Manhattan Beach Post’s Bacon Cheddar Biscuits (no recipe)

If you live near me, in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, I hope you have been to Manhattan Beach Post. Headed by Chef David LeFevre (notable a few years ago on food TV for falling one unfortunate battle short of being crowned the newest Iron Chef), it’s an upscale-but-casual spot near the beach, with inventive small plates designed to be shared. You and your dining partner order maybe 3 or 4 things, and they are served as they are ready, which means you might get your fish “main” before you get your pan fried spicy green beans, but that’s okay. It adds to the ability to play with flavor combinations as each new plate arrives at your table. Plus then you have more time to examine the cocktail list to see what to order next…

One of the highlights at MBP comes in the form of their bacon cheddar biscuits. Studded with chunks of cheese that ooze out into crisp, lacy patterns as they bake, they are served still steaming with a small pot of whipped, lightly salted maple butter. People order them by the dozens.

Since, given my penchant for wanting everything, MBP gets a little pricey for a weekly visit, the stretches in between those biscuits get to feeling long. I’m no amateur with biscuits myself, given that a quick word search on this very site turns up no less than eight successful variations and one small disaster, but MBP’s are achingly tender and flavorful and rich in ways mine fall slightly short of. They also have that inimitable quality of being made by someone else, which so often raises the deliciousness quotient a few notches.

I’d certainly be willing, though, given their place in my taste memories, to make them myself, so you can imagine my delight when a week or so ago I found this recipe for the very thing. Naturally this went immediately to the top of my “to make” list, only to be foiled by a series of “there’s no way we’re turning on the oven, nope, not a chance” days in a row.

But a week after the initial find, we had a cooler afternoon, and I collected myself, halved the recipe, and produced a tray of tender, lightly browned blobs oozing with cheese that we gobbled up alongside a salad to pretend we were being responsible. And then three days later we made them for breakfast, sans chives, cheddar, and bacon, splitting them gently and spreading them thickly with maple butter. And I have to say, both times they were just perfect: light, fluffy, tangy from buttermilk, just barely edging toward sweet and salty, and something I’d always be happy to have a half dozen of in the freezer, just for spur-of-the-moment biscuit cravings (what, you don’t have those?).

 

A few notes: I subbed out bacon for pancetta in my savory version because, for a weeknight, I couldn’t pass up the convenience factor of the pre-cubed packet I had only to shake into a frying pan. The dough itself, if you can call it that, just barely holds together, but try to resist the urge to add more liquid, which turns it into a sticky mess almost immediately. As with scones and other such beasties, the key is to mix and knead as little as possible to preserve tenderness; I didn’t even mess with my rolling pin, but just patted the mess into something like a rectangle with lightly floured hands, then sliced the whole thing into squares with a knife instead of bothering with a biscuit cutter. And don’t pass up the brush of butter and sea salt on the top (LeFevre calls for clarified butter; I just used my regular unsalted, melting a little in the warmth of the preheating oven). It promotes browning nicely and offers a little extra decadence, and the crunchy flakes of sea salt are a delight.

Chopped challenge #5: Tiramisu Trifles

Course: dessert

Ingredients: chocolate wafer cookies, cream cheese, espresso powder, balsamic vinegar

When I quizzed her about this set of ingredients, my mom (it’s her birthday today; happy birthday, Mommy!) immediately said cheesecake, and as I think about it, that makes a lot of sense. The wafers and espresso get pulverized into a caffeinated crust, the balsamic becomes some sort of glaze or syrup for drizzling, and the cream cheese is allow to stay pristine and tangy in the center.

