Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A VERY SPECIAL CHOCOLATE CAKE

Simon, at 17, has a certain sobriety in his eating habits that, genetically, I have yet to trace. He eats almost no vegetables, refuses soups and sauces with chunks of anything in them, he dissects meat and casseroles to remove even a hint of fat or anything remotely foreign with a minutia that would make a forensic scientist proud. And he can turn down dessert with an insouciance that never ceases to astonish me. When he does have a request, it is something simple, coming from his familiar list of likes : a delicate coffee cake, the streusel topping studded only with chocolate chips and walnuts, cranberry muffins, chocolate chip cookies, or a light, not too chocolatey, not too gooey chocolate cake.

I have recipes for richer, denser cakes, but what makes this cake so special is that it is feather light, moist yet very delicate and, as light as it is, it has an intense chocolate flavor. It is so good it has made grown Frenchmen weep. And it is Simon’s favorite.

A VERY SPECIAL CHOCOLATE CAKE


What I love most about this recipe is that it is so easy and quick to put together. The fat is vegetable oil, so no waiting for butter to come to room temperature and as I always have the rest of the ingredients in the house, I can put it together on the spur of the moment. When I want something simple to have on hand for breakfast, I make it in a 9-inch X 2-inch-deep pan, bake it for about 30 minutes, and serve it plain. When I want to make something richer or have an elegant dessert, I bake it in two 7-inch pans for closer to 15 - 20 minutes and sandwich the two layers together with the quick chocolate buttercream and sprinkle the top with powdered sugar.

6 ounces (about 1 1/4 cups/175 grams) flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
5 ounces (just under 3/4 cup/150 grams sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 cup (150 ml) warm milk
2/3 cup (150 ml) vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 325°F (170°C). Oil and line with parchment paper either 1 X 9-inch (23 cm) round cake pan or 2 X 7-inch (18 cm) round cake pans.

Put the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cocoa powder, sugar and cinnamon in a large mixing bowl and whisk to blend. In a separate mixing bowl or a large liquid measuring cup, whisk together the warm milk, the oil, eggs and vanilla.

Now it is simply a question of pouring the wet ingredients into the dry and blending well either with a whisk, a wooden spoon or a hand mixer, though I prefer usng a whisk here. The best method for doing this so you don’t end up with stuff splattered all over your countertop and so you end up with lump-free batter, make a well in the center of the dry ingredients. Pour about a quarter or a third of the liquid ingredients into the well, and with small, brisk circular movements, whisk with just enough of the dry until you have a thick, smooth, lump-free batter in the center. Add some more of the liquid, pull in a bit more of the dry, and briskly whisk again until, aha! your batter is smooth. Continue until all the dry ingredients have been incorporated into your (now) lump-free batter, add any remaining liquid ingredients and give it a go. Pour this batter into your pans and bake until the center of your cake or layers is just firm to the touch, completely cooked through. The cake should start to pull away from the sides of the pan just after it is removed from the oven.

Remove to racks, let cool for about 10 minutes, then turn out onto racks, peel off the parchment paper, flip back upright and let cool completely.

CHOCOLATE BUTTERCREAM FILLING

6 ounces (175 grams) powdered/confectioner’s sugar
3 1/2 tablespoons (50 grams) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2 tablespoons (25 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tablespoons very hot water

Using an electric hand mixer, cream the butter and the powdered sugar together. Add the cocoa powder and the hot water and beat, scraping down the sides as necessary, until well blended and fluffy.

Put one layer of your cake on a cake plate and, using a spatula, spread thickly with the filling. Place the other layer on top of the filling and sprinkle liberally with powdered sugar. Using the spatula eat any remaining frosting left in the bowl. And that’s it! Now enjoy!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

CHICKEN CACCIATORE

CONFESSIONS III: What's an American like you doing....?

Yesterday was one of those afternoons that I decided to cook - here I will clarify that I love to bake. I live to bake. Cooking makes me nervous. I am married to a man who loves cooking, loves great food. Whereas I am the baker, confortable in front of a recipe, where precision is king, he is the true chef. When I market, I go with recipe in hand, or at least an idea of what I want to make, and then I look for the required ingredients. My husband, on the other hand, goes to the market, fearlessly buys only whatever is in season, no shopping list, his mind perfectly unbefuddled by pre-conceived plans, and comes home and cooks - what I consider a free-for-all, what he calls instinct. While I look on in horror, he invents as he goes along, throwing things into a pot, flavoring with a multitude of spices, tossing in whatever is at hand. But though the food-obsessed in me panics, terrified that I won’t end up with an exceptional meal, I always find something fantastic on my plate (along with the tremendous clean-up job in the kitchen). Of course, I do have complete faith in him and have learned never to question him, either at the market or at home. And anyway, I am usually banned from the kitchen as soon as he ties on his apron; I grab a spoon or reach to lower the flame under a pot or, more likely, start sucking in my breath and furrowing my brow and I’m packed off.

