It had been a beautiful party, though no-one would remember that. White asparagus in hollandaise, a fish course of turbot with crispy sweet onions, tiny chops, only three or four bites apiece, in a cranberry demiglaze.
Every element was planned: crystal saltcellars, lemon mousse, American bourbon. There was no dancing, no band. The only music would be after dinner.
The fifty-third birthday celebration of Katsumi Hosokawa, chairman of Nansei, a Japanese electronics company, takes place at the Vice-President's estate in an unnamed South American country eager to woo foreign investors. Hosokawa, truth be told, is largely indifferent to the prospect of his fifty-third birthday, and has no plans for investments in countries not known for their political stability. He is, however, a fervrent lover of opera, and he has been enticed to attend the celebration by the promise of a performance by Roxane Coss, the famous American lyric soprano.
Dinner proceeds flawlessly, and Roxane's performance is everything the audience could hope for. Then the evening is rudely interrupted by a group of revolutionaries seeking to overthrow the government. They have come to kidnap the President, but the President is not in attendance - he changed his mind at the last minute, because he didn't wish to miss another episode of his favorite soap opera.
Flustered, the revolutionaries keep the entire assembly hostage while they draw up fresh plans. After deliberation, they decide to release all but the wealthiest and most influential attendees. Their demand is simple: all the hostages will go free if the President comes to take their place. Without the President, however, they will hold the hostages indefinitely.
Though the premise might sound like that of a plane flight novel, Ann Patchett's Bel Canto is no thriller. Instead, what unfolds is a graceful, operatic tale, a tragicomic story of language, music and the community that slowly develops as the hostages and revolutionaries learn to live together. It's the story I've chosen for the Winter 2011 edition of Novel Food.
Start with the glaze. If you have ready-made dulce de leche on hand, skip the next few paragraphs. If not, read on.
A common way of making dulce de leche is to submerge an unopened can in a big pot of water and heat it for several hours until the contents caramelize. It can also be made in the oven. For relatively small quantities, however, it can also be done in the microwave.
To make the dulce de leche glaze using a microwave, pour six tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk into a microwave-safe dish. Cover the dish. Cook on low heat in one-minute intervals, stirring after every interval, for five minutes. Cook on low heat in thirty-second intervals, stirring after every interval, for another five minutes. Continue to cook the mixture in thirty-second intervals, stirring after every interval, until it is golden brown in color.
Combine the dulce de leche (about four tablespoons) with half a cup of evaporated milk, and whisk until the mixture is smooth and free of lumps. (If necessary, pop it back in the microwave for a minute or two.) It will be thick, but pourable.
For the cake, start by preheating the oven to 350F. Butter and flour an eight-inch cake tin.
In a small mixing bowl, sift together one cup (five ounces) pastry flour and one teaspoon baking powder. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, cream together half a stick (two ounces) butter with four tablespoons of white sugar, two packed tablespoons of brown sugar, and a half-teaspoon of salt.
Grate the zest from one small navel orange, and measure out one teaspoon into the bowl. (Leftover zest can be used to garnish the finished cake.)
Separate two eggs; place the whites in another mixing bowl, and add the yolks to the butter and sugar. Beat the mixture until it becomes smooth and creamy.
Beat the egg whites until they reach stiff peaks. Measure out a half-cup of milk.
Fold a third of the flour into the butter mixture; stir in a third of the milk, then fold in a third of the egg whites. Fold in another third of the flour, stir in another third of the milk, then fold in another third of the egg whites. Repeat again with the remaining flour, milk, and egg whites.
Spoon the batter into the prepared tin; give the top a shake to smooth out the mixture. Bake for twenty-two to twenty-five minutes, or until a toothpick or knife stuck in the center comes out clean.
Remove the cake from the oven. Cool in its tin for ten minutes, then turn the cake out on a baking sheet or light cutting board. Pierce its underside all over with a skewer or small knife, then brush with four tablespoons of plain evaporated milk. It should absorb fairly quickly. Set the cake tin back over the cake, then flip the baking sheet over so that the cake is back in the cake tin, right-side up.
Pierce the top of the cake all over with a skewer or small knife, then brush with four tablespoons of evaporated milk, letting it run down the sides.
Brush the top of the cake with four tablespoons of the dulce de leche mixture. Once the mixture has been somewhat absorbed, pour over the remaining mixture. Allow to cool completely in the tin before covering with cling wrap and transferring to the fridge to rest overnight.
Let the cake to come to room temperature before serving. It's moist and quite fragile, so it's best to ease slices out of the tin rather than trying to turn it out on a platter.