As we approach the New Year we end yet another holiday season. For readers of this blog, you probably noticed I didn't have much in the way of holiday postings. Just been in Oregon busy with dad's heart surgery. We brought him home yesterday.

With the new year only a week away it means that eggnog will soon be disappearing from the dairy case at the grocers. Yet there is still time if you need to put together an item for that a party you are going to. This is as simple as can be with only three ingredients. I came across it in the Food Network's magazine and just had to try it. It took about two hours to make, which is longer than regular flan recipes, but the texture is so smooth and light and worth the long bake time.

Eggnog Flan
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 4 cups eggnog
  • 5 large eggs

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Stir the sugar and 2 tablespoons water in a medium skillet. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, swirling the pan but not stirring, until deep amber, 5 to 7 minutes. Pour the caramel into a shallow 10-inch-round cake pan, tilting the pan so the caramel evenly coats the bottom.

Bring a kettle of water to a boil. Whisk the eggnog and eggs in a large bowl until smooth, being careful not to beat in too much air. Pour the eggnog mixture over the caramel in the pan, then place in a large roasting pan. Fill the roasting pan with enough boiling water to come halfway up the side of the cake pan.

Loosely cover the roasting pan with foil and bake 1 hour. Remove the foil and continue baking until the custard is set but still quivers, 40 minutes to 1 hour.

Remove the flan from the roasting pan and let cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until cold and set, about 2 hours. To serve, run a thin knife around the edge of the flan, place an inverted flat plate over the pan and flip to unmold.
As an avowed saltaholic, I am still ignorant of all the wonders and kinds of finishing salts available and the proper use of them. As a person interested in food, I had finishing salt on my list of subjects to learn more about. I was aware of the numerous types of finishing salts, but had never ventured much past packaged sea and rock salts. I had been online window shopping for a while and found it coincidental when Blair at the Sacramento Bee wrote on Exploring the wonders of salt , a review of a book I had been looking into - "Salted: A Manifesto on the World's Most Essential Mineral, With Recipes" by Mark Bitterman.
Mark Bitterman is owner of The Meadow , a store in Portland that specializes in finishing salts, chocolates, bitters, and flowers. Last year he opened a second store in New York City. He is truly gifted in how he writes and explains the different salts. For instance, "The salt deposits were capped under a hermetic layer of volcanic ash, protecting them from external contaminants, so you are literally tasting the flavors of the earth’s primordial oceans. Over the millennia, these salt crystals have taken on the translucent colors of cranberry and tangerine gemstones. This finishing salt is suitable for use in a grinder, whole in cooking, or as decoration at the table, or on special dishes. It is very mild, perfectly balanced, and slightly sweet, with a clean finish. Try it on seafood, ceviche, and salads of cucumber, lime, and chilis." How can you not be entranced after reading that?

I spent some vacation days in Portland when I went north for Thanksgiving  and decided to check out The Meadow in person.
When I went to college in Portland in the 80s any decent business or restaurant was in the downtown area. Portland has seen a revitalization across the city and I was surprised to see that most of the renowned restaurants are now on the east side of the river in the many eastside neighborhoods. I ventured to Mississippi Avenue, an area that was once known more for its hookers and drug deals. Now there are several nice eateries, shopping centers, and The Meadow.
The Meadow is small and tucked back from the sidewalk. Inside can be a bit cramped if there are a few shoppers at one time. Two wall sections are filled top to bottom with the finishing salts. Another wall has the chocolates while the rear of the store has mostly liqueurs and bitters.

My focus was on the finishing salts and I was helped by Jordan, who was happy to answer any questions. The smallest jars are 1.5 ounces and range from $4 to $9. One of these little jars is labeled as "Sample" so that you can shake out a bit to taste. Jordan explained that the three factors for distinguishing finishing salts were moisture, mineral content, and texture, as in the crystal structure.

All my life I've driven up and down I-5. First it was family vacations when we would return from Saudi Arabia. We would often enter in Los Angeles and then do family activities as we drove back to Oregon to visit my aunt and cousin. Later I did the drive in the 80s when I would travel from college to Palm Springs for spring break. My years were the years that closed Palm Springs forever for spring breakers. Now I do the drive to visit my dad. He retired in Salem and so it's an 8 hour drive to and from. 

So it's pretty amazing that in all that time I never stopped in Medford to go to visit Harry & David. I must admit I've never really bought from Harry & David since it was always a bit on the pricey side for me and I live in the Sacramento valley where we have all the produce I could ever want. My tightwad ways. It was quite by accident that I stumbled on their headquarters this trip. I was stopping in Medford for lunch and drove right by their main store. 

