Monday, January 30, 2012

Uncommonly luxurious

Chocolate-beet cake
I want to be upfront about one thing--making this cake right here, it can get a little messy. Flour can fly. Chocolate can splatter. Yolks can run. Beets can splash. Don your apron. Have a stack of kitchen towels at the ready. Trust me, you'll need them.
But let's back up a bit. Beets? In a cake? Yes, and they make for an uncommonly luxurious one, one that is velvety, dark, and yielding--every bit the chocolate cake of my dreams. And I'm saying this as a girl who almost never goes out of her way to bake with chocolate, who lets half a bar of Scharffen Berger languish in the pantry for nearly a year. It's not that I don't like chocolate. Often enough, it's just that I'm more captivated by other things (lemons, tomato jam, salted caramel). But this chocolate cake--I've fallen for it. After my friends left the other night, I snuck a second slice. I couldn't resist.
Some beets
Boiled, peeled beets
And the beets? Their presence is a little hard to describe. It's faint after baking, just a quiet harmony against that dark, resonant chocolate. They make a good pair (next, I'm thinking: dark-chocolate and beet ganache).
Unsurprisingly, maybe, this cake is Nigel Slater's. If you're not familiar with him, you should know that he's a man who cultivates and cooks his vegetables with real affection. He appreciates each on its own terms. He works to make them all sing. The chocolate cake is from his recent book, Tender. I received it about a month ago, and it has kept me spellbound. It is lovingly written, the sort of cookbook that you can curl up with at the end of the day and just read. It is page after page of gorgeous vegetables, inviting recipes. I've been cooking a lot of wintery one-pot dinners from it lately, but the recipe for this cake was the first that caught my eye. A beet-laden cake topped with crème fraîche and poppy seeds? Say no more.
Puree and chocolate
Whipped egg whites
Tender has made me want to take more care with my vegetables, to coax new things out of them, to lavish them with whatever they deserve. And what better way to start than with butter and dark chocolate? (Okay, that could get dangerous...)
An afternoon slice of chocolate-beet cake

An extremely moist chocolate-beet cake with crème fraîche and poppy seeds
Adapted from Nigel Slater's Tender
Note: Crème fraîche and poppy seeds. Slater says that these are not just a nod to beets' Eastern European heart but an important part of the cake. I agree. They play beautifully against the chocolate's deep notes. Take the trouble of getting both. Reserve them until you're just about to serve the cake. Otherwise, you'll end up with sodden cake and crème fraîche shot through with hot-pink streaks. Pan size. Slater uses an 8-inch spring-form and bakes the cake for forty minutes. I think most of us in North America have 9-inchers for the standard cheesecakes we've learned to bake from our mothers, so I've adjusted the baking times accordingly below. Make ahead. The cake keeps well for a couple of days on the counter wrapped in plastic. Somehow, it's even more moist on the second day.

8 oz / 250 g beets (about 4 small or 2 medium ones)
7 oz / 200 g good-quality bittersweet chocolate (70 percent cocoa solids)
4 tablespoons hot espresso
1 3/4 sticks / 200 g unsalted butter
1 cup + 2 tablespoons / 135 g all-purpose flour
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder
3 tablespoons good-quality cocoa powder
5 eggs, separated and at room temperature
1 scant cup / 190 g sugar
crème fraîche and poppy seeds, to serve

