Plate Food

June 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

I have a bit of a habit of gravitating towards food that can be served in a bowl. Curries, stews, grain salads, pasta dishes: there’s a weeknight comfort in diving in with naught but a fork and dragging it through the layers in search of a cross section of goodies. You can serve the fanciest fancy-pants food in a bowl – the kind that you might have slaved over for three days – and the bowl somehow peels away the pretension and gives everyone permission to dive in and just enjoy it. You can sit cross-legged in your favourite chair and softest yoga pants clutching your bowl-shaped substitute hot water bottle, barely needing to divert your attention from that night’s film to scoop up spicy mouthfuls. My name is Andrea and I’m a bowl food addict.

That said, when circumstances force you out of that culinary comfort zone it can lead to great things. I had been ruminating over the second vegan Tuesday menu all week and kept coming back to black bean cakes: we held cherished memories of a dish at Millennium composed around some chili-flecked patties that I was keen to recreate. I had a glimmer of an idea to serve them – in a bowl of course – on a summery bed of succotash. It would be the perfect harbinger of that night’s summer solstice. But the market had other ideas: not a corn kernel in sight and if there had been fresh lima beans I was at least three hours too late to participate in the fight over them. Instead I spied a basket of delicate pea shoots, tendrils climbing and curling over the side in a seeming bid for freedom, and I liberated a few handfuls, destined for a brief saute and a squeeze of lemon. More nervously I chose a heavy, mis-shapen Cherokee purple tomato, the size of my palm. While not yet quite yielding that rounded heirloom tomato flavour that demands nothing but a slick of olive oil and a piece of mozzarella in accompaniment, it was more than tasty enough to form the basis of a pico de gallo. I had ended up with three separate elements but which together were plenty more than the sum of their parts. The crispy, cornmeal-studded edges of the bean cakes yielded to a soft and warm interior, whose earthy tones were only emphasized by their contrast with the bright spring greens and the piquant salsa. I tasted each individually, in every permutation, then finally piled up together. I guess there’s something to be said for the plate after all.

Black Bean Cakes with Pea Tendrils and Pico de Gallo

Serves 2 but is very easily doubled

The bean cake recipe is adapted from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

For the bean cakes:
1 tbsp sunflower or vegetable oil
about 1/4 onion or a shallot, finely diced
1 14oz (400g) can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 tsp chipotle chile in adobo or ground chipotle chile (see note)
1/2 cup chopped tomatoes (about 1 small tomato)
1 tsp ground cumin
a good handful chopped cilantro (coriander)
juice of 1 lime
vegetable oil for frying
flour and fine cornmeal for dusting

For the pea tendrils:
2-3 handfuls pea tendrils (or an alternative salad green if not available; use whatever is in season and looks good)

For the pico de gallo:
1 large ripe tomato
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
2 serrano chiles, finely diced (or jalapeno if you prefer less heat)
about 2 tbsp finely diced white onion or shallot
1 tbsp chopped cilantro (coriander)
juice of 1 lime

* Note on chipotle chiles in adobo sauce. You can get these in cans in Latin groceries; Rainbow Groceries and Whole Foods in San Francisco also stock them. The chiles come whole and you need to puree them along with their sauce in a blender or food processor until smooth. You then end up with an incredibly potent and smoky spice which you should use only in small quantities. Keep the remainder in a jar in the fridge and use to season eggs, grits or in a chile con carne. If you can’t find chiles in adobo where you are, just use some ground chipotle chile instead (or, at a push, smoked paprika).

1. Begin by making the black bean patties. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a large skillet or saucepan over high heat. Add the onion and saute for 4-5 minutes, or until soft and translucent. Add the beans, chile, tomatoes, lower the heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring from time to time. You might need to add a little water from time to time if the pan looks to be drying out too much.

2. Once the beans are soft, drain any excess liquid and roughly mash them – you should be able to do this with the back of a wooden spoon. If you want a smoother texture you can puree them, but I like to leave chunks of beans in the cakes. Add the cumin and cilantro to the beans and then add salt and lime juice to taste. Refrigerate the mix for at least 15 minutes, then form into cakes that are about 1/2 inch thick and 3 inches in diameter. This quantity of beans should yield 6 cakes of this size. Dust the patties with flour and place on parchment or wax paper. Return them to the refrigerator until ready to use.

