Yellow Layer Cake with Vanilla Frosting

Matt and I have a saying (which may or may not be a real saying) for when you get exactly what you want. It's called getting your fish wish. Matt's birthday-cake fish wish? Yellow cake with vanilla frosting. At first, I was like: Really? Isn't this cake more in line with your fish wish? But Matt knew what he wanted: vanilla and vanilla. And once I gave into the idea, I found ways to sneak in some funmainly in the form of blue icing. Oh, and there's an egg yolk in that icing. Who the heck knew you could do that?
Happy birthday, Matt! Now, let's watch Game of Thrones and eat another slice.
Yellow Layer Cake with Vanilla Frosting via Food and Wine
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature

1/2 pound unsalted butter, softened
1 large egg yolk (optional)
1 pound confectioners' sugar (If I could do it all over again, I'd leave out at a couple of ounces of sugar. The icing is very sweet.)
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter two 9-by-2-inch round cake pans and line with parchment paper; butter and dust with flour. In a bowl, mix the 3 cups of flour, baking powder and salt. In a cup, mix the milk with the vanilla.

In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle, beat the butter at medium speed until light and creamy. Add the sugar and beat until fluffy, 4 minutes. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the bowl. Beat in the dry ingredients in 3 batches, alternating with the milk mixture and scraping down the bowl.

Scrape the batter into the pans. Bake in the lower third of the oven for about 35 minutes, until springy. Let cool for 15 minutes, then run a knife around the edges and invert onto a rack. Peel off the paper, turn the cakes upright and cool completely.

In a standing mixer fitted with the whisk, beat the butter and egg yolk at medium-high speed until creamy. Beat in the sugar at low speed. Beat in the cream, vanilla and salt, then beat at medium-high speed until fluffy, 3 minutes longer.

Spread 1 cup of frosting over a cake layer and top with the second layer; frost the top and sides. Let stand 1 hour; serve.


Warm Fresh Mozzarella with Grits, Seared Radicchio, and Balsamic

As I put together this book proposal and invest all this energy in it, I’ve been feeling like the blog, the whole reason I’m writing this particular proposal, has been kind of getting the shaft. It’s a little strange because I’m writing so much about my relationship between learning to cook and life in general, including all these stories about my first couple of years in Los Angeles and some of the crazier things that Matt and I have been through, and instead of sharing it with you here on Bon Appétempt, I’m hoarding them away, putting them all in this giant Word document (which is presently labeled PizzaTheHutt.doc because when I started it, it was just as sloppy and ravenous as that character from Spaceballs). And as I’m stashing these stories away, this passage from The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, a book I read a thousand years ago, kept coming to mind. In my head, the lines went something like this: Don’t save your ideas for later. Use them now! Use them all! But I knew that Ms. Dillard had written it much more beautifully. So, after some searching, I finally spotted the thin little paperback hiding at the very bottom of a stack of much thicker books and reread exactly what she’d written:

“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Wow. It was so much better than I’d remembered. And at first reread, I felt bad. I felt like: shit, I have all these stories to tell and I’m just stockpiling them away for this book, a currently intangible entity that may never become tangible. Am I ignoring the advice of Annie Dillard? But then, I thought for a few seconds longer and reread the passage, noticing the word book. It’s actually there twice. Of course, Ms. Dillard published The Writing Life in 1989, and so I can’t be sure if her stance on not saving things for later would extend to the instantaneous, often under-edited nature of the blogosphere. (Though I’m going to interpret it as if it would not.)

Like so many of us, my relationship with the Internet is complicated. I love the Internet. Ever since that guy first told me: “You’ve got mail!” in 1996, I’ve been hooked. I love the ease, the quickness, and the ability to retrieve video clips from the USA women’s gymnastics team’s international competitions before NBC airs them. But I love books too. I love their non-quickness and the space they afford. I love the things I associate with them: vacation, school, bedtime, and bookstores. And since the two are so different, when creating content, I think it’s sometimes best to choose the appropriate medium first and then go for it.

