Hello, Treacle

March 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

San Francisco has clearly been going through an identity crisis of late. It’s the only explanation for why our dear city has been playing the role of rainy Seattle on March’s stage: weeks of waking to the hammering of sheets of water on the skylight and to the heavens stretching dirty gray ahead. Damp city dwellers shuffle around in a mixture of inappropriate clothing or shiny new impermeables. Hunters are the new keds. Hipsters carry umbrellas. Where will it all end? And, more importantly, when?

In jarring contrast to the cool skies and sodden air, restaurant menus in the city start to show signs of the spring we should be enjoying. The first asparagus, green garlic and spring lamb have muscled winter squash, collard greens and pork belly out of the way. But I brush away the temptation of exciting new ingredients at the market and use the excuse of the weather to bake a cake whose home is really the dark evenings of early November in England: a dark, fudgy gingerbread whose treacly undertones recall the sulphuric traces of spent fireworks and tooth-smashingly hard toffee eaten from a soggy paper bag. I do have a hankering for a piece of cake but more than that I want to infuse our apartment with the aromas of ginger and caramelizing sugar which build up over the long, slow hour that the cake bakes in the oven. It’s a smell so warm that even the dampest corners of our apartment are infused with spice.

I pulled a bunch of cookbooks off the shelves in search of this Sunday gingerbread inspiration and was faced with an array of options. A kamut flour version in Good to the Grain was intriguing enough to tempt and my eye was turned by the chocolate topped gingerbread squares in Baking: From My Home to Yours. I even hovered over a quinoa and crystallized ginger cake in Whole Grains, before slapping myself back to my senses. What I needed was a classic English gingerbread, requiring all the mess of the treacle jar and little fuss otherwise. And when you are talking classic English, you can’t go wrong with Leiths. A self-titled Bible from a classic cooking school of the same name, it’s the kind of book that actually teaches you how to cook, with a scarily comprehensive set of recipes delivered in a tone that is slightly starched but to the point and highly effective. Which kind of describes this gingerbread too: it doesn’t mess around with unusual spice blends and the method is so simple that you almost worry that you must have forgotten something when the cake goes into the oven mere minutes after beginning and leaving minimal washing up. And yet the results cannot be denied: a cake of intense depth of flavour but with a springy levity to the texture that belies its dark and sticky nature. It only gets better as it sits over two or three days, as the fudgy top surface develops and the spice and treacle mix and meld. Indeed, it lasts long enough that the clouds part, the sun appears at long last and we throw open all the windows. I add a generous scoop of vanilla ice-cream to the top of the last hunk and the city is San Francisco all over again.

Black Sticky Gingerbread
Adapted from Leiths Cookery Bible by Prue Leith and Caroline Waldegrave

butter for greasing the pan
225g/8 oz/2 sticks butter
225g/8 oz soft dark sugar
225g/8 oz black treacle*
290ml/1/2 pint full fat milk
340g/12 oz plain/all purpose flour
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp freshly grated ginger**
2 tsp baking soda
2 eggs, beaten

*I happened to have some Lyle’s black treacle in the cupboard, which I had picked up at an English shop here some time ago. If you are in the US and can’t easily get black treacle, you should be able to swap molasses (not blackstrap) directly for it. I will try this at some point and add a note as to any difference etc.

**the original recipe didn’t include fresh ginger so feel free to leave this out if you don’t have it to hand, although for me the more ginger the better…

Preheat the oven to 300F/150C. Grease with butter a roasting pan/brownie pan which is roughly 13 x 9 inches and line the base and sides with greaseproof paper.

Melt the butter, sugar and treacle in a medium sized saucepan. Add the milk and set to one side to cool.

Sift the flour with the ginger, cinnamon and baking soda, then stir into the melted mixture along with the beaten eggs and fresh ginger (the mixture needs to be cool enough not to scramble the eggs at this point). Mix until well combined but do not overmix – if the batter is still a bit lumpy but all the flour has gone, that is completely fine. Pour into the prepared tin.