3. While the bean mix or the patties are sitting in the refrigerator, make the pico de gallo. Dice the tomato and combine with the chopped garlic, chopped onion or shallot, diced chiles, cilantro and a good pinch of salt. Add the lime juice and check for seasoning – you might want to add more lime or salt at this point, to taste. Let sit to one side at room temperature for at least 20 minutes for all the flavours to combine.

4. Remove the bean cakes from the fridge and heat enough oil in a heavy skillet to coat the bottom generously – you want about a 1/4 inch of oil in the pan to prevent the cakes from sticking. Dust the cakes with cornmeal then fry over medium heat until they form a crust – about 10 minutes on each side.

5. When the cakes are a couple of minutes from being ready, heat a tablespoon olive oil in a skillet and add the pea tendrils. Toss with the oil just until the tendrils turn vibrant green but before they really start to wilt – this will take a minute or two at the most. Remove from the heat, squeeze in a little lemon juice and add a pinch of salt.

6. Serve the bean cakes alongside the greens and a spoonful of pico de gallo. Put the rest of the pico on the table so people can help themselves to more.


An Ode to Brisket, In Pictures

June 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

Last weekend, we bought some meat. 7ish pounds of beef brisket, to be more precise.

We rubbed it with a mighty pungent combination of spices: salt, pepper, cayenne, chili and garlic powder.

This turns out to be a bit messy.

After the meat had sat for an hour, to let all those delicious spices do their work, it was lovingly placed on our little Weber kettle bbq, where it was destined to spend the next 8 hours or so.

This gives you lots of time to make nice things to go alongside the brisket. Like Dr Pepper bbq sauce.

We were worried that there might not be enough meat (cough), so we added a pound of pork belly to some beans.

The beans also cooked for a really long time, until the sugars and sauce and pork had formed a thick sauce. These weren’t your Heinz baked beans, oh no sir.

Finally, the meat was ready and everyone was happy. It tastes even better off paper plates, with dividers.

That bit on the top, by the way: that’s not fat, it’s flavour.

The end bits are especially tasty it turns out. The next day we ate them in tacos. I think we will be making brisket again soon.

All the recipes were adapted from the June/July 2011 issue of Saveur:

Dr Pepper BBQ sauce
BBQ baked beans

The Time is Now

June 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Once upon a time, well, just about 13 months or so ago to be more precise, Cakesnail was becoming slightly more than a twinkle of an idea. I was taking occasional pictures in the kitchen and had probably already dedicated three or four notebooks (my minimum notebook count for any single task) to scribbles and lists of ingredients and recipes. There was a warmer than usual May evening where the apartment was all mine and I put on whatever album I had on repeat at that time, picked up an affirming bottle of wine, and set to making an asparagus and halloumi salad with oven roasted tomatoes and basil oil dressing from the first Ottolenghi book. It seemed, at the time, delightfully indulgent as a dinner for one: the tomatoes requiring an hour of roasting time, the vegetables various separate stages of blanching and grilling, the food processor to be pulled out for the basil oil dressing. The kitchen door stood open even as the fog had finally pushed past Tank Hill and begun to reach its chilling wispy fingers through our neighbourhood but the wine was warming and the salad everything I had hoped for: verdant and tangy, with the salty cheese sitting perfectly alongside the char of the vegetables. It was a nice evening.

When, several months later, I was finding some kind of blogging rhythm, that salad seemed to haunt me. I had some decent pictures of it and it felt like just the kind of food I wanted to represent on the site: simple and ingredient-driven but packed full of flavour. But there was one big problem: the salad is utterly reliant on the moment in the season where asparagus overlaps with basil and cherry tomatoes to be at its best and by this point that seasonal moment was far gone, asparagus but a hazy memory blocked out by corn and early apples and gnarled heirloom tomatoes. But there I found myself, last week, with all the components once again to hand and I gleefully set to making the salad: roasting the tomatoes, char-grilling the vegetables, blitzing up the dressing. It was a much cooler evening and much wine had been taken the previous night so this time we sipped sparkling water, mine perfumed with a lemongrass simple syrup, and the music was a touch quieter. The salad was still pretty perfect.