Anyway, back to yesterday : after many long years of learning, watching and practice, I have actually come to love those long afternoons spent in slow cooking when I decide to take two or three hours to chop, blend, stir, simmer, recreate a dish (that I will then serve for three or four meals in a row). I may never have JP’s culinary savvy, but by now I can whip together a wicked blanquette, some incredible Indian food and, chez moi, I have been named the Risotto Queen. Yesterday it was Chicken Cacciatore, that beautiful, rich Italian-American specialty. I started early, encouraged by the fact that a dish like this is better after it sits and is reheated. I finished with a fragrant, steaming pot of the stuff and it was only 5:30. So, of course, I had time to make a chocolate cake for dessert (which I will serve up on tomorrow’s blog). It was gobbled up by most everyone here, excepting Mr. Persnickety, who, I have to admit, just had his first installment of braces put on his teeth, but then again, he may only have been looking for an excuse.

CHICKEN CACCIATORE

I remember my friend and college roommate Lyn making this for some special occasion and thinking, at the age of 20, that it was so incredible that anyone could make such an elegant dish! When I finally made it for my French husband for the first time, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, I had decided that I wanted to make him something quintessentially American. The recipe is from Molly O’Neill’s New York Cookbook, a gift from my food-loving, great cooking brother Michael, and I slaved over the stove all afternoon to make it. I proudly served it to him and waited breathlessly for his opinion. He took one mouthful, chewed, swallowed, and said, “Wow, Poulet Basquaise!”.


My slightly altered version :

3 or 4 tablespoons butter -or- same amount anti-cholesterol margarine
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 large onions, diced
2 red bell peppers, stemmed, seeded and diced
1 chicken (3 1/2 to 4 pounds, 2 1/2 kilos), rinsed, patted dry, cut into pieces, extra fat pockets and loose skin removed, or the same in choice pieces (I use only legs and thighs)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups stewed tomatoes
1 1/2 to 2 cups tomato sauce/purée
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground celery
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup dry red wine (whatever you are going to drink with dinner)

Melt the butter/margarine in a large, non-reactive pot over medium heat, then add the olive oil. Dump in the diced onions and red peppers and cook until the onions are ranslucent and the peppers are soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Using a slotted or large spoon, carefully scoop out all the vegetables and transfer to a large bowl. Add the chicken pieces and brown on all sides, 3 minutes per side. Don’t crowd the pieces, and do this in 2 batches if necessary (add more oil if needed).

Return all the chicken pieces and the vegetables to the pot. Add the gralic, stir it all up, and cook for 1 minute. Add the stewed tomatoes, the tomato sauce, bay leaves, oregano, salt, celery and black pepper and stir well. Cover, lower the heat and simmer until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce has thickened, about 40 to 45 minutes.

Slowly pour the wine into the pot, stirring, and allow to cook for another 10 minutes or so until the sauce tastes great and has thickened back up.

Serve over rice or fresh tagliatelle. Any leftover sauce can be reheated and served the next night over pasta.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

BISCOTTI 2 WAYS: Cranberry Pistachio & Chocolate Chip Almond

 LA DOLCE VITA - eating biscotti all day

Clément, my blog site cameraman and webmaster, disappeared yesterday at about the time that the first batch of biscotti came out of the oven and Johey’s incredibly adorable two-and-a-half-month old daughter Klara started screaming hysterically and inconsolably, so I couldn’t finish this installment before I went off to bed. I have wrangled my son into getting involved with this project as 1) I have no idea how to put all this stuff on a blogsite, take photos of what I cook or do almost any of the technical stuff, and 2) after getting his high school diploma (Literary Baccalaureat for someone who doesn’t like to read with a Cinema/Audiovisual Option) and getting off to a brilliant start on an award-studded career in animation, he decided last year to come home, “relax” and rethink his options. So what better way to spend his days than helping mom create a food blog? And soon he will be guest chef here, creating his extasy-inducing World’s Best Tiramisu for us.


