Wednesday, March 30, 2011

NO-KNEAD OLIVE BREAD

A PICKLE A SCHMICKLE: IT’S ALL A MATTER OF TASTE

Except the vine, there is no plant which bears a fruit of as great importance as the olive.
- Pliny


It must have been our Eastern European Jewish culture, but we were an olive and pickle-loving family. Our refrigerator was always overflowing with glass jars chock full of briny things of every type and kind: olives green and black, thick, crunchy slices of green tomatoes, chilly, crispy sour kraut, spicy hot peppers and tiny cocktail onions. And the pickles! Half-sour, dill, tiny sweet gherkins and those crinkle-cut hamburger slices, just sweet enough with that sour afterbite. Chips, slices, wedges, spears, halves, whole and even relish, we just couldn’t get enough, or so it seemed. Scoops of olives eaten like candy graced the dinner table, or the perfect buffet item, each glistening orb of lusciousness graced with its own toothpick, olives with the pit still in that one had to nibble around with the front teeth like little chipmunks, or olives pitted and stuffed with bright red pimento, the best to accompany a favorite sandwich. The occasional and much-anticipated trip to Miami to visit our Uncle Eli would always include lunch at Wolfie’s where he worked for a while, or those summer vacations in New York to visit mom’s family would invariably find us for at least one meal at some Kosher deli. And what stays in the memory more than any other about these wonderful trips to these bastions of Eastern European Jewish cooking? The tiny aluminum or fluted white ceramic bowl in the center of every table full to overflowing with a choice selection of pickles and olives, an unlimited supply ours for the asking!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

DARING BAKERS’ YEAST MERINGUE COFFEE CAKE

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.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

VANILLA CARDAMOM MACARONS WITH CHERRY MASCARPONE CREAM

Spring Fever in Pink, the Spicy and the Sweet


Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.
-Maria Robinson

Winter dissolves into spring somewhere between the damp, chilly morning and the golden warmth of the afternoon. Spring teases us, sneaking bouts of sunshine across the threshold when we least expect it, during the frigid cold of early February and the drizzle of early March then boom! she pounces out from behind the curtains, out of a deep, dark alleyway and, just as we’ve draped the heavy wool coat over the back of the chair and dug out our light-weather jacket, caressed our brand new peep toe sandals, she laughingly drags us back into dreary, gray hopelessness once again. Yet today’s brilliant light and gentle mellowing of the temperature promise true change. And this year the advent of spring brings with it other bigger, more important changes, from a bleak mid-Winter landscape to the awakening of a new season of optimism and flowering blossoms.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

CHOCOLATE ESPRESSO CUPCAKES WITH MOCHA MASCARPONE FROSTING

The rest is silence.
- William Shakespeare, Hamlet


While the world out there gets smaller and smaller, the world we live in gets wider, larger, farther away.


With the click of a button we bring everything into our livingrooms and offices, the world at our fingertips. Television and internet bring natural catastrophe, man-made disaster and human drama, love and violence, astounding beauty and grisly horror up close and personal. Via the means of in-your-face news, we never need miss anything ever again and we feel as if we are there. Reach out and touch the screen, turn up the volume and listen to the wailing of voices, the rumbling of the earth, the rushing of water and the deafening noise of the bombs. Miners are trapped deep in the bowels of the earth and we are down there with them, a tsunami strikes on the other side of the world and there we are, watching the raging waters with those perched, terrified and awed, on a hilltop just out of reach. Explosions, bombs, hurricanes and there we are in the center of the action. Sitting warm and safe in our own homes far away, we become, nonetheless, a part of the action. No longer must we wait days or even weeks for the news to reach us in impersonal musty black and white. No more whispers in town squares or behind church stalls nor gossip and speculation over the dinner table or at the corner bar once the news has traveled over road and ocean to reach us, filtered, diluted and hazy. No longer do we need to use our imaginations to fill in the gaps or feel the emotions felt by those immediately affected, the survivors or the rare reporter who dares inch his way towards whatever he needs to bring to the rest of the world. Distance is now an illusion and within minutes, nay seconds can we, too, see and feel, experience and share what happens anywhere, absolutely anywhere on this now tiny, tiny planet of ours.


We travel, we move from one country to another with ease, comfort and convenience and experience strange, exotic cultures without needing weeks and months to return home again. We step onto an airplane and within the day, one rotation of the earth we now know by heart, we are back in the arms of those whom we hold most dear. When we have the means the ways are surely there.

Through the magic of telephones, Skype and e-mail we can now visit loved ones in the
farthest corners of the globe as if they were at the other end of the apartment. Voices are strong, loud and clear, their faces smile at us out of the screen bringing back memories of old Jetsons cartoons and the fascination those futuristic videophones in their extremely cool Skypad apartment hovering far above the earth created in our young, naïve minds. We get the news of joy, celebration and birth or illness and death, share it all as it happens and be there, flying faster than the wind, before the warm bundle of joy is brought home or the body laid to rest.


