Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Restaurant Review: Sam's Chowder House

Sam's Chowder House - dinner on February 19, 2015
I’d never been to Sam’s Chowder House before and apparently it’s a fairly recent addition to the restaurants on University Avenue in Palo Alto. Although I don’t know how recently because I tend to avoid going to that area for dinner because finding parking is always a hassle. In fact, I’d avoided the area for so long that I forgot how much of a pain parking was. I got there 15 minutes early but it took me over 20 minutes to find a parking spot so I ended up being late. Oh yeah, that’s why I don’t like to go to dinner in that area.
The interior is bifurcated – there’s one eating area to the left and another to the right but you can’t look from one into the other so the restaurant appears smaller than it is. On the right was a live “band”, i.e. a couple of musicians playing instruments. We had a table on the left side which I preferred. I don’t mind music playing but meeting friends for dinner is a very social thing for me and I like chatting and catching up, hard to do if you have to compete with music.
Clam Chowder
The menu has a good variety of entrees, mostly seafood as you would expect from the name but there’s also a burger if you’re inclined to turf more than surf. Prices are all over the place. The low end is under $20 but you can also get lobster pasta, complete with a crab cracker for the lobster shell and a bib to preserve your clothes, for $40. I hovered over a few different choices but finally settled on the lobster roll. I’ve always liked the concept of a lobster roll (lobster + bread) but rarely have it as most places clutter the lobster with – ugh – mayonnaise or some equally unappetizing sauce. I’m a plain girl all the way.
Lobster Roll and fries
But I wanted to try the lobster roll at Sam’s so I quizzed the waiter on what “exactly” comes in the lobster roll. He said lobster, butter and celery. Awesome. Hold the celery and you’ve got a deal. Which he did. The roll came out toasted and supporting some lobster meat dipped in butter. I’m not big on butter on my lobster although I can accept it just fine. It was good although, given how plain it was (but no, I had no regrets about skipping the celery), it was really just like eating lobster dipped in butter with some bread. No complaints but I wasn’t so over the moon that I’d have to have it again.
Lobster Pasta

Had better luck with the dessert we ordered. My friends and I had narrowed it down between the apple crisp served warm with vanilla ice cream or the molten chocolate cake, also served warm with vanilla ice cream. The molten chocolate cake ended up winning because it turned out the apple crisp had raisins in it. We know I believe raisins are grapes being punished by the culinary gods so the crisp was a non-starter. The molten chocolate cake came with huckleberry sauce but I don’t like my chocolate with any kind of fruit sauce so I asked them to put it on the side which they obligingly did. And sing hallelujah, the molten chocolate cake really did come with a molten center. Chocolatey goodness all around.
Molten Chocolate Cake
Sam’s Chowder House was a good place to try and had fairly decent food although I don’t know if the pricier entrees are really worth the cost. 20 minutes to find parking definitely doesn’t make me a repeat customer but that’s not their fault.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Alton Brown Pancakes

Alton Brown Pancakes - made February 21, 2015 from Baked by Me
I’ve gotten so used to eating at work that weekends keep catching me off guard. Meaning I wake up on Saturdays and realize I don’t have much in the way of “real food” in my larder.  Usually I get my workout in first then fit food-gathering into my usual list of weekend errands to do. Fortunately I rarely wake up hungry so I can hold off that first meal long enough for me to exercise, shower and get to a food source before noon. I know, that sounds a little pathetic but I’ve gotten used to it.
Last Saturday, I had no compelling errands I had to run and I’d deliberately kept the day open so I could work on – ugh – my taxes. When I buckle down to all that paperwork, it’s best to have a long stretch of time to get it all done at once so I don’t confuse myself on what I’ve already captured and what I haven’t. That meant I really didn’t want to go out just to forage for food. I had enough leftovers for 1 dinner-type meal but I’ve never been a 1-meal-a-day sort of person and didn’t want to subsist on sugar the rest of the day (Really. Mostly.). So I decided this would be a good time to make honest to goodness breakfast food and have it for – you know – breakfast.
I went with this modified version of Alton Brown’s pancakes because I had all the ingredients on hand thanks to keeping my baking larder stocked. I love pancakes because they’re so easy to make and well, I just love pancakes. The trick to a good, fluffy pancake is to minimize the mixing. It’s okay to leave some lumps in the batter. They generally cook right out although you do have to break up any egregiously large flour lumps. Mix sparingly, spoon into the center of a hot frying pan or on a griddle and cook slowly. These rose high enough to guarantee fluffiness but you also want to be careful not to cook them over high heat. The outside will burn before the inside is cooked all the way through. I always see golden-colored pancakes when other people make them and blog about them but mine are more of a medium to dark brown on a good day. “Golden” ends up being raw in the middle when I take them off the heat too soon. Fortunately, it’s not hard to make good pancakes and that’s what these were – good pancakes. 
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 teaspoons sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons melted butter + 2 egg yolks, whisked together
2 cups buttermilk + 2 egg whites, whisked together

