Archive for the ‘Dessert’ Category
After a brief absence, here’s a small post in honor of Earth Day. My composition students gave presentations for extra credit today. The theme of the class is the Science and Technology of Green Living. All semester we’ve studied photo-voltaic panels, hydrogen fuel cells, horizon scanning, and LEED certification standards. For Earth Day, we decided to step away from science and technology and focus solely on “Green Living.” For a potential 5 points worth of credit (applied to the paper of their choice), they could perform one of the following activities and give a 5 minute presentation explaining the connection between their activity and one of the themes of the course. They could:
- Cook and eat a “healthy” meal with friends
- Give up meat for a month (I made the assignment one month ago so they had some time)
- Grow an edible plant from seeds
- Go on an environmentally responsible fishing trip
- Raise livestock in their dorm
That last one was a joke, but someone took me seriously. I wonder how many week-old chickens have seen the inside of this building? Well, now, at least four. By the way, she didn’t literally raise livestock in her dorm; her family has a small farm.
Most of the students who participated cooked a “healthy” meal, although their idea of what is healthy is not exactly the same as mine. A couple of them used meat substitutes to make spaghetti or sloppy-joes. EEEKKK! One student gave up meat but doesn’t think that she will change her diet in the longterm, even though she learned that she could reduce her carbon consumption by 5 tons per year if she continues to go “meatless.” Her friends think she’s crazy to go without meat for even a month.
When I gave the assignment, Jim worried that my students would present me with 5 tons of radishes since I made the mistake of telling them how easy they are to grow. Alas, that didn’t happen. Only one student succeeded in growing produce from seed. She did bring in some radishes, but only two (and seedlings at that). That’s okay — Mimi and I are growing radishes in our container garden and are looking forward to having a “radish party” when the crop comes in, sometime next month.
Of the students who participated, all will receive the full five points except for the young woman who went fishing, caught a fish, and then let the poor beast die without cleaning or cooking it. Talk about missing the point! I’m tempted to give her zero points, but I suppose I’ll throw one at her for the effort. I’d rather throw the fish.
For my part, I’ve joined a state-wide CSA and will receive my first box of produce on Tuesday. I’m very excited to see what GrowAlabama sends. I’ll cross my fingers for radishes.
Happy Earth Day!
Recently, a well-intentioned person offered me a piece of “vegan cheesecake.” I politely declined, but the experience rankled. I’m not opposed to vegan food by any means; however, I don’t care to eat any food that is passed off as something that it is not. What the hell is a “vegan cheesecake?” Isn’t it more rightly “tofu cake?” “Tofutti cake”? “Cheese Substitute Cake?” What? I was disturbed the inaccuracy of it all, but then I realized that I was being a purist for a cake that is itself a bit of a cipher.
Broadly speaking, cheesecake is a cake made with soft, unripened cheese. Usually, it has some kind of crust, typically made with cookies or a thin layer of cake. Versions of cheesecake are found in cultures throughout world, including, unexpectedly, Asia, a fact that might challenge my aversion to the tofu cake that began this whole odyssey. In the West, humans have eaten cheesecake since around the time that Hippocrates was thinking about humors and formulating oaths. The Romans were fond of them, too, but then they stole everything from the Greeks. Of course, Italians nearly always improve what they steal, so Italian cheesecake is completely wonderful. In contemporary Italy, cheesecakes are usually made with either ricotta or mascarpone cheese, which makes them less sweet than other versions.
In the US, modern cheesecakes are usually made with cream cheese, often Philadelphia brand, a product that half-heartedly tries to pass itself off as Neufchâtel cheese, something it patently is not (hmmm… see paragraph #1). Specious connections aside, Philly cream cheese is highly adaptable. In fact, the malleability of this type of cheese means that a cheesecake can take a dizzying number of forms. They can be baked or not; contain eggs or not; be flavored or not. Sometimes, they are topped with fruit or jam. Less often, they are savory. I’ve had cheesecakes that were mostly whipped cream and some that were mostly Cream Whip. A beloved St. Louis version even includes butter and yeast.
In short, the cheesecake is a highly variable platform. And, I mostly don’t care for them. So it was a bit of a surprise to me that I became obsessed with the idea of cheesecake after the tofu offer and decided to make my own just as soon as I possibly could.