Thanks to modern technology, what just a generation ago was only experienced through science fiction and the imagination of writers, directors and special effect artists, we now communicate with dozens of people at a time, family, friends and strangers, with the mere click of a switch, the ping of a button. We announce our news and pour out our souls to virtual strangers and the sympathy spills in from the four corners of the world from people whom we’ve never met nor seen. Tragedy strikes and we can give money, donate food and clothing in the place of a warm hug or comforting words.

This past week, we have seen destruction, tragedy and war. We watched as the earth trembled, homes were washed away, the sky lit up with the fire of bombs and filled with radioactive plumes of smoke and although we see it all as it happens, breath held, eyes wide with horror and dismay, yet how far do we feel at the same time? Far in our helplessness and inability to act, to help, to comfort, to truly understand. I have also, once again, realized how difficult is the life of an expat in all of the excitement and discovery; no one can understand as an expat just how far away far is. A dear, dear friend lost her father and we cried together at the loss, her own stirring up mine. We cried together at the helplessness we feel as expats living so very far from our families, at how fast and easy it is these days to travel over land and sea yet how difficult and complicated. No, we cannot drop everything at a moment’s notice, leave husband and job behind to rush to the bedside of loved ones who may need us. Questions nag at us, do we go, do we wait, is it really necessary or will it be more important next week, because traveling for a day or longer one cannot jump over there then back again and repeat the following week. We live with the burden, the guilt of not being there haunts us every single day until it burns into our heart and eats away at our soul, but our two distant lives, separated by miles and miles, pull us back and forth, back and forth in a never-ending question mark.


And now, at times like these, we realize just how huge this planet is, how great is the world, how small we are.

Laughter is the closest distance between two people.
- Victor Borge


And at times like these, we switch off the television set, turn off the computer and go into the kitchen and bake. What we need is a little comfort and I find it in little handfuls of chocolate cake topped with something rich and creamy and slightly bitter, the better to wash away bittersweet tears. These delicate, moist, light cupcakes are full of heavenly, comforting chocolate flavor with a dash of the warmth of espresso. Each is topped with a dollop, just enough, of a bittersweet Mocha Frosting, improvised, made with about half a cup leftover Bittersweet Mocha Sauce whipped with half a cup fresh mascarpone until just fluffy enough, just creamy enough, just chocolatey enough. Just perfect. Now take one or two of these little cupcakes, set the plate on a tray with a mug of hot café au lait or milky tea and curl up in your favorite armchair and sit and listen to the silence as you think of only the wonderful times you’ve had with people you love.


CHOCOLATE ESPRESSO CUPCAKES
With Bittersweet Mocha Mascarpone Frosting

6 ounces (175 grams) flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
2 Tbs unsweetened cocoa powder
5 ounces (150 grams) sugar
1 tsp fine espresso powder
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 cup (150 ml) warm milk
2/3 cup (150 ml) vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 325°F (170°C). Line 12 regular-size muffin cups with pretty paper liners. There should also be enough batter left over for 4 or 5 mini cupcakes as well.

Put the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cocoa powder, sugar and espresso powder 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 (heat cool milk for about 30 seconds in the microwave), 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, although I prefer using 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 perfectly smooth, lump-free batter is to first make a well in the center of the dry ingredients. Pour about a quarter 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 perfectly smooth. Continue until all the dry ingredients have been incorporated into your (now) lump-free batter, add any remaining liquid and give it a go. Pour the batter carefully into your cupcake cups (transferring the batter into a large measuring cup with a spout makes this an easy, clean process), filling about ¾ full.

Bake until the center of your cupcakes are risen, slightly cracked and just firm to the touch, set but still moist in the center, About 25 minutes more or less depending on your oven.


Remove the cupcake tin to racks, let cool for about a minute then very carefully lift each cupcake out onto a rack to cool completely before frosting. They are, I might add, just scrumptious without frosting as well.


These cupcakes are also perfect frosted with my Simple Chocolate Buttercream Frosting or a Chocolate Ganache chilled just until thick enough to spread.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

BOTTEREAUX NANTAIS: Beignets for Carnival

NANTES: PART III


A sea of humankind swims outside the windows of our old apartment overlooking the bustling main thoroughfare of Nantes centreville. From our perch above this never-ending flow of bodies old and young, male and female, rich and poor, we watched as fascinated children staring into a giant fishbowl, endless hours ogling, inventing stories about each one below us, searching the crowds for look-alikes of the famous and infamous, endless hours of entertainment, amazed at such a variety of people all congregated in this one spot, in our city, all coming together for our own private show.

