The Christmassiest Damn Thing I’ve Ever Baked

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Cranberry Coffee Cake 2

That’s a provocative statement, I know, but what else are you going to call a buttery coffee cake pierced by a bright red layer of cranberries and sprinkled with a cinnamony walnut streusel?  It practically screams “Ho ho ho!” at you, and on top of being so blatantly festive visually, it’s also pretty quick and easy to put together and feeds an entire phalanx of revelers.

As a bonus, the cranberry filling drains off about a cup or so of a stunningly crimson, sweet-tart syrup that can be mixed into your favorite punch or cranberry cocktail recipe, or mixed with iced tea if your occasion isn’t quite so adult.

Cake and drinks should get you all through First Night and whatever lentil recipe I come up with for 2013, right?

Cranberry Coffee Cake

Cranberry-Walnut Coffee Cake
Serves an entire party (16-24 depending on slicing)

For filling and topping:
1 bag fresh or frozen cranberries
1/3 cup granulated sugar

1 cup walnuts, chopped medium-fine
2/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
6 tablespoons melted unsalted butter

For cake:
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon sea salt
4 large eggs
2 cups granulated sugar
¾ cups buttermilk
4 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted
¼ cup walnut oil

Pulse the cranberries and 1/3 cup sugar in a food processor just until finely chopped, being careful not to carry it over into a puree.  Set a fine-meshed strainer over a large liquid measuring cup and scrape in the cranberries, and allow them to drain for 15 minutes.

In a medium bowl, stir together the walnuts, sugar, cinnamon and melted butter.  Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 F and line a 9 x 13 rectangular cake pan with parchment paper, leaving a slight overhang to help you lift the cake out later.

Whisk together the dry ingredients for the cake in a medium bowl.  Do the same in a glass measuring cup with the buttermilk, melted butter, walnut oil and vanilla extract.  In a large bowl, beat the sugar and eggs together until frothy.  Add the dry and wet mixtures in two additions each, starting with the flour, and stirring just until mixed before the next addition.

Stir a third of the walnut streusel mixture into the drained cranberries, reserving the cranberry syrup for later use.  Spread half the cake batter into the prepared pan, then sprinkle in the cranberry filling, leaving a clean ½ inch border of batter all around the edge.  Smooth the remaining batter over the top, and sprinkle the top with the rest of the walnut streusel.

Bake for 45 minutes, or until the top is golden and springy to the touch and a tester inserted through the cake comes out clean except for any clinging bits of cranberry filling.  Cool the cake completely in its pan on a wire rack, then lift it out using the parchment overhang.  Use a serrated knife to divide into slices 1 to 1 ½ inch thick or slightly bigger squares.

Notes:

If you don’t have a party to take this to, you can halve the recipe, although in my opinion you might as well make the whole thing and freeze the leftover slices, tightly wrapped in plastic wrap in bundles of two slices and then placed in a zip-top bag.  They defrost with just a quick 30-second zap in the microwave, supplying you with instant cake straight through the post-holiday doldrums.

If you don’t have walnut oil, you can just substitute an additional ½ stick of melted butter.  In that case, you could swap out the walnuts for pecans, if you prefer.

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This Year’s Birthday Pie

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I think, as of this year, I can safely say I’ve covered the whole universe of apple pie. I’ve done all manner of tarts, tatins, single-crust pies, and traditional double-crust pies, and now I can add fried pies, which was His Lordship’s birthday request this time around.

Because no fried apple pie recipe had every quality I was looking for, I mashed together and made further changes to this recipe for the pastry and Shirley Corriher’s recipe in Cookwise for an apple pie in which the filling, top and bottom crusts are all cooked separately and assembled at the last minute to keep the pastry from going soggy. I mixed the apples (Stayman, Cortland, York and Honeycrisp) for a nice balance of sweetness and tartness, and a blend of firm pieces and almost-melting ones. To further bump up the apple flavor, I used a blend of apple cider and Calvados in the filling.

The resulting pies are really good, blisteringly crisp outside and oozy-apple-y inside, although I’m not going to kid you; they’re a fair amount of work and not remotely speedy to prepare. Still, once a year, you might as well really do it up right, right?

Fried Apple Pies
Makes 7-8 individual pies

For the dough:

2 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon sea salt
3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, in ½ inch cubes
3 tablespoons very cold non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening, in lumps the same size as the butter
1 egg, lightly beaten
Ice water

For the filling:

5 medium apples, preferably a mix of pie varieties
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup apple cider
2 tablespoons Calvados
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
6 tablespoons light brown sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in 3 tablespoons apple cider

Oil for frying
Confectioner’s sugar for dusting

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Add the butter and shortening and work with a pastry blender until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Whisk the egg with ¼ cup of the ice water, sprinkle over the dry ingredients, and stir gently until fully incorporated. Add more water as necessary until the dough holds together, kneading a few times in the bowl to be sure. Divide the pastry in half, press into disks, and wrap tightly in plastic wrap or in zip-top bags. Chill at least one hour.

Peel the apples and divide into segments with an apple corer/slicer. Further chop each segment into ½ inch chunks.

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat and sauté the apples 2-3 minutes, stirring gently with a heatproof spatula. Add the ¼ cup cider, Calvados and vanilla and cook 1 minute longer before adding in the sugars, spices and salt. Simmer the apples until starting to become tender but not mushy, 5 or so minutes more. Add the cornstarch mixture and continue simmering until the juices have thickened. Cool the filling completely and refrigerate until ready to assemble the pies.

Roll a disk of the pastry on a lightly floured surface to a thickness of about a quarter inch. Cut six-inch circles from the dough, laying the circles in a single layer onto parchment-lined baking sheets. Refrigerate until firmed up again.

