May 2004

A Go-To Recipe for A Go-Go Boy: Pumpkin Bread

If there were a bar graph of things I cook, it might look like Manute Bull in Munchkintown. The Manute Bull, of course, would be Pumpkin Bread. I always make Pumpkin Bread. It’s my go-to recipe. Here’s why…

To make pumpkin bread all you need is a can of pumpkin and that’s it. I mean, that’s not it—but it’s the only rare ingredient. Otherwise you have the flour, you have the sugar, you have the vegetable oil; maybe you have the ground cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg; and hopefully you have a bread pan and a sifter. But if you cook at all, you have all those other ingredients. So buy some cans of pumpkin and go make pumpkin bread.

It’s so easy. [I use this recipe from Epicurious.]

First you butter and flour the pan.


Then combine the vegetable oil and sugar:


Next add the eggs and hold up a can of pumpkin.


Actually, I should address an egg issue here. I halved the recipe to make only one loaf and in the process had to turn 3 eggs into 1.5 eggs. How did I do this? I plopped the first egg into the mix and then cracked the second egg into a bowl, which I scrambled a bit and then poured out half. Good thinking?

Here’s the pumpkin out of the can:


Now we bring in the spicy triplets:


I love these spices. They’re quite autumnal, I’ll admit, but they taste good any time of year.

Sift them, the flour and baking soda into a separate bowl:


Mix the flour into the other stuff in two additions:


Pour into the bread pan:


And bake for 70 mintues at 350 degrees.

This might be a good time to admit my tendency to underbake things. It comes from my original training as a brownie chef: then it was always ok to underbake; in fact, it was preferable.

But I’m starting to understand the merits of fully baking whatever you’re baking. Something wonderful happens texturally when something is fully baked and Pumpkin Bread is a good example. The top gets crustier and sugarier and–well–you’ll know it when you taste it.

Check it out:


Cut myself a slice? Don’t mind if I do!



It took longer to write this post than it did to make the pumpkin bread. And now I have a whole loaf just waiting to be devoured. Which is more than I can say for you. Hmph!

The Blue Plate Special Chainsaw Massacre XVIII

There is Whole Foods in my backyard and then there is Whole Foods on Ponce.

Whole Foods in my backyard is Lance Bass. Whole Foods on Ponce is Justin Timberlake.

Cry me a river.

Sometimes I go to Whole Foods on Ponce and eat dinner. They have a Blue Plate Special. The Blue Plate Special is very hit or miss. When it hits, it’s good. When it misses, it’s awful.

Here’s how it works: you choose a meat–but not any old meat–you choose a cheap meat. The fish, for example, is off limits. (But, then again, is fish a meat?) Then you choose two sides. That’s your blue plate special.

Tonight I thought I chose well with spicy coconut chicken. Sounds tasty, no? I chose rice and mushrooms as my sides. I brought it to a table and took a picture:


I took a bite and had a similar reaction to Sylvester the cat when Tweety drops a safe on his head and his tongue spills out like a staircase. This was HOT. Firey hot. Backdraft hot. Some like it hot hot. Hot Or Not hot. Too hot to handle hot. Buster Poindexter hot hot hot. Who’s Hot? Hot. Hot Legs hot. Hotty McHotHot hot. HOT.

Maybe I’m exaggerating. I’m sure to fans of firey foods it was fine. And the first few bites were tolerable. But as the meal progressed my face turned red. I started to sweat. I really felt ill. I couldn’t finish. I ate the mushrooms and called it a night.

[A night of the Iguana night. Nighthawks night. Goodnight saigon night. A Knight’s tale night. Nighty night night. Nick at Nite night. Goodnight night. Night!]

Per Se Shockwaves

So, as I am wont to do, I posted my Per Se review on eGullet the night I wrote it. I originally linked it on here, and then it was merged into the general Per Se review thread. So here’s the link to that:

The Link To That.

