Sunday, March 29, 2009

Revisiting A Classic: Val's Burgers

It was 74 degrees on a Saturday and what better way to enjoy the day than with a motorcycle ride and a leisurely lunch. I wanted to take Justin to Val's Burgers in Hayward, CA. Val's is a real classic, founded in 1958, and it hasn't changed much! (They don't have a website.) This still is a family favorite for me. As a kid I remember waiting outside on a bench on with about 14 other people for our name to be called on a Friday night.

Since Val's is so popular, we thought with a late lunch we might avoid the crowd. We only had wait to 25 minutes--which wasn't bad at all considering the tiny parking lot and diner was full! We got the corner booth and view of all the action.

Val's is best known for its burgers, shakes, and fries. The kitchen is partially open and we watched the milkshake-master make malts, chocolate sodas, and shakes by the dozen (they have eight mixers!). They use Berkeley Farms ice cream, which is a local favorite. We ordered a chocolate malt and it came in the metal cup with 2 milkshake glasses. Our waitress expertly filled the glasses full and--with an extra wide straw--we quickly sipped them up.

The hamburger is ground fresh and you can have a baby (1/3 lb), mama (1/2 lb) or papa (1 lb) burger. The burgers are charbroiled to order. We both went for "medium," which had plenty of juiciness. You can order extras like grilled onions, tomato, cheese, bacon, etc. and sitting at the table are pickles, fresh onions, and relish, ketchup, mustard and mayo. We got our burgers and piled them high with our favorite fixings.

These classic burgers have a great char flavor--simple and delicious. We also appreciated adding as many pickles, onions, and condiments as we wanted!

Finally, the fries at Val's aren't your skinny minis. These are hearty, crispy, steak-cut fries and they were tasty!

So if you want a classic burger and you live in the Bay Area, check out Val's--but be prepared to wait for the goodness.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Secret of Homemade S'mores

• Have you ever had a homemade marshmallow?
• Have you ever had a homemade graham cracker?
• Have you ever eaten them together?

If you answered no to any of these questions, then this post is for you- and to quote my friend T: "Make sure you tell everyone how easy this is to make!" These homemade s'mores are AMAZING, so please treat your taste buds to this recipe.

My good friend, T, came over to make homemade s'mores and she was totally unaware that we would be making the marshmallows and graham crackers from scratch. We started with the graham crackers and made the marshmallows during the chill step.

Homemade Marshmallows

These aren't your jet-puffed store bought marshmallows. They have a completely different texture that melts in your mouth and once you have one, you will never want a store bought one again. Homemade marshmallows are trendy right now and you can buy similar ones at Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, but I say make them yourself. The recipe we used here was from Martha Stewart.

We softened the gelatin in a bowl and separately boiled the corn syrup, water and sugar until it reached 238F.

We then whipped the sugar mixture into the gelatin for 12 minutes until the mixture had tripled in volume and was thickened. Warning: the gelatin really smells bad at first until the mixture is fully whipped and the vanilla is added.

We then maneuvered the gooey mixture into a pan that had been sprayed with PAM, lined with parchment and sprayed again with PAM.

It was really sticky and was pressed into the sheet rather than poured. If you want thicker marshmallows, use a 9 by 13 inch pan instead of a rimmed baking sheet.

We sprinkled the top with powdered sugar and waited an hour or two until they firmed enough to cut.

We chose a few playful shapes as well as some traditional squares. After cutting, we tossed them in powdered sugar.

We cut flowers, stars, hearts and...

cowboy boots! They are wonderful as is or in a cup of hot chocolate as well as s'mores.

The Graham Crackers

And now for the graham cracker recipe from Martha's cookie book. However, there is a typo and the book doesn't say what temperature to bake. Thankfully the exact recipe is on the web and it's 350F.

We creamed the butter, brown sugar and honey...

and separately mixed wheat germ, whole wheat flour, salt, baking soda and cinnamon. We made a dough by combining the two.

We rolled and cut the dough into the traditional rectangular shape. The graham crackers were chilled in the freezer in between sheets of parchment paper.

We poked holes and baked them until golden brown. It was that easy.

