Category Archives: Eating Experiences

Cinnamon Roll Bliss!!


Every year for probably the past eighteen years, our traditional Christmas breakfast has consisted of Pillsbury cinnamon rolls that come in a tube. Because they smelled and tasted good, because they were super easy, and because we’ve had so much chaos and small children to deal with, not much sleep, and knee-deep wrapping paper. It was all we could manage.

But one of those small children has grown into a budding baker, and this Christmas she offered to make cinnamon rolls from scratch. She found a recipe in one of her Christmas presents from last year, The America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book. This cookbook has produced some incredibly delicious and amazing treats this year.

These cinnamon rolls were probably one of the best things yet.

These cinnamon rolls were not to sweet. The density was perfect – soft, yet with a thick and satisfying chewiness, almost biscuitlike. The cinnamon center was incredibly rich and wonderful, and the icing had a little tang of cream cheese. It was so deeply satisfying and decadent, and was definitely a special treat, yet wasn’t overly sweet.

These are hands-down going to be the new Christmas (and maybe New Year’s!) morning tradition. Recipe from: America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book

(recipe after the break)

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Pears with an adjective

fragrant pears

“Fragrant pears,” said the sign at Ranch 99.

I bent in to sniff. An Asian lady rifling through the pile of elliptical fruit with a surface looking like a bedsheet covering up a pile of boulders, reminding me of quince in both color and texture, looked on amused, as if she was about to snort with laughter. But dude–the thing was called FRAGRANT PEARS. I detected a faint aroma; the refrigerated produce section wasn’t helping.

All around me, Asian hausfraus circled the fragrant pears, plucking them from the pile with graceful aggression, just shy of what could be defined as a fight. A fight for pears. Like how people circle dry farmed early girl tomatoes at the farmers’ market.

fragrant pears

I had to have some. So I picked a cautious few and took them home. I looked up a New York Times article on fragrant pears, which piqued my interest further. (I like to know what I’m eating beforehand).

I peeled the fruit (I don’t think you have to peel them, but they’re from China and I’m not sure what kinds of pesticides they use). And took a bite.

Sheeit. It was the best pear I’ve ever had. Crisp like the best of Asian pear. Fragrant like a Western pear. And a taste that was the best of both worlds. I’m all for locally grown fruit, but I couldn’t help myself: I had to go back for more. And go back for more I did, this next time blending into the crowd with assured confidence, filling two plastic shopping bags of the pears.

I had been forlorn at the end of persimmon season (this past winter, I fell in love with persimmons–both fuyu and hachiya alike), and now I’d found a new fruit to obsess over! I fed them to a small child and he couldn’t get enough, either.

A few weeks later, I spotted fragrant pears at Berkeley Bowl. They’re at the Berkeley Bowl! I bought a few more. How can you pass this fruit up?

Being produce starved, at this time of year, every sparkling piece of produce counts whether it be mandarinquats, or ramps (this year I made a ramp-leeks-pea-lemon zest and lemon thyme risotto), or these pears.

Thought I’d share.

delicious fragrant pears

Eating Silkworms

My friend, Cathy, the adventurous eater behind the Gastronomy Blog and the Vietnam entries on Serious Eats is leaving HCMC for points north (China for the Olympics) and west (Los Angeles). So for her final week of eating, she put together a food tour listing possible meals, so that we, her friends, could join in some of the chosen gastronomic delights. When I looked at the excel spreadsheet, my eyes alighted on the Wednesday entry: silkworms.


So, on a fine HCMC morning, I  arrived a few minutes early to a cơm trưa restaurant. With my rudimentary Vietnamese, I was able to convey that I was meeting friends. And sure enough, within minutes, Cathy and Vernon arrived via motorbike.

A northern Vietnamese dish it is interesting to note that the proprietess of the cơm trưa said that silkworms die after they finish making silk, so what we eat is their dead carcasses. Waste not, want not.


Cathy wisely ordered (only) one serving of fried con nhộng (silkworms) and rice for us to share.

Hmm, to describe the taste? It tastes a little like the dried shrimp used in Vietnamese cooking. Not, offensive, but not pleasurable. The hard part was the after texture that is, ah …unexpected. Like eating the texture of dried glue.

Cathy made me laugh at a comment she said in VN that was something akin to: “I can eat it, but I don’t really want to do it again…”

Exactly.

