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But then

I can’t believe we haven’t talked about berry cobbler yet. August 27, and we haven’t talked about berry cobbler. I’ve got to fix that.

For a long time, I didn’t get terribly excited about cobbler. I think you’re either a cobbler person or a crisp person, the same way that you’re either a cake person or a pie person. My mother is a crisp person, and that’s what I grew up eating. I can be swayed by crumbles as well, mostly because they’re often indistinguishable from crisps, and also because crumble is such a nice word for a dessert. It sounds exactly like it tastes. (On a side note: did you know that French speakers pronounce it crum-bell? It’s awesome. I’m pretty sure Crum Bell is related to Tinker Bell, only she dresses a lot frumpier.) But more generally, in the matter of cobbler versus crisp, I lean consistently in the direction of crisp. It’s hard to beat anything involving streusel.

But then.

I met my friend Hannah a few years ago, and one day not long after, one completely normal day that was not even remotely near my birthday or any other holiday or special occasion, she gave me a copy of Chez Panisse Desserts. It was a first-edition copy, no less, a hardcover with the original Wayne Thiebaud jacket! I still feel a little faint when I think about it. Hannah didn’t know this at the time, but I had learned about Wayne Thiebaud in high school, and I loved his work so much that I bought a Wayne Thiebaud calendar and a Wayne Thiebaud day planner and spent most of a semester attempting to imitate him, outlining the objects in my paintings with thick, brightly colored strokes, and as a result, making a lot of regrettable artwork that now resides in a landfill somewhere. I loved Wayne Thiebaud. I loved this cookbook.

It had been her grandmother’s, Hannah told me. When Hannah was a kid, she used to spend weekends at her grandmother’s house. Sometimes she would try on her grandmother’s jewelry, and sometimes they would sit on the couch together, Hannah’s head on her grandmother’s lap, watching Julia Child, or Doctor Who, or golf. Hannah tells me that her grandmother would scratch her back as long as she wanted without ever complaining, which, as everybody knows, is the universal sign of a first-rate person. Sometimes the two of them would cook together. Hannah’s grandmother would stand her up at the kitchen counter on an upturned two-gallon bucket and let her help to measure, pour, and stir. Her grandmother had a huge collection of cookbooks, and I think Hannah would like me to put special emphasis on the adjective huge. It was huuuuuge. A few years ago, her grandmother began getting rid of some of her possessions, making her life a little smaller, and she told Hannah that she should take some of the cookbooks. Hannah went through the titles and, naturally, took home a stack of Julia Child books. She also spotted Chez Panisse Desserts, and she thought I might be able to do some good with it. So she took it home, and then she gave it to me. I keep it on the shelf next to the stove, and whenever I see it, I think of Hannah’s grandmother. I will probably never meet her, but I like to think that we know each other now somehow, that we’re connected in some small way. I wonder if she is a cobbler person or a crisp person.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a surplus of berries lying around and felt like baking. I pulled out Chez Panisse Desserts. I opened it up to the berry chapter, and the first recipe was for a simple cobbler. I guess I could have kept looking, poking around for a crisp or a cake or something else, but this cobbler sounded right. It sounded honest, not at all flashy, just a biscuit-like dough enriched with butter and cream, baked over sugared berries. There were no unusual flavorings or spices or flours or grains. I liked that. I liked that it was confident in its simplicity. So I tried it.

I know there are a million recipes out there for cobbler, and that what the world probably wants is some kind of new and different spin on the concept, but that’s not what this recipe is about. It doesn’t reinvent anything, and it’s not going to tie your shoes for you. That’s not what it’s meant to do. It’s meant to be an excellent cobbler, and it is. The topping is both light and rich, the way a good biscuit should be, and the fruit is only gently sweetened, its juices barely bound up with a spoonful of flour. It gets everything right. You could serve it warm with a splash of cold cream, or you could eat it warm with nothing, and the next day, you can stand at the counter and eat it from the pan, the way I did. In return, it made a cobbler person of me.


Quick housekeeping:
This Tuesday night, August 31, we’re cooking a "family dinner" at Delancey. It’s a multi-course, family-style, prix-fixe meal with matching wines, and there are still a few seats left! You can find more information and buy a ticket at Brown Paper Tickets. We’d love to cook for you.


Berry Cobbler
Adapted from Chez Panisse Desserts, by Lindsey R. Shere

Lindsey Shere was Chez Panisse’s original pastry chef, and I love her style. She approaches even the simplest desserts with elegance and great precision. This cobbler is a good example of that.