For example, a video of making chocolate éclairs with your Mom while she downs cans of Diet Coke? Internet. The story of how learning how to cook has changed my world view and helped me redefine the meaning of success? I think that’s book material. In my life, the Internet is fun, quick, occasionally thoughtful, and a pinch stressful. Books, on the other hand, are calming, restorative, and very rarely stressful. And I love food blogs (obviously)—all those recipes and voices and glimpses into other people’s lives and kitchens—but sometimes there’s just no substitute for paging through a beautiful, food-stained cookbook. 
I know I’ve already talked about this book a couple of times, but I really love the tone of Andrea Reusing’s Cooking in the Moment. The whole book feels very honest, very much like a friend inviting you over to cook with her. There’s one photo in particular from the book that makes me want to get to know Ms. Reusing. She’s wearing an oversized black sweater, seemingly no make-up, and has her head down, smiling, as she mans the grill. A friend or relative stands behind her, also smiling but again not looking at the camera. She has her hands in her pockets and looks exactly as one should look when they’re keeping the person who is doing the grilling company. The focus isn’t on a fancy house or even particularly gorgeous food. To me, it’s about the camaraderie of a really good dinner party. It makes me want to jump into the frame and join them—“Hey, guys! Room for one more? I have this weird food blog and…”
Of course, the photo right next to it, of the grilled radicchio on top of grits and paired with warm fresh mozzarella, is pretty inviting too—particularly for this vaguely-spring, more-like summer weather we’ve been having. So, despite our lack of a grill, I thought we’d give it a go. Reusing calls for Carolina Gold rice “grits,” which she describes as “short, uneven pieces of rice that have been broken during the threshing process,” but all I could find were the classic polenta, made-of-corn kind. Also, my radicchio hardly looks anything like her radicchio, but if you run a quick Google image search on radicchio, the kind I got is clearly much more prevalent. (As always, if there are any radicchio experts out there, please weigh in!)
The meal came together more quickly than I’d expected. I guess the Carolina Gold rice grits take longer to cook. Mine were ready in about 15 minutes as opposed to the 45 she calls for. And apart from my radicchio being crazy bitter, (Perhaps it needed more time to cook and mellow out?) I loved this meal. I forgot how comforting and delicious grits are and want to make a point to cook them more often. Plus, the balsamic vinegar was the perfect counterpart to the mild cheese and all that butter I put in the grits. (She doesn’t specify how much, so I just went for it.)
Also coincidentally, a short essay that I wrote on the intended (and unintended) consequences of Internet distraction will be published in the next installment of the awesome literary journal The Rattling Wall. It’s a fantastic press, so be sure to pick it up!
Warm Fresh Mozzarella with Grits, Seared Radicchio, and Balsamic slightly adapted from Andrea Reusing's Cooking in the Moment
serves 4

1 cup coarse grits (Reusing calls for Carolina Gold rice grits, though I could only find corn grits, a.k.a. polenta.)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
unsalted butter
2 heads of radicchio, trimmed but core left intact, cut in half lengthwise
extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon sugar
3/4 pound fresh mozzarella, either in small balls or cut into 4 chunks, at room temperature
Aged balsamic vinegar
flaky sea salt, such as Maldon

Put the grits in a medium pot, whisk in 5 cups cold water, and season with salt. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Cover and cook, stirring frequently and adding additional water as needed, until they are creamy and tender. If you are using the Carolina Gold rice grits, this will take 45 minutes to an hour or longer. The corn grits I used took only 15-20 minutes. Add butter to taste and season again with salt.

Put the radicchio on a large plate and drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle all over with the sugar, and season generously with salt and pepper. Sear the radicchio, starting with the cut side down, in a cast-iron pan over medium-high heat until it is caramelized and tender, 2-3 minutes per side.

Put the mozzarella in a bowl of hot, salted water for 30 seconds to heat and then drain. Divide the grits among four warm plates, and arrange the cheese and radicchio alongside. Drizzle with balsamic and sprinkle with sea salt.


Video Attempt: Mother's Day Special

I love my mom as much as the next gal (unless the next gal has a horrible mom and does not love her), but that doesn't mean that she and I drink the same amount of Diet Coke, wear the same amount of diamond jewelry, or eat chocolate éclairs the same way. Of course, that's really beside the point. The point is that my mom and I made éclairs, and they were fantastic. So, thanks, Momfor visiting and cooking with me and letting Matt capture the magic on camera. You've always supported all of my weird projects and for that, and everything else, I love you! Happy Mother's Day.

Chocolate Éclairs
slightly adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Fizz Carr's The River Cottage Family Cookbook
makes about 12
(Instead of thick pastry cream, Hugh and Fizz stuff their éclairs with whipped cream. I personally think this was a great idea.)

5 tablespoons butter
7/8 cup water
a pinch of salt
scant 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
3 free-range eggs
1 cup heavy cream (+ 2 teaspoons of sugar if you want to sweeten your whipped cream a bit.)

For the chocolate icing:
1/2 cup superfine sugar
6 tablespoons water
2 oz. dark chocolate
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1. Preheat oven to 400F. Dice the butter, put it in the medium saucepan with the water and salt, and turn the heat to low. Stir from time to time with the wooden spoon as the butter melts. Meanwhile, sift the flour into a small bowl.

2. When the butter has melted, turn up the heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Turn off the heat and quickly add the flour to the saucepan. Immediately beat the flour into the liquid with the wooden spoon to mix all the ingredients together. After a few seconds or so, you'll find that the mixture swells into a smooth dough that comes away from the sides of the saucepan. Stop beating.