Asparagus and Halloumi Salad with Oven-Dried Tomatoes and Basil Oil
Adapted from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

Serves 2 (with leftover tomatoes and basil oil, or just double the quantities of the asparagus, zucchini and cheese for 4 servings)

Although there is quite a bit of preparation to be done here, once you have the tomatoes and basil oil on hand the rest of the salad comes together pretty quickly. You could make both of those components in advance if you wanted to, or reserve the leftovers either to make the dish again or for other uses: I like the tomatoes and oil tossed through some cous-cous or pasta with a few chopped olives added or some feta crumbled on top for instance.

The original recipe calls for manouri cheese. Halloumi is more readily available but if you can find manouri, by all means try it.

350g/12oz (about one 1 pint tub) cherry tomatoes (this will make about double the amount you need for this salad for 2)
plenty of olive oil
12 asparagus spears
1 zucchini (courgette)
100g halloumi cheese
15g arugula (rocket)
sea salt and black pepper

for the basil oil (this makes about double the amount you need for this salad for 2):
75ml olive oil
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
25g basil leaves
pinch of salt
1/4 tsp black pepper

1. Begin by making the tomatoes. Preheat the oven to 170C/340F and line a baking tray with parchment paper. Halve the cherry tomatoes and toss in a bowl with 3 tablespoons of olive oil and some salt and pepper. Spread the tomatoes on the lined baking tray, skin side down, and roast in the oven for about 50 minutes to an hour or until they are semi-dried. You can leave them a bit longer if you want them especially wrinkled or a bit less if you want them softer: either way works fine. Remove from the oven and leave to one side to cool. If you are making the tomatoes in advance or will have leftovers, once they are cooled you can transfer them to a small jar and store them in the fridge for up to a week. If you are keeping them for more than a day or two, add extra oil to the jar to cover the tomatoes.

2. Next, make the basil oil. Blitz all the ingredients in a blender or food processor until smooth. Transfer to a jar if you are making the oil in advance. You should keep it in the fridge but remove to return to room temperature before using.

3. Trim the tough bases of the asparagus (one way to do this is just to bend them and they should snap at the dividing point between the woody part and the more tender stem). If your asparagus is especially thick and chunky you might need to peel any remaining stringy skin from the bottom inch or two of the stems but the more slender stalks can just stay as they are. Bring a large pan of water to the boil and blanch the asparagus for about 4 minutes. Drain and refresh under cold water or in an ice bath to stop the asparagus from cooking further: make sure it is completely cold. Drain again then transfer to a bowl and mix with about 1 tablespoon of olive oil and salt and pepper.

4. Prepare the zucchini by slicing it very thinly lengthwise. I use a simple vegetable peeler for this but if you have a mandolin, this would be a good time to pull it out. Mix the ribbons with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and salt and pepper.

5. Place a ridged griddle pan on high heat and leave it there for a few minutes (while the pan is heating you might want to take the chance to turn on your extractor fan and open the windows as the next part can get smoky if your pan is truly hot). Grill the zucchini and asparagus, leaving for about a minute before turning to get nice char marks on them from the pan. You will probably need to do this stage in batches to prevent overcrowding and to allow the vegetables room to char. Remove to a bowl or plate and keep to one side for the moment.

6. Slice the halloumi in pieces of about 1cm thickness. Put a frying pan or skillet over medium high heat and place the halloumi slices into the dry pan. They will take about 1-2 minutes per side – you want to find the balance between leaving them alone to brown and taking care that they don’t burn, as they go from brown to burnt quickly.

7. Serve the salad by arranging pieces of asparagus, zucchini, tomatoes, cheese and arugula either on one large serving platter or on individual plates, so that all the components are on show. Drizzle with the basil oil to your preference and serve.

