Rolling through Redwood City on a slow-crawling weekend Caltrain, you can't help but notice the archway proclaiming "Climate Best by Government Test," a slogan dating back to the 1920s, when the U.S. government determined that the Peninsula was at the epicenter of one of the world's three best year-round climates. While San Francisco is shuddering in fog, the suburban towns strung along the southern end of San Francisco Bay--shielded from the marine chill by the high-shrugged spine of the Santa Cruz mountains--bask in humidity-free sunshine, day after day. So it seems only fitting that Sunset would have built its "Laboratory for Western Living" in Menlo Park, its climate just as perfect as its bragging neighbor just a few whistle-stops to the north.
Sunset's spacious ranch-style digs--and its extensive surrounding gardens--really are a laboratory, where everything gets field-tested: new tomato varieties, outdoor kitchen designs, tasty taco recipes, and a whole lot of cacti and lavender. Plants are planted to see how they fare in a prototypical (if ideal) Western climate; garden layouts are arranged; and the test kitchen is always cooking. While the campus looks like more like a spa-hotel than an office, it's a workplace nonetheless, and the public gets to wander in and around it only once a year, during its annual Sunset's Celebration Weekend, held this year on June 1-2. It's a two-day festival of cooking, gardening, and outdoor living demonstrations, with seminars and tastings of local wines and beers, tours of the test kitchen, brand promotions, talks with travel writers and professionals, and lots of how-to by local chefs and TV cooking-show celebrities, along with cookbook authors and Sunset editors.
And since you can't talk about food all day long without wanting to eat some, and this being the Bay Area in 2013, much of the food for sale came from a long double row of Off the Grid trucks, with many popular local mobile (and sit-down) eateries representing.
John Fink of The Whole Beast was on hand, selling massive, fabulous-looking barbecued ribs, potato salad and slaw, while the staff of Marianne Despres's El Sur dished out empanadas from her signature Citroen van.
After Nopalito ran out of gorditas and chips, they turned into a popsicle stand, selling strawberry, lime sherbet, and dark chocolate-cinnamon pops, while the roving bartenders at Rye on the Road stirred up some cooling Pimm's Cups. Despres, who grew up in Menlo Park, was particularly excited to be on the roster of chef-demonstrators in the outdoor kitchen, showing off the technique behind her popular Parisien empanada, made with proscuitto, ham, scallions, and a mixture of cheeses.
But back to that test kitchen: As a city renter who's written four cookbooks plus countless food columns, I've gotten used to doing my recipe development and testing in studio-apartment kitchens the size of a tissue box--or in shared kitchens already crammed full of other people's cereal boxes and leftover pad Thai. And while my experiences may be more scrappy than most, your typical cookbook author can only dream of having have a workspace like the Sunset test kitchen. This is no industrial, fluorescent-lit restaurant kitchen, all roaring burners, stainless-steel tables and cavernous sinks; instead, with its wood-paneled cabinets and comfortable counters, it's most like an extremely well-organized and well-stocked home kitchen, if your kitchen at home was twice the size of your living room.
(It's an interesting open secret in the industry that magazine recipes--at least at the handful of magazines that still maintain in-house, professionally staffed test kitchens, as Sunset does--are often much more rigorously tested than recipes published in cookbooks. For books, the author assumes the responsibility of recipe-testing. Maybe they're incredibly diligent about it; maybe they're not. An equally diligent editor (or editorial assistant) might spot-test a handful of recipes, but certainly no one at a publishing house is being paid to cook every recipe in an entire book, as they are at a food-focused magazine.)
While Sunset spends at least as many of its pages devoted to travel, home design, and gardening as it does to food, the recipes and entertaining spreads are a crucial part of its appeal. In our local edition, the recipes invariably capture our particular kind of breeziness at the table (or at least the no-fuss, casually elegant breeziness to which we've learned to aspire). On Sunday, I caught Yigit Pura, of San Francisco's Tout Sweet Patisserie, schooling a rapt audience in the ways of a Thai food-inspired coconut tapioca pudding.
Running a bakery, Pura tells us, means he works 16 hour days and never cooks real food. When he's not eating sweets, he lives on takeout from the Thai Food Express near his apartment. The citrusy bite of crushed lemongrass, coconut, and fresh kaffir lime leaves (used like "the Asian version of bay leaf") in a recent order of tom kha gai soup found their way, via a gentle infusion in warmed milk, into the dessert course. As he made the pudding, he interspersed his snappy patter with useful hints: infusions should always be covered while steeping, to prevent the flavor-packed essential oils from evaporating; things like tea, coffee, and citrus rinds shouldn't stay in an infusion for more than 7 or 8 minutes, lest they reveal their overly tannic, astringent qualities; smashing lemongrass with a mallet is the best way to release the juices and fragrant oils (not to mention tension); and it's stupid to buy spices in a supermarket (the massive Safeway branding on display at the event notwithstanding) when you can get better, fresher, and much cheaper spices in bulk at places like Rainbow Grocery and the San Francisco Herb Co.
Most important, he stressed, was soaking your tapioca pearls in very cold water overnight, and gently stirring them throughout the cooking process, all to avoid their clinging together into gummy sludge, something that's definitely "not sexy!", his biggest put-down for bad desserts (or bad behavior). The Turkish-born Pura, who calls Hawaii his most favorite place on the planet (his dog is named Maui), suggests topping the finished coconut pudding (well, almost finished--just as he started to spoon it into the tall glass display dish, he realized he'd left out the sugar--"Awkward!") with a mixture of diced mango, papaya and roasted coconut shards. Cool, sweet, easy, with a hint of down-home nostalgia dressed with contemporary Pacific Rim touches--it's a perfect dish for Sunset-style summer living here in California.
Coconut Tapioca Pudding with Papaya and Mango
Recipe courtesy of Yigit Pura. Used by permission.
Fruit For Garnish:
- 1/8 cup ripe mango cubes
- 1/8 cup ripe papaya cubes
- Toasted large-flaked coconut
- Cover small tapioca pearls with 4 cups cold water and soak overnight. Don't stir or disturb.
- Bring the 2 1/2 cups milk to a boil. Meanwhile, scrape the vanilla seeds from the pod. Crush the lemongrass stalk to release the natural flavors. Peel the fresh ginger and cut into 2 tablespoons of rings. Place all of this into the hot milk and leave covered for half hour to steep, off the heat.
- Strain the milk infusion, discarding solids, and add the remaining 1/2 cup of milk. Add the sugar and bring back to a boil.
- Strain the tapioca pearls, discarding water. Gently place pearls into the hot milk. Gently stir with a rubber spatula and cook on medium heat for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to avoid lumps. The tapioca is cooked once it looks translucent.
- Gently warm up the coconut milk separately and stir in at the end of cooking. Transfer to a container, place plastic on the top to prevent a skin forming and refrigerate until cool, ideally overnight.
- Once the pudding is cooled it will naturally set, thanks to the tapioca starch. Spoon into serving bowls and garnish with the fruits and the toasted coconut.