25 June 2011

Not going to wait

Spring seemed oddly short this year. It seems that I only made asparagus a half-dozen times before they became thick and woody, and shelling peas were wrinkled and sad almost before they were good enough to buy, and my beloved fava beans were huge and starchy before June came along.

Now, though, is the time for green beans and the end of cherry season, for the first baby zucchini and sweet stone fruit. After several weeks of Southern California's famous June Gloom, strawberries are still lingering, and while the tomatoes on my patio garden are blooming and showing small fruit, the specimens at the markets are getting fatter, redder, and sweeter.

A rainy spring in the plum and apricot Mecca north of L.A. has made for an uncertain apricot season; my preferred Blenheim variety was almost nonexistent last summer, so I'm not going to wait and see what July brings.

apricot upside-down cake

After getting home from the market last week, I looked at my fruit selection and wondered what the heck I was going to do with it all. Stone fruit, strawberries, tomatoes and cheese are my unabashed food splurges—while my husband is left sputtering at the price, I happily fill my bags with aromatic apricots and unblemished nectarines, controlled only by the limited amount of cash that I bring and a strong aversion to food waste. However profligate I may be while at the market, I always try to plan my meals to avoid the (sometimes inevitable) bag of who-knows-what from who-knows-when that we all ignore in the bottom of the crisper drawer.

Good intentions and careful meal planning aside, I got home last week with six beautiful apricots and a vague idea for some sort of cake. I flipped through my cookbooks and clicked on countless blogs; I thought about making my apricot yoghurt cake, which I discarded as uninteresting, or this fantastic almond torte with apricots, which was rejected because I'm hoarding my almonds for another purpose. While rifling through my pantry searching for ingredients, I saw a bag of walnut halves and remembered my husband's half-jesting request that I make walnut cake once a week for the rest of eternity.

walnut cake

It made sense—we see dried apricots and walnuts used together quite often, but fresh apricots are more often paired with almonds. A little more research, a few tweaks to the cake recipe, and Apricot-Walnut Upside-Down Cake was born.

The first version was good - the walnut cake was dense and moist, with an almost pudding-like texture where the apricot juices and caramel had soaked in. At the same time, my taste for less-sweet desserts didn't do this cake any favors; when I cut the amount of caramel, the tart apricots were a bit too harsh. A second trip to the market and second batch of apricots later, I doubled the amount of caramel and tried again.

upside-down cake

Perfection. The apricots are tart but flavorful, an appropriate contrast to the sweet cake. The cake is delicious with whipped cream, but it stands alone.

Apricot-Walnut Upside-Down Cake
Inspired by multiple recipes, not least Ruch Reichl's Apricot Upside-Down Cake

I used Lorna apricots for this cake, a large variety that is slightly bland and also a bit crunchy when raw; after cooking, they hold their shape well, and the flavors develop but don't overwhelm the nutty cake.

For the caramel:

4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter
⅓ cup brown sugar, packed
3 tablespoons granulated sugar

For the cake:

3-4 large or 6-8 small apricots
¾ cup ground walnuts, lightly packed (from one scant cup walnut halves or pieces)
1¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup brown sugar, packed
1½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 large egg, room temperature
¾ cup milk (I used whole), room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup (1 stick) butter, melted

Preheat oven to 375ºF. Lightly butter an 8 inch round pan with at least 2 inch sides; set aside.

To make the caramel, melt the butter in a skillet over moderate heat. Add the sugars and stir gently; let cook 3 minutes; the butter will bubble but the sugars will not be completely dissolved. Pour the mixture into the baking pan and quickly spread it across the bottom. Cut the apricots into pieces and arrange them over the caramel; large apricots can be cut into eigths, while smaller apricots can be cut into quarters or halves; set aside.

Grind the walnuts in a food processor until the consistency of coarse meal; mix in a large bowl with flour, sugars, baking powder and salt. Beat the egg together with the milk and add to the dry ingredients. Stir until barely combined, then add the melted butter and stir until smooth.

Pour the batter gently over the apricots and transfer to the oven. Bake about one hour, or until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven, hold an inverted plate tightly over the pan, and carefully flip. Gently and slowly remove the cake pan away from the plate—hot caramel will drip down the sides, and some of the edges may crumble a bit. Let the cake cool, then replace any dislodged pieces of apricot.

Serve plain, or with whipped cream or ice cream.

Serves about 8

14 June 2011

From the dead

I didn't mention it last week, but happiness is also being able to breathe and smell properly. Leave it to me to go all winter without so much as the sniffles, only to get a summer virus that wouldn't let go. A box of tissues and 873 cups of tea later, I actually feel human.

strawberry-balsamic sorbet

Not human enough to ever cook anything but frozen desserts, apparently. I've felt, to be completely honest, that I've been failing my blog (and the internet-food-writing-world at large) lately. Some huge life changes have shaken things up, leaving me exhausted more days than not, happy with a bowl of some sort of pasta or a salad for dinner—not the best blog fodder. I've been terrible about keeping up-to-date with other blogs, as well—I'm reading, and writing notes, and saying "I'm totally going to make that!" a dozen times a week—but somehow that hasn't translated into any success in the kitchen.

