Tuesday, March 30, 2010

an unlikely cake

My understanding of egg white desserts is that they aren't supposed to be rich.

Meringues. Angel food cake. Floating islands. Apparently it's some cardinal rule that egg white desserts must be all sweetness and light. Just the way I don't like my desserts. (I'll take mine dense and rich and not too sweet, please.)

But this is an egg white cake.

It contains no fewer than eight egg whites. It's nothing like your typical egg white dessert.

Admittedly, the cake is still on the sweet side. But almonds and butter give it richness and heft, and citrus zest and cardamom lend complexity. (It fills the kitchen with an amazing aroma as it bakes.)

It's not quite my brainchild. I came across a recipe for "Fragrant Citrus and Cardamom Cake" while flipping through one of my recipe scrapbooks, and while I rarely follow recipes, this one was too odd for me to not follow it. Stir together ground almonds, a tiny bit of self-raising flour, seasonings, egg whites (without beating!) and melted butter, pour into a pan, add heat - and get a cake?

I had my doubts, but I converted the measurements from metric, and despite some heavy-duty approximating, the results were good. So good, in fact, that I started wondering if I couldn't do away with that tiny bit of self-raising flour altogether, to make a cake that would be gluten-free - and kosher for Passover, too.

Unlikely cake, take two, involved a little more tinkering with the quantities, but it was a simple matter to whip the egg whites with the sugar before folding them into the other ingredients. The cake turned out dense and moist. My guinea pigs approved.

So now I have an egg white dessert that doesn't taste like one. And it leaves me with a culinary dilemma of the best sort - what to do with eight egg yolks?

Citrus-Cardamom Almond Cake
There's some disagreement on whether or not cardamom is kosher for Passover. Some authorities classify it as kitniyot. Double-check with your religious adviser as necessary.

(Recipe probably not for one. Leftovers do keep well, and even improve with age, but it is a very rich cake. Better to round up some friends to help you eat it.)
Preheat oven to 325F. Cut a round of parchment paper to line a 9-inch cake tin.

In a large mixing bowl, combine one-and-a-half cups of ground almonds (seven ounces), the zest from four oranges and two limes, a quarter-teaspoon of salt, and a tablespoon of ground cardamom. Melt one stick of butter, and stir it into the nut mixture.

In another mixing bowl or stand mixer, beat eight egg whites until stiff, then beat in one-and-a-half cups of white sugar.

Fold half the egg whites into the nut mixture to lighten it, then fold in the remaining half.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Check on the cake at ninety minutes. If it's done, a knife or skewer stuck in the middle will come out clean, and it won't give easily if you press the top. If you're not sure about doneness, err on the side of caution and give it another five to ten minutes. (It's a very moist cake, so the consequences of overcooking it are largely cosmetic.)

Once you judge the cake to be done, remove it from the oven and allow to cool for ten minutes in the pan (cake will sink somewhat as it cools) before turning it out carefully on a wire rack. Peel away the parchment paper on the bottom and allow it to cool completely. (Let it cool in the pan if it seems to be stuck - don't force it.)

Cake may be dusted with confectioner's sugar before serving. A dollop of whipped cream might not go astray, either.

Monday, March 22, 2010

awaiting asparagus

New England weather is nothing if not capricious.

The weather this past weekend was glorious, and then I woke up to grey drizzle today. Still, it was an improvement on the steady, chilly downpour of last week, and so I'm willing to declare that spring has arrived. Goodbye winter, goodbye root vegetables. I'm ready for artichokes and asparagus.

I know we're still a few weeks away from actually seeing any spring vegetables, but I've started perfecting complementary pasta dishes while I wait. Egg-rich pappardelle, tossed with butter, fresh dill and chives, will sit nicely next to steamed artichokes. Plump gnudi will make an excellent foil for gently sauteed spinach. And asparagus will gladly keep company with fettuccine in a creamy lemon sauce.

Note that I said "creamy," not "cream." I find that heavy cream mixed with lemon juice produces a sauce that is rich enough in flavor, but thin and lacking in texture. Instead, I prefer to make a hollandaise of sorts, whisking together eggs and lemon juice over simmering water, and enriching the mixture with butter. The resulting sauce is thick and luscious, clinging to pasta in a most satisfying manner.

I'm still waiting on the asparagus, but this pasta will keep me company while I wait.

Fresh Fettuccine with Creamy Lemon Sauce

Serve this alongside broiled fish or steamed asparagus as a side, or sprinkle with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and eat as meal in itself.

(Serves four to five. Recipe not suitable for one - leftovers have a tendency to go gummy.)

