Saturday, February 25, 2006

Blood Orange Cake

February, known in the anapestic household, with much less exaggeration than we usually employ, as le mois des mille gateaux, is drawing to a close with the tenth birthday (yesterday) of L. She was, in fact, born either seven or eight minutes after midnight. I wish I could remember whether it was seven or eight minutes, but every year I ask, and every year I promptly forget the answer. In any case, she always makes a big deal of the fact that her birthday has actually really happened before the cake is cut. A., by contrast, squeaked in a minute ahead of her due date at 11:59 pm (fortunately, the nurse was keeping an eye on the clock; we were kind of busy with other matters), and L. is always careful to point out that when we're cutting A.'s cake, A. is not really as old as the number of candles. As sibling conflicts go, I reckon this one is pretty mild.

L. was unable or unwilling to articulate a preference for either her birthday dinner (which was carry out from her favorite Chinese restaurant; it's busy season, after all, and V.'s in Bosnia, and I barely have time to load the dishwasher) or her birthday cake. When A. and I were in Trader Joe's a couple of days ago, however, I happened upon some bags of blood oranges, and I decided that an orange cake was the way to go. I decided to fill and frost it with ganache. The cake itself is fairly light, and I figured the dark chocolate would contrast nicely with it.

The cake is also pink (from the juice of the blood oranges), so I suppose that makes it a good choice for Valentine's Day. I am aware that Valentine's Day has already passed, but as it would not occur to me to make a cake for Valentine's Day, and, if making such a cake had occurred to me, it would certainly not have occurred to me to make a pink cake, it is hardly surprising that I made this discovery after it was already too late to do something that I wouldn't have done in any case. (I'm currently pitching to CBS a new series, Survivor: Run-on Sentences, in which the contestants will have to parse a series of my blog entries in order to get immunity. At the end of each episode, the host will say, "The tribe has spoken. We have no idea what they said.") It's a very light pink, though. I suppose that if I wanted to play up its pinkness, I'd frost it with a bright white icing. I can't imagine why I'd want to play up its pinkness, though. I'm kind of hoping no one will notice, but there must be people who'd appreciate a pink cake. Chacun a son gout, I reckon.

Thursday night, when I was on the way home from the office (at 8:45) and I had to stop in at the supermarket to pick up some ingredients and supplies, I reasoned that since I'd made a fairly big deal -- in a recent post -- of not using cake flour because I never had any because I was afraid of having too much, I could be entirely sure that if I bought a box, it would be the only box in the pantry. Also, having said that cake flour is unnecessary, I could avoid what appears to be my fear of consistency by going with the cake flour. Finally while the last two cakes I made were completely delicious, I thought the texture was somewhat unrefined, and while I'm clearly the only one who noticed, there didn't seem to be any good reason not to use cake flour to get a superior texture. (I still think, though, that for chocolate cakes or cakes that have a lot of nuts or other add-ins, all purpose flour is at least as good; you don't necessarily want those cakes to be light to the point of etherealness.)

This recipe is adapted from a recipe in The Cake Bible. The original recipe calls for no orange flavoring and uses only egg yolks (six of them). Using only egg yolks would obviously give a substantially different result, but I very much like the cake I get with the whole eggs, and it's nice not to have to beat and fold in egg whites when you're not starting a cake until after 10 pm.

Blood Orange Cake

3 blood oranges
10.5 ounces sugar
1 cup milk
3 eggs
2 t. vanilla extract
10.5 ounces cake flour
4 t. baking powder
12 ounces butter, softened

Triple sec
Ganache (recipe follows)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Grease two nine-inch layer pans, line the bottoms with wax or parchment paper*, then grease the paper. Flour the greased pans.

Remove the zest from the blood oranges. Put the zest and the sugar in a food processor and process until utterly pulverized. Squeeze the juice from the oranges. Strain it into a bowl or measuring cup and microwave on high for about three minutes, or until it is reduced and syrupy. Put in the freezer for three or four minutes to cool. Don't forget that it's in there.

In a bowl, mix the eggs, 1/4 cup of the milk, and the vanilla extract.

Put the cake flour, baking powder, and zest-infused sugar into the bowl of your stand mixer. Add the whisk attachment, and mix on medium for about a minute. Add the butter and mix for half a minute or so, then add the remaining 3/4 cup of milk, mix for a few seconds on low, then mix on medium for 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. With the mixer running on low, add the reduced blood orange juice. Then with the mixer still running, add about a third of the egg mixture. Do this last step two more times, waiting for the previous addition to become well incorporated each time.

Divide the batter between the pans, then bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the cake springs back when pressed and a pick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Let the cakes cool in the pans for fifteen minutes, then invert onto cooling racks, remove the pans, and let cool completely.

Split each layer in half. Put one of the half layers on your cake plate and sprinkle it with Triple Sec. Pour a dollop of ganache onto the cake and spread it into a thin layer. Add another disk of cake and repeat the process. When you get the last layer of cake onto your stack, sprinkle it with Triple Sec, then pour ganache over the top and let it flow down the sides.

If you work quickly with a rubber scraper or spatula, you can spread the ganache around the sides without harming the sheen, but it's best if you don't touch the top.

*Parchment paper is slightly superior for lining cake pans, but the waxed paper works pretty well and is a great deal cheaper. If I could have found my roll of brown paper, I'd have used that. The main difference between waxed and parchment paper is that with parchment paper, the paper releases from the pan first, and with waxed paper, the cake releases from the paper first. You get a slightly better bottom crust with the parchment paper, but with the waxed paper, you get a very thin layer of cake crumbs on the waxed paper, and you can scrape this up with your fingers and eat it. Also, the waxed paper tends to be narrower than the parchment paper, and you waste less of it when you line a pan that is less than twelve inches in diameter. In a perfect world, someone would market precut rounds of parchment paper at a not wholly unreasonable price, but it has been frequently opined that we don't live in a perfect world, and that sentiment is extremely difficult to argue with.