Place two heaping spoonfuls of the apple filling in the center of a pastry circle. Brush the edges with water, fold in half, and pinch to seal closed, pushing out any air as you go along. Place the filled pie back on the parchment-lined sheet and crimp the edges with a fork. Repeat with remaining circles. Chill again, until the pastry is cold and the pies are easily picked up.

Heat 2 inches of oil in a heavy, high-sided pot to 360 F. Fry two to three pies at a time, turning once, until well browned. Drain on a rack set over a baking sheet until cool enough to handle. Dust with confectioner’s sugar before serving.

Notes:

Don’t be tempted to skip the re-chilling steps with the pastry, because the non-hydrogenated shortening really needs to be kept as cold as possible or it will be too floppy to handle easily.

There will be both extra filling and dough scraps. You can re-roll the scraps for more pies, although the second batch will be tougher so I don’t bother. The leftover filling is a nice topping for waffles or pancakes, or can be served as a compote with yogurt.

I know, I know

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Humita

I’m just going to stop even talking about the lapses.  Moving right along…

This was one of my absolute favorite dishes as a kid.  It’s creamed corn, but with the critically important additions of gently sauteed onions and red pepper, paprika and parmesan cheese.  The same term is used for either corn cakes or tamales elsewhere in Latin America (and in some of Argentina’s provinces as well), but what it means in Buenos Aires is this side dish, which can also be used as a great filling for empanadas.

In the off-season it can be made with frozen corn, blitzed briefly in food processor or immersion blender until creamy but not completely liquefied.  If you absolutely must, canned creamed corn is an option — just don’t tell me about it.

Cheesy corn

Humita (Argentine Creamed Corn)
Serves 4-6

6 ears fresh corn, shucked
1 small onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 ½ teaspoon sweet or smoked paprika
1 teaspoon sugar (optional, if corn isn’t sweet)
Salt and pepper
1 cup grated parmesan

Grate the corn on the large holes of a box grater, placed inside a large bowl.

Heat the oil in a large saute pan over medium heat, and add the onion with a pinch of salt.  Cook until the onion is wilted but not browning, then add the red pepper and continue cooking until softened. Add the paprika and stir for a few seconds more, then add in the corn, sugar if necessary, and a generous sprinkling of salt and black pepper.  Cook for 2-3 more minutes, until the corn has just lost its rawness.

Off the heat, stir in the parmesan.  Taste and correct for salt and pepper if necessary, and serve immediately.

Notes: You could leave the cheese out to make this vegan.  If you have really, really good corn, it should come out rich and creamy enough all by itself.

You Can Keep Your Oreos

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Well, hello there, strangers.  Long time no see!

While I was off in my start-of-the-year teaching crunch, which left me no evenings or weekends free to blog, I understand we had the 100th anniversary of America’s favorite sandwich cookie.  I can appreciate the basic charms of the Oreo as much as anybody, and when I was a teenager in Mexico I was obsessed with them, because this everyday All-American snack couldn’t be had by anyone not affiliated with the US Embassy and thus, they were the perfect symbol for my expatriate adolescent angst. I would insist on my father bringing as many packages as he could from his business trips back to the home office, just so I could feel “normal” for the few days they lasted.

But that phase is mercifully in my past now, and as a grown-up I can also look critically at the little hockey pucks and acknowledge the fact that they’re not really all they’re cracked up to be, which is why I’m going to make up for my latest intermittent silence with a recipe for what I think is the best sandwich cookie in the world.

Alfajores are to Argentina what the chocolate chip cookie is to the U.S.  They’re ubiquitous and can be found in iterations from the mass-produced, individually-wrapped Hostess-equivalent kinds purchasable at the convenience store to the high-end boutique variety in beribboned boxes. When I was growing up and into my adulthood, every relative who visited was expected to bring us at least one box of my personal favorite brand. (Are we sensing a theme about international cookie commissioning by me as a kid?  I was way ahead of the curve on free trade.)

So what are alfajores?  Well, besides being sadly unknown in this hemisphere, confusing to pronounce (all-fah-hor-es) and what I think should replace the macaron as the next fad, they’re shortbready disks faintly hinting at lemon pressed around a layer of dulce de leche, although you can also find fruit-filled ones.  The commercial kind are generally enrobed in either a crackly, powdery sugar glaze or a smooth semisweet chocolate one, which is wonderful but way too much bother for home baking.  Home bakers instead make an easier but no less delicious version in which the cookies, made with cornstarch (the maizena of the name below) for a perfectly delicate crumb, are filled and rolled in coconut to keep the dulce de leche from sticking to your fingers.

Like the Oreo, this is one of those things that sounds too basic to be all that great, but is actually dangerously addictive instead.  The cookies are buttery and tender and neither too oily nor too soft, the dulce de leche adds just the right amount of sweetness to the not-very-sweet cookies, the hint of citrus makes everything sparkle just the tiniest bit, and it all just really, really works.

If you absolutely insist on chocolate in your sandwich cookies, I still have you covered, because not having enough regular dulce de leche on hand, I made part of the batch with chocolate dulce de leche I picked up on sale at the local Whole Paycheck.  Personally, I remain unconvinced by the chocolate kind, which tastes generically fudgy to me and lacks the lovely milky, caramely flavor I think dulce de leche really ought to put front and center in order to live up to the name.  Man, did my coworkers disagree with me, though, because the chocolate ones were by far the favorites and were gone in a blink.

I also filled some with the hurricane plum jam I previously posted about, which worked so splendidly that I hoarded them at home and took none to work. If you use jam, be sure to use a very firm one so that the cookies don’t ooze apart.  You may need to cook it down a bit if what you have is too runny.

However you fill them, seriously, you have to try these.  The minute you do, I know you too will recognize their undeniable awesomeness.

