Let’s talk inspiration. Like what inspired me to come up with these Caramelized White Chocolate Pistachio Brownie with Strawberry Balsamic Swirl. I go to a lot of food events, but the single one that I look forward to every year is the Meals on Wheels Star Chefs and Vintners Gala. I’ve been supporting it for 8 or 9 years now and I’ve seen it grow from a smaller intimate black tie event to the brilliantly fantastic extravaganza that out does itself each year. Of course, Gala Chef Chair Nancy Oakes of Boulevard is largely responsible (along with the stellar staff of Meals on Wheels) rounding up a group of top-notch chefs and top shelf wineries to support the San Francisco Meals on Wheels. As usual, AJ and I ate ourselves silly, but the event always inspires me in so many ways. Case in point, if I hadn’t had a chance to taste all the decadent desserts at the Gala, I probably wouldn’t have created these brownies you see above. That said, AJ and I, didn’t just eat the entire time we were at the Gala. We (obviously) took photos and notes about all the food we tried. But we also shot some video as well! Most guests don’t realize the massive undertaking of making meals for such a large group of people, all on location, away from their restaurant kitchen. Here’s a sneak peak video of the behind the scenes of the Meals on Wheel’s Star Chefs and Vintner’s Gala event.
For those who aren’t in the know, the San Francisco Meals on Wheels event raises money for Meals on Wheels, a non-profit that supports senior citizens by providing for them meals in their home. It’s an awesome organization, and their annual Gala event is, by far, their biggest fundraiser, this year breaking records and raising $1.9 million – that’s something like 420,000 meals! How awesome is that?
The food, of course, was outstanding as usual. Try as we might, AJ and I ran around trying to sample every single thing and we still missed out on a few appetizers. The Gala event really has become one of the top food events in San Francisco, with nearly all the major players coming out to help support Meals on Wheels. Here’s how it works. You arrive and are greeted with glasses of champagne (it’s a party!) and then you walk into a huge space full of tables where restaurants are giving out appetizers and little nibblies for the guests. From bite sized paella cakes to small individual bowls of ramen, there’s something for everyone.
It’s funny, as people always ask me if I’ve been to “Fancy Restaurant _____ in San Francisco” all the time. I love to eat out, don’t get me wrong, but AJ and I mostly eat in. We cook, we occasionally grab a cheap burrito, or do the carry-out thing when we are feeling lazy. But we rarely eat out, especially at fancy restaurants. However, because of events like the Meals on Wheels Gala, we can almost always say “well, we’ve never eaten there, but we’ve had their food.” In fact, we’ve discovered some of our favorite restaurants from the Gala, and have totally sent friends to restaurants strictly on the appetizers we’ve had at the fundraiser.
This was the 25th Anniversary Celebration of the Meals on Wheels San Francisco Gala and the fundraiser really does bring out the best of the best of San Francisco and the surrounding area. Martin Yan (debuting bites from his new venture M.Y. China), Tyler Florence, Traci Des Jardin, Charlie Phan, the list goes on and on in terms of the slew of amazing chefs from the SF Bay Area all came together to help support the awesome cause.
The food seems rather unending, and this year, the sold out event seem to have their fair share of fantastic wineries too. There were cocktails and bartenders (or do they prefer to be called mixologists nowadays? Don’t ask me, I rarely go out to the bars anymore, I’m too busy baking). AJ was quaffing sampling some of the fine wines there and I have to say I was pretty enamored with a few wine bottle labels. What can I say? I’m a design geek.
But it was the food was what I focused on, and it had attendees swooning for seconds (though on second thought, perhaps it was the wine and cocktails that had them swooning). I tried to hold back because I knew that there was more in store for us, but it’s really hard to not take one more bite or one more sip. Really hard. But then we also had to think about what was to come. A three-course meal. Yep. We had to sit and eat. Yeah, I think I might have groaned (along with my chair) when I sat down.
Dinner was a beautiful affair. How could it not be, when étoile Restaurant served us Maine Lobster and Baby Salt Water Uni as our first course (ooh and Fiddlehead ferns and Kaffir lime)? The second course was a brilliant Liberty Farm Duck with green curry, tamarind and galangal by Fifth Floor. By the third course, I was ready to roll out of there, but I really couldn’t turn down Wayfare Tavern’s rack of veal with porcini butter and Yorkshire pudding. I think AJ wanted to ask for seconds on that one but he held back. As we ate dinner, the live auction occurred (aways a fun time: bottles of wine + rich people + fabulous items to bid on = amazing live auction).
For those who have read my past recaps of the Meals on Wheels event know that dinner isn’t the end. After all, what meal (no matter how lavish) is complete without dessert? I look forward to each Meals on Wheels Gala just for the dessert part, because of the wonders that I come across. William Werner previewing some of his wares for his soon-to-open up Craftsman and Wolves (opening up just around the corner from me). I finally got to meet the fantastic Emily Luchetti of Waterbar and Farallon, who I adore. The ever adorable Yigit Pura had an awe-inspiring display of macarons, samplings from his soon-to-open Tout Sweet Patisserie (which sadly will NOT be opening around the corner from me).
