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Awake at the Whisk: January 2011

Monday, January 31, 2011


Tastes of Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz, known for its beaches and surfing, also offers a wave of delicious eats. In two short days, I tasted the creatures from its seas, unique ales brewed under its sun, local honey harvested by its farmers, bites handcrafted by its local food artisans, and spices blended into international fare prepared by its cooks. This is the best way to explore a city: by sip and by bite.

It also helps when you have the world’s best travel guide. My friend Shawn and his wife Meghan cooked, drove, and fed us on this delicious journey. Thanks go to them for making this post possible!

Sunset on the beach in Santa Cruz

Creatures of the Sea
When you live by the sea, local eating slurps briny and wet with oysters. It also cracks sharp from crab legs stuffed plump with light and silky meat. No added lemon or hot sauce to mask the ocean’s bright life in the flavor: just the simple, salty sea.

Crab meat. Lots of crab meat!

Made with Love & Yeast: Bread & Beer
Shawn is a hardworking home cook who does his research and practices his technique. It seems one of his favorite ingredients is yeast, because he’s mastered both home brewing and home baked breads. Lucky me! I got to enjoy both while visiting him.

Shawn’s bread was based on a recipe from the new cookbook Tartine Bread. Cooked in a cast iron skillet with the lid closed helps create steam while baking and results in a crackling outer crust and a center that’s spongy and yields smoothly with the salty tang of sourdough between your teeth.

Shawn's sourdough bread baked with the Tartine Bread recipe

Shawn’s ales ought to be bottled and sold on the shelves of the finest grocers. He knows his beer, and he knows what he’s doing with his home kettle. On this particular trip, we filled canisters of his brew and enjoyed them on the beach while watching the sunset. (Like I said: world’s best tour guide.) This beer was malty with a smooth caramel finish. It actually reminded me of Mammoth Brewing Company’s Real McCoy Amber (one of my favorite beers).

One of Shawn's delicious home brewed ales. This one was served at his wedding.

After the sun had set, Shawn took us home and introduced us to a new favorite: habañero beer! I’ve never had pepper ale before, but I can assure you that Shawn’s won’t be my last. I wasn’t sure what to expect when he told me he had dropped a raw habañero into the brew. Those naughty peppers can quickly take over the flavor of a thing by turning it to raw heat. But not Shawn’s beer!

The color of grains grown in sunshine and with the flavor of bold hops, this beer drifted across my tongue with smooth refreshment, ending with a fine “Howdy-do!” from the subtle habañero heat.

These beers were truly 5-whisk ales!

Kale Salad
The Tartine cookbook also produced, through Meghan’s hands, a deep kale salad coated daringly in the anchovy garlic of Caesar dressing made with citrus from the trees outside her front door. Sprinkled with freshly shaved parmesan, this robust salad shoved romaine leaves aside to replace the love in my heart. Topped with Shawn’s homemade bread glowing in olive oil and baked into croutons, this side dish threatened to steal the show. It also affirmed one thing for me: I must buy that Tartine Bread book! It yields delicious results.
Caesar salad recipe with kale from Tartine Bread

Sun dried orange slices at the Aptos farmers' market

Next on our tour: a delightful farmers’ market at Cabrillo College in Aptos. Unless you’ve explored a city’s farmers’ markets, you have not really gotten to know a place. Farmers’ markets convey the quiet patterns of the people who live and eat in a town. Here, farmers were selling freshly roasted corn on the cob, cardamom-spiced chai to awaken sleepy morning taste buds, and even jars of lard. I went home with several tasty items: sundried orange slices the color of crystallized sun, carrot honey, and two kinds of barrel-fermented sauerkraut.

Barrel-fermented sauerkraut at the farmers' market in Aptos

You win some, you lose some: this is typically the way with taquerias. Thank goodness I was being guided on my Santa Cruz journey by a self-proclaimed taqueria enthusiast. When Shawn recommended this spot for lunch, we jumped at the suggestion.

Vegetarian taco from Tacos Moreno

This tiny storefront had a handful of packed seats and a short menu board: tacos, burritos, or quesadillas with your choice of meat. Pretty straight forward. I ordered the vegetarian tacos, a simple dish of pinto beans (whole, not refried), cheese, lettuce, tomato, and salsa. The fillings came over-stuffed inside two corn tortillas: one fried crisp, the other left soft—a winning texture combination! While the fresh toppings spilled out with each bite, I continuously loaded on more of the superb salsa, which was slightly spicy, rich with tomato tang, and rounded with garlic, onion, and spices.