Alfajores de Maizena
Makes about five dozen small cookies, or 2-3 dozen larger ones

For cookies:
1 ½ cups (200 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
2 ½ cups (300 grams) cornstarch
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon sea salt
14 tablespoons (200 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
3 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon brandy
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Zest of one medium lemon

For assembly:
One 16-ounce jar dulce de leche or very thick jam
1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut

Preheat oven to 350 F and line three baking sheets with parchment paper.

Sift the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, baking soda and salt through a fine sieve twice, the second time onto a large sheet of parchment or wax paper for easy transfer, and set aside.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar.  Add the yolks one at a time, scraping down between additions. Beat in the brandy, vanilla and lemon zest.

Add the dry ingredients in three batches at low speed, mixing until just combined.  Turn onto a Silpat or the reserved parchment sheet that held the dry ingredients, and gently roll to a thickness of about a quarter of an inch or half a centimeter for thinner cookies, and double that for slightly puffier ones.  (Dust the rolling pin with cornstarch if sticking starts to occur.)

Cut the dough with 1½ to 2-inch diameter round cutters, being as careful as you can to minimize the waste.  Use a bench scraper or spatula to transfer the cookies to the baking sheets, spacing about an inch apart.  Gently pull the scraps together and re-roll to use up all the dough.

Bake the cookies just until firm and barely gold on the bottom.  Do not allow to brown on the top or sides.  Remove to a cooling rack immediately and cool completely.

Once the cookies have cooled, form sandwiches by spreading a teaspoonful of dulce de leche or jam onto the bottom of one cookie, and covering with a second. Squeeze gently, just enough to push the filling out to the edges of the cookies.  Place the coconut in a small, shallow container and roll the edges of the cookies in the coconut to evenly coat the exposed filling.

Store the filled cookies in an airtight container, and consume within the next day or two.

Notes:

Because of the very high proportion of cornstarch to flour, the dough is much more resilient on re-rolling than standard dough, but it’s still a good idea to treat it gently to ensure tender cookies.

This is my mom’s recipe, by the way.  I just did the conversions from metric and put back the coconut, which she hates.  Thanks, Mom!

New Year, New Insanity

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On the off chance that my prior Wednesday night baklava, candy making adventures, or Sunday layer cake baking haven’t convinced you that I’m a wee bit off my rocker, this really ought to do the trick. How many people go on impromptu solo tamales-making binges, I ask you? Tamales are the sort of thing that generally involve tons of planning and the rallying of an army of assistants, but I decided at lunchtime on New Year’s Eve eve not just to make tamales, but to start by making mole as the sauce first, which is normally considered a whole-day, once-a-year, multi-abuela job all on its own.

But the thing is, even rationally accepting how insane the idea was, I still had to do it, because while on a shopping excursion on Friday, I finally stumbled on a place in this generally foodie-positive but sadly Mexican-ingredient unfriendly city that sold fresh masa. I hadn’t had really good tamales since my last California trip, this time last year, so finally having the proper ingredients on hand, I was going to do it up right, damn it. Since it was also nearly New Year’s, I was also going to incorporate lentils somehow, as has been my habit for the past decade or so.

Tamales really are a ton of work and time, so I don’t expect anyone to try this particular recipe any time soon, but if you don’t have a ready source of really fantastic tamales, I seriously think these are worth the trouble once a year. They’re sweet and spicy and scrumptious, not to mention colorful, comforting, and festive, and unless you’re actually having them in the context of a tamales-making party, you should have at least a dozen tamales and at least a cup of mole to stash in your freezer for a few lovely effortless meals later on.

Roasted Sweet Potato, Beluga Lentil and Mole Tamales
(Adapted from Nancy Zaslavsky, Meatless Mexican Home Cooking, 1997)
Makes approximately two dozen tamales

For mole:
4 ancho chiles
4 guajillo chiles
1 chipotle chile
¼ cup golden raisins
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 small yellow onion, peeled and quartered
¼ cup toasted sliced almonds
1 ½ cup vegetable stock
½ can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
½ teaspoon kosher salt
3-4 grinds black pepper
1 ½ tablespoons peanut or olive oil
1 ounce bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
1 2-ounce disk palm sugar, grated or shaved, or 2-3 tablespoons light brown sugar

For filling:
2 large orange-fleshed sweet potatoes
Peanut or olive oil for roasting
½ cup beluga, black, or French green lentils

For masa:
1 kilo (2.2 lbs) fresh masa
1 ½ cups softened unsalted butter, vegetarian non-hydrogenated shortening, or a mixture of the two
1 cup frozen corn
2-3 tablespoons cream or vegetable stock
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper

For assembly:
2 1-lb packages frozen banana leaves, defrosted

Stem and seed the chiles, then toast them in a dry pan over medium heat until pliable, flipping often to prevent any browning. Put the toasted chiles in a large bowl or measuring cup with the raisins, cover with boiling water, and soak for 20 minutes.

Toast the onion and garlic in the same dry pan until beginning to darken slightly on each side. Place the onion and garlic in the carafe of a blender with the drained chiles and raisins and a few tablespoons of the vegetable broth. Blend until smooth, adding more broth as needed to keep the blender running. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper and blend again.

Heat the oil in a medium pot with a heavy bottom and high sides, and fry the sauce for five minutes, stirring regularly. Add the chocolate, spices, sugar, and remaining broth, lower the heat, and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to avoid scorching along the bottom and sides. Set aside to cool while preparing the rest of the tamale components..

While the chiles for the mole are soaking, preheat the oven to 425 F and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Peel the sweet potatoes, then halve them and cut into 1-inch slices. Toss them on the baking sheet with just enough oil to lightly coat them, and bake until cooked through and starting to caramelize on the bottom, around 30-45 minutes. Let cool slightly, then cut into chunks of about half an inch. At the same time, boil the lentils with ample water to cover until they are tender but not falling apart. Drain the lentils and set aside while making the masa.