I Am Not a Vegan (Unless it’s a Tuesday)

June 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

Ah, the V word. While vegetarianism has become more than acceptable – almost trendy – veganism persists in carrying baggage of the hairy hippy, knit your own cashew cheese, variety. It is, to be fair, a lifestyle for the most committed, as I discovered while standing by a market stall last week, only able to think up dinners that involved cheese, or eggs, or fish. Imagine doing that every single day, for every single meal. And it’s not a lifestyle I would dream of taking on personally: while I have a lot of respect for vegan philosophy, I believe in the benefits of biodiversity and omnivorism a la Pollan. But from a culinary point of view, veganism fascinates me. In the wrong hands, vegan food is bland and unrelentingly wholesome: squeeky almost. But with care and a pinch of inventiveness it showcases produce as well if not better than any other cuisine, playing around with texture combinations and teasing out clever layerings of flavours. This is why some of my favourite places to eat in the Bay Area are either vegan or vegan-friendly: the sassy and spicy vegan Mexican at Gracias Madre, the mind-blowingly inventive Millennium and now, as of last weekend, the omnivorous Gather in Berkeley, where around half the menu is vegan, the other half including contrarily a burger and a bacon and egg pizza. It was like I had found my soulmate. A kale “caesar” salad with almond “parmesan” (you have to put up with a lot of quotation marks when it comes to vegan menus) rocked my world and completely outshone the said brunch pizza. On the dinner and lunch menus there’s a vegan “charcuterie” board which has been highly lauded: I can’t wait to try it.

It was over the Gather brunch that I was inspired to commit to cooking a vegan dinner once a week. I want to play around with the ways to get those savoury, satisfying, mid-palate flavours into food without having to rely on cheese or meat, where they abound. I’ll post the resultant dinner/recipe each week and we’ll see how it goes, and for how long. One of the best ways to coax that savoury roundedness into vegetables is through the use of Japanese or Chinese flavourings, especially tamari, shoyu or other soy sauces. At the farmer’s market, once I was past the almost irresistible draw of doing something with peas, favas and ricotta, my eye was caught by a pile of beautiful, flowering baby bok choy leaves. I grabbed several handfuls, as well as a bunch of pungent onion flowers and some bulbous garlic and knobbly ginger. The resultant stir-fry, peppered with sesame seeds and served over rice, could not have been improved by meat, fish, cheese, eggs or yoghurt. Vegan Tuesdays are on, until further notice.

Sesame Bok Choy Stir-Fry

Serves 2

1 cup rice
1 tbsp sesame seeds
2 tbsp sunflower or vegetable oil
1 tsp sesame oil (optional)
2 cloves garlic and an equivalent amount of ginger – about 1 inch, both finely diced
around 3 cups/3 large handfuls bok choy or another Asian green like tatsoi; broccoli rabe would also work.
2 tbsp soy sauce – preferably tamari or shoyu
onion flowers (optional) or spring onions

Start by preparing rice as per your preferred method. We use a rice cooker, which since we eat an awful lot of rice is worth its place in our kitchen, but prior to that we used the absorption method: take 1 cup of rice, toast briefly in a small slug of oil in a small pan, add 1.5 cups water (for white rice; 2 cups for brown), bring to a boil, cover and reduce to a simmer for around 20 minutes, or until the water is absorbed. Resist the temptation to check it until the full 20 mins are up. If the water is absorbed, then fluff the rice very gently with a fork, cover the pan with a clean tea-towel and replace the lid. Set to one side, off the heat, so that the rice steams and fluffs for around 5 minutes.

When your rice is about 5 minutes away from being ready, start the stir fry. Heat a wok over medium high heat and add the sesame seeds to the dry pan. Toast for about 1 minute, shaking the pan from time to time and keeping a close eye on the seeds. If they start to pop or brown, remove the pan from the heat momentarily and add the oil.
Add the sunflower oil and sesame oil if using and swirl to coat the seeds. Turn the heat up slightly and add the garlic and ginger, moving them both quickly around the pan to prevent browning. Cook for about 1 minute to allow them to flavour the oil, then add the bok choy. Stir frequently for about a minute, coating with the oil and other ingredients, then add 1 tbsp of the soy sauce and stir to coat. Place a lid on top of the wok to allow the greens to steam for a minute or two (I use either the lid from a large casserole pan or the lid from a bamboo steamer for this purpose). Remove the lid and continue moving quickly around the pan for another minute or two, until the greens are tender and a bit wilted. Add the remaining soy sauce and onion flowers or spring onions if using and cook together for a final minute.

Serve, piping hot, over rice.

