Making Cheese at Home

I’m fighting putting “Easy Cheese!” up for a title- must… resist… the…. power….  So anyway- I’ve gotten some requests for how to make cheese. Now, I can’t make anything fancy, or, alas, with blue veins (don’t think I haven’t thought about it) but I do know how to make Indian paneer cheese, cream cheese, and ricotta- which is so much better than the stuff in the tub, you will never buy it again. And, it’s EASY! Whew. Got that out of my system. So today it’s paneer, and ricotta. I am not as cool as you thought- it’s the same cheese, just one is pressed, one is loose.

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As Ree says, here is the cast of characters. You’ll need a gallon of fresh WHOLE milk, fresh lemon juice, salt, a colander, a large non-aluminum pot (I switch from my enamel pot to stainless in this process today- enamel was too small) a thermometer,  cheesecloth or a stand-in for cheese cloth, wooden or stainless spoons and a little bit of time.

Two things: You don’t need “cheesecloth”- I usually use a cotton flour-sack towel. Paper towels will even work in a pinch. A large coffee filter will work- anything that will hold the curds, and allow the whey to release. You do need a colander though, sorry. No stand ins for that. Nor the thermometer.  The other thing is this: I have junket rennet tablets shown, but you don’t need them. They’re  back-up-  like adding a yeast packet to your sourdough start- it’ll work on it’s own, but the yeast(junket) is insurance.

While I don’t object necessarily to the little plastic lemon squeezie juice thingy, when making cheese you need the real deal. Don’t know why, but the sqeezie lemon just doesn’t cut it. Skip it.

Get the freshest milk you can find. If you have a local creamery, now is the time to make friends with them- ( if you have a creamery and are not already friends with them, we cannot be friends). If you have a cow, I am totally jealous and hate you.

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Squeeze your lemons for 1/3 cup fresh juice. Use a sieve of some sort to catch the pulp and pips- we’re making cheese here, not… gross curdled milk lemon bits. Or something. You won’t taste “lemon” in the cheese- it just acts as an acid to separate things anyway- like a good divorce lawyer? No? OK, nevermind…

Pour the entire gallon of whole milk into your pot. Add 1 teaspoon of salt, and turn the burner on to medium-high. No need to stir, but you can if you want. Watch your thermometer, until the temp gets to 185 degrees. You don’t need a fancy thermometer either- like my bull clip for holding it to the rim of my pot? Office Depot, baby. 12 for a $1.

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When it gets to 185 degrees, remove from heat and add your 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice, briefly stirring, then walk away- do not disturb if for the FULL five minutes. Thus:

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Forgive my hideous thumb. I have man-hands, what can I say? I’ve learned to love them over the years, and man, can they make some cool stuff. Moving on…

After five minutes, with the lemon juice, soft curds will be forming. If it’s not separating into distinct curds, add 1 Tablespoon additional lemon juice, and wait again. You may have to do this a few times. The fresher the milk, the less lemon you need. See? Befriend your creamery! Or a cow.

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I added 2 additional Tbsp of lemon to this pot, then, with a slotted spoon or spider, gently lift the curds from the whey (and you always wondered what that meant- the Muffetts were friends with their creamery) into your cheesecloth lined collander, suspended over a bowl, to catch the whey.

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See how this whey looks like non-fat milk now? More on that later… Once the curds are all lifted from the pot, pour the reserved whey back in the pot. You have a decision to make: You can use this as is, as a stand in for ricotta- and it’s fabulous. It’s not real ricotta, (ricotta means ‘re-cooked’) or you can press it and turn it into paneer. That’s what I’m doing here. Cover the curds lightly by wrapping the cheesecloth (or towel) over the top, and pressing with a heavy weight- I know just what to use!

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Let this sit, weighted and wrapped in the cheesecloth, in the fridge overnight. Now, returning to your pot of whey. It has probably substantially cooled by now- but that’s OK, because we are going to make ricotta. Add one junket rennet tablet, dissolved in a bit of the whey, to the pot. (you can use another dose of lemon juice- but it may not work as well) Put the pot back on the heat, and bring to 200 degrees. When it reaches temp, remove from flame and DO NOT TOUCH IT. Let it sit on the counter, or the stove away from the heat, for about 10 minutes.

