Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A Teacup Full of Bluebberries: Blueberry Baking Marathon!

“You ought to have seen what I saw on my way 
To the village, through Mortenson’s pasture to-day: 
Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb, 
Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum 
In the cavernous pail of the first one to come! 
And all ripe together, not some of them green 
And some of them ripe! You ought to have seen!”
-From Blueberries by Robert Frost

I visited Robert Frost's home once, and from the profusion of apple trees he tended there, felt confident he was my kind of fellow, and certainly someone appreciative of berry picking. Now his poem confirms it! Blueberry fever took over this last week, with blueberry picking, and then an entire blueberry-baking afternoon.

Long ago and far away, when I first was living in Boston, I discovered the Hi-Rise Bakery, and among their many treasures, became enamored (obsessed, unhinged...) over their blueberry lime muffins. I ate one as often as my week allowed. I assumed they would exist in perpetuity...blueberry lime muffins 365-24-7. So I just about had a breakdown the day I walked to the counter and was informed that the blueberries were done for the year, so I'd have to wait until next year for the muffins. It was rather shocking to me that blueberries don't grow year round. The Hi-Rise is still in Boston, still making beautiful baked goods and I do recommend a visit. Ever since I moved away from Boston, I've been looking and longing for that same flavor. And I'm not the only one. In deciding what to make with the blueberry haul, I found quite a few blueberry-lime recipes, but decided to go with a pound cake from the novice chef blog.

The First Lady of Frosting (FLOF) and I prepared for battle by drinking stiff ice tea lattes and then dove in. The blueberry-lime pound cake with cream cheese frosting mixed together quickly, but I underestimated how many limes would be needed to make 2 tablespoons of lime zest (one for each cake). With six limes, we had a scant half tablespoon among both. But at the time, it smelled so fragrant that I assumed it would be plenty. Folding in the blueberries to the batter was the most gratifying part (well, they are edible blue marbles and just look a little more exotic and jewel-like than raisins or chocolate chips). The scent as they baked was narcotic. And with cream cheese frosting, I was prepared for nirvana. Well, it turns out, blueberries and lime zest, especially a quarter of the amount recommended, make for a very delicate flavor. So I was not bowled over with taste. The cream cheese frosting really saves it though, and I have no doubt every last crumb will be consumed. But next year, I will use a ton of lime zest, even if I have to haul home an entire tree's worth and I will add more blueberries and more sugar (it is not a super sweet cake...if that's your preference then follow the recipe, which is here).

Our next bold move (because you can't have *just* cake) was blueberry cookies from the recipe critic (recipe here). Although there was a point at which the batter looked as if it had curdled (presumably from the lemon juice), it came out just a little denser than your average chocolate-chip cookie dough. They took longer to bake than we expected, but it could be that the FLOF's stove outwitted me again and the oven was under-temperature when we put them in. They came out looking a bit like scones, and at first I feared they might be too wodgy (this is an official term, and if you eat enough British baked goods, you will begin to use it too). We didn't have enough cream cheese to make the frosting from this recipe, so we used some of the frosting from the pound cake. And I have to say, once these sat in the fridge for a few hours, they were heavenly with a glass of cold milk. I inhaled them. They are gone. In the blink of an eye. Kaput. No more till next year, baby doll!

But I will say that the flavor is rather mild, even though we put in the required amount of lemon zest and far more vanilla than was called for. I'm not sure what happens during baking that all that blueberriness goes from a burst of flavor to a subtle hint of berry. A conundrum to ponder until next year, when the blueberry patch is bursting again. So ends a spectacular blueberry-baking jag!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Santa Barbara Blueberries: Blueberry-Picking Adventures in the Wilds of Buellton

Blueberries, ah blueberries...was there ever a more perfect invention? My childhood awareness of them began with that most tender, well-acted, and sophisticated of movie scenes: Violet Beauregarde, unrepentant gum chewer, turning into a human blueberry and being rolled away by Oompa Loompas. I didn't chew gum for a year after I saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but it didn't do anything to dim my affection for blueberries. In fact, I wondered if Violet Blueberry Beauregarde wouldn't make a rather fantastic blueberry pie! But cannibalistic fruit fantasy aside, I've always loved blueberries.

So, it was with unhinged but still-socially-acceptable excitement that I said yes to the FLOF's invitation to go blueberry picking in Buellton. The "Blubaru" was packed three-to-a-seat with blueberry fiends, and off we went into the wilds of Buellton, a rural part of Santa Ynez. A few years ago, I accidentally took the turnoff to Buellton on my way to Santa Barbara. For those who have traveled south on the 101, you will recognize the giant billboard that says "Buellton, home of split pea soup." But driving down the rural main street, desperately needing to take a pit stop, there were only a few run-down shops, and they looked like the beginning of a horror movie...you know, where the college kids stop in the country for gas and end up chased by an evil clown with a chainsaw. There was not even a Starbucks to save the situation. I rolled up the windows and jetted out of there as quickly as possible. But suffice it to say that on this latest visit, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Buellton now boasts a Panda Express, Chipotle, and even a Hamburger Habit (although it IS right next to a tractor supply store).

This was taken *after* everyone picked their berries and went to stand in line!

And not too far from the newly retooled downtown Buellton is Santa Barbara Blueberries, a few acres of blueberry bushes nestled in rolling golden hills and little shrubby oak trees. This is a Mom n' Pop place that grows blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries, depending on what time of the summer it is. Their website claims that on a good day, you can pick 2.5 pounds in 15 minutes. That being the approximate amount of blueberries that will fit in one of the metal pails they give you.