Tip two cups of flour on a clean countertop and make a well in the center. Add four egg yolks and one whole egg, plus a glug of olive oil and a pinch of salt. Use your fingers to break up the eggs and swirl them around to pull the flour in, little by little. (More detailed instructions can be found here.)

Once you have a rather shaggy mass of dough, start kneading. Wet your hands if it seems very dry; continue kneading. Knead until you have a stiff dough that is very smooth to the touch. Seal in plastic wrap and let sit for at least an hour before rolling it out.

Roll out the pasta into sheets on the thinnest setting on your pasta maker, and flour well before cutting into fettuccine or tagliatelle. Put the cut pasta aside, and set a pot of salted water on to boil.

To make the sauce, whisk together one whole egg, one egg yolk, and the zest and juice from one lemon in a large heatproof bowl. Set the bowl over a pan of gently simmering water. Whisk until the mixture thickens to a mayonnaise-like consistency. Remove from heat.

Whisk in a pinch of salt and two tablespoons of butter (more if you're not adding cheese.) Set aside.

Cook the pasta for two to three minutes; drain, reserving half a cup of the cooking water. Toss the pasta with the lemon sauce, adding a little of the cooking water to loosen if necessary. Serve immediately.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

with hey, ho, the wind and the rain

The weather gods are at it again.

I have no love for snow, but I don't know how much I like the current weather in Boston either. Rain is all good and well, but not so much when it comes at me sideways, and I'd really like to keep my umbrella right-side out, thank you very much.

I'm going to take it as a hint that I should stay indoors and bake.

Though I'm sure there are bakers who would beg to differ, I believe wet, miserable days aren't good days for project baking. They aren't days for pulling out a recipe for profiteroles or a multi-layer torte. Lousy weather calls for a baked good you can eat with your fingers and wash down with a big mug of something warm.

Cream scones. Fresh bread with butter. Banana cake.

Yes, banana cake. Banana bread is a fine wet-day baked good, but "bread" isn't quite the right word for the following recipe. Rich with butter and eggs, generously sanded with sugar and walnuts, it's really more of a cake. It's quick to assemble, and it fills the kitchen with a wonderful scent of bananas and vanilla as it bakes. With a thick slice of banana cake in one hand, and cup of milky tea in the other, the wind and rain aren't quite so bad.

All the same, if you'll join me in setting aside a slice for the weather gods, maybe we'll have better weather next week.

Sugar-Topped Banana Cake with Walnuts

The amount of salt in this recipe - a full teaspoon - isn't a typo. You need a fair amount to balance out the sweetness of the bananas, sugar, and sugar topping.

(Serves one. Leftovers will freeze. They also toast well.)

Preheat oven to 325F. Grease a 9 x5 inch or 8 x 4.5 inch loaf pan.

In a large mixing bowl, cream together one stick of softened butter with a half-cup of white sugar. Add one teaspoon of salt and one teaspoon of vanilla, then beat in two eggs, one at a time. The mixture will be thick and look slightly curdled.

Mash three ripe bananas (about 2 cups of banana) in a second bowl until blended, but a little chunky. Fold the bananas into the butter mixture.

Stir in two teaspoons of baking powder, then fold in two cups of flour, followed by half a cup of walnuts. The batter will be fairly thick and sticky. Glop the batter into the prepared pan.

In a third bowl, mix together two tablespoons of white sugar, two tablespoons of brown sugar, and a quarter-cup of walnuts. Sprinkle the mixture over the batter.

Move the pan to the oven. Bake for an hour, then use a knife or skewer to test for doneness. If it comes out sticky, give the cake an extra five to ten minutes.

When done, cool the cake in the pan for five minutes, then carefully turn out on a cooling rack. (Watch out - the sugar topping gets everywhere.) Serve warm or cool with coffee or tea.

Note: You can line the pan with parchment paper for easier removal (lift the cake right out), but the cooking time will be longer.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

breakfast at a civilized hour, or how to cook bacon for a crowd of forty

I have mixed feelings about breakfast.

Despite my efforts to live on a "normal" schedule, I still cling to the inveterate night-owl's belief that mornings are bad and evil and best dealt with by sleeping through them. Though I like breakfast foods (cold cereal aside), my pleasure is marred by the fact that I have to be awake at an ungodly hour to consume them.

Brunch, however, is a different matter. Brunch is breakfast at a civilized hour, the domain of Eggs Benedict, Belgian waffles, and buttermilk pancakes drenched in maple syrup.

By all rights, I should have reserved my seat at ONCE Brunch as soon as the e-mail hit my inbox. And yet, when I went to write a reply, what came out was not "Reservation for one, please; I'll mail out a check ASAP," but "Brunch! Do you need minions?"