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When you return, voila! Ricotta! Use your spider to gently lift the curds into a wire strainer so the whey can drain. Notice the color of the whey? Pale and thin- it’s given up its all to make cheesy goodness. (Whey is still a powerhouse of protein- most body-builder protein bars or powders have dehydrated whey protein in them- it’s this stuff)

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What looks like lemonade is really whey. Don’t drink it- I mean, I guess you could if you wanted to- but just don’t. “Palatable” and “whey” are not friends. Let the ricotta sit in the colander overnight in the fridge. Use it as you would any ricotta- in lasagna, calzones, deserts, on pizza- whatever. It’s delicious.

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Once your disk of pressed cheese has been sitting overnight, you can cut it into chunks and use it in any curry or Indian food- I love me some Saag Paneer, which is spicy spinach and cheese. Maybe for my next recipe? Go forth and make!

p.s. I recommend this recipe, for artichoke ricotta calzones from my friend Michelle, in Alaska. Mmmmmmm….

My Personal Pickle Parable

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First, when making pickles, you must have the perfect pickle recipe. I happen to have one- it’s my great-grandmother’s recipe, from many a hot Iowa summer, written in my grandfather’s own hand, which somehow makes it cooler than cool, and guaranteed to make magic pickles. It’s also helpful to have a wooden-handled vintage pickle cutter. Helpful, but not necessary. Cooler, but everyone will live if your poor pickles have straight sides. They’ll feel sorry for you, but they’ll still like your pickles.

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Like many old recipes (and patterns too) it’s short on details, long on flavor and success. It assumes a certain familiarity with the kitchen. It assumes you know what kind of cukes, how to prep them, and what a quart of cukes looks like. I love this about old recipes- it feels like the writer is talking to me over a painted wooden table while we share tall glasses of sweet tea, with ice tinkling and melting in the late afternoon sun. “Put the cookies in a medium hot oven…”, “Pack in hot jars…”, “Process your jam…” All of these assume a certain shared intimacy. You KNOW how to pack jars, dear. You KNOW that a med-hot oven lets you hold your hand inside for only so many seconds. It’s… intimate.

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My pickles, onions, garlic and pepper are chilling in the salty ice, while I suds and bleach my canning tops. If you’re going to pack, and don’t want broken glass all over the kitchen, jar and food must be the same temperature or thermal shock will make jars pop into a million pieces. Icy pickles never go in hot jars. Never.

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You need all of this stuff. And after you follow the directions, you get the best sweet pickles on Earth. (and I hate sweet pickles. Really, I do- but not these. Maybe it’s because they’re so wrapped up in gossamer memory, or maybe it’s because they really are that good. Does it matter why?) Make them. I have given you a gift. Make them.

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This is what you get. Blessed, delightful, little briney, sour, sweet gems from the garden. You can hot process them, and make them shelf-stable. I do that sometimes. This batch I cold-processed, and they will have to be refrigerated, but cold processed pickles stay much crunchier. If you’ve got the cold space, I prefer them- but the shelf-stable ones are almost as good- AND you can ship them to all your favorite pickle people. We’ve already busted into our second jar.

This is a recipe the kids can totally help with- especially if you have a nifty vintage slicer- it’s not sharp enough to de-finger anyone, but cuts the cukes into great shapes. Now go make some pickles. Don’t tell anyone I gave you the recipe. You’re welcome.

Bread and Berries

July is yanking my chain. Yesterday was miserably, sweltering hot. Last night thunder and lightning rolled across our skies, drawing the sleepy boys from their beds into our room, where we gazed out the darkened windows at the crashing show. Today, drizzle and overcast skies, it’s cool enough that I closed a window and thought about putting on socks.

This is strawberry season, jam making season, apricots and raspberries and peaches… just when I finally came to place of peace with July, she turns on me.

So I’m making banana bread and have a large crockery bowl of yeast dough on the counter, rising and making the kitchen smell wonderful. Not sure what kind of bread it will turn into- the boys are lobbying hard for Monkey Bread- but I’m leaning towards some crusty french loaves. Not exactly standard July fare.