I cannot claim to be any sort of expert on blood oranges, especially since this is the first time I've ever used any. The ones I bought were significantly smaller than regular oranges, perhaps the size of a lacrosse ball. You could easily make the recipe with regular oranges and substitute one big orange. Or perhaps the zest of two oranges and the juice of one. More orange zest is almost always better. Of course, if you do that, your cake won't be pink, but who wants pink cake? Peter Sellers? Steve Martin? (Though judging from the reviews, I'd guess maybe not Steve Martin.)

I'm not sure how sensitive this cake recipe is. I suspect that it's fairly robust and that you could measure your flour and sugar by volume without any real fear. I'm very fond of my postal kitchen scale, however, and since I tend to use it to weigh the filled layer pans, I figure I may as well go ahead and weigh the dry ingredients while I'm at it. Weighing the filled cake pans is likely an unnecessary level of fastidiousness, but it's not really much effort, so the only good reason not to do it is the considerable gnashing of teeth that resulted last night when one cake pan ended up weighing 29.3 ounces while the other one was a whopping 29.4 ounces. Oh, the humanity. Anyway, there are plenty of other recipes where fastidiousness is necessary, or at least helpful, and it's a lot easier to measure flour by weight than by volume, so why not?

The ganache that I made (and which was otherwise awesome) was probably too intense for this somewhat delicate cake. My chocolate buttercream might have been a better choice, or I could simply have used a less intense bittersweet chocolate. I used the Trader Joe's 72% chocolate, which I adore, but which is really too strong for both this cake and the tastes of a ten-year-old child, even mine. As it happens, however, the addition of a scoop of vanilla ice cream deintensifies the dark chocolate and is not a particularly hard sell to L., so she was thrilled with the end result, especially since she managed to extinguish all her candles with one breath.


1.25 cups heavy cream
500g dark chocolate, chopped
2 T. orange liqueur

Put the heavy cream in a four-cup measure and microwave on high for two minutes. Add the chocolate and the orange liqueur and stir until smooth. Let the mixture cool to just slightly warmer than lukewarm, and beat with a hand mixer for two minutes, or until lukewarm. Use immediately.

You don't have to use either the microwave or a hand mixer, of course. You can heat the cream in a saucepan until it's simmering, then remove it from the heat and add the chocolate and liqueur and stir until smooth, then you can pour it into the bowl of your stand mixer and beat it with the whisk attachment. The microwave and hand mixer are very convenient, however, and you will end up with fewer dishes to wash.

Instead of using this ganache to fill and frost a cake, you could, after beating the ganache with the mixer, cover it with plastic wrap, put it in the refrigerator for a couple of hours, take it out, form it into small balls, and roll the balls in cocoa. You'd have truffles. You'd have a lot of truffles. There are worse problems to have, believe me.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Cabbage Salad

I made this tasty but rather unprepossessing salad to go along with a pot of Muhjadarrah that I read about over at Toast the other day. I am a big fan of lentils, so when I read about it, I decided to make it as soon as possible, which turned out to be this past Saturday evening when I was also making the cake for A.'s party. For reasons that are unclear to me, but that echo the problems I have with cake flour, I was unable to remember any of the three bags (including a four-pound bag) of lentils that were sitting in my pantry, so when I was at the store, I picked up another couple of pounds. After all, they're dried, so they're not going to go bad, and they're almost cheaper than dirt, so no harm done, right? I just have to use up the extra ones I bought before V. (who is somewhat less than amused when I come home with a third or fourth of something that I haven't used up the first of yet) returns from Sarajevo, and since he's there for another three weeks, that shouldn't be a problem, especially since I've already made two batches of the Muhjadarrah. I didn't really follow the recipe the first time; I thought that six tablespoons of olive oil sounded like an awful lot, and I only had a medium-large onion, and I got distracted while the lentils and rice were on the stove, and they ended up being somewhat overcooked. Mind you, it was still pretty good, and A. and I had it for dinner last night, and she said that she wanted more for breakfast this morning. But while six tablespoons of oil looks like a lot in the skillet, a quart of rice and lentils drinks it up pretty quickly. Besides, if you only use two or three tablespoons of oil, you have to spend a lot more time minding the onions and turning them about. With the deeper oil, they cook more evenly with only minimal tending, and that's a good thing because they take forever to caramelize properly. Anyway, the second batch, with more oil (let's not even pretend that I measured, but it could very easily have been six tablespoons, though it likely wasn't any more than that) and two medium-large onions and lentils and rice that were not overcooked, was significantly better. Of course, I couldn't not make some slight adjustments to the recipe, so I used brown rice, and I added some whole cumin seed to the onions about two-thirds of the way through their cooking time. Obviously, brown rice takes longer to cook than white rice, so I just started them both cooking at the same time.

Here at the chez nous, we eat a lot of cabbage salad in the winter. V. makes it frequently, and he generally just shreds part of a cabbage, plops it in a bowl, pours some olive oil and wine vinegar over it, then tosses it with salt and pepper. It was, I admit, not a dish that I took to immediately, but these days I look forward to seeing it on the table. I was, it must be said, a late convert to cabbage. As a youth, I mostly was faced with cabbage as something that was boiled along with kielbasa, a treatment that perhaps does not play to its strengths. I keep meaning to explore other treatments of cabbage, but I haven't yet. I blame redfox. She posted a whole series of cabbage recipes sometime last year (or the year before; I'm just way too lazy to go look, and if I don't go and read the actual posts, I can say that she said whatever I feel like saying that she said, and if I'm wrong, well, I didn't really look, did I?), and one of the last recipes in the series was for braised cabbage, and that recipe said (you will understand that the quotation marks indicate that I'm paraphrasing) "Begin with a tasty fat. You can use butter or olive oil if you really must, but the best of all possible choices is duck fat. It's even better if it comes from a duck who was mistreated for all of his short miserable life and then dispatched inhumanely, but the fat from any duck will do in a pinch. Mmmmmm, duck." (I feel almost guilty writing about animal fat while I'm having my lunch and chowing down on this thoroughly delicious, thoroughly vegan second batch of Muhjadarrah -- I kid you not, this stuff is fantastic -- but if the supposedly vegetarian redfox can advocate its use, those of us with more tender sensitivities will just have to suck it up, I suppose.) Anyway, every time I think about braising some cabbage, I think that I really want the first batch to be made with duck fat, which is something that I only have on hand when I happen to have recently roasted a duck, which I have not done in some years. Oh well. Someday.