BISCOTTI


I love biscotti! Dunked into my hot, mid-morning or mid-afternoon coffee. I know that there is a Jewish version - Mandelbrot, Almond Bread - but I first discovered biscotti in Italy in the form of Cantucci, small almond biscotti served at the end of a meal with a glass of Vino Santo (Holy Wine !?!) for dipping. In fact, they are sold in grocery stores all over Italy in gift-like boxes, a sack of cantucci and a half bottle of Vino Santo, cutely decorated with pictures of the cookies and with a convenient carry handle. In fact, I recently read in Claudia Roden’s amazing The Book of Jewish Food that mandelbrot are also traditionally served with a glass of sweet wine, as well, but who would have known that coming from where I grew up? Sweet wine with cookies after dinner? Too cosmopolitan!

I usually make two different biscotti at the same time, one butter-free-thus-guilt-free, studded with jade-green pistachios and ruby-red dried cranberries, and one butter-rich with mini chocolate chips and whole skinned almonds for the persnickety one who wants only to eat things with chocolate chips.

My recipes come from the Joy of Baking website (love it) and the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion (more like a best friend) with a bit of playing around, increasing the added goodies, replacing shortening - I would have no idea how to go about finding a replacement for Crisco in France - with butter and other flavorings with cinnamon. The first recipe calls for coarsely chopping the pistachios, but I leave them whole. Ditto the almonds in the second recipe. I also find that sprinkling the surface of the loaves with cinnamon sugar before the first baking gives a wonderful homey, fragrant touch.

CRANBERRY PISTACHIO BISCOTTI


2/3 cup (135 grams) sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups (245 grams) flour
3/4 cup shelled, unsalted pistachios
1 cup dried cranberries (can be replaced with dried cherries)
Cinnamon and sugar for sprinkling (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C) and place the oven rack in the center of the oven. I find lining the baking sheets with parchment paper makes life soooo much easier.

Beat the sugar and eggs together in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer on high speed until thick, pale yellow and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in the vanilla extract.

Blend together the flour, baking powder and salt. Add to the egg mixture and blend or beat until combined. Fold in the pistachios and the cranberries.


Transfer the dough to the parchment-lined baking sheet. Form into on loaf or log, about 12 inches long, or two smaller loaves. I prefer two smaller loaves as the biscotti turn out shorter and easier to handle and eat - and the one larger loaf tends not to always cook through. Keep your hands lightly floured as the dough is quite sticky. If making two loaves, leave enough space around each for them to expand. Sprinkle the tops of the loaves with sugar and cinnamon.


Bake for about 25 minutes, or until firm to the tough and lightly golden. Remove from the oven to a rack and let cool for about 10 minutes.

Now for what makes them biscotti - twice baked - transfer to a cutting board and slice the loaves on the diagonal - after slicing off the ends and eating them - making 3/4-inch (2 cm) slices. Line these slices up on your parchment-lined baking sheet and pop back into the oven. Bake for 10 minutes them flip all the cookies and bake for an additional 8 to 10 minutes until lightly browned. Remove from the oven and cool on racks, continuing the process if you couldn’t fit all the biscotti in the oven at once. Biscotti stored in metal cookie tins last forever!

CHOCOLATE CHIP ALMOND BISCOTTI


I must say that I thought that this was the recipe I’ve made before, but as I make it now for the blog, I wonder. They are quite tasty, but I find them rather floury and a bit too crumbly. I added 2 1/2 cups of the flour.

8 tablespoons (1/2 cup, 120 grams) unsalted butter at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 - 3 cups flour
1 cup whole blanched almonds
1/2 - 1 cup chocolate chips or chunks

Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter with the sugar until blended and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing after each until well blended, scraping down the sides as necessary. Beat in the vanilla extract, the baking powder, the salt and the cinnamon. Beat or mix in the flour, one cup at a time, until you have a cohesive, well-blended but sticky dough. Add the nuts and chocolate and blend until well distributed.

Divide the dough into two or three equal pieces and, on the parchment paper with lightly floured hands, form into loaves about 4 inches wide. Leave enough space around the loaves for them to expand.

Bake the loaves for 20 to 25 minutes until the center is firm to the touch and they start to brown around the edges. Remove from the oven to a rack and let cool for about 10 minutes. Lower the oven temperature to 300°F (150°C).

Transfer to a cutting board and slice the loaves on the diagonal - after slicing off the ends and eating them - making 3/4-inch (2 cm) slices. Line these slices up on your parchment-lined baking sheet and pop back into the oven. Bake for 15 - 20 minutes them flip all the cookies and bake for an additional 15 - 20 minutes until lightly browned. Remove from the oven and cool on racks, continuing the process if you couldn’t fit all the biscotti in the oven at once. Biscotti stored in metal cookie tins last forever!

