Tuesday, April 29, 2008

second restatement of tortes

It's that time of the year again. Finals period. First up is Torts, and I am currently aswim in notes on strict liability and joint liability and alternative liability and I've been feeling overwhelmed enough that I might soon become a liability myself.

Which is why I'm going to leave my notes alone for a few hours and bake a torte. An Earl Grey chocolate torte, to be precise. It seems only appropriate, as I've been drinking gallons of tea as I (try to) study. Sadly, I don't think it's doing anything for my mental acuity.

Maybe chocolate will make all the difference?

Disclaimer: The writer of this recipe (henceforth "Writer") claims no responsibility for any injury, mishap, accident, disaster, or act of God that arises from an attempt to prepare the Earl Grey Chocolate Torte (henceforth "Torte"), including but not limited to malfunctioning mixers, burnt chocolate, grease splatters, exploding ovens, and stampeding hordes of wild zebras. The Writer is not responsible if your friends, parents, significant other(s), spouse, or pets are not appreciative of your attempts to prepare the Torte. (Particularly not if it involves grounding or banishment to the couch.) The Writer also disavows all responsibility should you or any other party consume too much Torte and make yourselves sick.

Earl Grey Chocolate Torte

Appended notes: The quantity of tea specified in the recipe is for supermarket-variety teabags. If you're using anything fancy or loose-leaf, you'll only want a heaped teaspoonful, and the leaves should be crushed up a little.

(Recipe not for one.)

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease an 8-inch cake tin.

Melt one stick of butter in a mixing bowl over simmering water. When the butter has melted, tear open two Earl Grey teabags and tip their contents in. Stir.

Allow the tea to infuse for five minutes, then add one-and-a-quarter cups of dark chocolate chips and stir until they melt.

Beat four eggs until thick and foamy. Fold half the eggs into the chocolate mixture, then fold in the other half.

Fold half a cup of flour and a pinch of salt into the chocolate mixture until smooth and well-combined. Pour the batter into the prepared tin.

Bake for ten to fifteen minutes, or until torte is barely wobbly in the middle. Turn out onto a cake rack. Glaze with warmed marmalade (thin it with a little water), and serve with whipped cream.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

desperation is the mother of invention

There are certain occasions upon which you really, really don't want to be caught without any eggs in the fridge.

Example: almond chocolate matzo pudding on the menu, and a horde of ravenous mad hippie engineers expected at dinner.

And there are certain fruits you really, really don't want to contend with in large quantities when overripe.

Example: bananas.

Sometimes, the universe decides to have a laugh at your expense, and both events occur simultaneously.

During Passover. When banana bread is not a viable solution.

The people who say that necessity is the mother of invention? They have it wrong. Desperation is the mother of invention.

But sometimes you can defy all odds, and laugh at the universe instead.

(Sorry, no photos again. Things were a little hectic.)

Vegan Banana Matzo Fritters

(Serves one. Makes two fritters.)

Take one ripe banana (black spots, but not black all over) and mash it up in a bowl using your fingers until you have small chunks of banana in banana goo. Add one teaspoon of brown sugar, a few drops of vanilla extract, a sprinkling of nutmeg, and two tablespoons of whole wheat matzo meal. Mix well.

Dump a few more tablespoons of whole wheat matzo meal in another bowl. Take half the banana mixture and shape it into a round; roll it in the whole wheat matzo meal until lightly coated. Set aside. Repeat with the other half.

Heat a generous quantity of vegetable oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan until it starts to sizzle. Gently place the fritters in the oil. Cook until the edges turn golden brown, then flip and cook until the other side turns a similar color. Drain on paper towels. Serve hot.

Monday, April 21, 2008

fun with matzo meal

Passover has begun, and I'm slated to prepare an informal Seder meal at the mad hippie engineer house this week. I am now in the process of actively procrastinating on exam outlining, so I'm taking the opportunity to experiment with various kosher-for-Passover desserts.

A crash course in kosher-for-Passover rules: No leavening agents. No wheat, no rye, no barley. And if you're Ashkenazi, no legumes or corn, or derivatives thereof.

As you can imagine, these rules make kosher-for-Passover baking an interesting challenge. Desserts are mechanically leavened with beaten eggs; classic flour substitutes are matzo meal and ground nuts. And making desserts pareve, or okay to serve with either a meat meal or a dairy meal, adds an extra layer of complexity.