The original version of this recipe calls for boysenberries, blueberries, and raspberries. I make it with roughly 3 cups of blueberries and 1½ cups of raspberries, and I love the flavor that results. I think I’ll be sticking with that combination for a while, although I might be tempted to work in some blackberries. The only berries that don’t work so nicely here are strawberries. The texture gets weird: spongy and slimy, a little reminiscent of a jellyfish. Oh, and if you’re using frozen berries, I recommend thawing them at least partially, or else they take a little longer to cook.

For fruit:
4½ cups berries of your choice, fresh or frozen
1/3 cup sugar
1 to 1½ Tbsp. all-purpose flour

For cobbler dough:
1½ cups all-purpose flour
3/8 tsp. table salt
1½ Tbsp. sugar
2¼ tsp. baking powder
6 Tbsp. cold unsalted butter
¾ cup whipping cream

Preheat the oven to 375°F.

Toss the berries with the sugar and flour. Use the larger amount of flour if the berries are very juicy. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the dry ingredients for the cobbler dough. Using your fingers or a pastry blender, cut in the butter until the mixture looks like coarse cornmeal. Add the cream and mix lightly, until the dry ingredients are just moistened. [You can prepare the dry ingredients and butter up to a few days ahead, storing it in the refrigerator. The cream should not be added until you’re ready to bake.]

Put the berry mixture into a 1½-quart baking dish. Scoop up lumps of dough and form into rough patties, 2 to 2½ inches in diameter and about ½ inch thick. I find that the dough is a little sticky, so it helps to moisten my hands with a little water. Arrange the dough patties on top of the berries. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the topping is set and lightly browned and the berry juices bubble thickly around the edges of the dish.

Serve warm, with cream to pour over.

Note: This cobbler keeps well at room temperature for about two days. (I don’t like to refrigerate it, because the texture of the topping changes.) Rewarm it gently, if you want, before serving.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings


August 12

Delancey is one year old today.

I took that picture, the one above, 16 months ago. Brandon had bought a 30-quart Hobart mixer a few months earlier, and we’d been storing it in our friend Carla’s basement. Our friend Sam named it Sir Mix-a-Lot. That morning, the morning that I took the picture, we had rented a big truck, wrestled Sir Mix-a-Lot into the back, strapped him in, and hauled him to the restaurant. The thing was so heavy, such a mess to move, and I had no idea how to operate it, and I was excited and intimidated and borderline terrified, and mostly, more than anything, I had no clue how we were ever going to get this restaurant open.

There were so many details to tend to.

An oven to build. Concrete tabletops to mix.

A mop sink to install, a paint color to choose.

We were lucky to have a lot of people, friends and mentors and cousins and siblings and parents, to help us.

Carla taught Brandon how to use a wood-burning oven. My brother David taught us how to write a business plan. My cousin Katie and her colleague Pantea worked remotely, all the way from San Francisco, to design the restaurant. Renee and Susan at Boat Street Cafe and Kitchen let me observe their kitchen during service hours, so that we could decide how to run our own. Ben helped us move the 3600-pound oven into place, and on the day of a big inspection, he came over in overalls at 8 am, ready to clean. Mohini polished the light fixtures in the dining room. Viv rolled up her sleeves and scrubbed out the reach-in fridge. Sam built our website, kept us company, helped Brandon move (and break) the concrete top of the bar, and gave us much-needed moral support. Matthew and Laurie cleaned the chairs we bought from the old Sunset Bowl. Shauna and Danny brought Lucy and came to cheer us on. Tara braved our test pizzas, and later, at a work party, scraped paint splatters and old tape from the front windows. Ashley and Gabe scrubbed the rust from the shelves of the used fridge we bought. Keaton came over with a shop vac and got rid of everything that the broom left behind. Rebecca taught us to how to lay tile, and she and Heidi painted the baseboards and walls. Jimmy scraped the glue from the metal slats on the bar. Kimberly brought us a picnic lunch. John V. built shelving, assembled tables, installed sinks, loaned us his belt sander, and gave up a lot of weekends. Ryan and Kristen walked our dog and let us use their pick-up truck. Olaiya researched vendors, codes, and aprons, and got us organized. Brandon’s father Bill ran errands and brought lunch. I know I must be forgetting someone. I hate that. I’m sorry.

Just before we opened, my mother came to town. She sanded and painted the frames for the photographs on the walls, bought flowers for the dining room and bathroom, cleaned everything that we had forgotten to clean, helped me prep my station, and took us out for drinks and a nice dinner on our anniversary. I still remember the taste of the bourbon sour I drank. I needed that bourbon sour. I was one with that bourbon sour.

