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April 16, 2008

On Being a Traveler


I've only traveled alone a few times before in my life - circumstances have usually provided me with company, whether obligatory (read: family) or chosen (i.e. friends), on my travels, and I generally enjoy having someone to share my explorations with.  However, the few occasions I've had to voyage solo have yielded some of my most interesting and memorable experiences, and this trip was no exception.

Philadelphia was a wonderful, too-short blur. I hardly got to see the city at all, which was unfortunate. I spent most of my time in the studio having my cookies photographed (No, the photo shoot was not for pictures of me, as many have asked!) I am not taking my own photos for my book, which is actually a good thing, as the writing and baking parts are already consuming way too much of my time! Instead, I'm very lucky to have a very talented photographer taking really fantastic shots of my stuff. I learned a great deal just watching him photograph in lighting conditions that would have defeated me, and he very patiently answered all my neophyte queries. I got to preview the final photos after I got home, and I can say I'm pretty excited about how they'll look in the book! Things are really starting to come together - I've been furiously working on the manuscript in the last couple of weeks, which has made blogging a little tricky, but things will be coming to an end soon. In a few months I'll be able to divulge more details about the book - I'll be really excited to share them when the time comes.

I took the train from Philadelphia to New York, which I'm really glad I did instead of taking the bus or driving (I had my taxi driver in Philadelphia offer to drive me to New York; the prospect of taking a multi-hour taxi ride across several states utterly boggling this California girl). I think there is no other mode of transportation so dreamily evocative as the train. The rhythmic clattering of the wheels on the tracks, the conductor carefully punching your ticket and sliding in into the slot on the front of your seat, the land unspooling before your eyes outside the window - only on a train are you not surrounded by the endless blue ether of the sky or the grey carpet of asphalt crowded with other vehicles. It's just the train, going onward, through the landscape itself, taking you somewhere. Traveling.

Without music or book to curl into, I sat against the high-backed vinyl seats and watched New Jersey speed by me. Bare-branched trees made hatch marks against chilly blue sky. Deep, still lakes appeared and disappeared. Neighborhoods unfolded, opened before me, rows of houses, baseball fields, stores with unfamiliar names. I watched people get off the train, into towns I'd never seen before and might not pass again for a long time. It was the weekend before Easter, and many passengers were obviously kids going home for the holiday, with suitcases full of dirty laundry to wash at home or cell phones flipped open, in search of friends and the location of that night's party. I watched the dusty gold sunlight of late afternoon slant in through the train windows, suffusing everything with that timeless, crystalline quality. I was aware, at that instant, of pulling memory out of a moment seemingly ordinary and uneventful, but a moment worth remembering nonetheless. It made me quietly happy that I was "there" to experience this - not tuned out or oblivious, but present.

I'm glad I was able to carry this frame of mind for the rest of my trip, from wandering wide-eyed through New York's multitude of neighborhoods, to eating a slice of cake in a tiny, tucked-away cafe, to chatting with friendly strangers in a restaurant, to watching pastry cooks assemble precise, perfect plates in the kitchen. The best thing about traveling, particularly when you're alone, is how it reminds you to open up all your senses to the new and unknown.


Pichet Ong's ginger date pudding cake is another experience where I was very glad to be in the moment. I called this dessert the definition of soul-satisfying in my previous post, and I still can't think of a better description. It's elegant and sophisticated without being pretentious; the many components in it blend together to a harmonious whole, weaving together seamlessly and subtly, without 20-word long descriptions or 6 different separate piles on the plate needed. It just plain tastes delicious, which to me is the biggest criteria for dessert. The first bite of the cake will be one of those indelible memories: a warm, soft, spicy cloud unfurling in my mouth, the perfume of ginger and toffee, and a lingering desire for just another bite.

I know this looks more like a fall or winter dessert - I happened to arrive in New York right when all the restaurants were switching over to their spring menus. I'm sure if I had been able to stay another week I would have gotten to try a whole new round of desserts - alas for the missed opportunity. If you're not in the mood for a warm, cozy blanket of a dessert, be sure to save it away for when autumn returns; this cake is well worth it. The texture is amazingly light, yet the flavor is delectably rich and moist, especially after the cake soaks up the rum and toffee sauce. Definitely serve this cake warm, preferably as fresh from the oven as possible - cooled, it just isn't the same.


