Happy Birthday to My Man!
Something reminded me this week of the Palazzo Te in Mantua, Italy. The thought suddenly appeared and hung there, suspended in the haziness of time, nagging at me, tugging at my curiosity. I don’t know what made me think of our long ago visit to this stunning monument, husband and I accompanied by our then two very young boys, but it popped into my head and stayed there, begging to be thought of, analyzed, written about. Built and painted between 1532 and 1535 for Federico II Ganzaga, Marquess of Mantua, this building, although rather staid and regal on the outside, is a tour de force of artistry and imagination once one walks through the doors, a remarkable, impressive array of frescos room to room, wall to wall, floor to ceiling, spilling out into one’s visual path and tripping up our expectations. The artists, Benedetto Pagni and Rinaldo Montovano, created something that will last for a long, long time, something imprinted in the minds and memories of so many thousands, not to be easily lost or forgotten, a feat desired by so many.
I remember very little of the city itself, Mantova, Mantua, as long ago as the visit was, but the memory of La Sala dei Giganti, the Room of Giants, within this grand Palazzo, is imprinted in my mind as if it was yesterday. It was a lovely day, sunny yet comfortably cool, and the wide-open space of the approach to the majestic palace was comforting in its grandeur and airiness. Upon entering the Sala dei Giganti, one is struck by the silence and coolness of the room. I have images in my head of columns and beautiful mosaic floors. Eyes glancing up and scanning the walls, straining up towards the ceiling and my breath was swept from my body; Giants and Grotesques tumbled from the walls, out of the skies wreaking havoc and fury among the ruins left trailing in their wake. Pushing, shoving, the room seemed to vibrate under their cries, the crumbling of pillars, the avalanche of rocks and the humans scrambling out of their paths in desperation and fear. The artists had depicted, captured, the struggle between the god Jupiter and the Giants of Ovid who attempted to scale Olympus and claim Jupiter’s throne. Above us, in the center of the magnificent ceiling, Jupiter emerges from the light, powerful yet calm, admired by those encircling him, exuding the power that will vanquish the Giants.
But what stunned me more than the incredible artwork, the imagination and energy of the artists who gave us such an impressive, universal creation, was the graffiti scrawled around the room. Names and dates etched into the walls, tourists and students from all over Europe, from as early as the 16 and 1700s! Four and five hundred years have passed since some young traveler, student, tourist dared scratch his name into the beauty of these walls, and for what? Posterity or simply a good joke? Whether the one or the other, each name left behind, still embedded in the stone and in these paintings, leaves a trace of some living person, each one leaving their mark for years, generations, quite possibly an eternity. Such a small gesture left behind, surely forgotten as they returned home as easily and as quickly as all of the other tiny, ephemeral details of a voyage usually do. Try as I might to understand and visualize the lives of each one, to grab on to something that will give me a peek into what they were thinking, living, doing that day is futile. But it is this that fascinates me, imagining the lives of the long gone and what remains of their existence.
And fascinated by all of this I am. Visits to museums invariably find me pressed up against glass showcases containing bits of jewelry or forks and spoons, mirrors or drinking glasses. I hang back as we stroll through rooms of furniture, arranged just as it was in the time of this King or Queen or simple schoolmarm or factory worker. I breathe in as my gaze shifts around the room and I try so hard to picture those who once lived among these relics, wonder what they thought and did everyday. Yet what for sure does remain except these few scattered objects?
How do we leave our mark? Today is my man’s birthday and we ponder over the rest of our lives, what to do, where to go and we wonder if indeed there is a way to leave a mark somewhere, somehow. Life is fleeting and what remains? A few photographs scattered across the tabletop or tucked into the brittle, yellowing pages of an album? A favorite piece of jewelry handed down across the generations, the story behind this loving token fading away over time? A box full of hand-written recipe cards or a tattered old teddy bear, what will we leave behind? Or maybe a book or a building with our name on it, the fruit of years of our labor, or some recorded act of heroism, still there after we are long gone, begging an unknown public to hold onto our soul and keep it alive? But, after all, do we really need to leave something of ourselves on this earth once we are no longer here, or is it simply selfish, this desire to remain? Or is our time on earth just our own to enjoy, do as we please during this short stay?