But as soon as I heard the espresso powder component of this quartet, my mind went to tiramisu, that famous Italian dessert of soaked ladyfingers piled with rich custard. The best tiramisu I’ve ever had was in a lovely little restaurant in Ashland, Oregon, now sadly defunct. Our server, overwhelmed by the busyness of the evening, brought us a free slice in an effort, I’ve always thought, to get us to stay a little longer so she wouldn’t immediately be hit with another new table of guests. It was so good – the custard silky and thick, the cookies melting after their marsala and coffee bath, and just the right dusting of completely unsweetened cocoa powder across the top to contrast the sweetness of the dessert and enhance the coffee flavors.

Mine would obviously be a little different. The chocolate wafers, in all their Styrofoam-textured glory, would clearly take the place of the ladyfingers (confession: I love these terrible cookies. I love their waffled surface design and their overly sweet filling and their fake, near tasteless exteriors. We had to hide the package while I planned this recipe out because I was going through them at least two at a time every time I walked past them). They would be soaked in espresso, and the cream cheese would be folded into the custard as a replacement for some of the traditional mascarpone.

The sticking point was the balsamic vinegar. After some consideration, I determined I would add some to the espresso to soak the cookies (and spent an entertaining few minutes tasting the wafers with some vinegar dribbled on and deeming them “weird but not terrible” – this is what I do for you). That didn’t seem like quite enough, though, until I thought about strawberries as a bridge: they are great with chocolate, they go well with cream cheese, and they pair beautifully with balsamic vinegar. Clearly what I needed to do was top the dessert with slices of strawberries, then boil down some of the balsamic into a syrup to drizzle over the fruit.

This was sounding further and further from the beautiful slice of tiramisu that we fought over in Ashland, which was served simply in a square portion with a little powdered sugar on the plate. The combination of cookie, custard, and fruit made me think of a trifle, and I determined I would serve these not as plated slices cut from a large cake, but in pretty cocktail glasses, with layers of each component to add visual appeal.

The result was terrifically rich, and while I’m not sure espresso, balsamic vinegar, and chocolate wafer cookies truly belong together, we did enjoy them. The real stand-out to the dessert, though, was the custard. At my first few spoonfuls, I was bowled over by a tartness I thought was the balsamic vinegar. The next day, though, when I allowed myself another serving, I realized the tanginess I was tasting came from the cream cheese. Mascarpone, the traditional thickener for the custard component, lacks this slight sourness (especially prominent in the Philadelphia brand); it is much more mild, almost like overwhipped cream just before it becomes butter. But the tangy flavor in the custard was reminiscent of cheesecake, which in my book is never a bad thing, and it kept the whole dessert from being overly sweet.

One note: you do have to watch the balsamic vinegar closely as it reduces, if you decide to go with the syrup option. In the space of about ten seconds, it goes from a lovely thick drizzle to an over-reduced sludge that hardens into a sticky caramel my fillings are still quivering about. Pull it off the heat a little before it seems reduced enough; it will continue to thicken as it cools.

These looked fantastic in my cocktail glasses, as you can see, but they were tremendously large and we ended up sharing just one to avoid overload. Smaller glasses, or even little jars, would be good for more, and less gluttonous, servings.

Tiramisu Trifles with Balsamic Drizzle
Makes 2 enormous or 4 small trifles, with custard left over
Minimum of about 3 hours, including chilling time (though chilling overnight is even better)
3 egg yolks
⅜ cups + 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
⅜ cups whole milk
4 ounces mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
6 ounces full fat cream cheese, at room temperature
½ cup boiling water
1 tablespoon espresso powder
½ cup + 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, divided
2 tablespoons rum, brandy, or marsala, optional
~ 12 chocolate wafer cookies, chopped or crumbled
4-6 fresh strawberries, sliced

 

