Northern Roots

November 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

I had intended for this to be a quick and dirty post, giving another good party cake recipe, since I know you all will have followed my advice and rushed out to buy a bundt pan. And then nostalgia got in the way, through a pretty unlikely connection. I guess food works like that, certainly when it’s at its best. A perfectly shucked oyster becomes a childhood Saturday building sandcastles at the seaside; the smell of a banger in the pan a whole four awkward early-teen years spent eating pretty much nothing but sausage and chips (true story). In the hands of masters an ice-cream can jolt you instantly to a bleary breakfast of eggs and bacon: dishes transcend time and space and somehow become tied to two moments concurrently. I mean, people, I’m not telling you anything that hasn’t been said in somewhat more striking prose before, but sometimes you forget just how powerful the sensory experiences of eating can be and when you stumble upon one of those experiences the serendipity is all the more intense. As with this all-American cake that somehow led me to the beginnings of a new exploration of Lancashire cookery.

This cake, as conceived by the geniuses behind Brooklyn’s Baked bakery, is absolutely intended to evoke nostalgia, just of a different kind. In its full expression it’s a piece of quintessential Americana: a root beer float in cake form, of the kind that brings to mind chrome-edged counters lined with plush red upright stools and young guys with slicked-back hair manning soda fountains. The sort of thing Marty McFly orders to fit in with George in the 50s. Those creative Baked boys took this idea and came up with a base cake almost moist enough to drink, then slathered it with a tooth-achingly-sweet chocolate and root beer fudge topping, the stuff of dentists’ nightmares. The finishing touch is a generous scoop of vanilla-flecked ice-cream on top.

So how do we get from a sunny American history lesson to childhood in grey and wet 1980s Northwest England? One word: sarsaparilla. I’d been inexplicably drawn to the medicinal flavours of root beer for a while but it was only earlier this week, sitting down with a piece of this cake and a good book that I had that involuntary Proustian memory of almost the exact same taste. Indeed, the roots used for root beer are very closely related to those used to brew sarsaparilla and the resultant syrupy, herbal beverages are clear siblings. Growing up, I recalled instantly, sarsaparilla came from a stall in Blackburn’s covered market and I was allowed a glass as a treat while out shopping with my nanna and auntie. The flavour memory is much sharper than that of the scene itself but I’m hoping I’m not too far off the mark in saying that the drinks were doled out by a gruff chap in a grubby white apron and cost 10p a serving. A far cry from the midcentury soda fountain for sure, but equally evocative.

I’ve since come to notice that I’ve basically been making the Northern market sarsaparilla version of the Baked recipe. That is, I make this cake quite often without bothering with the fudge or ice-cream. On its own the cake casts off its airs and graces: it’s less sweet, more humble, a tea-time treat rather than a full-on dessert. It’s also incredibly quick and easy to make, comforting, and grounded. You should have a go at making the full recipe with the frosting and ice-cream and all at some point but if you never get past the basic base cake I won’t think any the less of you.

Root Beer Bundt Cake
Adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking By Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito

Yields 1 10 inch Bundt Cake

For the Root Beer Bundt Cake:

2 cups/500ml root beer (non diet; try substituting sarsaparilla if you can get it!)
1 cup/100g dark unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup/1 stick/115g unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 1/4 cups/200g cane sugar
1/2 cup/90g firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 cups/200g all-purpose/plain flour
1 1/4 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 large eggs

For the Frosting:

2 oz/60g dark chocolate (60% cocoa solids), melted and cooled slightly
1/2 cup/1 stick/115g unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tsp salt
1/4 cup/60ml root beer (or sarsaparilla)
2/3 cup/70g dark unsweetened cocoa powder
2 1/2 cups/250g confectioners’ (icing) sugar

For the cake:

Preheat the oven to 325F/170C. Grease your bundt pan thoroughly either with non-stick cooking spray or by brushing it with melted butter, making sure to get into all the nooks and crannies.

In a small saucepan, heat the root beer, cocoa powder, and butter over medium heat until the butter is melted. Add the sugars and whisk until dissolved. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs lightly then whisk them into the cooled cocoa mixture until combined (be sure your cocoa mix is cool enough not to scramble the eggs). Pour this mix over the flour and gently fold until just combined. Keep the batter slightly lumpy as though making muffins: I often use a whisk for this process as it prevents overmixing.

