses sitting in our refrigerators on a daily basis, so if you have holiday foods left over, make the most of them. Chances are your cupboard will revert back to a more modest and healthier ingredients list in a week or two and the opportunity will be lost.

Holiday Frittata
Serves 4 – 6 people

Ingredients
6 eggs
1/2 cup ricotta, crème freche, or sour cream
1/2 cup heavy cream or whole milk
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup chopped pancetta, sausage or bacon
1/2 cup fresh spinach or arugula
1 Tbs olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
2. Place olive oil and your meat of choice into a medium pan that can go into the oven for 5-7 minutes or until your meat is lightly browned.
3. Meanwhile, whisk your eggs in a medium bowl until they start to get frothy.
4. Whisk in the ricotta, crème freche or sour cream and then add in the 1/2 cup of heavy cream or whole milk (please note that you should only use one of each ingredient, i.e., not heavy cream AND whole milk).
5. Once the meat is browned, add your spinach or arugula to the pan and sprinkle on a dash of salt. Mix and set in the oven for 2-3 minutes, or until the greens wilt.
6. Add the Parmesan to the egg mixture and then add it to the pan and bake for 5-7 minutes, or until the eggs become semi-firm.
7. Switch your oven to broil and place the pan about two inches beneath it. Broil your frittata until lightly browned and then quickly remove from the oven.
8. Serve.

“Homemade” Breakfast Sausage Patties
Makes 8 – 12 sausages (depending on how large you make the patties)

Ingredients
6 sausages (chicken or pork) or 1 pound sausage meat
1 Tbsp finely chopped rosemary
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1/4 cup chopped spring onions or shallots
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper

Preparation
1. Remove sausage meat from their casings and place meat in a medium bowl.
2. Add all the other ingredients and then form sausage into patties.
3. If making baking in the oven, place the patties on a large baking sheet and cook for 10 minutes on each side or until the patties are thoroughly browned.
4. If making on the stove top, heat a large pan on medium high and fry patties on each side until browned and thoroughly cooked through.
5. Serve.

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Stuffing, Gravy and Mashed Potatoes: Oh My!

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[Also published on KQED's Bay Area Bites]

As far as I’m concerned, side dishes are what make a Thanksgiving dinner great. Sure, I like turkey, but I truly love stuffing, gravy and mashed potatoes. For me, carbs topped with gravy make this holiday meal delicious.  The problem is that most of us don’t make these three dishes very often, so preparing them once a year — for a table full of family and friends no less — can seem intimidating and make you feel a bit like Dorothy walking into the dark unknown forest with the Tin Man and the Scarecrow. (Some of you may be able to tell that my daughters have just discovered the joys of watching – and rewatching and rewatching and rewatching — the Wizard of Oz).

I made my first solo Thanksgiving dinner when I was 22 years old. My mom was sick and so I jumped in at the last minute. I had never made a chicken, let alone a turkey, but was excited to help out my mom and cook the meal.  I muddled through the day, making boxed stuffing, lumpy mashed potatoes with the skins mixed in, and watery gravy. It was the worst Thanksgiving meal my family had ever eaten, but nobody seemed to care. Everyone just seemed thankful that they didn’t have to cook all day, and, of course, we were together.

Since then, I have cooked numerous Thanksgiving meals, some with help and some by myself. Each year I learn something new and almost always try something a little different. My stuffing is now always made from Ciabatta and oven-roasted chestnuts, my mashed potatoes are creamy, and my gravy is (thankfully) thick. So, if you’re in need of a little Thanksgiving advice, here are a few things I’ve learned throughout the years about my three favorite parts of the Thanksgiving meal.

Moist Flavorful Stuffing

To stuff or not to stuff, that is the question. Although many recipes call for placing the stuffing in a baking dish and cooking it separately from the turkey to avoid bacterial contamination, I think this makes it dry. I therefore bake my stuffing in the turkey so all the lovely juices drip into the dressing, making it moist and flavorful. Without those, the stuffing is really just a mix of bread and other stuff. I then scoop it out when I take my turkey out of the oven, place it in a dish, and stick that back in the oven so it can heat up to the proper temperature while the meat rests. This allows you to get all the flavor of a stuffed dressing, while making sure it won’t kill anyone.

Note: I won’t recommend a specific stuffing recipe as there are tons of recipes out there.

Here’s what I do

  1. Make your favorite type of stuffing, place it inside the turkey, and bake according to your turkey baking instructions.
  2. When your turkey is resting, take the stuffing out of the turkey and scoop it into a buttered baking dish.
  3. Drizzle about 1/4 cup of turkey broth on top.
  4. Cover your dish and set it in the already heated oven for about 15 or 20 minutes while you make your gravy. The cover on the dish helps keep the moisture in, but baking it longer gets it up to the right temperature to be safe.
  5. Bake until the stuffing is 170 degrees.
  6. If you want a crisp topping, take the cover off for the last five minutes.

