Category: food

May 30

what i learned as an oompa loompa

Engineer (left) going Oompa Loompa (right)

Last fall, I heard the spousal call of duty, “Elaine, help me get these doors open.”

My husband, Todd, and his co-founder, Cam, had spent the last few years building chocolate machines and scouting the world for great cocoa beans in an effort to open a micro-batch chocolate factory in San Francisco’s Mission District. The construction crew finished converting the brick automotive garage to a food-safe bean-to-bar workshop and it was time to figure out the nitty gritty details like moving, merchandising, and designing the café & retail space. Todd needed all the help he could get and I was happy to pitch in during those critical months. Now that I’ve come up for air and returned to tech projects, I’ve had time to reflect on what I learned from brick-and-mortar operations:

Even the welds break

  1. For loops are a veritable miracle — At the chocolate factory, something breaks every single flippin’ day. Each morning I gave my evil eye to the roasters, melangers, temperers, wrapping machine, dishwasher, or anything with a screw, fuse, gear, glue, belt, or oil level and asked, “Okay, which one of you little buggers is going today?”

    In comparison, code brings tears to my eyes. If that for loop worked yesterday, then barring catastrophic hardware failures or someone checking in code they shouldn’t, it’ll likely work today. That type of, “if you don’t touch it, it’ll keep working” certainty seems divine. I’ve always loved the Web but I have renewed appreciation for redundancy, unit testing, and monitoring now.

    Lots of chocolate; no email.

  2. Want to release faster? Don’t cut features; cut email. Dandelion’s chocolate makers don’t check email throughout the day (the execs aren’t so lucky). If you can depend upon eight hours of focused time each day, then goals magically happen. With just a back of the napkin estimation, if the team says they’ll make 1000 bars, stop worrying — they’ve got it.

    There are still complications and distractions (e.g. tours, businesses with supply emergencies, daily check-in meetings, and see #1) but there are no late nights catch-up email marathons, no pleas for Agile-enabled predictability, no emergency requests to add two more weeks to the schedule, and no unsustainable sprints to a goal followed by “whoa, let’s never do that again” post-mortem analyses.

    Conservatively, I think that at least 30% of Meebo’s productivity was lost to folks staying current with voluminous Inboxes. Startups want to be hyper-communicative and transparent but those cc’s and long winding email threads add up. However, the first startup that balances getting stuff done despite an ever-expanding Inbox will have a formidable advantage.

    From left to right: future Pulitzer prize winner, Fulbright scholar, and Stanford grad

  3. Tech people, get over yourselves — Dandelion Chocolate has two Fulbright scholars, a Harvard law school grad, Ivy Leaguers, and even outside of formal academic pedigrees, is one of the most talented teams I’ve seen. Tech recruiters spend a lot of time bending over backwards looking for niche skillsets and as a result, we tend to think of ourselves as the center of the talent universe. However, if the folks at Dandelion Chocolate learned to code or design, they’d whoop most of our startup tooshes. Other industries are teeming with extraordinary, passionate people and it doesn’t take an army of recruiters and hundreds of LinkedIn emails to find them. The next time I build a team, I’ll look beyond industry borders.

    Brandon analyzing bean sorting efficiency

  4. Engineering principles provide arbitrage opportunities — When I tell tech people I’ve been pitching in at a chocolate factory, I spot the concerned eyebrows, “Elaine, what about intellectual stimulation?” or a VC will wander to another networking table presumably thinking, “Oy, small potatoes.” Fermentation processes, tempering crystallization structures, and modeling roasting & melanging profiles provide lots of mental fodder. Chocolate making isn’t a traditional startup but engineering principles like small achievable goals, metrics, and A/B testing are very applicable, opening new opportunities in existing markets. The tech world is a fantastic training ground for non-tech industries where there aren’t support networks of meetups, workspaces, and mentors.

    The #1 troublemaker at Dandelion Chocolate

  5. HCI is a digital thing — A little backstory… the women’s bathroom door at Dandelion Chocolate constantly breaks (see #1). From the mezzanine, I can hear the frustrated click-click-click when guests jigger the finicky door lock. At the beginning of the day, I paused when I heard the metal clicking to make sure the bathroom seeker didn’t need help. But by noon, the high-pitched metal-on-metal screeching made my hair stand on end, my stomach churn, and I was ready to do anything… anything… even standing vigilant outside the bathroom to personally escort patrons in and out of the loo… to prevent that irksome sound again.

    When I initially told my parents that I was interested in HCI (Human-Computer Interaction), they didn’t get it. And now I understand why. Technology is so virtual that it takes logging, data mining, insightful researchers, and persuasive experts to convince a team there’s a problem on the Internet worth fixing.

    However, when you’re working with tangibles, you are walking and breathing your own User Experience experiment. You see the half-drunk cups when you take out the trash. You can’t help but overhear under breath comments on the street. And if something is broken, you don’t have to do a cost-benefit analysis to figure out whether fixing the bathroom door is a priority. Someone’s going to fix the bathroom door or they’ll go crazy.