And they are decadent- with a short, butter texture unlike the dry, lowfat store bought crackers. Martha recommends eating them alone or with peanut butter and jelly or with s'mores.

Indoor S'mores

Finally, we made the indoor s'mores!

We used Scharffenberger Extra Rich Milk Chocolate which is fabulous.

The marshmallows bubbled and browned nicely over our gas stove. And the s'mores were out of this world. The only thing that would make them better would be toasting them over a real campfire.

Definitely worth the effort- and T and I think it actually isn't that hard to do. So give it a try!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Forgotten Soda Pop Experience

Still inspired by the visit to the original KFC, and thirsty from a Saturday full of running errands, we stopped in at a recently remodeled A&W Restaurant in our area (We were surprised to learn that the original A&W is only an hour or so away in Lodi, CA . . . it started in 1919.). We were also pleasantly surprised to receive an ice-cold frosty mug rather than the standard plastic cup that we filled by ceremoniously pulling the root beer from the special tap.

In our food culture, the beverages collectively known as "soft drinks", "pop", "soda", or "coke"--generic term depending on your geographical location (above)--are not often celebrated and in fact are more often maligned. If you choose to drink soda, it makes the most sense to drink it in moderation. And it is interesting how a little functional pomp and circumstance completely alters the experience by simply engaging the senses.

The special tap produces a head of frothy, white foam easily seen through the glass against the dark contrast of the liquid. The heft of the mug telegraphs that something substantial is coming your way. The touch of the ice-cold glass on your fingertips and lips queues imminent refreshment. Your nose, now buried in the tipped glass, allows you to draw in all the aromas just as the creamy foam coats your lips and the beverage pours across the length of your tongue. Since there is no need for ice, there is no dilution in flavor over the entire experience. I'm glad A&W still has this figured out, because for some reason, we've taken soda and put it into an adult sippy cup -- where you cannot see, smell, or feel the beverage until it shoots out of the straw in the back of your throat. We had completely forgotten how pleasurable the soda pop experience could be and we savored it much more by drinking it from these frosty glasses.

We wonder if the proprietary recipe of "herbs, berries, barks, and berries" is sitting next to Col. Sanders' Original Recipe in the YUM! Brands (the restaurant operator) safe or in that of the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (the beverage distributor)? I do have to say that the diet version is as tasty as the original, which is a similar what's been pulled off in the diet version of Dr. Pepper. Their flavor chemists certainly have earned their salaries.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Tasty Little Bites: Panini-inis!

Mmm, this is a tasty little post. It was Saturday about lunchtime and I wanted a little nibble. A baguette, an assortment of Taleggio, Rogue River Blue and Cheddar cheeses, prosciutto, and Medjool dates inspired these little bites.

In the same way that sliders are little burgers, I wanted to make miniature panini so that I could have a little taste of everything: panini-ini. So I fired up up panini grill, which was a wedding present!

Panini-ini Number One: Rogue River Blue cheese, sliced and pitted Medjool date, prosciutto

Before pressing-


Panini-ini Number Two: Taleggio and Prosciutto


and after...

Panini-ini Number Three: Classic Cheddar cheese



And the results were delicious! The blue cheese, date and prosciutto was by far the best one!

Buon Appetito!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Where the Original Recipe was Born

While on recent trip to southeastern Kentucky I had the opportunity to stop at Sanders Cafe -- the site where Colonel Harland Sanders developed the recipe and process for his Kentucky Fried Chicken now famous the world over. The original restaurant site in Corbin, KY holds an operating KFC restaurant (one of the 14,000+ now operating in over 80 countries) and a museum. It is a little off the beaten path, in fact the routing of what became Interstate 75 outside of Corbin diverted travelers away from Sanders' restaurant and led him to explore a franchised business model.

If you're like me you've probably heard about the secret recipe of 11 Herbs & Spices, but didn't know about the second part of the Colonel's innovation: pressure frying. It takes 30 minutes to fry up a fresh bird in the skillet, too long of a wait even for weary travelers in the 1940s. Deep frying is a much shorter alternative, but yields a different tasting product. Pressure frying (similar to pressure cooking) uses high heats and pressures (but not oil immersion) to reduce the fry time of the bird and yield the characteristic taste.

