Archive for November, 2008

Rich redux

[Recipe: Dark Chocolate Cake with Poached Mandarins]

Ever harbor secret fantasies of spending entire days in the kitchen? Of waving aside the piles on your desk, the writing projects in the hopper? Of ignoring the cell and e-mail, because who can type and, at the same time, give proper heed to the hollandaise?

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Ok, so maybe it’s just me who wants to drop everything else altogether in favor of making food — although I’m guessing there are those among you who would be perfectly happy to make that their livelihood. Tired, but happy.

Until I get up the guts to make the jump, I wait for the holidays. It’s the one time of year that best lends itself to hours of toiling stove-side, for an at once solemn and festive purpose. Today that purpose was cake, for our Thanksgiving meal. We shrug at pie, that traditional Thanksgiving day dessert, can take it or leave it. But it’s practically written in stone that there must be a sliver of something to end the meal with.

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Baking a cake is one of those activities that it’s easy to give yourself over to, heart and soul — whether it’s a fussy confection, layered, filled and frosted, or something altogether simpler, like this chocolate cake. Because even the making of simpler cakes should feel special given the preponderance of supermarket bakery fluff.

I’ve offered the straight-up version of this classic before, which is adapted from Trish Deseine’s Je Veux du Chocolat!, to great fanfare. This year, I played with it a bit for Not Quite Nigella’s Ultimate Chocolate Cake Challenge, and the result captures some of my favorite tastes of the season: chocolate, citrus and cinnamon. No worries, though: the chocolate is in no way outdone. It, that tiny slice of chocolaty richness on your plate, is still the willing star.

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Dark Chocolate Cake with Poached Mandarins

This cake is better made the day before. The poached mandarins, which are adapted from Gourmet, can be made a day or few ahead, as well. Reserving and then reducing the poaching liquid to drizzle over the cake gives it a clean finish that doesn’t detract a bit from the chocolate.

For the cake:
8 oz good quality dark chocolate
8 oz unsalted butter
1 heaping cup sugar
Zest of one orange
1 tsp cinnamon
5 large eggs
1 rounded tbsp flour

For the mandarins:
4 tight-skinned mandarins or tangerines
1 ½  C sugar
3 C water
¼ C dry white wine or fine white grape juice, such as First Blush Chardonnay
¼ C fresh lemon juice

To bake the cake:
Line an 8-inch cake pan with parchment paper and cover the paper and pan sides with cooking spray or butter. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a medium saucepan, melt the chocolate and butter slowly on the stovetop. Add the sugar, stirring until dissolved, and remove from heat. Add the orange zest and cinnamon. When the mixture has cooled a bit, add the eggs one at a time, stirring between each addition. Add the flour, stirring to combine. Pour the batter into the pan.

Bake for 25 minutes. Cake may not appear set, but will continue to set as it cools. Cool in the pan for a few minutes, then turn out onto a cooling rack. When the cake is completely cool, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate. Allow it to come to room temperature before serving.

To poach the mandarins:
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Slice unpeeled mandarins crosswise about ¼-inch thick, discarding seeds. Place tangerines in a 13- by 9-inch baking dish, overlapping if necessary. Bring sugar and water to a boil in a small saucepan, stirring occasionally, then simmer for 2 minutes. Stir in wine or grape juice and lemon juice and return to a simmer. Pour over fruit.

Lay a sheet of parchment paper on top of fruit to keep it submerged, then place in the oven until tender but not falling apart, 1 to 1 ¼ hours. Discard parchment and cool fruit to warm or room temperature. Reserve the poaching liquid.

Just before serving, reduce poaching liquid in a medium saucepan until it’s of syrupy consistency. Drizzle it over the cake. Serve cake with mandarin slices.

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From the hearty

Ok, so I’m not a fluffy pancake person, but truth be told, I’m not a fluffy anything person.  I’m hardly known for my cavalier use of throw pillows — much as I appreciate their comfort (that fluff) and pop of color, liberal scattering would only crowd my aesthetic. I’ll only hug you if there’s a really good reason for it. And we have a lone fish — no fluffy dogs or kittens to speak of, except for a particular cat from next door who has taken to exploring our back yard (and our roof).

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And when it comes to food, I’ll take rich over airy any day. Gelato instead of soft-serve. Truffles rather than meringue. I like my cakes good and dense, my brownies rich. You get the idea.