Lightly butter a nine-inch springform cake pan and line with a round of parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Cook the beets, whole and unpeeled, in boiling unsalted water. Depending on their size, they will be tender when pierced with the tip of a knife within thirty to forty minutes. Young ones may take slightly less. Drain them, let them cool under running water, then rub their skins off with your fingers, slice of their stem and root, and then process in a blender or food processor to a coarse purée.
Melt the chocolate, broken into small pieces, in a large bowl set over a pot of simmering water. Don't stir.
When the chocolate looks almost melted, pour the hot espresso over it and stir once. Cut the butter into small pieces and add to the melted chocolate. Push the butter down under the surface of the chocolate with a spoon (as best you can) and let soften.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, and cocoa. Stir the yolks together.
Now, working quickly but gently, remove the bowl of chocolate from the heat and stir until the butter has melted into the chocolate. Let sit for a few minutes, then stir in the egg yolks. Do this quickly, mixing firmly and evenly so the eggs blend into the mixture. Fold in the beets. Whisk the egg whites until still, then fold in the sugar. Firmly but gently, fold the beaten egg whites and sugar into the chocolate mixture. A large metal spoon (or a large flexible spatula) is what you want here; work in a deep, figure-eight movement but take care not to overmix. Lastly, fold in the flour and cocoa.
Transfer quickly to the prepared cake pan and put in the oven, decreasing the heat immediately to 325 degrees F. Bake for thirty to thirty-five minutes. The rim of the cake will feel spongy, the inner part should still wobble a little when the pan is gently shaken.
Set the cake aside to cool (it will sink a tad in the centre), loosening it around the edges with a thin icing spatula after half an hour or so. It is not a good idea to remove the cake from its pan until it is completely cold. Serve in thick slices, with crème fraîche and poppy seeds.
Makes for 12 modest slices.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A little oven magic

Just out of the oven
Like I said a few days ago, my boyfriend and I thought that our dear friends--the ones who bore with us all summer while we painted and problem-solved and were often just too tired to be much fun--deserved a party.  So last weekend, finally, we flung open our doors and had them all over for a little food and drink. My boyfriend played bartender and had everyone sipping our lemony riff on this gin sparkler (the Meyer lemons are here at last!). I had the oven roaring and passed around various little nibbles just as soon as they were cool enough to pluck off the half-sheet. There were gougères, a pizza patate, spiced hummus, pear bread, carrot cake truffles, and, of course, these little pillows of buttery, flaky, cheesy goodness right here, pogácsa.
You should know by now that just about anything that puffs up golden and buttery in the oven is enough to get me excited. Butter and a hot oven work magic together. You can't get me away from the oven window if I have pastry going. I have to peer in every few minutes, cheer on the pastry: puff now, you can do it! But these pogácsa have had me especially excited lately, not just because of how amazing they are--though they are that--but because the recipe for them is a family recipe, and I'm very happy that my friend Agnes was willing to share it with me and with you too.
Pogasca dough
Dusting of parm
I first had these pogácsa at her place last winter when she graciously invited a crowd of us over to make up for a cancelled class. We piled into her living room, listened raptly, and thought hard about De Motu Animalium...until the smell of pastry in the oven, rich and tantalizing, drifted down from the kitchen. I, at least, found it hard to concentrate. It was a long twenty minutes before class was over and the pogácsa came out. And when they did, we snapped them up fast. Like I said, buttery, flaky, cheesy goodness. I had to ask for the recipe the next day.
Pogácsa, generally speaking, are a pastry of Hungarian provenance. They vary a lot in size, consistency, and flavouring--some are more biscuit-like, some are yeasted, some are made with pork cracklings. The pogácsa that Agnes' family makes, though, are more like bites of puff pastry than anything else--but with a tang and tenderness that remind me a little of a good buttermilk biscuit. The dough is simple, just equal parts flour, butter, and farmers' cheese, along with a little salt, repeatedly layered and rolled out. And with that taken care of, you just let things work their magic in the oven.

Note: Farmers' cheese. It's a soft, fresh, tangy cheese often sold in plastic containers by the pound. I haven't had any trouble finding it in Illinois and New York, but Agnes says that she never managed to find any when she was living in California. Make ahead. You can certainly complete the turns a day or two before you bake off the pogácsa, so long as the dough is tightly wrapped in the refrigerator. I have a handful of cut squares that I tucked away in the freezer. I'll let you know soon how well they fare there. Update, 01-25-12. The pogácsa bake up beautifully from the freezer. Once you've cut up the dough, place the pieces on a parchment-lined half-sheet and chill in the freezer until firm, about half an hour. Remove them from the half-sheet and store in a zip-top bag. When ready to bake, follow the directions as written below.