Life is fleeting; the sound of voices and laughter, the image of faces fading quickly into time, blown away on the wind with the passage of the years and what is left? A token object held dear, a hand-written letter, our children and our name. Maybe we should try and find some old building somewhere and scratch our names into the stone or wood followed by the date in the hopes that the impression will be found many long years later by some unknown tourists following in our steps, treading the same floors. And these visitors may stop, hesitate, glance quickly around to make sure that they are unwatched as they reach out and brush their fingers over the indentations. And they’ll smile and try and stir up the images of those others, wonder about the sound of their voices, make up a story about their lives before they step back and wander off.
This March 2011 Daring Bakers’ challenge was selected by myself and my friend Ria of Ria’s Collection and we chose a recipe left to me by my own dear father, a Yeast Meringue Coffee Cake. Luscious and light, this is some scrumptious Coffee Cake, the meringue filling melting into the brioche type cake and adding a moistness and delicate sweetness that is utterly perfect. I made two versions: on one I scattered the meringue with chocolate chips and chopped pecans before rolling it up and baking, the original recipe of the challenge. The second I made, halving the dough recipe, had an apple-cinnamon filling, the fruit cooked first in butter and brown sugar, then tossing in a dash of cinnamon and some finely grated orange zest. I blended some more zest along with some cardamom and nutmeg into the dough then drizzled the finished coffee cake with an orange glaze. Apples, as anyone who follows my blog knows, are my husband’s favorite addition to any dessert. I have made him Apple Spice Cake for his birthday, the Apple Flognarde that he requested himself and the Cranberry-Apple Wreath for the holidays that he absolutely adored! He simply loves my apple pies. So when I can bring apples into his life and make him happy, know that I will. And since it is his birthday, the apples have it!
I would like to send these fabulous yeast coffee cakes to Susan of Wild Yeast and her perfect weekly yeast baking event Yeastspotting!
CHOCOLATE MERINGUE COFFEE CAKE
Makes 2 round coffee cakes
For the dough:
4 cups (600 g) flour
¼ cup (50 g) sugar
¾ tsp salt
1 package ( 2 ¼ tsps, 7 g) active dried yeast
¾ cup (180 ml) milk
¼ cup (75 ml) water
½ cup (115 g) unsalted butter softened to room temperature
2 large eggs at room temperature
For the filling:
1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
2 Tbs sugar
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
1 cup (150 g) semisweet chocolate chips or coarsely chopped chocolate
For the meringue:
3 large egg whites at room temperature
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp vanilla
½ cup(100 g) sugar
Egg wash: 1 beaten egg, optional
Cocoa powder and confectioner’s sugar (powdered/icing sugar) for dusting cakes
Prepare the dough:
In a large bowl, combine 1 ½ cups (230 g) of the flour, the sugar, salt and yeast.
In a saucepan, combine the milk, water and butter and heat over medium heat until warm the butter is just melted.
With an electric mixer on low speed, gradually add the warm liquid to the flour/yeast mixture, beating until well blended. Increase mixer speed to medium and beat 2 minutes. Add the eggs and 1 cup (150 g) flour and beat for 2 more minutes.
Using a wooden spoon, stir in enough of the remaining flour to make a stiff dough. Turn out onto a floured surface (use any of the 4 cups of flour remaining) and knead the dough for 8 to 10 minutes until the dough is soft, smooth, sexy and elastic, keeping the work surface floured.
Place the dough in a lightly greased (I use vegetable oil) bowl, turning to coat all sides. Cover (I cover the bowl with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel) and let rise until double in bulk, 30 – 60 minutes. The rising time will depend on the type of yeast you use.