Basic Gravy

There are so many gravy recipes out there, but as far as I’m concerned, there’s only one proper way to make it. Yes, I’m sure many of the results from those recipes are delicious, but the simple fact that gravy has to be made at the very end of the cooking process means it should be quick and easy. I don’t have time to chop up giblets or add special ingredients.

Here’s what I do

  1. Make a stock out of the turkey neck, giblets, onions, celery, carrots and whatever herbs you’re using for your turkey earlier in the day.
  2. Warm the stock right before you take the turkey out of the oven.
  3. When the bird comes out, set it on a serving dish to rest and then drain all the juices from the pan into a fat separator.
  4. While the fat separates from the juices, put your turkey baking dish on the stove, mix in 2-3 tablespoons of flour. If you don’t have much fat in the pan, add in a couple of tablespoons of butter and create a roux.
  5. Slowly start to deglaze the pan with the turkey stock. Don’t add any black crispy burnt pieces, however, as they’ll taste bitter.
  6. Pour the deglazed juices into a pot, add the defatted juices, and then add more turkey stock until you have a smooth and rich gravy. If you have lumps, just whisk it or put a blending stick in and pulse until the lumps are gone.
  7. Add in any chopped herbs you would like to accent the gravy. I like to use about a teaspoon of fresh thyme.
  8. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Velvety Mashed Potatoes

I like my mashed potatoes creamy and so put them through a ricer to get a smooth consistency. If you don’t have one, you can also mash the potatoes with a fork to get the same fine texture. It just takes a little longer. Here are some tips to making velvety potatoes.

Here’s what I do

  1. Use Yukon Gold potatoes as they have an innate creamy texture. I usually use about 2 – 2 1/2 pounds.
  2. Peel the potatoes before boiling them and cut into 1/2-inch pieces. Make sure the potato pieces are all about the same size so they cook equally.
  3. Salt your boiling water to help season your potatoes.
  4. When you can easily poke the potatoes with a knife, drain them, and then stick the potatoes back into the now dry pot and heat on medium for about a minute while stirring. This will dry any excess moisture from the boiling process so the potatoes can soak up your milk, butter and cream.
  5. Place the potatoes in a ricer and press them into a large bowl.
  6. Heat 1/2 cup milk, 1/2 cup cream and 1/4 cup of butter in a pot.
  7. Add the heated milk mixture to the potatoes and stir. Stop adding when the potatoes are the consistency you like.
  8. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  9. Fluff the potatoes a bit with a fork to aerate.
  10. Set the potatoes in a buttered casserole dish, top with small cubes of butter, and bake until the top is slightly crispy.
  11. Serve.

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Green Goddess Salad Dressing

Today’s New York Times Sunday Magazine highlighted a Green Goddess salad dressing recipe from 1948. After looking at the picture of crisp romaine lettuce topped with creamy goodness, I knew I had to make it. The only problem is that it includes anchovies. Although I love those salty little fish, my husband has designated anchovies enemy number one in our pantry. I find this unfair. Anchovies are delicious, good for you, and one of the only available fish in plentiful supply (and not on any seafood watch lists). With this in mind, I thought I’d try something a bit sneaky: I decided to blend the ingredients so my husband couldn’t detect the anchovies inside. And, because I thought it would be fun for the ‘Green Goddess’ dressing to actually be green, I added spinach leaves to the puree. I also tossed some homemade croutons into the salad, which added a welcome crunchiness and soaked up the flavor of the dressing nicely.

The dressing itself was rich in flavor and body, and both my husband and I loved it. If you’re an anchovy hater, you should note that the taste of the fish wasn’t particularly noticeable in the final product, although it did have a nice salty flavor reminiscent of a Caesar dressing.

Feeling a bit guilty about my little ruse, I waited until we were halfway through dinner to spring the hidden ingredient on my husband. By this time, he had devoured most of his salad and was eying the remnants of what I had left on my plate.

“So, there’s anchovies in this dressing,” I mentioned nonchalantly.

“No!” he said, staring down at his plate.

“Yup.” I said, taking a small sip of wine, and then left it at that. I then handed over my plate and let him finish the few leaves I had left.

Here’s the recipe. I highly suggest purreeing the ingredients instead of whisking them (as the recipe suggests) as it gives you a nice creamy dressing. Blending everything together is also the easiest way to sneak those anchovies past unsuspecting spouses.

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