I Ate This in 2009: Favorite NYC Restaurant, Favorite Chocolate, Highlights of the Year

Photo not mine.

Favorite Restaurant
In 2009, my favorite restaurant experience was, by far, Harbour in New York.

Search the web for photos, and you'll find most of them reflect on the restaurant's interior design, which resembles the inside of a yacht. Stunning as it was, the food was actually superior to the look.

In one night, I probably tasted more than a dozen different kinds of seafood while passing plates between three people, across a seven-course meal (the tasting menu said five courses, but there was an unannounced amuse bouche and petit fours as well). Everything was spectacular!

Photo not mine.

Sadly, since the time I dined there, the head chef changed, talk of a bad location sinking the ship pervaded New York food gossip sites, and if I'm not mistaken, Harbour even closed temporarily while management fixed a few kinks. Regardless, I would return in a heartbeat. Maybe a second visit would not live up to the first, but I am willing to take that chance.

Favorite New Chocolate
In August, I set out on a mission to get to know some of New York's chocolate purveyors. Some initial research pointed me in the direction of Li-Lac Chocolates.

There are two locations: one inside Grand Central Markets (one of my favorite places to shop), and another at 8th Avenue and Jane Street, where I subsequently have learned the famous neurologist Oliver Sacks goes daily to buy one dollar's worth of 72 percent cacao chocolate break-up bar.

I did take this photo, which reminds me of another noteworthy food-writing moment from 2009: I upgraded my camera.

For me, the reason to go back to Li-Lac again and again and again is the jelly bar. I adore plain chocolate, both milk and dark, and I am highly opinionated about evils of adulterating fine chocolate with too many explosively-flavorful things, like booze-flavored ganache or matcha or bacon. But the jelly bar is a dream come true: playful in texture, complementary in flavors, and positively addictive.

Two Big Accomplishments
I had two major accomplishments this year, which would not have been possible without the support of Boyfriend, who puts up with my "making a mess and then cleaning it up" regimen daily; my dining partners, from my super foodie friends to the ones who blindly come along for the ride and let me nibble off their plates or let their entree get a little cold while I take "just one more photo"; and the home cooks in my friend circle and family, who have tested recipes often knowing that the final product was not going to be all that much fun to eat.

The first accomplishment: The cook book I have been editing has finally found a publisher! More on that when the details of the contract have been sorted out.

The best recipe in the book that I have tasted so far is the soy sauce and brown sugar chicken wings.

I took this photo, too. I took probably 50 photos of chickens wings, rearranging the burned parts, smearing more sauce on the wings to make them look glossier. And I probably spent two hours selecting good images and cropping them. But I'm very happy with the results.

Second: I (and three other New York-based food bloggers) wrote an article for the BBC's olive magazine. It's in the January 2010 issue in the travel section.

What Should I Bring? An Advice Column for Appetizers and Desserts

Q: I'm going to a party and I'm supposed to bring an appetizer. I want to bring something that's going to make me look good, something deliciously creative and impressive! However, time is against me. Do you have any ideas for should I bring?

A: Yes, I do, as long as this party is not for vegetarians or people who are kosher: It all starts with prosciutto.

Photo not mine.

The first and simplest idea travels extremely well, whether you'll be walking, driving, or taking mass transit to this little soiree. Buy a package of thinly sliced prosciutto at any grocery store or well-stocked market. Next, hit the bakery (or bakery department of the grocery store) and buy fresh bread sticks, something along the lines of "twisty bread," but without the cheese if you can manage. Buy the slimmest sticks you can find. Think fingers. Crunchy breadsticks work, too.

When you arrive at the party, as the host for a cutting board, sharp knife, and either a platter or wide-mouth container, like a medium-sized canning jar. Open the prosciutto and very carefully slice each piece in half, aiming to make long strips. Wrap a piece of prosciutto around the end of several breadsticks (two per person, I'd say), and arrange them nicely on a platter or in the jar with the meat-wrapped ends up.

Alternatively, if you can't get bread sticks, use melon. Buy a cantaloupe and either cube the flesh or use a melon baller to cut bite-sized pieces. Cut the proscuitto into smaller slices, but big enough to wrap around each piece of melon one and a half times. Secure each piece with a toothpick. Arrange and serve.