So, after consuming approximately 4 pieces, I can proudly say I’ve eaten silkworms.

Just eating and eating my way through the world

green tea farm

I know the last time I posted (well other than my recent post on tiffin tins–a very belated post on something I’d discovered months and months ago) I proposed a new project–that I’d discuss my Korean cooking adventures following the recipes in Hepinstall’s cookbook of Korean recipes.

But then–bleah. Nothing. You got nothing. You got a month-long silence from me. You see, right after that post, I decided I’d be blogging a lot less and writing fiction a whole lot more. So, I definitely blogged a lot less.

However quiet I was here on Muffin Top, I still had my share of culinary adventures…and what better than a pictorial?

In May, Connie and I had brunch at the Berkeley Thai Temple, where we had among other things, kanom krog:

kanom krog

The crowds were dense, the line was long (have I mentioned before how much I hate long lines?) but the experience was worth it. And they’ve got the process down to expedite that line, starting with tokens (you pay with tokens, and it bypasses the whole “making change” experience in the line)

tokens

And then family matters took me to Vegas, where I had Red Mango yogurt for the first time ever…

Red Mango

I haven’t had Pinkberry yet–just my own homemade frozen yogurt (courtesy of David Lebovitz whose Perfect Scoop is second to NONE)…but the Red Mango was pretty dang good!

Then I was off to China and London…

Where I had an anniversary dinner at Jade on 36, site of fusion Asian, molecular gastronomy-themed food in Shanghai. THAT is NOT a fried egg…

"Breakfast" at our marriage anniversary dinner

There was Communist Coca-Cola:

Chinese Coca Cola

And a feast at Lou Wai Lou restaurant in picturesque Hangzhou:

the feast at Lou Wai Lou in Hangzhou

Right outside of Lou Wai Lou were these boats–you can take a ride on them and have tea and snacks.

boats

Then off to the Longjing Tea Village, where I procured some very elite longjing green tea…

green tea leaves

In Beijing, I found my sustenance at the various street markets. Our first night there, we ran into the concept of “food-on-sticks.” I kid you not–I’m talking meats-on-sticks, candied-fruits-on-sticks, and…insects on sticks:

seahorse and scorpions on sticks

If you could put it on a stick, it was on a stick:

various meats on sticks

The hubby dared to eat scorpions on sticks. I couldn’t do it, but it made me admire him even more. Me? I had some candied strawberries on sticks at the Dong Hua Men Market. They were oh so delicious–I had some every single night in Beijing.

Christine eats her candied strawberries on a stick

More meats on sticks at the night market!
meats on sticks

Hello? Here are some more foods-on-sticks (why doesn’t KFC have this)?

foods on sticks at Yoshinoya

I took a video of the market, too.

I was sooo hungry in Beijing…I went to the hotel desk and asked them where I could find a good bowl of “jia jiang myun,” my beloved Korean-Chinese hybrid food. It had to be good here, no? The lady smiled and scribbled “Lao Beijing Zha Jiang Bian” on a card and drew a map. “Best in Beijing,” she said. I ran out the door and handed it to the taxi driver.

Jia Jiang Myun in Beijing

The Jia Jiang Myun was not the same as in Korea, but I ate it all up anyway.

What better way to end the trip than to fly to London for an overnight stay and eat Indian food (no pictures there–we nearly slept through our entire meal we were so jetlagged)…and buy a pile of British candy?

pile o' british candy!

We came home to the Bay Area in full Spring. I’m talking about gorgeous fruit, like pluots.

pluots

And rhubarb…and strawberry. I made a crisp:

Strawberry Rhubarb crisp with cardamom and nutmeg

Recently, we went down to Los Angeles, and I went to the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market where I found the most delicious strawberries ever:

Gaviota strawberries from the Santa Monica Farmer's Market

They’re Gaviota strawberries. And though I’ve never been attracted to Los Angeles, I’d move down there just to have access to Gaviota strawberries, they are THAT good.

But then again, the Bay Area has these wonderful mango nectarines…

delicious, fragrant mango-nectarines!

Yes, I’m allergic to stone fruit, but I took a Benadryl and allowed myself a bite of these nectarines. Ohhhh heaven.