3. Remove the pan from the heat. Let the mixture cool for 3 or 4 minutes. Crack the eggs into the medium bowl and whisk them with the fork. Pour a little of the egg into the flour mixture and beat it in well. Keep adding and beating in the egg, a little at a time, until the dough looks thick, smooth, and shiny and still holds its shape well. You may not need the last 2 or 3 tablespoons of egg if your eggs are large ones.

4. If you happen to have an éclair pan, spoon the mixture into the éclair pan, keeping in mind that these things are going to puff up like crazy so you don't need much dough per éclair. If you don't have an eclair pan: spoon the mixture into a freezer bag (you'll need to scrape it out of the pan with a plastic spatula). Fold down the top of the bag to squeeze the dough to the bottom. Snip off one of the bottom corners of the bag to give you a hole about 3/8 inch long. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Squeeze the mixture into sausage shapes about 4 inches long onto the parchment, allowing about 1 1/2 inches of space between each one (they should at least double in size in the oven). You should be able to make about 12.

5. Oven gloves on. (That's what Hugh and Fizz calls them. Kinda cute.) Place the baking sheets in the hot oven and leave for about 30 minutes. When the éclairs are ready, they should be puffed up, a good golden brown all over, and feel hard when you poke one with a knife. Oven gloves on again. Take out the baking sheet and turn off the oven.

6. Immediately take each éclair off the sheets and, with the point of a knife, gently slit the side to let out the steam. (Otherwise the steam sits trapped in the eclair and turns back to water, leaving you with a soggy pastry.) Let them cool and dry out on the wire rack.

7. Whip the cream in the small bowl with the whisk (adding the two teaspoons of sugar if you're adding it, about halfway through) until it's just thick enough to hold its shape. Put it in the fridge while you make the chocolate icing.

8. For the icing, put the sugar and water in a small saucepan, place it in the stove, and turn the heat to low. Heat gently, stirring all the time with a wooden spoon to dissolve the sugar. Bring to a boil and boil fast for 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and wait for a few minutes for the syrup to cool down (you can speed this up by dipping the bottom of the pan in a bowl of cold water, if you like). Meanwhile, break up the chocolate and cut the butter into chunks.

9. When the syrup is very warm, rather than very hot, add the chocolate and butter. Stir until both have melted and blended to a smooth, glossy sauce. Let cool, stirring occasionally. When the sauce starts to thicken, it's ready to ice your eclairs.

10. When the pastries are cool, use a teaspoon to fill the inside of each éclair with whipped cream (you may need to enlarge the slit that you made before). Then take a different teaspoon and smear the chocolate icing generously over each eclair. Leave the eclaris on the wire rack until the icing has set. In the unlikely event that you're not going to eat them straight away, you can put them in the fridge for a few hours.


Ghormeh Sabzi

One major perk of having a food blog—and this is probably reason enough to start one—is that people who read your blog sometimes invite you to their house to make awesome food with them. This is one of those stories. About a month ago, when I posted about my love for Persian cuisine—particularly tah dig (crispy rice)—I got an offer from my friend, Tannaz, to teach me how to make it. Needless to say, I accepted.

Tannaz gave me some menu options and an education. Here are some things I learned: For Persian rice, you typically have two options: polo or chelo. Polo has things cooked into it and chelo is plain white rice with saffron that you serve with khoresh (stew). I was about to say whichever one has the crispy rice, but she cut me off at the pass: Don’t freak out, Amelia; they both have the crispy rice layer. (She didn't really say it like that.)

As for the khoresh, there seemed to be a world of options. We could make karafs, which included celery and tons of herbs. We could do fesenjan, which was walnuts and pomegranate. There was gheime, a tomato-based khoresh with split peas and shoestring fried potatoes on top (Keep talking, I’m interested.) But hey, what about aloo esfenaj? That one highlights prunes and spinach and is both sweet and sour. But there was one khoresh option that reigned supreme, ghormeh sabzi, which Tannaz explained as “probably the Iranian national dish.” For ghormeh sabzi, you use tons of fresh herbs, which you fry, before then stewing them for a long, long time with beans and/or meat.
We met up last Sunday afternoon in Tannaz’s sunny Los Feliz kitchen and got straight to the work of making the ghormeh sabzi. The herbs in the khoresh need a long, long time to stew, remember? Speaking of the herbs, a million thanks to Violet, Tannaz’s mom who had already cleaned and chopped all of the herbs, another bonus of cooking in other people’s kitchens, sometimes their Moms help out and chop the herbs ahead of time! And I must point out, this was not a small amount of herbs. In fact, it was more herbs than I had ever used in a single dish. So, while the beef browned in the pot with the onions and turmeric, we moved on to frying herbs, definitely my favorite part of the process. The kitchen started to smell like success, fried-fresh-herb success.
Enter the dried lemons. Although the recipe called for them and Tannaz seemed very comfortable with the recipe, she didn’t seem entirely comfortable with the lemons. In fact, this was the first time they had ever been in her house. Here’s one she smashed up. It smelled like a lemon wearing lemon perfume—or, in other words, very lemony.
Once you get everything in the pot, the ghormeh sabzi just needs time, which works out perfectly because if you’re making ghormeh sabzi, you’re prolly making Persian rice, and that needs its fair share of time too.
I loved making this rice for so many reasons. It’s such a thoughtful process, which Tannaz had started hours before my arrival by washing the rice three times and then leaving it to soak in water. The next step was to parboil the rice, which brings the rice to a point that it’s no longer hard or raw in the middle. After you drain the rice and run it with cold water to stop the cooking is when things start to get really, really cool.