Enjoy biscotti with a cup of coffee or a cold glass of milk. Okay, you could try them with a glass of dessert wine after dinner if you like.

________________________________________________________

CONFESSIONS II or Food For Thought....

My husband thinks that I suffer from Gourmand Syndrome.

Snuggled up in bed with a good book, my husband beside me catching up on the day’s news, Herald Tribune in hand, I hear him make a strangled noise and then the paper is shoved in my direction. “This is what you have, I am sure of it,” he says, more seriously than maybe was called for. The article, which appeared sometime last year, was about Gourmand Syndrome. Most foodies are familiar with Marianne Regard and Theodor Landis’s accidental discovery of this strange and fascinating condition of the food obsessed, and most people who are, like me, passionate about food would be thrilled to consider themselves sufferers. I had rather assumed that my husband was joking, simply pointing out that he felt my obsession had gone beyond the reasonable. But curiously, the more I thought about it, as I read the article and mulled it over a bit, both the cause and the symptoms seem to fit. Enthusiasm, passion doesn’t begin to touch upon my relationship to food. Regard describes this “ consuming passion for food, an inordinate interest in” flavors and eating; but the fervor touches everything food-related : shopping for ingredients, discovering, preparing, cooking, baking, serving and sharing, talking, writing and reading about it as well. I live and breath it, it consumes my thoughts, it is what drives me, what I think and talk about all the time, my normalcy. And he’s wrong, you know. I don’t suffer; I enjoy every minute of it.

Intrigued by the possibilty that we could actually have stumbled upon something, I thought that a bit more research was called for. But unsuspectingly, a distant memory was brought to the surface, and both my husband and I were finally, truly convinced. Regard explains that sudden-onset damage, very often occurring in childhood, to the frontal lobe of the brain such as a stroke, tumor or a trauma - a good knock on the head - seems to cause the transformation into a “gustatory hedonist”, the development of a preoccupation with fine food.

I remember the day when I fell off my new “big” bike at age 8. A couple of the popular guys from my third-grade class challenged me to a race after school. I usually don’t do such things, but either I didn’t want to look like a coward in front of these third-grade cuties or I wanted to prove that my new bike was worth everything that I had claimed it was. Off we went at top speed. Then I lost control of the handlebars, they locked and I flew over them onto my head. I must have passed out briefly, because when I looked up everyone had disappeared, the streets were deserted, and I was left to drag this oversized bike, which I now hated, front wheel locked askew, with a growing lump on my forehead, a mile home. The fact that my mother, to all appearances unconcerned about the very visible damage to my head, then left me with the neighbor while she went out probably did not contribute to my Gourmand Syndrome, but to my 8-year old mind it was the Cherry on top of the Crisis Cake.

I find the coincidence rather curious and, in fact, rather liberating. After all, my cravings for everything food related may simply be out of my control. A medical fact. Why pretend that it doesn’t exist? I know that it is not acceptable in certain company, not always understood by those who love you. But now, proudly wearing my label, my extraordinary obsession now explained, I no longer feel that I have to hide. I can now give free reign to every desire, every whim, succumb to the pleasure of food, without excuses, without embarrassment. My husband still thinks I’m crazy, though he now accepts my need to talk about food, that I start thinking of the next meal before the dishes are even removed from the table, spend days looking for restaurants, markets, specialties while planning a trip - he is in charge of the museum visits - that spending hours in the kitchen mixing, blending, kneading, pouring is my therapy, it soothes and calms, it is sensual and fortifying, my joy, my pleasure.

Don’t get me wrong; I am certainly not trying to impress. My bike accident was certainly nothing to brag about. But what else besides a good thump on the head could have caused my unusual relationship with food? I didn’t come from a home filled with epicurean delights, no mouth-watering odors wafting from the kitchen when we slammed in after a long day at school leading us to a table piled high with homemade treats, no gourmet restaurants lined highway A1A to introduce us to the latest designer cuisine. My mother was no happy homemaker spending her days at the stove thumbing through a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, no culinary enthusiast regaling her husband and four hungry kids with Lucullan feasts. And although I was absolutely fascinated by the Galloping Gourmet - who didn’t think that Graham Kerr wasn’t just the sexiest man on 60’s tv between that British accent and the cooking? - I don’t remember mom once sitting down to watch it with me. Desserts were either prepackaged or came from a mix and sitting down at our dinner table was a lottery; would it be overcooked? watered down? or would it be some scrumptious concoction from a box? On the surface, there seems no rational reason why a girl growing up in the milieu that I did would have been as fascinated with food as I; some mysterious, alien forces must have been at work.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