In the bowl of a standing mixer, cream the butter and/or shortening until light. Scrape down the sides and, with the mixer running, slowly add the masa by the spoonful and continue beating until fluffy, about another 10 minutes. With a food processor or immersion blender, puree the corn and cream or stock, then whip into the masa with the salt and pepper. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap to prevent the masa from drying out.

Unfold the banana leaves and rinse the powdery residue off. If they’re not already cut in half, remove the center vein from the leaves and cut into two long strips with a pair of kitchen shears, then cut each leaf strip into 10-inch rectangles. Steam the leaves in a large steamer until they’re pliable. Tear a few of the less nice leaves, or any that have torn while processing, into ribbons for tying up the tamales.

Lay down a steamed banana leaf square on a work surface. Using an ice cream scoop, portion out a ball-sized scoop of masa, and press it into a 6-inch circle in the middle of the leaf. Over the center of the masa, pile 2-3 pieces of roasted sweet potato, a small spoonful of lentils, and a spoonful of mole. Using the bottom edge of the leaf, flip over about a third of the masa over the filling, then lay the leaf flat again. Starting at the top edge, flip over the other edge of the masa to seal in the filling, then keep rolling to enclose the tamal completely. Fold under the two open sides until they meet underneath the tamal, and use a strip to tie it securely shut. Lay the finished tamal on a cookie sheet and continue forming tamales until the masa runs out.

Lay a few of the leftover banana leaves on the bottom of a large steamer over simmering water, and fill with the finished tamales. Cover with a few more leaves, and steam for about 1 hour, adding water to the bottom as necessary. Tamales are done when the leaf pulls cleanly away from the masa. Let rest for a few minutes before serving with the remaining mole on the side.

Leftover cooked tamales will keep in the fridge for a few days and reheat well in the microwave, or they can be frozen immediately after folding and steamed later.

Notes:

If you can’t find a source of fresh masa, you can substitute the equivalent amount of reconstituted masa harina, which should be available in most supermarkets. It won’t taste quite as sweet and lovely as fresh masa, but it should still be good, especially when livened up with the pureed sweet corn.

I used banana leaves rather than corn husks as the wrapper because I could easily get the leaves at the Asian market a block away from the tortilleria that sells the masa. Tamales are traditionally made with either of those wrappers in the various parts of Mexico and Central America, so use whichever you prefer. They will each impart a slightly different flavor to the tamales but will work equally well.

Palm sugar, like the banana leaves, is commonly found in Asian markets. It’s less sweet than cane or beet sugar and has a wonderful rich caramel flavor, similar to maple sugar, which you could also use. If you don’t have either one, light brown sugar is more than fine, but start with the smaller amount and taste before adding more, because it’s significantly sweeter.

How To Never Burn Microwave Popcorn Again

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It’s November, which means I’m doing the novel thing again, thus the seasonal blogging silence.  Things will pick back up again for the holidays, but for now I’m throwing out a very quick post about this year’s writing fuel, which is more a technique than a recipe.

Since the pre-fab microwave popcorn bags are overpriced, unnatural, and tend to burn as soon as you turn your back anyway, I’ve been making microwave popcorn basically using Alton Brown’s recipe forever. Unfortunately, while Alton’s recipe is definitely an improvement over the commercial stuff, the popcorn still has a nasty tendency to scorch if you don’t watch it like a hawk, and you also have to accept that at a quarter to a third is going to be unpopped waste.  Some indeterminate amount of time ago, I stumbled on an improvement that eliminates both the scorching and the waste problems.

The first part of the improvement is to use a very long, skinny paper bag, the kind that’s wrapped around your baguette or your wine bottle, rather than the standard brown paper lunch bag.  This type of bag works better for two reasons: first, because the narrower shape does a better job spreading out the kernels and funneling the popped away from the unpopped, reducing some of the scorching risk.  Second, because the fact that you can just fold over the top multiple times rather than having to staple it shut means you can keep re-opening the bag, removing the popped kernels, and putting the unpopped ones back for another round in the microwave.  This cyclical re-cooking process is the second part of the improvement.

Is the process fiddly?  Well, sure, because you’re going to be babysitting the microwave, stopping repeatedly to pour out and separate the contents, but this method also produces perfect popcorn in under ten minutes with no nose-punishing acrid fog that immediately permeates your whole house and lingers for hours.  And if you’re mentally blocked — say because your characters insist on sitting around having endless expository conversations rather than just doing something goddamnit — a nice mindless kitchen task with a snack as a reward might be just what you need!

Idiot-Proof Microwave Popcorn
Makes around 6 cups

¼ cup popcorn kernels
1 long, thin brown paper bag
Two large bowls for sorting
Popcorn garnishes of choice: melted butter, olive or flavored oil, salt, pepper, chili or curry powder, grated Parmesan, cinnamon sugar, etc.

Place the popcorn kernels into the bag and fold the top over three or so times to close.  Lay the bag flat in the microwave, folded edge facing down, and set the microwave for around 2 minutes on high, adding time as needed until regular popping noises start.  Continue adding time in 30-second increments until the popping audibly slows down, but don’t wait until it’s totally stopped or burning will be a foregone conclusion.

Unfold the bag top, pour the contents into the first bowl, and scoop the popped kernels off the top and into the second bowl.  Discard any semi-popped duds, and pour the completely unpopped kernels back into the bag, re-folding the top.

Repeat the process until all or nearly all of the kernels have been popped, or you have as much popcorn as you need.  Garnish as desired and serve.