    Chocolate for sale

  6. Simple business models solve so many problems — With Meebo, our business model went something like this: we built a product that people like. We monetized a fraction of those eyeballs with brand advertising. We tracked the percentage of users who clicked an ad and logged their engagement times. However, since correlating brand advertising with bottom line revenue is nearly impossible online, we also monitored ad partnership renewals. If all of those metrics were healthy, we were happy. (~60 words)

    At Dandelion Chocolate, the business model is: we make and sell chocolate. (5 words)

    It’s so much easier to build a sustainable organization around a simple revenue model. There are no tensions between ad partners, distribution sites, engineering, and sales teams. There are fewer points of failure. Instead, everyone is aligned towards a simple goal: make something people want.

    The Dandelion Chocolate team goes to Hawaii after hitting a big goal

  7. Equity isn’t a great long-term motivator — In tech, salary is only one component of your compensation package. If your company does well, your stock options can be worth far more than all of your combined paychecks. Equity is “skin in the game.”

    However, the compensation at Dandelion Chocolate is traditional — wages and salaries. And when things get tough (e.g. the temperer breaks during the December rush — see #1), employees’ visions of becoming overnight millionaires aren’t shattered. Instead, it’s an even-keeled, “Okay, what do we need to do to get through this?” What motivates the team is working with interesting people, more opportunities to travel and grow, and building something pride-worthy.

    As a startup leader, you fear an employee exodus at the first sign of trouble. For engineers with lots of options, trouble means it’s time to diversify your equity portfolio and seek greener pastures elsewhere. In some cases, equity can have the opposite effect and even encourage short-term thinking.

    Valencia St crowded with café experts
    (Photo courtesy of Flickr:tofuart via Creative Commons)

  8. The real world has tougher critics — Startups can shield themselves behind a slow beta roll-out. Your mom and dad might follow your company blog but they probably didn’t critique last Friday’s release.

    In contrast, almost everyone in the world is a café expert. On his day off Todd gets calls and texts, “Todd, the bathroom door seems to slide funny…” or “I drove all the way from Sausalito and you just ran out of marshmallows!”

    The feedback is always, always, always appreciated. But your skin thickens a bit. The chocolate factory is a public venue of our closest friends, friends of friends, neighbors, and supporters — the people you want to make most proud. Every one of those visitor has seen hundreds of cafés and everyone has opinions about how they’d make it better. Unlike tech, you’re very exposed. And if we have an off day, we can’t follow-up with an email newsletter or pop-up notification, “We listened to your feedback! Here’s version 1.2 just for you!”

    Customers in the face blind retail mode

  9. Retail face blindness (i.e. prosopagnosia) — Hopefully there’s a psychology student searching for their next phD thesis among this blog’s readers.

    Either I’m very bland looking (totally plausible) or there’s an undocumented psychologic phenomenon for how people mentally categorize service professionals…

    As a door greeter, cashier, or farmer’s market volunteer, I love talking with visitors. A quick exchange can expand into an intimate 10-minute conversation about our families, our personal food preferences, frequently an exchange of names, and sometimes even promises to follow-up via email.

    Afterwards, I’ll say goodbye and walk next door for a sandwich where I coincidentally spot them again. They look at me when I join them in line, look back, and order a croissant. Nothing. Not even a spark of recognition. I’m a total stranger! This has happened frequently enough that I’m now fascinated by the brain’s ability to immediately delete people information — especially people we don’t think we’ll see again. If you end up researching this further or know anything about this, let me know!

    The chocolate chip cookie — a reliable favorite for seventy-five years and likely to be popular for decades to come

  10. Tech is still harder — It’s easier than ever to start a tech company. The food industry is envious of tech’s lack of permits and regulations, workspaces, meetups, access to capital, and the built-in network of angels & mentors. If you have a good idea, the entrepreneurial community will bend over backwards to help you.

    However, it’s much harder to keep that tech company going. The Internet reinvents itself every two years making longterm planning difficult. It’s safe to assume that people will probably eat chocolate in ten, twenty years. It’s hard to guarantee that any burgeoning startup will be relevant in six months. Building a longterm Internet business within a mercurial market is extraordinarily stressful. In addition to the normal trials of starting a business, you have to be hyper-aware of trends and prepared to pivot tomorrow. It’s likely that the team you hired 18 months ago signed up for a different vision that what you’re working on now and that requires further management. Years 0-2 are easier but years 2-8 are harder.

I’m winding down my Oompa Loompa days with more appreciation for brick-and-mortar businesses. If the toilet paper’s out at a restaurant, I’ll try to change it myself. I tip more and curse the evil people who steal tip jars and iPhones (grrrr)! When the Giants make it to the World Series, I tune in to the police radio chatter and listen for riots. I can add “skilled in the Tiffany bow tying method” to my resume.

Above all, I am grateful to have been a part of the Dandelion Chocolate story and to have learned so much from the team. Thank you again!

And of course, feel free to drop by Dandelion Chocolate at 740 Valencia St (at 18th) in San Francisco.

Dandelion Chocolate Door

Feb 23

happy and fun in silicon valley

Last week, I posted Armed and Dangerous in Silicon Valley – a list of design, programming, and biotech classes in Silicon Valley to keep you armed and dangerous regardless of your background.