Women in tight jeans and high heels, swags of gold chains looped around their necks, clutching oversized handbags and laden down with elegant, beribboned shopping sacks, les Nantaises scurried by, always in a hurry, affording merely a glance left or right into the glass panes of the less-than-designer boutiques that line the sidewalks of our own humble street. Rebels, homeless or not, dressed all in scruffy black, hair stuck out every which way, backpacks or sleeping bags strapped to their backs, cigarettes dangling from their lips, traveling in packs with dogs trotting at their feet, parking themselves in circles like Scouts around a bonfire, hands out to the passing shoppers, begging, nay insisting, for the odd coin. Teens skulking down the sidewalk, book bags slung over rounded shoulders, hair hanging in their eyes, the newest fad, or moving along in great crane-like strides, gabbing non-stop amongst their gaggle of friends, always busy, forever important. And not to leave out the strange and the unidentified, wandering the streets of this city like lost souls, waiting for the next bus to leave.

We stood at our post year in and year out, experiencing the changing of the seasons from one story up, this distance divided by glass. We watched as the Christmas decorations were hung, great ropes of colored and sparkling lights, garlands twining gaily up lampposts, and we listened to the holiday music piped in, bursting forth from loudspeakers across the tiny square just as the official shopping season began and all the way, day in and day out, through to the end. And two months later we watched as cherry pickers crawled up and down the roadways, yellow-hatted men coming to end the festivities as each light was unscrewed and dropped to waiting hands below. Springtime’s inauguration came with great pots of flowers in reds and yellows and shades of violet, hung from where those Christmas lights celebrated the winter season. Summertime arrived as bar and bistro doors were flung open and tiny tables for two or four were moved outside, turning the streets into lively, noisy terraces, the clatter of cutlery, the clinking of glasses amid shouts of laughter our own warm-weather birdsong.


And parades galore of every kind took to that street and we never missed a single one: Christmas, Carnival or Gay Pride, we stood at our posts, Marty in our arms, and watched, enchanted as larger-than-life snowmen and Santas danced down that road to our old holiday favorites. Or the brightly costumed, tossing candy into the crowds, bright, shiny, feathered peacocks on stilts or gaily decorated trucks, disco music blaring, bodies swaying to the beat, bedazzling the gawking crowds who never failed to join in the songs, allowing themselves to be carried away by the energy and spirit of the festivities. We missed not even one single manif’, those highly charged political demonstrations, monthly if not weekly occurrences in these highly charged times. We watched, heads shaking in disbelief and annoyance, as noisy, rambunctious union members, teachers, students, nurses and doctors shouted and waved their collective fist at the government, demanding reform while refusing to budge, angry slogans sprayed across banners and blasted from bullhorns, time and time again, entire communities spilling down the street in solidarity and determination before wandering off to our neighborhood bars for a cool drink and a smoke.


But we no longer live in that apartment, the hub of the universe. Our axis has shifted from the noisy, busy center to a silent place where few humans roam. From our tall, elegant French windows where we now live all we can see is the back of the Préfecture and the small Place abutting the regal green gates. We watch as, twice a year, the well-dressed upper crust political and military elite sweep through the impeccably tended garden and the grand doors for annual garden parties, or peep over our balcony as M. le Maire, our illustrious mayor, stands at attention in front of the Guard as honors are given on the Fourteenth of July. The seasons now slide one into the next silently with no fanfare, no loud, colorful announcement in the form of a parade or decorations, the only music that seeps in through our windows is the distant, muffled sounds of far-off demonstrations passing in protest in front of the Préfecture, symbol of the government. The occasional pop of a firecracker or the whiff of manure dumped at the end of the road by angry farmers gives us no indication of reason, no sense of time. Nantes, for all of her glory and size, is really just a sleepy little hamlet with an undoubtedly small-town feel and ambiance and here, just outside the magic circle of activity, all lies quiet and peaceful, as time slips by. The seasons punctuated by parades and demonstrations like inked-in reminders on our own private calendar, keeping us up to date, never letting us miss one holiday, one event, no longer reach us in the far-off confines of our new part of town.


We would never be able to follow the calendar or even remember one holiday if it weren’t for the bakery goods, the special festive treats that have been baked and sold generation after generation, the traditional confections announcing each and every celebration, welcoming in each season as loudly and clearly as any newspaper headline. Buttercream-rich bûches every Christmas, golden, almond-flavored, rum-infused Galette des Rois for Epiphany, tiny Niflettes or that special XVIIIth century-inspired pistachio-raspberry gâteau for Toussaint, All Saint's Day, Nids de Pâques, luscious cakes piled high with swirls of creamy frosting, dotted with colorful candy eggs nestled on shelves amid the chocolate bells, chickens and eggs of Easter, cellophane-wrapped chocolate fish for April Fool’s Day, every single holiday has her very own traditional patisserie, pastry, confection or treat and they all, each and every one of them, arrive on the same day and disappear as suddenly, all in unison. Simply walk into any bakery or pastry shop in France and peruse the display of cakes and such and you will never need any other seasonal or holiday harbinger again. Although I do love a parade.