You take the widest bottomed pan you have and add a bit of oil, water, and saffron. Then you add just some of the parboiled rice and mix it up with the oil, water, and saffron combination. I believe this is when Tannaz brought up Jello 1-2-3, and I looked at her blank-faced, but now I get it. Chelo is totally like Jello 1-2-3. See, the bottom layer of rice that’s mixing with the oil and saffron is set to be the tah-dig; then there is the middle, which is less crispy but nice and saffrony; and then the top is white and fluffy / the perfect base for khoresh! Chelo 1-2-3! I get it!
As you’re adding the layers of rice to the pot, you’re also being careful to do so in the shape of a mountain. Since you’re basically steaming the rice, if the middle and top layers of the rice touch the sides of the pan, those pieces get too dry. Speaking of steaming, once you’ve got your rice in a nice mountain shape, that’s when you take the bottom of a cooking utensil and poke five holes into the rice mountain. (By the way, for a full explanation and recipe, check out Tannaz’s amazing post on Persian rice.) Next, you cover the pot, turn the burner on to medium-high and wait for a sizzling and sputtering sound. Once you hear it, you lower the heat and cook for 1 hour. (As if it’s that simple. It’s not! Tannaz checked on the rice periodically, adding a bit more oil and water when she thought it looked too dry.)
Other things that happened while the rice cooked? We ate delicious walnuts Tannaz had soaked in cold water (Who knew water-soaked walnuts could taste so good?) We ate delicious slices of Persian cucumber with lime and salt. And we tried to make faloodeh, rose water ice with noodles, though ended up giving up on it when the ice-cream machine refused to cooperate.

In case the photos haven’t proved it yet, this meal was delicious. The ghormeh sabzi was citrusy, meaty, herby, and subtly sour all at once—a flavor profile I don’t really run into in my everyday life. And of course there was the rice, the beautiful, beautiful rice.
In short: thanks so much for sharing your kitchen with me, Tannaz!

And while we’re on the topic of gratitude, thanks to everyone who voted for Bon Appetempt. Believe it or not, we won a Saveur Food Blog Award for the second year in a row! I for one can’t really believe it. So, thank you, thank you, thank you.
Ghormeh Sabzi via Tannaz's adaption of the recipe from New Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies
("Fresh Herb Khoresh" as the book calls it.)

(Herb portions can be hazy--the more the merrier!)
1 bunch Persian chives (can substitute, or subsidize with 1 bunch scallions, green part only)
3 bunches flat-leaf parsley
1/2 bunch fenugreek
1/2 C spinach (optional)

3 Tbs olive or other vegetable oil
1 1/2 lb beef shank, cut into 2x2 inch cubes, against the grain
1 Small onion, finely diced
1 tsp ground turmeric

4-6 Dried lemons ('limoo Omani')
1/4 C fresh lime or lemon juice

1/2 can kidney beans, drained.
Remove any thick stems from herbs, and, in a food processor, finely chop them. 

In a large pot or Dutch oven, sauté 1 tablespoon oil, turmeric, meat, and onions over med-high heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until meat is browned.  Season with salt and pepper (Note: we used kosher meat, which is salted before you buy it.  This is why we didn't salt during this step. Non-kosher meat, you'd want to salt, though, you'll have plenty of opportunity to adjust).  Add dried lemons and enough water to cover the mixture by one inch to the pot. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer while you fry the herbs.

Meanwhile, in a large sauté pan, fry herbs with remaining oil over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the aroma of frying herbs rises, about 20 minutes.

Add herbs and lime juice to pot and stir to combine.  Increase heat to return to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, for at least another 2 hours.

In the last 10 minutes or so of cooking, stir in kidney beans and adjust seasoning.

Serve over steamed basmati rice.