Notes:

My current favorite popcorn flavoring is really good extra-virgin olive oil, a lot of cracked pepper, and finely grated Reggiano Parmigiano, but a close second is butter and sugar mixed with pumpkin pie spice for that holiday feel.

Tropical Splendor

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We’ve already established that I’m frequently overly ambitious on a rainy Sunday, and sometimes I’m just stupidly excessive.  This cake is the product of one of those stupidly excessive times, or perhaps two of those times, if you count the fact that I put up the mango butter that ended up as cake filling on a similar Sunday about two months earlier.

I’d been thinking for quite a long time about combining cashews and mangoes in a cake, since mangoes and cashews are close botanical relations and natural partners the same way almonds and apricots are. It’s so logical to pair them that I was really rather surprised at the dearth of cake recipes featuring them when I went a-Googling. There seem to be a lot of cashew-mango cheesecake and upside down cake recipes, but I actually rather dislike cheesecake (shocking that there’s cake I don’t like, I know) and wanted a proper layer cake for my Sunday afternoon tea.  Since I couldn’t find what I wanted, I decided to adapt the recipe for almond cake that ended up as my birthday cupcakes last year.

I was, I have to admit, a wee bit apprehensive about how the cake would turn out, given that cashews are higher in fat and waxier than almonds.  I was worried they might behave weirdly in the cake and make it dense or grainy, but it turns out I had no cause for concern.  The cashews melted right into the batter and the baked cake was just as wonderfully tender as it was with almonds.  I even think the extra richness of the cashews might have slightly bumped up the butteriness of the cake, which, as I suspected, went beautifully with the brightness of the mango butter.  To keep things really simple, I iced the cake with a very plain powdered sugar icing with just a hint of lime, and I covered the top with some more roasted, chopped cashews.

I made a huge rectangular cake because I have a largish workplace and have to make sure everyone gets their Monday treat, but you could cut all the quantities in half and make a 9-inch round cake for your tea party. Earl or Lady Grey would work especially well given the citrusy undertones of the mango butter, but any kind of tea should be lovely with this cake.

If you’re in an even more stupidly excessive mood and more inclined to fancy decorating than I ever am, I’d venture to say that this would make quite a lovely and unusual wedding or other special-occasion cake.  You could even go full-bore tropical by incorporating coconut into the buttercream or fondant and surrounding the layers with white or pale yellow orchid blossoms.

Cashew Layer Cake with Mango Butter Filling
(Adapted from Rose Levy Berenbaum, The Cake Bible)
Serves a large party (at least 24)

For the cake:

1 cup roasted unsalted cashews
2 tablespoons granulated sugar

3 ⅓ cups sifted cake flour
2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 ⅓ cup sour cream, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
24 tablespoons (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

For assembly:

2 cups mango butter (see notes)
2 cups powdered sugar
Juice of half a lime
2 tablespoons hot water
1 cup roasted unsalted cashews, coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Butter a 9 x 13 rectangular cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper, then re-butter and flour the pan.

In a food processor, pulse 1 cup of cashews with 2 tablespoons sugar until finely ground, but be sure not to process so long it turns into cashew butter.  Measure out ⅔ cup plus 1 tablespoon of the ground cashews and reserve the rest for decorating the cake.

In a large glass measuring cup, whisk together the eggs, vanilla extract, and ⅓ cup of the sour cream.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the flour, ⅔ cup plus 1 tablespoon ground cashews, 2 cups sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt.  Briefly mix on low to blend the dry ingredients.  Add the butter and remaining sour cream and mix on low until combined, then increase the speed to medium and beat for 1 ½ minutes to lighten the batter.  Scrape down the sides and add the egg mixture in 3 additions, scraping the sides and beating for 20 seconds between each one.

Spread the batter evenly in the pan, flattening the top.  Bake for 45-50 minutes, until the top is lightly springy and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.  Cool in the pan for 10 minutes and then invert onto a rack to cool completely, pulling off the parchment.

Once the cake is cool, split into two layers with a serrated knife. Carefully slide off the top half and spread the exposed lower half evenly with the mango butter.  Replace the top half, making sure the edges line up properly, and smooth out any of the filling that dribbles out the sides.

Whisk the powdered sugar, lime juice and water in a medium bowl until a thick paste forms.  Place the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water and continue whisking until the icing warms up and the sugar has dissolved completely, about 1 minute.  Immediately spread the icing in a smooth layer over the top of the cake, and sprinkle first with the reserved ground cashews and then with the chopped cashews.  Gently press down a bit to cement the cashews into the icing.

Let the cake sit for 15 or so minutes for the icing to firm up, and then slice with a serrated knife to serve, wiping the cake crumbs and mango filling off the knife between cuts for clean slices.

The cake should keep well for about a day at room temperature. To keep it longer, tightly wrap the filled but not iced cake in plastic and refrigerate or freeze, decorating it shortly before serving.

Notes:

To make a normal-sized cake for 8-12, cut all quantities in half and bake the batter in a 9-inch round or springform pan for 35-45 minutes. It could also be divided among lined cupcake tins for about two dozen cupcakes.

If you don’t have pre-roasted cashews, spread 2 cups raw cashews on a cookie sheet and bake at 350 for 10-15 minutes, until evenly dark gold, checking often to avoid burning.  Cool completely before grinding half of it with the 2 tablespoons sugar in the food processor.

I made my own mango butter shortly before I made the hurricane plum jam, because I had half a case of them getting ready to turn when I got back from a weekend trip.  It would be far more sensible for you to use store-bought, but I’d suggest adding about ¼ teaspoon of ground cardamom and the juice of an orange to the butter and gently heating it until the dusty raw cardamom flavor cooks out and the extra liquid evaporates.  If you’re not a mango fan, apricot or peach butter would also go quite nicely with the cashew cake and give you the same pretty color contrast.

