here's where @marycray talks about food in fits & starts

Display Cakes, By Wayne Thiebaud

A Lesson In The Precision Of Baking

When Blue Bottle Cafe owner and pastry chef Caitlin Williams Freeman put out a call on Facebook for a last round of recipe testers for her upcoming book, to be released April 2013, I answered. I had plenty of experience testing recipes, from all the SF Food Wars I’d competed in. But I have to confess two things working against me from the start: 1) no kitchen, and, 2) I’d baked exactly one cake in my life previous to this, which turned out lopsided. Still how many chances does one get to be a part of a cook book in the making, especially by Ms. Williams?

Caitlin wrote everyone an email saying that she would assign folks recipes. Along with two other recipe testers, I was assigned the Thiebaud Pink Cake. The Pink Cake was inspired by Wayne Thiebaud’s painting from 1963, Display Cakes (see above). The Pink Cake is the one on the far right, with the single raspberry atop. Despite what previous bloggers have published, The Pink Cake is a 4-layer strawberry butter cream cake (raspberry on top be damned), with lemon curd. It’s a mouth-watering, perfect celebratory summer cake.

Caitlin Williams Freeman is drawing crowds to the SFMOMA rooftop garden to sample her art-inspired treats at the Blue Bottle Coffee Bar. Freeman, formerly of S.F.’s famed Miette Patisserie, began to make the picture-perfect cakes in the spirit of an unfulfilled art project from her days as a photography student at UC Santa Cruz. “I was a Wayne Thiebaud fan and wanted to create a photo series of cakes, but couldn’t find any I liked,” she says. [Previously published on]

Caitlin assigned the recipe on a Friday, with the expectation of feedback by the following Tuesday. Plenty of time, right? Well, sort of… if you happened to have two (even one) 6″ x 3″ cake round, which I didn’t. And did I mention my kitchen was out of commission?

The state of my kitchen during test recipe weekend. No sink. No fridge. Stove not yet functional.

Lesson 1: Know  Your Environment

Fortunately, my sister was willing to lend me her kitchen. This was unforeseen mistake #1. Here’s why: it’s easier to test a recipe out when you know know your environment. It makes it  easier to focus your attention on the task at hand, and in this case that it was recipe-testing.

Lesson 2: Don’t Compromise On Equipment

I thought surely I could swing by Kamei, Cliff’s Variety Store, Williams-Sonoma, Sur La Table or somewhere…right? After about an hour of calling around town, I discovered that while it’s easy to find a 6″ x 3″ spring form pan, or a 6″ x 2″ cake form pan, a 6″ x 3″ cake round was hard to find at a traditional brick & mortar shop on a Saturday morning. I made my first compromise on this Pink Cake journey with the cake pans. I settled for two 6″ x 2″. Mistake #2. Do not compromise on equipment. Height matters on this cake, people.

Lesson 3: Don’t Assume

At this point, I want to let everyone know that the yield and instructions in the recipe were spot on. This mistake had nothing to do with the recipe, but with my misreading of the two different uses of simple syrup in the recipe (once on the layers and once in the icing). I hadn’t realized simple syrup was used in both components, because I’d assume the simple syrup called for in this cake recipe was for only one component of the recipe.

All the same, the cake was amazingly tasty – perfect balance of tart from the lemon curd, and light sweetness from the icing. In Part 2 of my recipe testing adventures, I’ll share photos of my second attempt of The Pink Cake, sans recipe of course — you’ll need to check out Caitlin’s book when it’s released in April!

My sister had a baby one week ago! I’m excited for her, and am helping her and her  husband as much as I can through cooking. My goal is to deliver a couple of meals a week.

Today I made lamb tagine in a slow cooker, a.k.a. crock pot. I’ve never used a crock pot until this morning (it’s actually my sister’s crock pot, but it’s an absolute must-have!). The recipe I improvised from was from the NYTimes. When I improvise, it’s usually because I’m out of something, or I prefer a certain technique than what the recipe calls for. Among many things, the original recipe called for lamb shoulder, boneless lamb stew meat, apricots and cumin. I ran into a couple of issues starting at the butcher’s: no bone-in lamb shoulder, and only 1 pound of lamb stew meat. Then, I couldn’t find dried apricots. Once I actually started cooking I realized I was out of cumin. So here is how I changed the recipe.

  • 3-1/2 pounds of lamb should blades
  • 1 pound of boneless lamb stew meat, in 2-inch chunks
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 2 large Spanish onions (yellow onions), peeled and quartered
  • 2 cinnamon sticks, each 2 inches long
  • Large pinch crumbled saffron
  • 1 cups fig compote/preserves
  • 1 cup cracked green olives, pitted and sliced if desired
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1/3 cup sliced almonds
  • Cooked couscous (I use Near East couscous), for serving
  • (optional) Chopped parsley or cilantro, for garnish.

