Friday, June 28, 2013

Field Trip LA! - great coffee in Venice

series of posts from visiting interesting little (and large) cafes, food-related establishments and other places of inspiration.

From brewed coffee at the doughnut shop to artisan coffee in hipster central. On our way back to Santa Monica we stopped at a popular coffee shop in Venice - Intelligentsia. My friend had wanted to go for a while but the weekend line outside that had piqued her interest also seemed too much trouble to wait in with a baby. Today however we were in luck!

The queue outside the shop turns out to be a bit of a product of the space design - the company want each person to have an individual experience of ordering their coffee, and so everyone waits in the corridor until a barrista becomes free, hence frequent lines.

Look at all those MacBooks!

Once inside the converted industrial shop space you are served by mustachioed and waistcoated baristas who work behind an encircling counter of glass, wood and metal that takes up most of the shop floor.

The effect was a little steampunky, particularly with the re-purposed lighting equipment sticking up here and there. The flat caps and bow-ties had me feeling a little embarrassed on their behalf, but I think they didn't mind. Perhaps the uniform choice is a play on the name, and they were gents? Perhaps this is just how people in Venice dress. Either way, the coffee was excellent! ("And what makes excellent coffee?" I hear you ask...)

Latte art lesson in progress

What's particularly interesting about this company that has shops in Chicago (the first, 1995), New York and LA is that they not only roast their own blends but also work with growers and millers to develop their own direct trade coffees.

The growers are paid more than fair trade rates, directly, and Intelligentsia get to develop the best product they can with them, or as they more artfully state - "continuously expand(ing) economic opportunity and culinary possibility." I like an idea of a positive feedback loop built into a business model, I hope it continues to work for them.

A beautician's lens used as a lamp

Not a bakery or cafe but an honourable mention. Next door to Intelligentsia coffee more or less is a shop called Bountiful Home with perhaps the most cake stands you'll ever see in one place.

Stacked to the ceiling on every surface were what I thought were ceramic stands and glass domes of many shapes and sizes. The lady at the counter informed us that they are all glass, and that the green part is milk glass. They had a couple of different colours but mainly the striking pale green, which is the same shade as the 1940s jadeite items produced by Fire King (though these are new and not branded as Fire King).

1940s style jade-ite salt and pepper pots

As a souvenir from the trip I got a medium-sized found cake stand that fits a 9 inch cake. The airplane boxes they made up for me ensured, somehow, that the fragile glass dome survived the trip to Japan. I wonder how long it'll survive with use... very delicate!

Didn't get, but wouldn't this be great for Battenberg?


Wait, don't go away yet, look what I found - Identity Coffeebar+gallery. A small coffee bar in Harajuku, branded as Intelligentsia. Now you can try Intelligentsia's direct trade coffee and buy the beans in Tokyo. (The staff at Identity did not wear steampunk uniforms, but were very friendly ;) )

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Field Trip LA! - musings on 3 types of bakery

series of posts from visiting interesting little (and large) cafes, food-related establishments and other places of inspiration.

A world away from Bezian's stall and sourdough, while I was nearby Riverside we happened upon the shop of the winner of the Food Network's Cupcake Wars show, Casey's Cupcakes. This was an extremely pink and candy-striped store.

Despite what one might read online, cupcakes seem to be alive and well on the high street in California at least, when we arrived there was a line outside the door.

I am not interested in running a purely cupcake-based business, though I sometimes think it would be a smarter move than a more diversified business. With sponge bases and frostings you could switch up the flavourings and decorations and have a simplified supply model for ingredients and packaging, as well as regular processes to perfect. A little easier than the logistics of doing various pies, bread and cakes anyway.. hmm. Well, perhaps it would be easier to make money, but I wouldn't be doing this for the money, I have to also enjoy it. :)

A little more up my street (and not only because they were giving away mini chicken empanadas at the door, honest!) was Porto's, a Cuban bakery we visited in Downey. This is a huge bakery with two vast banks of counters filled with savoury pastries, croquettes, sandwiches, fresh cake slices and whole cakes.

