I've mentioned before that I love cream desserts. Creme brulee, napoleons, custard, and cream puffs. Thanks, dad. Anyway, the selection for this month was eclairs. For me this wasn't really a challenge. As a child I used to make the cream puff shells and freeze them. Then I had pudding so that whenever I wanted one, I'd nuke a shell, fill it with pudding, and be good to go.

As an adult I have not had as good luck. For some reason I haven't been able to get them to puff up correctly. I blame it on the oven, the only thing I can think of that would make the difference. As a child I had an electric oven. Now I have a gas oven. Moisture is an important factor in making puffs and gas ovens have a lot more moisture than electric.

Puff dough is called pate a choux and has a lot of eggs. The principle behind it is that the protein cells in the flour and egg are stretched and expand from the steam from the wet dough. The steam creates the puff and then you need them to dry out to hold the shape. My theory is that in an electric oven the steam is all inside the puff expanding outward to form it. But with the gas oven there is also moisture outside the puff and it somehow counteracts it.

The rules of Daring Bakers state that you must all follow the one recipe selected. So although there are multiple recipes out there for something, you can't use them. This month's recipe came from a cookbook written by Dorie Greenspan: Chocolate Desserts By Pierre Hermé. I decided to use the challenge to make a dish for a potluck. I was unhappy by the quantity made by the recipe, so I ended up making two batches. I made mini eclairs and puffs.

The recipe calls for the puff, a chocolate pastry cream filling, and then the chocolate glaze. The option for this month was that you had to make the puffs but could choose to do either the chocolate filling or the glaze or both. I've never cared for eclairs with the chocolate on them. I like just plain puff and filling. So I opted for the chocolate glaze because I figured I could just drizzle it versus dunking the puffs in it.

I've not been a big fan of pastry cream because I think it is too thick. So I made my vanilla bean pastry cream, then a batch of whipped cream, and then folded them together to lighten it up. I used a star tip on my bag and filled the puffs. Then I tasted one. Not sweet enough. So I ended up drizzling a lot of chocolate after all to add the sweetness that was lacking. I've pretty much decided that I prefer my childhood pudding in them better than cream.

As I said, I like puffs and so I will make them again. But first I must figure out how to get them to inflate nice and large and then to stay that way (not flatten out like a deflated balloon).

Reprint from 06 employee newsletter article:

I think I have mentioned my Things To Do Before I Die List in past articles. Recently I got to tick off another item—a glider ride. The occasion was my friend's 45th birthday. I wanted to do something really special that we both could share.

Last year I had seen an article in the Sacramento Bee about soaring. Soaring is the term that glider folk use. Turns out that the Reno/Minden/Tahoe area is one of the best in the world for soaring. The weather conditions make for world-class soaring. The hot desert air meets the cold mountain air as it goes over the Sierra. This creates the updrafts and air currents that gliders need to soar. When all is right in glider-world, there is a phenomenon they call the Wave. On those days there is a white cloud that stretches north-south over the Carson valley and you can see gliders like seagulls in the sky. An experienced pilot can ride the wave as high as possible, even up to 30,000 feet! They need oxygen tanks for that.

I had researched on the Internet and found that Soar Minden had the most appealing deal. They allowed two passengers instead of the usual one because they had a larger three-seater. They also had a tour that went over Lake Tahoe, Emerald Bay, and a bit over Desolation Wilderness. It was also the longest ride—50 minutes. This is the one I chose.

Our pilot was Jon. He was a retired Air Force test pilot, like in Top Gun. He said he had flown about 250 different types of aircraft in his life. I asked him about getting licensed for soaring. He said that if you studied and flew every day, you could be qualified in two weeks. The hardest part is learning take off and tow. Because the tow plane is short-wing and the glider is long-wing and there is a rope between you, it takes some skill to keep the rope at the right slack amount so that you don’t detach and that you draft behind the tow plane properly.

There were several typical one and two-seater gliders on the tarmac, but we were headed for the three-seater. It was a tight fit—Dean and I had to squeeze side-by-side behind the pilot.

The tow plane pulled us up and we circled to gain altitude over the valley before heading over the ridge toward Tahoe. It was noisier than I thought it would be just from the wind resistance. The plane towed us over the lake, a bit over Desolation Wilderness, back over the lake, and then we detached over the eastern ridges near Heavenly. Jon took us back and forth along the eastern ridge before doing a final swoop very close to the trees and back toward the valley. By this time I was a little queasy, so when he asked if we wanted some roller coaster stuff, I asked for a mild one in deference to my boyfriend. That did it. I got sick. They are prepared with airsick bags. It was short lived and we were soon coming in for the final landing.