Harry & David are brothers that took over their father's farm after his death in 1914. They took their agricultural expertise to expand the business with their famous Royal Riviera pears. The business took a hit, understandably, during the depression. It was some creative and inspired marketing that made the brothers venture into the mail order business. In 1934 they took boxes of their pears to influential businessmen in San Francisco and New York. The pears sold themselves and the mail order business was born. Since then the company has increased their product lines to include all sorts of fruits, chocolates, snacks, and baked goods. 

freshly dipped pears
There are factory tours offered several times each weekday. Since I was there on a Wednesday and not in a great hurry, I signed up for the 12:30 tour. The tours cost $5, but then they give you a coupon for $5 off your purchases later. I had already shopped and had used their Foursquare check-in coupon of 10% off.

The crunch time for Harry & David is from about mid September to the beginning of December. The factory is exploding with bustling business. I was mid December and the plant was pretty quiet. The last of the pears were being packaged and some gift baskets were being assembled.

Here you see the variety of cheesecakes being split apart. They are assembling the variety packs with a quarter of each cheesecake packaged together.

Moose Munch mixer
Their biggest product is the Moose Munch. They have about 20 flavor variations. I like the dark chocolate with macadamia and coconut macaroon. The popcorn they use is of two varieties. I didn't realize that each variety pops differently. One pops in a mushroom shape and the other in a butterfly shape, which they like to hold more caramel.

I finished the tour and soon went on my way with a few purchases. I guess I'll be stopping in Medford more often now that I've discovered the treasure hidden slightly off the freeway.

What can be more sexy in food than chocolate and spices? As my chai obsession continues (see Gluten-free Chai Snickerdoodles), I paired the two together in chai brownies.

Normally I always put nuts into my brownies because I like the textural crunch they add. I did not want nuts to detract from tasting the spices in the chai brownies and so I opted for cacao nibs instead. Some may be surprised, but this was the first time I had ever bought and used Scharffen Berger cacao nibs. They added the perfect bit of crunch while letting the spice shine through in these chai brownies.

I took the chai brownies to a holiday party this last Saturday and they were a big hit. I had promised I'd put the recipe up in time for others to make them for this weekend's round of parties.

Sexy Chai Brownies

the spices
9 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 cup of unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 1/2 cups of sugar
4 eggs
2 teaspoons of vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
3-5 teaspoons chai spice (below)
1/2 teaspoon xantham gum if making gluten-free
1 cup of flour or gluten-free flour mix
1/4 cup cacao nibs

Chai Spice
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground ginger
3/4 tsp ground black pepper
Make chai spice mix: In a small bowl, combine the cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, ginger, and pepper. You can choose to add  some or all of it depending on the strength you want. I added 4 tsps to mine and found it the perfect strength. 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Grease a 9x9 pan and set aside.

Melt together butter and chocolate together in a double boiler over a steaming water. Melt only until just blended together, not to a point that the butter separates.

Remove from heat and mix in the sugar. The mixture will be grainy. Add one egg at a time, whisking each egg into the batter.

Add the chai spice mixture, vanilla, and salt to the batter and mix thoroughly.

Add flour (or GF flour + xantham gum) to batter and mix thoroughly.

Pour batter into pan and spread evenly, smoothing top. Sprinkle cacao nibs across the top. Bake in oven for 25 minutes or until top has a dull finish and a tester comes out smoothly. Cool on a rack.

I can become fixated, especially when it comes to flavors.  I'll fixate on a flavor or flavor combination and then need to see what I can do with it by making numerous items. Lately that obsession has been chai.

I've never been a coffee or tea drinker. The hot drinks I like are hot chocolate and cider. About a year ago, though, I saw a Chai Hot Chocolate up on a menu board and decided to try it out. After all, I was always putting cinnamon and nutmeg in my cocoas anyway. After that discovery I switched to ordering chocolate chai lattes when I was at a coffee bar. Six weeks ago I decided that I needed to cut down on the sugar and so I started to order just chai lattes without the chocolate. That is my current hot drink.

It then occurred to me one day that snickerdoodle cookies are rolled in cinnamon sugar and so it wasn't that much of a leap to think of chai snickerdoodles. I was all proud of myself until I decided to search the internet and found out that other people had already had that thought. Oh well.
the meringue top doesn't show well in the picture

No, mud hens are not birds (in this case). Mud hens are a cookie bar, apparently a Southern treat, that I had never heard of before. I stumbled upon them on the internet and thought they looked interesting and worth a try. They consist of a cookie crust layer, then nuts, marshmallows, and chocolate chips, topped with a brown sugar meringue.

I'm not going to go into a lengthy post today. I'll just tell you a couple of things I would note about the recipe.
Voodoo is not evil - except for calories.

I went to New Orleans about ten years ago courtesy of The Pampered Chef. I had earned a trip to the conference there and I was so excited to explore the city. One of the stops I made was at the Voodoo Museum.

It turns out that voodoo is not necessarily an evil religion even though it is often times depicted as such in movies. It's just another religion that believes in a supreme being, but also that there is a spirit level between us and God.