However, when you’re burnt out of pixels, bugs, and pantone colors, it’s helpful to balance it all out with some computer-free classes to get your hands dirty, see some sun, and expand your palette beyond what’s available for take-out. Plus, there are some absolute gems available in the Bay Area that you can’t find elsewhere:

  1. Forage SF – Learn how to forage and identify edibles like fungi, nettles, herbs, and other wild ingredients depending upon the season. The Wild Kitchen dinners are amazing too.
  2. Bay Area Glass Instituteglass blowing is the antithesis of coding – it’s organic, unpredictable, and dangerous (and I love it). We’re lucky to have BAGI in San Jose (they’re the folks behind the Great Glass Pumpkin Patch). Treg Silkwood is one of the best instructors I’ve ever seen.
  3. San Francisco Baking Institute – If you’ve read Tartine and wondered why your lump of dough doesn’t look as smooth and springy as their pictures, you’re in luck. I showed up to SFBI’s breadmaking workshop with zero experience while all of my professional peers wore weathered, monogrammed chef aprons and traded bread war. However, it is a ground-up class and on your first day, you will come home with a dozen baguettes. No experience is necessary though their weekend courses are specifically geared to home bakers. It’s an impressive resource that most Bay Area natives don’t know about – the instructors even compete in the equivalent of the Bread Olympics every four years and SFBI has a hotline for sending starter to bakeries across the country when an unfortunate yeast emergency strikes.
  4. 4505 Meats – these sausage making and butchery classes sell out instantly so it’s better to sign up for their e-mail list and pounce when a new class is announced. However, it’s worth the hassle – you’ll have a freezer filled with amazing sausage and meats for months.
  5. SF Center for the Book – has revived the art of handmade books. If you’ve oohed and awed over those fashionable letterpress cards, now you can make them yourself on vintage Heidelberg presses. In November, they also offer Christmas card and gift tag making workshops.
  6. The Bike Kitchen – is run by a community of cycling enthusiasts who teach in-depth bicycle maintenance courses. They even offer a unique program where you can build a bike from the spare parts they have lying around.
  7. 18 Reasons – spend an hour or two with a local Bay Area foodie who wants to share their love of peanut butter, home brewing, or urban gardening with the community. 18 reasons offers casual evening classes nearly daily and even has some availability on short notice. It’s a great community-oriented alternative to dinner and a movie.
  8. San Francisco School of Massage and Bodywork – aside from their professional programs, they also offer occasional beginner weekend workshops for couple massage classes. If you spend 40-60 hours in front of a computer each week, you may need some extra help getting those knots out of your uber-tight upper back muscles.
  9. College of the Redwoods – Fine Furniture Program – this requires at least two weeks of free time and is 4 hours away but it is worth knowing about. The program was originally started by the legendary furniture maker and design philosopher James Krenov who resurrected the appreciation for fine furniture making in the 1970’s. I took the summer workshop when Krenov was still at the center and the class was taught by Jim Budlong. It was transformative – you’ll want to rethink the way all of your furniture has been built and designed. When I attended, our class had seasoned carpenters, students from RISD, and other craftsman hoping to try a new direction. Jim Budlong is still teaching the curriculum that Krenov started years ago. The two-week programs are subsidized by in-state tuition and are absurdly popular. Some prospective students drive to Fort Bragg and camp out at the school’s doorstep to be first to submit their application on March 1st. I faxed my application a few minutes after submissions opened and was wait-listed (though eventually admitted). It’s a crazy and worthwhile adventure.

Tuck your phone away, disconnect from that bug or release, and refresh yourself with something totally new. We’re lucky to be surrounded by so many extraordinary communities who are excited to share their passions.


Oct 27

Praline Etymology

I’m visiting my father in Durango, Colorado on the first leg of a 10-day Midwest family tour. I haven’t visited my father since 1999 and am long, long overdue.

My father knows I like to collect family recipes and he found a dusty recipe catalog with my grandmother’s favorite recipes. The recipes were written down on index cards and given to my mother as a wedding present forty years ago. I enjoy recipes not only for cooking but also for their history. My grandmother’s spartan recipe for hot water cornbread comes from the Great Depression. After the Great Depression, hot water cornbread recipes have more eggs, sugar, and other luxury ingredients. Todd’s family history is limited but based upon his family recipe for macaroni salad, I can see that the recipe originated from Poland as a sweeter version of the Jewish Kugel before his grandparents immigrated to the U.S. Like DNA, recipes are passed down from each generation. But unlike tracing bloodlines, recipes provide a glimpse into the cultural and historical background of relatives – something that is hard to see through last names and ancestry charts. For any linguists out there, it’s essentially recipe etymology.

My grandmother’s recipe box had WWII favorites like Miracle Whip and canned pineapple cakes. However, I was most curious about the praline recipe. Like biscuits and barbecue sauces, you can see when and where a praline recipe originated based upon whether it favors almonds vs. pecans, brown sugar vs. white sugar, cream vs. buttermilk, and even whether the nuts are halved or ground. However, my grandmother’s pralines index card was water-stained and one of the ingredients, baking soda, appeared to have been jotted down after-the-fact. The damage and side-note were bothersome. My grandmother moved 44 times while she raised my father so even with something as simple as baking soda, it was hard to know whether she picked up a more modern recipe that was about to veer into a praline crunch (popcorn balls and crunches add baking soda near the end), whether the side-note indicated that the baking soda was optional, or whether the baking soda was a critical part of an authentic praline recipe.