Fast food in Saigon: Wrap & Roll

This is my first time back to Saigon since 2004. Massive construction around district 1 lets me know that the economy is booming.

wrap_roll_sign

Nowhere is this more evident than in the gastronomic sector. Beyond embracing international fast food chains like KFC, Burger King and Jollie Bee; Vietnamese entrepreneurs have taken intrinsically Vietnamese dishes and built up small fast food chains around them. I’ve spotted chains for cơm (rice +), bánh mi (baguette sandwiches) and bánh cuốn (sometimes described as enchilada-esque).

sauce

Bánh cuốn, being one of my favorite VN dishes, I visited Wrap & Roll’s Hai Bà Trưng location in district 1. Described as the Vietnamese enchilada, bánh cuốn is rice gluten, made into sheets and rolled with meat and vegetables, typically with pork and mushrooms.

banh cuon

Because I haven’t eaten bánh cuốn in a long time (2 years), I’m not sure this is best in its class (in fact I doubt it). But as far as fast food goes, it was delicious. Though leeks, soy sauce and chili paste are available accompaniments, I decided that nước mấm was enough. Pork floss and dried onion garnished the dish, adding necessary salt and onion flavor. Served warm with nước mấm accenting the pork and mushrooms and made to order (bánh cuốn has to be made to order, or it would be crunchy, think of pre-made scrambled eggs) it was a deal at just under $2 USD.

seaweed_taro_dessert

For dessert I had the che with taro, seaweed and coconut milk. In the Bay Area, we usually eat our che cold, but it was served warm. No mind, it was just the sweet I need to cap off the savory bánh cuốn.

Springtime’s bounty

baby potatoes from the garden!

Ohhhh! After a long winter (and this year, despite my love for this year’s prolonged cold weather, even I must confess it was a looong winter), Spring fruits and vegetables are a welcome sight! I can’t wait until tomatoes come into season–but for now, I’m very happy with what’s coming out of the ground these days.

My garden, much more sparse than last year (because of my hunt for the gopher), is still bringing me great culinary delights.

I mean, check out the potatoes in the garden–in my overzealous search for gopher tunnels, I decided to uproot a potato plant. Surprise, surprise! Baby potatoes! Of course I snatched all the baby potatoes right away.

potato plant with potatoes

I had no idea that the potatoes were anywhere near ready for harvesting. These potato plants are just the best find ever, first having sprouted from potatoes I’d thrown into the compost pile and now blessing me with unexpectedly early baby potatoes.

The potatoes, by the way, were so delicious. I’ve never had potatoes fresh out of the ground before and I am going to plant some more. If there was ever an excuse to gorge oneself on carbs, this is it–a fresh potato straight out of the soil is a piece of heaven, I think.

In the springtime, we eat a good number of baby veg, little miniature delights, straight from the soil. Not just potatoes. It’s our impatience, and my curiosity–what *is* lurking beneath the soil? I have to know. So I’ll pull out a baby carrot, or in this case, a baby cherry belle radish.

Cherry Belle radish

I paused to take a photo, but then hurried back into the house where I rinsed the red globe, and took it out to show my husband who was washing cars on a sunny Saturday afternoon. “Mrmmm! Bring it over!” He ate it right up. He loves radishes, and he’s the reason I planted a few this year.

“How was it?” I asked.

“Yummy!”

And what my garden does not produce, I seek out at the store. This morning, finding myself in a remarkably calm and optimistic mood (maybe it was finding the radish in the garden), I chanced the crowds at Berkeley Bowl, a market I normally avoid on weekends. It’s CRAZY on weekends there. If you can find a parking spot, you still brave the crowds inside. I mean, there’s a reason for those crowds (the diverse and high quality produce, nevermind the meat and seafood counter and wide variety of baked goods) but it’s still maddening to shop there.

fresh cherry belle radishes from the garden

Still, I decided to head on over. I had a hankering for some fresh produce. I hadn’t been to the Bowl in months, and I was getting sick of the apples and oranges and other usual suspects at Andronico’s and Whole Foods. The Bowl didn’t let me down.

It was there, while browsing the aisles, having parked my shopping cart at the end that I realized how happy and content I was feeling. (you’re crazy if you want to actually stick with your cart the entire shopping time there–you’re better off parking the cart occasionally and then roving the aisles, especially in the produce section). How long had it been since I’d gone grocery shopping by myself, as an act of luxury?

It had been MONTHS. I found myself beginning to imagine the foods and dishes I would make out of the ingredients before me, I found myself delighted at finding Haydn mangoes (not just Tommy Atkins), at the amazingly red and plump flats of strawberries!

