it's okay to play with your food

Friday, March 14, 2008

Ingredient of the Week: Lavender (Alternate Title: Baking is Hard!)

In the past week, the majority of my conversations included one topic: the Meyer lemon cake with lavender cream that I was going to make for an upcoming Grrrl's Tea/Craft Night: a rustic lemon layer cake, filled with lemon curd, served with lavender cream on the side and dusted with powdered sugar.

Lavender can be an unexpected, subtle addition to a dessert (see the lavender creme brulee at Little Fish), or an overwhelmingly floral and soapy powerhouse (see the lavender frosted cupcake from a local bakery that shall remain nameless). It also seems destined to be paired with certain other foods, such as Meyer lemons. This cake was going to be perfect, a harbinger of spring with an aura of sunny purple goodness.

I am a baker who takes shortcuts. Sieves are optional, since I don't own one. When a recipe calls for cake flour, I use self-rising. And I don't always sift my flour either.

But remember... this cake was going to be perfect. I already had the Meyer lemons. I purchased an ounce of dried lavender blossoms. I borrowed a sieve. I bought the cake flour. (I did buy the lemon curd, but that didn't seem too naughty.) I followed the recipe perfectly, sifting the cake flour and all.

So imagine my surprise when my cake came out like this:

Instead of this:

I consulted my friend, a pastry chef at the Rittenhouse Hotel. She suggested that I had underwhipped the whites, or overwhipped the whites, or invited too much air when folding in the whites. Or maybe my mixing bowl just wasn't clean enough.

Baking is hard.

So while my three-layer cake was now a torte, and layers of lemon curd were but a bitter memory, I still had a lavender cream to make. After steeping the lavender in honey-sweetened cream, I started whipping, waiting for the soft peaks to form as specified in the recipe. There were no soft peaks. In fact, the cream basically maintained the same consistency after a good 6 or 7 minutes. And it was 8pm. Time for Grrrl's Tea/Craft Night. My dreams of the perfect springtime confection were, quite literally, deflated.

Upon arriving at my friend's house, bowls and spoons were procured. The cake was sliced, and lavender cream was poured on top. And the fact is, it tasted pretty damn good. Would it have been nicer, all fluffy, filled with lemon curd? Yes. But the pieces of spongy, sweet cake saturated in lavender cream was pretty awesome and rustic in its own way.

Meyer Lemon Cake with Lavender Cream
from Gourmet, March 2008
Makes 8 servings

For cake
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, for brushing pan
5 large eggs, separated
3/4 cup sugar, divided
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon grated Meyer lemon zest plus 3 tablespoons Meyer lemon juice (see Cooks' note, below)
1 cup cake flour (not self-rising)
1/2 teaspoon salt

For filling
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt1 teaspoon grated Meyer lemon zest plus 3/4 cup Meyer lemon juice
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon unsalted butter

For lavender cream
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
3 tablespoons mild honey
1/2 tablespoon dried lavender blossoms

Equipment: an 8-inch springform pan

Garnish: confectioners sugar

Make cake:
Preheat oven to 325°F with rack in middle.

Invert bottom of spring form pan and lock on side.Brush pan with melted butter, then chill 2 minutes to set. Line bottom of pan with a round of parchment paper, then brush pan and parchment with another layer of melted butter and chill 2 minutes more. Dust with flour, knocking out excess.

Beat together yolks and 1/2 cup sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at high speed until pale and thick, about 3 minutes.At medium speed, beat in oil and lemon zest and juice until just combined. Sift in flour and mix at low speed until just combined.

Beat whites with salt in another large bowl with cleaned beaters at medium-high speed until foamy, then add remaining 1/4 cup sugar a little at a time, beating, and continue to beat until whites just hold soft peaks.Gently fold one third of whites into yolk mixture to lighten, then fold in remaining whites gently but thoroughly. Transfer batter to springform pan, smoothing top, and gently rap against counter once or twice to eliminate any air bubbles. Bake until golden brown (top will crack slightly) and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 40 to 50 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then remove side of pan and cool cake to room temperature, about 1 hour (sides will cave in a little).