The same goes for my breakfast.

So consider yourself fully warned, prepped, apprised — The pancakes that follow are of the hearty variety. I created them for the Energy Food Challenge over at Hopie’s Kitchen. Her mom is taking part in a 109-mile bike ride, and because she’s doing it somewhat close to where I live, I almost feel personally responsible that she get the nutrients and calories she needs for the journey.

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I happen to keep company with bikers and runners, and the energy foods they swear by are bananas and peanut butter toast. As I’m personally afflicted with a compulsion to hike at 5:30 a.m. three days a week and engage in kickbox and cycle classes at the gym, I’m also acquainted with the importance of food as fuel.

Hence, these power pancakes, full of whole grains (for fiber), peanut butter (for protein) and even bananas (for sweetness and staying power). And while they won’t score high on the fluff factor, they are nevertheless satisfying without being heavy. In fact, these babies have supplanted my daily oatmeal and fueled my workouts for three days running. Enjoy the ride, Hopie’s mom!

Power Pancakes with Peanut Butter & Bananas

I grew up spreading peanut butter on pancakes. These pancakes make good travelers because I’ve put the the peanut butter in the batter. And the bananas and brown sugar mean they don’t need much in the way of sweet embellishment, so they’re a great anytime snack grab.

2 C milk

1/2 C plain yogurt

1/2 C quick-cooking oats

1/2 C hot cereal grains (such as Bob’s Red Mill Whole Grain High Fiber Hot Cereal)

1 tsp vanilla

1/2 C natural peanut butter, well-stirred

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

2 1/4 C white whole-wheat flour

4 tbsp brown sugar

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

2 large bananas

Combine milk, yogurt, oats, cereal and vanilla in a small bowl with a whisk. Let stand 10 minutes. Whisk in peanut butter and eggs. Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add oat and peanut butter mixture to dry ingredients and stir just until combined. Mixture will be thick.

Cut bananas into quarter-inch-thick horizontal slices. Pour 1/3 cup batter onto skillet heated to medium-high (don’t forget butter or cooking spray, as necessary). Press banana slices into uncooked tops of pancakes. When tops are starting to puff up and tiny bubbles begin to form, flip pancakes, cooking opposite side until golden. Repeat with remaining batter and bananas.

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Lettuce lit

Like I mentioned just the other day, my antennae pique when the subject of food surfaces in books.  As one compelled to cook/read/write, I can’t help but be fascinated with the way authors employ food to develop plot and character.

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So when I came across the Food Quote Challenge from Almond & the Hazelnut, I knew precisely which quote I wanted to share with the reading-food-loving world. It’s an affecting personification of lettuce, of all things, from poet Lorna Crozier’s “The Blue Hour of the Day: Selected Poems”:

“Raised for one thing and one only, lettuce is a courtesan in her salad days. Under her fancy crinolines her narrow feet are bound.”

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Behold the possibilities

Did you know you could do this? Put grapes on pizza?

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Apparently it’s a traditional focaccia-style topping in Italy during grape harvest (known as schiacciata alle ‘uva), and I’m terribly late to the party.

I long ago entered the crossover territory of putting fruit into salads. I too went through my strawberry-and-baby-spinach honeymoon phase. Endearingly exotic at the time, it made a new woman out of me. These days I’m all over the clementines with the mesclun and the apples with the radicchio. Not to mention the giddiness I get up to involving grains. Pomegranate seeds and bulgur, anyone?

Enter Revelation Number Two: A couple years ago I skeptically-but-gamely ordered a nectarine and buffalo mozzarella pizza. Chewy sourdough, milky cheese, sweet fruit and a handful of basil.

And now I’m onto the innate flexibility of other fruits, and doesn’t it all just make so much more sense than insisting on like with like all the time? I mean, if tomatoes and avocados and olives — all technically fruits, even though they so often get lumped with the vegetables — can romp nicely with greens and grains, so can other fruits, right?

I’m telling you, my reverence has all but gone the way of Jell-O salad (thank goodness).

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Two recipes for flatbread/pizza with grapes appeared just months apart in two of my favorite ‘zines, Domino and Cookie. You don’t need a recipe for this, though. Just give your favorite pizza dough (homemade’s a cinch, if you have the time; when I don’t, I’m partial to Trader Joe’s whole wheat version) an olive oil rubdown, then top with sliced red or black grapes, some chopped rosemary or thyme, and a scatter of crumbled chevre or feta or bleu. Bake it at 425 degrees for 10 minutes or so until golden, then finish with sea salt and maybe some chopped basil.