  • Fill a large bowl about halfway with ice cubes and water. Use another small bowl and small pot to create a double boiler: bring a cup or two of water to a simmer in the pot, then set the small bowl atop it, being sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the simmering water. Add the egg yolks and ⅜ cups of sugar to the bowl, then whisk until the sugar dissolves – you will no longer feel rough sugar granules against the whisk and the bowl.
  • Whisk in the ⅜ cups milk and then cook, whisking slowly and constantly, until the mixture reaches a temperature of 170F. This should take 10-15 minutes; look for the custard to become light and foamy, and thicken slightly.
  • Once the mixture hits its target temperature, remove the small bowl from the heat and place it gently into the larger bowl of ice water. Whisk for at least a minute until the mixture cools, taking care not to allow any ice water to slop into the custard.
  • In a medium bowl, use a spatula to firmly mix together the room temperature mascarpone and cream cheese. Then fold in the cooled custard just until fully incorporated and smooth. Top the bowl with plastic wrap and stow in the fridge until the other components are ready.
  • Now, add the espresso powder, 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, and the 2 tablespoons alcohol, if using, to the boiling water in a small pot or bowl. Stir to combine, then set aside to cool (I got impatient and shoved mine into the freezer for a few minutes).
  • When the espresso mixture has cooled, you are ready to assemble. First, soak the chopped or crumbled chocolate wafers in the espresso liquid for a few seconds. You want the liquid to permeate but you don’t want the cookie to sog into nothing. In cocktail glasses or dessert goblets, carefully add a layer of soaked cookie pieces. Top that with a layer of the cooled custard – it will still be fairly thin – then repeat: another layer of cookies, another layer of custard. You want at least two layers of each.
  • If it’s possible without disturbing the dessert layers, top each glass with plastic wrap and stow in the fridge again for at least 2 hours, but ideally longer – overnight is best.
  • About 20 minutes before you are ready for dessert, slice the strawberries. In a small pot, combine the remaining ½ cup of balsamic vinegar with the final 2 tablespoons sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the vinegar and sugar bubble down into a syrup; aim for the thickness of maple syrup, which will cool into something more like molasses. This will probably take anywhere from 5-10 minutes, depending on your stove and your pot.
  • Rescue your trifles from the fridge and for each, place a layer of strawberry slices in some artful design over the top. Drizzle on a few teaspoons of the balsamic syrup just before serving.

Talking About Thinking About Food *

* with apologies to I.’s podcast “Talking About Thinking About Records”

It’s funny how vacation works, isn’t it? You dive in with ambition: goals! Plans! But the first thing you want to do is relax, right? I mean, you need some definite time for relaxing, especially if the vacation starts with a holiday that requires preparation. And then once you’ve relaxed for a week… or maybe two… you start thinking about those plans. You start one of them. You consider another. And then when you clear your head again, there are only three days left before work starts again, and you realize that since you can’t accomplish everything you set out to do, it would be better to just stubbornly do nothing, telling yourself you are enjoying the time left as hard as you can.

At least, that’s what you do if you’re me. I had six tasks written down that I wanted to accomplish over the winter break. I did two of them. At first I was fairly gung-ho. I embarked on one of my big projects, but circumstances were more complicated than intended, and then a few things took longer than I thought, and there were shows to watch, and a dog who needed attention, and a husband who wanted the same, and suddenly it was February and I had to start thinking about my classes for the impending semester.

One of the tasks I had set for myself, as it seems I always do during breaks, and always fail to fulfill, was to create a backlog of posts so that for the first month of school, I would already have something ready to go and thus stay ahead of the curve, if a week lacking in time or inspiration came along. But in the actual weeks when I should have been doing this, I was by turns uninspired and resentful. I realize that this blog isn’t my job – it’s my hobby! But sometimes, because I give myself a weekly deadline, it feels like a job. Therefore, when I start to think about plotting out and executing a recipe, especially if that’s going to involve doing a round (or two) of dishes first, I feel like I’m giving up my vacation. Even though this is supposed to be my fun “work.”

