Cake Envy

Photo by Solo, Creative Commons 'share alike' and 'attribution' license.

Cake envy: I've got it, big time.

Every few months, I want it to be my birthday. I want a big, round cake with birthday candles and frosting. I want the people I love to be in once place, gawking at a gorgeous cake.

But that's not going to happen until October, so I had better think of different reasons for turning my jealousy into a yummy creation.

In the last two weeks, a number of food bloggers that I follow have posted gorgeous pictures of cakes, some for birthdays, some as practice for wedding cakes they'll make, now that it's the start of bridal season, and some just for fun.

My favorite is this coconut cream ice box cake by Sevenspoons. This picture of a slice of the cake on Flickr is what initially drew me in. Isn't it gorgeous? You can see the layers of homemade blackberry sauce, the toasted coconut flakes on top, and the layers upon layers of coconut pastry cream.

Then, a friend who does not live nearby started posting pictures on Facebook from cake decorating classes. She's been practicing rosettes and other piping techniques, and her photos are killing me.

Design Sponge had a guest blogger show off her German chocolate cake—not my favorite cake in the world, but it was yet another instance of cake madness.

And on it went.

Tonight I'm going to pull together some recipes, turn out a few shopping lists, and start gathering up the ingredients I'll need to make a few of these for graduations, welcome-home celebrations, birthdays, and a few other upcoming events.

Recipe: Spicy Korean Pasta at Home

From avlxyz's Flickr account, used with Creative Commons agreement 'attribution' and 'share alike.'

I fell in love with a Korean rice pasta dish. Warm, spicy, and multi-textured with three of four different kinds of "soft," it's total comfort food. I'm unsure how to spell it, but it may be ddeok-boggi, dduk-boggi, or dduk-bo ggi.

Image from BlogAway.

The main sustenance is rice pasta, fat cylinders about the thickness of your thumb, chewey and solid rather than hollow through the middle. Imagine the size and shape of a hot dog; now shrink it 20 percent and that's the size of the rice pasta. Scattered around the pasta are bits of cooked cabbage, sliced fish cake, and a hard-cooked egg. The whole array of foods are coated in this lovely spicy sauce that looks like tomato soup, slightly more pink than red, viscous, but smooth.

Woorijip on 32nd Street in New York's Koreatown sells this dish as a main meal, which is where I first tried it. Searching the internet, though, it sounds as if many people eat this dish in small portions as an afternoon snack. Sometimes, a brick of ramen noodles are softened in the sauce as it cooks, too, to make a big pot of food that can be placed in the center of the table, like a communal paella, where people pick out the parts they like best.

I made a version of it at home the other night, and the sauce came out astoundingly well, considering I didn't have all the precise ingredients and ad-libbed a bit. Here's what I used:

Ddeok-boggi with Squid

1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 carrot, julienned
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 packet dashi dissolved in 2 cups water
2 tablespoons Korea red pepper paste (gochujang)
1 tablespoon honey
dash of ground red pepper (cayenne)
enough sliced squid for two people
enough rigatoni for 2 people, or rice noodles soaked in warm water for an hour then drained
more water as needed
about a teaspoon of rice flour (if using Italian pasta; to help thicken the sauce)

Heat a wide and shallow pan over low heat. Add the sesame oil, julienned carrots, and garlic, and cook just until the carrots begin to change color. You don't want to cook off the flavor of the oil too much or burn the garlic.

Image from TriCityFoodBlog.

Turn the heat up to medium-high and add the next four ingredients, through the honey. Whisk them while cooking until blended. Bring everything just to a boil, then adjust the heat so the sauce is at a simmer.

When the sauce reduces to look thicker and slightly opaque (about 15-25 minutes), add the sliced squid and cook about 7 minutes or until the squid are tender. Leave the pan uncovered while cooking, and whisk in a few tablespoons more water if the sauce reduces too much.

If you're using Italian dried pasta, I recommend boiling it in salted water ahead of time until it's al dente. I tried soaking it in water and then cooking it through in the pan, as I would have if using rice pasta, but there wasn't enough liquid in the pan to immerse the pasta and cook it through properly. Additionally, with dried Italian pasta, you lose the starch that seeps out of the rice pasta to help thicken the sauce: Sprinkle a teapsoon of rice flour (regular flour should work, too, or just skip this step) onto the sauce as it cooks, and whisk it smooth.