In a small bowl, combine the cinnamon and sugar for the filling. You can add the chopped nuts to this if you like, but I find it easier to sprinkle on both the nuts and the chocolate separately.
Once the dough has doubled, make the meringue:
In a clean mixer bowl – I use a plastic bowl so the egg whites adhere to the side (they slip on glass) and you don’t end up with liquid remaining in the bottom – beat the eggs whites with the salt, first on low speed for 30 seconds, then increase to high and continue beating until foamy. Add the vanilla then start adding the ½ cup sugar, a tablespoon at a time as you beat, until very stiff, glossy peaks form.
Make the Coffee Cakes:
Line 2 cooking sheets with parchment paper.
Punch down the dough and divide in half. On a lightly floured surface, working one piece of the dough at a time, roll out the dough into a 20 x 10-inch (about 51 x 25 ½ cm) rectangle. Spread half of the meringue evenly over the rectangle up to about 1/2-inch (3/4 cm) from the edges. Sprinkle half of the cinnamon-sugar evenly over the meringue followed by half the chopped nuts and half of the chocolate chips/chopped chocolate.
Now, roll up the dough jelly-roll style, from the long side. Pinch the seam closed. Very carefully transfer the filled log to one of the lined cookie sheets, seam side down. Bring the ends of the log around and seal the ends together, forming a ring (I tucked one end into the other and pinched to seal).
Using kitchen scissors, make cuts along the outside edge at 1-inch (2 ½ cm) intervals. I made them rather shallow and realized that the next time I can make the cuts much deeper.
Repeat with the remaining dough, meringue and fillings.
Cover the 2 coffee cakes with plastic wrap and allow them to rise again for 30 to 60 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).
Brush the tops of the coffee cakes with the egg wash. Bake in the preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes until risen and golden brown.
Remove from the oven and slide the parchment paper off the cookie sheets onto the table. Very gently loosen the coffee cakes from the paper with a large spatula and slide the cakes off onto cooling racks. Allow to cool.
Just before serving, dust the tops of the coffee cakes with both cocoa powder and confectioner’s sugar. These are best eaten fresh, the same day or the next day.
RESULTS: Beautiful to put together and gorgeous out of the oven, the cake was brioche-like without being sweet and the meringue miraculously melted into the dough leaving behind just a hint of sweetness. Don’t scrimp on either the chopped nuts or chocolate as the crunch and the flavors are the focal point of this tender, moist, outrageously delicious coffee cake.
For the APPLE ORANGE MERINGUE COFFEE CAKE
I made one coffee cake for these quantities, but can easily be used for two.
Add to the dough:
Finely grated zest of one orange
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
2 Tbs (30 g) unsalted butter
6 Tbs brown sugar
3 - 5 medium sized apples*, peeled, cored and sliced
1 tsp finely grated orange zest
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground cardamom
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
*use pie apples that will hold their shape even after cooking, slightly tangy, sweet tasty apples. I’ve used Jubilee as well as Golden for pies, and thought they hold their shape and are the perfect texture when baked, they are somewhat bland in flavor to me. I use Reines des Reinettes in France which cook down the same as Goldens but have much more flavor, sweet and just tart enough. Use 5 apples for 2 cakes, 3 – 5 for one depending on how much filling you want. Know that since the filling is rather moist, the inside of the cake won’t be as fluffy as for the chocolate-pecan version.
Melt the butter in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add the brown sugar and cook, stirring, until you have a thick, grainy sauce, about 1 minute. Add the apple slices, tossing until all the slices are pretty much coated with the sugar-butter. Cook until the apples are tender and the sauce has been reduced to a glaze, about 7 minutes. Mix in the grated zests and the spices and toss until the apples are evenly coated. Cool the filling at least 30 minutes or up to 3 hours.
1 cup powdered sugar
1 1/2 to 2 Tbs fresh-squeezed orange juice
Once the coffee cake has cooled, mix the powdered sugar with 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice. Stir until well blended and a thick glaze forms. Drizzle over the cake.