Pour the batter into the prepared bundt pan and bake for 35-40 minutes directly on the oven shelf so the air can rotate through the centre hole of the pan, until a small sharp knife inserted into the thickest part of the cake comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool completely. Gently loosen the sides of the cake from the pan and turn out onto the wire rack.

For the Frosting:

Put all the ingredients in a food processor. Pulse in short bursts until the frosting is shiny and smooth.
Use a spatula to spread the frosting in a thick, even layer over the cake. Leave to set before serving, with vanilla ice-cream on the side.


Reality Bites

November 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

It happened a week ago. I returned from one of those lunches that makes you happy to exist: good simple food, in the park, sun warm on the back, and swung by the mailbox on the way up to the apartment, where I planned to nap, knit and bake away the rest of the day. I knew immediately: two matching envelopes, with a suspiciously inflexible right hand side. The work permit had landed. I giggled for five minutes or so in the way that could quite easily have turned into tears but it didn’t. For all of the amazing time I’ve had over the past three and a bit months, I was ready to go back, to engage the bit of my brain that has been skirting around cloud-cuckoo-land recently, to engage in productive labor, as the immigration folks would have it. I’m also ready to be paid again, to be quite frank.

So it’s day 4 of real life and it hasn’t been bad at all. I feel lucky that I ended up sticking pretty close to home during all my leave: there are so many things I have made a new part of my everyday life and am determined to keep up even with reduced hours to lavish on hobbies. This site being one of those things. And perhaps a dose of realism in the kitchen will be a good thing: fewer three day ravioli making indulgences and more weeknight supper ideas. Not that there isn’t a time and a place for complicated cooking on this site and you can always guarantee that I have a scrap of paper somewhere on my desk with a Project being concocted. And there is of course, always the middle ground: that special category of recipes that are versatile enough to undergo adaptation and serve as an easy supper for two or a classy dinner for friends. One of my absolute favourites for this chameleon act is the humble jambalaya. First of all, I adore the whole category of rice dishes into which this Creole speciality fits: pilafs, paellas, risottos. Food with substance and heart. Second, anything involving the smoky warmth of paprika, cayenne or chile powder gets an automatic boost up my “to cook” list. And finally this is excellent make-ahead food as the flavours intensify and mingle if the dish sits for a few hours or overnight, meaning I can take advantage of home-working and do the bulk of the work at lunchtime and then just slide the casserole into the oven before dinner while popping open a bottle of wine or taking a bath.

I’m listing the Sunday version of the recipe below, which is both tasty and involved enough to warrant a place in the middle of a table surrounded by friends. I’ve never known it disappoint. My Tuesday version really just omits the shrimp and even sometimes the chicken depending on what I have on hand or how much time I have to get to the store. Making it a rice, chorizo and tomato version practically turns it into a store-cupboard supper, which is my kind of weeknight cooking. Especially these days…

Adapted from the Lee Brothers’ Southern Cookbook

Yield: 6 servings

*Make-ahead notes. You can make the stew as per the instructions below up to the point of adding the shrimp, then let it cool and keep refrigerated until needed. You can then reheat in a medium-hot oven (350F or 180C) for about 30-40 minutes. If you want to have shrimp in the stew, remove the pan from the oven ensuring the rice is hot and thoroughly cooked and then add the shrimp as per the final instruction below.

1 lb headless medium shrimp, unpeeled, heads on
3 1/2 cups/850ml chicken broth
1 tbsp shrimp boil (see note/recipe below)
1 tbsp canola or vegetable oil
10 oz/300g chorizo, cut on the bias into slices about 3/4 inch thick
6 chicken thighs, skinned (about 2 lb)
2 tsp salt
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 large onion, diced
5 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 28oz (or 2 400g) can Italian plum tomatoes, drained with the juice reserved
1 cup long grain rice
6 stems of thyme

Shrimp broil
This recipe, from the same book, makes about a cup of this spice blend. If you do not have the time or inclination to make it, you can substitute red chile powder for the shrimp broil without ill effect, as I discovered by accident the last time I made this dish 🙂

1 tbsp peppercorns
1 tbsp celery seeds
6 bay leaves, shredded with scissors
1/2 cup salt
3 tbsp ground cayenne pepper

Pound the peppercorns, celery seeds and bay leaf with the salt in a mortar, in batches if need be. Place in a small bowl and mix in the cayenne. Store in an airtight container for up to about 2 months.