Yeast Bottereaux

Merveilles, Tourtisseaux, Oreillettes, Bugnes or Bottereaux, these delectable little beignets, some feathery-light pillows, some crunchy, crispy confections, each and every one is a specialty for this Mardi Gras and Carnival season in France, the name and possibly the shape only changing from region to region. Trays piled high with Bottereaux, the rum-infused beignet specific to my adopted hometown of Nantes, cut into squares or lozenges, freshly fried, dusted with copious amounts of powdered or granulated sugar, begin appearing in bakeries and pastry shops throughout France shortly before Mardi Gras, and remain an absolute fixture through the end-of-March festivities. I recently posted a simpler, kid-friendly (for baking) baking powder version of the Bottereau on Huffington Post, which makes a denser, cake-like beignet, almost like a fried version of a brioche or our own Fouace Nantaise. Here I offer you the more traditional yeast version of this scrumptious, addictive treat. Lighter, airier, more donut like, the cake itself is barely sweet with a subtle hint of rum, the perfect delectable, backdrop for lots of powdered sugar. Eat them while they are still fresh and hot and you may just find yourself wanting this season to last just a little longer.

Baking Powder Quick Bottereaux



I’ll be sending this to Susan of Wild Yeast for her wonderful weekly yeastie event Yeastspotting!

Don’t miss the latest From Plate to Page developments! If you are an Irish Food Blogger, you may win attendance at our Weimar From Plate to Page Workshop! Our wonderful sponsors, Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, along with Irish Food Bloggers Association is holding a competition you just won’t want to miss! Just follow the link to the IFBA competition announcement page for all the delicious details!


BOTTEREAUX NANTAIS
Carnival beignets from Nantes

2 ¾ cups (380 g) flour
2 ¼ tsps active dry yeast
Large pinch salt
2 Tbs (30 g) granulated sugar
3/8 cup (100 ml) milk
9 Tbs (125 g) unsalted butter
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ tsp vanilla
2 Tbs rum

Oil for frying
Powdered/confectioner’s sugar for dusting

Whisk 1 cup of the flour, the active dry yeast, salt and granulated sugar together in a large mixing bowl.

Heat the milk and butter together gently over medium-low heat until most of the butter (about two thirds) has melted. Remove from the heat and stir until all of the butter has melted. Touch the liquid with the back of a finger; it should feel warm or tepid which is exactly what you want. Warm liquid activates the yeast while too cold will have no effect and too hot will kill the yeast.

Pour the warm milk and butter over the dry ingredients in the bowl and stir until you have a smooth paste. Add the lightly beaten eggs, the vanilla and the rum and stir until blended. Stir in one more cup of the flour mixture until smooth. Blend in another half a cup flour, forming a dough. Sprinkle the last half cup flour on a clean work surface and scrape the dough out of the bowl onto the flour and knead until the flour is incorporated and you have a very smooth, elastic dough, about 5 minutes.

Place the ball of dough in a clean, lightly-greased bowl, turning the dough to coat with the oil. Cover the bowl with plastic and allow to rest and rise for about 3 hours.

Scrape the risen dough out of the bowl onto a lightly floured work surface and roll out to a thickness between ¼ and ½ inch (1/2 to 1 cm). Using a sharp knife, pastry or pizza cutter, slice smoothly into 2-inch (5 cm) strips. Then cut each strip into 2-inch squares. Heat the oil to 350°F (180°C) then slide a few squares of dough in at a time – you not only don’t want to crowd the Bottereaux but putting in too many at a time will lower the temperature of the hot oil! The beignets will float up to the top of the oil then begin to brown. Gently and carefully turning the beignets over once or twice or so during frying, allow them to turn a deep golden color on both sides. They should also be well puffed up. Using a slotted spoon, scoop up the bottereaux and allow to drain quickly on paper toweling. Continue to fry all of the squares of dough.

Place all the freshly fried, warm Bottereaux on a serving platter and dust with generous amounts of powdered/confectioner’s sugar. Eat warm and fresh.


Monday, March 7, 2011

CHOCOLATE CAKE with OLIVE OIL & MAPLE SYRUP

With Raspberry Coulis

THE DARK CONTINENT – Part II

All I know is that every time I go to Africa, I am shaken to my core.

- Stephen Lewis


The day broke bright and warm and I could already sense movement in the house. Hushed voices and muffled noises gave proof to the bustle on the other side of my bedroom door and I wondered how long it had been going on while I slept. I pulled myself from my heavy slumber and my dreams and stumbled into the tiny dining room where I caught a glimpse of Colleen at what had become her permanent station, in front of the computer, her pajama-clad body a haze in the splash of bright light that spilled through the window behind her and splayed out onto the floor. The excitement was palpable as I watched Colleen handle a final phone call, punch frantically the last details into her computer and Donald rushing in and out with his arms laden with boxes of forgotten goodies. Although we were all nervous as to how the day would go, whether utter success or dismal failure, we were all ready to face Food & Wine Blogger Indaba, Cape Town 2011.