Anyway. V. always uses good old green cabbage for his cabbage salads, and when I was at the supermarket, I was looking for a head of good old green cabbage, but there was none to be found, so I got a head of Napa cabbage. And then, once I had it wrapped up in a bag and stowed in my cart, I saw the huge pile of good old green cabbage, so I got a head of that, too. I used the Napa cabbage for the salad, so I'll have to come up with another use for the good old green cabbage. Perhaps I'll buy a duck.

Cabbage Salad

1 clove garlic*
1 head Napa cabbage
1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley
1 t. whole cumin seed
1 t. whole fennel seed

Cut the clove of garlic in half and rub it around the inside of the bowl that you're going to make the salad in.*

Put the cumin and fennel seed in a small skillet and toast them over medium-low heat. Reserve.

If there are any tough outer leaves to the cabbage, remove them. Then slice it crosswise, as thinly as possible.

Pour some vinaigrette into the bottom of your bowl, then add the cabbage and parsley. Toss to coat, adding more vinaigrette as necessary. Season with salt and pepper, toss again, then top with the toasted seeds.

*I am convinced that this step adds absolutely nothing to this particular recipe, but it's kind of fun to do. I think next time I'll just put some garlic in my vinaigrette, the way I usually do.


1/4 cup lemon juice
3/4 cup olive oil
1 t. Dijon mustard

Combine ingredients in a jar. Shake.

You don't, of course, actually measure the ingredients for a vinaigrette. You just get a lemon out, cut it in half, use your lemon reamer to get all of its juice out and into a bowl, remove the seeds, pour the lemon juice into a jar, then pour approximately three times as much olive oil in the jar, add the mustard and the salt and the pepper, close the jar, and shake well. Taste it. If your vinaigrette tastes flat, you probably haven't added enough salt. It's really pretty simple. Vinaigrette is almost always better with a pureed clove of garlic added in. I don't know why I didn't do that with the cabbage salad, but it was pretty good without the garlic. I'm not sure that the term "vinaigrette" is entirely appropriate when you're using lemon juice instead of vinegar, but I don't plan on changing my terminology. When I'm making a salad with lettuce or spinach, I'll generally use either red wine vinegar or cheap balsamic vinegar instead of the lemon juice, so if you're troubled by vinaigrette without vinegar, you can make it that way instead. I think the lemon juice is nice with the parsley and cabbage, though. You can use any good olive oil that you like. The olive oil in this picture looks very dark; that's because it really is very dark, though it doesn't really have a heavy taste. The post-shake dressing is very green in the jar, but it's clear on the salad. If you had been in the kitchen while I was making the salad (and the Muhjadarrah), you would have seen me taking down various bottles of olive oil and smelling them to see which one I wanted to use. Be glad that you weren't there: no one needs to see that, and it's not like I would have given you any of my Muhjadarrah, anyway.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

You Didn't Hear This from Me, Okay?

I'm afraid, readers, that I really must insist that today's post be off the record. If you make the dish that I'm about to describe, you can't tell anyone that you got it from me. If you link to this post, I will deny it, and if anyone asks, I will simply say that when I clicked on your link, I was taken to the home page for American Society for the Prevention of Split Infinitives, and how, after all, can you trust someone whose mission in life is to arbitrarily and wrongfully prevent the sensible splitting of infinitives? Then I will cast aspersions on your ability to punctuate and claim that you are wholly unable to use apostrophes correctly. So this post is entirely entre nous, ok?

Because, after all, there are certain culinary practices that one cannot condone. If you were to read, for example, that I was using margarine, would you not be shocked? Well, thank God that it hasn't come to that, but you might not be any less shocked to see me admit (while I simultaneously deny, of course) making a recipe that involves both canned soup and pasteurized process cheese spread (rhymes with "Melmeeta").

So credit this recipe instead to where most of the credit is really due. I have, as I always do, made certain changes that I believe to be improvements, and that would probably be considered significant by most readers, but the recipe that I took as a departure point is already very good, and while you could easily tell the two apart in a side-by-side taste test, if you were given one today and the other a week from now, you would probably think that you were eating the same thing.

I originally purchased Michael McLaughlin's The Manhattan Chilly Co. Southwest-American Cookbook out of frustration with my inability to make decent chili. I have probably written about that frustration before, and I have since overcome it, so I won't re-rehash some of the chili disasters of my youth, but when I acquired the cookbook (probably in the late 1980s), I was looking to get some chili mojo going. I don't think I ever made any of the chili recipes from this book, though the recipes look very good, and I have doubtless incorporated some of his advice when I have made decent chili. But I have certainly, on many occasions, made his Salsa Fresca recipe, which always receives high praise. And, on even more occasions, I've made Chile con Queso.

The Manhattan Chilly Co. Southwest-American Cookbook is a very well written cookbook, which, I'm sure, is why I find myself picking it up even when I have no intention of making anything in its pages. The introduction to the Chile con Queso recipe reads, in part:
I have tasted complicated, fondue-like versions of this Tex-Mex classic. Made with first-rate aged cheeses and so on, they were edible but lacked the tacky charm of the original. If cooking with canned soups and processed cheeses fails to engage even your anthropologic curiosity, move on.