I have an interest in learning to fly. If I lived in the Tahoe/Reno area, I’d definitely look into soaring lessons.

My best friend was throwing a 40th birthday party for a friend. The friend wanted a fruit basket birthday cake. Dari has been impressed with my baking projects of late. She decided to ask me to make the cake instead of ordering one from a bakery. My first official commission.

I made the Picture Perfect Party Cake again since it was perfect for the request. The party was going to be large and I was concerned about the cake not being enough for everyone. I made a second batch and made mini-cakes instead. One thing was different between the two batches. I used cake flour for the cake and regular, all-purpose flour for the mini-cakes. Interestingly, the people who tried both cakes actually commented on the difference between them. They felt that the mini-cakes were denser and more biscuit-like. The frosting was the Swiss buttercream recipe from last month's challenge. You'll find it below.

The birthday girl was thrilled and I got plenty of compliments once again.This cake really is a winner.

Swiss Buttercream

4 lg. egg whites

¾ cup sugar

1 ½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly firm

1 ½ -2 Tbsp. Rum
1 tsp. vanilla

Place the egg whites in a lg/ bowl of a electric mixer and beat with the whisk attachment until the whites are foamy and they begin to thicken (just before the soft peak stage). Set the bowl over a saucepan filled with about 2 inches of simmering water, making sure the bowl is not touching the water. Then, whisk in the sugar by adding 1-2 tablespoon of sugar at a time over a minutes time. Continue beating 2-3 minutes or until the whites are warm (about 120 degrees) and the sugar is dissolved. The mixture should look thick and like whipped marshmallows.
Remove from pan and with either the paddle or whisk attachment, beat the egg whites and sugar on med-high until its a thick, cool meringue – about 5-7 minutes. *Do not overbeat*. Set aside. 

Place the butter in a separate clean mixing bowl and, using the paddle attachment, cream the butter at medium speed for 40-60 seconds, or until smooth and creamy. *Do not overbeat or the butter will become toooooo soft.*

On med-low speed, blend the meringue into the butter, about 1-2 Tbsp. at a time, over 1 minute. Add the liqueur and vanilla and mix for 30-45 seconds longer, until thick and creamy.

Refrigerate 10-15 minutes before using.

Wait! My buttercream won’t come together! Reheat the buttercream briefly over simmering water for about 5 seconds, stirring with a wooden spoon. Be careful and do not overbeat. The mixture will look broken with some liquid at the bottom of the bowl. Return the bowl to the mixer and whip on medium speed just until the cream comes back together. 

Wait! My buttercream is too soft! Chill the buttercream in the refrigerator for about 10 minutes and rewhip. If that doesn’t work, cream an additional 2-4 Tbsp. of butter in a small bowl– making sure the butter is not as soft as the original amount, so make sure is cool and smooth. On low speed, quickly add the creamed butter to the buttercream, 1 Tbsp. at a time.

Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 5 days, or can be frozen for up to 6 months. If freezing, store in 2 16-oz. plastic containers and thaw in the refrigerator overnight or at room temperature for several hours.

Evan's Kitchen on Urbanspoon

I had been meaning to check out Evan's Kitchen for a while, but kept postponing it. Then I heard that they have a great brunch. My best friend, Dari, met me there and we had a nice Sunday brunch. Dinner will have to wait for another day.

Evan is a good friend to Dari and her husband, Rob. Evan used to cook at The Limelight years ago and Rob's office is across the street, so the family was always regulars. Evan's Kitchen is farther away and embedded in a small antiques mall. It's a very unassuming place that you would never notice if you weren't on a mission to get there. Dari tells me that they recently acquired the booths from the old Andiamo's, which has really made the seating much better.

There are large tables in the center because Evan's caters to families. They have things to keep the kids occupied and even do special family events. Around Halloween they do a special pumpkin carving dinner. Then around Thanksgiving they do a gingerbread house making diner. It is not all family oriented. They also do special wine pairing dinners or other theme nights.

But we were here for brunch. The brunch menu was great. It included the basics like pancakes (including whole grain ones), French toast, omelets, etc. They also had a large Benedicts menu. You could have eggs Benedict or Florentine, or variations such as the California or the vegetarian. Dari chose the California version with avocado and tomato and a side of fruit.

I was thrilled to see quiche on the menu. Love quiche. They had a vegetarian version, but I chose the one with ham in it. It was a nice hefty slice and covered with cheese. Yum. I chose the country potatoes which were like nice, crispy roasted potatoes and not greasy at all. I also like to try biscuits when I have brunch. Their biscuits were ok, nothing to scream about though.

