I've had a growing desire recently to do more desserts, and specifically ... to bake more. I've never been a big "sweets" person, and even as a child, would prefer to spend my allowance (such as it was) on "food" vs. sweet edibles. A salami and cheese on a sourdough roll or hot pastrami on rye from the Westlake Deli would always win, vs. an ice cream cone from Vern's, which was situated 10 steps away.
I had a few favorite sweet indulgences of course ... I was a normal child in that regard. U-No and Charleston Chew candy bars, Rollo's, or anything resembling licorice were like magnets. A girlfriend once gave me a 24-pack box of U-No's for Christmas, and I thought it was an extremely thoughtful gift for a 16 year old. She knew me!
I love ice cream every now and then, especially anything resembling vanilla. Marble fudge works, sundaes as well, but plain old vanilla is the best, in a dish, on a sugar cone, or if it's my fridge and my ice cream, right out of the container. Decadent indulgence.
Root beer floats are special. My humble (and I'd argue correct) opinion is that the best ones begin with Hires or A&W root beer, and they're served in a pre-frozen glass mug with chunks of ice breaking off on both the inside and outside of the glass as you consume your float. I remember my very first root beer like it was yesterday (and it most certainly wasn't!). My mom and grandmother and I were at lunch at Stonestown Shopping Center, on 19th Avenue in San Francisco. I was probably about 4, and was offered my first root beer float. As the server placed this new delicacy in front of me, it was like clockwork ... my mom said "don't stir it" just as I was commencing to do exactly that. This of course makes everything fizz and foam all over the tabletop. Aside from my embarrassment, it also meant that I didn't get to consume a good portion of this wonderful new discovery. But it was love at first sight and I've loved floats ever since.
Summers were spent at one of two rustic resorts on the Russian River. Johnson's Resort, which was right on the edge of town, or Guernewood Park, which was about a mile walk. My mom and five younger sisters and I would usually rent a couple room cabin, as my dad commonly worked two jobs in order to keep this tribe clothed and fed. And of course, several of my mom's "bridge" friends. The ladies would spend most days and evenings playing bridge. They belonged to bridge clubs, had bridge parties, and lived and breathed classic Contract Bridge. We'd spend the bulk of our days swimming, floating or paddling in the gently flowing river, which runs through beautiful Sonoma County, and much of what now is famous for some of the best wineries in the world.
Early afternoons would commonly mean "nap time" for the sisters, and afforded me some free time to venture out to the streets of Guerneville (pronounced "gern-ville" not "gerny-ville" according to my grandfather who was raised here). Among my daily stops during the girls' naptime was a little Borden's Creamery, situated about half way up the main street of town. It was here that I could grab a killer root beer float or an ice cream of infinitely variable proportions. I'm dating myself here, but it worked like this; 15 cents for the first scoop on a cone, and a dime a scoop beyond that. So a "scubble doop of farble mudge" would run you a quarter. Dare to invest forty five cents in your afternoon treat, and you've got a major balancing act in front of you. But you manage.
As I grew up, and inevitably older, I got more and more into the "cooking" part of the meal, and desserts sort of took a back seat. I almost never order desserts, and am quite happy with a very small nibble of whatever my wife orders. Every now and then I have to have my own creme brulee, and I've never met a strawberry cream pie or a German chocolate cake that couldn't win me over, but I very rarely order them, and even more rarely actually create them.
I have a couple of semi-signature desserts that I do very well, but nothing particularly innovative, and I definitely can't claim originality. Crowd pleasers yes, but created by someone else. "My" chocolate mousse was stolen (and modified) from New Basics Cookbook. "My" key lime pie is a variation from James McNair's wonderful pie book. My tarte tatin is something we learned the first day at the California Culinary Academy, and is in actuality a French classic that's been passed down through generations of chefs. Again, people love them, but they're not mine.
My observation has been that chefs will commonly branch into the baking world or the cooking world, but there's a distinct direction that most will take, and that's the specialty area that they'll pursue. Obviously, chefs can create world class desserts, and bakers can of course knock your socks off with a wonderful meal. But the basic path of choice commonly presents itself as a fork in the road. Culinary schools usually offer a baking series, and a cooking series (and sometimes a front-of-the-house or hospitality series), but rarely any combination of these. You train to cook, to bake, or to manage and direct the operation.
So I'm going to change my ways, I've decided. I want to do desserts like I do my other cooking, meaning, by the proverbial book here and there, look at all the recipes, LEARN the techniques, understand the ingredients, vary them with the understanding of what the end result is going to taste like, and more than anything ... become comfortable with the process.
Among the best of breed baking series are Rose Levy Beranbaum's wonderfully comprehensive books, The Cake Bible and The Pie and Pastry Bible. I learned of Ms. Beranbaum's works through a co-worker at a biotech company I worked for about 10 years ago. He went on and on about his Aunt Rose, who is essentially a chemist by trade, but managed to channel it into her love for baking. She approaches everything very scientifically; recipes, ingredients, measurements, reactions of things to each other as well as to heat, cold, mixing, etc. But the end results are certainly worth the effort. The pictures alone are enough to motivate you to either start baking, or start driving toward the nearest Marie Callendar's.
Tonight is going to be yet another Saturday night dinner gathering. On days where I'm going to do fancy dinners like this, I find myself waking up with thoughts of what I'm going to prepare, and actually "arranging" it on the plates ... in my mind. Strange thoughts to wake up to, but it is what it is.
I'm going to cook a salmon dish that my good friend Chris passed along, and everyone loves it. It's a very simple brown sugar, cumin, cinnamon, and orange zest topping on salmon filets that have marinated for a couple hours in lemon and orange juice.
I thought I'd vary a vodka-cream sauce penne rigate that I've done in the past, maybe substituting a whole wheat pasta, and adding a sprinkle of a chiffonade-cut basil for a burst of flavor.
Simple salad, an interesting bread, and it looks like this will call for a good chardonnay ... maybe a Tobin James or a Lambert Bridge.
And I'm going to bake something. Not sure what yet, maybe just some simple brownies from scratch ... quite possibly with a scoop of French Vanilla on top, but I will bake.
Repeat after me ... I will make more desserts, I will make more desserts ...