Given the many and varied reasons I have for not making desserts very often, I had plenty of opportunity to research the history the cheesecake and to seek out a good recipe for one. I was finally able to make my move on Monday, which is how I wound up with this gorgeous thing in my refrigerator.
In spite of my general dislike of cheesecake, I can’t say enough about this one. If you’re thinking of some kind of rubbery Cheesecake Factory version, think again. If you’re imaging a creamy confection that cannot easily be cut into slices, think again. This stellar version is made with a combination of mascarpone cheese and ordinary old Philadelphia brand. It has a graham cracker crust and a thin sour cream topping. It is beautiful and delicious. The filling was just tart enough to play well against the sweet, almost caramelized crust and the texture was creamy without being insubstantial. And, the cake was really fun to make: a bit of serious, but pressure-free baking on a sunny Monday morning. Mimi was an excellent assistant, as these photos will demonstrate. The recipe was minimally adapted from one at epicurious.com.
1 1/4 cup of graham cracker crumbs
1/2 cup sugar
8 tbs. butter, melted
8 oz. mascarpone cheese, room temperature
2 1/2, 8 oz. containers of cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
3 large eggs, room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. lemon juice
First make the crust. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 9 inch springform pan. Combine 1 cup of graham cracker crumbs and sugar large bowl. Reserve the remaining cracker crumbs to sprinkle over the top of the finished cake. Add the butter and stir until crumbs are coated. Press crumbs into the pan, pushing the mixture up the sides of the pan by about 1 1/2 inches. Bake for about 7 minutes, until the crust sets and slightly browned. Remove from oven and cool on a baking rack for about 25 minutes.
Next, get on with the filling. Reduce the temperature of the oven to 350 degrees. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the cheeses and the sugar. Blend on medium until combined and slightly whipped, about 4 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well into the cheese after each addition. Add the vanilla and lemon juice and beat until just blended. Pour the filling into the cooled crust and bake for 30-35 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven and cool for 25 minutes. When you remove the cake from the oven, don’t be alarmed if the filling wiggles a bit. It will continue to set as it cools. Leave the oven on.
Now, make the topping. In a small bowl, combine the sour cream, sugar and lemon juice. Pour onto the cooled cake and spread evenly, leaving 1/4 inch of a gap all around the edges of the cake. Bake for 10 minutes, until the topping is just set.
Remove the cake from the oven and allow to cool to room temperature. Refrigerate for 8 hours. This sounds like a long time; indeed it is, but it is in the cooling process that the cake achieves it full potential. Before serving, sprinkle the remaining crumbs over the top of the cake. Sit back, smile, and — you know — say, “Cheese!”
Our Snowy House
I always have a backlog of recipes that I want to try, but sometimes a recipe just leap-frogs over all the others and demands to be made immediately, like this one from Deb at Smitten Kitchen: Chocolate Soufflé Cupcakes with Peppermint Cream. I saw it posted on the SK website earlier this week, quickly made a grocery list, and then bid my time–we don’t usually make desserts unless we have a bona fide reason to do so. Fortunately, snow fell on Friday, and snowfall in Alabama absolutely must be celebrated. I believe it’s state law.
Snow Fell on Alabama
Falling snow puts me in a contemplative frame of mind. I feel compelled to try to appreciate every aspect of it, to understand its beauty in a meaningful way — to have a mind of winter, if you will. Then the rarity of the experience registers — I live in Alabama, after all — and I want to celebrate, to gather my loved ones around me, build a happy little cocoon of domesticity, and keep out the literal and figurative cold. I crave those small, wintery indulgences: a crackling fire in the fireplace, a bowl of warm soup, and something rich for dessert.
I don’t think this is exactly what Wallace Stevens had in mind.
Yesterday, I managed to enjoy all of my indulgences save the soup, which I’ll make tonight. The cupcakes, in particular, were perfect for my mood: a little bit dark with a hit of sweetness. Like Deb, I’m not usually a fan of flourless chocolate cake, but this recipe gets the flavor and texture of a flourless dessert just right. Similar in taste to really good brownies, the cupcakes are light and airy.
The best part of flourless chocolate cake is that there isn’t anything to stand in the way of a powerful hit of chocolate flavor, ingredients like, well, flour. Still, a lot of these desserts resemble nothing more than chocolate sludge with neither taste nor texture to recommend them.This recipe is very different, however. You can see from these photographs that the cakes rise up to lofty heights in the oven.