To add to my confusion, I didn’t understand why a praline recipe would use baking soda in the first step. From experimenting with brownies, I understood that baking soda affected a dough’s texture and stability. Without baking soda, brownies become molten cake. One of the greatest difficulties preparing pralines is the texture. To achieve a perfectly smooth, golden praline, you whip and aerate very hot caramel furiously in the last 2-3 minutes. However, baking soda reacts to heat and by the time the sugar has heated and caramelized, the effects of the baking soda should have worn off long before that critical whipping step.

It rained all day in Durango today – a perfect excuse to do a culinary experiment and unravel the praline baking soda mystery. I made two batches of pralines: 1) adding baking soda before caramelizing the sugar and 2) adding baking soda after caramelizing the sugar. All of the ingredients and temperatures – about 235°F (or 222 degrees if you’re at Durango’s 6500 foot elevation) – were the same. I hypothesized that the second version would have a better texture than the first.

The difference was dramatic and I was wrong. But, surprisingly, the difference was in the color and taste, not the texture. The recipe with the baking soda added at the beginning turned a lovely golden brown. The recipe with the baking soda added in the final step was paler. The taste was also different – the browner praline was much sweeter. My father validated that the sweeter version, the recipe with the baking soda at the beginning, was the family favorite. I was thrilled to have confidence in the recipe but it was also clear that I did not understand baking soda as well as I thought I did!

I know my praline whipping and spooning technique is not perfect. I whipped these a little bit too long – bear with me!

In an online search, I stumbled across’s baking soda article by Martin Lersch which pointed out the holes in my knowledge. Baking soda is not just a leavener. It also increases the pH level and accelerates caramelization (the Maillard reaction). By adding the baking soda at the beginning, the sugary mixture caramelized more quickly and reached a sweeter brown. When the baking soda was added near the end, the baking soda just foamed and sputtered out quickly without a chance to improve the caramelization. Though the ingredients were the same, the ordering of the baking soda made a huge difference. In this recipe, the baking soda was a caramelizing agent, not a leavening agent.

Praline history is murky but some research helps narrow down when and where my grandmother’s recipe originated:

  • The first praline recipe originated in France and is believed to be a distant cousin of the Jordan almond. It spread throughout England, Belgium, and crossed the Atlantic when French settlers came to Louisiana in the 1700’s.
  • Baking soda was popularized a hundred years after the first French praline in the 1850’s
  • Milk was added to pralines after 1880 (pre-milk recipe I pre-milk recipe II
  • Buttermilk was commercialized in the 1900’s
  • Other praline recipes call for evaporated milk which wasn’t popularized until the 1920’s & 1930’s
  • Geographically, brown sugar is preferred in New Orleans. In the late 1800’s, Louisiana produced sugar but lacked the refineries to process white sugar. As a result, Louisiana had more brown sugar than the East Coast and Midwest.
  • Praline recipes with brown sugar rarely call for baking soda

From the above, I’d guess that someone outside Louisiana discovered that New Orleans pralines could be replicated with a more abundant white sugar if baking soda was added to accelerate the caramelization. My grandmother was born in 1919 in Colorado City, Texas. However, a Google search for “Texan buttermilk praline recipe” doesn’t yield anything similar. However, after a little bit of research, I discovered that my great-grandmother’s family was from Alabama. A Google search for “Alabama praline recipe” yields this very similar recipe. I’d hypothesize that this recipe is almost a hundred years old and there’s enough evidence to suggest that this is probably a recipe from my great-grandmother who died long before I was born.

What my grandmother and great-grandmother did not know is that baking soda is not just a magical ingredient for caramel confections. Martin Lersch’s blog also demonstrates how savory caramelized onions benefit from a pinch of baking soda. Amazingly, Martin Lersch was not able to find anyone adding baking soda to their caramelized onions prior to 2008! From a recipe etymology perspective, perhaps this means that future generations may date themselves with their more modern baking soda caramelized onion technique? It also makes one wonder what other baking soda applications we haven’t discovered.

I’m leaving my father tomorrow with lots of pralines as I head to Kansas City to visit my mother. The oldest recipe uncovered from that side of that family comes from the 1934 edition of the Fannie Farmer Cook Book for Cranberry Ice which is comically terse: “Cook cranberries and water 8 minutes then force through a sieve. Add sugar and lemon juice, and freeze.” Anyone who has attempted to force cranberries through a sieve will appreciate this recipe’s ridiculousness. Fortunately, food mills started reappearing in cooking stores in the 1990’s and this recipe has seen a resurgence on my family’s Thanksgiving table.

Oct 03

brownie bake-off

Todd claims he is an equal-opportunity brownie eater – he’ll unquestionably devour any brownie that crosses his plate. As a result, we’ve collected a lot of brownie recipes over the years, primarily from Scharffen Berger Essence of Chocolate Recipes and Cooks’ Illustrated.