If you click on page 4, you’ll see two really cool things. One is a great post by someone named Robyn which offers a great critique of my seriousness. Here is a quote:

“By the way – when I look at all these pictures of food – I think about sex. Would anyone have fun with sex if they spent the whole time taking somewhat clinical pictures of it (as opposed to the pictures you’d never share in public )? You know – I bought a digital camera a while back – but – whenever I’m having a good time – even if I remember to bring the camera – I never remember to take pictures.”

[She has a point… taking these pictures sometimes DOES detract from the meal!]

But then Fat Guy (the founder of eGullet) offers this rather exciting rejoinder:

“I have a different perspective on the matter. Anybody — well, pretty much anybody — can have sex pretty much anywhere. Whereas only 64 people a night can eat at Per Se, and they have to come to New York to do it.

I was just hearing today about a group of cooks at a restaurant in Quebec, all gathered ’round their computer screen looking at adrober’s photos of the food at Per Se. There are people all over the world who are dying to see photos of and read everything they can about the food at Per Se, and this is where they’re coming to do that. So I have to thank adrober, on behalf of the site, for increasing our relevance and providing this service to so many visually hungry people.”

Wow! I’ve increased a site’s relevance! Now if only I could bring more attention to Germanic raw food…

Welcome Home S’Mores

I am at my most miserly when given a gift that I don’t like. I can’t help it. It’s a combination of an overly expressive face and an underdeveloped sense of gratitude. The upside is that when I do get a gift I like, you’ll know it. I will emote wild rays of gratitude. Otherwise, I’m a bit assy. I can’t help it.

Alex pointed this out while reeling from the shock of her unopened birthday present.

“When I got you that autographed picture of Martin Short two years ago you went crazy and said it was the perfect gift,” she explained. “With this you were just like: it’s ok.”

And then tonight Lauren and our friend Coxy made me Welcome Home S’Mores.

“How sweet,” I said.

I watched them fork their marshmallows:


Then toast them on the open flame:


After which they assembled the sandwich:


And proceeded to eat:


“Ummm hello,” I complained, “aren’t you going to toast the whole s’more? How else will the chocolate melt?”

“The marshmallow melts the chocolate, dumbass!” quipped Coxy.

“Nu uh,” I proffered. “At camp we toasted the whole thing.”

Lauren rolled her eyes. “He went to acting camp,” she explained.

Furious, I ran to my computer and typed in “S’mores” on Epicurious. Sure enough a recipe surfaced where you make the sandwich, wrap it in tinfoil, and toast it on the fire.

“Aha!” I yelped into the other room. “Epicurious says you DO toast the whole sandwich!”

Lauren and Coxy were unimpressed.

“Well maybe if you want gourmet s’mores you do,” Lauren chided. “But if you ever went to camp this is how you do it.”

Seething with anger, I stormed back into the kitchen and chomped on an undermelted s’more:


The worst welcome home ever! (Just kidding. It was sweet).

Per Se: A Young Diner at a Young Restaurant

In my brief stint as a fine diner (with Charlie Trotters, Seegers and now Per Se under my belt) I have reached the following conclusion about fine dining. It goes like this: fine dining is like death.

Death is quiet. So is fine dining. Death is peaceful. So is fine dining. Death is infinite. So–it frequently seems–is fine dining.

Forgive my over-extended metaphor, but the reason so many people declare a fine dining experience to be “spiritual” is that it creates a sense of order: it says, with its confluence of waiters and busboys and hosts and hostesses, that there is a system out there, an ordered system, and that you are part of it. You are the star of it. We are here to make you well.

A good restaurant, then, creates this spiritual aura without alienating their customers. We want that sense of Divine inspiration without the formality of a temple. My dismay at Charlie Trotters version of fine dining is that it was too much a self-conscious religious experience. Charlie Trotter prostletizes. Thomas Kellar–I can say after tonight’s Per Se dinner–offers forth. If you want to call it religious, go ahead, but that’s not the point. Thomas Kellar isn’t prostletizing, he is sharing.

I went tonight to Per Se with my parents. This, I worried, would be a dangerous formula. My mom likes to deconstruct a dish pre-service, ordering everything on the side; my dad fears any food that doesn’t start and end with “steak and potatoes.”

