Thursday, March 15, 2007

Martha Martha Martha - live and in person in NYC

Ever since Martha Stewart broke out of prison and started her new daytime show, I have to admit I have been a faithful viewer thanks to Comcast DVR. I tape the show every day and watch it when I can at breakneck speed, fast-forwarding through the commercials and the boring segments of the show. Say what you want about her but the woman is amazing. It's one thing to be knowledgeable about cooking or gardening or crafts but she's truly an expert at all of them. And, yes, now she has a million people working for her that come up with most of the ideas and make her look brilliant but it wasn't always that way and it's clear she has a wealth of her own knowledge about all of these topics. I actually learn a lot watching her show as opposed to some of the other cooking shows that are highly entertaining (Iron Chef America, Emeril, etc) but not necessarily educational. So when my friends from New York called me saying they had tickets to a taping of the show, I couldn't resist the opportunity to see what really goes on behind the scenes.

Of course the day I went, it was February 14th, the worst weather day of the year in the Northeast. Snow, sleet, slush, ice, wind and frigid temperatures. Not exactly an ideal day to travel. But if the Acela train was going to NY, so was I. When the 6:15am train left South Station, I was on it - fully equipped with my iPod loaded up with an episode of "Heroes" and plenty of music, and lots of reading material. New York was an absolute mess when I got there. Not a plow in site. No sidewalks shoveled. Cab drivers fishtailing all over the road. But the show must go on as they say.

click on the image above to get a closer look at Eleni's beautiful cupcakes!

My friend Cathleen and I had a little time to kill so we went to Chelsea Market, home of the Food Network as well as a wide variety of wonderful food specialty stores - Eleni's (cupcakes & cookies), Fat Witch Brownies, The Lobster Place fish market, Hale and Hearty Soups, Amy's Bread and lots more. The building itself is very industrial and worth a walk-through. And I guarantee you one of the food shops will suck you in. The bright colors and beautiful displays of Eleni's immediately grabbed our attention and before we knew it, we were sitting down eating cupcakes for breakfast. The red velvet cupcake with chocolate ganache frosting was our favorite. Moist cake and intense chocolate frosting. Killer. The smell coming from the Fat Witch Brownies shop was intense. There was no way we could eat brownies after those cupcakes however they had tiny samples on the counter which was enough to find out how incredibly rich and delicious their brownies are. I believe Oprah has selected them as one of her "favorite things" in the past and I can see why. I could have stayed there all day sampling the many wonderful foods but before we knew it, it was time to make our way through the blizzard over to Martha's studio.

When we arrived at the studio, there was a small line outside. We had to stand in line briefly which on a day like that was not pleasant. The whole process of getting into the studio is very Martha-esque. Perky preppy girls with Madonna headsets anally ushering you into the correct lines and ensuring you "stay in line." Once you get through the security check, you enter a room with a large flat screen TV running episodes of, what else, Martha. There's an adjoining room so that all the guests have a place to sit. What I found most amusing is that they have computers set up but the only website you can view is So go head and shop on the Martha Stewart website but don't expect to look for a restaurant, check the weather or your e-mail while you're waiting.

I expected there to be a nice snack there for the audience and I was not disappointed. There were perfectly baked heart-shaped linzer cookies and bottles of water - all of which had to obviously be consumed before heading into the studios. I had high hopes for the bathrooms but definitely was disappointed on that end. That bathroom could have been in any mall or movie theater in America. Basic stalls, sinks, nothing special. No high-end hand soaps or 10-ply toilet paper for us.

While we were waiting, Joey "the warm up guy" who, if you watch the show, Martha often banters with on-air. He's sort of annoying but he's very down to earth and does a great job of keeping you entertained while you're waiting to be ushered into the studio. He instructs you on all of his hand gestures which signal "big applause," "medium applause" and my favorite, the signal to get the audience to say "Mmmmmm" (a clockwise motion of his hand over his stomach) - obviously for cooking segments.

When we got into the studio, it was very cool - and very cold. It made David Letterman's studio (known for being cold) feel like a sauna. We froze through the whole show and ever since then I watch the audience to see if they're bundled up and I often see folded arms, scarves being worn and other indications that they're freezing too. "Joey" explained that the lights get really hot which is why they have to have the temperature so low. So, if you go, wear a warm sweater.