Bake for about 45 minutes to an hour, or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Leave to cool in the pan for about 20-30 minutes and then remove to a baking rack to cool completely. Cut into squares or fingers, to your preference. Wrapped well these will keep for several days, or you can freeze them for 3 months. The cake will be improve with a day of resting.

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Spring Forward

March 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

I was bracing myself for some kind of existential crisis when I turned 30 a year and a half ago. It never came. Quite the contrary: life as a 30-something has never been better. I’m more confident in who I am and what I want and willing to use my time more wisely in accordance with this. I’ve dabbled in enough things to know when something really isn’t worth persistence and when the interim teeth-gritting is worth the end result. I also have a bit more urgency in the face of life. This has stirred up intense wanderlust on the one hand, and provoked the creation of something of a bucket list of activities on the other. One instant result: a season of learning to ski (or, as it eventually turned out, snowboard in my case), a bruised arse and ego, and a renewed respect for fearless 4 year olds.

Now we all know that the reason skiing is so attractive as an activity can be attributed to one (hypenated) word alone: apres-ski. Think post-exercise altitude-fueled hunger satisfied by a roaring log fire, brandied hot chocolate and rounds of pungent melting cheese. Quite the cozy scene. And quite the opposite from the picture heading up this post which is of a zesty, bright wehani rice and citrus salad. Yet without the former I would never have discovered the latter. Even the best of us start to tire of the cheese and bacon-laden ski resort meals after a while and need something to cleanse the palate, regroup, and reinvigorate the appetite for the next round of fondue. And the Pyramid Bistro in Aspen turned out to be the perfect place for this pick-me-up. Nestled into the top floor of the utterly charming (and dangerously good) Explore Bookshop, the cafe specializes in whole-food oriented dishes, like an amazing kale and shredded butternut squash salad topped with bean-cakes which I washed down with a cucumber and coconut smoothie and some homemade 7-grain bread served with a shocking-green chard pesto. I would transport the cafe to San Francisco in a flash and eat there at least once a week, it was that good. Instead, I went for the next best option and bought a copy of Lorna Sass’s Whole Grains which the cafe had sitting out on a shelf as an exemplary source of inspiration. It has very quickly become one of my go-to books for inventive, nourishing, attractive dishes. The book starts out with a treasury of information on cooking and storing grains of all kinds, from amaranth to wheat berries, which alone is worth the cover price. The second half is packed full of delights building on this foundation, with highlights including a rye berry and smoked trout salad, bulgar and lamb soup, and a brown rice and peanut salad with soy and ginger marinated flank steak, which I fully intended to blog but didn’t stand a chance of surviving long enough to be photographed. I’ll be quite happy to sacrifice myself to making it again soon enough, just for you…

In the meantime this wehani rice and three citrus salad is far from a consolation prize. It’s an unashamed taste-bud titillator, making for a refreshing lunch or a prime candidate for the first course of a larger dinner, especially as it’s so darned pretty. Yet I have to admit that I hesitated before making this salad because of the always off-putting moniker of “fusion” levied at it in the recipe headnotes. Do not fear: the Southwestern pinch of chipotle is what makes this dish so brilliant, gently bringing the citrus high notes back to earth. And if fusion means taking in a bite of soft-as-butter avocado along with the chewy rice and crunchy pumpkin seeds, then sign me up as a fusionist for sure. The original recipe suggests just regular oranges for the salad, but I went for a triple threat citrus mix since we’re fully in the season for it right now and I’ve been looking for an excuse to bring home handfuls of the jewel-like kumquats that are currently popping out on market stalls. They pep up the level of tartness alongside the naval orange juice in the dressing, while slices of blood oranges fan out on top of the dish with their sanguineous flashes of colour. The end result turns out to be the perfect porthole from winter to spring, fully appropriate for this day of vernal equinox. Bring it on.

