Sweet Sourdough Cake

In the last seven years I have lived in no less than seven different homes. I’m sure many of you can relate. I’ve always loved getting to know new streets and neighborhoods — enough to put up with an annual schedule of packing and moving and unpacking. My latest summer move took place last weekend and I couldn’t be happier with the change.

When I first left Chicago for grad school last year, I found a suitable home and roommates by way of Craigslist. It was a fine arrangement, but the house was small for three people and we didn’t have anything in common. Ultimately, it was just a place to sleep and fix quick meals.

I’m thrilled to be recently installed in a gorgeous, sun-filled house with two great women from my program. The family that owns the house is on sabbatical in Switzerland until late December — exactly when we all plan to be graduating. Not only is the timing perfect, but the big dining room and garden patio already have dinner party planning in full swing.

This recipe comes to me couresty of my parent’s neighbor Audrey (who you might remember from her amazing Raspberry Chocolate Torte recipe). Audrey gave me a portion of starter and a print out of the recipe, and after a bit of research, I found that the recipe is from a popular “chain-letter” starter called Amish Friendship Bread. The original cautions not to use metal containers or utensils, to keep the starter un-refrigerated, and to use only ceramic or plastic bowls. I haven’t tested these recommendations.

You can find the recipe here. I modified the recipe by adding one cup of whole wheat flour to the starter on the tenth day instead of all-purpose. I also omitted the vanilla instant pudding and the nuts entirely and I didn’t miss either of them. The cake is a bit like a quick bread, but the sweet sourdough starter gives it a more complex flavor. The cake is excellent served wtih some berries and plain yogurt.

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Lesa - Congratulations on your new house, sounds great!

Lesa - Congratulations on your new house, sounds great!

Katie - Hi Gemma! Thanks for stopping by! You look great in your profile pic on this page, BTW. Like an old time movie star. I am going to stop by whenever I need an awesome recipe. Take care!

Katie - Hi Gemma! Thanks for stopping by! You look great in your profile pic on this page, BTW. Like an old time movie star. I am going to stop by whenever I need an awesome recipe. Take care!

Gemma - Thanks Lesa! I’m loving it.
Hello Katie, it’s great to keep in touch!

Gemma - Thanks Lesa! I’m loving it.
Hello Katie, it’s great to keep in touch!

Next & Aviary

Last weekend, I had the good fortune to visit Next and The Aviary, the new Chicago restaurant and cocktail bar from Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas. It was an incredibly decadent evening and one of the best dining experiences of my life. The theme of the first Next menu is Paris 1906 – Escoffier at the Ritz. Every detail – from the silver serving platters to the superb wine pairings – created a unique and memorable dining experience.

First course: Hors d’Oeuvres. Eggshell filled with truffle-topped egg custard, toast with foie gras and apricot jam, quail egg with anchovy, cracker with pork rillettes, and mushroom and leek.

Third course: Filet de Sole Daumont. Sole and crawfish including a crawfish-stuffed mushroom and breaded sole roe.

Fifth course: Caneton Rouennais à la Presse. Duck breast and leg with duck jus prepared using an antique duck press. You can see the duck press in action here.

Eighth course: Mignardises. Included beet pate de fruit, salted caramel and pistachio nougat. You can view pictures of all eight courses on my flickr page.

Kitchen Chef
After dinner, we were welcomed into the Next kitchen to watch the talented staff at work and chat with Next Chef Dave Beran (pictured on the right).

We were then escorted next door for drinks at The Aviary. When we arrived at our table, a server brought out bloody mary amuse bouches.

Blueberry Dark and stormy
Aviary cocktails pictured above: Blueberry with verjus, sweet vermouth, rye, blood orange peel, strawberries, pomegranate seeds and peppercorns and the Dark and Stormy, served capped in a brown paper bag.

Red drink Pour
Rhubarb with lemon balm, cocchi, gin, and Peychaud bitter round ice cubes. Martini in three glasses: aged, vermouth, gin. Truffle negroni with Campari and black truffle being poured in the background.