I decided to avoid the pareve issue in my first attempt, which is a dessert that is somewhere between a pudding and a cake, a distant relative of the murderous chocolate torte. (Which is also kosher for passover, by the way.) Combining whole-wheat matzo with chocolate may sound off-putting, but it really works quite well. The grains soften and give the dessert a delightfully toothsome texture.

(Sorry, no photos. My test subjects demolished the cake before I could track down Alex and her camera.)

Passover Almond Chocolate Pudding-Cake

Kosher for passover, but not pareve. If you're preparing a meat meal, consider baking this cake instead.

(Serves eight to ten.)

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease an 8-inch pan.

Melt two sticks of butter and one-and-a-quarter cups of dark chocolate chips together in a bowl over simmering water.

Beat four eggs in a stand mixer until foamy and tripled in volume. Fold half the eggs into the chocolate mixture to lighten it, then fold in the other half. Stir in one cup of whole wheat matzo meal, half a teaspoon vanilla extract, half a teaspoon almond extract, and quarter of a teaspoon of salt.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Shake the pan to level the mixture out.

Bake for fifteen minutes if you want a soft, pudding-like texture. Bake for half an hour if you'd prefer something more cakey. Bake for twenty minutes if you'd like something in-between. Whichever way you choose, it disappears quickly when served warm with whipped cream.

Friday, April 18, 2008

a sticky vegan teatime treat

I'm back. I've been busy this past week outlining for exams helping Alex wage a prank war upon Harry with other commitments. But I return, triumphantly bearing coconut caramel rolls.

Vegan coconut caramel rolls, no less.

Vegan desserts, as a rule, make me nervous. The dessert traditions of Western cuisine are largely built on a foundation of butter, eggs, and cream. Tinkering with that foundation is a dubious proposition unless you're exceptionally talented or dedicated, of which I am neither. On the rare occasions when I do cook for vegans, I usually retreat to the safety of fruit salad or baked apples rather than trying to make substitutions in non-vegan recipes.

Sometimes, though, the smartest way to tackle an obstacle is to go around rather than trying to barrel through. If you look to Southeast Asia, you'll find a dessert tradition where the coconut is king, and dairy has historically played little or no role, and you can avoid wrangling with pureed tofu or egg replacer altogether.

It's the thought of coconut rice and steamed coconut buns that inspired these spiral rolls. Based on a modified biscuit recipe, they're soft and chewy and coated in fragrant, sticky coconut caramel. They don't take much longer to whip up than a batch of scones, and unless you tell, non-vegans will never guess that they're vegan, either.

Coconut Caramel Rolls

(Makes six rolls.)

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease a baking tray.

Mix together one cup of flour, half a cup of shredded coconut, one teaspoon baking powder, half a teaspoon of salt, and two tablespoons brown sugar. Add half a teaspoon of vanilla extract, one tablespoon of vegetable oil and half a cup of water. Knead for five to ten minutes, until the mixture forms a soft, smooth dough.

Divide the dough into six pieces. Roll each piece out into a strand, and form into coils, cinnamon-bun-style. Place the rolls on the baking tray.

Bake for twenty-five to thirty minutes, or until the rolls are slightly browned on top.

Meanwhile, combine half a cup of sugar with two tablespoons of water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook until the sugar caramelizes, then remove from heat and deglaze with half a cup of coconut cream. If all goes well, you'll end up with a smooth, sticky caramel sauce. (If it clumps, place it back on the stove over low heat, and stir until it evens out.)

Spoon the caramel over the rolls. Allow them to cool before eating.

Serve with tea. Leftovers are good for breakfast.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

let's talk about pork

I've had pork belly on the brain since I got back from New York. You see, I finally made it to Momofuku, and tried the famous pork buns. Sadly, I wasn't particularly impressed.

The pork buns at Momofuku consist of slices of braised pork belly and pickled cucumber, glistening with hoisin sauce, wrapped in flat steamed buns. The pork had a lovely texture - wonderfully tender, with luscious, wobbly fat - but I could barely taste it underneath the hoisin sauce. I'm all for reinterpreting classic dishes in a new manner, but I can't say I like the product of crossing red-cooked pork with Peking duck.

I've been eating red-cooked braised pork belly since childhood. Red-cooking, or hong shao, involves a braising liquid (rock sugar, cooking wine, soy sauce, and various spices) that gives anything cooked in it a dark, reddish brown color. It can be used for chicken, beef, and even fish, but red-cooking pork produces particularly delicious results.