Cindy Falatic from the Ritz Carlton San Francisco was there serving up a peanut sponge cake with chocolate marshmallow confection dipped in chocolate (I may have snagged two to go as well). Jake and Sean from Humphry Slocombe had ice cream sandwiches that went faster than you can say “Jesus Juice”. Melissa Chou from Aziza had gorgeous strawberry mousse with kumquat, pistachio, hibiscus and beet. The colors were so vibrant they were practically neon. I tried as much as I could, taking one for the team, but in the end I was defeated. I left without sampling any of Susie Cakes whoopie pies or COI’s lime marshmallows toasted with charcoal (as awesome as they looked). Well, ok, maybe I had a bite of each, sharing with AJ. But don’t tell anyone.
Of course the one dessert that I was thrilled to taste was the Village Pub’s Pistachio Olive Oil Cake with Roasted White Chocolate Ganache and Balsamic Strawberries. Rodney Cerdan was the chef and he actually recognized AJ and me. Not from going to previous Meals on Wheels events, but because Rodney used to work at BiRite Creamery and was there, scooping ice cream when AJ and I walked in, dressed like BiRite Creamery pints for Halloween. He totally remembered us and was super excited to see us (just like we were thrilled to see him). And his dessert was ridiculously good. I took a mental note of it, and it inspired my own dessert as well, the Caramelized White Chocolate Pistachio Brownie with Strawberry Balsamic Swirl.
As AJ and I rolled ourselves out of the event, we swore we would not eat for about a week to make up for everything we had consumed at the Gala. This oath, of course, was broken by those brownies I made right afterwards. If you have a chance to make it to the Gala next year here in San Francisco, trust me, it’s worth it. Just don’t eat for a couple of days beforehand. Or afterhand. But it’s so worth it.
Caramelized White Chocolate Pistachio Brownie with Strawberry Balsamic Swirl
By Irvin Lin
Caramelizing the white chocolate beforehand, gives the chocolate a rich deep nutty flavor that is significantly more complex than plain white chocolate. Think white chocolate meets dulce de leche meets brown butter. Be sure to use real white chocolate and not white chocolate coating, as you need the chocolate cocoa butter to caramelize and the fake stuff doesn’t have it. You may be tempted to skip the strawberry balsamic swirl, as it seems fussy, but trust me when I say it adds a lot to final product. Ground pistachio meal can be difficult to source, however you can make it by placing whole pistachio meat (just the nut, not the shells) in a food processor or blender and grind until you have a fine powder. If it’s a little chunky, that’s OK, it’ll just give the final product a little texture. However pay special attention near the end of the grinding because you don’t want to overgrind the nuts and end up with pistachio paste.
Caramelizing of white chocolate adapted from David Lebovitz’ technique.
Inspired by a dessert from The Village Pub.
285 g (10 oz) white chocolate, chopped into 1/2 inch chunks
170 g (3/4 cup or 1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
90 mL (6 tablespoons) extra virgin olive oil
150 g white sugar
150 g dark brown sugar
3 large eggs
1 vanilla bean (or two teaspoon vanilla extract)
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
280 g (2 cups) all purpose flour
130 g (1 cup) ground pistachio meal
160 g (1 cup) chopped strawberries
14 g (1 tablespoon) white sugar
1 teaspoon tapioca flour (or cornstarch if you don’t have tapioca)
3 teaspoon balsamic vinegar, divided
1. Preheat an oven to 300˚F. Spread the white chocolate on a rimmed baking sheet. Place in oven and let bake for 10 minutes. Remove from oven and stir with a clean spatula until the browned chocolate at the edges is evenly mixed with the center uncooked white chocolate. Place back in oven and bake for about 5 more minutes, and then stir the chocolate again. Once completely stirred, it should be a little darker than peanut butter. Remove and let cool slightly on the pan while you make the brownie batter.
2. Lightly spray the inside of a 9 x 13 inch baking pan with cooking oil. Press a sheet of parchment paper into the center of the pan and crease the sides to fit it to the inside of the pan. The oil should let the paper stick to the inside of the pan. Increase the oven temperature to 350˚F.
3. Place the butter, olive oil, and both sugars in the bowl of a standing mixer, fitted with a paddle attachment. Cream together until light and fluffy and the color of cinnamon sugar. Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the sides of the batter between additions. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape the seeds into the batter. Save the pod for another use. Add the sea salt and beat to incorporate both vanilla seeds and salt. Scrape the caramelized white chocolate into the bowl (it may have hardened and gotten a little grainy, don’t worry about that). Beat until incorporated.
4. Add the all purpose flour and pistachio meal. Beat until incorporated. Scrape batter into the lined baking pan. Make the strawberry swirl by placing all the chopped strawberries, sugar, tapioca flour and 2 teaspoons of balsamic vinegar in a small pan. Cook on medium heat until the strawberries release juice and the entire swirl starts to thicken from the tapioca flour. Remove from heat and stir in the remaining balsamic vinegar.
5. Drop generous tablespoons of the strawberry swirl over the brownie batter and then take a knife and swirl the strawberry together with the brownie batter decoratively. Don’t over mix, just gently pull the strawberry here and there and pull some brownie batter over the strawberry.
6. Bake in the oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the brownie is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Let cool to room temperature on a wire rack, then grab the sides of the parchment paper and pull directly up and move the entire slab of brownies to a cutting board. Cut and serve.
Makes 24 small brownies or 16 larger brownies.