Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Cavalcade of Cakes!

I know I was delinquent in not posting last week so I will make it up to you this week by supplying not one, not two, but three fabulous cake recipes! By the way, because one cannot live by cake alone (so they tell me), right now I am happily munching on a BearNaked Grain-ola Bar. Have you tried these? My local Costco has the fruit & nut (raisins, cranberries, almonds, and pecans) variety; it's quite good and will tide me over until dinner.

Last Saturday/Sunday, I baked the luscious Lemon Yogurt Cake from Ina Garten and the delicious Dimply Plum Cake from Dorie Greenspan (two of my favorite bakers). I wasn't really planning on two cakes last weekend, but when I went to the farmer's market in Paterson (currently celebrating 75 years in operation - the surrounding areas taking advantage of "farm to table" years before it was trendy), one of the farmers had baskets of gorgeous purple plums and I just had to have them. And today, I made Nectarine Golden Cake from the September issue of Gourmet. These cakes were all very different but all wonderful (there are very few cakes I would not find wonderful).

The nectarine cake is cooling right now and a little later this evening, I'll be savoring it. Let me know what you're baking this weekend. Bake on, my friends!

Lemon Yogurt Cake
Barefoot Contessa at Home

1-1/2 C all-purpose flour
2 t baking powder
1/2 t kosher salt
1 C plain whole-milk yogurt
1-1/3 C sugar, divided
3 extra-large eggs
2 t grated lemon zest (2 lemons)
1/2 t pure vanilla extract
1/2 C vegetable oil
1/3 C freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 C confectioner's sugar
2 TB freshly squeezed lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350. Grease 8-1/2 x 4-1/4 x 2-1/2 loaf pan. Line bottom with parchment paper. Grease and flour pan.

Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt into 1 bowl. In another bowl, whisk together the yogurt, 1 C sugar, eggs, lemon zest, and vanilla. Slowly whisk dry ingredients into the wet. With rubber spatula, fold vegetable oil into the batter, making sure it's all incorporated. Pour the batter into prepared pan and bake for about 50 minutes, or until a cake tester placed in center of loaf comes out clean.

Meanwhile, cook the 1/3 C lemon juice and remaining 1/3 C sugar in small pan until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is clear. Set aside.

When the cake is done, allow it to cool in pan for 10 minutes. Carefully place on a baking rack over a sheet pan. While the cake is still warm, pour the lemon-sugar mixture over the cake and allow to soak in. Cool.

For the glaze, combine confectioner's sugar and lemon juice and pour over cake.

Dimply Plum Cake
Dorie Greenspan, Baking From My Home to Yours

1-1/2 C all-purpose flour
1 t baking powder
1/4 t salt
Scant 1/4 t ground cardamom (optional)
5 TB unsalted butter at room temp
3/4 C packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1/3 C flavorless oil such as canola or safflower
Grated zest of 1 orange
1-1/2 t pure vanilla extract
8 purple or red plums (in the Fall, use Italian prune plums), halved and pitted

Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 350. Butter an 8 inch square baking pan, dust the inside with flour, tape out the excess and put the pan on a baking sheet.

Whisk the flour, baking powder, salt, and cardamom, if you're using it, together.

Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter at medium speed until soft and creamy, about 3 minutes. Add the sugar and beat for another 2 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for one minute after each addition. On medium speed, beat in the oil, orange zest, and vanilla. The batter will look very light and smooth, almost satiny. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients, mixing only until they are incorporated.

Run a spatula around the bowl and under the batter, just to make sure there are no dry spots, then scrape the batter into the pan and smooth the top. Arrange the plums cut side up in the batter - I usually make 4 rows of 4 plum halves each - jiggling the plums a tad just so they settle comfortably into the batter.

Bake for about 40 minutes, or until the top is honey brown and puffed around the plums and a thin knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Transfer the cake to a rack and cool for 15 minutes - during which time the plums' juice will return to the fruit - then run a knife around the sides of the pan and un-mold the cake. Invert and cool right side up.