More salsa, please!

Muy bueno!

Our whirlwind food tour ended with a restaurant called Asian Rose Malabar, where everything on the menu was vegetarian. Hurrah! This spot was the recommendation of my new friend from camp, Da.

I’m used to ordering off menus with one or two vegetarian options, so the pages and pages of choices seemed overwhelming. I decided the waiter would know best. And he did. He recommended the spinach and ricotta fritters that came nestled in minted tomato broth. The fritters were delicate and melted in my mouth. The broth was rich and round and warm on a chilly night.

Other table favorites included the coconut corn soup, samosas (how can you go wrong with samosas?), and rosemary flatbread naan with cucumber dipping sauce.
Best. Tour guides. Ever. My pals Shawn & Meghan.

Santa Cruz Regret
My only regret? The trip was way too short! I have a feeling I didn’t take in all the taste experiences that Santa Cruz has to offer. I’ll just have to return again soon to pick up where I left off.

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Friday, January 28, 2011


My Bright Green Kitchen

Color. Delicious color! While some people shy away from anything more than a taupe or camel, I yearn for a cheerful "Hello!" from yellow, a bold blast from turquoise blue, a citrus sizzle from orange, and a burst of life from bright green. These are my favorite colors, and when I'm around them I feel GOOD.
My Bright Green Kitchen. I love her!

In celebration of my love for color, may I introduce to you another favorite of mine: my kitchen. She is now dressed appropriately to suit her role as a space where creativity reigns: in lively, awakened, whisk-inspiring lemon green!

Isn't she lovely?!

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Angel Food Cake with 7-Minute Frosting Recipe from Grandma's Cookbook

It’s my birthday! And that means cake. So, what kind of cake will hold this food writer's candles? There are so many endlessly delicious combinations of the spongy, sweet stuff. How can I pick a favorite?

This year’s winner is: Angel Food Cake with 7-Minute Frosting.
Angel Food Cake with 7-Minute Frosting Recipe from Grandma's Cookbook

7-Minute Frosting alone wins top honors from me in the category of cake-topping. Gooey, melty, and mounded like a poof of sweet air, this frosting makes me giddy. In fact, making this with angel food cake reminds me of playing with clouds. Both batters rise higher and higher as the whisk blades purr, threatening to ooze from the bowl and flood the room. I imagine swimming through the thick, vanilla-laden clouds, licking my fingers as I go. 

Grandma’s Cookbook
This spring I returned to Illinois to visit family. When I’m with Mom and Grandma, we always bake. We had a hankering for this cake, so Grandma pulled out the cookbook she received when she was married— a book that was the backbone of most of our family meals growing up. In fact, when it came time to purchase my first cookbook, I selected a newer version of this very book: Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book—the one with the red and white checkered cover that looks like a picnic blanket.
My grandma's cookbook from the 1940s.

In can only imagine the memories that cookbook holds!—birthdays, anniversaries, grandkids’ births, get-well dishes, sympathy casseroles, and everyday suppers. There are surely cottage cheese-based dishes that my Grandma loved (and my Grandpa hated). There are recipes torn from newspapers shoved between the pages for safe keeping. There are hand-written notes and recipes passed along from friends. If that cookbook could talk!

Three generations of women (me, my mom, and Grandma) piled into my mom’s kitchen this spring to share in the joy of baking this lovely cake together. We noted that this old recipe called for the eggs by volume (1 ¾ cups) rather than quantity (1 dozen) as most contemporary angel food cake recipes. Grandma pointed out that there’s a lot more water in today’s eggs and that “back in the day” the yolks were much larger and the whites smaller, so you might have used more than a dozen.
Folding sifted flour into beaten egg whites--like playing with clouds!

Grandma guided, Mom measured ingredients, and I mixed. We laughed. We took pictures. We talked about the evening’s meal. When the fluffy batter was ready, we scooped it into Mom’s angel food cake pan (which surprisingly, she had to purchase that day having misplaced her old one after not making this cake for years). Into the oven it went.

We set the timer, but Grandma’s nose was more exact. She smelled the finished cake several minutes before the timer was set to ring. Good ol’ Grandma!

Tips for the Best Angel Food Cake
To cool an angel food cake, you’re supposed to set the cake pan upside down over a wine bottle. This prevents the cake from flattening as all those tiny air bubbles cool. Problem is: modern day angel food cake pans aren’t designed with this wisdom in mind. Further, many modern angel cake pans are made with a slippery nonstick coating. This prevents the cake from doing what it loves to do best—slink and stretch its way up the sides of the pan, gripping as it grows. So the modern pan yields a slightly flatter cake.
Angel food cake recipe from Grandma's old cookbook

How to solve this problem? Head to your local thrift store and purchase a traditional aluminum angel cake pan—free of the nonstick coating. I found one recently for only $1!