Photo not mine.

If the melons are no good, try peaches, and slice each one carefully into eight segments.

In making this extremely easy and low-effort appetizer, you absolutely have to promise to do two things.

First, you must swear that you will not buy a loaf of bread. The whole point of this starter is that it is elegant, and all your efforts (and the $9 you spent on a measley 3 oz. of prosciutto) will have gone to waste if you display it all on doughy hunks of bread. There are other times and places for big crusty wedges breads, but this is not one of them. Equally, if you opt for fruit, you must cut the pieces carefully. It will take you 18 minutes instead of 12, and it will be what makes the dish impressive. You've already skimped by not cooking anything, and you're about to pull it off, so don't cut corners now!

Second, you have to write down "prosciutto" so that you don't accidentally buy pancetta. That would be disastrous.

Q: I'm supposed to bring a dessert to a special occasion, but there are a few problems. 1) I don't really bake. 2) All the people who will be there are finicky eaters. 3) My budget is a tight and I can't go out and buy a nice $40 cake. What should I bring?

A: Brownies. From a packaged mix. With extra chocolate chips thrown in.

Photo not mine.

It is the biggest sham in all of baking, but as long as you don't over cook them, a pan of brownies made from any store-bought package will please and awe 95 percent of all people who have ever existed. They will all love you and fawn over you, at least until someone eats the last brownie.

I don't really know why this is, but I'm just as guilty as the next person on this matter. Everyone loves brownies. Everyone loves brownies from Betty Crocker, Ghiradelli, Duncan Hines, Pillsbury... it doesn't matter as long as you bake them that day, throw in a cup or two of semi-sweet chocolate chips before you bake them, and undercook them ever so slightly.

One easy way to make your brownies seem even more appetizing is to cut them into equal pieces using a rule. This is a trick that doesn't work if you try to eyeball it. You really need to use a ruler or tape measure (there are actually specific baker's tools for this, but you don't need them at home). Nevertheless, it makes a huge difference in how people receive the dessert.

Do not, under any circumstances, add raisins, cranberries, walnuts, pecans, granola or anything else. Do not put M&Ms in there (the colors will bleed). Do not top your brownies with white frosting. Do not swirl cream cheese into them. Do not put a fancy raspberry puree on the side. Just give the damn people the damned brownies and let them love you. Trust me. It will happen!

Baking Day 2009, East Coast Edition

Chocolate creme sandwich cookies, or homemade Oreos.

Baking Day is an annual tradition started about four years ago by Boyfriend's mother, who lives in San Francisco. It's more or less a cookie swap or cookie exchange, only everyone who is participating actually bakes together, too. It's a full day and usually involves as much time in the kitchen beating butter and greasing trays, as at the dining room table listening to everyone reminisce about their childhood memories—what their grandmothers baked, the recipes their mothers handed down, their family traditions.

While I lived in Boyfriend's hometown, I so looked forward to Baking Day because it made me feel like winter and the holidays were really happening, which was sometimes hard for me, an east-coast native, putting up with the mild San Francisco climate. It just never felt like winter when it was 55 and drizzling... persistently.

When I moved away about two years ago, I decided to carry on Baking Day with an East Coast edition. This year it was a small, late-night affair on a weekday, but the important parts still happened, and once again, it feels like winter.

My mom's magic cookie bars, a.k.a. five-layer bars, a.k.a. "crack cookies."

My mom made her magic cookie bars, or seven-layer bars, which were dubbed "crack cookies" last year by one of my friends who developed a little addiction to them. They are graham cracker crumbs pressed with melted butter, topped with walnuts, chocolate chips, shredded coconut, and sweetened condensed milk.

Peanut butter jammers with raspberry jam.

I made two cookies this year: peanut butter jammers (above), which is a peanut butter and raspberry jelly thumbprint cookie, and oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, which are my specialty. to make the peanut butter cookie base, I deduced a recipe by comparing the ingredient lists of five similar recipes (see below; although there are six columns, two are identical). I was shooting for a cookie that would be more round than flat, but failed on that front. However, I succeeded in baking a cookie with strong peanut butter flavor.

Deductive notes on peanut butter cookie recipes.