With seven people, we were able to sample a large number of the drinks available at the Aviary. They were all wonderful, but I especially enjoyed the Aviary take on the classic Negroni. There isn’t much a black truffle won’t improve, but the deep, earthly flavor combined with the bitter alcohol made for a truly remarkable cocktail.

A very special thank you to Nick for getting tickets to Next and treating me to dinner. I hope Aviary drinks and Dolly Parton tickets made up for it.

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rachel @sweettarte - wow thanks for sharing–looks like an amazing meal!

rachel @sweettarte - wow thanks for sharing–looks like an amazing meal!

Courtney - If I ever visit Chicago, Aviary is definitely on my list! These photos look amazing!

Courtney - If I ever visit Chicago, Aviary is definitely on my list! These photos look amazing!

Robin - looks amazing!!!
*note: right after i typed that i saw that the previous two commenters said the exact same thing. i’ll consider myself corroborated in duplicate.

Robin - looks amazing!!!
*note: right after i typed that i saw that the previous two commenters said the exact same thing. i’ll consider myself corroborated in duplicate.

kasia - wow! I’m surprised they let you take pictures at Next – awesome. Thanks for the vicarious experience!
Did you try the pineapple drink at Aviary? That was my favorite.

kasia - wow! I’m surprised they let you take pictures at Next – awesome. Thanks for the vicarious experience!
Did you try the pineapple drink at Aviary? That was my favorite.

Gemma - Thanks Rachel, it truly was.
Thanks Courtney, I highly recommend it.
Ha, thanks Robin. It is an apt descriptor!
Kasia, why are you surprised? There are many pictures around of Next. In fact, I didn’t intend to photograph each course, but the staff really encouraged it. They kept arranging things nicely for me and placing the dishes in the best light. They even brought me out a second truffled egg custard because my egg shell broke. It was very welcoming!

Gemma - Thanks Rachel, it truly was.
Thanks Courtney, I highly recommend it.
Ha, thanks Robin. It is an apt descriptor!
Kasia, why are you surprised? There are many pictures around of Next. In fact, I didn’t intend to photograph each course, but the staff really encouraged it. They kept arranging things nicely for me and placing the dishes in the best light. They even brought me out a second truffled egg custard because my egg shell broke. It was very welcoming!

Nishta - wow. I can’t really come up with anything more articulate to say, except I’m thrilled for you that you were able to go (well played, Nick!) and thank you so much for sharing with us.

Nishta - wow. I can’t really come up with anything more articulate to say, except I’m thrilled for you that you were able to go (well played, Nick!) and thank you so much for sharing with us.

Gemma - Thank you Nishta! It was an incredible experience.

Gemma - Thank you Nishta! It was an incredible experience.

Grape & Cilantro Salad

I recently completed my second semester of graduate school. Spring was packed with multiple jobs, extra credit hours, and training for my second marathon (it went great!). It was an exciting semester, but it was truly a relief to turn in my final projects and take a short break from everything. I’m back at it though; my position with the University continues throughout the summer, I’m working on an information architecture and usability independent study project, trying to visit Chicago often, packing for a move, and my summer courses begin in just a few weeks.

Summer in a university town is different experience from the rest of the year. With the vast majority of undergraduate students out of town, it is easier to feel connected to a real community. I feel like I am finally getting my footing here and truly enjoying it. I’ve made some wonderful friends, I’m moving into a charming house, and I finally know what I want to do with myself when I graduate in December with my MLIS. It feels great.

The heat and heavy storms of summer have made their way to the midwest in the last few weeks. This is the time of year when I begin making one of my favorite salads on a frequent basis. I’ve posted about it before, but I thought it deserved an update. This recipe comes from my friend Ellen and it calls for just a few ingredients: Red grapes, raw almonds, cilantro, olive oil, lemon, and salt. It’s simple, quick, and a bit of a departure from a typical fruit salad. You can find the recipe on Ellen’s website.