In case you’re wondering, the reason to bother with the whole double boiler business with the powdered sugar icing is that it helps it set up quickly.  If you just mixed in the liquid and poured it over the cake, it would flow right down the sides after barely covering the top, not leaving you enough structure to embed the cashews in afterward.  Because it does set up VERY quickly, be sure to have the cashews at hand for pressing into the top when you start to spread the icing. If you don’t want the hassle at all, the cake is still yummy, if slightly less pretty and more mildly cashew-flavored, without the decoration.

The Last of the Hurricane Posts

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This is the third and final post about how I cooked my way through the hurricane.  While it’s been good for my blogging productivity, let’s hope there are no more natural disaster-induced motivators, hmm?

Anyway, having survived Irene basically unscathed, I found myself with far more time than I expected the day after.  So I baked, but just because I had the time doesn’t mean I had the inclination to pull out all the baking stops and do something stupidly “Thank God, we’re alive!” manic like eclairs (though I did make eclairs during the blogging hiatus, because there is, in fact, a correct time and place for stupidly manic cooking).  I just wanted something comforting, low on the effort scale, and, since I didn’t know if commuter rail was going to be back up in time for me to go to work on Monday morning, capable of keeping an extra day if necessary.  What fit that particular bill excellently was gingerbread.

As we all know, my quest for ever more obnoxiously in-your-face gingery things is a lifelong one, and in that quest, I had tried the Classic Gingerbread Cake recipe in this January’s issue of Cook’s Illustrated. Apart from the bordering-on-foolhardy quantities of both fresh and powdered ginger, the recipe had two other things going for it: the clever use of stout to deepen the flavor, and the promise of eliminating the sunken and damp middle gingerbread is so often prone to. The recipe delivered on both intense gingery flavor and structural soundness, and was particularly well-received by the coworkers, who as we’ve established are surprisingly amenable to having their palates challenged via their weekly baked goods.

The one snag was that I had no stout on hand, and because I live in a state with patently absurd liquor laws and was not going to make a special trip to the beer distributor on the day after a hurricane to buy stout by the full case, I had to substitute what I did have: a nice hard cider.  To make up the required volume and add some more depth, I spiked it with some really spectacular rum we picked up on our now-annual summer jaunt to the Berkshires with His Lordship’s community orchestra. Despite the fact that the CI people said it wasn’t worth making the recipe with anything but stout, I noticed no dumbing down of the cake once baked.  The cider, rum and very dark blackstrap molasses I had in the pantry contributed more than enough low notes to support the double-ginger assault.  Honestly, I think it’s just as good with the substitution, and since we have not much use for stout while I adore hard cider, I’ll be going with this combination from now on.

For ease of distribution, as usual with Monday treats, I converted the recipe to cupcakes, which I spread with a cream cheese and lemon curd frosting. The frosting is seriously optional, and if it were up to His Lordship there would be no question about leaving it off, since he didn’t care for the additional sourness.  For those of you who are similarly less obsessed about citrus than I am, feel free to eat them plain or with a dab of salted butter for just the merest bit of decadence.


Gingerbread Cupcakes with Lemon Curd Frosting
(Adapted from Classic Gingerbread Cake, Cook’s Illustrated, January/February 2011)
Makes 30 cupcakes

For the gingerbread:
3 cups all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 bottle (11.2 ounces) hard cider plus enough dark rum to make 1 ½ cups
1 teaspoon baking soda
⅔ cup blackstrap molasses
⅔ cup honey
1 ½ cups packed light brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs
⅔ cup canola oil
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger

For the frosting (utterly optional):
4 ounces (half a block) of cream cheese, at room temperature
4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
½ powdered sugar
2 pinches sea salt
Half a (10.5 ounce) jar of lemon curd, or more to taste

Whisk together flour, ginger, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and black pepper in a large bowl and set aside.

Bring the cider and rum to a boil in a small pan over medium heat.  In the meantime, set the oven rack to the middle position, preheat the oven to 350 F and line 2 ½ muffin trays with cupcake liners.

Pour the hot cider and rum into a medium bowl and stir in the baking soda, which will foam up aggressively, then stir in the molasses, honey, and sugars.  Once the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is a bit cooler, whisk in the eggs, oil and grated ginger.

Add the wet mixture into the dry ingredients a third at a time, whisking vigorously between additions until completely smooth before adding the next third.  (For once, you need not be afraid of over-mixing.)  The batter will be quite liquid after the final addition, so use a ladle to divide it evenly among the lined muffin cups.

Tap the filled muffin trays gently against the counter a couple of times to release any air bubbles, and bake 25-30 minutes, until the tops are firm to the touch and a tester comes out mostly clean.  Cool briefly in their tins before lifting out by the liners onto a wire rack and cooling completely.

While the cupcakes are cooling, beat the cream cheese, butter, powdered sugar and salt together in a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until light.  Beat in the lemon curd and taste, adding more if you want a more pronounced lemon flavor.  Spread the frosting thinly over the cooled cupcakes.

Unfrosted cupcakes will keep for several days at room temperature in an airtight container.  Once frosted, they really should be refrigerated, though you should bring them back to room temperature before serving since the chill will blunt some of the spicy kick.

Notes:

I could have stretched the batter among three full muffin tins, yielding 36 cupcakes, but they would have been slightly smaller than I wanted.  If you prefer that many, start checking them at 20 minutes for doneness. If you want to make a large sheet cake instead, pour the batter into a 9×13 pan, greased and floured, and bake 35-45 minutes.  Cool completely in the pan before frosting and slicing.

The quantity of frosting here is just enough to thinly cover the full batch of cupcakes.  If you want to be much more generous or to pipe designs with it, double the quantities.