Three Citrus and Rice Salad
Adapted from Whole Grains: Every Day Every Way by Lorna Sass

Yields 4 appetizer sized portions, or 2-3 lunches

2 cups cooked Wehani, Chinese Black Rice, or long grain brown rice, slightly warm or at room temperature (see note below)
1 cup diced and peeled Naval or Valencia orange segments (1/2 – 1 orange)
1 cup diced and peeled blood orange segments (1 small blood orange)
4-5 kumquats, very thinly sliced
1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice (from about 1/2 orange)
1/4 cup raw unsalted pumpkin seeds, toasted
1 1/2 tsps grated orange zest
1/4 tsp salt, plus more to taste
1/8 tsp ground chipotle
1 ripe Hass avocado, peeled, pitted and diced
4 large lettuce cups or leaves

*Rice notes: Wehani is a red-brown basmati style rice, with some similarities to wild rice. Cook it by rinsing one cup of grains then combining with 2 cups of boiling water and simmering, covered, for about 40-45 minutes until tender. Remove from the heat, fluff with a fork, then cover the pan with a tea towel and replace the lid and leave to steam for a further 5-10 minutes before using. This will yield approximately 3 cups of cooked rice. If you can’t get hold of Wehani rice, which is likely outside of the US since it’s proprietary to Lundberg Farms, you can use Chinese black rice, wild rice or simply long grain brown rice as needed.

In a bowl, combine the rice, orange and blood orange segments (reserving some for decoration), kumquats, orange juice, pumpkin seeds, orange zest, salt and chipotle. Gently fold in the avocado chunks. Taste for seasoning and add a touch more salt if needed.

Place a lettuce cup on each plate and spoon the salad into the cup. Garnish with orange segments if you like.

Getting There

March 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

Normality is within grasp. It’s the fourth day since our visitors left (this being of note since we had visitors for 21 of the 28 days of February). And, newsflash: I can just about imagine wanting to cook properly again! This can only be good for Cakesnail, sadly neglected in these past weeks of dining out or relying on old favourites. While I get back up to speed in the kitchen and in life more generally (tax season! argh!), let me leave you with a quick adaptation of an Ottolenghi recipe that I ate three days in a row last week in a quest for quick and tasty home-made food that: a) didn’t involve trips to the grocery store, b) was warm and filling and c) also light enough to start to counteract some of the damage that three weeks solid of eating out has wrought on the appetite. Set it to one side for when you next hit your health nadir. Or just eat it because it’s darned tasty. I’ll be back to you with something not involving kale soon…

Bean and Carrot Saute
Adapted from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi

Yields two servings

The original version of this recipe pairs swiss chard and carrots with chickpeas. Through a combination of thrift and laziness I made versions with cannellini beans and spinach and carrot on one occasion, and kale and carrot on another. The first time I added a yoghurt topping; other times I ate it plain. Feel free to play around with the template. If you want to use the original suggestion of swiss chard, you’ll need to blanch it first but other greens like kale, spinach and arugula can go straight into the pan. It’s also worth noting that you can easily scale this back to a version for one which is exactly how I cooked it on a couple of occasions – just save the other half of the beans for the next day or for another dish.

2 tbsp olive oil
6 small carrots (or 3-4 regular ones), diced
1 tsp caraway seeds
300g kale leaves, shredded, or a similar amount of spinach (or arugula)
one 400g can chickpeas (garbanzo beans) or cannellini beans
one clove of garlic, minced
one lemon
2 tbsp cilantro/coriander leaf, chopped
1 tbsp mint, chopped
salt and pepper

to garnish:
Greek yoghurt
sumac (optional)
black pepper

Heat the oil over a medium flame in a medium to large saute pan or Dutch oven and add the caraway seeds and diced carrots. Cook for 3-4 minutes, until the carrots begin to soften and take on a bit of colour from the pan. Add the greens. If you are using a hardier green like kale, saute for a couple more minutes before adding the beans. If you are using a more delicate green like spinach or arugula, add the beans at the same time. Once the beans are added, saute for 2-3 minutes more.

Turn the heat down to low and add the garlic, lemon juice, cilantro and mint, a good pinch of salt and a sprinkle of black pepper. Toss gently to combine and remove from the heat. Leave to one side for a minute or two to cool slightly. Taste for seasoning and adjust as necessary.

Spoon out into bowls and, if you like, top with a spoonful of Greek yoghurt and a sprinkling of black pepper and sumac.

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