A few date nights ago, Todd and I made a deal that if I measured and set out all of the ingredients, we’d do the ultimate brownie bake-off and for once, determine the best brownie recipe. There were six recipes in total including:

* Scharffen Berger New Classic Brownies
* Scharffen Berger Cakey Brownies (cookbook only)
* Scharffen Berger Robert’s Fudgy Brownies
* Scharffen Berger John’s Favorite Brownies
* Cooks Illustrated Chewy Brownies (March 2010)
* Cooks Illustrated Chewy, Fudgy, Triple Chocolate Brownies (May 2000)

We used Valrhona for the cocoa powder, 70% Scharffen Berger for the chocolate (unless otherwise specified), weighed every ingredient to the gram, double-checked our internal oven thermometer, and omitted all optional nuts to ensure the most fair home kitchen comparison as possible. After doing a taste test that evening, I took the remaining brownies to Meebo where my teams provided their own comments. Here’s a quick summary of the feedback and relative ordering.

1. Robert’s Fudgy Brownie (8 oz chocolate, 3/4 c + 2 tb sugar):
“Tastes the most chocolate-y and moist. This definitely shows off the chocolate but could use more salt.”
“I like fudgy and this one is really good. Chocolate is slightly acidic. My favorite.”
“Favorite, top crust and moist but not too much.”

2. John’s Favorite Brownie (6 oz chocolate, 1 1/2 c sugar):
“Cake’y topping. Nice texture but not as chocolate’y.”
“Moderate chocolate, it tasted like a faint but very dark chocolate. It’s good, I quite like it.”
“Best texture. Good chocolate flavor.”

3. New Classic Brownies (4 oz 99% chocolate, 1 1/4 c sugar):
“Doughy and solidly chocolate though not very complex.”
“Fine texture but weird chocolate taste.”

4. Cooks Illustrated Chewy Brownies (6 oz chocolate, 1/3 c cocoa, 2 oz unsweetened chocolate, 1 1/2 tsp instant espresso, 2 1/2 c sugar):
“A really good brownie but I can taste the oil and feel the greasiness. This tastes like a box mix but I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”

5. Scharffen Berger Cakey Brownies (4 oz chocolate, 1/3 c cocoa powder, 1 c sugar):
“Light but bland.”
“Too dry but nice crumbly top.”

6. Cooks Illustrated Chewy, Fudgy, Triple Chocolate Brownies (5 oz semisweet, 2 oz unsweetened, 3 tb cocoa powder, 1 1/4 c sugar):
“It’s moist but chalk-y tasting. My least favorite.”

Final Comments

I don’t think it’s coincidence that the favorite recipe, Robert Steinberg’s Fudgy Brownie, was the one with the most chocolate (a full 8 oz bar). The more the recipe depended upon cocoa powder, the more likely it was to sink to the bottom. John’s Favorite Brownie was a close second place and a few actually preferred it to Robert’s Fudgy Brownie.

The other recipes were good but not great. The New Classic Recipe prides itself on an amazing texture by using high heat and then an ice bath. After going through the trouble, I wouldn’t bother again. The textures in other recipes were comparable or better. Also, the 99% chocolate is going to be harder to purchase and I thought it left some off flavors.

The Scharffen Berger Cakey recipe had a beautiful, crackly top. However, that is where its charm ended. The taste was bland. One taster at Meebo said they tasted leavener and though the recipe uses egg whites for leavening (there’s no baking soda or powder), I agree that the cocoa powder gave a chalkier taste.

The Cooks Illustrated recipes’ baking times were off. I used the suggested recipe times for a fair comparison. However, I’ve made the Triple, Chewy, Fudgy Cooks Illustrated recipe before and when I have, I’ve added a few minutes more than specified and have had better texture (though not flavor) results. The Chewy Brownie recipe was new and I didn’t know to leave it in a bit longer. Both Cooks Illustrated recipes were needlessly complex – combining three different types of chocolate (semisweet, bittersweet, and cocoa powder) is not going to lead to a superior flavor (chocolate is chocolate) and is more likely to introduce variation in home kitchens.

Finally, they are all good recipes. For years, Todd’s go-to brownie recipe has been the Cooks Illustrated Chewy, Fudgy, Triple Chocolate recipe. We were primarily looking for the recipe that would show off great chocolate (more on that later) and John and Robert’s recipes seemed to do that the best. However, if you are looking for a cakey, chewy recipe, I don’t think any of these recipes would qualify.

In case anyone is inspired to do their own bake-off, I came across this amazing cookie tasting taxonomy today in Sensory Evaluation of Food: Principles and Practices by Harry T. Lawless, Hildegarde Heymann. It was a bit too late for my brownie bake-off but hopefully someone else will find it useful! – Elaine

Feb 21

marshmallow practice

Over the holidays, Todd and I caught one of the last flights to arrive in New York before the snowstorm. However, we weren’t as lucky on our subsequent trip. A second winter storm struck the Midwest and delayed the next leg of our trip by 24 hours.

