Sunday, September 20, 2009

I'm just in it for the honey cake

I don't remember ever having honey cake for Rosh Hashanah when I was growing up or even round challah with raisins. In fact, I don't remember any culinary traditions associated with the high holidays except for, of course, apples and honey and pigging out during the break-fast after Yom Kippur. Once I had my own children and became part of the Jewish community where we lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, I became aware of the honey cake tradition as well as many other traditions I had either forgotten about or never really known about or understood. Being a lover of food and cooking, especially seasonal dishes, I was happy to latch onto the honey cake ritual. At the high holiday kid-friendly gatherings we attended in Charlottesville, I was introduced to the honey cake from Albemarle Baking Company, the royalty of bakeries in Charlottesville. My friends raved about it and there was nothing wrong with it, but I normally gush over Albemarle Baking Company, so I was disappointed, although to their credit I rarely stray from chocolate-less desserts.

This year, I decided to make my own honey cake. I wanted something traditional but with a twist. I didn't want anything meant to be low fat a la Cooking Light or anything too hippie-ish (like encrusted in sunflower seeds and sweetened with bark from maple trees). I posted a call for recipes on facebook and got the following three interesting suggestions:

1) an old-fashioned oatmeal honey cake from Cooking Light. I usually avoid desserts in Cooking Light because they seem to replace fat with excess sugar, which just turns into fat later and gives their desserts a overly-sugary taste. They also hack away at their fat levels with processed products like Cool Whip (I'd rather have the pure cream). This recipe does look decent, though, and I'm sure it's worth a try.

2) a recipe for Polish honey cake from Michael Symon of the Food Network (see, Michael Pollan, I told you some people get actual cooking recipes from the food network). This one looks fabulous and with the twist I was looking for, but it wasn't quite traditional enough and I didn't feel like dealing with making bread crumbs.

3) a recipe for classic honey cake. This one seemed too traditional and like it might be a bit dry.

Next, I found a recipe in the Food Bible, a.k.a., The Joy of Cooking, which looked pretty good and which I probably would have made had I not found exactly what I was looking for: a traditional honey cake with whiskey-soaked apples. This recipe came from another blog which took it from another blog which took it from a cookbook. I'm not sure what this proves except for maybe that in this era of food blogs for every three recipes posted there is one original recipe. Or something like that.

One thing the blogger forgets to tell the reader in this receipe is what to do with the apples once they've been soaked. My mother and I were frantic (well, Mary Levy-style frantic) as we searched through my cookbooks to see what other cooks do with their apple cakes. So, I made each cake a different way. In one, I nudged in the apple slices, arranging them over the top after the batter had been poured into the loaf pan. With the other, I stirred the apples into the batter before I poured it into the loaf pan. Each one turned out well, but the downside of placing the apples on top is that the cake doesn't cook as evenly. The downside of mixing them in is that the apples are not necessarily evenly distributed. I changed one other thing: I replaced the cup of strongly brewed coffee or black tea with a cherry-cinnamon herbal tea. Given all of the spices, I thought this might make the cake a bit lighter tasting and I thought the cherry flavor would complement the apples nicely. I also made some mini-cakes (in mini-bundt pans) for the kids with the leftover batter and plain apple slices.

Happy New Year, Happy Fall, or just, Happy Honey Cake Day. Enjoy.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Pardon me, would you have any Vrai Dim Sum?

Going out for dim sum on the occasional weekend morning was a tradition in my family growing up. Eventually, major events became excuses to go eat dim sum. That was a hard-won soccer tournament! Guess we better recoup with some dim sum. Someone got into college! Off to dim sum! Nowhere to go after Rosh Hashanah services? We'll have dim sum. Engaged? Let's give him the dim sum test. But when we started out, we always went with our family friends, the Eisensteins. In fact, Dave Eisenstein, an H.E.W. (Department of Health, Education, and Welfare) lawyer colleague of my father's, may have introduced my parents to the concept. In the D.C. area, where I grew up, the best international food is often found in the suburbs, which is not the case in many other cities where the international culinary paths go in the opposite direction, i.e., from the burbs to downtown. He led us to Tung Bor, which was located in Wheaton Plaza, in the Maryland suburbs.

On weekends my parents didn't rise before 11:00 a.m. and my friends were forbidden to phone our house before that time. The few that did call at the ungodly hour of 10:30 a.m. never dared to again after being sleepily admonished by my father. My mother, who's been known to say things like, "what's there to do in the morning?" didn't even hear the phone ring. Although it was a struggle, especially since my parents required that we dress in brunch-casual attire, we made an exception to our weekend habit for Tung Bor. My father would rouse my mother, sister, and I out of bed super early, which on a weekend meant by 10:00 a.m., so that we could get there just before it opened at 11:00 a.m., secure a spot in the front of the line, and avoid waiting for a table--they didn't take reservations.