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Jasmine - Beautiful summer recipe!

Jasmine - Beautiful summer recipe!

Anita - I love all of those ingredients separately, but never would have thought about trying them together. Willing to give it a shot, though!
(And having experienced summer in Champaign many years ago – it IS a completely different experience!)

Anita - I love all of those ingredients separately, but never would have thought about trying them together. Willing to give it a shot, though!
(And having experienced summer in Champaign many years ago – it IS a completely different experience!)

Gemma - Thanks Jasmine!
Hello Anita. It is a surprising combination, I recommend it!

Gemma - Thanks Jasmine!
Hello Anita. It is a surprising combination, I recommend it!

kasia - I loved it! I used slivered almonds instead of whole ones, which I think made it easier to have mouthfuls of all the ingredients at once. Anyways, definitely will be making this again – thanks!

kasia - I loved it! I used slivered almonds instead of whole ones, which I think made it easier to have mouthfuls of all the ingredients at once. Anyways, definitely will be making this again – thanks!

Gemma - It’s one of my favorites, I’m very glad you enjoyed it, Kasia!

Gemma - It’s one of my favorites, I’m very glad you enjoyed it, Kasia!

Roasted Asparagus with Balsamic & Oregano

When I started this website over six years ago, I had a second-hand point and shoot camera and no understanding of white balance. I’ve come along way since those early days and I’ve even sold a few photos, but I’m constantly trying to improve. Some days I shoot photos that I am really proud of, other days I can’t seem to get close to what I want. This weekend, I’m extremely pleased to be taking part in the creativeLIVE free food photography course with my (hands-down) favorite food photographer, the incredible Penny De Los Santos. If you have any interest in food photography, I highly recommend joining in.

I recently bought my first real DSLR camera. A Canon 60D with a 50mm f/1.4. It was quite a financial splurge, but I was lucky to find manufacturer refurbished pieces for a bit less than expected. I have a lot to learn, but I’m loving it. Many thanks to Penny and creativeLIVE for offering a free class. It’s fascinating to watch Penny’s work-flow and I’m learning a ton.

The farmers market is bursting with gorgeous bunches of asparagus. This is a nice side dish for hot early summer days. It has a lot of flavor, but it only requires a short time in the oven so your home won’t overheat.

Roasted Asparagus with Oregano and Balsamic

Ingredients

25 spears of asparagus
2 Tbl olive oil
salt
black pepper, freshly ground
2 Tbl oregano leaves, fresh
2 Tbl oregano balsamic vinegar*
Parmesan

Method

Preheat oven to 375F. Wash and trim the asparagus spears. Arrange in a single layer on a roasting pan, drizzle with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Use your hands to evenly coat the spears. Top with oregano. Bake for 15 minutes. Rotate and shake the pan to turn the asparagus while baking.

Remove the asparagus from the oven when it is bright green and beginning to slightly char. Season with balsamic and shaved parmesan. Serve immediately.

(*Any balsamic will work. The sweetness is a perfect complement to the other flavors in this dish. I have an assortment of wonderful vinegars form Old Town Oil in Chicago. This oregano balsamic has a subtle flavor that really shines here.)

 

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Nicholas - That top photo is the best food picture I’ve ever seen. Not just best one you’ve taken. It’s really beautiful.

Nicholas - That top photo is the best food picture I’ve ever seen. Not just best one you’ve taken. It’s really beautiful.

Gemma - Thank you. That’s sweet.

Gemma - Thank you. That’s sweet.

Evan - You are definitely putting your new camera equipment to good use!

Evan - You are definitely putting your new camera equipment to good use!

Gemma - Thanks Evan! It’s so nice to have a lens that helps me sharply focus. It makes a world of difference!

Gemma - Thanks Evan! It’s so nice to have a lens that helps me sharply focus. It makes a world of difference!

