Sunday, April 29, 2012

Fluted Polenta Ricotta Cake

 One thing I've learned from nearly 4 years of baking Dorie Greenspan's recipes weekly, and that is that I can trust her instincts.  Dorie can turn the most unusual combination of ingredients into the most sublime of baked goods.  I've seen it time and again, and this week's recipe, the Fluted Polenta Ricotta Cake, gave me an opportunity experiment in the kitchen again with Dorie.  I've gathered that here were a lot of bakers who were not fans of this cake when it was baked by the Tuesdays With Dorie group four years ago but it sounded good to me so I was interested to see how we would like it.

n.o.e.'s notes:

-  The cake was selected four years ago by Caitlin of the blog Engineer Baker, and you can find the recipe on her cake post

-  The recipe calls for dried figs (the seeds add to the crunch provided by the medium grind cornmeal/polenta, but I went a different direction and added chopped prunes.

-  I baked a half recipe in 8" fluted tart pan.

-  This recipe produced a definitely pourable cake batter, but it thickened nicely as it baked, and the butter pats left little light patches all over the surface of the cake.

-  I served the cake with honey-sweetened yogurt.

the verdict:

This is a rustic, homey cake, not a show-off special-occasion fancy-dress cake.  My husband and I loved it; his observation was, "this cake is a perfect balance: not too sweet, nice taste of honey, substantial texture."   Although the prunes were fine in the cake, we both agreed that it would be perfect with dates; I will make it that way next time (which might just be right away!)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Almond Marshmallows

In my quest to finish all of the recipes in Dorie Greenspan's book  Baking: From My Home to Yours, I arrived at a recipe, Marshmallows, that, being egg-white-based, is humidity-sensitive.  It was rainy and damp for a good week around here, and I was foiled in my plan to make the marshmallows in time to post them last Tuesday.  But this week was gloriously dry and crisp Spring weather, just perfect for marshmallows, so I whipped up a (half) batch.

I've always liked marshmallows, although not so much in hot chocolate or in baked goods.  S'mores (marshmallow + graham cracker + chocolate) are good, but mostly I like to eat marshmallows plain.  And stale.  To me the best marshmallows are stiff but still chewy, almost a taffy consistency.  On the other end of the spectrum, the "marshmallows" in breakfast cereals such as Lucky Charms - little hard nuggets - are beyond the pale.  I was interested to see the texture of Dorie's marshmallows.

n.o.e.'s notes:

-  The recipe for marshmallows was chosen for the Tuesdays With Dorie group by Judy and you can find the recipe on her 2008 post. There is an omission in the book; one Tablespoon of sugar that is mentioned in the ingredient list but not in the instructions.  Dorie later cleared up the mystery:

I'm sorry about the mysterious 1 tablespoon sugar -- it was meant to be added to the egg whites once they started to thicken. The little bit of sugar shouldn't make a difference in the marshmallows, it's there to ever-so-slightly stabilize the egg whites and make it easier to beat them without overbeating.
-  I've never made marshmallows before, and there are recipes that don't involve egg whites, and recipes - such as Dorie's - that do.  The basic method for these marshmallows involves 3 elements: beaten egg whites (stiff but still glossy), gelatin (bloomed in cool water then heated until liquid), and sugar syrup (boiled without stirring until precisely 265 degrees).  The three components are prepared separately, and simultaneously(!), and then beaten together, producing a bowl of frothy, shiny, meringue, which is then spread out on a shallow pan to set.  I'm never confident about my sugar syrup into egg white skills, but it worked out well for me this time, although the whisk beater slung sugar syrup all over the bowl and onto the counter as I poured it into the beaten egg whites.

-  I made half a recipe, although I really wanted to make 2/3 recipe because of the amount of egg whites and open gelatin packets I had on hand.  But the math was a little daunting for me (did I really say that?) so I dropped back to the easier calculations for halving the recipe. 

-  Dorie gives several flavoring options for the marshmallows, and a simple internet search will produce tons of creative flavor/color combinations for homemade marshmallows.  I decided to go with an almond flavor combination.  Almond: the little black dress of flavors.

-  To the basic recipe I added the following flavorings, based loosely on the flavor of this recipe from the Washington Post:
1/2 tsp espresso powder
1.5 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 tsp almond extract
1.5 tsp amaretto
I stirred all of these into the gelatin mixture before beating into the syrup/egg white combination.

-  My half recipe nearly filled a parchment-lined toaster-oven tray.

