Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ends and Odds

Tax season being what it is, these days I'm mostly about either cooking things that are quick and easy (Last night when I stumbled home at 9:00, I got out a pot, put in six cups of water, a bag of red lentils, and a packet of onion soup mix, and brought it to a simmer; forty minutes later, I added some canned beef broth, a cup of salsa, and some salt and pepper: lunch for the week. It's very good, too.) or thinking about things that I desperately want to make but can't.

At the head of that last class would be sunflower seed tuiles. Longsuffering-time readers of this blog may remember that nearly a year ago, I ate at a restaurant in Baltimore and experienced a revelation that I attempted to recreate (with mixed results) here and here. As much as I loved the little cookies/flatbreads that started the meal at Pazo, I had nonetheless let the quest for them slip from my consciousness.

But then, out of nowhere, I received an email from a mysterious stranger. (If I ever write a novel, I really must begin it "Out of nowhere, anapestic received an e-mail from a mysterious stranger." This fact alone would explain why no one will ever offer me a book deal.) Actually, I'm not sure that the stranger is in any way mysterious. He did, after all, sign his name to his email, but he and I don't know each other, so I like to think that he's a sort of culinary Lone Ranger, coming to the aid of cooks in distress everywhere. Hi ho, Colander, away!

Anyway, this very kind person who may or may not be mysterious and who may or may not ride a horse named after kitchen equipment (And who may or may not have a sidekick: he didn't say. I hate to look a gift horse, so to speak, in the mouth, but who sends an email without even mentioning whether he has a sidekick? Those of you who have corresponded with me will confirm that all of my emails contain the text "I'm anapestic: I approve this email, and I have no sidekick. Alas.") recently ate at Pazo and came away determined to discover the same recipe that I had been (and then wasn't) determined to find. So he went to Pazo's web site, and there it was. In defense of my normally superior search skills, I must say that I also checked Pazo's web site last May, so I think that they have posted the recipe since then, probably just to make me look bad. In any case, the recipe's there, and it's pretty much nothing like what I made last year. I intend to try it at my earliest opportunity. Which will likely be May. (Alas.)

Keep firmly in mind that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, reader, when I tell you that a few days ago, I felt like I absolutely, positively had to bake a cake. I will, of course, be baking another cake this weekend for L.'s 11th birthday. And I will probably be baking brownies or something like that this evening, so that L. can take some baked goods to school to celebrate her birthday, but I had a particular cake in mind.

Come with me, if you will, to the dark reaches of the past: last week. I was trying to assemble something quick for dinner, and V. handed me half an avocado. (This is not some sort of bizarre ritual that we have for demonstrating affection. He had just used the other half in a salad.) I decided that the best thing to do with this avocado was to eat it with a bit of relatively nice balsamic vinegar. And I had, in the pantry, a one-liter bottle of the most expensive balsamic vinegar that Costco sells.

I am aware that many people believe that balsamic vinegar has become far too prevalent in the U.S. these days. These people feel, perhaps with much justification, that what used to be an expensive and rare and wonderful thing is now copied, poorly, in large factories in Modena. These people fear that balsamic vinegar is becoming the new ketchup. I have no dog in this fight. I am happy to agree that cheap balsamic vinegar is really not all that, though I would say the same thing about cheap vinegar generally. (I do think that even with cheap balsamic, you can make a pretty good vinaigrette, if you work hard enough.) And frankly, I have no idea how good or authentic the pricier Costco balsamic is. One presumes that at about $10 a liter, it has not been sitting in anyone's grandmother's attic for twenty-five years. But I really don't care if they take distilled white vinegar and add peat moss and high fructose corn syrup and slap a fancy label on it because it tastes really great. I poured about a tablespoon of it into the hole left by the avocado's pit, sprinkled on a little sea salt, and happily ate the avocado with a spoon.

Right after "mmmmm," my first thought was, "you know, I bet this would be good in a cake." Sure, it's tangy, but it's also fruity and delicious and complex.

I figured that the way to go would be to slightly modify one of my other excellent prune cake recipes. Regular readers may well be tired of seeing me write about prune cake, but I apparently can't say frequently enough just how good this sort of prune cake really is.

And the balsamic vinegar prune cake was no exception. So, so good. Tragically, I had been to the supermarket over the weekend and had not found any cocoa powder, so I was unable to add the two tablespoons of cocoa powder that I wanted to add to the batter (I did add a significant amount of semisweet chocolate, but I like to have both ingredients in the cake). I will add the cocoa powder in the future, and I suspect that the cake will be even better, but even without it, the cake is addictively delicious. It is a cake where chocolate is a strong presence without taking over and turning it into a chocolate cake. It is also a terrible strain on my diet, but I try to console myself with the fact that it's been in the kitchen for over two days, and I've eaten only half of it. That's more self-control than I can usually expect of myself. Especially because the cake is so very good. But it's also the sort of cake that ages well, and I'm curious as to how good it will taste in two more days.

The balsamic vinegar is a noticeable, but subtle, presence. (Try not to panic while the cake's baking: at that point, the vinegar will be much more obvious.) One of the last tastes that you get from a bite of this cake is a clear but subdued tang that only intensifies the deliciousness. I usually don't care whether anyone tries any of my recipes, but I hope that some of you give this one a go. If you do, let me know. Make sure that you use a decent balsamic vinegar. Trader Joe's has sort of mid-level balsamics at a reasonable price.

I'm sorry for not taking a picture. The cake doesn't really look like anything special. You could, of course, pour a thin layer of dark chocolate ganache over it, and then it would be very festive indeed.

Another Prune Cake

10 ounces prunes, chopped fine
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar

1 cup all purpose flour
3/4 c. granulated sugar
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. ground ginger
1/2 t. ground cinnamon
pinch salt
8 T. butter, at room temperature
3 eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped fine

Put the prunes and balsamic vinegar in a nonreactive bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let sit overnight.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9" springform pan or deep cake pan. Line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper.

Combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, and spices in the bowl of your mixer. With the whisk attachment, mix together for two minutes.

With the mixer running, whisk in the softened butter, one tablespoon at a time. With the mixer still running, whisk in the eggs -- one at a time -- and the vanilla extract.

Turn off the mixer, and scrape the sides with a rubber spatula. Fold in the semisweet chocolate and the prunes and vinegar.

Turn the batter into the prepared pan. Bake at 350 for about 45 minutes, or until done.

Cool in the pan for ten minutes or so, then turn out onto a rack and cool completely.

This recipe makes a pretty thick batter. This turns out to be a good thing because it makes it easier to spread the batter in the pan so that the batter is thicker near the edge than it is at the center. That, in turn, means that when the cake rises in the oven, it will be more nearly level. In addition to looking better, it will also bake more evenly that way so that the edges will not be overdone when the center is still gooey. Because of the ingredients, this is a very moist cake, even when it's fully cooked, and it should stay moist for several days, as long as you remember to wrap it after it's cooled.


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