Make filling while cake cools:
Whisk together sugar, flour, and salt in a small heavy saucepan, then add lemon juice in a slow stream, whisking until combined.Bring to a boil, whisking constantly, then simmer, whisking, until thickened, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat. Whisk yolk in a small bowl, then add about one fourth of lemon-juice mixture, whisking vigorously.Whisk into remaining lemon-juice mixture and gently boil, whisking, 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in butter and zest. Transfer filling to a bowl and cover surface with buttered parchment paper. Chill until cool, at least 30 minutes.

Make lavender cream while filling chills:
Bring cream, honey, and lavender blossoms just to a boil in a small saucepan, then remove from heat and let steep, covered, 30 minutes.Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, discarding solids, and chill lavender cream, covered, until cold.

Assemble cake:
Invert cake and discard parchment. Cut cake horizontally into 3 even layers with a long serrated knife. Transfer 1 layer, cut side up, to a cake plate. Lightly whisk filling to loosen, then spread half of filling evenly over cake layer on plate, leaving a 1/2-inch border around edge. Place a second cake layer over filling and spread with remaining filling in same manner. Top with remaining cake layer, cut side down, pressing gently so that filling is spread to edge of cake.

Just before serving, beat lavender cream with a whisk until it is thickened and barely holds soft peaks.Dust cake with confectioners sugar and serve with lavender cream.

Cooks' Notes:•If you can't get Meyer lemons, you can use regular lemons.•Cake, uncut and without filling, can be made 2 days ahead and kept in an airtight container at room temperature.•Filling can be made 1 day ahead and chilled, covered.

Addendum from kp
One ounce of lavender is quite a lot, especially since the recipe only called for 1/2tbls. While it does make a lovely perfume for my pantry, I'm thinking of other uses for the near future, such as...

Use the same lavender cream in a ganache for truffles or as cake frosting
Steep the dried blossoms with fresh mint for tea

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Ingredient of the Week: Fennel

I think of fennel as an acquired taste, something that is most often consumed by sophisticated adults living on the Upper East Side who have subscriptions to the Met season and use the correct French pronunciation when ordering at fancy restaurants. Basically I think that most Woody Allen characters would be eating fennel. And I usually look past it in the supermarket, cause, well, I don't really think of myself as an adult yet...or as a character in a Woody Allen movie...

But tonight I was a big girl, and I fell in love with my Creamy Fennel Carrot soup. It isn't just a case of "add enough cream and anything will taste good," either. The fennel melded so well with the roasted carrots. It wasn't overpowering but elevated the carrot soup into something completely appropriate for Mia Farrow and Michael Caine to share in a deleted scene from Hannah and her Sisters.

Creamy Fennel Carrot Soup

1 lb. carrots
olive oil
salt, pepper
1 small onion
1 large bulb of fennel
1 tangerine (or any citrus)
1 can broth
Approx. 1 c. light cream
chives for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix carrots with oil, salt and pepper. Roast for about 45 minutes.

Saute onion in oil for about 5 minutes. Add fennel and a generous spritz of tangerine juice. Saute for another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add chicken broth and carrots. Bring to a boil and let simmer for 15-20 minutes.

In 3 small batches, puree the broth and vegetables with the cream using a blender or food processor. Combine the batches, stirring well to mix them together. Add salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with chopped chives.

Serves 4 people as a fabulous first course. Preceeding, perhaps, roast duck and a dessert of Floating Islands?

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Red Cabbage and Orange Salad with Lime Ginger Vinaigrette

There isn't much of a story to tonight's meal. I simply wanted something healthy and easy. The fact that it is also really pretty doesn't hurt at all.