And then, somehow, we were open.

We had to learn fast.

Brandon told me last night that he has made 22,000 pizzas in the past 12 months. Twenty-two thousand.

It was not an easy year. We made a lot of mistakes. I cannot tell you how happy I am that today is August 12, 2010, and not August 12, 2009. But I’m glad we did it, and that we made it, and already, I can’t imagine Delancey not being a part of our story.

I also can’t imagine not sharing that story with Danielle, Rachel, Katie, Nicole, David, Sam, Meredith, Jenn, Kit, Danny, Eric, Erin, Bobby, Ryan T., James, Aba, John S., Olaiya, Kari, Sofia, Brandi, and Mariko, the servers and hosts and bussers and dishwashers and cooks who work alongside us each day. They make Delancey a family. They are this restaurant.

But most of all, this restaurant is you, our neighborhood, our city, our customers. Thank you for eating with us, and for letting us cook for you. Without you, we wouldn’t be open today. I don’t even want to think about what we would be. We are celebrating because of you.

Thank you.


It is called toast

Thank you for the many cheers and kind words about our anniversaries. You are so good to us! We went to Bellingham to celebrate over the weekend - which, in our world, means Monday and Tuesday, the days when Delancey is closed - and I regret to report that the dinosaur graffiti has been painted over. There’s a cafe there, and they put in some outdoor seating, so I guess they wanted to spruce the place up. The only good news is that the graffiti was painted over badly, with white paint, so if you squint, you can still make out the curving neck of the brontosaurus. Shine on, dinosaurs!

I should also report that I have made a discovery, and it is called toast. I understand that most people discover toast as teething babies, and that this makes me about 31 years late to the party. But I am okay with this, because it means that I have 31 years of toast-eating to catch up on, and that is a lot of toast to look forward to.

It’s not that I had never eaten toast before. I want to be clear about that. I have eaten a lot of toast. But if you’ve been reading here for a while, or for any length of time at all, you probably know that I’ve tended to spend my morning hours in the company of granola. I’m crazy for granola, and I am also deeply boring. I’ve been making my own for close to ten years, and I’ve eaten it almost every day. On the other days, I’ve had toast, or pancakes, or French toast, or scones, or muffins, or fried eggs, because that’s what people do, but mostly, I eat granola.

But then. A couple of months ago, the granola jar was empty, and I had some bread on the counter. It was veering in the direction of stale, so I decided to toast it. Whoop de doo. No big deal. I didn’t put much thought to it. I made some coffee, set the toaster dial to medium, slid a slice of bread in, got out the butter and jam, smeared them on, and sat down to eat. And there it was, boom, as though I had never tasted it before: crisp at the edges, a faint chew at the middle, sweet in the way that browned things taste sweet, juicy with hot fat and cold fruit. I understood toast. I cut another slice.

The world doesn’t really need a recipe for toast, and I’m not going to try to give you one. The esteemed John Thorne devoted twelve pages to the topic in his book Pot on the Fire, if you’re interested, and it’s a very good read. No one can top John Thorne, and I am willing to bet that no one can top John Thorne’s toast. But technique aside, I will tell you one thing that I have come to believe: the bread is key.

The best breads for toasting are dense and damp-crumbed. If you toast a flimsy bread, the kind that’s so soft that you can wad up a slice of it in your fist without even using any muscles, the result will be something akin to a piece of crusty old foam that you might find popping out of the busted seat of a 1960s Chevy. You do not want to eat that. This morning, I had a couple of slices of pain de campagne from a bakery, one of those breads with a thick, shattery crust and a shiny, chewy crumb, and it was excellent. But my favorite bread for toasting is a homemade one, a loaf that I’ve made three times in as many weeks, from Good to the Grain, by Kim Boyce.

I have to admit that I did not come to this book unbiased. I heard about it from my friend Luisa, who is apparently also into toast right now, how weird and terrific, and who was, in her previous work life, the book’s editor. Luisa told me that Kim was onto something good, and so I had high hopes when I tried my first recipe, the oatmeal sandwich bread on page 130.