Life After Chocolate

June 14, 2011 § 1 Comment

There was a birthday dinner, several years ago now, where I ordered a dessert that I recall as arriving in the shape of a teardrop and comprising a chocolate mousse enclosed in a crisp chocolate shell and possibly even sitting on a base of chocolate sponge. It wasn’t my birthday and Ollie, indignant at his beautiful but clearly inferior fruit crumble or similar, invoked two new statutes there and then: the birthday rule, which means that the celebrant is allowed to commandeer any part of a birthday meal should it be to his or her preference; and the chocolate rule, which states that if there is a chocolate dessert option on a menu, it should take precedence over other options. The birthday rule is still going strong but it’s fair to say that both of us, chocoholics though we remain, have loosened up a lot on the latter rubric. Nowadays I more often seek out desserts where fruit is the star and I prefer my chocolate in purer forms, separate from meals: a couple of squares of 70% as an afternoon pick-me-up, a mug of decadent, warming Venezuelan-spiced hot chocolate, perfectly petite fondant-filled chocolates while watching afternoon black and white movies (especially when gifted from somewhere like Burdick’s – thank you Pablo!).
When it comes to after-dinner treats, it might just be that the fruits of California are too difficult to resist. Almost four years into West Coast life and I’ve found the seasonal rhythm that our weather denies through the markets. Late spring is characterized not only by abundant strawberries and rhubarb but the build of anticipation for sweet, juicy summer peaches and plums, pluots, apriums and every other combination possible. And when cherries recently hit the stands I scooped them up by the bagful, knowing their availability to be ephemeral and all the more sweet for that. In our house there is only really one destination for cherries, other than straight from the bag, as they come: the elegant clafoutis, where the deep garnet gems are cradled in a vanilla-flecked custard, baked until it puffs softly. I’ve tried many clafoutis recipes and have never had a failure, so simple is the dish, but this year I have fallen hard for the version from Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson’s Tartine. This is hardly surprising since the bread pudding with seasonal fruits that is a constant at their Mission cafe is pretty much my favourite thing to eat in the whole city and features the same caramelized custard flavours that distinguish their clafoutis from the rest. The trick is the addition of a sprinkling of sugar once the custard is almost baked and then a final blast in a super-hot oven to brown the sugars. The recipe yields a pretty sizable dessert, which makes it perfect for entertaining: it’s also, in my opinion, much nicer at room temperature than hot which means you can make it ahead of a dinner with minimal stress. If you have leftovers, it’s also pretty fine at breakfast time. This year, so far, there have been no leftovers.

Cherry Clafoutis
Adapted from Tartine by Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson

Yields around 8 servings (i.e. 4 plus seconds)

2 cups (500ml) whole milk
3/4 cup (150g) sugar
1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped
pinch of salt
3 large eggs
1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp (50g) plain flour
2 cups cherries, pitted* (about 1lb or 450g unpitted weight; 13oz or 380g pitted weight)
2 tbsp sugar (50g) for topping

Preheat the oven to 220C/425F and lightly butter a 25cm/10inch ceramic quiche mold or pie dish. Spread the halved cherries evenly across the base of the dish.
Combine the milk, sugar, vanilla seeds and salt in a small saucepan. Place over a medium heat and stir to dissolve the sugar until the mix is just under a boil.
While the milk mixture is heating, whisk the eggs and flour together in a heatproof bowl until smooth.
Remove the saucepan from the heat. You are going to combine the hot milk mixture into the egg mixture and you have to do this very gradually to prevent the eggs from scrambling. Start off by tempering the egg mix by adding a very small amount of the hot milk, whisking constantly as you do so. Once combined, add a small ladleful of milk, whisking all the time. Continue to add the milk to the eggs by the ladleful until all the milk mix is added and you have a smooth custard.
Pour the mixture over the cherries in the prepared dish. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the custard is just set in the middle and slightly puffed and browned around the outside. Remove the clafoutis from the oven and increase the temperature to 260C/500F. Evenly sprinkle the sugar over the top of the clafoutis. Return to the oven for 5-10 minutes to caramelize the sugar – keep a close eye on it as it will darken quickly.
Let the clafoutis cool on a wire rack for at least 15 minutes before slicing and serving. I like my clafoutis lukewarm or at room temperature. You can also refrigerate it once cool and serve the next day – just bring it back to room temperature before serving.

