I’ve had a best chocolate cake recipe forever – easy and reliably fantastic – but it took years of trying before I finally found the perfect yellow cake. When we lived in Ohio with my husband’s side of the family, chocolate was the only cake we ever needed. But in California, my Chinese family likes anything but chocolate. And what they like most is plain yellow cake.

My mom is a butter lover, so for her birthday I’ve often made a yellow butter cake, dusted with powdered sugar. But for other birthdays, especially kids’, I feel like a frosted cake is more celebratory, and a butter cake seems like overkill when you’re going to slather a layer of butter and powdered sugar on top.

This yellow cake is a keeper – moist and springy, rich taste but not overly sweet, still soft and delicious a day or two later. It has enough butter for flavor, plus my favorite baking ingredient for extra moisture: plain yogurt (or sour cream, or buttermilk). And in the ultimate compliment, kids who are normally frosting-lickers actually eat this cake too.

My brother Ray, an adventurous eater but a plain-Jane cake guy, loved the birthday cake we made him recently. We threw it together last minute, leaving it in the pan for easier transport, with a quick chocolate-chip arrangement on top as a festive nod. We made it again for my daughter’s birthday party, with chocolate chips, M&Ms and two gummy peach rings to form the number 8.

And today I’m celebrating two special birthdays: my forever friend Grace, soulmate since we met freshman year of high school, and my dad, who would have been 79 years old today.

My dad, an engineer always in search of creative solutions to problems, would have liked this cake and the novel technique, from master baker Rose Levy Beranbaum, used to make it. Instead of starting by creaming butter and sugar, soft butter is mixed with dry ingredients before wet ingredients are added. I don’t know why, but it works beautifully. read on…


My parents avoided the crowds and tension of cities, so we rarely traveled to urban areas on family vacations, unless we did the Asian thing and stopped for a college tour. To their immigrant eyes, the wonders of America were not in cities but in the immense protected landscape of the country, unusual in a world where natural resources are regularly depleted, polluted or destroyed.

My parents found great joy in the preservation of natural lands here – 14 percent of the U.S. land mass is safeguarded to some degree, representing an impressive 10 percent of the protected lands in the world. They took us to local and state parks on occasional weekends, but big family vacations were dedicated to the nation’s finest natural wonders – America’s national parks.

So we loaded the station wagon with regularity, leaving suburbia to pay respects to the crown jewels of the land. We marveled at the dramatic waterfalls and cliffs of Yosemite, the geysers and wildlife of Yellowstone. We walked in awe among the colossal redwoods of Sequoia National Park, the largest standing since before Christ was born, and drove our car through the massive trunk of a living giant.

On one trip to the hot, marshy Everglades, I waded through a meadow and climbed on a picnic table to photograph an alligator in the water, accidentally stirring up a swarm of mosquitoes in the tall grass. We all sprinted to escape, slamming car doors shut and slapping madly to kill the buzzing, stinging attackers, laughing ruefully at the absurdity of it as my dad drove away.

In the Taoist tradition, ours was the church of nature. You’ve seen this philosophy in Chinese landscape paintings – mountains, waterfalls and countryside, often with a lone figure, miniature in the vastness. Spiritual communion by way of art.

In later years, my parents enjoyed traveling outside the country, but they would always finish their travel report by saying that what we have here is even better.

I spent my pre-parenthood adult life as a Manhattan urbanite, journeying outside the country at every opportunity. So it was with the warmth and pang of childhood nostalgia that I returned to my wonders-of-America roots a few months ago with my mom and my own kids. read on…


One recipe, two ideas here: First, that you can use ground turkey in a stir fry. Second, that when you have older, thicker green beans, you can transform them by cutting steep diagonal slices that will absorb a fantastic amount of flavor.

My mom has made green beans like this for years, so it always seemed kind of normal to me. But I’ve never seen anyone make them the way she does. They’re amazing. And there’s really nothing to it, just a turn of the knife.

It’s a little longer prep time, but flip side is the cooking time is less. It takes me 15 minutes to cut a pound of green beans, and I’m slow.

You’re probably more used to seeing cut pieces of meat in stir fry. Often you’ll find a little bit of ground pork for flavoring in a dish of whole green beans. And there’s a fantastic eggplant dish that uses ground pork. But ground meat is less common in stir fries at Chinese restaurants here.

Once you try it, I think you will love ground turkey for stir fry. I find the more traditional ground pork generally too fatty. And what I love about ground turkey is that it’s poultry without the slimy job of trimming chicken.

As with most stir fries, this dish is extremely versatile. The green beans on their own are a phenomenal vegetable dish. And the ground turkey adds delicious flavor to any vegetables you want to saute.

