Monday, November 22, 2010

Does this Cake Taste like 1941?


At my most recent dinner party, I made a chocolate layer cake just in case the main dessert, a cherry cheese pie, was a disaster.  It turned out that the "insurance" cake was, um, less well received than the riskier cheese pie.  Instead of the usual ooohs and aaaahs that I often hear when people eat cake, there was kind of a subdued response.

And I think I know why: This cakes tastes like 1941.  It's a simple cake. Very straightforward.  Not overly sweet.  A modest amount of fat.   And it lacks 21st century bells and whistles like caramelized grey sea salt folded into the frosting or harvested-at-midnight Tuscan raspberries with a glaze of cardamom scented praline dust.



It's the kind of cake I imagine many a housewife served at church suppers, or perhaps at a birthday party.  Of course, back then 30 percent of Americans were not considered obese (as they are today) and a woman's size 14 dress in the 1940s is today's size 10.  So I guess they could have their cake and eat it too.  (And still fit into a size 10.)


The recipe, hand-written on a card in 1941, uses Spry -- a shortening  introduced in the late 1930s to compete with Crisco.  We all know who won that race.  I followed the recipe exactly, except I always use unsalted butter in place of Spry Crisco.  And for the chocolate, I used Sharfen Berger 99 percent, but even that nod to the 21st century didn't elevate the cake to modern standards.

Like many of the old recipe cards, this one is short on instruction.  I imagine it was written at a time when home bakers all shared a collective knowledge of baking.  If any reader bakes this cake, please note that you need to add about one cup of milk (not one tablespoon), and when alternating milk and flour, start and finish with the flour.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Pecan Pie: Who Needs Corn Syrup?


Thanksgiving, at least at my house, is not the time for the joy of discovery, but for the pleasure of the familiar. It's all about tradition and so every year we have both pecan and pumpkin pie (and also fallen chocolate soufflee cake for the family pie haters).
The pecan pie recipe I use is one by American food writer extraordinaire, outlaw cook John Thorne.  And I like it so much, I'm sticking with it, instead of trying one of the several in my hand-written recipe collection.
Lyle's Golden Syrup is an excellent replacement for corn syrup.  
Ever since corn syrup became the devil a few years ago, everyone has been looking for a viable replacement for this key ingredient in pecan pie. These discussions are all over the internet and can occupy one for hours on end, until you manage to pull yourself away from the computer, right before mental exhaustion prevents any baking at all.

But never fear, for in the midst of one of these discussions, someone posted this beauty from John Thorne. I've never looked back.  And you won't either.  It uses Lyle's Golden Syrup, a delicious sugar syrup made in England, but increasingly available here in the US.

My Pecan Pie

1 well-packed cup full-flavored brown sugar
Scant 2/3 cup golden syrup
2 T dark rum
4 T unsalted butter
3 eggs
1/4 t. salt
2 cups broken pecan meats
9-inch unbaked pie shell

Preheat oven to 350F.  In a large saucepan, heat the brown sugar, golden syrup and butter to the boiling point.  Stirring constantly and scraping back any foam that clings to the side of the pan, let this mixture boil for about 1 minutes.  Remove from the heat and let cool while, in a separate bowl, you beat the eggs until creamy.
When the boiled syrup has cooled, beat in the eggs, salt and pecans.  Pour into the unbaked pie shell and bake for about 50 minutes.   If the crust browns too quickly, make an aluminum foil "crown" and place it atop the crust.

Fine tuning:
Adding 1/4 to 1/2 cup of heavy cream into the filling before baking makes for a richer, lighter texture.
For a sweeter, lighter pie, add more sugar and fewer pecans; for a denser less sweet pie, add more pecans and use less sugar.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Cheesecake: One Stolen, One Made


On Saturday night,  DH invited a few folks over for dinner and a movie TV show: the world premiere of the 48 Hours Mystery show about Colton Harris Moore, 19, aka the Barefoot Bandit, that he (and another of our guests, Sarah Prior) had spent the last six months reporting and producing.

Dinner (produced by me) was black bean chili, cornbread and salad.  Dessert was a cheesecake because Colton, who began his life of crime by stealing food to stave off hunger, had once stolen a cheesecake and DH thought that would be a fitting dessert.

I was less enthusiastic, having recently made an excellent cheesecake.  But then, I discovered this irresistible recipe for Cherry Cheese Pie (Colton had stolen a blueberry cheesecake, so I figured this was close enough).   There's so much to love about this recipe: it's from a high school home economics class in 1964 (via a local TV station) and the shout out of LET'S USE UNUSUAL FOODS is quite a call to action.


So I made it.  The crust is very odd; it's first mixed like a traditional pie crust but then an egg and vanilla are  added and the whole thing is pressed into the pie pan and blind baked (the baker's term for pre-baked without a filling).


The filling is super easy.  Just mix cream cheese, sweetened condensed milk and lemon juice, pour it into the cooled crust and let it set in the refrigerator for a few hours.  No baking!  When this recipe was written, cans of sweetened condensed milk were 15 ounces; today, they are 14 ounces, but it won't affect the recipe.  