CHOCOLATE SPONGE CAKE

CONFESSIONS OF A GOURMANDE - Day 1

“Okay, your turn,” they said, as about a dozen pairs of eyes slid in my direction. “Tell us about yourself.” I have never been comfortable talking about myself, but here I was, the center of attention, albeit for just about a minute or two, having to introduce myself to the members of a Businessman’s (person’s) Club that my husband belongs to. Dinner with the Spouses Night.
“Well,” I hesitated, not quite knowing how to explain where I was at this point in my life. “I’ve done lots of things, had lots of careers. Now I stay at home, moral support for a hard-working husband. And I’ve started writing a book.”
“Ah, a book! About what?” Ummm...
“About food. About my relationship with food.”
“Is it a love-hate relationship?” someone asks, imagining, I am sure, a skinny woman battling body image.
“No, just love,” my husband rejoins. “Definitely love.”

Crazy woman, no good! as my husband would say. I am one of the food obsessed. You know the feeling - Friends stare at you goggle-eyed as you rhapsodize about your perfectly-cooked entrée or try and stir up a discussion about the merits of the chef as they are trying to share sailing stories. Or being brushed off as crazy by the fact that you leave for vacation with only restaurant guides packed into your suitcase. Sidelong, uncomfortable glances as you become engrossed in the restaurant menu until you start to sweat and then call over the waiter and demand he describe various dishes in detail before you are capable of being sure of your choice. Days are spent curled up with a pile of good cookbooks or your family begs you to leave the kitchen after a 3-day baking binge. At some point I started to feel like a misfit, like there actually may have been something wrong with me - and I started to resort to watching cooking shows in hiding, purchasing yet another cookbook and smuggling it into my bedroom stuffed under my coat as if to feed a dirty addiction or searching food blogs on-line like an adolescent visiting porn sites after his parents are in bed.

But a recent discovery has changed my life. This will all come out in time, but I have been liberated from those disapproving societal shackles and have decided to join the on-line community of food lovers, sharing stories, recipes, philosophies, explorations and memories.

CHOCOLATE SPONGE CAKE

My first recipe entry for my food blog! I am both excited and nervous. I haven’t quite understood how other people do this. Just dive in? I decided to make something that I have long wanted to do but I just hadn’t come across the right recipe. I have been making plain vanilla sponge cake for years - my recipe is handwritten (and smeared with decades-old cake batter) in a beat up old notebook that I started in college and have been dragging around the world for, oh, let’s just say for a very long time. I make it quite often for my husband who is watching both his waistline and his cholesterol (okay, the recipe has 6 eggs, but NO butter!), and though it calls for folding in beaten egg whites, it is quite simple to make. I decided to doodle around with it and I simply replaced 1/4 cup of the flour for the same amount cocoa powder and it came out beautifully! A bit more dense than the vanilla version and with a chocolate candy bar flavor. And it rose beautifully! It is perfect for breakfast or snacktime!

When I asked my husband how he liked it, he hesitated than said, “Well, it’s spongy. It’s a sponge cake.” Heavy on the innuendo....




1 1/4 cups flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 eggs, separated, preferably at room temperature
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup cold water
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
cream of tartar or salt and lemon juice (see recipe)

In a small bowl, blend the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt.

Separate the eggs. Place the whites in a mixing bowl (plastic is better than glass for beating whites) with either 3/4 teaspoon cream of tartar or, as I do, a few grains of salt and 1 or 2 drops of lemon juice. Either will stabilize your whites. Set aside.

Put the yolks in a very large mixing bowl. Beat them with an electric beater on high speed for a few minutes until very thick and pale yellow. Add the sugar and continue beating for another couple of minutes.

Add the dry ingredients to the yolk/sugar mixture, alternating with the cold water and vanilla (dry-wet-dry-wet-dry), beating after each addition until blended, scraping down the sides as necessary.

Beat the whites until stiff peaks hold (you can reserve a couple of tablespoons of the sugar that you add to the yolks and add them gradually to the whites towards the end, after soft peaks start forming. This will really stiffen the whites).

Delicately fold the whites into the cake batter : begin by folding in about a third of the whites in order to lighten the heavy batter so as not to “break” the whites (knock out the air). Then fold in another third, then the final third. Don’t overdo it or, again, you will knock out too much air.

Pour into an ungreased 10-inch tube pan (preferably with removable bottom). Bake at 325°F (160°C) for 55 - 60 minutes until set. Cool inverted.

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