Because of the delay, Todd and I had more time to wander around Manhattan which wasn’t such a bad thing. We stumbled across this gem, Kitchen Arts & Letters, a culinary paradise. We bought an eclectic assortment of books from canning to chocolate to menu planning. Marshmallows: Homemade Gourmet Treats was the source of inspiration for this rainy Sunday afternoon project. Enjoy the pics!


looking out at a snowy, marshamallowy landscape

the marshmallow product after cooling for four hours (probably the only time i’ve waited for something to cool).

the marshmallow is covered with powdered sugar and cornstarch to prevent sticking.

we didn’t have a pizza cutter the day we made this. i ran across the street to the grocery store to pick up one. the only pizza cutter they carried was $25! i was really tempted to try my hand with a knife despite all of the recommendations. however, i love the way the marshmallow reflects in the rotating blade in these pics. that made it almost worth it.

the making of a marshmallow

the dusting bowl

a marshmallow segment

15 marshmallows waiting for some hot chocolate

rainy day hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows


Feb 14

evolution of the s’more shot

A few months ago, Todd and I were excited to participate in a light-hearted summer San Francisco cupcake meet-up. Todd decided he was going to make death-by-chocolate cupcakes and I opted for banana with dulce de leche frosting cupcakes. We spent the summer morning trading baking times in the oven and sampling each other’s icing.

We arrived at Dolores Park and starting scouting for the cupcake group. Todd had his chocolate cupcakes in his cupcake tins. My cupcakes were on a small dinner plate. Dolores Park is pretty big and since this was one of the first sunny days of summer, everyone was out. After walking aimlessly a little while, Todd’s frosting started to melt in the heat. I stepped in a wet swampy puddle but managed to catch myself before the cupcakes slid onto the ground. Still, the surfaces started to crack and the cupcakes stuck together a little bit. But finally, we spotted the cupcake meetup and sat down with the other sugar-toothed cupcake adventurists.

We got decimated.

We didn’t even know it was a competition but like a ten-year high school reunion, it was. We sensed we were in trouble when the other participants arrived with professional cupcake caddies. Many were professionally trained or were working in bakeries. The guy with tattoos up his arms had won the previous Iron Cupcakes. In-between introductions (“where are you from,” “how’d you hear about the meetup”), you could see the bakers counting how many cupcakes had been taken, who was opting for seconds, and small moments of envy like when one contender revealed coordinating napkins for presenting her cupcakes.

other cupcakes

very impressive

todd & me

We couldn’t give our cupcakes away. Only when we were walking away from the event and handing our remnants to appreciative 8-year olds, did we feel some satisfaction. Though there were no trophies given away, Todd and I knew where we stood in social cupcake society.

Last week the very, very informal Meebo Valentine’s Day Bake-off event crops up. Before I could even say, “Todd you’re not officially on the payroll. I’m not sure you can partici…”, Todd had his mise en place bowls lined up on the counter and snapped back, “I built your Meebo iPhone app – I get to enter!”

Though the events seem unrelated, this was the first time we were able to take the lessons from our supposedly-social cupcake meetup and apply them to the very uncompetitive Meebo bake-off. Todd was originally intending to make S’more cupcakes with a graham cracker cake, marshmallow filling, and a chocolate frosting. However, after stumbling across an amazing chocolate pudding recipe (thank you Philo Apple Farm cooking classes), he was inspired to invent this S’more shot. He took the grand judging prize and also won the category, “Most like Martha.”



Here’s the recipe:

S’more Shots (makes approximately 30 shot glass servings or 6-8 ramekins)

For the graham crackers, Todd made them into skinny strips intended to be used as edible spoons. Make sure you roll the dough very thin otherwise your crackers will be too poofy.

Homemade Graham Crackers (from Smitten Kitchen)

Adapted from Nancy Silverton’s Pastries from the La Brea Bakery, and 101 Cookbooks.

Makes 10 4 x 4.5-inch graham crackers or 48 2-inch squares

2 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons (375 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour (a swap of 1/2 cup with whole wheat flour or 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour works well here, too)
1 cup (176 grams) dark brown sugar, lightly packed
1 teaspoon (6 grams) baking soda
3/4 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt (4 grams)
7 tablespoons (3 1/2 ounces or 100 grams) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes and frozen
1/3 cup (114 grams) mild-flavored honey, such as clover
5 tablespoons (77 grams) milk, full-fat is best
2 tablespoons (27 grams) pure vanilla extract

Topping (optional)
3 tablespoons (43 grams) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon (5 grams) ground cinnamon

Make the dough: Combine the flour, brown sugar, baking soda, and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade or in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Pulse or mix on low to incorporate. Add the butter and pulse on and off on and off, or mix on low, until the mixture is the consistency of a coarse meal.

In a small bowl, whisk together the honey, milk, and vanilla extract. Add to the flour mixture and pulse on and off a few times or mix on low until the dough barely comes together. It will be very soft and sticky. Lay out a large piece of plastic wrap and dust it lightly with flour, then turn the dough out onto it and pat it into a rectangle about 1-inch thick. Wrap it, then chill it until firm, about 2 hours or overnight. Meanwhile, prepare the topping, if using, by combining the sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl and setting aside.