Off to deliver my loaves of banana bread- it’s fantastic. See, I don’t like banana bread, but I make a mean one, so I make them for other people. It’s the secret to my girlish figure…

Adventures in Julia’s Kitchen

This is a long one. Feel free to skip it and go eat an ice cream cone if your day is as lovely as mine. Once again, if Beanie hadn’t loooooved the sound my camera made while he manually shoved the lens, I would a) still have a camera, and b) this post would be awesomeness incarnate, with photos of my adventure and even my chopped off tip of thumb. Instead, it’s just words. I shall do my best to paint with them…

So a few nights ago, I was flipping channels and found a PBS channel showing old reruns of Julia Child’s Master Chefs. This is a fantastic show. I hardly ever find it anymore- it’s a double happy, because not only do you get Julia, but you get to see young (now famous) chef’s stammering and doing their clumsy best in front of the Queen.

This particular episode, I know now, was something of an urban fable. Nacy Silverton of La Brea Bakery was on, and she was preparing a Creme Fresh Brioche Tart with Caramelized Plums and a white wine zabaglione.  At the end of the unbelievably long and complicated recipe, when Julia tastes it, she stammers and tears up, and says aloud that she is going to cry, because this is the best dessert she has ever tasted. Wow. Nancy has been immortalized and cast in bronze, and this dessert is the urban legend of The Tart that made Julia Child Cry.

Of course, I had to make it.

At midnight, I was Google-ing “Nancy Silverton” “Crying Tart” and trying to figure out how to spell “Zabaglione”. All to no avail. Finally, I hit up PBS and Julia’s page, where it turns out, the recipe is only available in her book, Baking with Julia. I don’t have $39 to drop on a book- because really, I could already outfit a library with my cookbooks. But! I did notice you could watch video clips from the show. So I got a pencil and paper, hit play, and started writing. 

Yesterday, I used some of my precious garage-sale funds on ingredients, and got started.  I’ve never made brioche before, but when I worked in Palo Alto, there was a bakery that had the BEST brioche, and I’ve never been able to replicate it. (And for whatever else this recipe is, now I CAN make a screaming brioche)

So I’m working on the brioche dough, and realize with all the rise times, this bread won’t be ready until morning. So it’s a two-day recipe now. Whatever- that might work out better anyway. One of the labor-intensive things about a brioche dough is you have to add cold, mashed butter. If the butter is warm, the dough just gets oily. Keep it cold. So. I’m slicing butter into chunks so I can smash it with my bench scraper (it’s not as fancy as it sounds) and buttery-10″ crazy-sharp chefs knife slips from my hand and dances across my left thumb.

Oh, and another thing: My knives are wickedly, razor sharp. David hones them after each use, the way you’re supposed to do- and I adore having sharp knives. Almost always.

You’ve heard about the Ninjas with knives so sharp you can’t even feel them cut you? It’s true. The tip of my thumb and nail was GONE before I even knew it. It was so clean I actually got to watch it fill with blood. I know, gross out. Grabbing a towel, raising my hand and calling for David, I fought feeling faint. Not because I’m squeamish about blood- totally am not- but because dang, that was a lot of blood. And it was mine. Crap. Daaaavid!!

David comes down all sleepy (it was late, did I mention that?) Wha? Huh? Yeah, um, honey? I cut my thumb off- can you help me decide if this needs the doctor, or just bandage it and we play Taps for the tip? He got the first aid kit and a roll of duct tape. I kid you not. Men. After staunching the blood, we decided the piece wasn’t big enough to warrant sewing back on, and we could rig it ourselves with some Dermabond and bandages. No duct tape was used in the care of my wound.

But see, my brioche dough was only half done. David, I need your help.

David smashed all the rest of the butter and cleaned up the kitchen while me and my throbbing thumb went to bed. When I got up this morning, the dough was doubled in the fridge, and ready to go. Wooot!

Doing things with one thumb is hard. Just so you know. Thumbs are pretty significant.

Dividing the dough in half, I roll out enough to make the tart, and use the other half to made just a simple pan of bread. I made up the filling with creme fresh and eggs, then put it all in the oven. That part was easy. Next came the caramel sauce and zabaglione. Carmel sauce I can do. The only problem was, it called for white wine. I don’t have any.  Hit Google again, it says apple juice  with a splash of cider vinegar is a good substitute for white wine in recipes. That, I can do. Strike one.