As the homemade "Oreos" come together, Midge the dog hesitantly decides she does not want to eat the dough.

Only one of my sister could make it this year, but she pulled together these glorious chocolate creme cookies. She wanted them to turn out crisp and slightly dry, just like an Oreo—and they did! She used a recipe from Smitten Kitchen.

My sister shapes the chocolate cookie dough into slightly flattened rounds.

The chocolate cookies bake for 9 minutes and then must cool fully. Afterward, vanilla creme is piped on one, and another cookie is sandwiched on top.

My oatmeal chocolate chip cookie dough waits for a space in the oven.

My oatmeal (something) cookies get the chocolate chip treatment this year.

The day after Baking Day, a few co-workers and I took were going to take part in a cookie exchange at work; so I actually made good use of Baking Day and pulled together four dozen extra oatmeal chocolate chip cookies to bring to the office.

An office cookie swap instantly doubled my net gains of Baking Day. This is the colorful assortment I brought home.

Review: Luke's Lobster

Lobster purists, like me, will only eat a lobster, meaning the whole crustacean, boiled with melted butter optional, and even then, the butter only goes on certain parts. The tail can get a dip of butter, but not the precious claw.

There is no reason to adulterate lobster meat with anything else. Don't put it in risotto. Don't chop it to bits and strew it through linguine. And don't you dare split the poor creature in half and broil it. (Langoustines or spiny lobsters, fine, but real lobsters, no.)

The only other acceptable treatment for lobster is to use the discarded shells to flavor a broth.

So when my friend swore up and down that Luke's Lobster dished out terrific lobster rolls, I said, "Eh, no thanks. Lobster rolls don't do it for me. I don't mess around when it comes to lobster."

"No," he said. "You don't understand. It is lobster!"

Had he not grown up on Long Island (like I did), where lobsters are plentiful and lobster purists even more prevalent, I might not have taken him at his word.

Luke's Lobster takes pure lump lobster meat and does almost nothing to it, and that's why it's so special. It's put on a very minimalistic toasted roll—nothing more than wimpy white bread, thankfully— with a dash of mayonnaise, a flick of lemon-pepper butter, and speck of seasoning: thyme, oregano, celery salt, salt, and black pepper.

The main complaint I've heard is that the price is too high. When I went last week, a hot dog sized lobster roll was $14. I got the "snack" size, which measured about the length of my index finger, for $8. The reason I ordered just a sampler portion was because I also wanted to try the crab meat roll—$5 for the petite sandwich.

All together, I had the tiniest lunch imaginable for about $14 after tax. But it's not a $14 ripoff. It's $14 worth of pure, fresh, wholesome lobster meat, flown in that day from Maine. What would you pay for a pound of lobster, boiled, cleaned, and picked through? $35 per pound? $40 per pound? The 4oz. lobster roll for $14 is a reasonable price if you think about what you're really buying and eating.

The meat really was divine. The crab was slightly sweet, not as sweet as Dungeness, but more subtle and ... almost personal. And the lobster was as unadulterated and fresh as it gets in Manhattan.

Luke's Lobster
93 East 7th Street
(at First Avenue)
New York, NY

Recipe: Cranberry Lemon Cake (er, Bread?)

Photo from Sassyradish's Flickr page.

Nothing guilt-trips me quite like wasted food, and the amount of ingredients I had leftover from Thanksgiving cooking had been weighing on my shoulders for the last two weeks.

I'd open the fridge: "There's more buttermilk? There's another bag of cranberries? What am I going to do?"

Then I had an idea: lemon cranberry buttermilk bread. Surely there is such a thing.

I made two versions of this quick bread. It's really cake, but who can resist calling it bread, which is so much more acceptable at breakfast than cake? The recipe that follows is clearly the superior one.

The alternate version used 6 tablespoons of sour cream in place of the 3 tablespoons of butter and was baked in a square baking dish instead of a loaf pan; I was hoping to maximize the surface area, which was my favorite part the first time around, but the flat expanse of 8"x8" cake paled in comparison to the tall, quaggy bread, spoonable in the middle.