Chile con Queso is a great hot party dip, of course. I made it today for A.'s postponed birthday party, which was snowed out last weekend and had to be rescheduled for this afternoon. Fortunately (for me, if not for A.), the rescheduling meant that the number of people who were able to attend was significantly smaller, so there are only about eight or ten teenagers around the house right now while I hide in the study with a bowl of CcQ and some corn chips. I made other food, of course, and there is a cake (it's a repeat of the cake I made for her birthday dinner; it was a great success) for later, and there is a huge container of punch (the punchbowl having gone the way of the springform pans and heaven knows what all else that's disappeared in the last year). No one will be hungry.

Mr. McLaughlin's book says that this recipe makes "about 2 1/2 cups, serving 6 to 8." I think maybe he was misquoted. It makes at least twice that

Chile con Queso

1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes, well drained
2 t. dried oregano
1/2 cup beer
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 jalapenos, seeds removed, minced
2 cans condensed cheddar cheese soup
1 pound Velveeta, cut into one-inch cubes*
Sliced scallions**
1 t. toasted cumin seeds

In a 4-quart (or thereabouts) saucepan, put the drained tomatoes and the oregano. Put over medium heat and stir until the mixture bubbles.

In a second, smaller saucepan, combine the beer, garlic, and jalapenos. Bring to a boil and simmer for a few minutes.

Add the soup and Velveeta to the tomatoes and stir over medium-low heat until melted. Add the beer mixture and stir to incorporate well. Stir in the scallions and cook for another two minutes or so. Pour into a bowl and sprinkle the toasted cumin seeds on top. Serve with corn chips.

*Not that it matters, but I actually used the store-brand Velveeta knock off. If you're not going to use real cheese, you might as well go to the other end of the spectrum.

**The original recipe calls for a cup of thinly sliced scallions. I didn't feel like measuring, so I took one bunch of scallions, trimmed off the roots, and then thinly sliced the whites and about half of the greens. It was probably closer to a cup-and-a-half, but vegetables are good for you, right?

You can serve Chile con Queso with crudites, and you can use it as a cheese sauce, but you'll probably only do that with the leftovers. It does reheat very well in the microwave, so you can easily make it ahead.

Now if you'll excuse me, the kids are all in the den watching DVDs, so I'm going to grab some food and punch and sneak upstairs with my Almodovar movies.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

In Which Your Intrepid Author Regrets His Lack of Skill with a Pastry Bag

There was a bit of snow here yesterday, and despite A.'s assurances that none of her friends would mind driving in the middle of a heavy snowfall and that, if they did, they could all just sleep over, I prevailed upon her to put her party off for a week. She was disappointed, but at least the anapestic readership is, temporarily, spared another cake post, or, more accurately, you are spared a post about yet another cake. Sort of.

The birthday cake, which was served Friday night and which you can see in the picture above, was a big hit. I thought that it was a little undercooked, but that may have been the result of it spending two days wrapped in plastic, and regardless, everyone likes a slightly undercooked cake better than an overcooked cake. When you start with a moist cake, and you split the layers and fill them with lemon curd and then you put a very soft raspberry buttercream between the filled layers and on the top and sides of the cake, you end up with something very moist and delicious.

You can recreate my lemon curd recipe by using my lime curd recipe. In place of the lime juice and zest, just use the juice and zest from one large lemon. For whatever reason, a whisk did not suffice to re-emulsify the lemon curd after its final sojourn in the microwave, so I dumped it into the food processor for half a minute, and everything was once again groovy. When you have to involve the food processor, you start to feel like you're using so many implements that it would be easier to make the lemon curd on top of the stove, but on Friday, I didn't get home until 6:15, and I had to make both the lemon curd and the buttercream, plus I had to assemble the cake, and people were arriving for dinner at 7:00, so I was very happy to not have to stand over the stove and babysit the lemon curd.

I'll give you the recipe for my raspberry buttercream, but I had some trouble with it. When it was done, it was really too soft, so I had to pop it in the refrigerator for a few minutes before I could finish the cake. I used that time to split the layers and put the lemon curd in the middle of each layer, so everything worked out okay, but -- even if I had enough skill with a pastry bag to think of decorating a cake, which I most emphatically have not -- I could not have thought of piping it. After its brief cooling off period, though, it was easy enough to spread on the cake, and sweet mother of Cthulhu did it taste good.

Raspberry Buttercream

1/3 c. water
1 c. granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 pound butter, at room temperature
Raspberry liqueur

Put the water and sugar in a small saucepan and cover with a tight lid. Put on medium heat and bring to a boil. Take the lid off and insert your candy thermometer.

Meanwhile, break the eggs into the bowl of your stand mixer, fit it with the whisk attachment, and mix on low.

When the boiling sugar reaches 240 degrees, remove the pan from the pot. Turn the mixer to high, and carefully pour the boiling syrup into the mixer bowl, on the side so that the whisk doesn't spray boiling syrup all over the place. When all the syrup is in, turn the mixer to medium and continue to beat until the mixture is nearly down to room temperature.

With the mixer still running, add the butter a tablespoon at a time. Wait until the tablespoon you have just added is fully incorporated before adding the next. If at any time the buttercream starts to break, stop adding butter and let the mixer run until it is smooth again. If that doesn't work, refrigerate the buttercream for a few minutes, then return it to the mixer and mix again until it is smooth, then start adding more butter.

When the butter is all incorporated, add the raspberry liqueur. What you want is to add as much as possible without losing spreadability. If it gets too soft, refrigerate it briefly, then mix again. You want to add at least two tablespoons of the liqueur, but more is better.

As I said, the buttercream tasted wonderful, and the cake was a big success, but I'm afraid that after I had lit the candles, and we'd sung "Happy Birthday to You" and "How Old Are You Now" and the ex was insisting that we then sing "Joyeux Anniversaire," I rushed through the last bit of the last one because the buttercream was beginning to melt. Not that anyone else noticed. They were too stunned by how good the cake tasted. And all A. really cares about is that there is a cake and it has the right number of candles and that she blows them all out on the first breath, which she did without undue effort.