Apparently the fun of cooking eggs and bacon for forty people is enough to make me overlook the detail of having to be awake at an ungodly hour to do so.

Which is why, at ten-fifty am on Sunday morning, instead of being in bed and dead to the world, I'm standing in the tiny kitchen of our event space in Somerville, frantically fork-splitting a platter of homemade English muffins. Frantically, because we're a little behind; fork-splitting, because taking a knife to an English muffin is the fastest way to ruin its delicate texture.

By your average brunch standards, homemade English muffins are already impressive, but JJ is taking things a few steps further, using them as a base for truffled eggs, Ascutney cheese, and house-cured bacon in what she's described as "the world's best breakfast sandwich." (McDonald's, eat your heart out.)

Although I have no doubt that they're going to be spectacular, I'm also hoping that the first guests, who have started to trickle in, will focus on the other dishes first. You see, I can't assemble the sandwiches until we have all the components, and while the cheese is grated, we're still working on the truffled eggs and bacon.

Fortunately, we have no shortage of other dishes. There's JJ's ginger granola, faintly sweet and a little spicy, with homemade kefir and supremed Florida grapefruit. We have mini morning glory muffins, cinnamon-scented and full of fruit. And Trevor (the man responsible for our homemade bacon and sausage) has also come up with a wonderful cured bluefish, which we're serving in thin, delicate slices on brioche with red onion and a mint-cilantro yogurt sauce.

(Droolworthy photos are over at LimeyG's writeup.)

Over at the griddle, Anthony is turning out fluffy stacks of buttermilk pancakes that are just waiting to be soaked in maple syrup, and Arun has whipped up an enormous bowl of Indian-spiced potato and sweet potato homefries. We have fair trade organic coffee, and I notice that many of our guests have taken JJ's exhortions to heart, and have indeed brought sparkling wine to mix with our freshly-squeezed Florida orange juice for mimosas.

I'm just starting to wonder if there's any extra coffee when Jack tips a truffled egg omelette on the cutting board I have ready and signals that the bacon's good to go. Coffee will have to wait.

We set up an assembly line: muffin half, piece of omelette, sprinkling of cheese, piece of bacon, muffin half. As soon as we fill a serving platter, Emily whisks it away to start serving our guests. Once all the sandwiches are assembled, I take a brief moment to clear some of the dishes from the sink, and wipe down the baking sheets so that we can make more bacon.

Space is tight in this kitchen, and we spend a lot of time doing our best to stay out of each other's way. There are frequent exclamations of "Behind you!" and "Hot, hot, coming through!" as we move sizzling bacon to serving platters and refill the coffee press with boiling water. We're also offering eggs to order, and Jack, our egg man, has his hands full with requests for scrambled and poached and over easy.

Although this meal doesn't have the time crunch of the typical ONCE dinner because there's no plating involved, we're going to be busy making more bacon and more coffee until our guests indicate that they're full. When we leave today, everyone is going to smell of bacon grease.

While I wait for the final batch of bacon to come out of the oven, I track down a cup of coffee, fashion a sandwich from a slice of brioche and some leftover omelette and cheese, and snag a saucerful of homefries. The crew are all nibbling and trying not to be too conspicuous about it. (The morning glory muffins are particular favorites because of their small size, and possibly because they contain booze-soaked raisins.)

Our guests, from what I can see, are enjoying themselves. Part of the buffet is set up on the kitchen island, and so we're getting some feedback from those who come up for more muffins or a refill on coffee. The general consensus is that a ONCE brunch was an excellent idea, and the home-cured bacon is spectacular. We're all glad to hear it.

With the coffee supply holding steady, and the meal winding down, the only task I have left is dishes. It occurs to me that I am not going to smell of bacon grease so much as I am going to reek of bacon grease. The baking sheets are liberally coated; I have to figure out some way of getting them cleanish. (They just need to be clean enough to transport - they get properly cleaned back at ONCE headquarters.) The best solution ends up being to pour off as much of the grease as possible into an empty container, wipe down the tray with a paper towel, and then wipe down with a soapy sponge.

Once the dishes are tackled and the tables cleared, we round up the leftovers. The breakfast sandwiches were, predictably, demolished, but we've got plenty of morning glory muffins and granola, and a whole extra filet of cured bluefish, which JJ offers to any interested takers. (There are several. We divide it.) We sit for a while with coffee, unwinding and discussing what was good and what could be improved, before loading up the cars to head back to ONCE headquarters.

From ONCE headquarters, I head back home, bluefish, muffins, and a package of granola safely stowed in my backpack. It might be just my imagination, but I think I catch a few of the people on the bus sniffing the air and looking puzzled.

If only they were to ask me. I could tell them I've been cooking bacon for a crowd of forty.