Friday, September 25, 2009

Chocolate cake.

I have certain pet peeves: people who look down their noses at ketchup on hot dogs, at parmesan cheese on seafood, beans in chili. I dislike eating contests, vegetarian-haters and meat that has lost its pulpy red vitality. Especially pork, you blubbering baby boomers! I dislike Anthony Bourdain, as well as people who dislike Anthony Bourdain. I have no time for whose city's pizza is the real pizza, whose state's barbecue is the real barbecue. I don't care who invented the cheese steak, the Tom Collins, the Cobb salad, the egg cream.

I hate authenticity.

I spent enough time--as well as unrepaid PHEA dough, reading and misunderstanding post-structuralist literary theory to know authenticity is at best a faith-based tradition. You say the Crimean War did happen, I say, well, maybe. You say I can't blindly improvise chocolate cake because of the unyielding chemistry of baking I say gimme an afternoon reading Amanda Hesser's fabulous Chocolate Dump-It Cake recipe and ogling Google'ed pictures of the very much married Amanda Hesser--throw in a few rye whiskeys and I will transgress yet another dipshit supposition.

Sort of.

I think my variations honor the original copy--adventurous though they are.

I followed her procedures with the following exceptions. I subbed out the unsweetened chocolate for a 58% bittersweet. Naturally I reduced the amount of sugar. It was questionable, I guess, but I did so by half. So I've found in any dessert, really, one can embellish after the fact with honey, confectioner's sugar or dulce de leche--by merely dousing it over top, but the core of the thing ought to remain chastly undersweetened. Pineapple upside-down cake is my blueprint for all things sweet. Consistent with that I upped the butter and salt by about a quarter.

As for the eggs I opted to separate them, adding three--not the two Ms. Hesser suggests, beaten yolks to the milk and vinegar mixture, while reserving the whites--again three, for a final folding in, whipped to semi-stiff peaks.

Because of the aerated character fostered by the beaten whites I divided my butter between two 9" pans, rather than one. She's gonna be a big girl. The baking time--at 375 deg., ran about five minutes past the advised half an hour, though realistically I attribute it to an idiosyncratic oven rather than the needs of my variation.

The cakes emerged and, upon cooling, I poked the tops full of holes with a kebab skewer, dampening them with amaretto, and I iced them.

The recipe outlined a sour cream mixture with chocolate chips. I went with what I had: sour cream, cream cheese, Nutella--nearly a jar of the stuff, and a little confectioner's sugar.

The iced double layer cake looked a little lopsided, but appealing nevertheless. I finished it with a few ounces of chocolate tablets, almonds and coffee beans finely ground in a spice mill. A patted puff of confectioner's sugar, a hiccup of rye in the air. Done.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Like any instance of racism the vilification of celery occurs at the exterior. It is, unequivocally, one of the great vegetables of the table; and it's shit rep is wholly undeserved.

Having hashed out barshit at Gooski's for a worn adulthood I can attest to both the quality of improvisation, and the sublime maneuverability of celery. And few things lend themselves to improvisation like celery does. For anyone who has made peace with a dessert filled with rhubarb, this organism is something to venerate.

The application is another cake walk, but its extravagance is so rewarding. Best made the day after you serve a risotto.

Start by running a vegetable peeler across the backs of the celery ribs--these fibers are part and parcel to the epidemic hatred of it. Proceed by chopping the stalks down into two-inch matchsticks. This size is ideal as it permits the rendering of a broth while maintaining the structural integrity of the celery; let the continentals keep their overblown fennel bulbs!

Braise the celery at 375 degrees in a mixture of olive oil and red bell peppers--these peppers should be roasted to near pulp ahead of time. The celery braise should last about half an hour, or til the broth has amassed and the celery stalks still have a bit of give in them.

Salt, pepper.

While this magic occurs fetch your bowl of cold risotto from the fridge, parcel, compact into diskettes--they should, each, fit flush on the palm of your hand. Fry them in searing olive oil til very nearly blackened on each side. Remove the braising celery from the oven, smother the cakes. If you did it right they'll hiss at you.

I found a little feta, a shot of lemon juice and chopped parsley complement the plate. And reverence is established.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Gnoccetti in tomatoes and vermouth.

I swear they won't always be no-brainers like this one, but it worked too well to not make a record of it.

Crank the gas below a cast iron skillet. Wait til you see smoke. Add a finely sliced yellow onion and char til the edges blacken--picture a stir fry. Once you've achieved the black periphery add a pound or so of hot Italian sausage and herbs--I used garden sage and thyme. Get a marked char on the sausage and introduce the herbs--a subtle broth will already be forming from the onions. Add split Roma tomatoes--enough to cover the floor of the skillet more or less. Turn as they sear, pulling away skins as they separate. They're biodegradable, the skins, but awful nonetheless.