Once inside the restaurant, the eight of us would be seated at a round table set aside for larger parties, usually one with a fence-like divider around it. The Eisensteins had two younger girls and with them, my older sister and I used to hang off of the railings and go, "Bang! bang!" at the waiters who would laugh and say "Bang! Bang!" back. But once the carts started rolling by and stopping at our table, we conserved our energy for eating all of the delicious rolls, dumplings, buns, and pastries that Tung Bor had to offer. The outrageous finale to our dim sum feasts did not involve fortune cookies, but a trip to the Dunkin' Donuts across the street from the Wheaton Plaza Mall. Initially my Dad would scoff at the idea of consuming more after our huge meal, protesting he couldn't eat another bite, but then would risk life and limb crossing one of those suburban parkways with Dave, returning with a half-eaten doughnut in hand.

When I lived in Brooklyn, New York, after graduating from college I didn't really have a consistent group of friends to go with (ah, the lonely years), and didn't go but once, so I can't speak to New York's dim sum scene, but I'm sure there are several places in Chinatown worth trying. By the time I moved back to D.C., Tung Bor had changed--changed locations and was buffet style. It had gone downhill, and was kind of depressing, reminding me of a cafeteria. The food wasn't fresh; there were no carts. I don't think it even exists any longer.

Following the recommendation of Yolanda Lee, a high school friend and fellow food lover whose family hails from Southern China and Hong Kong (where dim sum is a specialty), my parents and I tried a new place in the suburbs in Falls Church, Virginia, called Fortune Chinese Seafood Restaurant, which was fantastic, and had even more dishes, including vegetarian ones, and more seating than Tung Bor. Still, the experience didn't feel the same, and my parents seemed to lose enthusiasm for the tradition.

I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, soon thereafter with my Ph-D-seeking fiancee. Charlottesville is a great restaurant town, but there isn't any dim sum there--at least there wasn't when we were there. I thought I had an opening when I found out that one of my Chinese students worked in his family's Chinese restaurant in town (I was an E.S.O.L. teacher--English for Speakers of Other Languages--at the time). One day, I pulled him aside:

"Kevin, we need to talk. Your family is sitting on a gold mine, not to mention sitting on the future of my culinary happiness here."

"Ah, gold mine?"

"Dim sum, Kevin. You should have dim sum. Saturday and Sunday mornings, although it could just be Sundays to start with."

"You know what is dim sum, miss?"

"Yes, Kevin, I do. And Charlottesville doesn't have any."

"Ha ha, Miss Levy. Nobody in Charlottesville eat dim sum."

"I eat dim sum, Kevin, I do. Look, do you want to be the first person in your family to graduate from American high school or not? You tell your parents that if they want you to graduate, that they will produce dim sum. I'm not playing around anymore, Kevin." Kevin passed my class, but there was no dim sum.

Once Cedar finished his graduate studies in the spring 2007, when my own sons were soon to be four years old and my daughter was five months old, we moved to Oakland, California. Although Oakland was far from our friends and family on the East Coast, I saw the bounty of produce, food, and restaurants in the Bay Area as a major plus. I was especially excited to finally pass along my family's dim sum tradition to my own children.

We moved in July and by the end of August, I had researched all of the dim sum options in Oakland. We went to one that came highly recommended and that seemed authentic: Old Place Seafood Teahouse. I'd never been to an old place seafood teahouse before and I was so excited. We arrived and waited a while, which was not easy with our preschool-aged boys and infant daughter. Once we were seated, there were no high chairs and it was hard to get the boys to stop pulling on the plastic sheet covering the tablecloth. Then we couldn't get anyone to bring food to us. Either the carts went by without stopping, or they didn't have anything we wanted (we eat fish, but usually no pork, beef, or poultry). The servers didn't understand our questions, nor did they describe the dishes to us. What we did have was tasty, but we couldn't get much service and the kids were getting restless, so we left still hungry and disappointed. I had gone on and on to them about the carts and the magical food. I was crushed and gave up on dim sum for a while.

Then in October 2007, when my sister was visiting from New York, we decided to spend a day in San Francisco. I looked up stuff to do in one of our travel guides, Fun Places to Go with Children: Northern California by Elizabeth Pomada. One place the book recommended was Yank Sing. The blurb in the book led with, "The world's best dim sum is not in China town" and then expounded how fresh the food was, how possible it was to have a vegetarian or seafood-only meal, and how kid-friendly the place was. It sounded perfect and it was.