Cranberry Lemon Cake
Yields 1 loaf, which can be cut into 8 generously sized slices
3 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1 cup plus 1 teaspoon white granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon lemon extract (or fresh lemon juice, though I find extract better for this recipe)
1 tablespoon lemon zest (about half a lemon's worth)
2 cups plus 1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 1/4 cups fresh whole cranberries
Preheat oven to 375 F and set rack in center.

In a large bowl and using an electric mixer, beat the butter until it is light and fluffy. Continue beating while adding 1 cup of sugar, then the eggs, buttermilk, and lemon extract, until thoroughly combined. Add in the zest and stir with a wood spoon to combine.

In a separate bowl, sift together 2 cups of flour with the salt and baking powder. In two batches, add the dry ingredients to the wet, stirring with the wood spoon until just combined. The batter should be slightly lumpy.

Measure out the cranberries and toss them with about 1/4 or less of flour, which will keep the cranberries from falling to the bottom of the cake.

Add the cranberries to the batter, folding them in and keeping the batter a little lumpy.

Grease a loaf pan with butter or vegetable shortening, and either dust it lightly with flour or sugar. Pour the batter into the pan and smooth it flat with a rubber spatula or a metal spoon. Sprinkle the remaining sugar on top.

Bake for about 20 minutes at 375F. If the top has begun to brown, turn the temperature down to 350F and continue baking another 10 to 12 minutes.

I like the cake to be gooey and undercooked in the center, and baking it in this fashion will allow that to happen while the edges will still turn out about as dry as a typical quick bread, such as banana bread or pumpkin bread.

Serve warm.

Recipe: Buttermilk Bread

I had some leftover buttermilk in the fridge the other day. Normally, I would make a few dozen cranberry-lemon scones with it, but we had so many sweets in the house leftover from Thanksgiving that I decided to do something a little more on the savory side.

After finding and liberally adapting a buttermilk yeast bread recipe, I have to say I am really pleased with the way mine turned out. Substituting olive oil for butter helped make this bread achieve a less sweet flavor.

Buttermilk Yeast Bread
Yield: 2 loaves

1 envelope yeast
1/4 cup warm (100 degrees F) water
pinch of ground ginger
6 cups white flour
1/3 cup white sugar, divided
1 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. baking soda
2 cups warm (about 100-110 degrees F) buttermilk
1/4 olive oil
1 egg yolk
1 tsp. cream or whole milk

Using a small whisk, mix the yeast in the warm water with a pinch of ground ginger and a teaspoon of sugar in a small bowl. Leave it to proof or "bloom" for about 10 minutes.

In a separate bowl and using a large whisk, stir the rest of the sugar with 6 cups of flour and the salt and baking soda. Divide the flour mixture in half by spooning out about 3 cups and setting aside.

Pour the yeast mixture into the bowl and stir quickly with a wooden spoon, and immediately following, pour in the warm buttermilk. The batter may seem very lumpy. Continue stirring until it smooths out. Add the olive oil.

When the batter seems relatively smooth, add more dry ingredients, about a half a cup at a time, stopping before the last half cup. This is when I gauge the bread. It should be elastic and warm to the touch. If it starts to seem at all like hard rubber, you've added too much flour. Better to err on the side of sticky wet bread dough than one that is stiff.

If you want, you can turn out the dough onto a floured surface and knead it a few times, but I honestly find this step is where I typically go wrong and incorporate too much flour. Really, the bread will be just fine if you don't knead it!

Using either a few drops of olive oil or a pad of butter, grease a ceramic bowl that is at least twice the size of the dough. Cover and leave in a warm place (if it's not warm, you're wasting your time!) for about 90 minutes.

After 90 minutes, punch down the dough gently and divide it in half. Grease two loaf pans and put one piece of dough in each. Cover again and leave in a warm place for about 40 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375-400 degrees F and set one rack on a fairly high notch.

In a small bowl, beat together the egg yolk with a splash of cream or milk. Brush this all over the top of the bread.

I like to put the bread into the oven right on a baking sheet to catch any drips or spills.

The cream and egg yolk will brown nicely, but are susceptible to burning. Once it turns dark golden, almost brown, the bread is done — about 25 to 30 minutes. If the bread doesn't seem quite done but the tops are too dark, cover the tops loose with aluminum foil while it finishes baking.

Cool completely before trying to remove the bread from the pans.