My fears were unfounded. But first, the arrival.

In case you’re not aware, Per Se is located in the Time Warner center at Columbus Circle:

Apparently there are secret elevators that take your right to the restaurant, but we went the pedestrian way with the riffraff. Making our way up to the fourth floor, my mom declared: “I don’t get this place. It’s just a shopping mall.”

“A billion dollar shopping mall,” I offered, to no avail.

Finally, on the fourth floor, we approached the mighty blue door of Per Se.


Would I be wrong to point out the religious implications of a fierce intimidating door separating laymen from Nirvana? And how ironic that the door itself doesn’t open: you go in through the glass sliding doors on either side.

Once inside–in case you forgot where you were headed–chrome letters spell out the restaurant’s name:


We were greeted by jovial hostesses who rather tactfully asked us if we had a reservation. It became apparent why when a couple in shorts and baseball caps staggered in after us and asked if they had any tables for tonight. Clearly, these hostesses were having to deal regularly with well-meaning mall-goers who figured that Per Se was Time Warner’s version of The Cheesecake Factory. “Sorry ma’am,” the hostess said kindly to Lady Baseball Cap, “We have nothing available tonight.”

Meanwhile, my mother began admiring the floor. I recalled an article that said Thomas Kellar tore up the floor three times until it was perfect. I took a picture for your pleasure:


I also admired the floristry. Everywhere there were beautiful flowers that gave off a lovely aroma:


Mom and I posed for a picture in front of the hostess stand:


Then we were taken to our table.

Here’s where our night hit its first roadbump. The table was on the second tier, in a corner, by the bus station. It felt like the worst table in the house and probably was. I was facing a wall and mom and dad were facing the window, but not gladly. We were pretty far away.

“Should I say something?” asked mom.

Dad and I nodded. She called over a waiter.

“You know,” said my mother, with her coquettish charm, “We’re really not happy with this table. Would it be possible to sit near a window?”

I was pretty sure they would apologize and refuse. But I was wrong. We were quickly moved to a window table, with a gorgeous view of Columbus Circle and the Southwest tip of Central Park.

“Thank you so much,” said my mother.

We began to admire the flowers on the table.

“These are beautiful,” said mom, “I’ve never seen flowers this pretty that weren’t fake.”


We began by ordering cocktails. I went with the waiter-recommended champagne cocktail with orange bitters:


Mom ordered a cosmo and sent it back because it was too watery.

Dad was contented with a giant glass of gin and tonic.

Mom examined the wine list:


She marveled over its reasonableness.

“I can’t believe how cheap some of these wines are,” she declared.

We went with a 2002 Napa Valley Neyers Chardonnay which proved tasty and wildly efficient: it lasted quite fully for the whole meal.

Here I am reading the menu as the sun goes down:


The waiter returned and listened amused as we all ordered the same thing: Chef’s Tasting Menu with Foie Gras for the second course (the only choice we had to make).

Mom and Dad posed for a picture:


After which our not-on-the-menu appetizers arrived: the French Laundry famous mini-ice-cream-cones with salmon tartare:


The insides were filled with creme fraich, and taken as a whole they were a textural and flavorful delight.

Next up was the “Oysters and Pearls” (the waiter gave me the menu so I can report accurately on each dish’s contents): “Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Iranian Ossetra Caviar.


This was a really nice dish. Everything worked well to complement everything else (a recurrent theme throughout the night). The “sabayon” tied everything together.

Next, was the “Peach Melba” / Moulard Duck “Foie Gras Au Torchon” Frog Hollow Farms Peach Jelly, Pickled White Peaches, Marinated Red Onion, “Melba Toast” and Crispy Carolina Rice:


This was such pretty presentation and all the flavors carried. I really liked the combination of peach and foie gras, another testament to liver’s secret inner-candy life. The Melba toasts ran out and they were quickly replenished.

After which (or before which? I don’t remember) we were served a lovely bread roll with two types of butter:


“Those look amazing,” said my mother. “I don’t normally eat bread, but here it goes.”

I won’t lie: she was a little disappointed, but mostly because it wasn’t warm. Otherwise she–plus dad and I–scarfed them right up.