Fueled on mugs of café au lait and toast with marmelade (eaten while tossing hunks of white bread to Tasha who scrambled for piece after piece as no other dog could quite do as joyously), I followed in the family’s wake towards the stunningly beautiful venue of the Indaba, Monkey Valley Resort, whose name alone intrigued this Florida-turned-European girl. Are there really monkeys hidden among the lush greenery, swinging from palm to palm waiting to play monkey jokes on the chattering crowd below or dashing back and forth across the white sand of the beach? The lodge was filling up quickly with South Africans, chattering away, milling about, hugging each other, each and every one excited to be gathered together in this one sunny spot. Pink, sugary sweet welcome cocktails in hand, we wended our way into the main hall, claimed our seats and the conference began.


I never get tired of listening to brilliant, talented, devoted bloggers and writers talk about blogging, the do’s and the don’ts, the can’s and the cannot’s, the should’s and the shouldn’ts…. and this group of wonderful people were as passionate as they come. And funny. Jeanne, Jane-Anne, Michael, Abigail and Phillipa, among others may have stated what for me has now become the obvious, the evident, but hearing each of their stories, listening to the words that tumbled from their lips so eloquently and the reason that I blog all came back to me loud and clear: Passion. Passion for the food, passion for the writing. And what is imperative through it all: Honesty. Integrity. Sharing. Is it all about the numbers? Is it only a great race to the top of the heap? No matter my days fraught with worry over stats, no matter my occasional jealousy that oozes from every pore of my body when I see others recognized or acclaimed, those who may or may not deserve that golden ring, when I am not, no matter the sleep lost for wonder of what I am doing right or wrong. No, I blog as these others blog or write or cook or photograph: because we love what we do. The stories of each of these bloggers sitting in this room are so diverse it is obvious that there is no set pattern or standard and neither should there be. Where would the interest be in that? No, each of these South African food and wine bloggers listening eagerly, anticipating, taking notes, breathing in every word spoken, every lesson shared, reassured me of these evident basics of blogging and reset me on my own personal path once again.

Jeanne & Michael, utterly brilliant! I love 'em!

After a lunch that afforded us chatting and getting to know each other time, Jeanne and I led a writing workshop and tried to impart as much information, share as many ideas as was possible in such a short space of time. We urged writers to think beyond the obvious, the expected and be creative when searching for adjectives: a simple eggplant, for example, becomes so much more intriguing when spoken of as voluptuous, curvaceous, silky, the hue of shimmering garnets rather than oval, smooth, shiny and purple. We pushed the attendees to think of a food or ingredients in a dish using all 5 of their senses rather than limiting the description to merely taste and scent. We had the group shout out the first thoughts that came into their heads when we called out a name: Christmas, Apple Pie, Spaghetti and told them they should search for inspiration in any form when writing for their blog: they needn’t limit their posts to just the food, that they should incorporate memories, trivia, anecdotes to create a story, an interesting, emotional, intriguing, enchanting place for their readers to visit. And we explained that they could consider their blog as their home, each post as a dinner and, as when inviting people into their homes for a meal, they should create an atmosphere, set the mood before serving the food, using words as they would cutlery, tablecloths, lighting, flowers, music…. And we hoped that each participant carried away a newfound passion and patience and plenty of ideas for their writing.

You see, I had not only come to listen and learn, to meet other bloggers and become a part of an even larger foodie community, but I had come here to share my own passion, my own experience and what knowledge or inspiration I could impart to others. This is, for me, as exciting and fulfilling as the act of blogging itself.


The day ended as it started, with excitement and joy, albeit with many more friends and so much inspiration. We shouldered our goodie bags heavy with bottles of wine and beer (South African Breweries), Griottines (Sagra Foods - can’t wait to bake with these!), gorgeous Wüsthof paring knives (thanks to Paul and Yuppie Chef), fabulous Le Creuset spatulas, issues of Taste magazine, cookbooks from Food Lover’s Market and Provita (Anne Myers) and fabulous Balsamic Reductions thanks to the great folks at Verlaque. And thanks to Fairview Wines for supplying the wines for the day – and more later about Fairview and a wonderful wine and cheese tasting out at their place with Colleen and Donald! Jeanne and Nick, Colleen and Donald and I ended this wonderful, memorable day with a very memorable meal at Harbour House restaurant on Kalk Bay in Cape Town with a special table overlooking the inky waters of the Indian Ocean crashing up onto the rocks below us, a spectacular bright yellow moon shining down from the darkness. No better way to end a day than with special friends around a fabulous meal.