Of Houses and Hurricanes

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I was going to offer up more pictures of the new kitchen and also the garden, but weather, work, and a whole lot of chaos relating to our upstairs remodeling project got in the way, so that will have to wait.  In the meantime, in order not to fall back on my blog-procrastinating ways, I’ll dish a little bit about the house and share the recipe for the black bean soup I also made in anticipation of the hurricane.

When we went looking for a house, there were many criteria on our very long list of needs, but of paramount importance were a big yard for the Monster, who clearly missed the grassy kingdom she ruled in Seattle, and of course a well-appointed kitchen, or at least a kitchen space large enough to be made well-appointed with a reasonable amount of renovating.  After much searching and a fair amount of nail biting, we landed Chez Disdain, which, while it has its downsides like any old house, has both yard and kitchen in spades.

The plot is mind-bogglingly large for being still within city limits, and since it has both expanses of lawn and trees and shrubs around the fence line, it’s like her very own dog park (with the corresponding downside for His Lordship of that much more ground to cover with his push mower).  There is also plenty of room for gardening in containers on the patio and even in numerous sunny spots on the ground, so my dad, who came with my mother to help with the move and settling in, planted a stunning variety of things that are now, despite the ridiculous weather, yielding up some great dividends.  We have three varieties of tomatoes currently producing enough for a little bit of salad or salsa every week or so, both bell and long twisty peppers turning a nice deep red, a ton of different herbs I’ve been using pretty much daily, and in about a month we’re going to have as much winter squash as anyone can handle, by the looks of the rapidly-swelling vines. Our two failures so far were the watermelons, which just got into the ground too late and won’t have time to turn those flowers into fruit before summer truly ends, and a summer squash that didn’t survive the tipping over of its pot while we were moving it.

The kitchen, as I hinted in the previous post, is the best I’ve ever had by a mile.  Since it’s the one place the prior owner actually seems to have put a large investment into (don’t get me started about where she should have and didn’t), it reads like the househunter’s impossible wishlist.  It’s gigantic, has acres of counters even before you factor in the big island/breakfast bar, contains so much cabinetry that even I haven’t been able to fill it all yet, and let’s not forget the aforementioned six-burner Viking range.  For the first time ever, I’m able to have pretty much every appliance out and ready for use at all times, from the Kitchenaid to the rice cooker, and I could cook about six different things at once if I thought I could keep it all under control.

The only things that I don’t so much love are the lack of plugs in the island, the slightly smaller than ideal sink, the lack of window in the oven, and most irritatingly, the fridge. It’s one of the French door side-by side models with built-in ice and water dispenser, so I’m sure it was pricey, but the configuration makes no sense at all for anyone who actually wants to cook.  The refrigerator side is much too narrow, unable to hold a cookie sheet or an average sized turkey for the holidays, and a frosted cake would require major reorganizing of the bazillion jars of jam, pickles, condiments, etc. that we can’t live without.  The capacity is so low that we have to think carefully about what we buy on the weekend shopping trips, and it would probably be better if I adopted the European style of buying produce a couple of times a week, because the vegetable bins aren’t very big either.  We’ll eventually replace it with something better but right now there are just too many things ahead in the queue of our thrilling adventure in home ownership, starting with every single bathroom.

But since this is a food and snark blog rather than a This-Old-House-cum-Money-Pit blog, and I promised a certain person the recipe for black bean soup, let’s get back to what you can do when facing a preposterous weather event.  This soup is adapted from a recipe from Millennium, the schmancy San Francisco vegan restaurant, which His Lordship took me to one birthday when we lived on the other coast.  I find the cookbook overly fussy in some ways, but if you cut out the garnish components and pare the recipes down to the essential parts, many of them can be made deliciously reasonable for everyday use.  Apart from the extra time of cooking the beans from scratch, this soup is easy and yummy and comforting, whether you’re staring down a hurricane or just a drippy early-fall day.

What makes it “Brazilian” is the combination of orange and coffee added to the basic aromatic vegetables and generally Latin spicing of cumin and chile.  You might think that adding orange juice would make it weirdly sweet, and putting ground coffee straight into soup would leave it gritty, but both just dissolve completely into the broth and create a lovely complex, smooth base in which the beans can shine.  While I adore black beans in pretty much any form, this is one of my absolute favorite applications for them.  It’s a meal in itself, especially rounded out with some fried plaintains, but it would also be a great first course for a pan-American feast.

Brazilian Black Bean Soup
(Adapted from Erick Tucker & John Westerdahl, The Millennium Cookbook)
Serves 6-8

3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large yellow onions, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 small serrano chiles, minced
1 ½ tablespoons ground cumin
1 ½ teaspoons dried marjoram
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
½ teaspoon ground chipotle
1 large bay leaf
1 tablespoon finely ground coffee
1 pound black beans, cooked, with their cooking liquid (about 6 cups beans and liquid)
1 cup orange juice
3 cups vegetable broth
Salt or soy sauce to taste
Sour cream or creme fraiche and lime wedges for serving

In a large, heavy pot, saute the vegetables in the olive oil over medium heat until beginning to turn soft and translucent. Add the spices and coffee and cook a minute longer, stirring constantly.

Add the beans with their liquid, juice and enough broth to cover and season with several pinches of salt or a few shots of soy sauce.  Bring to a boil, lower heat enough to maintain a strong simmer, and cook uncovered 24-30 minutes, until the broth has thickened a bit and all the flavors have blended well.  Taste and add more salt or soy as needed.

Serve with a spoonful of sour cream on top and lime wedges on the side.

Notes:

The original recipe cooked the beans in the soup straight from a pre-soaked condition, which made the total cooking time 1 ½-2 hours.  I prefer to cook the beans separately the night before in the slow cooker, so I can have the option of making half the recipe and freezing the rest of the beans for later.  If you want to cook the beans in the soup, omit the salt until the last minute and keep the soup covered while it cooks.

