Thursday, December 31, 2009

Los Olivos and Solvang

I have to admit, my enthusiasm for cooking has waned a bit of late. I know foodies aren't supposed to ever say this, but feeding myself is really a chore at times. I still enjoy the food that I eat, and want to have good food, but it's been difficult to muster the energy to put creativity and time into actually making it. I've been content to read the amazing cookbooks I recently acquired (one being Pierre Hermé's Macaron!!!) and am patiently waiting for my desire to cook to return.

Meanwhile, I've had some fabulous meals with friends and family over the holidays (which I myself did NOT cook), including a lovely lunch in Los Olivos with my grandmothers and mother. Los Olivos is a quaint little town, whose center is composed of a few blocks of Old West storefronts for cute wineshops and restaurants. The drive there on Hwy 154 is gorgeous, since it's right in the middle of the wine country featured in the film Sideways. Winter and early spring are always the best times to enjoy the scenery of the central coast of California, since the grass is green from the rains and the sun shines most of the time.

We lunched at the busiest café on Grand Avenue, and it was worth the 30 minute wait. Los Olivos Café and wine shop has a wall full of wine bottles, a fire place in the middle, another wall of local art, and patio dining in the front. The most difficult part of waiting for our food was watching the plates of gorgeous food being delivered to the tables, but it was our turn soon enough.

One of the best parts of the meal was the bread that arrived first: it was one of the most soft, flavorful, well-textured breads I've ever had at a restaurant. This is not the bread that you skip in order to save room for your entrée - this is the bread that you fill up on and hope they bring seconds.

For my entrée, I ordered a roasted butternut squash salad that had gorgonzola, roasted pepitas, cranberries, and a cinnamon balsamic over the baby greens. The squash was cold but sweet and spiced, and there was enough of it that I could only finish half - at least, once I had eaten a quarter of my mom's sirloin burger!

This burger was one of the many beautiful sandwiches we saw around the restaurant, and did not disappoint. The meat was excellent, and very rare, and the bun and sauces were great.

After lunch we continued to Solvang to visit the bakeries and catch sight of this human-size gingerbread house at the Chumash Casino-owned Corque Hotel. Although built on a wooden frame, this house is covered in real gingerbread. You can even smell it! The icicles are piped-on frosting, and icing coats the roof tiles like snow. The gingerbread house is made by Olsen's Danish Bakery in Solvang.

Solvang might be cheesy, but the bakeries are the best part in my opinion (surprised?), so a gigantic cookie house fits right in. It's worth a trip to the Central Coast to see these little towns!

Chocolate Peanut Butter Bars

Happy New Year, friends! I can't ring in the new year without paying homage to my mother's plethora of Christmas cookies with this long-time member of the gang: Chocolate Peanut Butter bars. Another quick and easy treat that's difficult to stop eating! The peanut butter makes this a little less sweet than other bars, and who can argue with the chocolate-PB combo?

Chocolate Peanut Butter Bars

18 oz. creamy peanut butter
3/4 C butter, room temperature
1 lb. graham cracker crumbs
1 lb. powdered sugar
2 C (12 oz.) chocolate chips

Cream the butter and peanut butter with a stand mixer (very difficult to do with a hand mixer or by hand once you add the dry ingredients in!).

Add the graham cracker crumbs and powdered sugar, mix in well. Press firmly into a 9"x13" pan.

Melt the chocolate chips in a microwavable bowl, stirring between 30-second bursts in the microwave. Be careful to not burn the chocolate; stir well each time and distribute the heat before deciding to microwave again. Should only take 2, maybe 3, turns in the microwave.

Pour the melted chocolate over the mixture pressed into the pan, and mark off the squares by running a knife through the chocolate layer. In the photos above, the squares are not cut all the way through yet - the chocolate was just marked off before it hardened. This makes it much easier to cut clean squares once the chocolate has solidified.

Refrigerate 3-4 hours or overnight, and cut squares when you're ready to serve them. You can make this well ahead of time, and it will keep for a few weeks.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Salted Browned Butter Crispy Treats

It's probably the time of the holidays where you're tired of baking but still have parties to attend, so these are your ideal potluck contributions: fast, inexpensive, and popular. I decided to make them because I had little time and lots of parties, and they disappeared like mad. Rice Krispie Treats might seem a little boring, but these have a secret weapon: browned butter.

The browning of the butter, and well, the doubling of it (!) plus a tad of coarse salt is the winning trick. This means a little bit of caramely-nutty-salty-chewy goodness in every bite, mmmmm.

Thanks to smittenkitchen for this and all her other consistently good recipes!

Salted Browned Butter Crispy Treats

Makes 16 2-inch squares or 32 1- x 2-inch small bars

4 ounces (1/4 pound or 1 stick) unsalted butter, plus extra for the pan
1 10-ounce bag marshmallows
Heaping 1/4 teaspoon coarse sea salt
6 cups Rice Krispies cereal (about half a 12-ounce box)

Butter (or coat with non-stick spray) an 8-inch square cake pan with 2-inch sides.

In a large pot, melt butter over medium-low heat. It will melt, then foam, then turn clear golden and finally start to turn brown and smell nutty. Stir frequently, scraping up any bits from the bottom as you do. Don’t take your eyes off the pot as while you may be impatient for it to start browning, the period between the time the butter begins to take on color and the point where it burns is often less than a minute.

As soon as the butter takes on a nutty color, turn the heat off and stir in the marshmallows. The residual heat from the melted butter should be enough to melt them, but if it is not, turn it back on low until the marshmallows are smooth.

Remove the pot from the stove and stir in the salt and cereal together. Quickly spread into prepared pan. A piece of waxed or parchment paper sprayed with oil works to press it firmly and evenly into the edges and corners, though a silicon spatula works as well.

Shower with sprinkles if you want some color, let cool, and cut into squares.