I still need to go for a dinner. I remember great meals when Evan was at The Limelight, so I know that I'll be happy when I get the opportunity to come back for dinner.
Casablanca on Urbanspoon

It's a coincidence. Tuesday we ate at Cafe Vinoteca, a place that's been there for years. Friday it was across the street to Casablanca, another place that I've driven by for years and ignored. The reason I ignored it? Because it's tiny, tucked away, and easy to ignore. Also, when it comes to Moroccan food, there are a couple of places in Sacramento. I always tend to go to Cafe Morocco downtown. But that is a typical tablecloth restaurant. If you want the Moroccan experience, then it is Marrakech or Casablanca. Marrakech seems to be the better known and I have been there twice. This was my first time to Casablanca.

This time it was Kimberly's Meetup group of 25 that attended. We took up half the restaurant because the space is much smaller. First recommendation, don't go on a day over 95 degrees. It was 102 on Friday and we were all sweating inside the place. The air was on, but it wasn't sufficient. Didn't help that when I went to the bathroom I discovered they had the back door open.

We sat as groups of five around large brass platters. In Saudi when you ate with an Arab family you always sat on the ground with some pillows for your back. In America the restaurants cater to our comfort by just putting the tables low and having you sit on cushions. The cushions are what I grew up calling poofs. They are actually the leather pillows used on the camel saddles. Somewhere at dad's house there is one I need to find and snag. Anyway, I've experience to know that poofs get uncomfortable after a long period time. Guess that's age for ya. I got there early enough to snag a wall seat.

Other things to remember when eating Middle Eastern, always eat with your right hand. The right is for food, the left is for toilet. That's why when someone is caught stealing, they cut off the right hand. From then on you're an outcast. Also, never sit with the soles of your feet showing out front (like straight legged). This is an insult.

First thing is to wash your hands. Rashid, our host, came around with the pots for us to rinse our hands. Another tip, if you're really picky about sharing your food, you'll need to get everyone to go and wash with soap and water or bring some Purell with you. This rinsing is really just for show.

First course was a lentil soup called harira. It tasted exactly the same as what I get elsewhere, although thinner without many lentils/veggies. One of my tablemates commented it was just like the lentil soup they sell at Trader Joe's. Next came the 'salad' course which was Arab bread, hummus, beets, and spiced, cooked carrots.

The belly dancer came out at this time. I will say that the quality of belly dancers in Sacramento is outstanding. We enjoyed her performance a lot because she was so enthusiastic and energetic. She got everyone involved and we all cheered on a cute five year old little girl.

The pastilla was next. This phyllo filled pastry is dusted with powdered sugar. Inside ours was minced almonds with cinnamon and honey. Rashid explained it was usually served for special occassions and often is filled with minced pigeon. I'm not sure if ours was only almond because we had a vegetarian in the group or because this was a cheaper version to produce. It is super flaky and messy to eat.

The main course was a variety of dishes. There were chicken skewers served with a mound of rice. The chicken was very spicy, but not in a hot way. Very tasty, though dry. The rice was loose and not starchy/sticky. They gave us spoons to eat the rice and coucous with. In Saudi the rice was always sticky and the Arabs would eat it by taking a handful, squishing it together into a ball in their hand, and then flicking bits into their mouths with their thumbs. A Cornish hen came out next that was succulent. The beef meatballs came in a tomato-ey sauce and that was where all the spicy hot was. I took a bite and the heat just crept right up on me! There was another stewed beef dish with potatoes and peas, the platter of coucous with stewed vegetables, and a lamb dish with cooked carrots. There was plenty of food for the five people at each table.

The dancer arrived again along with the dessert of baklava and the tea. The baklava was not very good. Soggy and lacking anything distinctive. I like baklava to be flaky and have a hint of surprise, whether it be rose water or bit of orange flavoring.

Service - Rashid was very enthusiastic and fun. He would go out and dance goofy with the belly dancer. He told us to call him Conehead because of his hat. His wife was a sour puss. She never cracked a grin and just robotically served. They were lacking on drink service. We had to repeatedly ask for water. A note is that if you want alcohol, they allow you to bring it in with no corkage fee. I think that they just need another waiter or two. By the time we left the restaurant was filled so that they had to start putting people in the back room. (Why our large group wasn't put back there in the first place, I don't know.)

