Birthday Cake Truffles Bliss

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Warning: If you are going to read this entry further you must admit to being one of those children who would soak the Lucky Charms in milk for fifteen minutes before eating breakfast so you could drink the white creamy juice down afterwards like a sweet bubble of sin. Or alternatively, be one of those children who wadded up pieces of Wonder bread and rolled it between your dirty palms to produce dense balls of doughy, snack goodness. If you have gotten this far without throwing up you will appreciate the rest of this story.

Last week the Cute Gardener and I did something we NEVER do … drove to Koreatown’s Line Hotel during rush hour traffic simply for the chance to stand in line and buy some of Christina Tosi’s baked goods. As co-owner of Momofuku Milk Bar in NYC along with celeb chef David Chang, she is renowned for desserts like Crack Pie that causes sugar addicts to relapse. We aren’t star fuckers, so Tosi in person signing her new book of savory recipes did nothing for us … it was simply the opportunity to buy compost cookies on the West Coast that baited us out of our normal hermit-tude. While she penned autographs five feet away with L.A.’s most famous POThead Roy Choi we stood in line for the baked goods, knowing where our priorities lay. We were of the lucky set that was able to order multiple menu items before the growing demand topped the orders off at three items per customer. Which is great, because I not only wanted my favorite cookies of Tosi’s which the CG picks up on his annual business trips to New York but also, I was craving a chance to taste the Birthday Cake Truffles.

With a load of sugar bombs in a brown paper bag, we left the mob of Tosi groupies and went for ramen downtown before heading home to our couch and ripping open the box of bizarre sprinkled truffles that would come to ironically steal my heart.

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As I share the beauty of the Birthday Cake Truffles, I am reminded of my saucy Aussie friend Charlotte who I’ve spent many an afternoon with during my life cooking food curiosities. On one occasion I was quite taken with a mythological, traditional food from her Australian upbringing called Fairy Bread, which she was making en masse for her daughter’s birthday party. This concoction was basically a sandwich of rainbow sprinkles on smeared butter on white bread. It sounded so utterly gross that I knew it had to be good. Birthday Cake Truffles are the grown up version of Fairy Bread.

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Through some online research, I learned that these truffles are basically the remnants of white frosted birthday cake that get all squished together at the end of the day. The squishy mess is then soaked in vanilla milk, rolled in melted white chocolate to create a shell coating and then dusted with sand (sugar and rainbow sprinkles). The box of 12 was 16 dollars and after eating one I was worried that we had bought too many. Biting into just one was like injecting liquid cane syrup directly into the veins. It was super sweet with a crumbly shell and a mushy middle that tasted like a supreme cake pop center when frigidly cold. But within days, the balls had mysteriously all rolled themselves down my throat.

That’s what Christina Tosi does best though—takes us on a stroll through the latchkey kitchens of our youth where we did the best we could with those convenience ingredients we had. All the leftover Golden Grahams cereal bits thrown into a batch of cookie dough for crunch and texture? Absolutely brilliant idea! Tang on toast? Of course! When you’re twelve that sounds divine. Mushed up cake with bleeding sprinkle color trails? Makes perfect sense. It is a good thing for me that her creations are normally the length of a continent away.

Edna St. Vincent Millay Mac and Cheese

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In my real life as a writer, I am currently enrolled in a memoir class at Stanford University—a ten-week gig I hoped would kick start a project about my mother. And it has. But is has also conjured many other memories that arise like pleasant little gifts to be chewed over and savored, reflected upon and digested. When looking back with concerted effort into our lives we find ourselves embroiled in patterns and themes. One thing I recall with fondness and a hint of curiosity, is how many friends I had in which our bonds were sealed through food.

I recall Marnie, whose house I went to for weeknight studying because I knew her mother always kept fresh gallons of mint chip ice cream in the fridge. There was punk rock Roxanne whose larder was stocked with my favorite blueberry cheesecake. Dori had a freezer full of pepperoni hot pockets and Melissa’s family owned a Jewish deli. Their pantry boasted fruit roll ups, granola bars, Doritos; an array of snacks that would put a convenience store to shame. Sometimes, I sheepishly admit now, I would make the decision to visit a friend because I was secretly hungry for something in their kitchen that I didn’t have in my own.