I could have made straight up red-cooked braised pork belly, but I couldn't resist the allure of fusion cuisine. Salt pork belly is a traditional component of choucroute garnie, so I decided to create a braised pork belly recipe using the seasonings found in choucroute garnie. The pork turned out moderately sweet and a little spicy, with a faint, almost piney note from the juniper berries. I am pleased to note that it also tasted like pork.

Now I just have to find another dish to cross it with. Anyone up for a braised pork belly "hot dog?"

Port-Braised Pork Belly

I didn't have any sauerkraut, and the stuff at the supermarket looked very dubious, so I served this pork with cornichons and pickled onions, steamed buns made with cornmeal, white bean mash, and a simple spinach salad. It would go equally well with potatoes and sauerkraut, though, or even cornbread and pickled string beans.

(Serves one for many days. It just gets better every time it's reheated.)

Acquire two pounds of fresh (not salted) pork belly. If you buy your pork belly from a real butcher, ask him or her to cut it into slices roughly two-and-a-half inches wide and half an inch thick. If you, like me, can only find pork belly at an Asian supermarket where it comes in inch-wide slabs, you'll have to do the job yourself.

Place the pork slices upright (or semi-upright) in a heavy pot large enough to hold them in a single layer. Sprinkle over half a teaspoon of coarse salt, and two tablespoons of brown sugar. Add two sprigs of fresh rosemary, four whole cloves, four crushed juniper berries, one bay leaf, and one teaspoon of crushed black peppercorns.

Cover with two cups of cheap, dreadful port, or one cup of cheap port and one cup of cheap red wine, if you're short on port. There should be just enough liquid to cover the pork; add a little water if there isn't.

Cover the pot, and place it on the stove over medium heat. Once it comes to a boil, turn the heat down to low, so that the liquid is at a low simmer. Find something to occupy your time for next three hours, such as laundry, or reading, or outlining for exams. Check on the pork once an hour; skim off any scum that forms on the surface. Turn down the heat if it looks as though the braising liquid is evaporating too quickly.

When the three hours are up, check on the pork. The meat should be fork-tender and the fat lusciously wobbly. Leave the lid off the pot, bring the heat up to medium, and reduce the braising liquid until it becomes a thick, glossy sauce.

Serve with something starchy, something pickled, and something green.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

when property gives you estates, bake cake

On some days, law school is a matter of tears or laughter. You have to keep laughing if you don't want to start crying. I find that this is especially true of the days on which I have Property class.

Property is a very long class, and the Property instructor is particularly frustrating. So instead of paying attention, I spend a lot of time dreaming up recipes to try. A few days ago, it struck me that I could combine cooking and black humor, my two major coping mechanisms, with alcohol - another major law student coping mechanism - to produce a dessert that would be the ultimate law student coping mechanism.

The result? A moist, bitter chocolate cake drenched in sweet alcoholic syrup, with a name that is one bad law joke.*

May it please the court, I present the Blackacre Cake with Fee Simple Absolut Raspberry Syrup.

Blackacre Cake with Fee Simple Absolut Raspberry Syrup

Don't be put off by the beets. They don't add any noticeable flavor, and the cake turns out particularly moist. The cake is fine on its own, but whipped cream and fresh raspberries are a nice accompaniment.

(Serves ten to twelve miserable law students.)

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease and flour a 9-inch bundt pan.

Open a fifteen-ounce can of beets and drain off all the liquid. Puree the beets in a blender or food processor.

Using a stand mixer, cream together one-and-a-half sticks of softened butter and one cup of sugar. With the motor running, add four eggs, one at a time. Add the beet puree; mix until just combined.

Remove the bowl from the stand mixer. Using a rubber spatula, fold in three-quarters of a cup of bitter cocoa powder and half a teaspoon of salt. Fold in one cup of all-purpose flour, and one teaspoon of baking powder.

Measure out half a cup of milk. Add enough to moisten the mixture, then fold in another cup of flour, and another teaspoon of baking powder. Add the rest of the milk, and stir until the batter is smooth. Gently fold in one cup of chocolate chips.

Spoon the batter into the bundt pan, and bake for one hour, or until a toothpick stuck into the cake comes out clean. Set the cake aside.

To make the syrup, combine half a cup of sugar with one cup of raspberry-flavored Absolut vodka in a small saucepan. Heat (do not boil) until the sugar is dissolved.

Allow the syrup to cool to room temperature before pouring it over the cake. Let the cake sit for at least one hour before unmolding. The longer it waits, the better the flavor will be.

Just don't get caught eating it in class.

*"Blackacre" is the placeholder name given to a hypothetical estate, used by law professors since time immemorial. And a "fee simple absolute" is a particular type of estate in land.

