Saturday, February 12, 2011

"già la mensa è preparata..."

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.

Though food is not a central theme of the story, it plays a crucial role in setting the stage. The refinement of the menu at the birthday celebration comes in sharp contrast to the rough fare brought to the hostages by a Red Cross mediator the next day. As the hostage crisis becomes more of a hostage monotony, the outside world loses interest, and the food delivered to the Vice-President's estate reflects the change in attitude.

Prepared sandwiches and casseroles give way to sandwich fixings, which are then passed up in favor of boxes of vegetables and raw chickens - "pink and cold, their stomachs greasing the counter" - much to the consternation of the Vice President-turned-butler-and-housekeeper. By the time Simon Thibault, the French diplomat, takes the role of directing meal preparation, the situation has evolved into something entirely outside the realm of a classic hostage-captor setup.

Though I dearly love the scene with the Vice President, as he bewilderedly wonders how raw chicken might be transformed into dinner and tries to find someone - anyone - among the hostages (or the revolutionaries) who can cook, it was ultimately the first meal after the dinner party that drew my interest:

Roxane, Hosokawa, and Hosokawa's interpreter Gen are sitting together when the meal is distributed. The food itself doesn't sound particularly appetizing: "sandwiches and cans of soda, wrapped slices of dark cake and bottled water." The sandwiches are made of "heavy slabs of bread," with "a piece of meat, orangish-red with sauce or watery peppers," and they leave pools of orange oil on their paper wrappings.

The hostages are too hungry to care. Roxane, who ruefully admits to being particular about her food, eats as though she were starving. Gen briefly ponders the exact nature of the meat in the sandwiches, and then decides that he is hungry enough for the answer to be irrelevant.

Unfortunately for Gen, he is not only an interpreter, but an excellent interpreter, versed in many languages, and as the sole person present who can communicate with all the hostages, the revolutionaries find him invaluable. He's interrupted mid-sandwich when his assistance is required. 

"Forgive me," he said in English and Japanese, wrapping up what was left of his meal and putting it discreetly beneath a chair in hopes it would still be there when he returned. He had especially wanted the cake.

Even as he assists, interpreting Spanish questions and instructions into French German, Greek and Portuguese, Gen's mind is elsewhere. When General Benjamin, one of the revolutionary leaders, asks him where he learned so many languages, he has no desire to explain. His thoughts are with the sandwich and cake left beneath his chair.

Poor Gen. The story (rather frustratingly) doesn't say if he ever did get his cake after the generals were through with their demands, and so I decided I'd have to bake one to make up for the possible deficiency.

"Wrapped slices of dark cake," isn't much detail to go on. A search of South American desserts didn't turn up any cakes fitting that description, and while it could have been something prosaic like chocolate cake or gingerbread, I wanted something a bit more fitting for the setting and the mood.

Pastel tres leches is a cake popular throughout Latin America, a sponge cake soaked in a mixture of sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and cream. The novel references many operas, however, including Bizet's Carmen, which is set in Spain. I decided to model a cake on pastel tres leches, but lift a little inspiration from Spanish desserts.

This cake uses a batter inspired by magdalenas (the Spanish equivalent of the French madeleine), flavored with orange zest. The cake is brushed all over with plain evaporated milk,and then topped with a glaze made with dulce de leche, a soft caramel made using sweetened condensed milk, popular throughout South America.

The end result is soft and moist, gently perfumed with orange, and agreeably sticky. It's probably too messy to be wrapped in slices as part of a hostage's box lunch, but it could be delivered whole, and sliced to serve on arrival.

Gen, I think, would deserve seconds. Interpreting is difficult work.

Orange-Scented Dulce de Leche Cake

(Makes one eight-inch cake, which will serve somewhere around eight to ten hostages and revolutionaries.)

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.


photon said...

I think this is my favorite blog post of yours, ever.

Just looking at the picture, it's making me miss dense almond flour scones from the local bakery.

librariane said...

*sigh* Your description is lovely. I think noticing the stark contrast of the menus is brilliant and a marvelous device on the part of the author.

adele said...

photon - Ooh. Describe these scones? We could try conducting a cross-Atlantic culinary experiment!

librariane - It's a well-crafted story - a good read!

photon said...

They had a ton of buttermilk in them. About 3" tall, 6" wide, a wedge cut out of a circle. A bit crumblier than yours; nothing in them but buttermilk and a bit of almond.

adele said...

photon - Drat. No experiments on my end, alas. I've looked in every international food store I've visited, and there's no buttermilk to be had! :/

Simona said...

I hope you'll forgive me Adele if I comment on a comment before I comment on your post. The best way to get buttermilk is to make butter. You can find some instructions here:
You don't find this in the stores, but rather cultured buttermilk, obtained by culturing milk:

This is one lovely post. I enjoyed reading every line: you made me want to read the book. I am very glad you chose to bake the cake for Gen. I am sure he would have thanked you in many languages. Thanks for contributing to Novel Food.

adele said...

Simona - I did consider making buttermilk by making butter, but I balk at the price I'd have to pay for a decent quantity of cream. I may look for a good neutral vinegar to mix with milk as a substitute.

I'm glad you like the sound of the book - it's a lovely read, particularly if you enjoy opera!

Lisa said...

You've got me really wanting to read that book now. Wonderful post, and your cake sounds divine. Thanks so much for taking part in Novel Food once again.

adele said...

Lisa - It's a beautiful book, and the story definitely does have an operatic flavor to it.