The studio is amazing and huge. Her kitchen is a dream kitchen. Lots of storage, large counter space and every pot and pan you could ever desire - all perfectly polished looking shiny and new. To the left of the kitchen is another closed-in kitchen where her chefs "Wes and Angie" work their magic. There are large glass windows so you can see them in action and so that Martha can yell at them when they've done something wrong that's throwing her cooking segment off. To the right of the kitchen is a greenhouse with a variety of beautiful plants and flowers - all real and gorgeous of course. We were seated in the front row center which may sound ideal however there's a camera guy and a huge camera on a crane right in front of us so you, in turn, have to crane your neck at times to see what's going on but it's not that big of a deal.

Before the show starts, Joey kills some more time by talking with the audience, informing them of the guests and trying to interact with the audience by asking where everyone is from, etc. Come to find out, the main guest of the show (Katherine Heigl from Grey's Anatomy) pretaped her segment with Martha due to scheduling issues. That was a total bummer because her interview included the cooking segment which I was very much looking forward to. However, they showed the interview up on the monitors for us to watch and it was a pretty boring interview so I didn't feel too badly. What we did see was an interview with Tim Gunn from Project Runway along with 3 designers from Parsons Design School. There was a little runway show featuring the designs of the designers which was very cool. The clothes were gorgeous. We also saw an interview with a kid who is the youngest to have ever climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. He was very articulate and as cute as can be. And Martha was actually very good with him. She has hiked the mountain as well so was able to share her experience and make him feel at ease.

Well what about Martha, I'm sure you're wondering. What's she really like? How does she look in person vs. on TV? She is probably the one famous person I would say is exactly the same as you'd expect. Very professional, buttoned up, a bit distant but cordial. In the Q&A session after the show, she kept her distance and never got very close to the audience but she was nice. She's very tall and I hate to say it, but she's definitely put the pounds back on since prison. She's got a good amount of noticeable back fat. Meow! Sorry. Had to share. I'd have back fat too if I had all the dinner invitations she did. Good for her!

So overall the experience was a lot of fun and worth braving a blizzard to get there. I recommend the experience if you're a fan. It's fun to see her in action. If you're interested in going to the show, you can order tickets online on There are typically two tapings per day. A live show in the morning and a taped show in the afternoon. They tape shows so that when Martha is jet setting around the globe, they have shows "in the can" that they can air. You can also wait on "stand-by" but you're better off trying to get the tickets ahead of time. The only disappointment, as I mentioned, is that some of the segments have already been taped which is a bummer. But you roll the dice when you attend a taping. You never know what great guests might be on, what they might give away or what you could learn. That's the fun of it. It's also cool to watch the show at home afterwards to relive the day's events. And, as always, it's just fun to be in New York!

Chelsea Market
75 9th Avenue - between 15th and 16th Streets

Martha Stewart - TV studio
221 W 26th St - between Seventh and Eighth Avenues
For tickets:
Click here for info

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Custard, "Ham" and Fanny Cradock

Recently I was treated to an amazing Caramel Custard dessert as well as a hands-on lesson on how to make this creamy wonder. Dr. Raghavan Amarasingham (aka "Ham"), cardiologist and Caramel Custard expert, shared his tried and true recipe he's been making for 40 years and was kind enough to let me film him making it (watch the video below). He learned this recipe from watching Fanny Cradock on the BBC when he lived in England. He says she was the "Julia Child of England." I had never heard of her so I decided to do some digging to learn more about her.

Pictured at left (dig those false eyelashes), Fanny Cradock was born Phyllis Primrose Pechey - why would she change that great name? She is known as the first TV celebrity chef, most popular in the 50s and 60s. She introduced the English to the "Escoffier-standard" of food. Auguste Escoffier (28 October 1846 – 12 February 1935) was a French chef in the late 1800s and early 1900s who popularized and updated traditional French cooking methods. He replaced the practice of service à la française (serving all dishes at once) with service à la russe (serving each dish in the order printed on the menu).

Fanny had several television shows on the BBC and apparently was quite the character. She was married four times and, according to, "the formidable genius Ms. Cradock became famous for her snobbish, battle-axe persona and her long-suffering husband Johnnie." Boy would I like to dig up some of those old episodes. Fanny is also known for inventing the "prawn cocktail" which is a little fun fact. What endeared me to her most was when I read this about her on Wikipedia: "She insisted that everyone [was] entitled to a piece of really good cake at least once a year" which I think are good words to live by although I would change "year" to "month."