Screeeeech. Stop right there. If you EVER find yourself making a recipe that takes TWO days to make, do not, DO. NOT. substitute ingredients. File away for future reference. That is all.

Caramel sauce is easy. Pot the sugar, keep it down the side to avoid seizing, and watch until it colors. No problem. What was a problem was that I also had no Tahitian vanilla beans. So I used extract. Strike two. Can you see where this is heading? Too bad I couldn’t.

See, the thing about a caramel is that you reduce it. A lot. So what started out as a tiny teaspoon of vinegar condensed into a syrup of apple vinegar that even a cup and a half of sugar couldn’t cover. So far invested in this by now, I cannot admit that the vinegar is overpowering and press on. I set aside my hot “wine” caramel sauce and separate four eggs for the zabaglione.

I have to temper the eggs with the hot caramel, and whip them over a bain marie for at least five minutes, to cook the eggs. Every cooking school student learns zabaglione the first year. It’s not hard, it just requires attention, and that you never, ever stop whisking. I can do all that. I whip and whip. And whip and whip. Then I whip some more. Nothing. It’s supposed to get thick! Putting it back over the bain-marie I cook it for another five minutes, and it finally begins to thicken. I must pat myself on the back for tempering them without cooking so much as one little curd of egg. It’s about the only thing I did right.

Whipping the caramel sauce into the warm zabaglione, I still refuse to admit it smells like vinegar. It’s yummy, dammit. It made Julia Child cry, and mine will too! (One way or another, right? Riiight! Har har har.)

Pulling the brioche from the oven, it’s a picture of perfection. It’s toasty and golden, puffy and glossy from the egg-wash and sugar crust. The creme fresh is set perfectly in the middle, and it looks awesome. Siiiigh. Thank you.

The next step is sauteing sliced firm stone-fruit in the “delicious” caramel sauce. Well, I didn’t have any plums or nectarines, so apples would have to work, right? Yeah, strike three. That and sauteing in my Vinegar Carmel. Strike four five and six.

Cutting into the tart, I call the kids and David to come sample this delightful slice of heaven I have created. On each plate, I put a small wedge of the brioche tart. I top it with the caramel-sauce sauteed apples, a dollop of the zabaglione, some fresh toasted almond slivers and a light dusting of powdered sugar. Just like Nancy Silverton. Just. Like.

Only not.

Jeffrey took one bite and spit it out. David took a bite and closed his eyes. Stomping my foot and near tears I stammer, “I worked two days on this, and you are going to enjoy it with me!” I took a bite. Oh. My. Hell.

Imagine overcooked dried out sweet rolls with mushy apples soaked in sugary vinegar with a poached egg on top. Oh yeah.

So…

This is why I’m not a baker. I love to cook, and think I do a pretty good job. I can replicate restaurant recipes, and make a lot of food I’m told is good. But baking? Even though you do it on the same court as cooking, it’s an entirely different animal. It’s precise. It’s exact. It requires recipes not be deviated from. Not one inch. Or ingredient. This is why I am not, and never will be, a Baker.

I bet mine would have made Julia cry, too.

Recipe Request: Chai Tea

md_6_news-item-pictureLong ago, in another life, I lived in Santa Cruz, and rode my bike to work at a little local organic market called Staff of Life. It was a crunchy place, in a town full of crunchy places. I loved it. It was there I learned a lot about healthy cooking, organic foods, whole foods, cooking with bulk items, and dealing with the smell of patchouli. I was young. It was fun. I used cotton bags before it was vogue. I made some good friends. 

One of the things Staff of Life was known for was making THE most awesome Chai tea. And this was waaaaaay before most people even knew what Chai was- think about 199o. I adored the stuff, and was never without my mug while at work. Of course we all used ceramic mugs, because nevermind Styrofoam, even paper is evil in Santa Cruz. Anyhooo…

While there amid this organic bliss, I worked out the recipe for this amazing chai. It wasn’t really necessary to make it myself until I moved to Seattle for college-  the pot simmering away in my small Capitol Hill apartment brought the warmth and goodness of home to a dreary Seattle morning. 

