Food triggers memories.

Last weekend, I made my mom’s pancit and while I was shredding chicken breasts after boiling them to make chicken stock, I suddenly found myself transported back to our tiny kitchen in Manila, on a hot and humid afternoon with our old avocado green electric fan in full blast.  I was doing the exact same thing. I was shredding chicken breasts, gingerly taking the skin and the bones off, and piling them neatly on a white bowl.  I was helping my mom assemble our pancit mis en place.  She was slicing carrots and green cabbage, taking the shells off the shrimp, and washing them clean.  We were making pancit for someone’s birthday.  It could be one of my sisters’ or it could be my dad’s.  Within an hour, the rest of the family would be up from their afternoon siesta, still full from a huge lunch of lechon and sugpo, those giant prawns that I loved growing up.   Within an hour, everyone would gather around the table once more, this time for merienda of pancit and pan de sal, ube ice cream served in coffee mugs and, of course, store-bought birthday cake decorated with colorful candy flowers.  It would feel as though all we did was take naps and eat.

Eggs fried over medium, home fries, longanisa, and cornbread with butter and strawberry jam.  It was our first weekend in our new loft in the Dogpatch.  I remember being so excited about spotting Filipino breakfast sausages in the menu of  Just for You, our favorite breakfast joint a few blocks away from the loft.  Dennis tried their Huevos Rancheros.  He always orders the same thing whenever we try out a new place.    Shortly after breakfast, we took Stanford to Esprit Park to run and play, then walked back home, continued to unpack, did some laundry, and tidied up our new home.  Later that evening, I powered up my MacBook, poured myself a glass of wine, sat in the couch, and wrote my first blog post.  I wrote about how much I loved and missed San Francisco and how much I was excited to be back in the city.  That was exactly a year ago, today.

Green and white asparagus and black truffles topped with foie gras and smoked duck torchon.  It was August, over a month after we moved back to the city.  Dennis and I were celebrating three years together, one year as domestic partners.  It was the evening Dennis proposed.  It wasn’t marriage, obviously, not in California.  At least, not yet.  It was a job offer.  Dennis offered me a job as a designer and photographer in his web agency.  Over braised wagyu beef cheeks and stuffed quail, with tears in my eyes and snot in my nose (it was a great thing we were in a dark candlelit corner), we drafted a plan for me to get out of my unhappy Silicon Valley life and pursue my passion a la Julia Child.  Quitting my job and switching careers would mean not being able to afford lavish French dinners again for a while.  And exotic Yucatan trips, too. But I remember feeling extremely fearless that evening.  Fearless of taking the plunge, starting over and reinventing myself.  Fearless but hopeful.

Leche flan.  Lots and lots of egg shells strewn all over the kitchen. And lots and lots of lime peels, too. I remember being so fixated about making candied lime peels as garnish for my flan. Making the flan was easy. It was making those candied lime peels that took forever.  Too bitter. Too thick.  It was getting late in the day and I was still trying to figure out the best way to shoot the damn flan. The candied lime peels looked like ugly dark green tapeworms next to that beautiful creme caramel. I couldn’t make it work and I felt so defeated. I couldn’t shoot it the way I composed it in my head. It was getting too late and before I completely lose all the natural light I decided to ditch those dark green ugly peels and shoot the flan by itself, in all its simple beauty. It was just the flan sitting on a pool of liquid caramelized sugar on a white plate on a shiny black plexiglass surface. The next day, the great David Lebovitz somehow found his way to my flan and posted it on his Facebook page. “I think these pictures are so simple and beautiful”, he said. It was David Lebovitz! It may not seem much (I’m sure by now he has completely forgotten my simple and beautiful flan) but it did matter a lot to me, to someone scrambling for the last ounce of self-confidence left in him. It meant the world to me.

As I look back today to perhaps one of the most difficult years in my life, I look back fondly to how food was a part of it.  How food triggers so many memories, both good and bad.  For me, one of life’s great pleasures is the pleasure of eating, the pleasure of enjoying food and enjoying the company I share that food with.  The pleasure of enjoying doughnuts, freshly fried.  Of enjoying sour cherries, freshly picked.  The pleasure of mixing oil and vinegar.  Of mixing soy and vinegar.  The pleasure of growing an herb garden. Of baking bread.  Of roasting chicken.  The pleasure of making and sharing a meal.  A meal that nourishes, that makes people happy.  These, for me, are life’s simplest pleasures.  And to share with you the pleasures of eating through stories and photographs is the reason I write this blog, with the hope that you, too, will enjoy the same great pleasures of food.

Carrot cake. It was my birthday. My 28th. It was my first year in graduate school in Santa Barbara. At least five more years before I get my doctorate, I remembered thinking (I did it in four, by the way!) My friend Julie asked me what kind of cake I wanted for my birthday. She promised to bake everyone in our class a birthday cake and it was my turn. I said carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. I remember having two slices of her very moist, the-way-I-love-it carrot cake. I had two and I didn’t care. After all, it was my birthday.