Serve with scallion garnish and a one hard-cooked egg per person. You can also add fish cake, cabbage, scallions, sesame seeds for garnish, ramen noodles, or anything else to your taste.

How a Great Interview with a Chef Can Still Feel Wrong

In writing an article for a specific publication, you sometimes have to put together a piece that you don't whole-heartedly believe in. (Full disclosure: I love my job. What I write about in this post is in part self-reflection on how I can do my job better.)

I've been speaking to professional chefs recently for an article I'm putting together for work about high-tech kitchen gadgets. The final article needs to be light and oriented toward gadgets. It has to be playful and engaging for an audience who's more interested in technology than food and cooking.

The connections I've made through researching the article have been astounding. I got to talk on the phone with Chef Francisco Migoya about two weeks ago, who had found out the day before we spoke that he was nominated for a James Beard Award. I've been reading Chef Migoya's blog, The Quenelle about experimenting with pastry arts for more than a year. He does incredible work.

Another person I've had the chance to meet is Nathan Myhrvold, an intensely diversified individual with expertise in both technology and cooking. I had a chance to meet him before he spoke about his new book, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking at The New York Academy of Sciences.

All the people I've met have been amazingly receptive to my questions, and they've all shown a deep understanding of science, too. During a few interviews, I tried to jump straight into some questions about gadgets and tools that will appeal to a tech-hungry audience, and the chefs have said, "Wait. Before we talk about using blow torches and combi ovens, let's first understand what's going on when we cook food. We're talking about altering proteins..." These frank and straightforward explanations of the basics of cooking give me the utmost respect for these chefs. It helps me appreciate just how much they understand their trade. But it also makes me cringe a little inside.

The problem is, the final article is not going to talk about what happens on a chemical or molecular level when heat is added to protein. Maybe I will be able to sneak a one-sentence explanation in there, but certainly no more than that. Diving deeply into the fundamentals of cooking just isn't right for the publication, audience, or platform (the article will appear online only, not in print).

I had a similar problem recently when I interviewed some teachers for an article about students using technology to cheat. The final article was fine and was well received. But as I was interviewing professors, I felt a pang in my conscience every time a professor mentioned what cheating meant for student integrity, or how the educational system at large handled dishonest students (I got a lot of "this part is off the record" on that topic), or how the professor felt about plagiarism and why s/he thought some students did it. I felt the pangs because I knew none of what they were saying would make it into the article. In fact, I worried that I would be embarrassed to email them the link to the finished piece. We talked about amazingly interesting and complex issues, but only maybe 10 percent or less makes it into the article, and it's usually the lightest and fluffiest content.

It's been rare for me, as a writer, to have a breakthrough on a piece, where I was able to work the best and most interesting elements of an interview or my research into something that I was proud to publish. But those moments are really rare. One of the personal goals that I set for myself before I started my current job (I started in January 2011) was to push myself toward publishing work that I'm truly proud to have written. In the daily grind, perpetually against a deadline, it's so easy to miss that target over and over again. For this piece about kitchen gadgets, I don't have a hard and fast deadline (although I've been thinking that I'll soon have to commit to publishing in early May, to time the piece to hit before Memorial Day, when people are still in the planning stages of their first outdoor cookout), so maybe I'll figure out a way to write something that matters.

Churros in Chocolate in Valencia, Spain

After driving nearly four hours through horrendous rain showers, we (my two sisters, Boyfriend, and I) arrived in Valencia. The skies cleared. Our hotel had parking. And a month-long festival to celebrate the entire region was on its last days.

We hit the streets and ambled toward the city center.

Just outside one of the four or five story-tall gates of the old city wall, we spotted one of the carnival-esque, mobile frying stations that sells street fair food. This one sold sweet fried things, mainly churros.

We asked for a large bag with chocolate sauce to share and watched as two men grabbed and spun together the ends of the dough as it protruded from an industrial machine and into a vat of scalding oil. A few moments later, one of the men lifted each churro from its frying bath and tucked into a bag. He held a shaker full of sugar over the bag and shook and shook and shook. Another person ladled molten chocolate into a plastic cup (not a great combination, plastic and heat), collected our five or six euros, and set us on our way.

Crispy on their ridges yet slightly spongy at the center, the churros tasted best with sugar but no chocolate. That viscous cup of chocolate is deceiving, as it's low-quality stuff and cut with a lot of fat, and by the taste of it, some kind of fat that's solid at room temperature, like vegetable shortening.