Two things to know before you make it: Follow the directions. Really. The only thing you can leave out, if you’re a Mo, is the black tea. It will be thick and very strong. That’s good. Most of the commercial- or even restaurant- chai is insipid and too weak. It’s strong because you are going to cut it with milk or soy. It needs to be strong. You will thank me.

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I wish I could show you the written recipe- in order not to lose it, I wrote it in big black Sharpie on the inside back cover of my Moosewood Cookbook, then I laminated it. Over the years it’s sunk deep into the paper, like an old tattoo, and you can even see it from the outside now. Not having a camera sucks…

Here’s the cast of characters…
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  • A stock pot that will hold a gallon + of water 
  • 1/4 cup green cardamom seed pods, lightly crushed to break open
  • 1/4 cup fresh ginger root, chopped, with skin
  • 1/4 cup cinnamon bark, broken into chips
  • 2 Tbsp whole cloves
  • 1 Tbsp whole black Tellicherry peppercorns
  • 3 star anise 
  • 2 Tbsp loose black tea leaves
  • 1/2 cup honey

Fill your stock pot with one gallon of fresh water. Add everything except the honey and the black tea. Simmer for 45 minutes, uncovered. It needs the time for the spices to release their amazing-ness- but be super careful not to scorch or burn it- a watched pot never boils, and that’s good, you don’t want this to boil. Watch it.

The house will smell amazing. Children and random strangers will follow their noses to your kitchen.

Once you are satisfied that the spices have given up their all, add the honey and loose black tea (or not). Cook for another 15 mintues. If it’s too strong for you, and it will be strong, you can add some water and bring back up to a simmer. Strain entire pot over a sieve or cheesecloth, and discard spent spices.

Serve with frothy milk or soymilk (this one instance where I love soymilk). It will keep in the refrigerator for a while- but it never lasts more than a day in our house.

Food Makes Everything Better

Yeah, so, um, sorry about the hissy-fit the other day. Nothings changed, but my attitude is better again. This roller coaster, I swear. So to make it all better, here’s a Make-Up Recipe. The best kind, you  know…

This is the best tomato-basil soup you will ever eat, and it’s easy-peasy. It’s from a local restaurant, and I can’t tell you how I got it, but you’re welcome. Someday when I have a camera again, maybe I’ll be as cool as Ree and take pictures while I actually make it. Go ahead and hold your breath on that one, K?

Tomato Basil Soup

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  •  1/2 cup butter
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • 1 16 oz. can chicken broth
  • 1 16 oz. can tomato sauce
  • 1 16 oz. can crushed toms in puree
  • 1 Tbsp dried basil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 2 cups half and half
  • fresh basil to garnish
  • shredded mozzarella to garnish
  1. Melt butter over med-low heat  in a soup pot. Add flour and simmer the flour for a few minutes, but do not brown.
  2. Add chicken broth and bring back to simmer. Cook
  3. Add tomatoes and sauce, as well as dried basil, salt and pepper. Cook for about 30 minutes on low heat for flavors to meld well.
  4. Remove from heat and add half and half. If you want to keep the calories under control, you can substitute evaporated milk and it will still taste good.
  5. Serve topped with chiffonade of basil and some shreds of fresh mozzarella. 

Even JEFFREY, the child who will gag, asphyxiate and go to bed before he lets a vegetable pass his lips, will eat this soup. Not only will he eat it, but he asks for it. And Abby asks for it almost every day at lunch. MMMM, lycopene!

Pretty Little Things

In the middle of the chaos that is life, I’ve found much delight and enchantment in this little place- Papier Valise. If you like to make things and want to be inspired by random trinkets, head over there… most things are inexpensive, they take PayPal and the prices are all in Canadian dollars, so it’s even less than it at first seems…

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My very favorite color in the world is the glass heads of those pins. And who can resist a vintage label? Not me. I spent less than $2 and bought what you see above. Happiness costs so very little… and I get to look for the mail lady now!