And…I discovered ramps. Ramps! The Bowl had ramps! I’ve been reading a lot about ramps these days, and was dying to try them. But they’re not too easy to find in the Bay Area–they’re wild leeks local to the Appalachians.

ramps!

I quickly grabbed them. I found my hand sullied with dirt, they were so fresh. The Appalachia (or what other far away place these ramps came from) was on my hands, and though I would normally wipe the dirt quickly away, I let it linger as I shopped.

When I got home, I used the ingredients to make a spring pasta–not a primavera, but my own “hacked together” (as they say in high tech) version: ramps, morel mushrooms, peas, and asparagus.

ingredients for Spring pasta

Aren’t they beautiful? I also saw fiddlehead ferns at the Bowl–I regretted not grabbing some of those to make a perfect Spring vegetable bouquet.

Just chopping them up and sauteeing them together made me feel more alive, healthier. It has been a long winter, and I’ve missed my vegetables.

Spring pasta with ramps, asparagus. morels, and peas

Hedonistic crawfish boil, topped with etouffee…!

Crawfish Etouffee

I know, it’s been a month since the last post on Muffin Top! March was a crazy month with a lot of business-oriented travel. In terms of food, that meant a lot of rushed and convenient meals at home resting between trips…and then a lot of rushed and convenient meals on the road. But we’re back. It’s April. And good news: it’s crawfish season.

We have a crawfish boil every year–an homage to family roots in Louisiana. We began our tradition tentatively several years ago, not knowing at first where to order live crawfish, and treading through the logistics carefully. We did our research and found the Louisiana Crawfish Company–every year they deliver 100+ pounds of fresh, live crawfish to us, with nary a dead shellfish (impressive).

Just make sure to have them delivered the same day as your boil, they don’t keep very long at all! We hunt down the outdoor burner at a local party rental place, and have industrial-sized boiling pots from our local Smart and Final. The list goes on. But we’ve got that list down pat.

And now we have our own tradition, resembling those of my husband’s childhood. He boils the crawfish, and I make the etouffee halfway through the boil. The organization is now like second nature, and the boil proceeds with a breezy familiarity, despite the hustle and bustle and occasional wayward crawfish making his way to freedom. We do sometimes wonder if one or two make it, as we don’t live too far from a creek.

crawfish

Crawfish boils are a jolly occasion. I love cooking, as you know, but I especially love food as a center of social gatherings. And there’s just something about getting an order of live crawfish, boiling them along with potatoes and ears of corn in a spicy concoction, spreading them out in a large pile on a table, and then, communally, shelling each one.

Crawfish pile

Food tastes better when your friends are a part of the cooking process, when there is a community around the eating. Mrmmm. And not just because it makes shelling go faster! (Seriously, when you’ve got over 100 pounds of crawfish, it takes several hours to plow through it as a crowd, let alone as an individual).

There’s always a communal bowl on the table–not for the shells, but for tail meat. We make sure everyone knows to keep shelling and filling the bowl with tail meat. Don’t stop shelling! we joke. Keep filling that bowl! Because that bowl of crawfish tails becomes…etouffee.

Oh yes. Etouffee, a Creole dish of butter smothered crawfish, is my favorite culinary part of the boil. There’s something about the red crawfish stacked in piles on the table, the cheerful hubbub of shelling, everyone focused on getting that tail meat out that makes it one of my favorite annual occasions. But nothing beats the etouffee part of the boil for me. I eagerly eye the communal bowl–and as soon as there’s at least four handfuls in that bowl, voila! I whisk it off to the kitchen and disappear for about half an hour as I make the etouffee.

It takes about as long as it takes to make basmati rice. So start the rice when you start making the etouffee, and you’ve got a perfect pairing at the end: rich buttery smothered crawfish paired with rice. Say it with me: mrmmmmmmmm.

And–later on, the crawfish tails that don’t make it into the etouffee? You pack that up in little ziploc bags, and give to your guests to take home. No one ever seems to get sick of crawfish. One of our guests also takes home a garbage full of shells each year–he makes crawfish butter with the stash, in an illustration of the adage, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” The gorgeous crawfish keeps delivering!

By the way, there’s never ever any leftover etouffee.

Recipe for crawfish etouffee follows after the jump…

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