Tips for the Best 7-Minute Frosting
If you thought finding a proper angel cake pan was a challenge, try finding a double broiler for the 7-minute frosting. Apparently these are tools of yore. My mom used to own a double broiler (I think they were once as standard in every kitchen as Kitchen Aid mixers are today), but over the years her recipes moved away from this piece of equipment, and it’s long gone.
7-Minute Frosting Recipe from Grandma's Old Cookbook

Thankfully, it’s easy to replicate a double broiler. Simply find a metal bowl that will rest stably on top of a pot of barely bubbling hot water. The water should not touch the bottom of the bowl. The steam will provide the heat for the frosting.

Frosting the cake once it has cooled completely

You need to use the 7-minute frosting right away after you’ve made it, so wait until your cake is cooled and ready for frosting. Also, this frosting will get hard and crunchy on the outside if left exposed to the air. If you can’t serve it immediately, cover the frosted cake to keep it moist and melt-in-your mouth amazing.

Delicious, gooey 7-Minute Frosting as good by the spoonfuls as it is on the cake!

And if it’s your birthday, too: Happy Birthday! 

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Sunday, January 16, 2011


Healing through Food & Friendship at Food Blog Camp

The first time I stepped off a plane in a foreign country, I was 16 years old. I had just signed up for a year abroad. Thankfully, I was not alone on this trip. I was traveling as a Rotary Exchange Student, which meant I had the full support of a host family, a Rotary club, and plenty of other exchange students from around the world. Most importantly, I had my fairy god sister, Rachel.

Rachel and I had known each other our whole lives, and no one could convince me that she wasn’t my real sister. In fact, I always joked that I was secretly adopted from her parents, and that’s why I was lucky to have two families.
Me, Rachel, and my biological sister, Amy, the day before Rachel and I left for Denmark. July 12, 1993.

That year in Denmark, the world changed me. I grew from 16 years old to 30 in the span of 12 months. And while Rachel and I weren’t living in the same town, we saved our pennies and traveled to see each other at least every other month. In between visits, we wrote each other letters daily. She was my home, and I was hers.

If living in another country changed me, so did my fairy god sister. When we first arrived and couldn’t speak the language she gave me a tip: just laugh. Laugh at everything. I tried it. And it worked. Soon enough, I was engaged in conversations without knowing a word of Danish. It’s a trait that has stuck with me to this day—I laugh a lot and laugh often. In fact, people tell me they can locate me in a room just by following my laughter.

Rachel also helped me commit to becoming vegetarian. We had each gained about 30 hefty pounds dining on ham fat, pork, and a variety of rich, creamy dairy desserts. We were kids—we wanted to eat everything! One day, she suggested we tell our host families that we were Methodists (a religion they knew little about), and tell them we weren’t allowed to eat meat during lent. We just wanted vegetables instead of pork, but didn’t know how else to ask! It worked, and 18 years later, I still don’t eat meat.

If Rachel and I believed we were sisters before traveling to Denmark together, we were bonded on a much more intimate level after our experience abroad. We shared a secret language, a year of experiences that only we knew about, joys like inside jokes, pains nobody could understand, and moments that no one back home would ever share. Like having a magical fort you have built in the woods behind your house, our shared experience was ours alone. We understood each other in a way that no one else could—or ever really has.

That was 18 years ago. Rachel and I shared many sisterly moments after that year—weddings, holidays, college adventures, and the usual girl talk over a cup of coffee. You have to understand the importance of that particular year and my connection to Rachel to understand the gravity of all that has taken place in the past year and all that food blog camp came to mean in its wake.
Rachel and me goofing off at my wedding in 2003.

Fast Forward
Fast forward to May 8, 2010. It was a warm and wonderful Saturday, and I was participating in one of my favorite activities: planting the summer garden! Wearing shorts and a tank top for the first time in months, I dug my hands into the supple earth and watched with glee as worms twisted through the dark dirt and ants scuttled out of the way. I pulled plant after plant from its safe, tiny pot and patted it firmly in place inside my garden beds. Nine kinds of heirloom tomatoes, two rows of sweet and hot peppers, 3 beds filled with melons of every kind: muskmelon, watermelon, honeydew.
The bounty (picked in summer) from that spring planting.