The ex was watching me make the buttercream (they were a little bit early), and she said, "You're not going to put all that butter in, are you?" to which I replied, "Yes, but I'm not going to use all the buttercream," and I thought that I was very polite for stopping there. I mean, really, am I in the habit of walking around the kitchen with a pound of softened butter that I'm not going to use? Am I about to change my recipe or my plans because you show up at the last minute claiming to be surprised that I'm using butter. Did I ever once, during the entire thirteen years of our marriage, convey any sort of disdain for butter? Have I not already made enough allowances by not serving beef because of your bizarre conviction that we're all going to die of Jacob-Kreutzfeld or Creutzfeldt-Jakob or whatever it is that they call the human form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy? (You may be getting some inkling here as to why, after having to face two birthday dinners in two weeks, I feel the need to wrap myself in a comforter and curl up in the comfy chair and watch Amélie while sipping a large mug of hot chocolate.) In fact, the recipe makes a lot of buttercream, and I had about two cups leftover. Even upon refrigeration, it did not harden completely, which is probably a testament to my ability to insert plenty of alcohol into my buttercreams.

I wasn't sure quite what I was going to do with all that extra buttercream, but the answer (or at least part of the answer) presented itself today. For years (though not, I think, lately), I have heard various television cooks say that it is relatively hard to find good ladyfingers but very easy to make them. I have never really had much need for ladyfingers. I like tiramisu sometimes, but I've never really wanted to make it myself. But I was thinking that some ladyfingers might be nice to have around to go with coffee or tea, and I felt like doing some baking this afternoon, after having sloshed about with L. in the snow earlier this morning.

You will note that this post has no recipe for ladyfingers. You may infer from this omission that my ladyfingers were not an unqualified success, in which case, you will be correct. As it happens, unconvincing ladyfingers are at least as easy to make as good ones because I had plenty of time to make two batches. Really, from start to finish, including baking time, it only takes an hour to make a batch of ladyfingers. I looked up a couple of recipes online for the first batch, and I tried what seemed to me to be a classic method, whereby the egg yolks and sugar are mixed together, then the flavorings (I used vanilla and almond extracts and grated orange zest) and half the flour are mixed in, then the egg whites are beaten to stiff peaks and the rest of the flour and the egg whites are folded into the batter. Then you put the batter into the pastry bag and pipe little lines of batter onto your lined baking sheets, then you bake.

And the first batch tasted pretty good, or at least the ones that I baked long enough did. But they spread out an awful lot. I suppose I may have misguided ladyfinger notions, but I thought they should be somewhat more vertical and less horizontal. These looked a lot more like the outside of Milano cookies, and if I wanted that, I have langue de chat molds (somewhere), and I could just have used those.

So, a few hours later, I decided to try again. This time I increased the amount of flour significantly, in order to get a stiffer batter. I also decided that instead of doing the yolks and whites separately, I would just beat the whole eggs with the sugar until they had tripled in volume and got to the au ruban stage, as if I were making a genoise. Beating eggs with sugar in this manner has long been one of my very favorite tasks in the kitchen (and don't ask me why, because I don't really know, and I would just have to make up some story about how I used to watch Julia Child make genoise and that when I finally got my Kitchenaid, the first thing I did with it was make genoise and how much easier and more fun it is to do genoise with a Kitchenaid than with a hand-held mixer, and while all of that is true, who knows whether it's really why I like doing it so much?), and I was pretty sure that the resultant batter would be at least as light and would incorporate at least as much air as the original method. (For whatever reason, and I suspect it has something to do with the shape of the Kitchenaid bowl on my K45, I don't like folding egg whites into batter as much as I used to, even though I still do it competently when I have to.) And I think I was right, but even after having added half again as much flour as in the first batch, the batter, while slightly stiffer than the batter from batch one, still spread out almost as much as the first batch did. This batch was slightly more vertical, but probably only because I incorporated half a teaspoon of baking powder.

I did not do a great job of getting the batter onto the Silpat and parchment paper (I really should get a second Silpat), and while most of the resultant ladyfingers were more or less straight and longer than they were wide, you really wouldn't want much to do with any lady who had fingers like those. I didn't actually use a pastry bag to form them. I do have several pastry bags, but they are all somewhere in the basement, and it is a lot of trouble to go down and find a pastry bag when you can just use a Ziploc bag with a hole cut in the corner. The problem with using the Ziploc bag is that it's not easy to get the whole the exact right size. I could, of course, use a real pastry tip inside the Ziploc bag, but the pastry tips are, presumably, in the same place as the pastry bags. Anyway, I am nothing if not competent at basic geometry, so I was able to determine that for an opening with a half-inch diameter, I needed a circumference that was π times a half-inch, and that to get that, I would need to cut a slit whose length was half of π times a half inch, because the bag is made of two pieces of plastic sealed together. Now because the corner of the bag is a right angle, in order to get a slit of one-quarter π inches in length, I would have to cut a straight line between two points, each of which was π-divided-by-the-square-root-of-thirty-two inches away from the corner. This turns out to be just slightly over half an inch. I am absolutely certain that this is the very problem that dear Mr. Pythagoras needed to solve when he came up with his eponymous theorem. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all.

Anyway, I was not loving my ladyfingers, even though A. was eating them with great alacrity (there were not all that many of them), and I was especially not liking their great variations in size and shape, a sound knowledge of basic geometry being somewhat less helpful than practice with the pastry bag in this particular instance. But I was determined to make something of them, and I had all that delicious buttercream left over, so I took a couple of ounces of dark chocolate, melted it in the microwave, spread a thin layer of chocolate on half the cookies, a thicker layer of buttercream on the other half, sandwiched them together, and voilà raspberry Milanos. Which you can, of course, buy at the grocery store, and those cookies are crisper than mine were. Alas.