Overall rating is that Casablanca is OK. I would say the level of food at Marrakech is a bit better. For instance, their pastilla has meat and their entree dishes have more vegetables. Still, both restaurants are attended as event meals. Go with a group of friends and take it for what it is, a fun night out.

Oh, the meal we had is price-fixed and called the Sultan's Feast - 25.99.
Cafe Vinoteca on Urbanspoon

The word of mouth for Cafe Vinoteca had always been good. It's one of those places that's been there for years, you drive by it meaning to give it a try, and just never get around to it. So I figured I would schedule it for my Meetup group and we would all get to try it together.

We went on a Monday, which had some benefits. They have some pasta dinner specials on Mondays and Tuesdays. There's either an all-you-can-eat spaghetti bolognese or a build-your-own pasta selection. Other than that, I was disappointed at the very limited menu. The choices were small. For instance, I was really in the mood for a piccata and there was none. Neither was there a parmagiana, chicken or eggplant.

Foccacia was brought out and dipping sauce poured out on plates. I liked that it was the olive oil and balsamic with plenty of herbs mixed in. I was not that impressed with the foccacia though. It was plain and dry.

In the end, most of us opted between the two specials. I got the gnocchi with the bolognese sauce. The sauce was hearty, meaty, and full of flavor. It was not some wimpy, thin sauce that skimps on the meat like you get at some places. My portion of gnocchi was just right. You also got a small green salad and ice cream or spumoni with it.

We had been sat right in front of the dessert case. There was tiramisu, creme brulee, banana cream pie and cheesecake. None of them looked appetizing. Sad. If you are going to display your desserts, they ought to be mouthwatering.

As for service, there was quite a complicated dispute/misunderstanding on the bill that I won't really go into - too long a story. Suffice it to say, we figure the way the waiter messed with it managed to get him an extra set of tips from us. But this came from having a whole than semi-splitting the bill. Firmly set down in advance how you want your bill handled.

All in all I'd say it was OK. The specials were a great value for both money and quality. I figure that I will have to give them another chance and try an entree next time. But with so many restaurants in town, the likelihood that I'll come back around to them is small.
Firehouse on Urbanspoon

The Firehouse restaurant has been a Sacramento institution since 1960. That's a long time. While dining, we heard a man at the next table mention that he had proposed to his wife there 36 years ago. That's a long time. It's hard to stay on top of your game consistently for that many years. There are cycles of ups and downs, chefs changing over time, etc. This is a restaurant that definitely calls for re-reviewing every once in a while.

The last time I ate at The Firehouse was at least ten years ago. My ex-husband's company took everyone there (small company) for the Christmas holiday dinner. The one thing I remember specifically from that night was that they made the Caesar salad dressing at the table in a big presentation.

We went on a Sunday night and the place was pretty empty. It hadn't changed much, and probably never will. After all, you got to stick with the historic theme when you are in Old Sac. The trusty fire pole was still there, although the holes at the ceiling and floor were blocked. I joked that it must be for pole dancing now. There is the old Victorian decor with the chandeliers, paneling, and giant era oil paintings. My guest mentioned over dinner that the place reminded him of the Haunted House ride at Disneyland, and I had to agree.

Another thing that hasn't changed is that it still run as an old school, fancy dining experience. The hostess pulls out your chair and does your napkin for you. It's funny how you notice things like that when nobody does it anymore at other places. One of those things that distinguishes high, middle, and low grade dining experiences. Our waiter was courteous enough, but amazingly still missed a couple of things, considering our expectation levels had now been raised. He did not tell us what the special was until after I mentioned what I wanted. I ordered the sea scallops and then he says, as a "by the way", that the special is another preparation of sea scallops.

For our first course, I had chosen the House-Smoked Salmon Roulade - watercress, tzatziki, capers, onions and mâche, baguette crostini and elephant garlic chips. Although I enjoyed the salmon, it was a little dry. I also would have liked more capers and onions. But it was a generous portion and the overall flavors were good.

My guest had the White Corn Lobster Bisque - caramelized shallots, leeks and fresh herbs in a sherry-infused velouté, with a butter-poached Maine lobster “salad”. It arrived with great presentation. The waiter put down the empty soup bowl with just a little mound of chopped lobster in the center. Then he poured the bisque from a small one-quart, copper saucepan, wiped the drips from the rim of the bowl, and then left. Upscale service. The bisque was delicious and was one of the few joys of the meal.

Next came small parfait glasses with lime cucumber sorbet to cleanse our palettes.

The entrees were where the disappointments entree'd.