The drive over the Bay Bridge from Oakland was a blast for the kids, plus there is free parking on the weekends for Yank Sing customers in the Rincon Center garage. If public transportation is preferable, there is also a BART station (Embarcadero) right near Rincon Center, as well as a ferry to and from Alameda. We always made a reservation for before the rush started at about noon and left extra time for parking and checking-in. Otherwise, we'd have had to wait a long time for our table. Once we were seated, the carts were always full and always circulating--the food arrived as soon as we were ready for it. And it was SUPERB. The menu features traditional dishes such as pot stickers, several types of dumplings, spring rolls, shrimp toast, Peking duck, won tons, sesame balls, and egg custard tarts, but also more unusual items such as red cabbage salad with walnuts, delicately flavored sea bass, and coconut cream rolls. The vegetables were fresh and cooked just right--not overdone and not raw. The service was excellent. Water and tea were served and refilled promptly. When we couldn't find something we wanted on one of the carts, we just asked for it and out it came. The servers, even if they spoke limited English, were able to answer our questions about the food easily, and when they couldn't, they would smile and get someone who could.

The restaurant is bustling, so we didn't worry too much if the kids were a bit noisy. At the same time, it wasn't so loud that it drowned out conversation. Our kids loved the food so much that they spent most of their time eating. When they needed a break, they watched the carts go by and all of the surrounding action. If they needed to stretch their legs, we took them to Rincon Center's atrium to visit the famous rain fountain. Relative to what Oakland and San Francisco's Chinatowns offer, Yank Sing is pricey and it's not as authentic--it's almost corporate and we usually spend twenty to thirty dollars per person. But it's so kid-friendly and delicious that it's worth every penny.

Another former H.E.W. Civil Rights Division chum of my father's, Paul Grossman (I'm starting to wonder how much got done in that office with the employees so busy talking about Chinese food), a long-time Oakland resident and East Asian food afficioando, says that it's pretty hard to go wrong in Chinatown Oakland for dim sum, but that his favorite is Hong Kong East Ocean in Emeryville.

Once we moved to Ashland, Virignia, this past summer I started researching dim sum options in Richmond, which is about twelve miles from us down I-95. The consensus on Yelp! and other on-line food forums seemed to be that Full Khee was the best (and really, only) option for dim sum. So, I told the kids: I found dim sum! We were all very excited.

When when we pulled up, I was apprehensive. I saw that the sign was missing and the building looked abandoned and run down. But then I shooed away my concerns and reassured myself, it's just got that hole-in-the-wall-run-down charm. It's adventurous! Authentic! Out of the way! When we went in, by the kitchen I saw a duck strung up and also lobsters and shellfish in an aquarium. And most of the patrons looked Chinese. All good signs. But there were no carts. One review had said to get there early (before 11:00 a.m.) because otherwise we'd have to wait; it was practically empty. The again, it was a weekday. But then we had to order on a photocopy. Our waiter was impatient with us. Then I reassured myself, again, that rude waiter = tasty dive. We ordered two types of shrimp dumplings, spring rolls, sesame balls, turnip cakes, and a noodle and vegetables dish, and eagerly awaited the arrival of our feast.

Well, I'm sorry little, probably struggling, family-owned restaurant; I'm sorry to do this to you (don't worry, no one reads this blog and anyway no one eats dim sum around here anyway). I know you don't concern yourself with decor and I really respect that. I really wanted things between us to work out better. But with the exception of the sesame balls, your food was disgusting. It was crunchy and gritty in all the wrong places. There was this weird musty taste to the dumplings. It was awful--we couldn't even finish our meal. In fact, the only thing I could eat for the rest of the day was a cleansing plate of raw vegetables. I had to exorcise the taste and memory by going for a long run. The meal threw my sodium levels off so much that I thought I was going to require dialysis.

That was a major blow, but I have not yet lost hope and as I explained to my sons, we can't stay in the Bay Area just for Yank Sing (or for the strawberries or the avocados or the burritos or the bakeries), no matter how good it all is. We're back in Central Virginia to stay; I'm not leaving just because the dim sum is lousy. In the meantime, I can always head to D.C. to get my fix. My friend Yolanda is back on the case and recommends the following places:

1) Oriental East in Silver Spring, close to the D.C./Maryland border. It's very popular, so it's best to get there at 10:30 to line up for a table. They have dim sum on Saturdays and Sundays only.

2) Wong Gee in Wheaton. I actually went there with Yolanda that last time it was there and I thought it was excellent (and inexpensive, especially because Yolanda treated). It's very informal.

3) Mark's Duck House on Route 50 in Falls Church. This is one of Yolanda's parents' favorite places. It's authentic, but small and crowded, so get there early.

4) This is not from Yolanda, but my friend Julie treated me to Tong Cheng's in D.C.'s Chinatown to celebrate the impending birth of my third child. I thought it was pretty good, but then again, I was pregnant at the time and living in dim sum-less Charlottesville.

Enjoy! And if you've never had dim sum, remember, you're never too old or too young to try.