It was my friend's birthday that day so we wanted to pick up a treat. After being tempted by the idea of getting a selection of slices to try a few different types of cake we plumped for a whole mango cheesecake. There is something special about having a full round of cake to cut and share at a celebration. They wrote 'Happy Birthday' in beautiful script, that's one thing I'm definitely going to need to practice...

My trip to the US would not have been complete without a visit to a doughnut (sorry, donut) shop! We tried donuts with peanut glaze and one filled with jam. It struck me again, looking at the huge amount of choice, that, like the cupcake shop, the basic recipe and processes are the same for many of the products and the impression of diversity and choice given largely through how they are decorated or through adjustments to the base recipe.

This chain was crammed both front and back. This sneaky photo of the back room shows the packs of sugar and buckets of super speedee glaze (pdf). The glaze is made of sugar and maltodextrin which is a common artificial sweetener and filler. I wonder if it's being used to make the sugar go further, or to reduce calorie content in the finished product?

Huge choice of brewed coffee too

Doughnut alternatives at the till

One other place I would have loved to visit while in LA was the La Brea bakery, started in 1989 on South La Brea Avenue by Nancy Silverton. It became an iconic bakery, home of sourdough and is now a huge business supplying part-baked breads to businesses all over California. I gather that the bakery has reopened nearby the original location this year. Unfortunately my schedule didn't allow for it this visit, so we’ll just have to go back :)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Field Trip LA! - Bezian bakery stall

series of posts from visiting interesting little (and large) cafes, food-related establishments and other places of inspiration.

Next up, the baking bits of my LA trip. Starting off at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market which was just around the corner from our hotel, I sought out the Bezian Bakery sourdough bread stand. I had come across a few very enthusiastic articles on Bezian bread a little while ago as well as noting the wildly varied warnings and endorsements on Bezian's Yelp listing, and so I was interested to try the bread for myself and see what a sourdough that generates this much love and hate tastes like.

Like many people I'm resistant to evangelism (video of Jack explaining his opinions) and the harder someone tries to convince me of a particular message the more skeptical I feel I become. So I wasn't sure what to make of all the emphatic and underlined statements on placards around the stall such as "most people who have a wheat intolerance do well with our 'well bred' bread" and "Plant protein damages your intestines meaning the more you eat the sooner you're dead". What was clear is that Bezian is keenly dedicated to his cause and has a lot of information to share - he's there to talk to at the stall. Whether you agree with what he says is up to you.

I bought a plain sourdough boule and a multi-grain sourdough. The first thing I noticed was how soft the crust is for a sourdough, they are also all quite pale and none of the loaves had expanded much along the slashes in the oven. I'm guessing the lack of oven spring and paleness is a product of the very long fermentation that Bezian Bakery say they use in order to get the nutritional results they are after, and I'm guessing from the soft crust and colour that the oven temperature might be lower than most bakeries use. They were much easier to slice than other sourdoughs I've had (not so chewy - again possibly to do with the long fermentation breaking down the gluten more than other sourdoughs), and were markedly sour in taste and fragrance.

That evening we did a little taste test with the two Bezian sours and a french stick, and if I'm honest I found I do prefer a crustier loaf - though to be fair it does appear that his priority in making the bread is more about health as opposed to taste. It did also occur to me that my conflicted feelings about the various messages behind the bread may have spoiled my chances of enjoying it with a clear head!

I packed up the rest of the loaves to try them again back in Japan but unfortunately they went moldy quickly in the Tokyo humidity and so we didn't get a second try. Hopefully we'll get another chance to try his breads and work out how we feel about it all a bit more fully.

Apparently it's possible that Bezian Bakery will lose their spot at the Santa Monica market shortly, but with such an enthusiastic following I'm sure there will continue to be a way to get his bread.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Field Trip LA! - The Museum of Jurassic Technology

series of posts from visiting interesting little (and large) cafes, food-related establishments and other places of inspiration.

Following on from the post about the hotel we stayed at, another place that felt like it was from a different time and place was a museum not too far away from Santa Monica in Culver City - The Museum of Jurassic Technology. A tip-off from a learned friend, I'll admit my first thought was along the lines of 'Dinosaurs didn't have technology..' but trusting my friend would know better, and after a skim of their abstruse and intriguing website, I decided it must be worth a visit. I'm so glad I went.