Thank you again, dear Colleen, for making this all possible!

Chocolate Cake. I have noticed (how, you may ask me, did it take me this long to make this discovery?) that my most successful blog posts seem to be those offering a slice and a recipe of a dense, moist, rich chocolate cake. Ah, the way to anyone’s heart, it seems, is a chocolate cake. But how about one made with olive oil and maple syrup? This fabulous cake from Peter Berley’s cookbook The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen, is one I have made many, many times in the past yet it had somehow gotten lost in all of the brouhaha of discovering and creating new recipes for Life’s a Feast. But a recent blog post and radio program on olive oil by one darling friend, Lael Hazan along with a brief discussion on my Facebook page which grabbed the attention and inspired the words of another wonderful friend and chocoholic Minna brought the memory of it rushing back through my head full force. So I pulled out the cookbook, found the recipe, measured the ingredients and now I offer this cake (for them) to you. With all of the olive oil and maple syrup, this cake can be nothing but incredibly moist and dense. At times I even undercook it so the center is gooey, like a French moelleux. The rich chocolaty flavor is infused with the earthy, almost woodsy sweetness of the maple syrup and is simply stunning eaten alone. But I have added Chef Berley’s recipe for a quick, easy raspberry coulis, which complements the chocolate perfectly. Add a simple dollop of barely sweetened whipped cream and there you have it, heaven on a plate.


A cake containing no milk, butter (unless choosing so), cream or such fats, I make this Chocolate Cake or his Vanilla Cake, also made with olive oil and maple syrup, for those around me needing something lower in fat and better for the cholesterol.


CHOCOLATE CAKE with Olive Oil and Maple Syrup
And Raspberry Coulis

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour (I used white whole wheat flour)
1 cup flour (all-purpose or cake flour)
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsps baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp salt
1 ½ cups pure maple syrup
1 cup water
½ cup pure olive oil (or can be replaced with ½ cup melted unsalted butter)
2 tsps vanilla
1 tsp cider vinegar

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Lightly oil a 9-inch x 2-inch round (23-cm x 5-cm) cake tin, line the bottom with parchment paper, lightly oil the parchment then dust the bottom and sides of the tin with flour, shaking out the excess.

In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flours, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Whisk to combine.

In a separate bowl or large measuring cup, combine the maple syrup, water, olive oil, vanilla and vinegar. Whisk to combine.

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 using a whisk here. The best method for doing this so you don’t end up with dry ingredients splattered all over your countertop and so you end up with lump-free batter is to first make a well in the center of the dry ingredients. Pour about a quarter of the liquid ingredients into the well, and with small, brisk circular movements, whisk the liquid with just enough of the dry ingredients until you have a thick, smooth, lump-free paste 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, about 25 to 30 minutes, depending upon your oven as well as how firm you would like the center of the cake.

Remove the cake from the oven to a cooling rack and allow to cool for about 20 minutes in the pan. Slide a knife around the edges to loosen, the flip the cake over onto a cooling rack, peel off the parchment paper then flip upright onto another rack and allow to cool completely. Transfer the cool cake to a serving platter and prepare the Raspberry Coulis.


RASPBERRY COULIS
Turns a delectable chocolate cake into a spectacular dessert.


2 cups raspberries, fresh or frozen, thawed
2 Tbs pure maple syrup
½ tsp vanilla extract

Purée the raspberries in a blender or processor and then strain to remove the seeds. Stir in the maple syrup and the vanilla.


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

COFFEE PANNA COTTA with Bittersweet Mocha Sauce

And Cappuccino Chocolate Chunk Biscotti


RETURN TO AFRICA – Part I


The blazing sun streams through the hazy oval of window and stretches across the book open on the small square of table in front of me as we dip down towards earth. The land below me rises upwards, offering me a carpet of geometric, well-defined, sharp-angled patches of cream, almond, caramel and toffee only broken here and there by the occasional vibrant, lush rectangle of jade or lime. A maddening deep, dark squiggle cuts a swath through the landscape like a drizzle of bittersweet chocolate, hinting of the Dark Continent. Mountains push up from the ground in craggy relief like some smart kid’s junior high science project giving form to the flatness that stretches out before me.


The plane dips once again, leaning in closer to the horizon as my eyes search for the ocean, the same ocean that kisses the scorching sand that reaches out to form the beach where I grew up somewhere far, far away, the other side of the world. The same ocean that batters the rocks off the Brittany coast where we spend holidays, the same waters that offer us plump crabs and tiny black bigorneaux that we scoop up and eat by the dozens back home in France. But catching sight of that deep blue body of water here seems unreal, as surreal as the backdrop of mountains everywhere I turn, mountains that are always there, unexpectedly, behind houses, beaches, vineyards, everywhere as if painted against the sky in some monstrous photographic studio and we are meant to turn around and smile at the camera. The image is jarring and makes my entire week seem an illusion, everyone acting a well-scripted part on some stage, the curtains parting as each change of scenery is wheeled into place, the lights raised or lowered, the wind machine snapped on or off, but all the while that wall of painted mountains looms over us.