This is what it looks like

June 9, 2011 § 3 Comments

It’s all to easy to misrepresent your own kitchen and cooking on a food blog. Pictures of neatly measured nuts and grains or prettily plated cake slices belie the everyday realities of pinches and handfuls added on the fly, spatters on the wall and, moreover, disasters. It’s a fiction of the food media world in which I suddenly feel complicit. If you had been in my kitchen a couple of Friday evenings ago, this is what you would have seen. A paella pan with a single burnt spot where it had lingered over a too-small hob for too long. A can of tomatoes half-spilled on the floor. A single piece of slightly undercooked chicken thigh (oh the shame) removed from a plate and set quietly to one side. Cooking is not always, indeed rarely, neat and tidy and sometimes a single dish can become the recipient of all stored-up bad kitchen karma. For me (this time) it was a paella and perhaps a touch of overconfidence. I had had a run of good results, some of them – wait for it – without recipes, and was pretty sure I could cook a more than acceptable paella. I used to live in Spain goddammit and I knew where to buy a paella pan. What more does the eager cook need? A few things, it turned out. A diffuser for the hob to cook more than a mere three inch spot on the bottom of the 15 inch pan I had proudly carted home with visions of weekly paella parties. To have tried the recipe before and figured out better spicing and salting proportions. Having remembered that I cook really terribly when also trying to entertain people around our table which also constitutes my main prep surface and that the pinnacle of this is having friends round who had never been for dinner before, with an adorably distracting 1-and-a-half year old in tow.

One fewer glass of wine while getting the appetizers on the table would probably have helped too.

In any case you will have to wait for my paella recipe since although the end result looked pretty and was far from inedible, it certainly isn’t yet ready for publication here or anywhere else. And I really want to tell you a bit about my year in Spain, formative in so many ways, culinary and beyond. But sometimes you just have to stand up and admit that not all recipes work out, that not all stories are ready to be told, and that most kitchens are messy, unpredictable places. Still, among the chaos, there’s always bread. And so I leave you with a humble formula that is so simple as to hardly be a recipe at all: the classic Catalan bread with tomato, salt and oil. A staple on the Northeastern Iberian table this bread is never a centerpiece and yet fully deserving of this understudy moment in the spotlight. When all else fails in your kitchen – and it will at some point – rub some tomato and garlic on bread, top it with a pinch of salt that would make a cardiologist’s eyes water, drizzle oil over, and top up everyone’s glass. Things are fine as they are, mess, mistakes and all.

Pa amb tomaquet (bread with tomatoes)

Olive Oil

Take bread of whatever kind you have around – sweet baguette is perfect but any mild-flavored loaf is fine (avoid sourdough if possible as it’s a touch too pungent here) – and cut into individual pieces. You can toast it at this point if you like, or leave it as it is depending on the freshness of the bread and your own preferences. Slice garlic cloves in half and rub the cut side on the top side of the bread. Slice tomatoes in half or quarters and rub on top of the garlicked bread so that each piece takes on the juices and some pulp of the tomatoes. The quantity of tomatoes will depend on how much juice they yield – just be sure that each piece takes on a reddish-pink tinge and some pips. Sprinkle with sea salt – and be generous. Finish each piece with a drizzle of olive oil.

Consider the Croissant

June 7, 2011 § 2 Comments

There are foods worth learning to perfect. Others less so. The item “learn to make croissants” has persisted in appearing on my ever-expanding list of goals for a couple of years now. But it might just be time to scrub it out and focus precious efforts elsewhere. A good croissant is priceless: a crisp crust – baked just shy of dark brown – yielding to a pale golden, butter-moist, pillow-soft interior. Hunting down an exceptional croissant might require a modicum of effort but, let’s face it, finding a better than good crescent pastry is straightforward enough thanks to its canonical place in French patisserie and the centrality of such techniques in any kind of culinary training. In other words, there’s almost always going to be someone nearby who can make a croissant better than I ever will (without giving up the day job to become a pastry chef: another previous list-item of which I have since thought better). More than anything, I can’t imagine ever living in any place without a good pastry-offering-cafe within stumbling distance: such locales are central to my wellbeing and productivity. So the flakes of that perfect crust that persist in working their way in between the keys of my laptop will continue to come from someone else’s kitchen until further notice.