For the jambalaya:
Peel the shrimp and place in a bowl, keeping the shells to one side. In a medium saucepan, bring the chicken stock to a boil and add the shrimp shells and the shrimp broil. Simmer over a low heat for about half an hour. Remove the shells and discard. Turn off the heat and keep the pan to one side.

In a large casserole or dutch oven that can go in the oven, heat the oil over a medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the sausage and brown all over, for about 6 minutes. Remove to a plate or bowl and set to one side.

Brown the chicken in the same pan in the sausage oil. You might need to add the thighs in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and saute until golden brown, agitating if necessary to stop them from sticking. Turn over, sprinkle again with salt and pepper, and saute the other side. Add them to the plate with the sausage and set again to one side.

Still using the same pan, add the onion, garlic and 1/4 cup or 50ml of the reserved tomato juices and saute, scraping at any brown bits on the bottom of the pan, until the vegetables are softened and fragrant, around 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and use a spoon to crush them. Turn the heat down to medium-low and simmer until the ingredients are well-mixed and thickly soupy. This should take about another 4 or 5 minutes. Add the chicken pieces, nestling the thighs in the stew. Then add the sausage and any juices that might have accumulated from the meat.

Strain the broth into a measuring cup and add enough of the remaining tomato juice to make it up to 3 cups/750ml. Add the liquid to the pan and then add the rice. Stir once very gently to combine, cover and cook over low heat for 25 minutes, or until the rice is tender and has absorbed most of the liquid. Turn off the heat and add the shrimp, stirring to distribute.

Cover and let the jambalaya rest for 10 minutes before serving. At this point the rice should be moist and plump but not soupy. Serve garnished with thyme.

The Om of Baking

November 14, 2010 § 5 Comments

If you need to find me at the moment, and you’ve checked the kitchen, Anthropologie, and my favourite cafes and bars with no luck, it’s a reasonable bet that I’ll be on the yoga mat. After years of assiduously avoiding (and to be honest just not getting) yoga, an angelic massage therapist took one prod of my over-exercised, under-stretched legs and generally stressed-out demeanour and practically frog-marched me down to the studio there and then. I can’t thank her enough. I was hooked from day one – on the physical to be sure (who doesn’t want Aniston arms!) – but more than anything else on the amazing feeling of warmth, community and wellbeing that is what has been pulling me back just about every day since. I would be kicking myself for wasting so much time making excuses not to go if I wasn’t so busy being blissed-out and enjoying the moment.

Yoga has made me more appreciative of the good things in my life and in particular it has clued me in more than before about just what it is that I love about baking. I adore cooking in general, but there’s just something specifically about baking that’s different and special. As on the mat, baking forces you to slow down and to tap into the meditative precision of the physical activity: this is one of the reasons that creaming up some butter and sugar, or taking the time to measure out seven different ingredients to a gram, is one of the increasingly few places where I find true flow – you know, that state where nothing else exists at that moment in time. Baking can show you that there is beauty to be found in the simple as well as the complex. There might well be a time and a place for a three-tier butterscotch caramel cake that involves days of labour but the enjoyment of a 10 minute chocolate chip cookie, or a slice of sponge cake, is not in any way lessened for that and, moreover, is probably all the more enjoyable for its simplicity.

Most of all, baking is almost always an outward-facing act. It’s something you do for others. I’m really never happier baking than when I know the end result is going to end up in front of friends. And with the holiday and party season pretty much upon us now, I’m likely to be one very happy girl over the coming months! I’ll try and give you as many good crowd-pleasing baking options as I can over the coming weeks as I expect I’m not the only one who will be hitting the sugar jar a bit more than usual at this time of year. My first piece of advice: if you don’t already own a bundt pan, get hold of one, stat. Bundt cakes are the ultimate cakes for sharing. The recipes tend to yield a bigger cake than usual without having to go to the hassle of assembling layers and the mechanics of the pan’s shape mean that this is a large cake which has a lot of crust but that doesn’t dry out. Quite the opposite: bundt cakes tend, in my experience, to be wonderfully moist and to stay that way for four or five days which also gives you a bit of leeway for baking in advance of a party. And the pan also puts in some aesthetic work and lends a beautiful shape to the cake which means you can stick it on a plate, dust over a bit of icing/confectioner’s sugar and have something more than merely presentable without too much stress or strain.