During my sophomore year I lived for a bit in Minnesota with my father. One of my favorite friends to hang out with was Katie. She lived a few snowy blocks away from me and made the best macaroni and cheese from scratch. Having been raised on boxes of Kraft’s fossil-hard noodles with fluorescent powdered cheese, the idea of “real” mac and cheese was completely foreign. Katie and I would spend Sunday mornings trolling the used bookstore near our homes for fifty-cent copies of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnets. We would spend entire gloomy white afternoons shacked up in her bed beneath covers under her ceiling with its glow in the dark stars reading things like: “She is neither pink nor pale, And she never will be all mine; She learned her hands in a fairy-tale, And her mouth on a valentine” while cradling a hot bowl of four cheese covered noodles. She had taught me her secret recipe of cooking a pot of medium shells and then grating Swiss, cheddar, mozzarella and jack with a half a stick of butter right into the pot to mix. A healthy dose of pepper was the ingredient that sealed the deal. Looking back, I realize that so much of my love for that dish had nothing to do with it being palatable—it was shined up by our love of sappy antique literature and our secret faux starlight club. But I would spend the rest of my life seeking a mac and cheese that tasted as good.

The truth is that in real life a good ramekin of macaroni and cheese is almost impossible to find let alone an exceptional one. Although the concept of our favorite al dente form of curvaceous, cavernous pasta infused with multiple, blending, melted cheeses sounds divine, there are so many things that can and typically do go wrong. First of all, after boiling pasta and then attempting to re-cook it with a bake in the oven, it almost always ends up dry and no amount of liquid, cheesy goo can disguise that fact. In fact, I am convinced that the reason there is so much cheese in mac and cheese in the first place is that some peasant women was sincerely trying to sex up her nightly pot of cheap noodles to feed her brood and realized only three pounds from the sheep was going to do it. Even when I run into pots of the dish studded with exotic ingredients like lobster chunks or chorizo or truffles, I end up feeling like the mac and cheese has somehow sullied their glory and distilled their taste. The only exception to boring comes when the Cute Gardener makes me his version pilfered from a fancy L.A. restaurant and re-imagined in his mind but refined through the use of elegant tiny elbows and a sauce that is actually a sauce and not globs of grated cheese.

Regardless, I stay hopeful on my search. You would think I would just give up but then things like Bon Appetit’s pimento version come along, teasing me with the inclusion of tangy red pepper and peppadews, hinting at a toasty panko crunch explosion in my mouth. Instead I spend hours making the dish for dinner and it is the inevitable dry noodles made wet with heart attack-inducing amounts of expensive cheeses. Unfortunately, it tastes better cold and congealed after a hike the next day.

Maybe I just need to splatter some faux comets and constellations on my kitchen ceiling and whip out the graying pages of poetry tucked away in my high school journals the next time I am compelled to try the supposedly universal comfort dish again.

Literature as Lunchbox

IMG_9728 On Monday morning as I sat at the small, wooden table I park at habitually for daily tea and my Internet newspaper I noticed that my breakfast was a hodgepodge of edibles I had discovered through my love of great literature: a pudgy square of green tea mochi and a bowl of flaming orange papaya chunks.

I first read about the exotic papaya fruit in Sandra Cisnero’s The House on Mango Street. I was in fifth grade and fell in sisterly love with Esperanza, the young Hispanic girl who documents her neighborhood characters with a sassy wit. One of those characters was Rafaela, a woman locked inside her house by an overbearing husband, whom Esperanza would see sitting at a window looking wistfully out into the street as she passed on her way to and from home. Sometimes, Rafaela would throw down a dollar and Esperanza would run to the corner to buy her papaya, which she would hoist up to Rafaela in a paper bag on a string. This caused me to eye the street side vendors in my own life, who sat with carts stocked full of tropical fruits, eternally looking for my own chance to taste the foreign papaya. Finally, on a fifth grade field trip to Olvera Street, I bought my own cup stuffed with the fuchsia fruit chunks and tasted rapture in the subtly sweet flesh that oozed messy, squirts of juice across the chest of my Catholic School uniform. Rafaela’s forbidden fruit had become real.

In high school, while perusing Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club I found myself absorbed in the descriptions of various Chinese finger foods and ritual holiday treats. I started researching across the Asian spectrum for similar small bites that loomed fantastical to my American snack vernacular. Of special interest were the glutinous rice balls filled with red bean paste called mochi that peppered Japanese grocery store aisles, beckoning like jewels of every color and flavor. Today, they are a mainstay on my tongue, fun and squishy to eat while delivering sugary protein bursts alongside various combinations of tea.