Still, the end result was pretty good, and I may try it again if I ever perfect my ladyfingers. Or I might just take any relatively plain cookie, make a raspberry-chocolate buttercream (the melted chocolate being a force for solidification when it cools, thus allowing the addition of even more liqueur), spread and eat. Perhaps there is a box of vanilla wafers or gingersnaps in my future. Why don't I ever get that in a fortune cookie?

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Cake? Again?

Indeed so.

You are perfectly reasonable to wonder, dear reader, at the abundance of cake posts that have oozed out of here of late. I remind you, however, that in the anapestic household, there are three February birthdays, and I inform you (unless I already said so, in which case, I am reminding you about this, also, and it's awfully good of you not to complain) that my daughter A., who will be seventeen (yikes) this Friday will be having not only her family birthday dinner but also her birthday party chez nous, so that in addition to the annual having-to-eat-politely-with-the-ex thing, I will also be making two cakes. A. wants one for the dinner (Friday) and another for the party (Saturday), and I suppose that turning seventeen is sufficiently big a deal to merit two cakes. A. said that I only had to make one myself, but she knew that the chances of me taking her up on that offer were minuscule.

(And, yes, those of you who are reading carefully will note that I have agreed to have a party for a bunch of seventeen-year-olds this coming Saturday evening. I take comfort in the knowledge that there is probably still time to join the French foreign legion to get out of hosting this party [and, of course, to brush up on my French; plus, you gotta figure that those foreign legion guys eat pretty well; after all, Miss, this is France, and a dinner here is never second best]. Actually, it's not that fearsome a prospect. I am expected to provide light snacks, copious amounts of pizza, beverages, and the birthday cake. A. assures me, and I believe her, that none of her friends drink. Instead, she says, a lot of them will probably spend much of the party making out, but when I made further inquiries, A. told me that I need not worry because if we don't have enough couches, her friends will work with whatever's available. Imagine my relief.)

So, okay, there's a lot of cake coming out of the anapestic ovens. There is still, in fact, some Heart of Darkness cake left from my last post and from last weekend. It turns out that when I said that there isn't enough darkness or cake to go around, I lied. At least about the cake. The frosting is very rich indeed, and it is almost impossible to eat more than about a one-inch slice of the cake at a time. Given the nine-inch diameter and an elementary knowledge of geometry, this means that it provides about thirty servings. Fortunately, it keeps very well, and the flavors evolve in happy ways over time. If you decide to make it, however, I think you should use a real buttercream to match the richness of the frosting to the richness of the cake. With a decent chocolate (or other) buttercream, it would probably only serve twelve to fifteen, depending upon the value of π on the day you serve it.


A. couldn't decide what sort of cake she wanted, but she felt that there had been enough chocolate cake for a while, so I decided on a lemon-flavored yellow cake, filled with lemon curd and frosted with raspberry buttercream. That's the cake for Friday, anyway. I'll figure out Saturday's cake Friday night, but it will likely be something similar, but perhaps in a different shape. The only hard-and-fast requirement that A. has is that there need to be seventeen candles on each cake, so I can pretty much make anything except cupcakes. A. is very fond of pound cake, so I may make one in a bundt pan and give it a simple icing and put candles in it. Fortunately, I still have two days to obsess over my choice.

The cake I made isn't particularly yellow, nor is the lemon flavor particularly strong, but as there will be at least two layers of lemon curd, I am not especially worried about the latter. The former is an issue only in that when your cake is nearly white, folding the egg whites into it becomes a bit of a challenge because it's not easy to tell what's egg white and what's cake batter, especially in the evening, and especially if one of the bulbs in your overhead fixture has blown and you haven't gotten around to replacing it. Two out of three ain't bad, right?. So you run the risk of underfolding, and leaving chunks of unfolded egg white in the batter, or overfolding, and deflating the cake somewhat. I think I did okay with the folding, but I will note that there do appear to be some small holes, which you can probably see in the picture. They will not cause any problems, ultimately. And they may be due to my resistance to using cake flour.

In the past, I have used cake flour with very good results, and many of the cake recipes that I base my recipes on call for cake flour, but it's a bit of a nuisance to keep a lot of different kinds of flour on hand, especially when all purpose flour works as well for many cakes. I would still use it, though, if I could ever hope to remember whether I had any in the pantry. Sadly, I long ago learned that my memory is unreliable on this point, so that when I think I'm out of cake flour, I buy a box only to find that I already have plenty on hand. And when I'm sure that I have plenty on hand, I have none. So at any given time that I want to make a cake, I always have either no cake flour or five boxes of it. That's just no way to live.

And, let's face it, so many people think that the only way to make a cake is to either swing by the bakery or use a prepackaged mix that if you bake a cake from scratch and don't mess it up horribly, everyone is going to think you're a miracle worker. Or that you have a really good bakery in your neighborhood. Or perhaps both.

(What is the deal with cake mixes, anyway? Cakes are just not that hard to make, particularly if you follow the preparation method that Rose Levy Beranbaum writes about in The Cake Bible. I am not an especially fast baker [I am a lot faster at stovetop cooking], but I didn't leave work until almost six this evening, and I had to go pick up A. from the ex' house, schlep all the way to Costco in traffic, watch while A. stopped to go through every single woman's jean in the clothing area, buy snacks for her party, come home, go with V. and A. to Sol Azteca for a delicious birthday dinner [after the socks-for-Christmas debacle, V. is pulling out all the stops for my birthday; he also got me a book about the films of Pedro Almodovar and the DVDs of four of his earlier works as well as a couple of other books], come home, start my laundry, prepare my pans, prepare my batter, and get everything in the oven with plenty of time to spare before the beginning of this evening's episode of Project Runway. [Bye, Nick. I'll miss you.] You just don't need a cake mix, and no matter how you doctor them, they aren't going to be nearly as good as a butter cake.)