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High achieving

Sometimes a fit of ambition hits just as you’re about to get dinner to the table — and on a weeknight, no less.

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I’m not sure what possessed me to plunk the large frying pan on the stovetop, grate some seriously sharp, crumbly cheddar and toss it with a whisper of flour, but these cheese croutons were the resulting salad topper.

It made me feel like a superstar. Because it was a Wednesday. Because we were busy and dinner was sandwiched between classes and meetings and we didn’t have time for the frivolity of salad toppers.

I’d quick sautéed the pears and arrayed them on the greens. My favorite cider balsamic was already mingling with my best extra virgin. Walnuts were chopped, at the ready.

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But it was all just so… comme d’hab. Not above and beyond. Not worth much mention, really. Oh, it was going to be tasty and satisfying, that whole bit. But then I shredded the cheddar that I’d planned on shaving over the salads, and the frying pan was hot, and well, you know the rest.

They were lacey, but snappable, and they reminded me of two things.

One: a typical after school snack, fourth grade, when I’d place a slice of confetti cheese (that Monterey Jack-cheddar combo) in the middle of a saucer and microwave it until it was melted and bubbly and slid, hot, down my throat.

Two: of snowflakes, each one remarkably different, each one so necessary to my happiness at the particular moment I’m surrounded by their flurry.

Cheddar Crisps
adapted from Domino
The flour acts to bind the shreds of cheese, and adds to the crispness. Parmesan works nicely, here, too.

1 C grated sharp white cheddar
1 tsp flour

Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Combine cheddar with flour.  Sprinkle a thin layer of the cheese mixture into 2″ to 3″ circles in the pan. Cook as many as will fit, in batches. When the underside is golden, flip gently to other side. Remove from pan and let cool on a plate layered with paper towels.

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Crumb comfort

So what quantity, pray tell, is meant by a “gill” of yeast?

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I encountered the description reading Sarah Bishop with my 10-year-old, Emmie. It’s one of those based-on-a-true-story kind of stories, about a girl around the time of the Revolutionary War and the hardships she faces given her time and place in history.

Her father is killed and her brother is missing (oops, is it too late for a spoiler alert?), and Sarah finds a job baking bread in an inn for the militia boys, who “come down here half-starved and baked bread hits the spot.”

Probably the baking of the bread hit a spot of comfort for Sarah, who asked for Indian maize, rye and white flours before getting to work, describing her task (this is where the gill of yeast question comes from):

“There was no special way I had to make bread, besides the equal parts of rye and cornmeal and white flour. Also you can use water, but milk is much better if you have it. Then you add salt aplenty and a gill of yeast to the quart of milk or water. Like all other bread, it should not be made so thick that you can’t stir it well with your hand.”

Naturally, I’m interested in the historical aspects, by the narrative that takes place amid the rising of an independent nation. Incidentally, we’ve also been inhaling HBO’s “John Adams” on DVD, and then yesterday, we took part in the right and privilege we have in this country of voting. It’s all left me feeling a sort of reverent gratitude for my life here (much as I despise our nation’s penchant for things like margarine and supermarkets that take up entire city blocks).

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But as I read Sarah’s story I also can’t help noticing the food. Scott O’Dell realized in his telling that food is life, and that the food we make plays significantly in our individual and collective stories. And so, even though the broader tale in the book is one of war, O’Dell wove in details like the color and crunch of an apple:

“We picked a few early Roxbury Russets, which always go to a good market. They are not a pretty apple, having sort of a brownish blush; but underneath the blush is a green-gold and the flesh is sweet and crisp.”

So food is a touchstone, and a marker. It may seem small in the context of a lifetime of events, but it’s not. Which is why we write about it. Why we blog about the crumble of a homemade cookie or the scent of shallots or what we had for lunch and why. Why Sarah tells us about the lunch she offered her father, one of the very last she’d give him:

“I went in the house and brought out a bowl of fish chowder, sweet pickles I had made early in the summer, and fresh bread I had baked that morning.”

**Photos taken at Plimith Plantation in Massachusetts.

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