Sunday, April 25, 2010

L.A. Times Festival of Books Takes the Cake, 4/25/10

For me, the official beginning of spring is the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. It also tends to coincide with the first perfect weekend of weather in Los Angeles, which one can enjoy to the fullest while strolling the beautiful UCLA campus.

Shiho and I decided to forgo the usual frenzy to go from panel to panel. Even without hearing your favorite authors speak, the event is a rich experience for anyone who loves to read, write, or has a healthy curiosity about anything. Being foodies, we were most interested in the Cooking Stage, where chefs, restauranteurs and celebrities present their latest cookbooks.

(The view above the Cooking Stage: fresh vegetables and fruits from Alice Waters' presentation)

The first presentation was by Alice Waters, founding chef of Chez Panisse. She was followed by Anne Byrn, author of the popular "Cake Doctor" books. The contrast between the two authors - one a pioneering advocate for fresh and locally produced foods and the other who made her name by enhancing the convenience of cake mix with extra ingredients - was an ironic glimpse of the paradox of cooking and eating in America today. We want our cake and want to eat it too - and if it can be made in less than an hour, that would be great. But if it can taste like it was made with organic flour and sugar, fresh local fruit, and 73 percent cacao chocolate, so much the better.

(Alice Waters (in lavender) and assistants demonstrate what she called the "aliveness in food.")

We arrived at the Cooking Stage just in time to see most of Waters' presentation for her latest volume, "In the Green Kitchen: Techniques to Learn by Heart". With "Green Kitchen," Waters, who established Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1971, focused on maintaining a green kitchen, not only in the sense of environmentally-friendly cooking and preparation methods, but also "green" in the sense of keeping a fresh outlook on cooking and eating.

Waters was assisted by another chef, whose introduction we had missed but whose presence was a seamless extension of Waters. When we arrived, the sous chef was talking about the availability and quality of fresh fava beans this time of year. Although the legume hit the mainstream consciousness in a famous line from "Silence of the Lambs," in Waters' book it is the basis for a simple hummus-like dip that the unknown chef demonstrated using a mortar and pestle. The duo - who were shaded by a parasol held by a third woman on stage - talked about a hands-on approach to food, literally. Waters showed the audience how to toss a salad with her bare hands, which she said was gentler to the leaves. She spoke of that same "aliveness" in food that is most important when it comes to salads.

"You can keep it for a week [in the refrigerator], but it loses its je ne sais quois," she said...

For those of us who grew up with the gelatinous reassurance of Best Foods Mayonnaise on the table, the idea of making one's own aioli is exotic and daunting. Waters and her assistant did just that, using fresh herbs, olive oil, and egg, beating the ingredients together by hand. The result was a sauce the color and consistency of green goddess dressing, but most likely a million times better. Sadly, there were no samples offered to the audience of about 100 drooling foodies!

Waters rhapsodized about the savory breakfast that she usually enjoys, which is a salad of fresh greens and eggs accompanied by organic bread rubbed with garlic after toasting and topped with slices of avocado. Most of us start the day with too much sugar: in fruit juice, in coffee, or in a pastry or bread laden with it to kick start us into our busy schedule. The idea of having such a healthy and soul-soothing breakfast is very attractive, but I would have to get up at 4 a.m. to pull it off.

Still, Waters' presentation was inspiring. Chez Panisse and her numerous books hit their initial heyday when I was very young and still learning to make blueberry muffins from a box of Betty Crocker mix. But as she said, "There is so-called food and then there is real food."

And then there is real food, but real fast. Right on the heels of Waters' presentation was the antithesis of her slow and organic approach to food. Anne Byrn, whose first book on cakes, "The Cake Doctor" is a veritable Bible in Jolene's kitchen, and helps my sister in satisfying the demand for baked goods at numerous school functions and parties. She absolutely swears by Bryn's recipe for "Darned Good Chocolate Cake." I've made it too and yes, it really is!

(Author Anne Byrn shows off her "cake doctoring" skills while salvaging a crumbled - but still irresistible - layer.)

Byrn, who is the former food editor of The Atlanta Journal Constitution and The Tennessean, gave her presentation with the deadline-consciousness of a true journalist. She kept to the facts, but when faced with the unexpected - an inquisitive kid in the audience and a lass-than-photogenic cake layer - she handled both with great poise by inviting the boy onstage and by reiterating to her audience that blueberry crumble cake is just that: a crumble, and will still taste good despite its shattered exterior.

(Brownies from an El Marino bake sale/science fair... You can see what my sister is up against...)

Byrn has authored several others on Southern cooking, gifts from the kitchen, and take-along meals. But the not-so-big secret to her success with the "Cake Doctor" series is that you can take any ordinary cake mix, not follow the directions, and add ingredients from "scratch" baking like sour cream, more chocolate, buttermilk, and the like. The end result is achieving cakes that taste like you labored for hours over them.

Somebody actually asked Byrn if she had ever made brownies in the microwave... She was incredulous and politely offered that she ought to try it. She said that she uses a microwave as a tool for shortcuts and rattled off her prescribed cooking times for steps like melting chocolate, heating milk, etc. When the audience member who - forgive my gender bias - was a man, kept hammering at the question, her final answer became an emphatic "No."

Although my default brownie recipe is the one on the back of a Hershey's Cocoa can, I actually have, to my great shame, made brownies in the microwave. Although I am a pseudo-Luddite at heart, I have to admit my generation's penchant for labor-saving gadgets and methods. Trader Joe's sells a two-serving brownie package that resembles the cakes that one can produce with an Easy-Bake Oven. The two times that I tried it - you always have to do something that you think is probably not a good idea at least twice to decide that it really is not a good idea - it satisfied the brownie urge, at least for the moment. Dylan and I consumed the fluffy, pudding-like confection in practically one gulp, the better to hide our low-brow gourmandise by.

But I do appreciate both the ethereal qualities of fresh cuisine like Waters' organic table or the more pedestrian but just as enjoyable delights of Byrn's shortcut desserts. A couple of weeks ago, I lost my Tuesday morning composure over some grilled asparagus that I bought at Giuliano's for lunch. The vegetable, a harbinger of spring in its stiletto-thin, emerald beauty, was dressed with the simplest vinaigrette touched with a kiss of garlic. The crunchy stalks with their subtle flavors was a life-altering experience for my jaded palate. I called the deli the next day to see if they had it again. And the next day. And the next day.

(Life-altering asparagus from Giuliano's with my favorite mixed Greek olives from Trader Joe's... Ziploc containers are a girl's best friend...)

Experiences like the asparagus are meant to be rare. I try to eat pretty well and even get bored with what I think is a healthy but epicurean (see the modern misconception and misuse of this term) diet. We all have busy lives and even I tend to slip up with the occasional Starbucks breakfast sandwich.

Most people I know eat to live. I am more of a person who lives to eat, because I have found that food alone is not nourishment enough. Good company and a beautiful but simple table are always the best seasoning. If that isn't always possible, the knowledge that I get to eat again later - sometimes to make up for the morning's hastily consumed egg-white and feta cheese wrap from Starbuck's - is always a good sauce.

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