If you get sick of the leftovers, the soup freezes very well, but it can also be transmogrified into really easy and tasty burgers.  Pulse the soup with an equal amount of cooked rice, some additional cumin, salt and pepper in a food processor just until it starts to form a chunky paste.  Turn out into a bowl and stir in enough fresh breadcrumbs or panko to create a moldable mixture. Shape golfball sized amounts into patties and pan fry in a bit of olive or canola oil until crisp on both sides.  I served it with a quick ranch-type sauce of mayonnaise, creme fraiche, a little buttermilk to thin it, and a lot of freshly cracked pepper, plus some cherry tomato salad.  It’d do just as well on a toasted bun with the usual fixings.

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I’m Still Here

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I know it’s been forever, and I will detail some of the reasons why at the end of this post.  Those reasons having come to a satisfactory conclusion about a month ago, I’d basically been dithering about for a few weeks, looking for the right theme and recipe for finally breaking the silence, and then the East Coast experienced an epically ridiculous confluence of events (an earthquake AND a hurricane in the same week?  Seriously, Universe? Seriously?) that presented me with the perfect solution.

I mean, once all the flashlight batteries have been replaced, the patio furniture has been brought inside, and the hatches have been battened as far down as they’re going to go, there’s really only one thing you can do, right?

Make jam.

Now, stay with me here: Jam is shelf-stable, so it doesn’t matter if the power goes out.  It uses up fruit that would just speed up its sitting-around-getting-squishy process without refrigeration. It goes excellently with all the classic natural disaster foods: ice cream that needs to be consumed immediately, peanut butter sandwiches eaten by candlelight, and, of course, French toast the next morning.  Not to mention, it keeps your mind off the impending doom, and gives you the sense that at least one thing is under your control despite the increasingly hysterical news coverage.

See?  It makes total sense.

Since plums were the fruit preparing to give up the ghost in my crisper, that’s the kind of jam I made.  Plums are an excellent jam candidate, since the skins are often too acidic and leathery while the interior flesh can be squishy in texture and unexciting in flavor.  Cook them down with a few spices, though, and they make really stunning amethyst-colored jam the likes of which you can’t find in a store for less than $8 a jar, so you shouldn’t actually need meteorological insanity to nudge you to try this recipe.

I also made a huge pot of black bean soup to pass the time waiting for the basement to flood, and I will write that up next. As for what’s been occupying me for the past six months and kept me off the blogosphere until Irene gave me the kick in the pants….

Well, just after the holidays I taught my first seminar, which was an amazingly rewarding experience but also one of the most intellectually and physically tiring things I’ve ever done.  NaNoWriMo is a walk in the park compared to that, let me tell you.  I don’t think I enjoyed a full night’s sleep until Easter, and I needed about a month to get my energy back afterward.

I didn’t get it, though, because — and this is of more pressing relevance to you all — at the same time, His Lordship and I were in the process of shopping for a house.  It was a confusing, stressful, nerve-wracking time, but we did finally end our long reign of renting at the beginning of the summer, and now have a proper Chez Disdain.  The new manse needs a fair amount of work, so I may well be grumbling about contractors and repair people for some time to come, but the one thing I can’t really complain about is the kitchen, which is fab.  I’ll provide more details and some pictures along with the black bean soup recipe, but for now, here’s just a wee bit of a tease:

Know what that is, my little chickadees?  Need a close-up (kindly overlooking the obvious need to clean, if you would)?

That’s right, a Viking range.  SCORE!

Oh, and in case it wasn’t self-evident from my reappearance, His Lordship, the Monster and I made it through the eye of the hurricane with minimal trauma; just a bit of basement flooding that was dispatched with a few rounds of wet/dry vacuuming and mopping. Now, on to the jam!

Hurricane Preparedness Plum Jam
Makes 3 cups

1 1/2 pounds plums, halved and pitted
Zest and juice of 2 clementines or 1 orange
2/3 cup water
1 vanilla bean, split
2 large slices candied ginger
1/2 small cinnamon stick
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
Juice of half a lemon

Place the plums in a heavy medium pan with the clementine zest and juice, water, vanilla, ginger and cinnamon stick and bring to a boil over medium heat.  Cover, lower the heat to a simmer, and cook until the plums are very soft and starting to break up, about 20 minutes.  Cool to room temperature.

While the plums are cooling, clean and sterilize about half a dozen 4-ounce jam jars with their rings and lids, along with any other equipment you feel you need for the preserving process (e.g. a ladle, a wide-mouthed funnel and long-handled tongs).

Remove the cinnamon stick, vanilla bean and ginger slices from the fruit.  Run the plums through a food mill or push it through a sieve into a large measuring cup.

Return the pureed plums to the pot, along with the sugar and lemon juice. Stir over medium-low heat until the sugar dissolves, then increase the heat to medium to bring the jam to a boil.  Continue cooking at a low boil, stirring frequently, until it’s thickened and holds its shape when spooned onto a chilled plate, 20-25 minutes.

Transfer the jam into the prepared jars, then seal using the boiling water method.  Refrigerate any jars that don’t seal properly.

Notes:

I used about half a dozen varieties of plums from the farmers market in this batch: yellow-fleshed ones with mottled skins, giant plain red ones, purple ovoid Italian ones, and little unassuming ones with hearts the color of blood. Mixing your plums will give you a more complex and interesting jam, but any variety should be delicious.

This jam is tart and rich enough for savory applications too.  It made a lovely post-hurricane lunch with Manchego on whole wheat for me, and slow-cooked pork loin for His Lordship. I strongly suspect it’d also be smashing with turkey instead of or mixed into cranberry sauce in a couple of months, if you want to get a jump on your holiday prep.