  1. Combine dry ingredients. Add wet ingredients and stir lightly with a fork or just a few strokes with a whisk. Do not overmix.
  2. Lightly spray a frying pan or griddle with nonstick cooking spray over medium-high heat. Ladle the amount of batter for the size of pancake you want and cook slowly, flipping over when edges look cooked and bubbles have formed in the middle of the pancake. Cook other side until golden to dark brown and pancake is cooked through. Serve warm with butter or syrup.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Restaurant Review: Bobbi's Cafe

Bobbi's Cafe - breakfast on February 16, 2015
I love breakfast food. Sometimes I even have it for breakfast. As was the case here when I met my cousin, her husband and their son for breakfast at Bobbie’s CafĂ©. I’d been to Bobbie’s before but not in awhile so it seemed like a good time to revisit. We showed up at 9 am and had to wait a few minutes for a table to free up. Bobbie’s isn’t very big and is old-school diner all the way, down to the menu, which is why I suggested we go there.

Besides an assortment of scrambles and omelets to choose from, they also offer the standard breakfast fare of pancakes, French toast, waffles, eggs, bacon, sausage and so on. You can order almost any combo of the above or put together your own a la carte. What I like about Bobbie’s is they’re one of the few places that offer waffles along with eggs and another protein as a standard menu option. Most places only offer waffles by themselves and you have to get the proteins as an extra side order. Bobbie’s knows where it’s at by treating the waffle as equally as pancakes and French toast where it’s a standard offering to get it with eggs and sausage. Score.
I waffled – haha – a bit, almost succumbing to the lure of country fried steak and eggs to go all the way old-school diner. But I ended up getting a waffle with scrambled eggs and sausage, simply because I could. It turned out to be a good choice as the waffle was as a waffle should be – crisp on the outside, tender on the inside and just the right amount of flavor and sweetness to complement the maple syrup. I opted away from the butter ball that came with it. I’ve never seen the point of mixing syrup and butter together. Extra calories for muddying up two flavors together when I prefer each of them separately doesn’t make sense.
Price points at Bobbie’s are fairly reasonable, in the $10 range. It isn’t fancy but it’s good, straightforward, no-frills food.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Oreo Cream Cheese Brownies

Oreo Cream Cheese Brownies - made February 18, 2015 from Averie Cooks
The only thing that could get my one-track mind off my new brownie book, Extreme Brownies by Connie Weiss, is to try a brownie recipe from Averie Cooks, my go-to blog for fantastic recipes. In this case, I almost forgot I was meeting friends for dinner one night and didn’t have my usual stash of frozen cookie dough and individually wrapped brownies sitting in my freezer. I had pieces of the coconut sheet cake in the freezer but one of the friends I was meeting doesn’t like coconut so that was out as a give-away option.

But she does like chocolate and I had cream cheese and Oreos on hand so I pulled this recipe from my pinterest board. I normally don’t bake on a weeknight since I don’t get home until almost too late but I’ve been baking brownies for so long that it’s pretty quick for me to pull a batch together. I mixed this up, including chopping the Oreos, in the time it took for the oven to preheat. Throw it in, let it bake, and there was just enough time for it to cool enough to be covered before I headed to bed. 

The next morning, I cut it up, packaged it and was ready for our dinner that night. I was in a hurry so I only taste tested a sliver and whatever I wasn’t giving away I put in my freezer for my next emergency. I thought it tasted pretty good. The cream cheese layer was a mite difficult to spread, probably because I was working with cold cream cheese directly from the fridge and didn’t beat it into submission enough so I had to dollop in really small dollops to try and get decent coverage over the bottom brownie layer. I might’ve also underbaked this just a trifle, considering the cream cheese part was also gooey but if you like cheesecake-y, fudgy brownies, this is another great recipe from Averie’s blog. The Oreos were a nice touch to add some crunch but really, Oreos are typically a winner in any brownie. 
1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick)
ounces dark or bittersweet chocolate, chopped (I used Trader Joe's 72% Pound Plus Bar)
2 large eggs
3/4 cup granulated sugar
tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon brewed coffee, optional but recommended
1 teaspoon instant espresso granules, optional but recommended
pinch salt, optional and to taste
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
15 Oreo Cookies, diced into 1/2-inch pieces, divided (I dice each Oreo into 4 to 6 pieces)

