Advent Calendar Pick: Clarine's Florentines
By John Birdsall
Part of our treat-by-treat countdown to Christmas or the nondenominational winter holiday of your choosing. For more, go to SFoodieSF.com.
Aren't florentines the cookies of Christmas teas, offered up by ladies in cashmere turtlenecks and plaid skirts? Sort of — except the ones Clarine Hardesty makes, which have a hand-hewn quality that resists fancy. In 2007, Hardesty — a schoolteacher at the time — packed up her San Francisco classroom and pulled out the florentine recipe she and her mom used every year for the holidays. She has spent the last three years perfecting her florentine, and it's the only cookie she sells. "It's just something I knew I could do really well," says Hardesty, who now does production out of a commercial kitchen in West Berkeley.
Hardesty's florentine is a semibrittle circle of toasted almonds the diameter of a coffee mug, shiny under a varnish of butter, sugar, honey, and cream, its underside thickly painted with bittersweet chocolate. The taste: a sort of caramel patina that fuses with the almonds' gilded sweetness, and a cushion of chocolaty richness that reminds you of tobacco leaf (Hardesty uses Guittard 72 percent). And while Clarine's creations are expensive enough to make even the most cashmered Pac Heights hostess balk, they're a holiday indulgence every bit as legitimate as that 42-inch plasma you aim to surprise your boyfriend with.
Clarine's Florentines: Suggested retail price is $2-$2.35 per cookie (depending on pack size). Available in S.F. at Bi-Rite Market, Rainbow Grocery, Blue Fog Market, and Cheese Plus, as well as through Farm Fresh to You.
EAT THIS: Isan Salads at Zaab Thai
By Jonathan Kauffman
Slowly, slowly, Isan food from northeastern Thailand is filtering into San Francisco. You can find Isan dishes on the menus of Thai House Express and Lers Ros, and the semisecret Thai-language menu at Chabaa is heavy with Isan charcuterie, salads, and stir-fried dishes. Zaab Thai Cuisine, which opened on Clement Street in August, is the first S.F. restaurant I know of to advertise it specializes in Isan food.
Zaab's strength is quite obviously Isan salads — the menu lists three pages of them (including a long vegetarian section). Owner Kriengkrai Amornratanakosol tops satiny folds of roasted eggplant with just-cooked ground chicken, mint leaves, and a sweet-sour lime dressing. He tosses pungent bamboo shoots with chiles, onions, and toasted rice powder, a northeastern favorite familiar to anyone who's made her way through a Bangkok market.
Of course, you can find half a dozen versions of larb, or chopped meat salad, and Zaab offers 10 variations on the region's most renowned dish, som tum (papaya salad). The version with grilled prawns ($8.95) is the most approachable, especially if you're not Thai and you forget to beg for it spiced at full strength. Others may be drawn to the more fiery version with salted crab and peanuts ($7.95); wafting far above the fish sauce and lime, you catch the clean, freshwater aroma of the tiny crab whose blue-shelled flesh is scattered throughout the heap of shredded fruit.
Stay focused on the salads. Zaab's menu is chockablock with all the mediocre Thai curries and sugary stir-fries we all know, as denuded of their regional origins as spaghetti in red sauce and palak paneer. And the restaurant's Isan sausage ($7.50) and pork neck ($6.95) are nowhere near as good as Chabaa's versions. But there's enough variety and novelty in the salad section of the menu to keep a return visitor intrigued for weeks.
Zaab Thai Cuisine: 908 Clement (at 11th Ave.), 831-4010.
Advent Calendar Pick: Panettone from Dianda's
By Jonathan Kauffman
I can't tell you how many loaves of imported Italian panettone I've bought over the years before I could admit it: Dry boxed bread sucks. The more I searched for a good loaf, the more wrong it seemed to buy imported bread.
Especially when there are bakeries in San Francisco that make fresh panettone. Most of the Italian bakeries in North Beach have given up the pursuit, except for Liguria Bakery (1700 Stockton, 421-3786), which makes one and only one batch a year (you missed it — the bakery released its panettone a week ago).
In the Mission, Dianda's Italian American Bakery — one of the last remnants of an eclipsed Italian neighborhood — is panettone central. The counters are bricked high with multicolored trapezoidal boxes from Italy, and the bakery also sells 1- and 2-pound loaves of its own Christmas bread ($5.25 for 1-pound loaves, $10.50 for the 2-pounders).
Sure, the Dianda's panettone isn't as tender as a fresh-baked challah, but it has a presence I haven't found in the boxed breads. Each time I open the bag the smell of brandy and candied citron rolls out, and the airy, pale-gold loaf has a pronounced sweetness, amplified with a sugar glaze. While we ate the first few slices of the round loaf the traditional way, slicing vertical wedges to snack on with strong coffee, I've been cutting horizontal slices from the rest and toasting panettone Pac-Mans with raisin eyes. I'm not sure whether the Milanese bakers who are trying to score DOC status for panettone would approve of us slathering on enough melted butter to make the toasted slices glisten, but screw 'em: In America, butter and Christmas belong together.
Dianda's Italian American Pastry: 2883 Mission (at 23rd St.), 647-5469.