Spotted from across the street after a little hunting near a park with those beautiful purple flowering trees I saw everywhere in LA, we thought it must be closed. No windows, no lights or signs flashing "open", just a fountain and a big heavy door. We pushed... and stepped into the darkness. Eyes adjusting from the bright Californian sun outside (what theatre!) we discerned the reception desk and confessed to not knowing much about where we were.

Having a hungry, not-yet 1 year old infant in tow, we were kindly directed to the "tea room and courtyard" at the top of the building. Navigating a dark pathway past mysterious exhibits in glass cabinets, paintings and projections, we emerged at the top of the building, again into brightness, into a magical roof garden of cornices and ferns, doves, a reflecting pool, lamps and flowers.

Rooftop hanging garden

Sunlight streamed into the Persian style garden around banners of white fabric as one person was reading quietly and another was playing a nyckelharpa.

As with the garden, with the baby now fed we discovered that the rest of the museum is an evident labour of love. Founded in 1988 by David (the above nyckelharpist, we later learned!) and Diana Wilson and evolving since, it felt like a strange mix of science, art, literature and superstition. There is an exhibit on the Soviet dogs who were sent into space, along with an interactive sniffable Proust vitrine, a couple of rooms about cat's cradles and instruction on how to tell the temper of a person from a strand of their hair.

The slideshow at the entrance (which we listened to last, of course) reminds us that "in its original sense, the term, "museum" meant "a spot dedicated to the Muses, a place where man's mind could attain a mood of aloofness above everyday affairs." This is a museum that encourages engaged wonder and skepticism, even about the business of being a museum itself, as opposed to a more passive reception of dogma. It won't tell you what to think - the only things you are told explicitly are where you can enjoy the refreshments provided, and not to take photos (the moment I realised this I put away my camera!).

Wholly civilised guidance

Many exhibits were participatory with buttons to press and moving parts, projections that started up at intervals, their sound layering, and lots of bending forward to look into viewing screens or microscopes. One simple presentation choice I particularly liked was the listening stations. These were a couple of black corded phone receivers hung next to various exhibits in the dimness. When you put one to your ear to listen to more about a display, it became an intimate experience that felt like listening to a person speaking directly to you. The voice was hushed, calmly but keenly relating information like a speech-based radio presenter. Quite a different experience to the usual one of walking around a white cube gallery with an ear piece.

Coming through this museum in the 'proper' way then, via a long trail of discovery through the labyrinthine exhibition rooms, reaching the dazzling garden on the roof must feel particularly transcendent. I imagine that each visitor will come away with an experience unique to them and will form their own narrative about the museum, and this was mine. For a more detailed take, have a look at this post or try this frustratedly baffled article ("The exhibit is untitled. There is no explanatory text.") from the LA Times. :)

I look forward to returning, to delight in more of the curiosities it holds and to be “guided along, as it were, a chain of flowers into the mysteries of life” (Charles Willson Peale, from the museum's introduction and background)

Friday, June 21, 2013

Field Trip LA! - The Georgian Hotel

series of posts from visiting interesting little (and large) cafes, food-related establishments and other places of inspiration.

This month we visited Los Angeles, a first for me. It's always invigorating being away from home and noticing things freshly as only visitors tend to do. I'm planning to write a couple of posts based on things I came across during the trip including a wonderful farmers market, two or three bakeriescafes and some musings from visiting a couple of special spaces - which is where we'll start.

When not staying with friends in Riverside, our base was in Santa Monica. We chose to stay at The Georgian Hotel, uniquely done up in aquamarine paint and deck-chair striped awnings and just across the road from the beach. I couldn't quite be sure from photographs online whether it would work or be gaudily hideous but the effect was quite elegant in real life.

I loved even the more kitschy flourishes like the saber-tooth tiger head mouldings above the entrance, with gold teeth. I later read that the said beasts roamed the plains of what became Southern California 10,000-40,000 years ago and enjoyed the decorations more.

Check out those gnashers!
The Georgian is a short walk from a big shopping street called 3rd Street Promenade, which we wandered along on our first evening somewhat dazed from the long flight just as it was in full Saturday night swing with buskers every few metres. Wednesday and Saturday mornings an amazing farmers market opens also nearby, and it's also a short walk to the pier with its rides and restaurants.