For some folk the name is apropo for Voodoo Doughnuts in Portland, OR. I'm guessing that for some people their doughnuts take them into a spiritual world as they savor their round confections.

The last time I had been in Portland for the day it had been Saturday Market day and the line for Voodoo was around the block. I admired from afar, but decided I wasn't interested enough to stand in the line. This time around I went on a Wednesday and found no line. I also found other foodie tourists just like me - taking pictures of the famed shop. The one downtown is the original, of course, but there is a second Portland location and one in Eugene as well.

I was stunned when I saw the number of products made by Bob's Red Mill. After all, we usually see no more than 20 on any store's shelves. But I was at the headquarters and at their store where the shelves were lined with every product they made in multiple sizes.

When I went to college in Portland, OR in the 80's, Bob's Red Mill wasn't around, or wasn't big and visible like it is today. Now the large red mill is impossible to miss as you drive down Highway 224 through Milwaukie, OR. Farther down the road is the actual processing plant where all their products are packaged. It's at the plant where I was greeted by Cassidy Stockton, their Social Media Manager. She had kindly offered to take me on a private tour. (Public tours are offered every morning at 10 a.m.)

First mill

We started in a section of the plant that held some historical photos and milling equipment. The business started out as a bit of a hobby. Bob Moore's wife, Charlee, loved to use whole grains in her cooking. Bob started playing around with grinding his own flour for her. Slowly it grew to supplying friends and family until it got to become an actual business. Actually started in Redding, CA, the Bob's Red Mill moved to Oregon in the 80's. Over the years they have grown from grains and flour to include beans, mixes, soups, and more. They are especially known for their line of gluten-free products.

Here you see Bob's very first millstone. Bob's Red Mill uses only traditional French millstones that have been favored by mills for centuries. Apparently the granite at this one quarry in France produces porous granite that is extra hard with lots of edges that can grind down the grain. The channels that are cut into the stone automatically channels the grain so that as it gets finer, it moves down the channel to get ground down finer still until it finally drops through as flour.

Testing lab

As I mentioned, Bob's Red Mill has become particularly well known as the gluten-free market has grown and grown over the years. The company takes it very seriously to make sure there is no possibility of cross contamination. There are separate lines, staff, and labs for all of the gluten-free work. Production staff do not cross between the gluten-free and conventional lines to keep things clear.

Leftover bits of flour are given to local food shelters and banks. The debris flour on the floor is swept up to be used in animal feed. 

In a time of economic upheaval in the country, Bob's is one of the few companies that can say they have grown. Cassidy tells me they have seen 20% gains each year. She couldn't supply me with numbers for the gluten-free versus conventional sides of the business, but I suspect the percentage growth is higher in the gluten-free area.

This machine mixes together ingredients for cake or pancake mixes (etc)
Sorghum flour being milled
Inventory ready to be shipped
After my tour was over I headed to the store and was so overwhelmed with all the products that I didn't buy anything. One thing I liked at the store was that they sell huge 25 pound bags of some items, like the flour. Usually we are only exposed to their little one pound bags in the store. They also had bulk bins, which is a wonderful option. I would love to have a Bob's store with all the products and options nearby.  For now I'll have to make do with the fact I can go when I visit my dad up north.

I want to thank Bob's Red Mill and Cassidy for their time and generosity. Since it is the holidays I asked Cassidy if I could have some product for our food drive instead of for myself, which she is graciously sending.

Click here for more stories like this: Fun Things to Do 

Back in April SactoMoFo was a bit chaotic, being the giant success it was. It was our first mobile food festival and so many people didn't know what to expect. I've been to many mobile food events now and here are my best tips for you.

Go as a team! The biggest tip of all. Not a huge team, but one of about 4-5 people. You should all get into different lines and order enough to share with your group. The reason you only want about four people is that some trucks will limit the amount of food you can order at one time. If you had a team of 10 but were only allowed to order enough food for four, that would be hard to share.

Go early. It's all about lines and so I'd much rather be at the front of the line then at the back of a 2 hour line.

Bring utensils and containers. It makes it easier to share, but I also happen to like to order enough so that I can eat things later or the next day. I can only eat so much and if there are 22 vendors, there is no way I could eat it all while there.

Bring chairs. This is not always allowed, but for events that are on concrete with no place to sit, this is a big one.

Bring small bills. Help the trucks out so that there's not a problem with them having to run to a bank for change to break $20s, etc. It also makes the lines go faster.

The last thing isn't really a tip because it happens naturally at these events - Make friends with those around you. In fact, this is one of the things I love best about food trucks. People socialize while in line and waiting for their food. There's a camaraderie that is so awesome. When was the last time you chatted up all the tables around you at a restaurant? Nope, it's food trucks that create this social atmosphere and that we want more of here in Sacramento.

Have a great time!