The sun wrapped its warmth around me. The clean spring air cleansed my mind. The firm earth beneath my feet left me grounded, content with my place in this world. The happy rows of plants stood like tiny hands waving. Joy.

The next morning, May 9, was nothing like the day before. I rose early to find the sky darkly clouded. Rain was imminent. I decided to leave early for the farmers’ market in hopes of beating the weather. I was swift at the market, hoping to return home dry and warm.

My next stop was the grocery store. I needed a few ingredients I couldn’t get at the market. I pushed my cart into the aisle when my cell phone rang. Strange. I rarely receive calls that early in the morning. Maybe my husband needed me to pick something up at the store?

It was my dad.

“Amber?” he asked.

“Yeah?” I said, curious.

His voice cracked.

“Rachel’s gone,” he said.

“What?” I was unsure of what I had just heard. I made him repeat it, hoping it would be a different story.

He repeated it. It was the same.

“No. No. No.” was all I could say.

I abandoned my grocery cart, fumbled through my pockets for my keys, stumbled into my car, and drove home through blinding tears. Flashes from the past 33 years came swirling around my clouded mind. The skies opened. Giant, swift raindrops pummeled my windshield.
A Rachel hug!

Back home I spent the day on my bed, sobbing uncontrollably. I also spent it on the phone first with Mom, then Dad, then my biological sister, then my brother, and then repeating the process. Then calling friends. And my fairy god parents—Rachel’s mom and dad. The world was a blur.

And the world continued in that blur for months. There was a funeral. I gave a eulogy. There was her birthday, my wedding anniversary, and Christmas. I read and reread everything she ever wrote to me. I flipped through every photo we were ever in together—spanning 33 years. I cried every day at first, then a few times a week, and then just once a week. The pain was crushing. I wasn’t sure I could go on like that.

But I picked myself up each day and went to work. I put a smile on for the world. I baked cookies and posted recipes. All the while, I was dying too: on the inside.

Food Blog Camp 2011
On January 5, 2011, I stepped off another plane in another foreign country—not unlike Rachel and I had done when we were 16. I wasn’t staying a year this time. I was staying only 5 days. I did not expect anything life-changing to occur. I simply hoped I would learn something new to improve my blog, meet some interesting people, and find some warmth from the sun.

I had just arrived at Food Blog Camp, an exclusive opportunity for less than 40 bloggers from around the world. Our home for the week was the Grand Velas Riviera Maya, a posh resort with pristine swimming pools, immaculate beaches, peaceful jungles, attentive staff, all-inclusive gourmet fare and fancy cocktails. At the very least, this setting should ease away the stress of life and perhaps bring me some peace of mind for a few days.

Rachel would sure like it here,” I thought. Who wouldn’t?!

On the first night of camp, although I was among many strangers, I had the pleasure of dining with a familiar friend from my home of Sacramento: Elise Bauer. Elise introduced me to several other California-based bloggers, and I started to feel welcome immediately. While others talked about their personal struggles with their blogs and finding their voices, I dared not say what was on my mind. And I was glad no one asked. I missed Rachel, and I was sad. Not exactly cocktail conversation.
Elise Bauer & David Lebovitz, two of the leaders at camp. Photo by Carrie Vitt.

Instead I listened. I learned about some wonderful people, their joys, their day jobs, and their food memories. We scraped our plates clean after a four-course French meal and some wonderfully decadent desserts, and then headed back to our rooms. Elise walked beside me and put her arm around me.

“I’m really glad you’re here,” she said. My heart melted. It was so encouraging to feel the warmth of friendship.

“Me, too,” I said.

The next four days only added layers of warmth to that moment. Through photography classes, I paired with amazing women to take photos of food, chefs, and creamy Kerrygold butter. (Kerrygold was a camp sponsor, and each of us was hoping to take the best butter photo to win a camp contest.) At breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I met someone new—almost 40 warm and welcoming people eager to make new friends and share ideas about blogging skills learned through experience.

Just as I had in Denmark many years ago, I met women who spoke Arabic, French, and Spanish, had lived in Columbia, Brazil, and France. Some had children and husbands, dogs and cats. Some loved writing, some photography, some fashion. And each carried a passion for food and for life.

By the end of camp, some of us were finishing each other’s sentences. We would sit by the pool laughing at full volume, sharing stories of love, loss, and travel. We became friends.
Marie & Me. Photo by Sally Vargas.