There are other less ubiquitous sweet treats that should come with a waiver, presenting, as they do, the acute danger of acquiring an addiction that hangs on the whim of a chef. One bored Wednesday in the test kitchen can spell death for your twice a week financier fix as some new cake on the block muscles it out of the way. And this is how I recently came to be making an arborio rice cake spiked with madeira, inspired by a similar creation erratically available from local coffee purveyors Blue Bottle. The fragrant loaf had long been a fixture on my mental cake and cappuccino map of San Francisco and has persisted as a craving even since our previously slightly sketchy block has exploded into a hopping “micro-hood” where baked goods now abound close to home: retro-chic lemon bars and whoopie pies, quadruple chocolate cookies as big as your palm, scones flecked with seasonal fruit and cocoa nibs. But none of these fill quite the rice cake-shaped niche and so I set to making good use of that time now free from the planning of croissant making (yes, I know) to find a good home-made version.

The Blue Bottle Ur-loaf is always moist, not overly sweet, and perfumed with vin santo. I contemplated plucking up courage to ask for the secret formula until discovering with cowardly glee a recipe in Marcella Hazan’s classic Italian cookbook for a traditional Bolognese rice cake which seemed more than close enough to warrant an attempt. Apparently this cake is a staple around the Easter table in Bologna and the egg-dominated loaf certainly conveys a feel of spring festivity, although it would be equally at home on a foggy afternoon or as part of a summer brunch platter. You start out by making a gloupy rice pudding which, once cooled, is folded into a simple egg batter along with flaked almonds and candied peel. There’s no leavening apart from the egg and the resultant cake is very dense but with its moisture preserved through the milk from the pudding and the final soaking in liquor. Hazan suggests rum; I wanted to use vin santo in my quest for the Blue Bottle flavour but for reasons of cost and convenience used some madeira we had lingering in the cupboard. The cake is tightly wrapped in foil and left to mature for at least 24 hours and ideally longer: I’d suggest having alternative treats on hand to distract during the period for optimum results. And the taste-test: well, it wasn’t an exact replica of the Blue Bottle cake but in the end that was fine. It was delicious and it was my own.

Bolognese Rice Cake
Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

1 quart (950ml) whole milk
¼ tsp salt
2-3 strips of lemon peel, skin only with white pith removed
1 ¼ cups (185g) cane sugar
1/3 cup (75g) risotto rice (Arborio or Carnaroli)
4 eggs plus 1 yolk
½ cup (60g) almonds (blanched and chopped, or see instructions below for blanching your own)
1/3 cup (60g) chopped candied citron
butter for smearing the pan
Fine, dry, unflavored breadcrumbs
2 tbsp madeira, vin santo or rum

To blanch your own almonds: take your almonds, which should be shelled but with the skin on, and drop them into a pan of boiling water. Drain after two minutes, enclose them in a damp towel, and rub briskly for a minute or so. Open up the cloth, remove the almonds whose skins have been removed and repeat the rubbing until all are peeled clean. For any stragglers you should be able to pull the skins off easily. Chop roughly with a knife to pieces about the size of a grain of rice.

Put the milk in a saucepan along with the salt, lemon peel and sugar and bring to a moderate boil. As soon as the milk starts to boil, add the rice and stir it quickly with a wooden spoon. Reduce the heat so the milk mixture cooks at the lowest of simmers and continue to cook for 2 ½ hours, stirring from time to time. The mixture will become dense and pale-brown in colour when done. If the lemon peel hasn’t dissolved, remove the pieces, and set the mush aside to cool.

Preheat the oven to 350F. Prepare a loaf pan or square cake pan that holds around 6 cups in volume (approx 1.5 litres): smear the bottom and sides of the pan generously with butter. Sprinkle the buttered pan with breadcrumbs, then turn the pan over and tap out any excess.

Beat the 4 eggs and the yolk in a large bowl until evenly blended. Add the cooled rice mush, beating it into the mix one spoonful at a time. Add the chopped almonds and candied peel, stirring them into the mix gently until well combined. Pour the mix into the prepared pan.

Place the pan on the middle rack of the preheated oven and bake for 1 hour, or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.

As soon as you remove the pan from the oven, pierce the cake all over with a fork or skewer and drizzle the madeira or alternative liquor over it. Leave to cool to lukewarm in the pan, then turn out the cake and leave to cool fully on a wire rack. Once cool, wrap the cake tightly in foil and leave to mature. You should leave the cake for at least 24 hours for the flavours to mingle and deepen, ideally 2-3 days longer.

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