A last couple of announcements: I was very surprised to find myself mentioned in Nick Malgieri's Washington Post article on food blogs. There is some truly illustrious company on Malgieri's list, so it's a big honor for me to be included!

Finally, if you live in the Bay Area, consider participating in Dining Out for Life 2008. This event aims to raise funds for the STOP AIDS project by inviting diners to eat at participating restaurants on April 24, 2008. If you dine at one of the restaurants on that day, 25% of your food bill will go to the project. Visit the site to see the list of participating restaurants. It's a great way to indulge in great food and help a worthy cause.


And now, the long-awaited recipe!


Ginger Date Pudding Cakes with Rum Walnut Toffee Sauce

adapted from Pichet Ong's The Sweet Spot

makes 8 servings


6 dried dates, pitted

1 1-inch piece ginger, sliced into 1/4-inch pieces

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 vanilla bean, seeds scraped out and reserved

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (254 g) unsalted butter, room temperature

2/3 cup (133 g) sugar

1/3 cup (45 g) candied ginger, finely chopped

1 tablespoon orange zest

1 1/2 (223 g) cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 large egg


1 1/2 cups (149 g) walnut halves

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (133 g) unsalted butter

1 cup (227 g) heavy cream

1 1/3 cups (254 g) dark brown sugar

1 1-inch piece ginger, sliced into 1/4-inch pieces

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 vanilla bean, seeds scraped out and reserved

2 tablespoons dark rum

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter eight 4-oz ramekins, or butter and sugar eight 3" high by 2 1/2" diameter ring molds.

Place dates, ginger, salt, vanilla seeds and pod, and 1 cup water in a medium saucepan. Bring to boil on high heat and cook for about 8 to 10 minutes.

Reduce heat to low and add in the baking soda, and cook for another 3 minutes.

Remove pan from heat, take out ginger slices and vanilla pod from the mixture, and set aside.

In a stand mixer, cream together butter, sugar, candied ginger, and orange zest until light and fluffy.

Add in the dates and the cooking liquid, and mix until the dates are broken into small pieces and the mixture is well combine. The mixture may turn a funny grey or greenish color from the dates but don't worry, the cake will turn out nice and brown!

With the mixer on low, add in the flour and baking powder. Mix until fully combined.

Add in the egg and mix until combined.

Divide batter among the prepared ramekins or ring molds. Bake for about 30 to 35 minutes, until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Be careful not to open the oven too often to check the cakes as this will make them deflate.

Cool cakes on a wire rack for about 5 minutes before unmolding. Let them finish cooling as you make the sauce.

To make the sauce: Combine butter, cream, brown sugar, ginger, salt, vanilla seeds and pod, and 3 tablespoons water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally.

Reduce heat and let simmer until it becomes a thick sauce, about 10 minutes.

Remove ginger slices and vanilla pod. Stir in the walnut halves and return to a boil. Let simmer until it becomes thick and sticky, about 5 minutes.

Stir in the rum. Let cool slightly before using.

To serve, pour sauce around cakes. Serve immediately.

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How cool that you were mentioned in the article.
Oh I think taking my own pictures would be the best part. But since I am not a professional I suppose I would have to let someone else do it...maybe. :)

Those pudding cakes look terrific! Extremely scrumptious! A great combination of flavors...




what a great mention and honor! well deserved! can't wait to hear more about your book :)

I just made the cream puffs in Pichet Ong's book. Even if I missed the half cup of water it still tasted good!

I like "traveling" alone in my own city, sometimes just going for walks in an area I've never been to before.
Those pudding cakes sound fabulous regardless of season.

I have never baked with dates, Anita, but I know I'd love these!