So clearly I don’t have a recipe for you this week. “Just post a photo of food!” my mom said when I talked to her this weekend. But I’m a writer more than a photographer, so instead I thought I’d tell you a little about some of the food I ate during this break, and some of the dishes I’m thinking about now. I can’t promise all – or any! – of them will appear here, but maybe it will be a good way, as I teeter on the precipice of the new semester, of getting me back into all of my “jobs,” not just the one I get paid for.  🙂

The best thing I ate over the break may have been the dessert my sister, my mom and I made for Christmas. This year, we decided on a theme of “spiced.” Breaking from our appetizer tradition, we made a sit-down dinner, and everything in the meal – in fact, everything we ate all day (minus the odd chocolate truffle) – had to have a spiced component. Apple cardamom cake for breakfast, avocado toast with dukkah for lunch; N. even brewed a winter-spiced ale to fit the theme. Dessert, then, was an opportunity to show off all those warm tingling flavors in the spice cupboard, which we did with a trifle. In a huge balloon of a wine glass, we layered chunks of Mom’s best gingerbread, dollops of nutmeg and rum custard, ginger apple compote, and a generous heap of whipped cream. It was an indulgent project to dig your spoon all the way down and pick up a taste of everything, but the components went together perfectly, and the custard and compote were sufficiently rich, and the whipped cream, well, creamy enough, that you couldn’t tell I’d overbaked the gingerbread just a touch… Actually, I do have a photo of this one:

Other break foods that were definitively worth eating included the lamb burger from the recently shuttered San Francisco location of Park Chow, perfectly medium in the center and so juicy it required rolled-up sleeves. I tried a deliciously crunchy Hong Kong style crispy noodle dish at a Chinese restaurant near my parents’ house and wanted nothing else for two days. We made a lightly amended version of Melissa D’Arabian’s wine braised pork tacos that went over extremely well, especially with bright red cabbage strands and chunks of avocado on top. Perhaps most recently, we took a large, lightly toasted pavlova topped with stewed berries, toasted almonds, and amaretto whipped cream as a dessert offering for dinner with friends with a severe wheat allergy. The pillowy, marshmallowy center hidden inside the light crispness of the meringue’s exterior is a revelation.

Looking forward, I have an eclectic mix of things I think sound good. I’ve finally caught N.’s taco bug and now I just want them all the time. This week I’m taking an Ottolenghi recipe for squash that drizzles butternut batons with an herb oil and dollops them with yogurt, and folding them into a tortilla because why not? I’m dreaming of a winter taco that involves beer braised beef, shaved brussels sprouts, and definitely some radish. Maybe a horseradish crema of some sort. On the sweet side, I’m thinking about cookies studded with dried apricots and white chocolate, and just this morning (well, I guess it will be yesterday morning when this goes live) I thought about how lovely a thick, densely crumbed chocolate loaf cake – almost fudgy – would be topped with a light frosting, maybe a swiss buttercream or the like, flavored with something unusual. Marmalade, maybe, or ginger. Or tea.

And then of course I have my Chopped Challenge. N. tells me he has the entrée “basket” of ingredients for February worked out, so maybe that’s what I’ll have to share with you next week. Until then, be well, and tell me what you’re loving (or dreaming of) eating!

Photo Essay: Goat House Brewing

Coming back feels like starting over. How do I do this? What do I sound like? Which words should tumble onto the page first? In an article from The New Yorker about language intimacy and its ties to relationship intimacy and communication, Lauren Collins notes that “Bilinguals overwhelmingly report that they feel like different people in different languages. It is often assumed that the mother tongue is the language of the true self. In many ways, it remains the primal vehicle… But, if first languages are reservoirs of emotion, second languages can be rivers undammed, freeing their speakers to ride different currents.”

Though I write and speak in English – it is my first and (aside from garbled, declension-less memories of high school Spanish and college Latin) only language – I have always felt that the spoken and written form of a language might as well be two different tongues (one of which doesn’t require the tongue at all). Thus, though I’ve talked about food consistently during the weeks we’ve been apart, I haven’t written about it (or about much of anything) at all. You can chalk this up to issues of vacation, politics, heat, social justice, laziness, or good old writer’s block, but the result is the same as a month off from practicing a different language: the water in that pool feels cold, and awkward, and heavy. This is why, for my students, coming back even after the summer makes writing feel ungainly and foreign – it is. It’s another language. It’s hard to float when you’ve spent a month on the solid ground you knew first.