1. Trim excess fat off lamb. Pat meat dry. Heat cast-iron pot medium-high. Brown meat on both sides (about 2-3 minutes each side). Remove from heat, then rub spices on the seared meat: garlic, salt, black pepper, paprika, ginger and coriander) and all over meat.

2. Place onions, cinnamon sticks and olives in  crock pot. Add fig compote/preserves to meat, and place atop the onions and olives.

3. Let cook for 4-1/2 hours in crock pot.

5. Tagine can be prepared 4 days ahead; chill, then remove fat and reheat before serving.

6. In a small skillet, melt butter. Add almonds and cook until well browned and toasted, about 2 minutes. Put couscous in a serving bowl and top with almonds and butter. Pile tagine in center of couscous and garnish with parsley or cilantro.

Yield: 6 servings.
The lamb was tender and falls of the bone. It’s really good. Next time, I will be sure to add cumin, and maybe add some cayenne pepper for a little heat. But since, my sis is nursing, I’m trying to avoid cooking spicy food in the short-term.

A friend of mine (@unicornteeth) has highly recommended The Flavor Bible. It’s on my list of things to check out. I need to add to my cooking library for sure.


Meanwhile,  I’m getting slightly bored with my go-to recipes when cooking at home. Below is a list of 25 flavor combinations that come to mind easily. What flavor combinations come easily to you?

  1. Blue cheese+honey+walnuts
  2. Lavender+lemon
  3. Peanut butter+ bananas
  4. Bacon+maple
  5. Bacon+tomatoes
  6. Mushrooms+butter+garlic
  7. Dill+salted butter
  8. Sour cream+pickles
  9. Coconut+lime
  10. Kale+sausage
  11. Poultry liver pate+blackberries
  12. Duck confit+ black cherries
  13. Pungent camembert+apples
  14. Chives+cream cheese
  15. Onions+celery+carrots
  16. Spinach+feta
  17. Garlic+ginger
  18. Lemongrass+ginger+garlic
  19. Cinnamon+Sugar
  20. Tomato+cheese
  21. Honey+butter
  22. Port+dark chocolate
  23. Sage+salt+butter
  24. Sesame oil+soy sauce+Sirancha
  25. Ginger+bourbon


This will be my first trip to Italy. Admittedly, the first Italian I’ve studied? Menu items. Tips from friends I will test out include: making reservations (even if same day, apparently it’s a respectful gesture), seeing the outdoor sites early in the day to avoid the heat (the Forum, Coliseum), seeing the churches early enough in the day since the close early afternoon, and saving tours of museums for later in the day (say, after a nap) to cool off.

Two weeks ago, I tried out the much-buzzed about Roman restaurant: Locanda in the Mission. I won’t be back. Really slow service, really expensive food which did not match the value. Immediately after going, I decided to give a go at a simple dish, an Italian equivalent of the comforting mac & cheese, called Cacio e Pepe. That roughly translates to “cheese and pepper”. It’s pasta water mixed with pecorino cheese and pepper. Simple ingredients, tricky to make well. I can’t wait to try this and Carbonera. I saw an episode of No Reservations, where Bourdain ate Cacio e Pepe out of a cheese bowl. Not sure if I’ll find that place in Rome, but I do hope to find something as delicious.

Here’s a recipe you can try at home for this dish, sans cheese bowl.

If making for two, I recommend 1 lb of fresh egg pasta. 1/4 cup of pasta water. 1/2 cup of percorino and 1-1/2 teaspoon of pepper.

Ciao for now. Will post when I return.

Here is the winning recipe for the pie Molly and I (a.k.a Team Peace o’ Pie) created for SF Food Wars 2011 Pie or Die competition. Note that I’m not at liberty to share the techniques behind the secret pie crust recipe. But I will list the ingredients: unsalted butter, water, salt, all purpose flour. We don’t use lard. I recommend using your favorite flaky 100% butter pie recipe.

Lemon Shaker Pie with a Sugary Dusting of Violet Petal Dust (photo by Lisa Boghosian)

Lemon Shaker Pie with a Sugary Dusting of Violet Petals & Zest

This pie has a double crust (top and bottom). Before you lay your top crust atop the pie, be sure to cut out 4 vents (narrow long slits).

Pre-heat oven to 400-degrees.