This first bundt cake I am posting is pretty much autumn in a slice. Apples, cranberries, pumpkin, ginger, pecans: it ticks just about every box you might expect for this season. It comes with built-in generosity, demanding as it does to be served in a hunk hearty enough to ensure the recipient gets a good cross-section of all the goodies tucked inside. It shows effort but doesn’t grandstand: think of it as a nice up-dog rather than a full backbend. The orange hue from the pumpkin frames the flecks of nutty browns and dark cranberry reds perfectly. If at any point the strains and stresses of the coming months start to seem overwhelming, I prescribe an hour in the kitchen chopping and stirring, to be followed by a large piece of cake and a cup of tea. The om is optional.

All-in-one Holiday Bundt Cake
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking

Yield: 10-12 servings

2 cups/220g all purpose/plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
pinch of salt
1 1/2 tsp grated fresh ginger
1 1/4 sticks/10 tbsp/140g unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup/170g sugar
1/2 cup (packed)/90g light brown sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups canned unsweetened pumpkin puree (see note below)
1 large apple, peeled, cored and finely diced
1 cup/100g dried cranberries
1 cup/100g pecans, coarsely chopped

*pumpkin puree note: I have clearly lived in the US for too long as I can’t remember whether this is something that is easily available in the UK! If not, you can dice up pumpkin into 1-2 inch chunks and roast in a medium oven for about 30 minutes, until soft enough to puree until smooth with a whisk or in a food processor. You want to end up with about 300g in weight.

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Grease a 9-10 inch bundt pan with melted butter, being careful to get the butter into all the nooks and crannies of the pan. Do not place the pan on a baking sheet – you want the air to be able to circulate through the inner tube of the pan.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt.

Cream together the butter and both sugars until light and fluffy, using either the paddle attachment of a stand mixer, or a hand mixer. Keep the speed at medium and add the eggs one at a time, beating for a minute after each addition. Beat in the vanilla. Reduce the speed to slow and add the pumpkin, chopped apple and grated ginger. The mixture will probably look hideously curdled at this point – do not worry. Still on a low speed, add the dry ingredients, mixing only until they are just incorporated. Use a rubber spatula to stir in the cranberries and pecans. Pour the batter into the pan and smooth the top with the spatula.

Bake for 60-70 minutes, or until a thin knife or skewer inserted into the thickest part of the cake comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a rack and leave to cool for 10 minutes or so before unmoulding the cake. Cool to room temperature on the rack before serving.

Breaking the Fast

November 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

If it were to happen that some cruel being were to send out an edict that we all had to choose only one meal a day (who would do such a thing?!), I would be first in the breakfast queue. I can’t remember the last time I skipped the first meal of the day and I always wake up hungry and looking forward to it. Sometimes (ahem, often), I even eat breakfast twice in one day. Wild, I know.

Breakfast also fascinates me culturally, the meal that reveals most about lifestyles and attitudes to food. Perhaps because it’s so often constrained by the morning clock, we seem to fall back on patterns and traditions more than at other times of the day. And I know many people who would order a curry for dinner without a second thought but who would be shocked at the idea of spiced rice just after getting out of bed. If one day you wake up in a strange part of the world and need to get your bearings, order breakfast and you’ll start to figure things out. Our trip to Bordeaux this summer was emblematic of this cultural connection. We were mostly staying in chambres d’hotes and the pride and care our hosts took over our morning eating was inspirational and oh-so-French. We worked our way through clafoutis and caneles, home-made brioche and a cornucopia of jams and preserves, and a lot of local melon. We also fell head over heels for the amazing home-made yoghurt we enjoyed in a couple of the places and promptly came home and starting making our own (recipe to be shared as soon as I have finished playing with it). But more than anything else we brought home a new appetite for breakfast and for getting beyond the routine of oatmeal or granola (good though both those dishes might be), for trying new combinations and most of all, for pausing and appreciating the first flavours of the day.