Making Stuff: Beanie’s Apron

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Beanie was feeling left-out today as Jeffrey and his dad broke out the Chemistry set. So to waylay the tears, I took Bean down to my sewing room, and told him I would make him whatever he wanted. He wanted an apron. He chose the fabrics, the color, the style and the trim. He liked the main fabric because “Rockets make it for a boy, mom!” Just nevermind the rest of it. I’m so glad my husband doesn’t care about nonsensical things like a boy in a pink blanket sleeper with a ruffled apron. In our house, that’s just normal.

Life snapshot: Right this moment, Jeffrey is watching a History Channel show about UFO’s, Abby is in the wingchair flipping through a magazine- (it happens to be American Rifleman) and Benie is still wearing the above outfit, and wrestling with his dad on the couch. We had hamburgers and tater-tots with homemade ketchup for dinner.

Recipe: German Apple Pancake

I’m going to give you a secret. This is the  most asked-for recipe in my arsenal. I’ve gotten phone calls and written note-cards asking for this recipe, and I’m going to give it away today. Some people call this a Dutch Baby, but I’ve always known it as a German Apple Pancake- and it’s simply one of the best things you will ever eat. Oh, and you simply must have a cast-iron skillet for this. If you don’t have a cast iron skillet- first, shame on you! and next, run to the second-hand store and grab one. They always have them, usually for only a couple of bucks. Google how to season it, and get going! Let me know how it goes…

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Dandelion Mama’s Apple Pancake of Yumminess (Official Title)

  • 1/2 stick butter, melted
  • 2 large firm apples ( I prefer tart) peeled, cored and sliced in wedges
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 4 large eggs
  • 3 Tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees, with rack in middle position.
  2. Melt butter in skillet over medium heat, setting aside 2 Tbsp in your blender.
  3. Add apple wedges to butter in skillet and saute until they soften and get some color. About 5 minutes, usually.
  4. While apples are cooking, add milk, flour, eggs, sugar, vanilla and salt to butter in blender and whirl until smooth.
  5. When apples are colored and soft, sprinkle with brown sugar and cinnamon, then pour batter over the top of the whole mess.
  6. Put the skillet in the hot oven and bake until pancake is puffy and golden, usually 12-15 minutes.
  7. Dust with powdered sugar and serve with real maple syrup.
  8. Die happy.
  9. I’m not kidding.

Cafe Violette Lemon Chicken

cafevioletteThere is a tiny little corner restaurant in Capitola, California (where I had my very first apartment when I was 18) called Cafe Violette. Right off the Esplanade, a curved sweeping drive that mimics the curve of the Monterrey Bay, lies this little wedge-shaped cafe. Through one small door, you can get Polar Bear ice cream, some of the best stuff on earth. (Honey and almond is my favorite, followed closely by Olollieberry) and through the other painted door is a small counter and two table where you can get best felafels in California and a divine concoction called Roasted Lemon Chicken.

capitola-tresleAfter work, David and I used to walk down to get an order of Lemon Chicken, make our way through the hilly streets,  and up a steep little brush-thick path to the top of the railroad trestle. We would sit on the trestle with our Lemon Chicken and felafel’s and watch the sunset over the Pacific. I don’t know if this is really the best lemon chicken on earth, but  it’s colored with sweet memories of an idyllic time long gone, and for me, it’s manna from Heaven. It’s really simple and really yummy. Give it a try…

Cafe Violette Lemon Chicken

  • 4 boneless skinless chicken breasts
  • lemon pepper
  • lemon juice and zest from 2 lemons
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 Tbsp yellow mustard
  • salt and pepper
  • Shredded lettuce
  • lemon wedge
  • sliced fresh tomato and/or cucumber
  • 4 pita pocket breads
  1. Dice chicken breasts into bite-sized cubes, about 1 inch.
  2. Toss with juice and zest of one lemon, and a healthy dose of lemon pepper.
  3. Broil in a 400 degree oven for about 20 minutes, or until cooked through and browned, but still moist.
  4. While chicken is broiling, in a bowl combine mayonnaise, mustard, lemon juice to taste. Shred lettuce, and warm pita bread.
  5. Toss cooked, hot chicken pieces in mayonnaise sauce.
  6. Serve either as a salad topped with the chicken, or stuff the pita with the chicken and lettuce, accompanied by the lemon wedge and tomato.
  7. Find a train trestle, climb it and look toward the ocean. Or, find a nice high spot and appreciate wherever it is you live.

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