Roll out the crackers: Divide the dough in half and return one half to the refrigerator. Sift an even layer of flour onto the work surface and roll the dough into a long rectangle about 1/8 inch thick. The dough will be sticky, so flour as necessary. Trim the edges of the rectangle to 4 inches wide. Working with the shorter side of the rectangle parallel to the work surface, cut the strip every 4 1/2 inches to make 4 crackers.

Place the crackers on one or two parchment-lined baking sheets and sprinkle with the topping. Chill until firm, about 30 to 45 minutes in the fridge or 15 to 20 minutes in the freezer. Repeat with the second batch of dough. Finally, gather any scraps together into a ball, chill until firm, and re-roll.

Adjust the oven rack to the upper and lower positions and preheat the oven to 350°F.

Decorate the crackers: Mark a vertical line down the middle of each cracker, being careful not to cut through the dough (again, this is for the traditional cracker shape). Using a toothpick or skewer (Todd used a fork), prick the dough to form two dotted rows about 1/2 inch for each side of the dividing line.

Bake for 15 to 25 minutes, until browned and slightly firm to the touch, rotating the sheets halfway through to ensure even baking.

This pudding is incredibly rich. The recipe entails making a chocolate pudding and then adding even more chocolate while the mixture is still warm. For best results, make sure you use a high-quality chocolate. We used the Valrhona cocoa powder with Scharffenberger bitter-sweet chocolate. You can probably skip the sieving if you don’t have one. However, it makes a silky texture if you have one available.

Double Chocolate Pudding (from the Philo Apple Farm)

1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp sifted cocoa
2 tablespoons corn starch
Pinch of salt
1 cup of sugar

4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup milk

2 cups milk
1/2 cup heavy cream

4 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Combine cocoa, corn starch, pinch salt, and sugar in a bowl. Add 4 egg yolks and 1/2 cup milk to bowl and whisk well.

Separately, scald the milk and heavy cream.

Slowly whisk the hot scalded milk mixture into the cocoa mix. Return to heat and stir constantly with a wooden spoon until slightly thickened (about 10 minutes). Do not boil.

Push custard through fine sieve into clean bowl.

While still warm, add the chocolate in two batches to the custard. Stir until melted.

Pour into six ramekins [or shot glasses]. Cover and refrigerate or eat warm or enjoy at room temperature.

We’ve made the marshmallow meringue a few times and in a few different kitchens. If you have a very powerful Kitchen-aid mixer, you may be able to use vanilla extract instead of the vanilla bean. However, we’ve found that the vanilla extract can make the meringue runny. We’ve unsuccessfully experimented with adding more cream of tartar to compensate. However, the vanilla bean yields the most consistent toothpaste-like texture.

Toasted Marshmallow Meringue (adapted from Martha Stewart)

8 large egg whites
2 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 vanilla bean, split in half and scraped

Place egg whites, sugar, and cream of tartar in the heatproof bowl of an electric mixer. Set over a saucepan with simmering water. Whisk constantly until sugar is dissolved and mixture reads 160 degrees on a thermometer.

Transfer bowl to electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, and beat, starting on low speed, gradually increasing to high, until stiff, glossy peaks form, 5 to 7 minutes. Add vanilla, and mix until combined. Use immediately.

For assembly, use a funnel and a spatula to fill approximately 30 shot glasses 2/3 full of pudding. Place a graham cracker in each glass. Pipe the meringue using a 12 (or larger) decorating tip forming a nice billow. Use a micro butane torch to toast the marshmallow meringue. Take care not to heat the glass or use a large butane torch as the shot glasses will shatter.


Dec 31

me vs. kikkoman

When Todd was in high school, he convinced his parents that it was a good idea to let an unchaperoned sixteen year old spend a summer in Mexico. During the day he participated in community services and at night, he enjoyed curfew-less freedom with his buddy Seth in San Miguel de Allende.

While deep in central Mexico, teenage Todd went to his first Japanese restaurant and ordered “Pollo Empanizado,” which literally translates to breaded chicken in Spanish. Oddly enough, it was in Mexico where Todd’s passion for Japanese breaded chicken cutlets, chicken katsu, began.

Like most college graduates, Todd and I barely squeaked by our first year after graduation. Todd’s entrepreneurial spirit was itching and I was the only one with a sustainable income for 8-10 months while his start-up got off the ground. If you’ve ever done a household budget, then you know that after rent, food is one of your primary monthly expenses. If we wanted to maintain a non-zero bank account while subsisting on something more nutritious than ramen and more appetizing than PB&J, we had to learn to cook. I went to the library and copied down recipes from Joy of Cooking. However, Todd’s visions of cooking were less traditional. To him, it meant a quest to make only one dish that he could eat every night, chicken katsu.

At the time, katsu seemed overwhelming. Deep-frying requires a lot of equipment (thermometer, a tall pot, a splatter guard, a thermometer, lots of peanut oil) and back then, we didn’t have oven mitts. We discovered an Asian restaurant supply stores in Milpitas for our first utensils (most of which I’m still using today) and we also stopped by Home Depot to splurge on a $20 fire extinguisher (which I fortunately haven’t used to-date).

Our first home-cooked chicken katsu meal was accompanied by rice and orange slices. We were so excited by this accomplishment that we emailed a picture of our plates to Todd’s parents. Looking back, they must have been really confused.