I realize that my love of and adventurousness toward food, and an early impetus in my gradual inclination to food writing, was sparked by my very early passion for reading. In my traditionally American household, I knew nothing of bagels or luscious, black moles or puffed rice with hot spices or French omelets or sexy, sensual oysters. That is, until I stumbled upon my existential crush Jean Paul Sartre’s silly food vignettes, or MFK Fisher’s remarkably independent Consider the Oyster, or Isabel Allende’s women ablaze in the humid, summer kitchens of Like Water for Chocolate, or Jumpa Lahiri’s displaced East Indian women attempting breakfast in cramped U.S. apartments in Interpreter of Maladies, or snippets within the best Jewish essay compendiums of my youth. A big part of my lust for the written word was birthed by the escapism that stories of other cultures provide. But as I look back now, I realize that these stories also became a big influence in evolving my contemporary palate.

P.S. Here’s a lovely essay from this week’s Rumpus by Chef Dana Tommasino, owner of Gardenias floating pop-up restaurant in San Francisco that alluringly combines food and literature in all the ways I love best.

Dim Sum Decadence

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One big foodie perk of living in Los Angeles is the close proximity to an assortment of dim sum restaurants. The Cute Gardener and I are usually such delicate eaters but when it comes to our occasional dim sum mornings, all bets are off. We will typically hook dim sum onto a trip out of town or a holiday morning with visiting relatives as a way to give ourselves permission to indulge. Then we will land at a table at one of the various joints and pile it full with aluminum steamer bowls and little plates heaped high with food from the incessantly passed carts, only halting our chew for a quick sip of water or boiling green tea every once in a while. We know the trick to eating dim sum lies in a rapid pace; otherwise we will fill up our bellies too quickly to finish all the delights we still have yet to taste.

I find it interesting that upon research I discovered that dim sum began as a way for people to engage in yum cha, or tea tasting. In fact, in Cantonese, going to dim sum means going to drink tea. In America, it seems the opposite – dim sum is known almost as an Asian form of tapas, the tea being secondary or non-existent on the table at all. It almost seems strange to my Caucasian palate to drink a hot brewed beverage with various hot dishes. Regardless of the bastardization my mouth creates while engaging in this ancient mealtime, it is one of the true highlights of my life.

My favorite dim sum dishes are as follows:

1. Pork bao buns, which are baked, doughnut like glistening rounds stuffed with sweet barbecued pork. There are also steamed buns, white and fluffy with the same type of pork filling, which are equally prized. You can find these freshly made in Chinese grocery stores or to-go at dim sum joints take-away counters for under a dollar apiece. We always have a few in our freezer at home for convenient lunches.

2. Shumai, a small, dense, steamed dumpling with pork or shrimp shriveled into a thin, wheat flour skin.

3. Xiao long bao (XLB), or soup dumplings, which are closed, doughy pockets enveloping hot zesty broth that you poke a chopstick hole into and sip out over a wide spoon.

4. Har gow, which consists of shrimp chunks wrapped in a translucent wheat starch dumpling. It can also be made with tender bits of scallop instead and we are always delighted to encounter that version.

5. Teochew-style dumplings, which are a zesty mixture of diced up pork, peanuts, garlic, chives, dried shrimp, and Chinese mushrooms in glutinous rice wraps just begging to be dipped into a swish of slick chili oil.

6. Guotie, or potstickers, dumplings that are stuffed with meat and cabbage, steamed and then fried so that they deliver a crunchy texture to counteract the mushy middle. Perfect with a dark mushroom soy.

7. Rice noodle rolls, which are wide, flat noodles that are steamed and rolled around meats and sprinkled with sesame seeds or accentuated by greens—shrimp being our usual preference.

8. Egg tarts for dessert, which are miniature little baked pastry cups filled with egg custard.

But this is only a small list from an enormity of choice from buns stuffed with sweet bean paste, fried chicken feet, steamed meatballs, spare ribs, glutinous rice wrapped in a lotus leaf and richly sweet, spring rolls to turnip, taro and water chestnut cakes, congee, fried sugarcane shrimp balls, sliced roasted duck and pork, and a myriad of vibrant vegetables like bok choy, spinach, broccoli and other lesser known Asian greens. For some reason, we never seem to make it to the green stuff because we are too busy stuffing our faces with all the steamed and fried foods that we don’t normally find ourselves able to procure.

Dim sum can be dangerous, both on the heart and on the hips if indulged in too frequently. In that respect, it is also dangerously cheap (between .75 to $2.50 for most dishes) so it’s probably best that most of the greatest dim sum restaurants are still a bit of a car drive away from us in L.A.’s historic Chinatown or the San Gabriel Valley.