As I had mentioned, I chose the Sea Scallops with white corn-lobster emulsion and lemon pepper-sweet pea risotto, sautéed Bloomsdale spinach, and saffron tapioca. You can see that it arrived looking beautiful and delicious. Look at those honkin' scallops! Unfortunately, it was sssaaal-ty! And really, that's all I care to say on it.

My guest ordered Grilled Swordfish with lemon-fennel marinade and fresh herb-olive salsa verde, sorrel-roasted French fingerlings, haricots verts and sweet pea emulsion. First thing, he tasted the "olive salsa verde" and swept that aside - yuck. Then he took a bite and I knew what it was gonna be (and can you tell by looking at the picture?). It was DRY and overcooked. Just looking at it you could tell. We called the waiter and commented on it and even he said it looked overcooked. To which my guest rightly asked, "then why would you serve something that is obviously overcooked?" The answer was not satisfactory to us. Basically, some people might want it cooked like that. People who don't know good food! (Unfortunately there are those non-foodies out there.) Anyway, we asked him to take it away. My guest was so put off that he lost his appetite to order anything else. I reminded him of my ten year memory of the Caesar salad and so he ordered that. Another disappointment. He received a plate of hearts of Romaine, but no table-side dressing preparation.

At this point the manager came up and apologized and offered us a free creme brulee for dessert. I was silently taken aback that he would only offer the creme brulee, and so we told him we'd think about it. Meanwhile I finished my salty scallops.

We looked at the dessert menu. I carefully noted the price of the creme brulee versus the other desserts - for the most part, the same. My guest picked what I had initially wanted, so I chose the chocolate decadence. Now another little aside on The Firehouse is that my friend, the 5-star pastry chef trained in Italy, used to be the pastry chef for The Firehouse. Now she's the personal chef to the Raley-Teel family. Anyway, me and my sweet tooth know good dessert and the standard that The Firehouse used to have. This chocolate decadence was passable at best. It reminded me of something you would get from a grocer's bakery and not something freshly made.

So now we end with the best dish of the entire meal - Passion Fruit Mousse - macadamia nut Japonaise cake and passion fruit mousse with coconut tuile and tropical fruit salsa. We both loved the tangy sweetness of the passion fruit mousse. I should have just ordered the same thing!

The bill arrived and they did remove the swordfish and one of the desserts, noted as "food waste". Even then, we paid over $100 with the tax and tip. Fancy restaurants come with fancy price tags, even without any alcohol. My guest has no interest in returning any time soon. As I said in the beginning, with a restaurant spanning as many decades as The Firehouse has, you do have to suffer through the ups and downs. Today was a down. It's just tough to say how long a break does one take before checking to see if it's at an up again. Another ten years?

We had an International Bake Sale at work last week and one of my co-workers brought this custard mochi. I liked it, so I asked her for the recipe. (She had also made mochi dipped strawberries.) Then I made it for a potluck this weekend. One of the gals, Stephanie, said that it was just like something her mother used to make and that she hadn't had in fifteen years. Stephanie is half Asian, I think Japanese.

Anyway, mochi is rice flour and is used in many desserts in Asia. These days we mostly see it with ice cream. There are little frozen balls of ice cream in a mochi covering. Then there are little bits of flavored mochi that are used at toppings at yogurt shops. This recipe is like it sounds - a custard, but with a chewy consistency. For those that aren't familiar, I don't mean chewy like taffy or gum. Maybe a better analogy is 'al dente'. Like when pasta is done just right and has that bit of give. Or, like when you bite through a giant tapioca pearl.

At the potluck some people thought it was lemon bars because it looked like it. Everyone who tried it liked it. I actually saw George eat three pieces!

2 cups Mochiko rice flour
2-1/2 c. sugar
1 t. baking powder
5 eggs, beaten
3 c. cold milk
1 t. vanilla
1 cube butter, melted and cooled

Combine dry ingredients. Add beaten eggs, milk, and vanilla. Combine until smooth. Add in melted and cooled butter and mix till smooth. Pour into 13” X 9” x 2” pan. Bake at 35O’ for 1 hour. Top should be golden brown and edges are deep golden brown.


It's been 30 years since I had my favorite flavor of Baskin Robbins. It was called Jungle Fruit sherbet and was basically mango and pineapple mixed together. My brother always got the mint chip and I always got the Jungle Fruit or Pralines n Cream.

I've made my own version, although it is just not the same as the BR one.

1 qt mango nectar
2 cups orange juice
1 small can of crushed pineapple
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup pureed peach
1/4 cup minced maraschino cherries

Mix all ingredients together and then put into ice cream maker. Process according to operating instructions.