Seattle Road Trip

My brother recently moved from Chicago to Seattle, and thanks to the flexible schedule of grad school, I was able to take a few days off to accompany him and his two cats, Sprout and Turnip, on the three-day drive. Evan is my only sibling and our family is very close, the two of us even lived together last year. It’s been hard to adjust to having him so far away, but I’m excited for his new adventure and I’m grateful we were able to spend this time together.

We stopped in St. Cloud, Minnesota to see Evan’s friend Sten and grab dinner at the White Horse, a nice bar in the charming old downtown area. We spent our first night in Fargo, North Dakota. The next morning as we left town, we watched the floods rise to meet the expressway. Had we left a few hours later, we would have been stuck. It was eerily beautiful in the early morning light, but it was clear that the families who owned the farm fields we passed would be facing a hard year without their crops.

Sprout and Turnip are young cats and they did amazingly well with the drive. We were able to let them out of their crate for most of the trip and enjoyed watching them peer out the windows or find sunny spots to sleep. We drove all day and made a quick stop for dinner at the excellent Montana Ale Works in Bozeman, Montana. Thanks to many family trips to National Parks growing up, Evan and I share a deep love for Montana. Bozeman was a gorgeous spot to stop and enjoy the sunset behind the mountain range.

We stayed in Missoula, Montana that evening and had breakfast at the Hob Nob, a fantastic diner recommended by my friend Angela. Their menu included pancakes made with 100 year-old sourdough starter from Red Lodge. I’m normally a savory breakfast type, but I couldn’t resist a legacy like that and they were delicious.

Our third day of driving was our shortest. The state seems to have a bit of an image problem, but for those of you that haven’t had the pleasure of visiting Idaho, I think the beauty of the northern portion is one of the best kept secrets in the U.S.

On the afternoon of an uncharacteristically sunny April day, we made our way along the Puget Sound and into Seattle. We stayed at a lovely place in the Fremont neighborhood and set to work trying to find Evan an apartment. The cats were pretty thrilled to be out of the car, as were we.

Apartment hunting might not sound like a great way to spend a vacation, but it was actually really wonderful to be outside all day, getting to know different neighborhoods, and sampling the local fare. I went to school in Portland, Oregon and visited Seattle a few times, but I never got a great sense of the city before.

We spent the majority of our time in Fremont, Capitol Hill and Queen Anne. Rent rates weren’t as bad as we had been expecting, but nearly every place in Seattle appears to have carpeted floors and electric stoves. It was a rough transition from the hardwood and high ceilings that seem plentiful in Chicago. Ultimately, we did find a nice spot in our favorite neighborhood.

I have two great friends who live in Seattle, Tara from high school and Jen from college. It was really fun to finally get out to see them and I’m looking forward to more frequent visits. They took us to some excellent local establishments and helped us get a better sense of the housing market.

Seattle is a beautiful city, full of interesting people and lush landscapes. The air feels amazing, their produce beats Chicago’s nearly all year round, and the opportunities for outdoor activities are endless. I’ve really missed the northwest since I moved away years ago. It is nice to know that I will have a good excuse to get reacquainted.

I’m really excited for Evan. It’s hard to move away from home, but I know he is going to have an incredible time in his new home. It was so hard to say goodbye at the airport. And even harder during a few idle hours in Chicago last weekend when I went to give him a call, and had to remind myself that he wasn’t in Logan Square anymore. He’s one of my best friends and I already miss him a ton. I’m so grateful we were able to take this trip together.

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Beth - Sounds like a very special trip with your brother. I’m glad you were able to take the time to travel with him.

Beth - Sounds like a very special trip with your brother. I’m glad you were able to take the time to travel with him.

kickpleat - I loved reading this post! I guess in part because I’m jonesing for a road trip and adventure. Those pancakes look amazing and thanks for sharing your trip!

kickpleat - I loved reading this post! I guess in part because I’m jonesing for a road trip and adventure. Those pancakes look amazing and thanks for sharing your trip!