This time last year, we were in Tokyo, a mecca of Tonkatsu. This was my first visit to Japan and prior to our trip, Todd researched and mapped out all of the noteworthy Tonkatsu locations throughout the city. In one day alone, we ate Tonkatsu three times at three different locations.

Our most noteworthy Tonkatsu locations included Mai-sen who specializes in black pork katsu.

And also, Kimukatsu who creates a cutlet from thinly-layered meat and offers an amazing cabbage accompaniment.

Clearly the highlight of our katsu journey was Mai-sen. Mai-sen is best known for their black pork and really, the preparation and meat was spectacular. However, our attention was drawn to the sauce on the crispy outer breading. It was something we had never seen before – it was homemade.

In all other restaurants and at any time we’ve prepared katsu, we’ve always doused it with off-the-shelf Kikkoman Tonkatsu sauce. I hold Kikkoman’s Tonkatsu sauce in high-regard, but <a href=”Mai-sen’s sauce is a totally different level, popping with thick crisp apple’y goodness. It is the perfect accompaniment to Panko-breaded chicken. We begged our Japanese-only speaking waiter for the recipe. We took brochures of the restaurant that happened to have pictures of the sauce in a corner. We went back twice to see if we could guess the ingredients. No dice.

On the anniversary of our Mai-sen discovery, I asked Todd what he wanted for dinner and he said, “chicken katsu.” The holidays provide a few more hours for gourmet experimentation and we set out to see if we could either meet or beat the flavors of the Kikkoman sauce.

You can find recipes for Tonkatsu sauce fairly easily (including this one in Japanese Cooking). However, it’s always bothered me that the katsu sauce recipes always call for a large helping of tomatoes (usually ketchup) whereas the back of the Kikkoman bottle lists apple ingredients first. I’ve tried traditional recipes before and they’ve never held up to Kikkoman, much less Mai-sen.

Here were the key factors we identified while replicating the sauce:

  • Thickness: For Tonkatsu, half of the dish is about the texture of the light, crispy breading against the juicy, moist chicken. If your sauce is too thin, your breading turns to a disappointing floury mush. We wanted the sauce to sit on top of the breading without seeping in.
  • Spices & Flavoring: the cloves, allspice, and mustard powder power most of the aromatic flavor. The savory bits come from the Worcestershire sauce and I also needed a little bit of tomato paste (I think I might be able to do it with carrot juice too) to deepen the flavor. The vinegar brightens everything.
  • Sweetness: we experimented with adding two types of sweeteners: sugar and apple cider syrup. The apple cider has the advantage of also providing thickness and more apple’y flavor.
  • Saltiness: I was surprised how much soy sauce we added to approximate the same Kikkoman flavor. Recipes that include ketchup probably benefit from the ketchup’s extra helping of salt. If I did this again, I’d halve the soy sauce and add salt instead. This would give more flexibility to work with the flavorings without sacrificing thickness.

We tried about five different experiments in total. I started with one of the only recipes I could find online that called for tomato paste instead of ketchup: first recipe However, its wine flavors overpowered everything and even after trying to boil off the alcohol, I threw it all out and started over.

Our subsequent efforts entailed starting with the flavors we liked (allspice, mustard, applesauce) and then doing a side-by-side taste test with ingredient adjustments until we had the flavors right.

There were many times when I thought I had achieved the perfect Kikkoman-like flavor but it just needed a little bit more salt. I’d add the soy sauce and then realize that my sauce was now running too thin. In the end, I found myself in a tug-of-war battle between soy sauce flavor and tomato paste thickness. I finally achieved the right texture by adding a little bit more tomato paste. It was 98% of where I wanted it but I knew I couldn’t push the recipe much farther without the tomato paste becoming overwhelming. I also stopped because I could just start to taste the tinniness of the canned tomato paste.

This was the final recipe that I used to approximate Kikkoman. For more Kikkoman flavor, I’d try halving the soy sauce, adding salt which won’t thin your sauce, and reducing the tomato sauce by a teaspoon.

Kikkoman-like Tonkatsu Sauce

  • 6 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 6 teaspoons apple cider syrup
  • 4 teaspoons unsweetened applesauce
  • 4 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 4 teaspoons tomato paste
  • 2 teaspoons rice vinegar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons mustard powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon cloves


Cabbage Salad

1 cabbage with outer leaves removed and quartered into 4 segments
2 tablespoons of sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard

Chill the cabbage for an hour in an icy water bath. This step is necessary to reduce the bitterness in the cabbage. Slice the chilled cabbage quarters with a mandolin or knife. If you have a salad spinner, give the cabbage a final rinse and spin the cabbage to dry.

Combine the sherry vinegar, balsamic vinegar, and Dijon mustard in a small bowl. Drizzle on top of your sliced cabbage and toss. Serves approximately 4-6 people.

Here are pictures of our chicken katsu preparation:

However, now that I’ve experimented and understand the flavors and texture behind the Kikkoman Tonkatsu sauce, I’m ready to join Todd on his quest to create a sauce that has apple’y pop and freshness like Mai-sen. We’ll start with homemade applesauce and continue using the apple cider syrup as a sweetener. Something to look forward to.