The cherry topping is the star of this dessert.  It is a homemade -- and luscious --  version of all those commercial canned "Mighty Fine" pie fillings, the gloppy fillings that ruined many a fine pie.  But made from sour cherries (available in jars at specialty stores), cornstarch, sugar and cherry juice, the consistency is lovely and the flavor a perfect combination of sweet and tart.  What a find!


Cutting the pie was a bit of a challenge; the crust was very hard (perhaps I over-baked it) and getting clean slices was difficult.  Still, no one complained, and we all thought that this dessert was the perfect entree to the excellent documentary that followed.

I know you'll want to learn more about Colton and his fascinating story and witness Sarah's bravery when Colton's mother threatened to get her shotgun if she came any closer!  Click here for all that. 

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Isn't it Good Norwegian Cake


Right after college, I was a newspaper reporter in Stoughton, Wisconsin, a town so proud of its Norwegian heritage that street signs were in both English and Norwegian, and Syttende Mai (May 17, Norwegian independence day) celebrations trumped July 4th.

But even though I frequented (almost daily) the two bakeries on Main Street, right around the corner from the Courier-Hub office, I had never heard of this cake until I found this tattered recipe in one of my collections.  Which is too bad, because it is fantastic.  So good, that for the convenience of my readers, and in hopes that some of you will bake this, I not only scanned the recipe but typed it, as well.

It's simple to make and, yes the eggs and butter to flour ratio is decadent and probably responsible for the cake's full name: Norwegian Gold (or Golden) Cake. The method to make this -- incorporating the butter into the flour directly -- was developed in the 1940s, but I'm happy to report still works fine today.  The key is having the butter soft enough.



While you're making this, you'll think that it won't work, for the batter doesn't come together well when the eggs are added.  But do as I did and keep going.  You'll be glad you did.

The batter only fills the pan to about 1/3, but don't worry, it will rise!
The cake has two textures, the crunchy almost caramelized exterior and the rich smooth interior, which boasts a fine crumb and excellent deep flavor.  This is so worth the effort and calories.
I brought my cake to the ladies of the Home Planning Workshop at Henry Street Settlement -- this is a tough crowd of scratch bakers -- and they heartily approved. And then invited me to their Thanksgiving dinner next week.  Enough said.





I had forgotten about the kind of paper this is typed on, parchment-like, nearly translucent
with a very visible watermark.  Today's white paper is so boring in comparison.

Norwegian Gold Cake
1 cup soft butter
5 eggs
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. almond extract
1 1/2 cups sifted flour
1 1/3 cups sugar
1/2 tsp. salt

Allow butter to become soft, but do not melt.  Place butter and flour in mixing bowl.  Beat 5 min. at low speed.  Add eggs, one at a time, blending each egg at slow speed.  Sift together sugar, baking powder and salt.  Add graduatl to creamed mixture.  Add extract.  Mix 2 min. after all sugar has been added.  Turn into 10" tube pan that has been greased with 2 tbsp. butter and then sprinkled with fine bread crumbs. [Note: I used Crisco instead of butter and flour instead of bread crumbs.]  Bake 1 hour in 325 degree oven.  Invert to cool [when I did this, the cake fell out of the pan, so let it cool about five minutes, then invert on to rack and then cool.]  Sprinkle top with confectioners' sugar.

A bit of googling revealed that Stoughten still celebrates Syttende Mai in a big way.  Below are the prince and princess and king and queen of the 2010 festivities.



Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Modern Cake for a Modern Painting


The first time I saw the painting, part of a solo show at Henry Street Settlement's Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side, I was wowed.  It was gorgeous and looking at it made me feel very, very happy.  And then, over the next few weeks, every time I saw it, I liked it more and more, if that were possible.  I asked for the price list.  Expensive, but hey, I'm worth it, right? Plus the thought of being able to see that gorgeous painting every day was irresistible. So after DH saw it and liked it as much as I did, we made the purchase.

Beth with the painting, called Visible Storage: Green Vases.*  This photograph doesn't capture its beauty.

I met the painter, Beth Livensperger, when she was taking down the show.  Like me, Beth is a native of Ohio and perhaps it was her Midwestern kindness that prompted her to offer to hang the painting in my house.  I was thrilled -- those sorts of tasks are way beyond my capability.

So on Saturday, power tools in hand, Beth arrived.  My own power tools (a Kitchen Aid mixer and oven) were also in use as I baked a cake especially for Beth.  She had told me that for her first birthday, she got a zucchini cake because her mother wanted to be healthy but when her younger sister's first birthday came around, she got chocolate cake.

It took three small zucchini to get two cups of grated vegetable. I used the small holes on the grater.
I did the only rational thing: I baked a chocolate zucchini cake.  Somewhere in my vast and messy collection of old recipes, I might have one for some version of this cake.  But, I didn't have time to search among the recipe cards, so I found this recipe on a Parisian blog I've been following  for years called none other than Chocolate and Zucchini.  The recipe is below.

The batter before the zucchini is added.