I want to share two very different recipes (one being more of an idea than a recipe) that prove the point that I could, and do, eat breakfast all day long. I’ve eaten both these dishes for breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner and supper and highly recommend you follow my lead. The first, wonderfully straightforward concoction is inspired by the “daily toast” on the menu at farm:table in San Francisco’s Tendernob district. This adorable postage-stamp sized joint doles out chunky cuts of toast each morning with a topping of either some kind of nut butter or lashings of cream cheese and slices of seasonal fruit. It’s perfect for these autumnal months when apples and pears are abundant and fragrant. I love to combine apples with peanut butter and pears with almond butter and a scattering of cocoa nibs on top of either works a treat. In the summer you might consider pairing mascarpone and berries and swapping out the nibs for a few chopped pecans or walnuts. Just thickly slice a couple of pieces of bread – I especially like sourdough or farmhouse levain for this – lightly toast them if the bread is anything other than fresh that day (feel free to leave them be otherwise), slather generously with the nut butter and arrange fine slices of the chosen fruit on top before scattering cocoa nibs over it all.

The second recipe is something quite different, to the extent that I expect many readers will immediately file it under “dinner” or “lunch” rather than breakfast. That’s fine by me since it’s delicious at any time (NB especially post-exercise of any kind) but do give it a chance as a weekend brunch with a kick. The recipe is for an aromatic, cardamom-infused, oven-baked pilaf, which is topped with a dollop of thick, creamy, Greek yoghurt and an unctuous soft-poached egg. It exemplifies the comfort fusion dishes I have come to expect, nay, demand, from Yotam Ottolenghi and won out as the first thing I cooked from Plenty, in the midst of stiff competition. The egg oozes out over the yoghurt, giving the firm and spicy grains of basmati rice a silky coating without suffocating the warm spices. It was love at first mouthful and more than enough to get me out of bed on a cold dark morning.

Cardamom Rice with Yoghurt and Poached Egg
Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty

The recipe yields 4 servings. I made a half portion of the rice without any problems. The original recipe uses curry leaves rather than curry powder; I couldn’t get hold of these but you can swap out the powder for 6 fresh curry leaves if you have access to them.

4 tbsp groundnut or canola oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tsp curry powder
8 cardamom pods
2 tsp coriander seeds
2 tsp turmeric powder
2 fresh green chiles (such as serranos), thinly sliced
400g basmati rice (I used brown but white would be fine)
720ml water
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
8 medium eggs (you can reduce this to one egg per person if you are less hungry or have fewer eggs to hand)
a large handful of parsley leaves, chopped
a large handful of cilantro/coriander leaves, chopped
6 tbsp lime juice (approx 2 limes’ worth)
8 tbsp Greek yoghurt
salt and black pepper

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Start by making the rice. Heat the oil in a large ovenproof saucepan or Dutch oven for which you have a tight fitting lid. Add the onions and garlic to the oil and cook over a low heat for around 8 minutes, until the onion is transparent and the garlic fragrant. Add the curry powder, cardamom, coriander seeds, turmeric, chiles and a teaspoon of salt. Increase the heat a little to medium and continue to cook, stirring, for about 4 minutes.

Add the rice and stir well to coat in the oil, onion and spices. Add the water, which should come to about a centimeter above the rice. Bring to the boil, cover the pan and place in the oven. Cook for about 25 minutes, at which point the rice should be completely cooked (it might take a little longer if you use brown rice). Try not to let too much steam out of the pan when you check the rice. Remove the pan from the oven and set somewhere warm while you prepare the eggs. If you like, you can turn off the oven and leave the pan in it with the door ajar.

Now you want to poach the eggs. Fill a shallow saucepan with enough water to cook a whole egg. Add the vinegar and bring the pot to a vigorous boil. To poach the eggs, break first into a cup then tip gently into the boiling water. Remove the pan from the heat immediately and set to one side. After about 4 minutes the egg should be soft-poached. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon to a bowl of warm water to prevent the eggs from cooling while you cook the others.

While the final egg is cooking, stir the herbs and lime juice into the rice and fluff with a fork. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more lime juice if you like. Divide the rice among bowls, spoon yoghurt on top and finish with an egg or two. Sprinkle salt and pepper on top and serve immediately.

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