Next up was: Filet of Atlantic Halibut Cooked “A La Plancha.” Extra Virgin Olive Oil Braised Fingerling Potatoes, Roasted Spring Garlic and Arugala Pudding:


This most reminded me of Charlie Trotter’s. Very elegant, very professional, but almost drab in its perfection. This one didn’t really do it for me.

After which there was the “Noilly Prat”: Sweet Butter Poached Maine Lobster “Cuit en Sous Vide.” Carmelized Fennel Disc, Crystallized Fennel Chip and Sauce “Noilly Prat”:


This was really nice. I declared the lobster to be incredibly tender, my mom declared it to be incredibly tough.

“You’re cutting it the wrong way,” explained my dad to my mom. She was cutting it vertically instead of horizontally.

“Oh,” she replied.

We all chewed gladly.

Then came the Pan Roasted Cavendish Farms Quail: “Puree” of Spring Onions, Apple Wood Smoked Bacon “Lardons” and Wilted Dandelion Greens.


I thought this was exceptional presentation. The sauce on the plate seemed incredibly expert. And the quail had perfectly crisped skin and a ton of flavor. Quite impressive.

After which there was the Elysian Fields Farm “Selle D’Agneau Rotie Entiere”: Braised Shoulder, Fava Beans, Golden Chanterelles, Roasted Crosnes and Lamb Jus.


This, our waiter/interpreter explained, was lamb. My mom bit in first and said–quite shockingly: “Needs salt.”

“Mom,” I declared heatedly, “You can’t ask for salt at Per Se! That isn’t done!”

Assuming the fault was with my mother and not the lamb, I took a bite and instantly agreed. It needed salt.

Well, a few bites later I realized that there were depth-charges of salt unequally distributed throughout. Was this on purpose? Not sure.

And that was the conclusion of the entrees.

Then the cheese course: “Charolais”: “Gelee de Pomme Verte,” Satur Farms Red Beets and English Walnut Short Bread:


Here was my big moment. I am a certified cheesephobe, indoctrinated by my dad in the art of cheese hating. My mother has always been slightly more tolerant–sprinkling her salads with feta and bleau. Here at Per Se I took the leap and almost enjoyed my Charolais. The beets surely helped. But I would be a liar if I didn’t say it tasted like a foot.

We forced my dad to take a bite and his facial expression was worth its weight in Charolais. He’s still trying to get the taste out of his mouth.

That was followed by the Pineapple Sorbet with Braised Pineapple and Coconut Cream:


Refreshing, but not earth-shattering.

Next up was earth-shattering: “Tentation Au Chocolat, Noisette Et Lait”–Milk Chocolate “Cremeux,” Hazelnut “Streusel” with Condensed Milk Sorbet and “Sweetened Salty Hazelnuts” and “Pain au Lait” Coulis.


Here was the great equalizer: we all kvelled in unison. Our trilateral “Mmmm”ing disturbed many a table. But it was that good.

We were then inundated with unordered, grudgingly welcomed desserts. The men were presented with yogurt, figs at the bottom:


The women (my mom) received creme brulee:


We found this Matriarchal dessert division to be deeply upsetting.

“I wanted creme brulee,” said my dad sadly.

The waiter instantly obliged and all was well.

I felt on the verge of bursting.

And then there was more: “Mignardises.”


The macaroons were outrageously good. So were the candies. I felt my insides begin a protest: “NO MORE!”

And then there was more. Chocolates!


A white flag waved from within. I snapped up one chocolate, popped it in my mouth, and called it a night.

And now before my forced conclusion, a brief note on the bathroom.

Per Se has 16 tables plus a large private dining room. There are two one-stall men’s rooms and therein lies the problem. I have a tiny alcohol-affected bladder that forces me to the bathroom two to three times per fine dining experience. Tonight, each time I went, there was someone leaving just as I walked in. This gave the restaurant zero time to clean up and, unfortunately, bathroom maintenance became an issue. There were non-flushers (blech!) and the towels ran out. I was none too happy.