Nectarine Golden Cake
Gourmet, September 2009
1 C all-purpose flour
2 t baking powder
Rounded 1/4 t salt
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
3/4 C plus 1/2 T sugar, divided
2 large eggs
1 t pure vanilla extract
1/8 t pure almond extract
2 nectarines, pitted and cut into 1/2-inch-thick wedges
1/2 t grated nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 with rack in middle. Lightly butter 9 inch springform pan.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. Beat butter and 3/4 C sugar with electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in extracts. At low speed, mix in flour mixture until just combined.

Spread batter evenly in pan, then scatter nectarines over top. Stir together nutmeg and remaining 1/2 T sugar and sprinkle over top. Bake until cake is golden-brown and top is firm but tender when lightly touched (cake will rise over fruit), 45-50 minutes. Cool in pan 10 minutes. Remove sides of pan and cool to warm.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Summer...better late than never!

The New York/New Jersey area had its first 90 degree day of the summer today. Today, August 10. And I guess to re-stake her claim on summer, Mother Nature sent us 90% humidity, too. Lovely. But when you spend most of the day indoors, it doesn't really matter too much.

And now for something completely different. I've been on this "real" ricotta kick lately. Not the stuff in the plastic tubs from the supermarket. Thick, fresh, creamy curds from your local Italian specialty store. We've been using it mainly in pasta dishes with ripe tomatoes from our garden, but I recalled a recipe in The New York Times about a month ago by Melissa Clark where she served fresh ricotta with homemade granola. When I realized we were going to have leftover ricotta, I thought this would be a terrific little breakfast dish, and a delightful departure from my standard cereal and bananas. And other than the raw pistachios and the coconut chips called for in the recipe, I had all the ingredients. So after floating around the pool for awhile this evening to de-stress, I hopped out and tossed the granola together. I think this granola is very forgiving and you could probably substitute lots of different ingredients here. In lieu of the pistachios, I used walnuts. Standing in for the coconut chips, I offered unsweetened shredded coconut. I also added a handful of dried cherries. It's all good.

For some reason, this granola reminds me of Tuscany. I think it's the olive oil part. I can see myself sitting at a table at a rustic farmhouse, overlooking a field of giant sunflowers just starting to turn their happy little faces toward the sun. I can't wait to have this tomorrow morning for breakfast with some fresh raspberries and blueberries thrown in for good measure. It's not Italy, but it is summer and I have my own little patch of sunflowers ready to greet the day.

Olive Oil Granola with Dried Apricots and Pistachios

3 C old-fashioned rolled oats
1-1/2 C raw pistachios, hulled
1 C raw pumpkin seeds, hulled
1 C coconut chips
3/4 C pure maple syrup
1/2 C extra virgin olive oil
1/2 C packed light brown sugar
1 t kosher salt
1/2 t ground cinnamon
1/2 t ground cardamom
3/4 C chopped dried apricots
Fresh ricotta, for serving (optional)
Fresh berries, for serving (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. In large bowl, combine oats, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, coconut chips, maple syrup, olive oil, brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, cardamom. Spread mixture on rimmed baking sheet in an even layer and bake for 45 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes until golden brown and well toasted.

2. Transfer granola to large bowl and add apricots, tossing to combine. Serve with ricotta and fruit, if desired.

Yield: about 9 cups.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Brooklyn, Summer 2009

Full disclosure: this post is primarily about steak. Vegans: turn back now.

Made a pilgrimage last night to the king of steakhouses - Peter Luger in Brooklyn. We were looking to experience steak in all its glory. And what can I say? This was a perfect meal.

Picture if you will: a steakhouse in operation since 1887, a building set on a corner in Brooklyn that no doubt has seen a myriad of changes in the last hundred or so years; dark, wood paneling covering the walls of the many dining rooms, a long bar right at the entryway manned by very able but not very friendly barmen, and old-world waiters who guide your dinner experience like the venerable Obi Wan (" don't really need two orders of the jumbo shrimp cocktail, sir."). Do you have that picture firmly in your mind? If so, then we can proceed.