Then sink down into themselves when taken from the heat.
They wind up with neat little depressions in their centers, wells that simply must be filled up with something luscious. Peppermint cream is just the thing.
It even looks a bit like snow.
The Snow Man
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
When I was an undergraduate, I took a class in European geography that was interesting in many ways, but frustrating because one of the students, a guy from Greece named Stavros, anointed himself the resident expert in all things European and assumed a kind of guest-lecturer position in the class. He was tolerable at first, but quickly grew tiresome for his overly loud, opinionated, and inconsiderate ways. Worse, he never missed an opportunity to remind the class that his family owned an island in Greece. “Do you understand that we own it ourselves?” he once asked, rhetorically. Day in, day out, this guy held forth. Why the professor, didn’t stop him, I’ll never know. It was excruciating.
But some good did come of this situation. Near the end of the semester, Stavros found himself in a tense discussion with a group of fed-up classmates over the issue of, of all things, baklava. The Greek all but claimed that his own grandmother had invented the pastry, so some clever person challenged Stavros to reproduce his Granny’s masterpiece for the class, which, surprisingly, he agreed to do. It seemed unlikely that he would follow through, but on the evening of the final exam, Stavros produced not one, but two, huge pans full of obviously homemade baklava.
I turned in my exam, took a piece of it, and walked out into the night. Without expecting too much, I bit into the baklava. And then, stunned, I came to a complete stop. I’ve been stalled in that spot ever since.
Oh, Stavros, exactly where is that island of yours?
His baklava was incredible, one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. Distinctive layers of filo dough filled with a combination of crushed and whole pistachio nuts, cinnamon,and orange flower water. It was buttery without being greasy. The sugar syrup was thick and deeply caramel-colored, somehow not as relentlessly sweet as you’d expect but totally luscious. I had only one piece of it, but twenty years later, I still lie awake at night, thinking of that miraculous baklava, the unexpected crunch of it, its buttery flavor, its deep, complex sweetness.
Exactly what made Stavros’s baklava so incredible? It seemed much more than just the sum of its parts. Was it the surprise that he rose to the challenge in the first place? That such a person could be so generous? That someone so utterly objectionable could cook something that so absolutely wasn’t? That he toasted the pistachios?
Eating is such an intimate act. Nothing that we do is so intimate, in some ways, not even sex. Bite; Chew; Swallow; Digest: one must be brave to eat. Few of our activities have such unreflected upon consequences. We ingest and we become what we ingest both literally and figuratively. The literal becoming is acknowledged in the old cliché: “You are what you eat,” but I can’t think of a phrase that captures that figurative becoming. Maybe because it’s more complicated to understand.
Stavros’s baklava is a part of me now, a mental measuring tool. In bakeries and restaurants, I figuratively take out this device and measure a piece of baklava against this gold standard. And Stavros, a person I wanted only to forget, has, through cooking, become part of the landscape of my mind. It suggests something about the power of those who cook. I’m aware of that as I cook for Mimi now. What flavors will become part of her own mental landscape? What foods will she reflect upon as standards of perfection? What other factors will season the meals of her memory?
I’ve been thinking about such questions lately because I’m still suffering from the aftereffects of a cold and cannot taste very well. Oh, how I miss flavor. I miss fully participating in the intimate act of eating. I miss the satisfaction, the pleasure.
But I did have a small breakthrough recently, when Jim’s mom brought me a piece of baklava made by her hair dresser. Somehow, the taste of this little pastry penetrated through my deadened senses. It brought back the memory of the uber-baklava and then promptly sent me to the cookbook archive that I was travelling with, in search of a recipe. And, yes, there was one that looked promising, in Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food. I’ll try it in a few days, when I’ve finished unpacking and when my sense of taste returns. Until then, I’ll fantasize about warm Greek islands and Stavros’s baklava, if not Stavros himself.
I am a latke
And I am waiting
for Chanukah to come
I’m not sure what to say about a song written from the point of view of a latke, one who is waiting for Chanukah to come in order to be…eaten?
It’s a bold move for any song writer.