A bit of confectioner's sugar sprinkled on top (see first picture in post) is the perfect "frosting " for this cake.

This cake is quite moist and it takes just like a chocolate cake.  You can't taste the zucchini at all -- it adds moistness and, presumably, health.

(*The painting depicts a visual storage area of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is where items not on display are stored, but the public can see them in storage.)

Chocolate & Zucchini Cake
- 240 grams (2 cups) all-purpose flour
- 60 grams (1/2 cup) unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 180 grams (1 scant cup) light brown sugar (I use unrefined cane sugar)
- 115 grams (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature, or 1/2 cup virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon instant coffee granules or 2 tablespoons strong cooled coffee -- this is just to deepen the chocolate flavor, you won't taste it in the finished product
- 3 large eggs
- 350 grams (2 cups) unpeeled grated zucchini, from about 1 1/2 medium zucchini
- 160 grams (1 cup) good-quality bittersweet chocolate chips, or chopped chocolate
Confectioner's sugar (optional)
Serves 12.
Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Grease a 25-cm (10-inch) round springform pan or a 22-cm (8 1/2-inch) square pan.
In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In the bowl of a mixer (or by hand in a large mixing bowl), beat the sugar and butter until fluffy. Add the vanilla, coffee, and eggs, mixing well between each addition.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the zucchini, chocolate chips, and about a third of the flour mixture, making sure the zucchini strands are well coated and not clumping too much.
Add the rest of the flour mixture into the egg batter. Mix until just combined; the batter will be thick.
Fold the zucchini mixture into the batter, and blend with a spatula without overmixing. Pour into the prepared cake pan, and level the surface.
Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Transfer onto a rack to cool for 10 minutes, run a knife around the pan to loosen, and unclasp the sides of the pan. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature. Sprinkle with confectioner's sugar or a chocolate glaze if desired.

Some production notes:
I used a 9 inch springform pan which was perfect.  The grated zucchini seemed to clump, but using glove covered fingers, I manually tired to separate it and added it in small chunks to the chocolate batter.  Turned out that in the final cake, it was well distributed, so don't worry if it looks clumpy.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Very Best Creamy* Cheesecake


I'd been thinking of making a cheesecake for a few weeks (having tired of apple and plum desserts) and by happy coincidence, I was requested to bring a dessert that was "creamy and not too sweet" to an event recently in Westchester.


The occasion was a lunch party (so much more decadent than a dinner party) hosted by Betty, a former colleague of DH's who is now a journalism professor (and blogger) in addition to being a fabulous cook. (You can read her blog about the lunch here.)   Betty was raised in Manhattan's Chinatown and, while her mother didn't cook, she taught herself Chinese cooking from a couple of cookbooks, below.



There was no better way to spend a Saturday than sitting in Betty's sunny kitchen (the center of her ultra charming cottage-like house), drinking wine and watching her prepare a delicious Chinese feast which we ate with abandon.  It was a wonder any of us had room for dessert.

I kept the cheesecake in the springform pan until we completed our journey to Westchester.

The cheesecake I made is from my own collection, a hand-written gem given to me by my friend Barbara, a former neighbor who now lives in the Virgin Islands.  She got it from a diner where she worked in high school, but the recipe is much older, probably from the 1950s.

This is a very creamy cheesecake made with cream cheese and the best thing about it is that is has a "frosting" made of sour cream which not only adds another flavor and texture note, but also eliminates the unsightly cracks that plague so many cheesecakes.  I considered putting some raspberries on top, but it is so good, I decided it didn't need any embellishment.  This cheesecake requires planning; it is supposed to be refrigerated overnight before serving.


*There are many other kinds of cheesecake.  Our dear friend Mary, also a guest at the lunch, recently made an Italian-style cheesecake for a colleague's birthday and she said that it was so different than mine (in texture, taste, etc.) that it's hard to believe that both desserts are called cheesecake.  The recipe she used, the Sicilian Ricotta Cheesecake from Allrecipes.com, is pasted at the bottom of the post.  She made it with fresh (not commercial) ricotta said it was delicious.  It's a lovely one-bowl recipe that can be put together quickly. I plan to try it the next time I buy fresh ricotta.

Barbara's recipe (the one I used) is below.  I followed it exactly except for the pan:  Do not use a pie pan; use a 9 inch springform pan.  You'll be happy you did.




Sicilian Ricotta Cheesecake


Ingredients

  • 2 pounds ricotta cheese
  • 2/3 cup white sugar
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 6 eggs
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons orange zest
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F (150 degrees C). Set rack in the middle of the oven. Butter and flour a 9 1/2 inch springform pan, and tap out excess flour.
  2. Place the ricotta in a large mixing bowl, and stir it as smooth as possible with a rubber spatula. Stir the sugar and flour together thoroughly into the ricotta. Stir in the eggs 1 at a time. Blend in the vanilla, cinnamon, orange zest, and salt. Pour batter into the prepared pan.
  3. Bake in the center of the oven for about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours, until a light golden color. Make sure the center is fairly firm, and the point of a sharp knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack. It will sink slightly as it cools. Cover, and chill till serving time.