If you love my old fan favorite chicken and green bean stir fry, I promise you will love this one too.

I don’t use a lot of bottled sauces – they have too many additives and take up valuable space in my fridge. You only need a few pantry ingredients to mix up a stir fry sauce that’s fresher and better than anything you can buy. read on…


Daily dinner in my house probably isn’t what you imagine. With four kids in three schools, and an activity or two per kid, every day is a lot of screeching around corners in my loaded minivan hauling people hither and yon. I might use a brief stop at home to rummage around and prep, but when it comes to eating time, we’re throwing food together on the fly. It’s not pretty, but it’s nutritious food at home, and we’re almost always together.

So one of my well-practiced specialties is spontaneous meal production. And one of my favorite last-minute dishes is this pan of eggs, gently poached in a garlic-scented tomato sauce, topped with cheese. It’s gorgeous served in the pan, everyone dishing up an egg or two and, as they eat, enjoying the golden yolk spill into an overload of deep tomato richness.

Variations on this dish exist in a number of cuisines – as sweet-pepper-and-cumin spiced shakshuka in the Middle East, or garlicky, spicy uovo in purgatorio in Italy. But it’s just one of those very flexible basics that can take any variation you want to throw in. read on…


Coconut macaroons are a humble cookie compared to their French macaron cousins: one pale and bumpy with shredded coconut, the other smooth with finely ground almond, two delicate pastel-tinted rounds sandwiching a creamy center. But there’s a down-home charm to the unassuming coconut macaroon, and a deeply satisfying chew from the rich, dense pile of coconutty sweetness.

I first rediscovered my love for the old-fashioned coconut macaroon, much to my surprise, at Disneyland. At the last corner of nostalgic Main Street USA, with its old-time emporiums, ice cream parlor, candy shop and penny arcade, is the Jolly Holiday bakery, charmingly Victorian in buttercup and white, its large terrace packed with round tables shaded by cheerfully striped umbrellas.

Not a traditional bakery – after all, Disneyland needs to feed 50,000 adults and kids a day – the Jolly Holiday is primarily a quick-service food operation. But it does have glass cases with a few bakery items, mostly standard-issue danishes, croissants and cookies.

But the sweet that gets the raves from Disneyphiles is not the French macaron shaped like a Mickey Mouse head, it’s the Matterhorn macaroon, a tall mountain of coconut, golden brown outside topped with a white chocolate snowcap. The crisp outside gives way to an unexpectedly soft, moist, sweet interior – the stuff coconut dreams are made of – and is easily the best macaroon I’ve ever had. read on…


I would never trade summers in the midwest with family, but I’m always a little heartbroken when far-flung friends email, “We’re coming to San Francisco this summer!” and I have to write back, “Sorry, but we won’t be there…”

Good friends came to San Francisco for the first time this month, and when they emailed to ask for some recommendations, I wrote back saying, “I’m really not the best source for San Francisco info.” But then I’d think, “Oh, I need to tell her this…” and shoot off an email – “and this…” – another email – and by the time I was done I thought I should dig up some photos and put together a virtual guide for you and my future star-crossed summer visitors, so you can see the San Francisco that I see.

San Francisco is a hilly city, at the tip on a peninsula with water on three sides. Scenic views pop up everywhere, if you can bear to take your eyes off the rollercoaster one-way roads. It’s not the place for nervous drivers on stick shift.

San Francisco is not a nocturnal city – the vibe here is early to bed, early to rise/jog/bike/hike/coffee. There are pockets of nightlife, but it’s definitely not the kind of city that wakes up when the sun goes down. read on…


Corn and black bean salad with chipotle dressing

29 June 2016
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Clever growers have extended the seasons for most vegetables, even tomatoes, but truly fresh, sweet corn on the cob is something we still get only in the heart of summer. This time of year I want to eat it as often as I can. I’m loving this no-wilt corn and black bean salad for Fourth […]

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The best xiao long bao in NYC (is not Joe’s)

20 June 2016
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One of the best meals to be had in New York City – and very often my first destination off the plane – is a $5 tray of steaming hot dumplings in Chinatown. Xiao long bao – pronunciation shao (rhymes with now) lohng (long O like tone) bow (as in take a bow) – aren’t […]

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Summer hack: fruit stain removal

1 June 2016
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June is freaking me out. I’m a week away from being the parent of a high schooler. The two minor graduations we have next week – middle school and elementary – are reminders that in four years our household count will start shrinking. My heart hurts just thinking about it. It sounds silly that end […]

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The greatest city

12 May 2016
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I’ve spent more years living in California than New York, but because I was in Manhattan for my first independent decade – the years between leaving my childhood home to having children myself – New York City is where I feel most free and alive. I went to college there, built a career there, met […]

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