Birthday Cupcake

Carrot Cake Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting Recipe
Thomas Keller recipe, Ad Hoc at Home, makes 24 cupcakes

For the carrot cake cupcakes

2 cups cake flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ground cinnamon
4 large eggs
1/4 cup whole milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 cup canola oil
3 cups finely shredded carrots
1-1/2 cups coarsely chopped toasted walnuts

For the cream cheese frosting, makes about 3-3/4 cups

1-1/2 pounds cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into chunks, at room temperature
1-1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line 24 cupcake cups with paper liners.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and cinnamon. Set aside.

In the bowl of a standard mixer fitted with the paddle, beat the eggs, milk, vanilla, and both sugars sugars until smooth. Beat in the oil. Slowly add the dry ingredients. Mix in the carrots and 1 cup of the chopped walnuts.

Divide the batter equally among the lined cupcake cups. Bake for 10 minutes. Rotate the pan and bake for another 10 minutes, or until a cake tester or a wooden skewer inserted in the center of the cupcake comes out clean. Remove the cupcakes from the tins and let cool to room temperature on a cooling rack.

Meanwhile, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle, beat the cream cheese at medium speed until smooth. Add the butter and mix until smooth. Beat in the powdered sugar, then add the vanilla. Scrape down the sides and beat for 30 seconds on high speed.

Spread the tops of the cupcakes with the cream cheese frosting and sprinkle with the remaining chopped walnuts.

The cupcakes are best frosted and eaten the day they are baked, but they can be refrigerated for up to two days. Bring to room temperature before serving.

  • shutterboo

    Happy Blogiversary, Jun!

  • Jean

    Happy 1 year anniversary, Jun! In a very short time you’ve managed to create something beautiful for us to enjoy. Thanks for your beautiful images and posts with substance. Blog on! :-)

  • John Birdsall

    Congratulations, Jun! Your blog’s a great addition to the local food scene.

  • Manuel Villacorta

    Happy anniversary Jun. you are doing so well. Love your blog

  • M.

    Happy Blogiversary, hope you’ll celebrate many more!!!
    and the cupcake looks soooo delicious!

  • Tess (Out of teh Ktichen)

    Happy Birthday to your blog! Love your latest entry. I too remember helping my Mom shred the chicken for pancit — such fond memories. Maybe it is a rite of passage? Anyway congrats again!

  • MissTdJ

    Your photographs are sublime, and your words are always so evocative, full of emotion, memory, and thought. I could get lost in the narrative alone. Thank you for all that you’ve contributed to the food world and the Filipino community!

  • dina

    happy 1st jun-blog!way to go!

  • Kaitlin

    Congratulations on your first year!! I can’t wait to see all the beauties that the next one brings :)

  • Julie

    Happy blog birthday, Jun!
    You are a joy to read and this was a particularly beautiful post. Best wishes for an even better year ahead!
    Julie (opedible)

  • Ana

    Jun Blog , happy birthday !!!! just keep blogging hahaha! Have a Bless Day!

  • kililikinalum

    Happy Anniversary, Jun! I am so glad I found you and your blog! I get so excited to see your new posts, especially your awesome food shots that make me just want to eat the LCD screen!

  • skip to malou

    here’s to knowing you more thru the blogs that you write, the food that you cook and the beautiful pictures that you post… cheers!


  • William Pilz

    Congratulations for taking the plunge, reinventing yourself and creating such a welcome addition to our food community. Salamat.

  • foodhoe

    Those cupcakes look like the perfect way to celebrate your anniversary. Congratulations and what wonderful snips of memory…

  • katie o.

    Oh Jun! Happy anniversary! Congratulations on your first blog milestone. Can’t wait to see the next year!

  • baobabs

    Happy blog anniversary!! Your post made me nostalgic about food and my life and memories. Thank you for sharing yours. Stunning photos and great recipes!

  • Trissa

    Hi Jun – lovely post – the first part also brought me back to Manila. When people ask what I miss most in the Philippines I always say it is the food! Happy Blog Anniversary – looking forward to more great posts – even if I only just discovered yours recently.

  • iya

    weeee! happy anniv! :) magpa-cake ka naman! nomnomnom!!!

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  • liz

    Congratulations Jun on your Ist year anniversary. You really have gone a long way. I’m really so happy and so proud of you. You don’t have any formal studies in culinary arts but look at yourself you know how to cook and bake. When you come home for a visit don’t forget to bake carrot cake for us coz it’s my favorite. Love you so much Jun! Keep it up.

  • ela

    congratulations, jun.

    here’s something for your: am passing to you the VERSATILE BLOGGER AWARD…

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  • Dinna

    Hi Jun, I really enjoyed your blog. Congrats!

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  • Mama

    Jun, finally nakita ko na yung blog mo. Natutuwa naman ako sa mga nakalagay doon. :) Nakuha mo ang lahat ng mga tinuro kong luto ko sayo at nahigitan mo pa ang preparation. :) Kung di pa na-operahan si kai, hindi ko pa makikita yung blog mo. Wala pa pla yung isang blog na sinabi mo sakin. hindi bale, ask ko si kai next time. I’m so happy for you! I think you will be a great chef someday. But for me, you will always be the #1 chef. :)

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