My Kentucky hosts told me about the Annual World Chicken Festival held each year in the neighboring city of London. This year will be the 20th festival and held September 24-27, 2009. A key feature is the 10 ft diameter skillet that can fry 600 chicken quarters simultaneously. Maybe I will be lucky enough to be back in town?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Mary Peepins: Our Peep Diorama Submission

"Wanna do something CRAZY this weekend?" That's what the email to my friend Mama A said once I found out about the Washington Post's Annual Peep Show Diorama contest. And like a good friend, Mama A was up for the challenge of making a diorama with marshmallow peeps. Justin was off the hook for this since he was out of town and we only had one day until the contest deadline.

The theme for our diorama: Mary Peepins. Yes, Mama A and I were long time Disney fans with numerous trips to Disneyland and even a ballet recital dance to Chim Chimney.

We only had Saturday night to get this done so we started with a sketch...

and two shoeboxes. With Little I in bed, we put on the Mary Poppins movie for inspiration and got to work.

WARNING: Peeps were harmed in the making of this diorama.

I worked on the Chimney Peeps- I meant Chimney Sweeps...

While Mama A worked on Mary Peepins. She could have a career in Peep hat making!

And the set started coming together...

And Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! The Chimney Peeps were sweeping to Chim Chimney and Mary, Jane and Michael were flying a kite.

And it was 1AM and we were out of black construction paper! But we had a wonderful time making this and we'll let you know when we make the finals. Ha ha ha!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Urban Professional Cupcake

What kind of cupcake does the Urban Professional eat? Why this delicious chocolate one made with Peet's coffee and buttermilk! Based on my grandma's Devil's Food cake recipe, this recipe transformed beautifully into a moist gooey cupcake- worthy of any briefcase carrying commuter.

I was initially inspired by these tiny figures, commuters dressed in gray suits and with briefcase in hand. I knew there was a cupcake out there for them. And then a reader emailed me for a moist chocolate cupcake recipe and I recalled my grandma's Devil's food cake which included a strong cup of coffee with rich buttermilk. Just what the Urban Professional ordered!

The recipe starts with sifting the dry ingredients into a mountain of flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt.

Then adding in the buttermilk and oil and a cup of Peet's Major Dickason's Blend.

The batter is very thin and runny...but tastes delicious. I literally poured it using a glass measure into the muffin cups. Be sure not to overfill these cupcakes! And into the oven they went until baked.

The shiny gooey frosting can be a bit tricky but starts with sugar, cocoa powder, evaporated milk and butter. Melt away in a saucepan.

Bring to a rolling boil for 1 minute until it hits a soft ball stage.

I test this by dropping a bit into a glass of cold water and look for "soft balling" as taught to me by my grandma. My grandma takes her frosting a bit farther and it hardens into a fudge-like state. I prefer the shiny frosting.

The vanilla was stirred in and I actually dipped the cupcakes into the frosting to coat the surface. It worked beautifully to give each one a shiny coating of frosting.

The results were both stunning and delicious. The gooey frosting and moist cupcakes were decadent.

The Urban Professional Cupcake Recipe courtesy of my Grandma A:

2 cups flour
1 and 3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup cocoa
1/2 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp baking soda
2/3 cup oil
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup Peet's Major Dickason's coffee
1 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 350F. Sift dry ingredients. Add in oil and buttermilk and stir. Add hot coffee and mix well. Stir in vanilla. Pour into lined muffin cups- about 2/3 full. Bake about 18-20 min until done. Cupcakes will be dark in color but toothpick should come out clean. Let cool on a rack and remove.

One Minute Frosting:

3 Tbsp cocoa
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup evaporated milk
1/4 cup butter- cut into a few pieces
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla

Combine everything except vanilla. Stirring often, bring to a rolling boil. After about 1 minute, drop a bit into a glass of cold water to check for soft ball stage. Once reached, remove and stir vanilla. Dip cooled cupcakes into frosting and let set.