Set not far from the Williamsburg Bridge, Peter Luger's is to steak as Julia Child was to fearless French cooking. Arriving about 30 minutes early for our reservation, we gladly took seats at the bar to enjoy a cocktail. Two burly barmen stood sentry behind it, filling various drink orders. As I mentioned above, they were not very warm or welcoming, but boy could they make a drink. And, really, do you need more than that at this kind of establishment? I think not. On to dinner.

Seated at a nice four-top, Bernard (our Obi Wan look-alike) immediately greeted us and brought a basket of heavenly breads. No focaccia here, folks. We're talking salt sticks, yeasty dinner rolls, and onion rolls. With salted butter. I could have been very happy with just my cocktail and this basket of incredibly good bread, but more sensible heads prevailed.

Our friend, Lou, who had been to Luger's several times recommended we start with three appetizers to share. The first selection was Sliced Tomato and Onions with Luger's Sauce. I thought to myself, how boring does this sound? But figuring that there must be something to it if it was a key set piece on the menu, I dove right in. Large slices of juicy tomatoes with equally large slices of onion - no seasoning, nothing else on this plate. But when you drizzled the "special sauce" over it, it became wonderful. They tell me this sauce is available in your local supermarket - it will be on my next shopping list. I don't know what's in it, I can't even tell you what makes it so special, but it took everyday tomato and onions and ramped it up a notch.

Next, Luger's Sizzling Bacon, Extra Thick. This was simply four slices of the
most incredible, mouthwatering, delicious, not-at-all salty, bacon I've ever had.
This, plus my cocktail, plus that basket of breads and I could have been happy (you notice the list of "happy with just this and that" is getting
longer...). Really, this was nothing but four slices of sizzling bacon - that's it. Fabulous.

The last appetizer was the Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail, Extra Large Portion (6). Six gorgeous, huge shrimp - plump and delicious, thank you very much.

Finally, we get to the real reason Luger's has been in business for lo these 123 years -their Porterhouse. Prime beef, chosen only by members of the family, and then dry-aged on-site until ready for consumption.

There are not many choices provided on how to order the steak - single steak or steak for two, three, or four. Even though we were a party of four, we ordered steak for three and were quite satiated. Peter Luger's porterhouse comes out sizzling and if it's a little too rare for any members of your party, you simply place a piece on the edge of the plate where it will continue to cook (very handy). This was a fantastic piece of meat - I couldn't stop eating it - tender, juicy, marvelously crusty exterior. Creamed spinach, onion rings, and the Special German Fried Potatoes brought up the rear. The potatoes were extraordinary - small, flavorful cubes fried crisp - nary a crumb was left on the plate. Not one item on our table required salt and pepper - everything had been expertly seasoned in the kitchen (imagine that).

Luger's has several nice items on the dessert list but we had other plans. Before I get to that, we need to wrap up on the steakhouse. I've been to Ruth's Chris, I've been to Morton's, and while those are good, if you want a true, old-world, rarefied steakhouse experience supplanted with outstanding quality, you've simply got to go to Peter Luger.
Peter Luger Steak House on Urbanspoon
You know I'm all about dessert. So don't think that just because we didn't have dessert at Luger's that we were passing on it altogether. Au contraire, mon freire. Our friends had heard about an ice cream shop set underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. It was a beautiful, warm night so why not. Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory is, indeed, right underneath the bridge, but we were obviously not the only people brought out by the nice weather. A long line snaked out the door. The store offers only about six flavors and after about a 20 minute wait, we took our turn at the counter, then headed outside to enjoy our cones, all the while gazing up the East River at the Statue of Liberty, the boats sailing by, and that incredible bridge soaring above us.

While my coffee ice cream was very creamy, a bit stronger coffee flavor would have been more to my liking. But when you've got the lights of the South Street Seaport twinkling across the river, the lovely River Cafe (also set at the base of the bridge) bustling with activity, and tourists from around the globe posing for pictures at the water's edge, why complain. This is the stuff a summer evening in New York is made of.