The unfortunate aspect of this is that for me, like for most of us who spend countless hours testing recipes and to let our meals get cold to get the perfect photos, cooking is my sanity. I may sometimes grouse about being the one to "do all the cooking," but I rely on my evenings in the kitchen not just for my next day's lunch, but for my downtime: I can peer around the corner to watch TV, and I can catch up on daily chatter with my husband or on the phone with family, but more often it's my time to meditate, to straighten everything out in this rat's nest I call my brain and make myself generally fit for human companionship.

Luckily for me (and for any readers willing to put up with the relatively sparse and boring fare), while there is no end in sight, I think I may be on my way to a more manageable level of stress. Several things have been dealt with, and a few more projects that I'm working on are reaching the point where they feel more like enjoyable ways to spend my time and less like black holes. I can only hope that this means I will be spending more time cooking—and I'd love for you to help me with that if you'll indulge me. Tell me your favorite summer dish/meal (with a recipe if you have one)—dessert or dinner, I want your ideas and I need your inspiration!

concentrated strawberry-ness

Case in point: I have yet another frozen dessert for you. Trust me, though, this one is good enough to be worth it. Strawberries and balsamic vinegar don't make the news anywhere, but they really should. This sorbet softens quickly and has the perfect combination of sweet, acid, and how-many-strawberries-are-in-this-thing flavor. With one batch making a generous pint, this recipe is small but mighty—feel free to double it. I used my remaining strawberries for ice cream, but I would be happy to eat my weight in this stuff every summer.

Strawberry-Balsamic Sorbet
Note that due to the vodka in this recipe, it softens much more quickly than many sorbets.

1 pound fresh strawberries, rinsed
½ - ⅔ cup sugar
1 tablespoon vodka
1½ tablespoons high-quality balsamic vinegar, divided

Hull and slice the strawberries and give them a taste; if they are very sweet and pink all the way through, use the smaller amount of sugar. Toss the berries with the strawberries and let sit at room temperature about one hour, stirring occasionally.

Add the vodka and one tablespoon of the vingar to the strawberries and blend with an immersion blender; alternatively, transfer the strawberry mixture to a blender. Taste the mixture and add the additional half tablespoon (1½ teaspoons) vinegar if desired.

If you're not partial to strawberry seeds, use a sieve to strain them out. Refrigerate until well chilled, then freeze using your preferred ice cream maker.

Makes one generous pint (about 2 ½ cups)

08 June 2011

Happiness is ...

... the first few radishes from the garden (served thinly sliced and salted, on a thick slice of buttered baguette) ...

French breakfast radishes

... and an unguarded smile from a puddle on the counter top (discovered randomly by my husband).

happy water!

02 June 2011

A snack and a supplement

I wasn't the pickiest child ever, but I had strong opinions about food. I knew to pick my battles—there was no way that I was going to leave peas behind uneaten—but my mother was kind enough (or too annoyed to be bothered) to force me to eat the things that I truly detested. Maybe she was just happy to have a larger portion of broccoli for herself, but I had no complaints.

Strangely enough, nuts were some of the most problematic foods for me. Peanuts were all right, along with peanut butter and similar things (my mom's homemade peanut butter cups were a much-anticipated treat). Walnuts? Gag me. Pecans? No thank you. Hazelnuts, brazilnuts, pistachios? I doubt I had even tasted them. Even almonds—the almighty, healthy, versatile almond—were out; it wasn't until high school, when I fell in love with almond shortbread cookies, that I decided to give them another chance.

I'm a much more adventurous eater than I was before, and although I still don't particularly like broccoli or pecans, I made my peace with almonds long ago. I like them savory or sweet, and while I enjoy them in dishes, they are also one of my favorite snacks. I typically buy my almonds raw, in bulk; I grind them for tart crusts and pesto, toast them for granola or salads, and candy them for any number of dessert toppings. The recipe for cinnamon almonds below, adapted from a Martha Stewart recipe that we typically use for spicy cashew nuts, is the perfect almond recipe: eat them as snacks, sprinkle them over a dessert (like a marquise) to add crunch, or roughly chop them in a food processor (or in a plastic zip bag with a mallet) and fold into freshly-churned ice cream.

Cinnamon Almonds
Adapted from this Martha Stewart recipe

1 egg white
¼ cup sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon, cassia, or a combination
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups raw almonds

Preheat the oven to 300ºF. Beat the egg white in a medium bowl until quite frothy, about 20 seconds. Mix the sugar and cinnamon and add to the egg with the remaining ingredients; stir until the almonds are well coated. Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet and place in the oven.