I clutch anxiously at my good luck pendant hanging loosely on a thin silver chain around my neck and whisper my little prayer. This is all I have to hang on to, what gets me through these long hours above the ground, I who am terrified to fly yet so desperately want to travel. And here I am, back in Africa. I don’t often think of my other trip to this continent all those years ago, before I married, when I brazenly fled to Nigeria to be with someone I thought maybe I loved. I knew as soon as I landed that I loved another but spent enough time in that curious place, exploring that darkly dangerous country to feel a wide-eyed awe and mysterious fascination with all that is unknown, exotic, treacherous. But this new experience, this return to Africa, well, I knew that I would be in careful, safe, loving hands. And from all that I had heard, this Africa was rich in culture and fine food, gorgeous summer weather, sandy beaches and extremely happy friends.

Colleen and Donald, my wonderful, generous hosts, met this exhausted, bedraggled, woozy excuse for a food blogger at the airport, tucked me into the front seat (Wrong side, Donald!) and zipped off into a brilliantly sunny Cape Town summer day. Palm trees flew by me, beautiful palm trees waving gently in the breeze reminding me of Florida yet not, the car only slowing down as we approached their part of the city when suddenly a gorgeous vista opened up on my left: False Bay, a tiny cove-like beach and port upon whose rocks the Indian Ocean waves were crashing furiously. The Indian Ocean! Who would have ever thought that I would actually see the Indian Ocean with my very own eyes? Table Mountain loomed above on my right, growing ever closer as we pulled into their driveway, standing majestically, protectively behind their warm, friendly home.
Colleen & Donald, a stellar comedy team, fabulous entertainment
and the two most generous people I have ever met. Thank you both!


The two days leading up to the Indaba, the South African Food & Wine Bloggers’ Conference, was filled with activity as I tried to catch my breath. I spent one day with Colleen and family furiously filling goodie bags, organizing stacks of cookbooks and magazines, arranging boxes of wine that kept arriving at the door, oooohing and ahhhing over all the amazing goodies that filled her house from wall to wall, floor to ceiling, threatening to take over the Grove home completely, mercilessly. Colleen sat morning, noon and night at her computer, cell phone pressed to one ear, sucking on a never-ending bottle of water, her only sustenance, and trying to keep her nerves under control while tying up last-minute details. Her wonderful husband, ever cheerful even under pressure and the most trying of times, organized, ran errands, drove all over Cape Town in search of the last boxes of goodies and gifts, and proved himself totally indispensable, as passionate about this event as any dedicated food or wine blogger. And through it all, there were always perfectly mixed mugs of café au lait magically appearing for me on the kitchen counter.


Saturday I spent with Jeanne, Nick and family and friends out on Franschhoek in the Winelands, lunching at a lovely restaurant overlooking vineyards with the ever-present backdrop of mountains. The evening was spent at Nick’s mom’s home where he put together a wonderful braai for us and a couple of friends. We talked late into the night, the music from some distant concert enveloping us in the darkness, our own laughter filling in the spaces in between.


The February 2011 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Mallory from A Sofa in the Kitchen. She chose to challenge everyone to make Panna Cotta from a Giada De Laurentiis recipe and Nestlé Florentine Cookies. I, of course, long a panna cotta lover, chose to make a wonderful Café au Lait version of this luscious, creamy dessert with the addition of a fabulous Bittersweet Mocha Sauce drizzled over the Panna Cotta which created the perfect dark edge to the lovely, light coffee flavor of the panna cotta. As the Florentine Cookie recipe called for corn syrup which I have never been able to find in France I decided to add a crunchy side to the Panna Cotta with very Italian Chocolate Chip Cappuccino Biscotti. Here is to a wonderful week in Cape Town drinking perfect Café au Lait as well as many cups of bittersweet coffee swallowed one after the other on the plane down and back up as well as several to kick start my old routine once I returned to Terra Firma and home.


I was honored to be interviewed by the very cool people at Chudleigh’s, the apple farm and bakery outside of Toronto. Hop over to their Chudleigh’s Blossom Blog to read my interview!

Don’t miss the latest developments over at From Plate to Page! We recently announced and introduced our newest sponsor: Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board who is generously partnering with us at From Plate to Page so we can make this the best hands-on workshop for food bloggers, writers, stylists and photographers ever! And our latest guest post is from fabulous food stylist and creative director Robin Zachary who lets you into her… Prop Closet.

And one more thing: I want to thank each and every one of you who took your time to go to the Blogger’s Choice site and vote for Life’s a Feast. Yes, I am nominated for a Blogger’s Choice Award in the category of Best Food Blog. If you enjoy my blog and haven’t yet voted, I do hope that I can count on your vote! And know how very much I appreciate it!