The other thing you have to remember is that when you're making a cake with lemon curd and raspberry buttercream, you could pretty much use Saltines for the layers (Yes, in this paragraph I say you could use salty crackers while in the last paragraph I said that you couldn't use a cake mix; get over it. You weren't really going to use Saltines for the cake anyway, were you? I will note, however, that if you have extra raspberry buttercream and/or lemon curd left over, you can amaze your friends by sandwiching a thin layer of either or both between two vanilla wafers.), and everyone would still love it. So it's really just not worth beating yourself up over not using cake flour.

I'm making two nine-inch layers and splitting them to take the filling, but we all know that I'm a nutjob. This batter fills two standard nine-inch cake pans so that they come as close as possible to overflowing without actually making a mess on the oven floor, so you might want to make three eight-inch layers instead. If you're the nervous sort, that is.

Semi-Yellow Cake

1 lemon
2 1/3 cups all purpose flour, measured by dip and sweep
2 cups granulated sugar
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. vanilla extract
1/2 t. almond extract
3/4 c. milk
4 eggs, separated

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare your pans.

Grate the zest off the lemon and reserve. Juice the lemon, strain out the seeds, and reserve.

In the bowl of your mixer, put the flour, sugar, and baking powder. Mix on low for two minutes.

Add the softened butter tablespoon by tablespoon until it is all well incorporated.

Add the egg yolks, milk, extracts, and lemon juice and lemon zest, letting the mixer run after each addition until the ingredient is well incorporated.

Beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks, then fold them into the batter. Divide the batter between or among the prepared pans and put them in the oven. Two nine-inch layers will take approximately forty minutes to bake, but check after thirty minutes, and remove them from the oven when a cake tester comes out clean.

Cool the cakes in the pans for fifteen minutes, then depan onto racks and cool completely.

You will notice how very flexible this cake recipe is. Remove the lemon zest and rind, add some extra milk to compensate for the lack of fluid, use only vanilla extract, and you have a very basic cake to which you can add any sort of flavoring you like. Everyone needs a basic cake or two of this sort in his culinary arsenal (And, if you have a culinary arsenal, the whole phrase "Let them eat cake" takes on a whole new meaning; "Captain! The pirates are attacking? Shall we load the cannons?" "Yes, Mr. Flynn. Let them eat cake!" In case it doesn't go without saying, if you intend to use your baked goods as ammunition, you will want to overbake them considerably to improve their aerodynamic qualities and to maximize the amount of damage that they will do upon impact. You can even use a cake mix.) It is delicious by itself, but by changing the flavoring or the filling or the frosting, you can customize it to suit almost anyone.

Even, one presumes, a room full of teenagers. Not that I will be there to witness them dismembering whichever variation on this cake I come up with for them. V. has decided that the best way to approach this party is to go out and do something else that evening. I can't very well leave the house to fifteen or twenty teenagers, but after making sure that there are plenty of snacks and ordering the pizza, I will certainly be shutting myself away in my room with some food and my new Almodovar DVDs. Ignorance is bliss, after all.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Heart of Darkness Cake

Good bakers are well-advised to make their own birthday cakes, and I have just finished making mine. (I was born exactly fifty years after Ronald Reagan; this fact is not something that brings me joy.) Birthdays have not been an especially big deal for me since I was a child, and they have been less big a deal since the girls were born, especially since both of them were also born in February. A. will be seventeen (How did I get to be old enough to have a seventeen-year-old daughter? The other day she asked me what a movie was rated, and I told her it was R, but that I'd take her to see it, and she reminded me that she could see it herself pretty soon. Egad.) next week, and L. will be ten two weeks later. Understandably, they expect a fuss to be made over their birthdays. I neither want nor expect a fuss (I do want the occasional present, but I am happy to use the birthday as an excuse to buy things for myself), but I do want a good cake, and I shall have it.

Fifteen or so years ago, the ex had acquired a cookbook of desserts that were meant to be reinterpretations of classic desserts with much or all of the fat removed. I am not opposed to the notion of a fat-free dessert so long as it is a locally grown, ripe peach, but this cookbook was a good deal more ambitious, and the dessert that the ex settled upon for my birthday was something that dared call itself a Black Forest cake (Schwarzwaldkirschetorte, I believe, is the German term, but my German is highly suspect, so make allowances). It was made with egg whites and cocoa and God knows what all, but no egg yolks or butter. In place of whipped cream, the recipe instructed you to melt gelatin in evaporated milk and then to whip that mixture when it was cool enough to whip but before it was cool enough to be solid. Alas, it was cool enough to be solid long before it was really cool enough to be whipped.

I would not have made such a dessert for myself nor, certainly, for anyone else, but I saw this monstrosity being concocted, and I tasted fear. Which was, I suppose, a good thing because there certainly wasn't much taste to the cake. The lack of any fat in the cake made it so tough that when we tried to cut it with a cake server, the cake server bounced. We switched to a sharp knife and managed to cut slices, but it is difficult to imagine a situation in which anyone could be either so happy to mark the anniversary of his birth that he would have enjoyed that cake, or so despondent about turning a year older that that cake would not have exacerbated his despair.

I have, though not recently, made very good versions of what I have called Black Forest cake. I used a rich chocolate cake and syrup flavored with kirsch and whipped heavy cream, and I topped it off with cherries. I did not bother looking for an authentic recipe, but the result was delicious. I had been thinking lately that I would like many of the same flavors in a different formulation. I have also been thinking that my black walnuts would go well in such a cake.

I love whipped cream (real heavy cream whipped properly with not too much sugar) with a passion that transcends time and space, but I did not want any whipped cream on this cake. This cake embraces darkness. Dark chocolate, dark dried cherries, dark rum, black walnuts. The cake is rich, moist, and dense. And delicious. But not light.

Light is a good thing, of course, but darkness gets an undeservedly bad name. We need to celebrate it more, and this cake is a good start. Enjoy it by candlelight with a cup of coffee or a very deep Port. The appropriate musical accompaniment is something like The Decemberists' "The Mariner's Revenge Song," which is very dark indeed and nearly nine minutes long so that you'll have ample time to enjoy your cake. When the accordion and tuba interlude comes, laugh ruefully, so that anyone watching you will think that you are mocking the absurdity of life. They don't need to know that you're just enjoying really good cake and really good music, or pretty soon everyone will want some, and there's only so much cake and darkness to go around.