We'd received the secret blueberry missive that there would be a special opening, just for "Berry VIPs" to enjoy a bounty of juicy berries before everyone else descended on the patch. And I'm sure that all of this might have played out that way...if it were not also Mother's Day…when half of Santa Barbara County came with their children to celebrate the occasion. By the time we pulled in, they'd had to open the second "parking lot" (it’s a field...don't come expecting a smooth walking surface). It took about two hours for me to fill my pail. Possibly I dallied. Possibly I ate about ten pounds of blueberries straight off the bush as I picked. Or more probably it is true that the hundred people there before me had already picked the ripe ones. So although I had some very edible, mid-sized blueberries, it was not the zaftig extravaganza I'd expected.

There were toddlers melting down from too much excitement. And there were bugs. Big ones. And I was wearing flip-flops. A spider even leaped on my finger as I picked a blueberry, causing me to shriek and hop up and down like an elephant that has spotted a mouse. For the last half hour, determined to fill the pail, I soldiered past sparse bushes, convinced I had a brown spider bite on my finger or was about to be attacked by rattlesnakes (well, there were holes in the ground...How do I know what lives in there?) But at last...at last the pail was full (confession: the FLOF had to donate some of her berries to my bucket). Like a mirage on the horizon, I saw the berry shack where we would pay $20 for each pail. As I got closer, I realized that about twenty other people had beat us to the cash register, and the couple that run the farm looked like Armageddon was upon them. This was clearly the most people that had ever visited the berry patch at one time.

Still, even with the long wait, even with the spider sneak-attacks and toddler meltdowns (you tell me which is worse), I have to say I enjoyed the day immensely. The farm is beautiful, some cows may or may not wander by and moo at you, and there is something very satisfying in picking fruit that you are going to eat. I got back in the Blubaru feeling like a valiant blueberry warrior with my 2.5 pounds of blueberries that will become blueberry desserts very shortly.

To summarize, I recommend that you go…any other day of the year except Mother’s Day!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Tiki Tiki Hula Hula: A Short History of Tiki!


I'm a little excited about this one....wait for it, wait for it....drum roll...The summer of 2017 is officially declared the Summer of Tiki here at Silver Webb's Salon! I love a theme foodie jag. And what could be better than summer spent with a glass in hand decorated with a little paper umbrella and a cherry-pineapple garnish? Possibly while sitting by the pool? Possibly while nibbling on a cream-cheese Rangoon? When I start thinking about it, I cannot help but jiggle with excitement and sing, "Tiki Tiki Hula Hula!"

So, for those wondering what in the world Tiki is, here is a short history. Tiki is the Hollywood imagining of Polynesian culture, translated to a restaurant or bar or party. Polynesia covers everything from Hawaii to New Zealand to Samoa and the Cook Islands. Each of those places has its own rich history, its own important customs and cultures and religious beliefs. I am fairly confident that absolutely none of those things are meaningfully present in the American creation of Tiki as a party theme.

"Tiki" is a name from the Maori people for the first person to exist (kind of like Adam in the Christian tradition). Each pocket of Polynesia has a variant on this story. "Tiki" is also the word for a wood carving of a face, which represents the ancestors. So, to enjoy a California Tiki party, you must first make peace with the fact that your plastic Tiki glasses have taken something potentially very sacred to the Polynesian culture and made it the vehicle for a tasty drink.

It is the same with hula girls as a motif. If you've ever seen a real hula dancer at work, telling you the story and myths of Hawaii with beautiful hand and body gestures, you will not find anything kitschy about an amazing art form performed by women (and men) who are intensely powerful and athletic. And yet...and yet, I am a sucker for those 1950s post cards of bombshell hula girls in coconut bras swaying in front of palm trees. And I adore the fierce expressions of a Tiki carving...are they grimacing, shouting, smiling, laughing? That is their own mystery to know!

By all accounts (AKA Wikipedia), Don the Beachcomber first opened a Polynesian-themed bar in Hollywood in 1934, sparking a craze for what was then considered an "exotic" part of the world. People were just starting to consider Hawaii a vacation destination, and Southeast Asia was still robed in mystery (there was no Internet filled with travel blogs, keep in mind). So when Don decided to serve Cantonese food with rum cocktails by the beach, Hollywood stars flocked to partake. Trader Vic's soon opened in San Francisco and bloomed into a nationwide franchise. Its owner claims to have invented that most important of Tiki drinks, the Mai-Tai.

By the time WWII rolled around, and quite a few people had been deployed to the South Pacific, there was a renewed interest in Polynesian culture, and it became a common theme for decoration. In 1958, you might well have moved into an apartment building done completely in "Polynesian" style. Or if you watch an episode of Gilligan's Island, you are partaking in 1950s Polynesian exotica. Although Tiki never went away, it certainly did not shine all that brightly in the 80s and 90s. Recently it has enjoyed a revival in the U.S., with the reigns taken by cocktail hipsters who want to serve you a legit Mai-tai or Zombie or Fog Cutter.

Personally, I feel a Tiki party is good-hearted fun, and an awesome Tiki bar should make you feel like Captain Jack Sparrow might sit down and order a Singapore Sling, while Elvis croons Rock-A-Hula Baby in the corner. So, with due respect for those cultures that inspired the Tiki craze, and with a healthy dose of humor thrown in, we proceed madly into the fray of the Summer of Tiki!

I'll be reviewing SoCal Tiki spots, reading a few books about Tiki, upping my cocktail game, and hosting a Tiki Tea with the First Lady of Frosting (I predict a pineapple upside-down cake is soon to be in the works!). So stay tuned and Tiki Tiki Hula Hula!