I do appreciate the inclination to sing about latkes though. Who wouldn’t want to sing about something so delicious? Grated potatoes and onions fried up and eaten with apple sauce. I think I hear a song coming on.
Frying is not a cooking technique that I perform very often for obvious reasons. The prospect of using 2 cups worth of oil is daunting, but frying food is actually quite easy. Once I get past the guilt of doing it and the fear of burning down my house, I find frying food enjoyable — relaxing, even.
Here’s my favorite recipe for latkes. For lagniappe, I’ve included a recipe for apple chutney.
What? Did you think I meant the song to be lagniappe?
4-5 large russet potatoes
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup of matzoh meal
1 tbs. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
2 cups olive oil
Preheat oven to 200 degrees and place a rimmed cookie sheet inside. Using a food processor, grate the potatoes. Put them in a colander in the sink and drain for about 10 minutes. You may need to press down on it with a clean kitchen towel in order to get your potatoes very, very dry.
In a very large bowl, gently mix together the grated potatoes, onion, matzoh meal, flour, egg, salt, & pepper just until you feel like the ingredients have come together. It’s usually easiest to do this with your scrupulously clean hands.
Heat oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Measure out the potato mixture with a 1/4 cup measuring cup. Drop measures into the oil. Cook no more than 4 latkes at a time. This will take a while, but it’s very important not to overcrowd the pan (the latkes will steam, not fry and being oily, mushy, and generally unpleasant). Fry until the latkes are golden brown on one side; carefully flip them over and brown the other side. Remove from oil.
Drain latkes on a plate covered with paper towels. Transfer those golden potato pancakes to the oven until you’re ready to serve. The classic accompaniments are applesauce and sour cream. In addition to these, I like to make an apple chutney.
2 apples (Braeburns, Pink Ladies, or Honey Crisps work well), peeled cored, and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 tsp. of mustard seed
1 tsp. crushed red pepper
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 cup apple cider
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
Bring all of the ingredients to boil in a heavy saucepan. Simmer for 20-30 minutes, uncovered, or until the apples are soft, but still retain their basic shape. Makes about 1 cup. Can be made 2 days ahead. Serve at room temperature.
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve come across two different recipes for Pimento cheese spread, which must surely be an indication of our difficult economic times. Certainly, pimento spread has the kind of kitsch-value that might make it popular during the holiday season; namely, it’s tasty, cheap, and red. You can’t call it special though. It is, after all, made from cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, and bottled red peppers. Even made well, pimento cheese spread is still reminiscent of a really bad day in the school lunchroom.
Not all cheese spreads are so pedestrian.
Liptauer — a Hungarian spread that is also tasty, cheap, and red — fills a similar culinary niche, but it’s more interesting than pimento cheese spread could ever be. Think of it as pimento cheese’s exotic second cousin — the edgy one with the old world accent, the one with international kitsch-value.
True, it does have a rather prosaic foundation: cream cheese. It really takes off from there though to include ingredients like cornichons, capers, Dijon mustard, and garlic. Some recipes even call for anchovy paste.
However, even with its more exotic flavor profile, Liptauer is, at heart, a traditional food that is best enjoyed on chunks of rustic bread, with pints of dark beer, and in the company of friends. I’m not sure that the same can be said for pimento cheese spread. So, to kick off the holiday season in the correctly kitschy way, here’s a recipe for–
2, 8 oz. packages of Philadelphia-Brand Cream Cheese, room temperature
8-10 cornichons, chopped finely
5 tablespoons capers, rinsed, drained, and chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon sweet Hungarian paprika
2 teaspoons caraway seeds, toasted and crushed with the back of a large, heavy knife (or in a mortar & pestle)
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 tsp. anchovy paste or one filleted anchovy, chopped finely (optional)
Salt & Pepper to taste
Olive oil, for drizzling
It’s not traditional, but a sprinkle of Spanish smoked paprika tastes and looks great on top
In a large bowl, use a rubber spatula to thoroughly combine the cream cheese through the salt and pepper. Transfer to a small bowl with a tight-fitting lid. Chill thoroughly. Can be made three days in advance. To serve: Remove liptauer from the refrigerator and leave at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Just before serving, stir and adjust the seasonings; transfer to a serving dish (if necessary); drizzle with olive oil and garnish with smoked paprika. Liptauer tastes best on chunks of rye bread.