All I know is that Fanny made a mean Caramel Custard. Ham, thank you so much for inviting me into your kitchen, for patiently teaching me how to make this most incredible dessert and for introducing me to Fanny. I highly recommend that everyone try to make this wonderful dessert. As I mentioned, it's not difficult. It just requires a little patience while the caramel cooks and keeping a watchful eye on the custard as it bakes.

Caramel Custard Recipe - "How To" Video and Recipe


For the caramel:
• 4 heaping tbsp of sugar

For the custard:
• 2 whole eggs, 2 egg yolks
• 3 heaping tbsp sugar
• 1 tsp vanilla
• 1 quart of milk

How to: (here are the basics but watch the video to see Ham work his magic)

Making the caramel:
- In a heavy-bottomed pan, slowly melt down the sugar into a thick caramel consistency. Keep an eye on it. Don't let it burn.
- Carefully pour caramel in each ramekin, covering the bottom of each.

Making the custard:
- Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
- Blend together with an electric mixer: 2 whole eggs, 2 egg yolks, the sugar and vanilla.
- Heat the milk in a saucepan until almost scalding but not boiling.
- Mix some of milk into egg mixture, put the mixture back into the pan - do this 2 or 3 times.
- Ladel custard into the ramekins with the caramel in them.
- Place ramekins in a pan that has about 1/2 inch of water in it (a "bain marie" as they call it en francais).
- Bake for 1 hour and a half (or until the custard is firm and slightly browned on top).
- Remove ramekins from water bath and refrigerate custard for about 6 hours minimum.
- To eat, place a plate on top of the ramekin, flip the plate, tap the ramekin on the bottom a few times and release the custard onto the plate. Simply gorgeous!!

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Cellar - Movin On Up

The Cellar has been a fixture on Mass Ave between Central and Harvard Square for as long as I can remember. It's always been a great place to grab a beer. Now, with the addition of Garden upstairs, there's also a great place to settle in for a nice dinner.

Open since November, Garden is a self-proclaimed "gastropub" that serves fine food above and beyond your typical "pub grub." You won't find burgers on the menu (although you can get those in The Cellar). Instead, you can look forward to fabulous entrées like the Steak Frites: Grilled Angus Hanger Steak, sweet-garlic spinach, rosemary-truffle fries and parsnip purée. Everything was cooked to perfection. But I'm warning you - the fries are highly addictive. I would absolutely make a trip back just for those. The aroma alone will suck you in.

Other tantalizing items on the menu include the Filet of Salmon with glazed carrots, tarragon-orange emulsion, and potato cake and the Crispy Chicken Breast with homemade tater tots. My dining companion had the latter dish and it was killer. The chicken was nice and crispy on the outside and very moist on the inside. There was some nice jus on the plate to complement it as well. The tater tots are phenomenal. I think there might be cheese in there but not sure. All you really need to know is that they are really, really delicious.

There are also a number of tapas plates on the menu so you could go the small bites route if you prefer. We tried the Warm olives with herbs (again, the herb theme), citrus and spices. The olives were excellent although some of them were warm and some were cold which wasn't ideal. Other choices include: Spanish almonds with sea salt and chilies, Grilled meatballs with thyme and tomato-pumpkin confit and Crispy potatoes with rosemary-Dijon aioli which I wanted to try but I was all carbed out.

Garden's Chef, William D. Gilson, most recently worked at the famed Oleana in Cambridge. But his "roots" in fine ingredients trace back to The Herb Lyceum, a family business in Groton, MA. It's an herb farm with a restaurant on the property that showcases herbs harvested from their greenhouse in their dishes. You can see The Herb Lyceum's influence at Garden in the potted rosemary plants throughout the restaurant and of course on the menu - rosemary in particular seems to be a favorite although it may be because it holds up even at this time of year.

I look forward to making Garden one of my "go to" neighborhood restaurants, right up there with Central Kitchen. I just have to remember to get there early. They do not take reservations and seating is limited - seats about 12 people at the bar and maybe 30 in the rest of the restaurant. The only other downside is that they don't offer dessert, which in some ways may be a blessing.

Garden at the Cellar
991 Mass Ave, Cambridge, 617.230.5880
Open Tuesday - Saturday, 5pm - 11pm