-  I used potato starch to coat the marshmallows to keep them from sticking, but, really, mine weren't all that sticky.  I was able to use the same knife to cut the whole bunch, without having to wash down the blade in the middle of cutting.

the verdict:

I found the marshmallows to be quite tender, not-too-sweet, not at all chewy, and quite subtle (but noticeable) in the almond department.  So, while they hardly resembled the stale stiffness of my usual marshmallow ideal, they were lovely nonetheless.  I'm looking forward to sharing them with my book group later this week (and I'm leaving the box uncovered in the hopes that they might get the littlest bit stale!)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Lemon Loaf

There's one thing to be said for the Lemon Loaf cake that was assigned for this week's recipe by the Tuesdays With Dorie; Baking With Julia baking group: it's really easy. Really, really easy.  I arrived home very late on this rainy Tuesday afternoon and stood in my kitchen debating with myself whether I had time to bake this cake.  Or more importantly, whether there would be enough daylight after the cake was baked to photograph it so that I could actually post it on time.  When I saw how short the recipe is, I started pulling out ingredients and before I knew it, the cake was in the oven.  And was baked, cooled (mostly) and sliced in time to photograph in natural light on the back deck, thanks in just a small measure to Daylight Savings Time.

n.o.e.'s notes:

-  You can find the recipe for the Lemon Loaf on the blogs of this week's hosts:
Truc of Treats and Michelle of The Beauty of Life

-  The virtue of this recipe is that it is made in a bowl with a whisk; no mixer or creaming of butter required.  Instead, the butter is melted and folded into the cake batter at the end.

-  I baked 1/2 recipe, in a little skinny loaf pan that my daughter JDE brought back from her 2011 trip to Hong Kong.

-  All of the lemon flavor of the recipe is from lemon zest.  I wanted that zest to contribute its lemony limits, so I used a favorite Dorie Greenspan tip: first I rubbed the zest into the sugar with my fingers, until the sugar was a bit damp and very fragrant.  Then I whisked the sugar/zest mixture with the salt and eggs as directed by the recipe.

-  I deviated a tiny bit from the recipe by adding a healthy dose of lemon oil to the batter (about 1/2 teaspoon for my half recipe).

the verdict:

This had a wonderfully dense, moist crumb, but wasn't in the least bit heavy or dull.  The lemon flavor was subtle, but noticeable (in part from the lemon oil I'm guessing).  It made a wonderful dessert with some sliced strawberries.  This is a great recipe to keep bookmarked for those occasions where you need a not-fussy, quick, easily transportable cake.  Although I kept mine plain, the cake could easily be gussied up by adding a lemon glaze or soaking it with a lemon syrup.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Lemon Cream Tart + Grapefruit Cream Tart

Four years ago this week the bakers of Tuesdays With Dorie had a choice of recipes: either Dorie Greenspan's Most Extraordinary Lemon Cream Tart or her Orange Cream Tart.  I'm still working away at making every recipe in the book, so I made both! The lemon tart was pretty much by the book, but in my kitchen the orange cream tart transformed into a grapefruit version with a chocolate crust.  In both cases, I froze most of the cream for future use and assembled mini tarts for tasting purposes.

n.o.e.'s notes:

Lemon tart

- Dorie herself shared the lemon recipe on Serious Eats, under the headline "lemon, lemon, lemon cream," here.  Additionally, in May of 2008 Dorie revisited the recipe for her lemon cream tart and shared tips in this post on her blog.

-  I made a gluten-free crust for my lemon tart, using Alice Medrich's shortbread base found in her cookie book, Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies. (I highly recommend this book, by the way!)

Orange tart

-  The recipe for the orange cream tart can be found on Michelle's original blog, here. (Michelle now blogs at the Brown Eyed Baker)

-  I've been in a serious grapefruit phase, so I decided to adapt the recipe from orange to grapefruit.  I used an especially wonderful, juicy, dark red grapefruit for the recipe.  Here's how I adapted the recipe: I used some lemon juice, but maybe not the full amount, finishing up a lemon that I'd already cut.  I cut the sugar to about 3/4 the amount specified by the recipe.  I used about 4T rather than 5.5 T butter.  I got a bit mixed up in my steps, and added the gelatin just after I started to put in butter.

- The grapefruit cream wasn't as tart/flavorful as I would have liked, so next time I'd use more lemon juice and perhaps reduce the grapefruit juice by boiling it down a bit to concentrate the flavor.

-  The grapefruit cream "set", probably because of the gelatin in it, and it didn't stir up smooth.  Although the filling looked a bit bumpy it wasn't really lumpy at all.  

-  I put the filling into a mini chocolate tart shell, and topped the tart with whipped cream and chopped pistachios.

the verdict:

Lemon tart

The lemon filling was nothing short of amazing: silky, creamy, and very tangy.  I mellowed it a bit by a dab of whipped cream on top of the tart.  Alice Medrich's gluten free crust baked beautifully into a sturdy shortbread cookie, the sweetness a perfect complement to the filling.  This is a great recipe to have in the gluten-free arsenal and can be used as a base for any bar cookie or tart.

Grapefruit tart

The grapefruit cream was subtle and the tiniest bit bitter on its own.  But it was perfect paired with the chocolate tart shell, which smoothed out the rough edges of the cream, while the cream contributed a subtle note of citrus to the chocolate.