Stay tuned for Return to Africa – Part II.

COFFEE PANNA COTTA with Bittersweet Mocha Sauce


1 cup (250 ml) whole milk
1 tablespoon (8 g) unflavored powdered gelatin
3 cups (750 ml) whipping cream (whole fat heavy cream)
1/3 cup (80 ml) honey
1 tablespoon (15 gm) granulated sugar
pinch of salt
2 tsps instant espresso powder or more to taste

Prepare 6 to 8 ramekins or individual bowls or demitasse cups. If you want to be able to turn the Panna Cotta out of the bowl or ramekin, run the bowl under cold running water, pour and shake the water out but do not dry.

Pour the milk into a medium-sized saucepan and sprinkle the gelatin over the milk. Whisk quickly and lightly just so it is all wet and then allow to sit for 5 minutes. This softens the gelatin. Place the saucepan over medium heat and, whisking gently, allow the milk to heat until it is hot but not boiling, 5 more minutes. The yellow shiny splotches of gelatin floating on the surface will disappear when the gelatin is completely melted/dissolved.

Add the cream, honey, sugar, pinch of salt and 2 teaspoons instant espresso powder to the hot milk and continue to heat, stirring, until the honey, sugar and espresso have dissolved. Taste and add more espresso powder if you desire a stronger coffee flavor.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and allow to cool for several minutes. Whisk to combine well before pouring into the glasses, bowls, cups or ramekins. I always find it much easier to pour the liquid into a glass or Pyrex measuring cup with a spout and pour from that instead of directly from the saucepan.

Cover each bowl or ramekin with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours or, ideally, overnight.

A half hour or so before serving, prepare the Bittersweet Mocha Sauce. Once the Sauce has been made and chilled, serve the Panna Cotta, each drizzled with the Sauce and a Cappuccino Biscotto or two.

BITTERSWEET MOCHA SAUCE

2 ounces (60 g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, or more to taste
¾ cup (200 ml) heavy whipping cream
2 tsps instant espresso powder
1 Tbs to ¼ cup (50 g) granulated sugar to taste

Coarsely chop the chocolate and place it in a small saucepan with the heavy cream, the espresso powder and 1 tablespoon sugar. Heat very gently over medium-low heat, whisking or stirring, until the chocolate, sugar and espresso have all melted and dissolved. Taste, adding sugar until desired sweetness. Remove from the heat, allow to cool for a few minutes, stir again and pour into a glass measuring cup, bowl or jar and refrigerate until just cool enough to serve over the chilled Panna Cotta.


CAPPUCCINO BISCOTTI WITH CHOCOLATE CHUNKS
Makes 25 to 30 biscotti


2 cups (280 g) flour
¾ cup (150 g) granulated white sugar
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
Rounded ½ tsp ground cinnamon, optional
1 rounded tsp instant espresso powder or instant coffee powder
Rounded ½ cup (3 ½ oz, 100 g) mini chocolate chips or coarsely chopped chocolate
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla
Cinnamon-sugar for dusting, optional

Preheat oven to 300°F (150°C) and place the rack in the center of the oven. Line a baking/cookie sheet with parchment paper.

In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs and the vanilla extract.

In a large mixing bowl, blend the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and coffee powder/granules and whisk together or beat with an electric mixer on low for 20 or 30 seconds to combine well. Stir in the chocolate chips or chunks.

Whisk the eggs until blended and whisk in the vanilla. Pour this over the dry ingredients and, using a fork or wooden spoon, stir until all of the dry ingredients are moistened and begin to pull together and form a dough. Scrape out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead very briefly until you have a smooth, well-blended dough. Do not add in too much flour, just enough that this sticky dough can be handled.

Divide the dough in half. With floured hands on the lightly floured work surface, form each ball of dough into a log about 10 inches (25 cm) long and 2 inches (5 cm) wide. Carefully transfer the logs onto the prepared baking sheet spacing them about 3 inches (7.5 cm) apart to allow for spreading.

I sprinkle the surface with granulated sugar and ground cinnamon which gives the final, crispy outside of the biscotti a sweet, cinnamony touch.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes until firm to the touch. They should have puffed up and spread out a bit. Remove from the oven – do not turn the oven off – and allow to cool for 10 minutes.
Transfer the logs, one at a time, to a wooden cutting board. With a good, serrated knife, cut each log crosswise on the diagonal into ¾ inch (2 cm)-wide slices. Cut slowly and carefully to avoid the biscotti breaking or crumbling.

Arrange the slices on the lined baking sheet cut sides up (you can place them close together as they will no longer spread) and bake for 10 minutes. Open the oven and flip all of the slices over, slide back into the oven and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool.

These can easily be stored for days and days in an airtight, preferably metal cookie tin.

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