Red Cabbage and Orange Salad
inspired by the Watercress, Orange and Avocado Salad from Bon Appetit, December 2005

1 small head of red cabbage, chopped
1 green pepper, diced
3 navel oranges
Bean sprouts

Remove peel and pith from oranges. Pull apart each segment and halve. Mix together cabbage, pepper, oranges and sprouts.

Lime Ginger Vinaigrette*

Juice from 1 1/2 limes
1 tsp. grated ginger
1 small clove of garlic
1 tsp. honey
salt and pepper
1/2 c. olive oil

Combine lime juice, ginger, garlic, honey, salt and pepper. Add olive oil slowly in a thin stream. Dress salad.

* All measurements are an approximation. Play with it and find the right balance to suit your taste.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Spicy Roasted Chicken, Collard Greens, and Mashed Malanga

This past weekend, I put together a menu incorporating two Ingredients of the Week: malanga and collard greens. They seemed like perfect partners to one of my favorite winter meals, roasted chicken. But the southern overtones of the malanga (of South American descent) and collard greens (North American south) prompted something different than my usual roasted chicken recipe.

I looked into South American spices and was intrigued by aji, a yellow chili powder common in Peruvian cuisine. Unfortunately, my search for aji was fruitless and I decided to go a more traditional route with chipotle.

Certain ingredients are shared across the menu. The bacon is used twice, providing the grease in which the greens are cooked, and then chopped up into the malanga. Lime juice contributes to the spice paste for the chicken and as a last minute spritzing on the greens.

As far as playing with unfamiliar ingredients goes, the collard greens were excellent. They were easy to work with and flavorful. In fact, when I use them again, I might leave them raw and use them in a salad, or wilt them with pasta.

The malanga, on the other hand, was trouble. I found one malanga recipe on Epicurious. It said to peel and chop the malanga, then boil it. The skin was so tough that I couldn't tell if my vegetable peeler was peeling the malanga, or vice versa. So I decided to boil the malanga in one piece, hoping that would soften the skin. It worked, but it had to be cooled, then peeled, then boiled again to ensure it was thoroughly cooked. The flavor was interesting, sort of nutty, but I don't think it was worth the trouble. It needed a heavy dose of dairy and chopped bacon to properly pair the dish with the rest of the meal. Even if there is an easier way to work with it, I don't know if I'll bother. Any suggestions? Should I give it another try?

Spicy Roasted Chicken

3 garlic cloves, minced
1-2 tbls. olive oil
1/2 lime
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. chipotle powder
salt and pepper
3-4 lb. roasted chicken

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Combine garlic, oil, lime juice, and seasonings into a paste. Rinse inside and outside of chicken with cold water; pat dry. Rub outer skin and beneath the skin with the spice paste.

Cook chicken in preheated oven for 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 400 degrees and turn chicken around, breast side up. Cook for another 20 minutes. Reduce heat again to 375, rotate chicken a final time and cook for 20-40 minutes, depending on the size of the bird. Chicken is ready when a nick in the thigh produces clear juices. After removing from oven, let rest for about 10 minutes.

Collard Greens

3 slabs bacon
1 bunch of collard greens
generous spritz of lime juice (left over from spicy roasted chicken)
salt and pepper

Fry bacon. Chop greens. Remove bacon, leaving grease in pan. Saute greens in bacon grease till just tender and wilted, 3 - 4 minutes. Season with lime juice, salt and pepper.

Mashed Malanga

2 lbs. Malanga
Approx. 1 c. buttermilk
3 slabs of cooked bacon (from collard greens), cooled and chopped into bits
salt and pepper

Boil malanga whole for approx. 15 minutes. Let cool. Peel and chop into rounds. Bring water to a boil again and add malanga, simmering till tender. Mash with buttermilk, adding milk in small batches till desired consistency is reached. Mix in bacon, salt and pepper.

Note: I had intended to include photos of the finished product, but I had hungry people waiting (including me!). I'll be more patient next time...