Heart of Darkness Cake

1 cup black walnuts
2 cups sugar
125 g unsweetened chocolate, broken up or chopped
4 ounces dried unsweetened cherries
1 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 t. salt*
1 T. cinnamon
1/2 c. butter at room temperature*
3 eggs, separated
1 t. vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
2 T. chili paste

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Grease two nine-inch layer pans, line the bottoms with parchment paper, grease the parchment paper, and flour the pans.

Put the black walnuts on a baking sheet and put them in the oven for eight minutes. Remove and let cool.

Increase oven temperature to 350 degrees.

In the bowl of your food processor, put the sugar and chocolate. Process until the chocolate is very finely ground. Add the dried cherries and process until the cherries are finely ground. Add the cooled walnuts and process until the walnuts are well chopped and incorporated. You will still be able to see tiny pieces of walnuts in the mixture.

Put the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt* in the bowl of your stand mixer. Put the whisk attachment on, and mix for one minute. Add the mixture from the processor and whisk for two minutes more. With the mixer running, add the butter, a tablespoon at a time, until it is all incorporated. Scrape down the side of the bowl if necessary. Add the egg yolks, chili paste, and vanilla, and mix until incorporated. Add the buttermilk and mix again. Scrape down the side of the bowl as necessary.

Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks, then fold into the batter until just incorporated. The batter will be fairly stiff.

Turn the batter into the pans. Smooth it out and push the batter towards the edge of the pan so that it is slightly thicker at the perimeter than at the center.

Bake at 350 for 30 - 35 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out nearly clean. Let the cake cool in the pans for fifteen minutes, then turn out onto a rack to cool completely.

* Use the salt if you use unsalted butter; if you don't, don't.

** I meant to put 2 or 3 tablespoons of a really good dark rum into the cake at this point. I forgot. I am a yutz.

I am not convinced that either the chili paste or the cinnamon adds a lot to this cake, but neither am I convinced that they don't. I could do a side-by-side comparison, but the cake is awfully good with the ingredients I used, so I don't see any need to mess with it (until I want to make it sometime when I don't have any chili paste around). I do think that the flavor of the black walnuts goes very well with this blend of ingredients, but I think the English walnuts would also be good here, especially if you don't forget the rum.

The chocolate buttercream that I made for my Gâteau Mephisto would go splendidly with this cake, but there were only two eggs in the house, and I wanted to leave them for V. for breakfast. Also, I wanted something easy. I am not a big fan, generally, of frostings made with confectioners sugar, but this one came out very well. The combination of very dark chocolate and dark rum completely erased any cornstarch taste that might have come from the confectioners sugar.

Easy Chocolate Frosting

10 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1 cup butter (2 sticks or 1/2 pound) at room temperature
4 cups confectioners sugar
2 T. dark rum
Heavy cream

Melt the chocolate. Let cool.

In the bowl of your mixer, cream the butter well. Turn the mixer off, add a cup of the confectioners sugar, and turn the mixer back on low until it is incorporated. Add a tablespoon of the rum and mix to incorporate. Continue adding the sugar a cup at a time and mixing until it is incorporated, alternating with the rest of the rum and enough heavy cream to make it nicely spreadable.

Add the melted chocolate and mix again. Add more cream as necessary to maintain spreadability.

You can thin the frosting out with a little more rum as well. I added about three tablespoons of rum and four tablespoons of heavy cream in all when I made my frosting. (Skipping the cream entirely and relying on rum alone would likely be too much, though I suppose you could make some interesting and entirely sickening shots that way. This is not a suggestion.)

I like to melt my chocolate in the microwave because I think it gives me the best chance of doing it quickly. I also find it easier to melt just enough of the chocolate so that the rest of the chocolate will melt from the residual heat and then it will all be cool enough to use fairly soon. But you can certainly use a double boiler. You can also less or more chocolate if you prefer. You may not use cocoa, and if you are going to make one of those so-called chocolate buttercreams that use cocoa, please don't put it on my cake. If you find this frosting too much work, then just make some ganache. That would really be embracing the darkness.

The chocolate I used for the frosting was Trader Joe's 71% dark chocolate. A 500g bar (the Pound Plus bar) is $3.99. This is a deal that you cannot beat. You cannot, however, buy the 71% chocolate. TJ's has recently replaced its 70% chocolate with 72% chocolate. I know this happened very recently because the first time I saw it was yesterday, and the sign on the shelf still says 70% chocolate. I used the end of a 70% bar and the beginning of a 72% bar, but I mention this only because it amuses me to think that there are a bunch of (pardon the expression) size queens sitting around at TJ's trying to make their chocolate bars two or three percent more butch. You can use any semisweet or bittersweet chocolate that you like. BUT NO COCOA.

This frosting makes an excellent construction material, as I found out when I foolishly tried to split my cakes. I had baked them in two nine-inch layer pans, and I wanted more than two layers, so I split the cakes in half. Cakes made with half flour and half ground nuts are a good deal more tender than all-flour cakes, and since I had very slightly underbaked the layers to enhance moistness, and since the layers were only about an inch-and-a-half thick to begin with, (and perhaps I just didn't do it well, but I rarely have any problems splitting cake layers) the top half of the first layer sort of fell apart when I split the first layer. Once I put the frosting on top of the bottom half of that layer, though, it was an easy matter to patch together the top half on top of the frosting and then cover it with more frosting. The same thing, to a lesser extent, happened when I split the second layer, and I repaired it similarly. The tenderness of the cake also left a lot of crumbs around from splitting and handling it, but I just ate those, mmmmm. The next time I make the cake, however, I will make three eight-inch layers instead. That will also make for a taller cake, which is a good thing on anyone's birthday.