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.