But, that aside, Per Se was a great fine dining experience. I agree with those who say it’s still getting its leggings–we had a waiter present a course and forget his lines halfway through the presentation of what he was serving–but that will come in good time.

For my own purposes, I lump Per Se in with the other fine dining Deathstaurants. It’s an experience–like seeing God–but I’m not ready to see God. One day, sure, but for now I’ll stick to youthful exuberance. Who’s up for fondue?

Emperor Balthazar, Doth Thou Have No Clothes?

When Restaurant Magazine listed its Top 50 Restaurants in the World this year, Balthazar placed 40th. This came as a surprise because I had been to Balthazar once before and didn’t love it. Was I missing something?

After watching a play reading this morning at Juilliard, I hopped into a Death Cab (this guy was literally out to die) and met my parents in SoHo. Our reservation was at 1:30, so we killed some time shopping at the trendy stores.

Check out this trendy Prada store, for example. The manequins are arranged like school children in an Ayn Rand novel:

Here’s dad with a skeleton:


And here’s a really cool product at the MOMA store: stainless steel soap to get the garlic and onion smell off your fingers:


At 1:15ish we made our way over to Balthazar, and here’s mom before going in to claim our table:


Meanwhile, Lisa arrived eager to gorge with us:


The place was a’buzzing. Balthazar is a happening lunch spot, and today–Saturday–I think the mix was equal parts tourists and equal parts regulars. The interior had the look and feel of a French bistro (I think that’s the point) and everyone looked accordingly continental. Our host even looked a little bi-coastal, if you know what I mean.

Here’s the scene:


We sat down near the back and felt like worker bees on the outskirts of the hive. Our waiter had a proper French accent and a horrendous birthmark on his face. We won’t hold that against him.

We proceeded to order a $12 basket of bread:


It turned out to be my favorite part of the meal. The croissant was wonderful, as was the chocolate bread with a real piece of bittersweet chocolate inside. And the sticky bun, which we saved til the end, was indeed lip-smacking.

It went downhill from there. But, to be fair, it may have been my ordering. Because we’re going to Per Se tonight (we leave in 30 minutes!) I wanted to eat light. So mom and I ordered soup and salad: shrimp bisque and the waiter-recommended Balthazar Salad.

Here’s the bisque:


It was watery on the top and had zero flavor. As I worked my way down, though, it got more flavorful until at the bottom it actually tasted good. Maybe I should have stirred?

And the salad:


This was the real disappointment. It tasted like nothing. There were some interesting elements: the asparagus, the hericot vers, the sliver of cheese. But it had no character, nothing memorable about it. In fact I’d like to extract the memory completely from my head. Dr. Bunsen, if you’ll please.


Whatever did I have for lunch today? I can hardly remember.

Lisa, on the other hand, chose a winner—-a brunch time waffle with berries:


If only I hadn’t alread had a waffle at breakfast.

The scenery was pretty nice:


Although my dad mocked the lighting. “This is one of the best restaurants in the world,” he said, ” and they have lights like that?” The lights looked like insect killers. It was a decent point.

I won’t be so daring as to call Balthazar a fraud or a charlatan of a restaurant. I’ll simply say that both times I’ve been I’ve been less than impressed. Maybe it’s a matter of ordering the right thing but that doesn’t make sense because if it’s on the menu at the world’s 40th best restaurant it should taste great no matter what it is. Those are my thoughts. And now for Per Se!

Night on the Town!

So after Juilliard (you may want to read today’s posts backwards, that way they’ll be more chronological-like), I made my way down to Times Square to meet my friend Ricky for an evening of Assassins and burgers. Who should I encounter on my way?


Two zany prostitutes hawking their wares!

Just kidding. These are my friends Dana W. and Lisa. You may remember Lisa from that time I stayed with her. She’s on the right. Dana’s on the left. We had a lovely chat. You’ll be seeing Lisa again tomorrow for lunch.

Then I made my way over to Studio 54 where Ricky and I went to see Assassins:


What follows is a brief review of the show which, because this is a food blog, requires a click for its non-conforming content.

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