Bake, stirring once or twice, until quite dry and golden brown, 20-25 minutes. Remove from the oven, stirring once more while warm, then let cool completely. Store in an airtight container.

Makes 2 cups

01 June 2011

As promised

As promised, a marathon recipe ensues, I warn you. Best made over two days, these desserts are tasty enough to be worth the effort (once in a while, at least), and interesting enough to be a show stopper after a nice meal.

spiced cherries and almonds

While not the most scintillating activity in the kitchen, it is possible to make this dish without a stand mixer. Take it from me: pull up a chair, grab a book, and set the timer; if you move the hand mixer around from time to time and check it every few minutes, you may survive the monotony.

Another interesting note about this recipe is the admonition to only use Dutch cocoa powder. While I have used both, and always heard that they can be used interchangeably, I had never had a side-by-side comparison. Since my current cocoa powder was all natural, I bought some Dutched powder and did a little research. While they can, indeed, be used interchangeably, the key advantages to Dutched powder are its darker color—more appealing to many eyes—and a reduction in the natural acidity of cocoa, allowing its other flavors to take center stage. While substituting with natural powder in the marquise probably wouldn't make a great difference, the cocoa powder used to coat each piece will likely be unpleasantly bitter and acidic unless Dutched powder is used.

Marquise with Spiced Cherries and Cinnamon Almonds
Adapted from a Daring Bakers recipe by Emma of CookCraftGrow and Jenny of Purple House Dirt.
Note: a full batch of the cherries and almonds are not needed—but you should really make a full batch anyway, as both are versatile and keep well.

1¾ cup heavy cream, divided
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped (I used about 72% cacao)
pinch cinnamon
2 tablespoons corn syrup
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons Dutched cocoa powder
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
7 eggs, divided
1 cup sugar, divided
Additional Dutched cocoa powder for coating
Spiced Cherries
Cinnamon Almonds

Whip 1 cup of the cream to stiff peaks; set aside in the refrigerator. Prepare an 8" square pan much as you would for brownies; line with two long strips of parchment the width of the pan, laid crosswise with the ends hanging over; set aside.

Heat the remaining ¾ cup cream until almost simmering. Place the chopped chocolate in a medium bowl and pour the hot cream over it; let it sit for 1-2 minutes to allow the chocolate to melt. Slowly stir the mixture until well combined; add the cinnamon, corn syrup, vanilla, 2 tablespoons cocoa powder, and butter and mix well. Set aside the chocolate mixture to cool to a warm room temperature (I keep it on the stove because my kitchen is chilly).

Meanwhile, begin the egg base for the marquise. Separate five of the eggs, setting the whites aside for the meringes. In a large bowl with a hand mixer, or in a stand mixer, begin beating the 5 yolks with the additional two eggs. Beat on high speed until very thick and pale, about 15 minutes (probably a bit more with a hand mixer, a bit less with a stand mixer).

When the eggs are almost done, mix ¼ cup sugar with 2 tablespoons water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, swirling to mix, then cook to 265ºF (soft-ball stage). When the syrup is hot, drizzle it into the egg mixture while beating on low speed. When combined, increase the speed to high and beat until cooled to room temperature, about 5-10 minutes more. Add the chocolate mixture and quickly beat just to combine—don't beat too long or you will lose the air that you whipped into the eggs. Fold in a third of the whipped cream to lighten the mixture, then quickly fold in the remaining cream. Scrape the mixture into the prepared pan, press a layer of plastic wrap against the mixture, and transfer to the freezer until completely frozen, 4-6 hours minimum (easiest to just freeze overnight and finish the dessert the next day).

To make the meringue, bring the five reserved egg whites to room temperature. Place the whites and remaining ¾ cup sugar in a double boiler over simmering water. Beat with a mixer on medium-high speed until hot to the touch and the consistency of marshmallow cream, about 5-7 minutes. Remove from the heat and beat until cooled and holding stiff peaks, about 6-8 minutes more.

Preheat the boiler or a hot oven (400-450ºF). Line a baking sheet with parchment or silicone. Spoon the meringue into six nests and hollow the centers with a large spoon. Bake or broil until browned all over and carefully transfer to serving plates (the bottoms will be a bit sticky). Alternatively, shape and brown the meringue nests on the serving plate and brown with a blowtorch.

To assemble the desserts, spoon some cherries into each nest and pour some cocoa powder onto a plate. Turn the marquise out onto a cutting board; if your baking dish has curved edges, trim those and set aside. Cut into nine equal squares, coat each thoroughly with cocoa, and arrange atop the cherries. Set each dessert aside to thaw at room temperature (15-20 minutes) or in the fridge (around an hour). Scatter with almonds and serve.

Makes 6 full desserts with 3 remaining marquise blocks (mine are frozen, ready to be coated, thawed, and served with meringue, whipped cream, or custard whenever needed)