Monday, April 7, 2008

how to recreate a commercial product and get away with it

T.S. Eliot famously remarked that good poets borrow, but great poets steal. The same might be said of chefs. In cooking, as in poetry, the line between reference and theft is blurred. Variations, interpretations, and deconstructions abound. But in cooking, as in poetry, the theft needs to be either wonderfully subtle - so deft that the pilfering doesn't register until the dish has long been consumed - or so brazen that one cannot help but admire the bold gesture.

Unfortunately, copying a commercial product - and not even consciously, to boot - is neither.

It started with another late-night baking session. I decided I wanted to whip up a batch of langues de chat, those little French cookies that are cousins to tuiles. Rather than flavoring them with plain vanilla, though, I used peppermint extract. And then it occurred to me that they might benefit from a chocolate coating.

And then, as I had the chocolate melting in a bowl over simmering water, I realized that I was about to recreate the Pepperidge Farm Milano. Oh, the cookies were less crumbly and more crunchy, but there was a definite resemblance there.

Oops. How do you salvage a blunder like that?

Well, you can try declaring it Deliberate and Ironic. Or you can disavow all knowledge, but punctuate your wide-eyed innocent stare with knowing winks in the Playful and Coy approach.

If all else fails, you'll just have to resort to bad Star Wars jokes, and hope that your audience is easily distracted.

So, uh... how quickly do shiny things capture your attention?

These Aren't The Milanos You're Looking For

Serve with coffee or tea.

(Makes approximately two dozen.)

Cream together one stick of butter and one heaped half-cup of sugar. Blend with four egg whites, one teaspoon peppermint extract, and a pinch of salt. Add one cup of flour and blend until smooth. Chill the batter in the fridge for an hour.

Preheat oven to 400F.

Line a baking sheet with parchment. Fill a Ziploc bag with the batter and cut off one corner to make an opening a quarter-inch wide. Pipe the batter in two-and-a-half inch lengths with plenty of space in between.

Bake for nine to ten minutes, or until golden in color with crispy brown edges. Remove from baking tray and allow to cool.

Melt half a cup of chocolate chips in a double boiler or a bowl set over a pan of gently simmering water. Spread one cookie with melted chocolate and sandwich with another. Repeat as necessary. Allow the chocolate to set.

You can work on your delivery while you wait. Now, repeat after me: "These aren't the Milanos you're looking for."

Friday, April 4, 2008

pasta from bottles and jars

Would you believe me if I told you have a recipe for a pasta in which everything except the pasta and the garlic comes from a can or a jar, and it's absolutely delicious?

Please don't flee. I promise it doesn't involve Campbell's soup.

I'm referring to pasta puttanesca, pasta with a happily pungent red sauce, made with canned tomatoes, garlic, anchovies, capers, and black olives, spiced with a dash of red chili flakes.

Despite its suggestive name, it's really more of an I've-got-nothing-in-the-fridge late supper than an I've-got-company-tonight dinner.* If chachouka is the dish you cook when you have almost nothing in the fridge, pasta puttanesca is what you make when you're down to the bare shelves. It's quite satisfying for pasta made from very little, and makes for a nice, relaxing meal when accompanied by a glass of red wine or two.

Pasta Puttanesca

(Serves one, with leftovers.)

Open a bottle of red wine. Pour yourself a glass.

Put a big pot of salted water on to boil. Heat olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan over low heat. Mince a couple of garlic cloves (exact number determined by how much you like garlic) and add them to the pan. Open a tin of anchovies in olive oil. Once again, the exact number you add is determined by how much you like them. (I'd add the entire tin.) Stir with a wooden spoon, breaking up the anchovies as you do. When the mixture starts to smell good, add a dash of red chili flakes and a splash of the red wine you've been drinking. Top off your glass while you're at it.

Pour in a sixteen-ounce can of crushed tomatoes and stir the contents of the pan. Add a large handful of black olives (I like the flavor of the unpitted ones, but you can use pitted if you'd rather not have to stop to spit out the pits while you're eating) and a few teaspoons of capers in vinegar. Let the mixture reduce at a low simmer until it's nicely thick.

When the water has reached a rolling boil, add half a pound of short pasta - penne, rigatoni, whatever you have on hand. Cook until al dente, then toss with the sauce. Dish up a big plateful. Pour yourself another glass of red wine. Tuck in.

*The Neapolitan whores didn't serve this dish to their customers, they cooked it for themselves after the customers had left.