Cream Cheese Filling
8 ounces brick-style cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degreesF. Line an 8-inch square pan with aluminum foil and spray with cooking spray; set aside.
  2. Brownies - In the top half of a double boiler set over hot water, melt the butter and chocolate, whisking until smooth and completely melted. Allow mixture to cool slightly.
  3. Add the eggs, sugar, vanilla, optional coffee, optional espresso granules, optional salt, and whisk vigorously to combine.
  4. Add the flour, most of the diced Oreos, reserving a small handful to be sprinkled on top, and stir until smooth and combined. Do not overmix,
  5. Turn half the batter out into prepared pan, smoothing the top lightly with a spatula as necessary; set aside while you make the Cream Cheese Filling.
  6. Cream Cheese Filling - In a medium bowl, add the cream cheese, confectioners' sugar, vanilla, and beat with an electric hand mixer until smooth and combined.
  7. Drop filling in small dollops over brownie base and smooth to create an even layer. 
  8. Turn out remaining brownie batter to cover cream cheese layer as much as possible. 
  9. Evenly sprinkle the reserved handful of Oreos over the top.
  10. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until center has just set and is no longer glossy. 
  11. Allow brownies to cool in pan on top of a wire rack for at least 2 hours. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Bakery Review: Happy Endings Bakeshop

Happy Endings Bakeshop - ordered February 6, 2015
There’s nothing I like better than finding a local, small business to support, especially one that provides sweets. I was looking for a desserts business where I could order online and have them ship my order to a friend directly for her birthday, all without my needing to take a second job to pay for shipping. I posted what I was looking for in a foodie group I belong to at work and someone recommended their friend’s business, Happy Endings Bakeshop.
It turned out to be a fabulous recommendation with just what I was looking for. I checked out Happy Endings’ website and was hooked on the Treat of the Month subscription. Treat of the Month is just that: a shipment of treats for $15 a month. The monthly treat is at the discretion of the Happy Endings Bakeshop owner, April, and the $15 includes shipping. Sold. I normally like to have some kind of control over what I order since I have picky taste buds and didn’t want to roll the dice on whether I’d like that month’s treat but I had to remind myself this wasn’t for me but for my friend and she was a wider range of tastes.

But I did want to try out Happy Endings for myself before I bought my friend a subscription just to make sure it was going to be good. I bought a 1-month “subscription” for myself for February and immediately got a system confirmation from Happy Endings and later a follow up email from April letting me know that the Treat of the Month would be mailed out on February 17. I had ordered earlier in the month so I had a week and a half wait. The night before the treats were supposed to be shipped out, I had to change the address I needed the package mailed to as I had just had a large package stolen from my front door and didn’t want anymore packages going to my house. April was quick to respond and very accommodating on my request to change the shipping address on my order. As always, that’s what I love about dealing with a small business: personal and caring response from the owner.

I got my package a couple of days later, allowing for an extra day delay because it had to go through our shipping department’s timeline and process. This month’s treat were 3 different flavors of “Let’s Kiss and Make Up Cookies”. From Happy Endings Bakeshop’s Facebook page, the descriptions are:
1)      Peanut Butter: PB cookie with Chocolate Truffle Hershey's Kiss, dark chocolate drizzle, and topped with powdered peanut butter. 
2)      Red Velvet: Red velvet cookie with Hershey's Hugs, white and dark chocolate drizzle, and topped with a red crystal-white chocolate-raspberry sugar mixture. 
3)      Mexican Hot Chocolate: Spicy Mexican Hot Chocolate cookie with Caramel Hershey's Kiss, white chocolate drizzle, and topped with cinnamon sugar and a dash of cayenne pepper. 
Red Velvet
You might want to read those descriptions again and let your mouth water accordingly. Even beyond the goodness of the actual cookies – and yes, they were delicious – the packaging was really cute as you can tell from the pictures. There were 6 cookies in the package, 2 of each kind and each individually packaged and stickered. You might think $15 for 6 cookies is expensive and if you were going to make 6 cookies yourself, it wouldn't cost you $15. But when you factor in the careful packaging and shipping cost, this is rather reasonable. It’s meant to be a “treat”, not a full-on dessert course so I feel like I got my money’s worth. 
Mexican Hot Chocolate
As soon as I sampled the Red Velvet cookie, I emailed April a thank you and promptly ordered a 3-month subscription for my friend. Hers will start with the March treat of the month and I have a feeling I’ll be stalking Happy Endings Bakeshop’s Facebook page to see what it’ll be and tempt myself into ordering my own subscription.
Peanut Butter