It’s probably the most unassuming recipe title in the book, so if you’re thinking Booooring, I won’t blame you. But it’s a top-notch bread, and once you try it - toasted, ideally - you’ll see why I am going on and on like this about toast. This bread is my everyday ideal: dense and hearty, but not heavy, and very fragrant with the natural sweetness of oatmeal and wheat. Prior to trying this recipe, I was buying a locally made whole wheat loaf at the grocery store, and it was nice, but it was sweetened with honey, and the flavor was too strong and too sweet. This is much better. It uses basic pantry ingredients, and once you’ve got them, you can bake whenever you want, and though it takes about four hours from start to finish, the actual work time is very brief, so you could start it before dinner, finish it by bedtime, and spend most of the intervening hours lying on the couch. The kitchen will smell like yeast, molasses, and a million bucks, and in the oven, the loaf will bloom up and out of the pan like some sort of fantastic mushroom. It’s gorgeous, especially smeared with apricot or raspberry jam, or even just butter, or, better yet, butter and a fine dust of crunchy salt. And that’s only breakfast, and you’ve got the whole day ahead.

Oatmeal Sandwich Bread
Adapted from Good to the Grain, by Kim Boyce with Amy Scattergood

I’ve noticed that some reviews of this book complain that it calls for ingredients using only volume measures, not weight measures. I don’t find that to be a deal-breaker, but it is important to measure the ingredients correctly, particularly the flours. Before you scoop any flour out of the container, take a spoon and stir the flour, lifting and loosening it. (It tends to get packed down, and you don’t want to measure packed flour.) Now, to measure, spoon the flour into your measuring cup until it heaps above the rim. Then sweep the back of a dinner knife, or any other straight utensil, across the top to level it, letting the excess flour fall back into the container.

This recipe is made for a standard-size loaf pan, one that measures about 9 by 5 by 3 inches. But mine is on loan to Delancey, so I’ve been using a different pan, one that I picked up at a thrift shop a couple of years ago. It measures 10 by 3 ¾ by 3 inches, and I love the long, skinny loaf it makes.

One last thing: the original version of this recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of kosher salt. That sounds like a lot, but kosher salt isn’t very salty, and I found the bread a little bland. Instead, I now use table salt, and I like the result when I use 2 ¼ teaspoons.

Oh, and this bread is also good for sandwiches, as you might have guessed from its title.

1 package (2 ¼ tsp.) active dry yeast
3 Tbsp. unsulphured (not blackstrap) molasses
2 ½ cups whole wheat flour
2 cups bread flour
1 cup rolled oats
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
2 ¼ tsp. table salt, or to taste

Grease a large bowl and a loaf pan (see above) with butter or cooking spray.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine 2 cups warm water, the yeast, and molasses. Stir briefly, and then allow the yeast to bloom for about 5 minutes. Add the flours, oats, and butter, and stir to mix. The dough will look rough and shaggy. Cover with a towel, and let stand for 30 minutes. [This rest allows the dry ingredients to absorb the liquids, making for a dough that’s easy to work with and even-crumbed.]

Attach the bowl and the bread hook to the mixer. Add the salt, and mix on medium speed for 6 minutes. The dough should come together around the hook and slap around the sides of the bowl without sticking. If the dough is sticking, add a tablespoon or two of bread flour, sprinkling it down between the dough and the sides of the bowl. [Alternatively, you can knead by hand for about 15 minutes, adding flour as needed.] The dough should be soft and supple and slightly sticky.

For the first rise, scrape the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead it a few times. Put the dough into the greased bowl, cover with a towel, and leave it to rise for about 1 hour, or until it is doubled in size. To see if it’s ready, gently push a floured finger into it. If the dough springs back, it needs more time; if the dimple remains, it’s ready for the next step.

To shape the dough, scrape it onto a floured work surface. Press down on it, working it into a square shape, taking care to depress any bubbles. Fold the dough down from the top to the middle, then up from the bottom to the middle. Next, bring the newly formed top and bottom edges together, pinching the seam to seal. Pinch the sides together, and roll the shaped dough back and forth, plumping it so that it’s evenly formed and about the size of your pan. Place the dough in the pan with the seam side down, and press it gently into the corners of the pan.

For the second rise, cover the dough with a towel, and let it rest in a warm place for about 1 hour, or until the dough rises to half again its size. While the dough is rising, preheat the oven to 400°F.

When the dough has finished its second rise, bake for about 40 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through. The loaf is ready when the top crust and bottom crusts are nicely browned. [Boyce says that the top crust should be the color of molasses, but mine never gets that dark.] To see if the bread is ready, give the top of the loaf a thump with your hand. If it sounds hollow, it’s ready; if not, give it another few minutes in the oven. Remove the finished loaf from the pan and cool completely on a wire rack. Resist the urge to cut in until it’s fully cooled, so that the crumb has time to set and the flavor can develop.

Note: This bread keeps beautifully at room temperature. I keep mine in a plastic grocery bag, tied shut, and I set it on the counter with the cut side down. It stays good that way for 4 or 5 days, easy.

Yield: 1 loaf