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Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Phở, Cupcakes, Coffee, and More in Silver Lake and Then Home to Make a Bread Pudding with Chocolate and Almonds

The routine of daily life makes me really jumpy. The repetition of wake up-work-errands-go to bed-and start all over again is depressing. What breaks the bad mood? My favorite food magazine, Saveur, can help, because I lose myself in its personalized, travel narratives.

One article takes me to Austria, another to Spain, then Texas, Tokyo, Vietnam, France... I'd love to experience the pleasure of eating skewers of grilled meats from sidewalk vendors in Hanoi, oysters on the Gulf Coast, tapas in Barcelona, desserts in Paris... Reading Saveur stimulates my ideas about cooking, showing me how different cultures use familiar ingredients and introducing me to new spices, fruits, and vegetables.

Short of an unexpected windfall though, I'm not going to travel to far-away places. Luckily I've discovered that it's possible to take day-trips in LA and rethink the ordinary.

Take same-ole-same-ole soup, for instance. West of Downtown LA and south of Dodger Stadium, Silver Lake mixes up the neighborhoods, taking the best from them all: Salvadorian, Vietnamese, Thai, Mexican, French, Bohemian coffee shops, and New Age Vegetarian.

My producing partner, Dean, and I had made plans to have lunch and talk about tv series ideas. We are in such a lousy mood that we can't even figure out where to eat, then Dean remembers the Phở Café in Silver Lake. Normally, in miserable, grid-locked LA traffic, Silver Lake is half-a-world away. But, for some reason, today we make it in 20 minutes, barely enough time to finish complaining about how lousy our lives are.

Phở Café is a narrow hallway of a restaurant that specializes in Vietnamese comfort food: phở (pronounced 'fuh'), a deeply flavored, fragrant beef broth with thin slices of flank steak and soothing, hot vermicelli noodles. The large bowl of phở calms us down. Maybe life isn't so bad after all.

Even though we are stuffed, we start to talk about dessert. At the next table, a young woman on her lunch break overhears us and says she knows the perfect place for coffee. Sharlene's husband works at Intelligentsia, a hip, Direct Trade coffee shop. And near Intelligentsia is Pazzo Gelato where, she says, they serve the best gelato in LA.

Energized by phở , armed with Sharlene's tips, now we're on a mission. But we don't get far. Easily distracted by good-looking pastry, how can we pass by the glass case at Lark, with its rows of cup cakes and perfectly formed cakes?

A vision of dessert heaven, Lark takes itself seriously enough to have a lot of fun with perfectly flavored classics: carrot cake, red velvet cupcakes, brownies, ice box cakes, and a dozen varieties of cookies from the familiar (chocolate chip) to the odd (Earl Grey tea cookie). Eating a Chocolate Brownie, a Spring Fair Pecan Bar, and a Vanilla Cupcake with Italian butter cream icing gives us a sugar rush that powers us back on our search for Sharlene's perfect coffee.

Getting closer to Intelligentsia, we stumble across the Casbah Cafe, a North Beach style Bohemian cafe that is part clothing store and part French-Moroccan coffee shop, with, incongruously, the most incredibly fresh-looking tomatoes I've ever seen.

Across the street we find Pazzo Gelato, with a dozen freshly made sorbets and gelatos in its glass case. Dean happily eats a cup of the white chocolate with raspberry swirls.

We take a minute to enjoy the heady smells of The Cheese Store of Silverlake, where the rich display of French and California cheese would rival any in Paris, and finally we reach Intelligentsia and join the queue stretching out the door. Amazingly, we run into Sharlene again. Luckily she helps us navigate through the dozens of coffee choices. She orders for us: a cup of Direct Trade coffee made in the Clover brewing machine and another with a 60's style Chemex brewer. The flavors are as different as night and day.

Sitting at the marble coffee bar, we're in no rush to leave, so we sip our 2 cups of coffee and start talking about work. We're so productive, we lose track of time, until Dean realizes he has to pick up his daughter. We quickly leave and race cross-town only to get trapped in a horrible traffic jam that materializes out of nowhere. We are very slowly carried back into LA. Luckily Dean makes it to 'Bella's school just in time.

At home I'm not ready to get back to work, besides which it's time to start dinner. Something simple: an arugula-avocado salad with an entrée of Japanese rice and grilled chicken marinated with ginger, sesame oil, garlic, onions, cayenne, and black pepper.

Seeing all those great looking cakes at Lark, I want to make a nice dessert, but I don't want to put the time in to make anything complicated. I decide to make a Bread Pudding with Chocolate and Roasted Almonds, a comfort-food dessert, incredibly easy to make, plus it's a good way to use up the loaf of day-old bread that's in the back of the refrigerator.

Bread Pudding with Chocolate and Roasted Almonds

Yield: 6-8 Servings

Time: 2 hours

Ingredients

6 slices, white bread
3 eggs
3/4 cup white sugar
1 1/2 cups, heavy cream
1 tablespoon sweet butter, melted
1/2 cup, grated dark chocolate
1/2 cup, toasted almond slivers, baked in a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes

Method

Unlike traditional bread puddings, this dessert is designed to come out of the pan.

Pre-heat the oven to 350. Toast the bread in the oven for 5 minutes. Set aside and make the custard-base by using a fork to beat together the eggs and sugar. Add the cream and stir well.

Put water into a small bowl. Taking one slice at a time, dip the bread in the water for 5 seconds, then carefully squeeze out the water and tear the now soggy bread into pieces and drop into the custard. Mix well.

Instead of using a standard baking pan, use a 9" round take-out container. Why? Because the thin, aluminum-sided take-out container is flexible and that makes removing the bread pudding easy.

Paint the inside of the take-out container with melted butter. Pour in the custard-bread mixture. Sprinkle the grated chocolate over the top. Using a fork, push the chocolate down into the custard. Top with the toasted almonds and put into a water bath (1" of water in a pan larger than the take-out container).

Bake for 30 minutes, then turn it around in the oven to insure even baking and cook another 15 minutes. Check to see that the custard has set by pressing lightly on the top. If it is firm, it's done. If not, bake another 15 minutes, then remove and let cool on a wire rack.

The custard will shrink, making it easy to flip over on your hand, while the other hand slowly peels off the take-out container. Carefully place the serving platter on the bottom of the bread pudding and turn over, so the top is, well, on the top. This sounds way-more complicated than it is.

It's not necessary, but your guests will be happy if you dust the top of the bread pudding with powdered sugar. That's the simple presentation. For a special occasion, surround the platter with bowls of fresh berries, ice cream, and homemade whipped cream. In either case, you definitely need to serve the bread pudding with a good pot of tea or freshly brewed coffee.

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