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Coconut Sheet Cake

Coconut Sheet Cake - made February 16, 2015, recipe adapted from Chef in Training
I love coconut, I love coconut, I love coconut. If you don’t, you can skip this post but know that you’re missing out. I also love sheet cakes because they’re so easy to make and so hard to get wrong. Even though every single time I don’t actually bake it in a sheet pan but in a 9 x 13 pan to make for a thicker cake. It’s not even a super thick cake so I always think baking in a sheet pan would make it really, really thin. Remember, thin is the goal for my body, not my cakes.
The easy part is you just mix the ingredients together, spread in the pan and bake. While it’s baking, you make the frosting then spread it over the hot cake once it’s out of the oven. Easy. No messing about with cooling layers of cake, trying to get the consistency of the frosting right or anything else remotely fussy. Mix cake, bake, mix frosting, pour, cool, eat.
Best part is at the end of all that easy, you have a delicious cake. I loved this cake. If I had to have a coconut equivalent of the Texas Fudge Cake and the Texas Vanilla Cake that I love, this would be it. Love.
2 cups + 2 tablespoons flour
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 cup water
1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 cup shredded coconut

1/2 cup butter
6 tablespoons milk
16 ounces confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
sweetened shredded coconut for garnish
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Line a 9 x 13 pan with foil and lightly spray with nonstick cooking spray.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour and sugar; set aside.
  3. In medium saucepan, combine butter, water and shortening. Bring to a boil then add to flour mixture and stir to combine.
  4. Add buttermilk, baking soda, eggs and vanilla, mixing after each addition. Stir in coconut.
  5. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 20-30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean.
  6. Make the frosting: bring butter and milk to a boil, stir in confectioners' sugar and vanilla extract, whisking until smooth and combined.
  7. When cake is done, remove from oven and poke holes in hot cake with a fork. Pour frosting evenly over the top.
  8. Sprinkle top with shredded coconut.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Red Velvet Brownies from Extreme Brownies

Red Velvet Brownies - made February 13, 2015 from Extreme Brownies by Connie Weiss
No, I’m not tired of baking (or eating) brownies and yes, I’m still playing with my new brownie baking book, Extreme Brownies by Connie Weiss. Seriously, I’ve come to expect only great recipes from this book and so far it hasn’t let me down. I think what I like so much about it is it makes exactly the kind of brownies I like: thick, fudgy, delicious. All the bells and whistles added to each brownie, whether it’s frosting, chopped up candy, chocolate chips, nuts and everything else, are fine but the underlying base brownie is also consistently delicious.

Although I already have a good red velvet brownie recipe, let’s not pretend that would stop me from trying another one. It’s always good to keep an open mind when it comes to new recipes and you’ll be glad of that flexibility when you try out this recipe. True to all its predecessors, this too was delicious with good chocolate flavor so it wasn’t simply a brownie colored red. 
My only issue with it is once it had cooled, brownie flakes came off the top when I tried to frost it. Ever try using a pale cream cheese frosting on a dark red brownie that flakes? Yeah, it doesn’t look so good. The flakes clung to the frosting and lifted themselves right off the brownie to mingle within the frosting, serving the dual task of soiling the smooth frosting and not letting it adhere properly to the top of the brownie while more flakes tried to cling to it when I tried spreading the frosting. Erk. 

Everyone knows when you see “crumbs” throughout a frosting, that isn’t a “I meant to do that” move but a “I can’t seem to frost” statement. I was making these for a church potluck on Valentine’s weekend and while I’m sure everyone would turn the other cheek (and eye), my baking pride was not letting me show up with ugly brownies. Out came the red colored sanding sugar and I sprinkled it liberally over each piece. For the most part it did the trick and the brownies were presentable once more. And still delicious.
2 1/4 sticks (10 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 1-tablespoon slices
3 1/3 cups (1 pound, 4 ounces) milk chocolate chips
5 large eggs
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (4.4 ounces) granulated sugar
1 1/4 packed cups (10 ounces) light brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) red food color
2 cups (9 ounces) bleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

Cream Cheese Frosting
3 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
5 tablespoons (2.5 ounces) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups (7 ounces) confectioners' sugar
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a 9 x 13 pan with foil and lightly spray with nonstick cooking spray.
  2. Over the top half of a double boiler set over hot water, melt the butter and chocolate chips, whisking until smooth and completely melted. Cool slightly.
  3. Using a large whisk, lightly beat the eggs in a large mixing bowl. Add granulated and brown sugars and beat into eggs until just incorporated. Whisk in the melted chocolate mixture until just combined. Add the vanilla extract and red food color.
  4. Sift together the flour, baking powder and cocoa powder and add to the batter, stirring until just combined. Pour into prepared pan and smooth with a spatula. Bake for 40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out with moist crumbs. Cool completely before frosting.
  5. To make the frosting: place the cream cheese, butter and salt in a mixing bowl. Beat together with an electric mixer until well combined. Add the vanilla and beat until just combined. Add the confectioners' sugar and beat, starting on low and increasing to high, until well combined and smooth. Dollop the brownies over the cooled brownie slab and spread evenly with a small metal spatula.