Once the tomatoes have flowered you'll know.

Oh, add a cup of cooked white kidney beans.

Then a deep splash of sweet vermouth. Keep dampening the sauce, seasoning as you go. Everything is reducing. Bring the heat down to a modest simmer.

Next you pull the gnoccetti. I think the better approximation is spaetzle, but my affinity lies with the Italian for once, as the variations of this dumpling really seem to find their prismatic brilliance in Mediterranean hands.

Flour, eggs and a little water will make it work--customarily a cup of flour to a single egg, with icy water to shore up the consistency. I like to add herbs, though between you me and this bottle of Augustus Bulleit I think it may be largely cosmetic. Once you have a reliable pasta dough you'll want to let it rest, packed in wax paper for at least a half an hour. Time to boil water--salt it too!

Back to the skillet. It's getting sloppy. I added about 4 cloves of roasted garlic and grated in probably about a quarter cup of Pecorino Pepato here--it's a peppercorned sheepsmilk cheese and though mostly unremarkable in the raw it builds wild dimension in cooked form. As this formula reduces you'll want to taste itinerantly. Salt, pepper, and such. Don't be afraid to add a shake of sugar if you feel its lacking.

After a rest in the fridge pull the pasta dough, flour liberally (flour your hands too). Work it in a rolling motion til slightly thicker in diameter than a pencil. Using an oiled, floured butter knife cut penny-sized pieces: with each, roll the shape in flour. I prefer a glutenous dough, permitting a shredded feather shape to the pasta. It's messy producing it but will prove worth your trouble. Upon completion turn it into the water you brought to a boil--and salted.

As the dumplings rise in the boiling water retrieve them. Serve with red ragout deepened by a healthy chunk of butter--I get a nice one from an Amish farm north of here. Oh yeah, and a boatload of finely chopped parsley.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The death of summer.

Preheat to 375.

Yesterday I saw something in The Times that made me think of autumn--I forgot it was upon us. At a brilliant but struggling natural foods grocery store I've been manning the cheese counter while the resident monger is recovering from a bang up.

The great thrill comes from finding cheeses that fall through the cracks of classification; they're not cheddars, not gruyeres, not bries...they're puzzling. One, a Piedmontese amalgam called La Tur, has proven enduringly curious. This one is the concoction of three dairies: cow, sheep and goat; it's flavor and texture are a separate matter. There is certainly a goaty cakeiness to it, but the lasting effect is pillowy and exceedingly milky. It's dingy, which offers up the cheese's defining feature.

I've never been a baker, I'm way too scattershot. But the notion has always been an alluring one; I saw Taxi Driver in high school, and marveled at the diner selection of Travis Bickle, the apple pie and cheddar. It managed to embody his contradictions. It was romantic and insane. Having grown up in houses blooming with those aromas it felt like an inborn challenge to replicate those complements. A few weeks ago I sneaked a sauteed Gala apple into a skillet of macaroni & cheese, but in the end it got lost. I suspect it pushed the sweetness of the onions slightly, but had I not known it was in there I'd have never identified it.

So apple pie proved the ideal situation for switching places, going savory in a sweet preparation. I'd been tinkering with pie crusts after a week of debaucheries involving, among other things, quiches. The addition of parmigiano-reggiano lent a bolting hue of sharpness, and seemed to singularly carry the weight of herbs I figured would have otherwise just made a nice coloring.

In this instance--and with my eye on that fabulous La Tur, I stuck to my quiche crust recipe, which is to say I mashed some icy butter with sifted flour and a little cold water til it came together. Threw in some parmesan, fresh thyme and parsley.

The construction of the pie--I parbaked the crust for about ten minutes, was as you might expect.

For the body: Begin by melting 1/2 stick of butter with 1/2 cup of sugar. Once a deep-hued caramel has formed drizzle in 1/4 cup of cream or half and half (I used a mixture of both). Once the caramel has substantiated add the fruit. I used sliced Honeycrisp apples and Starkrimson pears with a scattering of halved red grapes. Let it tighten up as the sliced fruit macerates--add a tablespoon of cold water with corn starch if it looks too soupy.

Oil, flour and dust in ground almonds the parbaked pie crust pan, Line the rim with oiled wax paper.

Once the junk comes together add it to the waiting crust. Just before baking blanket with crushed marcona almonds and the La Tur--break it into large chunks and scatter on the face of the pie.

Bake at 375 for a little more than half an hour

Let cool, scoop out like cobbler, or invert on a plate for presentation. Relax.