So instead of plunging, I’m coming in from the shallow end, a few steps at a time. More recipes to come, I promise; there are only a few weeks before school starts and I want to have a good back-log to keep us going, plus there’s that whole 2016 blog challenge I took on in January that I’m doing so well with… But for today, as my first step back into the pool, I want to offer you something different.

Part one of our vacation was a visit with N’s parents. They live in northern California, in the same town he grew up in. This town, its sleepy rural character disrupted only by railroad and pottery booms, is now a distant outskirt to Sacramento and decidedly in the “suburb” category, boasting itself as an All-America City with wood-planked “downtown” area and well-marked signage advertising the “Wine Trail” in the outer reaches of the city.

When we first started visiting N’s parents there as a couple, every time we drove through town he would remark on something that had changed. Family grocers became Walmart. Undeveloped fields became track housing. He’s now able, thanks to the number of new roads, to get lost in the city he grew up in.

The one area of the sleepy old town that remains is where N’s grandmother lives: on an old ranch house a ways outside the center of town. We visit her when we make the pilgrimage through, and the last few times we’ve noticed signs for a relative newcomer to the scene: Goat House Brewing.

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Brewery’s sign from the road

Around since late 2013, Goat House is the epitome of local. Their taproom is a converted barn. They grow their own hops – about 20 varieties – which they use in their brews. They experiment and collaborate and incorporate hometown ingredients – hop honey from their own vines in a light honey ale, Valencia oranges from their orchard in a Belgian, and an interesting wine-beer blend using a red wine made less than three miles away. It’s a very vertical, rather than horizontal, business plan – there is no sense that Goat House wants to stretch outward, only that they want to work closely and deeply with what is nearby. Because they are only open four days a week, until this recent visit we hadn’t had a chance to stop by.

Logo inside the barn

Logo inside the barn

This particular day, we spent an hour or so with N’s grandmother, listening as she coasted through stories about far-flung relatives and trying together to work out how the slim, distant branches of the family tree weave together. As we headed out to the car, we’d already decided to stop at Goat House Brewing on the way home. After receiving a friendly, detailed run through the tap offerings, we selected our first pours and settled in on the picnic style tables made from wood salvaged from an old stadium in San Francisco. It was in the mid-90s, but there was a breeze blowing through the barn’s wide open doors on either side, and we spent a comfortable hour or so sampling and enjoying this little sparkle at the end of a dusty drive.

Growlers ready to be filled

Growlers ready to be filled

So here are some glimpses of Goat House Brewing, a place we’re already planning to return to when we next pass through N’s hometown, to try new flavors, to chat with the owners, to see Rory the donkey and Georgia the dog; to carve out a space of familiarity in this new-old city.

Hop vines awaiting a harvest

Hop vines awaiting a harvest

Hide and seek goat!

Hide and seek goat!

Georgia, the brewhouse dog

Georgia, the brewhouse dog

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“Baciami Prima” (“kiss me first”) – intriguing wine-beer blend. All the mustiness of a wine cellar and all the funk of a Belgian in one deep purple pour.

A “Dark Side” (left – their stout: creamy and roasty with hints of coffee and chocolate) and a “Row Hoe” (right – a red ale on nitro that I didn’t taste)

foam trails from the Dark Side

foam trails from the Dark Side

A brewery and taproom called Goat House better have some goats, and indeed they are right out back behind the barn (along with Rory the donkey, who helps keep them safe)

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See you next week, when I hope my treading water in this form of my language will have smoothed, with the application of both kitchen and keyboard, into more practiced strokes.

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