Nishta - loved reading about your trip–beautiful shots, as usual (especially the car-bathing kitten!) I think road trips create their own kind of bond and mental memory file. also, your brother is adorable.

Nishta - loved reading about your trip–beautiful shots, as usual (especially the car-bathing kitten!) I think road trips create their own kind of bond and mental memory file. also, your brother is adorable.

Erin O'Brien - Your photos are amazing!
I looooove road trips and finding/stopping at special places, like that diner with the pancakes (yum!), along the way. Traveling by vehicle, you can really discover awesome, underrated parts of this country. For me, Utah is amazing and I can’t believe there are people who don’t know what it’s like. But if Matthew and I weren’t in LA the chances of me/us making it across Utah in a car would be slim – there would just be no reason for us to drive across Utah.
Too, I love that you noted the beauty of Northern Idaho. I have been in that area myself, with my father on a few trips to Yellowstone, and it’s so gorgeous, as is Montana. One day I’d like to make it up to Glacier National Park.
I know you’ll miss your brother, but at least you have a fantastic place to get away when you get the itch! I’ve always thought of Seattle as a super cool city, one that I have yet to see. :) But some day!

Erin O'Brien - Your photos are amazing!
I looooove road trips and finding/stopping at special places, like that diner with the pancakes (yum!), along the way. Traveling by vehicle, you can really discover awesome, underrated parts of this country. For me, Utah is amazing and I can’t believe there are people who don’t know what it’s like. But if Matthew and I weren’t in LA the chances of me/us making it across Utah in a car would be slim – there would just be no reason for us to drive across Utah.
Too, I love that you noted the beauty of Northern Idaho. I have been in that area myself, with my father on a few trips to Yellowstone, and it’s so gorgeous, as is Montana. One day I’d like to make it up to Glacier National Park.
I know you’ll miss your brother, but at least you have a fantastic place to get away when you get the itch! I’ve always thought of Seattle as a super cool city, one that I have yet to see. :) But some day!

irene - i so much enjoyed looking at these amazing pictures!

irene - i so much enjoyed looking at these amazing pictures!

Irma Perl - T’was a great trip! Although it is sad to know the two of you are living far from each other. But sometimes, we have to face our own destiny and grow on our own way. At least you two had a great time together which made your bond as siblings stronger than ever.

Irma Perl - T’was a great trip! Although it is sad to know the two of you are living far from each other. But sometimes, we have to face our own destiny and grow on our own way. At least you two had a great time together which made your bond as siblings stronger than ever.

Gemma - Thanks Beth, kickpleat, Irene, and Nishta! (Yes, isn’t he handsome?)
Hello Erin, I’ve never been to Utah! I need to visit one day. I highly recommend Glacier. It is my favorite place.
Wise thoughts Irma, I agree. I’m excited for him.

Gemma - Thanks Beth, kickpleat, Irene, and Nishta! (Yes, isn’t he handsome?)
Hello Erin, I’ve never been to Utah! I need to visit one day. I highly recommend Glacier. It is my favorite place.
Wise thoughts Irma, I agree. I’m excited for him.

Jolandi Kerstetter - Wow-ness. That looks like a nice road trip. It must be nice to have some camera skills. The photos taken in-between driving during trips like that are often excellent.

Jolandi Kerstetter - Wow-ness. That looks like a nice road trip. It must be nice to have some camera skills. The photos taken in-between driving during trips like that are often excellent.

Gemma - Thanks Jolandi! It was a great trip and a special opportunity to spend quality time with my brother. Good memories.

Gemma - Thanks Jolandi! It was a great trip and a special opportunity to spend quality time with my brother. Good memories.

Lemon & Tahini Peas » Pro Bono Baker - […] My brother came into Chicago for work on Monday evening and my father and I met him for dinner on the Small Bar patio in Logan Square. It was odd being there now that neither of us live in the neighborhood. It was a busy weekend, but I am glad I was able to visit with so many people. […]