Ingredients (filling):

  • 3 lemons
  • 1-1/2 cups of sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon of cinnamon
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/3 cup of flour
  • 2 tablespoons of softened butter
  • 1/3 cups of water
  • 1/3 cup of lemon juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon of salt
  1. Line a pie pan with your favorite all butter pie dough (again, apologies, but Peace o’ Pie’s dough recipe is a closely guarded secret).  Prepare another pie dough round for the top and pre-cut 4 vents for steam to escape.
  2. Zest the 3 lemons and set aside.
  3. Remove peel and white pith from one lemon, section and set the lemon sections aside.
  4. In a large bowl whisk together the flour, sugar cinnamon and salt. Add the water/lemon juice combo, and eggs. Whisk in the lemon zest and lemon sections. Stir in softened butter.
  5. Pour mixture into a pastry lined pie pan. Lightly brush the outside edges of the bottom crust with egg wash. Place the other dough round on top and seal the edges. Create a nice flute all along the outside edge. Brush the top and out side fluted edge of the crust with egg wash. You really want to make sure your edges are sealed. You don’t want a leaky pie!
  6. Lightly sprinkle the top of the pie with about a teaspoon of sugar.
  7. Back directly on the oven rack for 45 minutes. If you are concerned about spills, place a piece of foil or baking sheet on the rack below.  Metal pie pans are best.
  8. Once the pie has cooled completely, sprinkle sugary petal dust and more lemon zest on top and serve!
Ah…but what about the sugary violet petal dust? Read on…
Sugary Violet Petal Dust (Makes 1 cup)
  • 1/2 teaspoon of African Violet Petal Dust (find this at cake specialty or candy making shops). A little goes a long way!
  • 1 cup of granulated sugar
  • Zest from four lemons
  1. Mix together and spread on parchment lined cookie sheet.
  2. Let dry for 24 hours (zest needs to dry out a bit).
  3. Keep in sealed container.

Tonight I stopped by Pica Pica on Valencia and tasted their coconut lime slushy. I immediately wanted to make a pie out of that taste. It had that Coco Lopez smooth — slighty waxy — finish, with the island sweetness of the coconut cream and subtle acidity of lime. Perfectly refreshing on a ‘hot’ day that lingered in  70’s  in San Francisco.

I texted my pal Lisa of  I.E. Ice Cream suggesting she try that as an ice cream flavor. On the verge of obsessing on coconut-lime, I started to dig around for the origins of the coconut and lime duo. That’s when I discovered Dum Dum Flavor History. Remember Dum Dums? Those skinny little pops that weaseled their way into your Halloween bag every year between the KitKats, Snickers, candy corn and Unicef pennies? The only flavor I can clearly remember enjoying (or ending up with) is cream soda.

The flavor history of Dum Dums is fascinating because it’s actually documented for us (Note: being here in California, I had to see if Jelly Belly had an equivalent timeline. They don’t). From 1924 (when the company was founded) to 1955, the company added flavors. Then from 1960-2000 began the intense experimentation, like adding butterscotch and watermelon, and “dropping” of flavors like raspberry, chocolate and black cherry. For the past 10 years, Dum Dum has been on a more promotional kick with their “mystery” flavors and putting some flavors on “vacation” rather than dropping thDum Dum Lollipopsem. I’d say one flavor I’m glad I never experienced was buttered popcorn. That debuted in 2000 and was dropped, er, put on vacation the following year, when Sour Apple made a comeback.

If Dum Dum came out with a coconut-lime pop, I’d love to try. Well really, I’d like Lisa to make coconut-lime ice cream for me.

Six experimental pies and one month since we started prepping for SF Food Wars, Team Peace o’ Pie has taken home the Judges’ 1st place and the People’s Honorable mention.

A Twist on Shaker Lemon Pie

A Twist on Shaker Lemon Pie -- Team Peace o' Pie

What makes this sweeter than ever is that we bested our last year’s place (Judges’ 2nd).

I mentioned before what participating in an SF Food Wars is like for me (“”To me, SF Food Wars is much like Fernet: at first, a little voice in my head says, “Hell yes, let’s do this,” both make me giddy and willing to talk to strangers, and finally, both leave me feeling hung-over, wondering, “What was I thinking?””).

This year was different for several reasons:

  1. Experimentation: We baked 6 pies and experimented every which way with filling, toppings, levels of sugar in the crust, number of pies in oven, number of slits in the top crust, etc.
  2. Mindful spending: We tried to calculate costs carefully so that we could at least break-even provided we placed. We also were mindful of how we spent our time. Do we bother with little design details like adding “vote for us” tags on each slice? We considered it, but really it wasn’t worth the time to us. We knew up front how much energy we were willing to exert in order to maintain a sense of fun (even if we ‘lost’).
  3. Planning: We budgeted our time, measurements and baking cycles so we had enough time to drop-off items at the event, park, set-up and serve.
  4. Prep-work: We did as much in stages as possible, setting aside about eight hours the day before to prep and bake.
  5. Location: This we had no control over. But happily, it was a sunny day in front of the Ferry Building. This added to the cheery attitude of everyone, really. Even better, we were able to wear short-sleeved dresses without a goose bump in sight.
Things that stay the same at SF Food Wars: meeting new people, like the delightful @thetomatotart and her crew of gals (
I was asked by friends if we’ll compete the next time around. My answer: not sure. Feels kind of good to end on a high note.

Mary (left) and Molly (right)

[P.S. The lovely Angela Rosoff from SF Baking Examiner was the first to report back about this about the competition.  ] Here are her photos.


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