Gld to hear the trip went well. BEtween you and Veronica mentionning this book, I think I am going to have to go ahead and get it...:)

that sauce looks TO DIE FOR. bookmarked, can't wait to try it. looks beautiful and so delectable! i think it's the best food shot i've seen so far. x

That is one stunning picture. I wish I had one of those cakes right now. Wonderful!

Ginger, date, and toffee. You can't get any better than that!

I've made that same train ride between Philly and N.Y. and most of the times I was also alone. That's probably the reason I can still remeber it so well even today when 8 years have passed.
Didn't know you're doing a book. Good luck on that, if it will be half as good as your blog it will be a sucess!

Wow, I would have never guessed this had dates in it..looks delicious! This was an interesting read:)

I love Philly! New York is fun but Philly is definitely one of my favorite cities. I'm glad you enjoyed your time traveling...unfortunately the train makes me sick to my stomach so the Philly to NYC train isn't so great for me! When I do take the train though, it's great to look out the windows at the passing towns...and I happen to be partial to NJ. :)

Congrats on getting the photos together for your book! It must feel great.

uhmm it looks delicius... i wish i had one...

Those little cakes look absolutely marvellous, and I can't wait to see the photos for your book! :)

I have always wanted to travel on a train, but haven't had the opportunity. What a great experience!

I could eat this cake year round, it sounds so delicious!

Congrats again on both your book and for being mentioned in the article. I wanted to make Dorie's gingerbread baby cakes, but your ginger date pudding cakes look awesome as well ... and then I realized I ran out of ginger at home -__-||!

I'm thinking of getting Pichet Ong's book too since a lot of bloggers have been raving about it. How do you like it so far? Anyway, I really adored your writing about the trip from Philly to NYC. Can't wait to read your book when it comes out, hopefully soon! ;)

I've never used dates in baking except to puree them to use in low fat cookies. This looks terribly worth making!

Hi there!

I enjoy reading your blog a lot. I would like to add your blog to my website, but I am not so sure about your copyright. Anyway, maybe you can add your blog to our blog directory sometime! If you have any trouble with it, leave me a comment. Thank you, Khunying:)

This looks amazing! I definitely would not have paired any of this together...thanks for the idea! :)

Seriously, these are incredibly beautiful! Little works of art. I almost want to lick my computer, embarrassingly.

Ah, dates and walnuts. There couldn't be a better combination!
I think a lot of people are put off by the prospect of something with a grandma-ish ingredient in it (dates, prunes, etc.). I have to admit I was too...until I tried sticky date pudding and these little, doughy prune dumplings. I was silly to shun them.
Congratulations on getting photos done for your book! I recently discovered your blog. The things you cook seem to turn out well. ;P

This toffee cake is my all time favorite... But with your photos become more scrumptious, mouth watering... Next time I'll try with ginger....Good luck for book...

I just bought this book based on your suggestion. What a find! By far one of the best cook books ever. It's been a truly long time since I was so inspired and found something I want to read and cook, cover to cover.

The ginger date pudding cake looks fantastic! Congrats on the Washington Post article and good luck getting your book together.... It sounds like it will be quite a good read :)

I love the train and your little cakes! Ginger is just amazing in baked goods :)

Your photos are gorgeous as always! I'll definitely be looking for this book the next time I'm at the book store. Can't wait for more details on YOUR book! :o)

Your photos are gorgeous as usual! I'll definitely keep a lookout for Pichet Ong's book the next time I'm at the book store. Can't wait for more details on YOUR book! :o)

oh yes, that's what i was waiting for. thankx for the recipe.

Thanks so much for the kind comments all! It really is a great recipe - I didn't think that dates or ginger were my favorite dessert flavors either but this turned out to be an eye-opener! Really yummy!

I would love to be in your shoes - Washington Post, getting a book together and remarkable foodography and skills! I'm bookmarking this one!

Thank you! Sometimes I have to pinch myself while marveling at my good fortune, but really, I still have a lot to learn and I find out new things every day in the kitchen and behind the camera!

I think your blog is adorable - I'll be returning to it!

The photos look real good. I would try some of your recipies next time when I make a cake. I will recommend your book to some of my friends who are great food lovers.

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