The hotel was built in the 1930's before Santa Monica was very developed and served as a bit of a hideaway from Hollywood attracting the likes of Clark Gable and Carol Lombard. According to the notice near the lift, the property was refurbished in the 1960's as a set of upscale long-term apartments, and more recently returned to life as a hotel in 2000.

Not that the notice near the lift or the hotel information book (which I devour eagerly upon closing the door for the first time and flopping onto the bed at any hotel I stay, I'm not very classy) tells you, but there is a real prohibition-era speakeasy under the hotel! Well, it's not an operational bar any more, but it still looks the part with all the leather booths and someone can take you down to see it if you ask nicely.

AND, as if that isn't enough, the speakeasy is "haunted." :) We didn't witness any visitations during our quick peek, but the dim lights and slightly damp smell juxtaposed with a somewhat of a threadbare boardroom vibe made for an unusual atmosphere. :) I wonder what it would be like with music and people down there for a party?

Away from the speakeasy, through the low basement corridor and back upstairs then you're at the lobby and the entrance-way which is surrounded by a veranda restaurant where you can look across to the sea and enjoy the sunset with a cocktail (they have a prohibition cocktail menu - I liked the French 75). Nice place to be.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Fibonacci cake, a golden ratio Battenberg. Challenge accepted!

While honing my Battenberg neatening skills recently, my partner declared that I *must* turn the Battenberg into a golden ratio cake. Indeed, a Battenberg isn't quite fiddly enough ;)

The Fibonacci sequence is where each number is the sum of the previous two numbers, that is: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55 and so on. Examples of the golden spiral are found in nature and can be incredibly beautiful.

To quote a particularly alliterative Melvyn Bragg from his In Our Time programme on the topic
"The Fibonacci sequence is found to appear time and time again among the structures of the natural world, and even in the products of human culture. From the parthenon to pine cones, from the petals on a sunflower to the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, the sequence appears to be written into the world around us".

Tasty maths!

There are quite a few cakes online that depict the famous Fibonacci sequence, and it’s quite interesting to see how different people have approached it. There is also this cute Mondrian cake which looks a little like a Battenberg variation, and this pretty amazing Rubik's Battenberg but I’ve yet to find a Fibonacci Battenberg exactly. Hmm would it be a Battenacci, or a Fibonberg..?

I decided I wanted it to be recognisable first and foremost as a Battenberg, and that part of the fun would be revealing the inherent mathematical layer of beauty of the thing through the decoration. 5cm square cross-section is about as big as my cake tins could take me, and it works out nicely as a slightly diminutive slice of Battenberg, where 8cm would start to become a bit of a monster cake. With an inability to work with infinitely smaller planks of cake that the making of a true golden spiral might require, I decided to start with 1cm square units and work up from there.

All right then, are we ready?

Fibonacci Battenberg recipe - yields 2 cakes

Equipment you’ll need:
  • A cake cutter, and/or long knife
  • A clean ruler or tape measure
  • Cocktail sticks/skewers to mark the cake
  • 1 or 2 20cm square cake tins that are at least 5cm deep
  • Rolling pin
  • Pastry brush
  • Baking parchment and plastic wrap
  • About 3 hours..
  • A maths nerd to present the cakes to

Trusty equipment and colouring. I used pink gel, but a little red also works

Ingredients for the taller yellow sponge:
  • 350g very soft butter
  • 350g caster sugar
  • 330g flour
  • 20g/5tsp baking powder
  • 0.5tsp salt
  • 6 eggs
  • 0.5 tsp vanilla extract

Ingredients for the pink sponge:
  • 175g very soft butter
  • 175g caster sugar
  • 165g flour
  • 10g/2.5tsp baking powder
  • 0.25 tsp salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 0.5 tsp vanilla extract
  • 0.5 tsp almond extract
  • A little red or pink food colouring

Additional ingredients:

The yellow sponge will come right up to the top of the tin when baked

  1. Grease and line the cake tin(s) with baking parchment. Preheat the oven to 160°C.
  2. Make the yellow sponge. - Sift the yellow sponge's amount of flour, baking powder and salt into a very large bowl and mix well.
  3. Add the soft butter, sugar, vanilla essence and eggs all into the same bowl and whisk together until just combined. (If you're using a stand mixer however, it's best to sift the dry ingredients on top of the wet ingredients to avoid a layer of flour at the bottom of the mix. Mix on the lowest speed.)
  4. Scrape the mixture into a prepared tin, spreading to the corners and bake for about 1 hour, reducing temperature part way if it browns quickly.
  5. Repeat steps 2-4 for with the pink sponge ingredients and bake for 25-30 minutes. (If you're reusing the same tin, cool it down with some cold water before using it again.)
  6. While the sponges are baking, make the marzipan if you're making your own. 
  7. With the two squares of sponge out of their tins and completely cool, cut off the browned tops of the cake and any sloping edge pieces. You want your yellow cake to be 5cm high, and the pink cake to be 3cm high. (Tip – if this is tricky, then chill or partially freeze the sponge and it will be easier to cut straight lines. Also, save the cuttings to crumble up with frosting to make cake pops.)
  8. Use a toothpick to make indents at the top and bottom edge of the sponge to mark out the following long rectangular blocks and cut them carefully from the main block. 
    • From your yellow sponge: cut two 5cm-wide strips, creating planks of sponge that are 5cm square in cross-section. Also cut 2, 2cm square planks and 2, 1cm square delicate strips. When maneuvering the delicate strips, guard against breakage by rolling them sideways onto something like a long blade rather than picking them up by their ends.
    • From your pink sponge: cut 2, 3cm square planks and 2, 1cm square delicate strips. 

Being a bit punctilious helps ;)

The order I used to stack the cake (you'll be doing it with jam)

Assemble the cake:
  1. Roll out the marzipan to at least 25cm x 30cm. If it’s sticky, roll it between two sheets of plastic wrap, peeling the top layer off when you’re ready to wrap the cake. 
  2. Heat the jam and paint sides of all the sponge strips, glueing them together with the jam as you stack them into a golden ratio rectangle (see the order I used above, but use what works for you). It will be slightly less sticky if you avoid painting the outside faces of the planks until you’re ready to wrap the thing, but it’s not a terrible problem if you paint a side too early as they will all need jamming up in the end. Working on baking parchment will also make it easier to move it to the marzipan later.
  3. Position the whole sticky block of planks onto the center of the marzipan, upside down - you want the marzipan seam to end up on the bottom.
  4. Paint the top with lots of jam and fold up the sides of the marzipan up to make a join on the top. Trim any large excess and smooth over the join.

Roll out about a 25cm x 30cm sheet of marzipan

Ooh yeah! We're jammin', jammin' (Sorry ;) )

Use the plastic wrap to help if your marzipan is at all thin or sticky

  1. To finish, turn the cake the right way up and give the marzipan a final squeeze to make sure it’s all nicely stuck to the jam. With a sharp knife, cut off a thin slice from each end of the log to reveal a neat presentation of the cross-section form each end. 
  2. Decorate the marzipan if you wish, by making indentations with a fork, pinching the edges to make a ruffle and/or demarcating portion sizes on top. Sprinkle with icing sugar if you like.
  3. Present slices of your masterpiece with mathematically almost-accurate golden ratio swirls of melted chocolate, jam, whipped cream, a rope of marzipan or something else that takes your fancy. Or even better, provide the tools to let your guest create the beautiful spiral themselves.

Otsukaresama deshita :)

Battenberg recipes referenced


- I chose to use an all-in-one mixing method rather than creaming the butter and sugar together first, as it should result in a flatter top and it’s quicker so will save a little time in this fiddly project.

- Another time saver would be to mix up all 9-eggs worth of batter in a large stand mixer and estimate 2 thirds of it for the yellow sponge before colouring the remainder.

- A final option would be to make just one fibonacci cake by making up just one 6-egg batch of sponge, and dividing your baking tin in two with a folded piece of parchment (see here for how) and being very careful when you’re pouring in the batter. Pour half in one side of the tin, then colour the remaining half and pour it in the other half. You'd just need one of each 'plank' size in that case. This is a bit fiddly, and since Battenberg freezes well I decided to make it a bit easier on myself and just made two.

A mathematically inelegant remainder...