And when camp was over, none of us returned home quite the same. It might only have been five days, but the bonds were made. We now write to each other using the gift of social media, already planning our next gathering—somewhere involving lots of delicious food.

Although the sky has been dark and cloudy since my return to Sacramento from sitting poolside at camp in Mexico, the sun actually made an appearance yesterday. It was bold and warm and wonderful! I went for a run, and while my nose pulled firmly at the clear air and sent it swiftly to my head, for the first time in a long time, I felt happy.

I will always miss Rachel—not a day will pass that I won’t think of her. Yet the laughter and joy she so plentifully and unselfishly gave to me are now mine to share with others. That shared gladness will live on. And now I realize that.

Thus, as the New Year begins, I welcome it with a smile. I’m so grateful for the chance I was given to go to food blog camp, and the opportunity I had to make such memorable friendships.

Aimee & Me.

My reader, I know you will find stories of these new friends on these blog pages throughout the New Year—and beyond. And you’ll see improvements to this site as I implement all that I have learned from those friends.

Now, before the sun fades on this bright, cheerful day, I am heading outside to plant a winter garden. I have not planted anything since May. I have avoided the place I once found healing. With my heart newly filled with friendship, I return to that place to plant life-sustaining food and bring new joy to my world. I think if she were here, Rachel would like that.
Laughing over tequila at Food Blog Camp 2011. Photo by Marie.

And she’d like my new friends, too. To those friends I have made along the way: thank you.

“We are all travelers in the wilderness of this world, and the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Hilarious camp video.
Another clever camp video.

Food Blog Camp 2011 Leaders
Adam Pearson 
David Lebovitz 
Matt Bites Matt Armendariz
Simply Recipes Elise Bauer
Steamy Kitchen Jaden Hair
White on Rice Couple Diane Cu and Todd Porter

Food Blog Camp 2011 Organizer
Prose and Co Kate Moeller 

Food Blog Camp 2011 Participants
A Communal Table Nancy Buchanan
Acorns and Apples Aimee Seavey
Adventures of an Amateur Foodie Marie Tran-McCaslin
Angela in Provence Angela Billows
Awake at the Whisk Amber K. Stott (that's me!)
Bake Cupcakes Sally Vargas
Confections of a Foodie Bride Shawnda and Jason Horn
Couch Surfing Cook Wylie Goodman
Daily Nibbles Sarah Reid
Deliciously Organic Carrie Vitt
Dianasaur Dishes Diana Johnson
Eating Clean Recipes Jennifer Kalinowski
Family Fresh Cooking Marla Meridith
Fast Feasts Lillie Bavendam
Food for the Thoughtless Michael Procopio 
Food Woolf Brooke Burton
Frantastic Food Fran Feldman
Garlic Escapes Robin Cherry
Indigo Days Nancy Singleton Hachisu
Kitchen Conundrum Renee and Ari Iseson
Kitchen Corners Damaris Santos-Palmer
Ladles and Jellyspoons Lucy Lean
Loaded Kitchen Maggie Cubbler
Mommie Cooks Julie Mastbrook
Pinch My Salt Nicole Hamaker
Recipe Renovator Stephanie Weaver
Sally Cameron: In the Kitchen | On the road | Through the Lens
SaVUry and Sweet Rosa Vu 
Spoon and Chair Diane Miller 
Swoon My Spoon Susan Loren-Taylor
The Urban Baker Susan Salzman
Together in Food Stephanie Morimoto
Undercover Caterer Sarah Singleton
What's Gaby Cooking? Gaby Dalkin 

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Thursday, January 6, 2011


Chefs Who Play with Fire: Chef Antonio Cortez in Cancun, Mexico

Chef Antonio Cortez of Sen Lin at Cancun, Mexico
Lighting food on fire has taken on many forms over the years: the BBQ, the flambe, roasted marshmallows. Today, using modern techniques, chefs can infuse flavored smoke into your salad or your potatoes.

Using a smoke gun loaded with fresh chunks of Mexican cinnamon, Chef Antonio Cortez of Sen Lin in Cancun, Mexico, today infused grilled lobster with a smoky version of the spice. He pointed the smoke gun into an upside down bowl placed directly over the finished dish. When removed, the air fills with the fading spirals of spiced smoke, making a dramatic impact.

You don't have to travel to Mexico and attend Food Blogger Camp to experience this kind of fancy food (although you probably want to!). In fact, in Sacramento, Chef Pajo Bruich uses similar techniques in his cuisine. Wherever you are in the world, if you find a smoky dish on your menu, order it up! It's a great party trick!

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