225 g butter, just a little under room temperature
225 g farmers' cheese
225 g all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
10 g parmesan cheese, grated
1 egg, beaten

Cream the butter in a stand mixer, 1-2 minutes. Add the farmers' cheese and mix to incorporate. Then, add the flour and the salt, mixing just until incorporated.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and pat into a rough rectangle. If it's warm and tacky, wrap it loosely in plastic wrap and leave it the refrigerator to chill for at least 30 minutes. When the dough is ready, generously flour a clean work surface and a rolling pin. Roll the dough out into a rectangle, about 8 by 15 inches and a 1/4-inch thick, and then fold the dough into thirds as you would a letter. (The dough might be a little tacky and difficult to work with at first. It will improve with more rolling and folding.) Rotate the dough 90 degrees and repeat the rolling and folding. This completes a full turn. Return it to the refrigerator in plastic wrap to chill for an hour.
Complete 1-2 more full turns, leaving the dough to chill for another hour between turns. The more turns, the flakier the pastry will be.
Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Roll out the dough into a rectangle, about 8 by 15 inches and a 1/4-inch thick. Cut bite-sized circles out of the dough, as would be traditional, or cut it into squares no less than 1 1/4-inches on each side. Place on two parchment-lined half sheets. Brush each with a little egg wash and dust with the parmesan. Bake in the centre of the oven until puffed and deeply golden, about 20 minutes. Serve immediately.
Makes about 60 bite-sized pogácsa.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Two bites

A carrot cake truffle
Last night, I had some friends over for a long-due party. Over the summer, if you remember, my boyfriend and I were busy renovating the place we'd just bought. Most of the work was contracted out, but we did our share of priming, painting, patching, and problem-solving--and we couldn't have done that much without the help of our very, very generous friends. They lent us their hands, their tools, and their cars when we needed them. We couldn't be more grateful. So four months after having moved in, we thought it was time that we had them all over for some food and drink.
I took this as an excuse to dive back into Momfuku Milk Bar. Since the party would be a strictly finger-food affair, I thought that this would be the perfect time to make a few carrot cake truffles. The idea is this. Take a heap of carrot-cake scraps (or in my case, bake a carrot cake and set aside the remaining cake for munching), mix them with a few generous spoonfuls of liquid cheesecake (essentially cheesecake underbaked such that it is delightfully spoonable and spreadable), form the cake into rounds, roll the rounds into melted white chocolate, and, finally, give the rounds a nice coating of crunchy, buttery milk crumb (think cookie crumbs but made milkier with a little milk powder and more white chocolate). Think of a carrot cake truffle as a good slice of carrot cake compacted into two heavenly bites.
And your cake truffles don't have to be made out of carrot cake. I think that this method would work with pretty much any sort of leftover (but still good and fresh) cake you might have lying around. Just remember the basics: cake, a few spoonfuls of something to moisten it, plus chocolate and something crunchy to coat. A little messy, admittedly, but not too complicated.
Now, you may have noticed that I'm a little Milk-Bar-obsessed. Ever since the cookbook came out last October, I've been gushing almost non-stop about Milk Bar and Christina Tosi. And this won't be the end of it. There is so much more of the book that I want to bake out of. So, consider this a little side project of mine. I'll still keep up with my regular posts, but every now and then, I might share some photographs from a Milk Bar undertaking like this one.
I'll be back soon to write about another one of the finger foods from last night.
White chocolate
Milk crumb
Milk crumb, ground
Liquid cheesecake
Carrot cake!
Carrot cake batter
Carrot cake scraps
Carrot cake balls
A test truffle

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Sumptuousness for the new year

January minestrone, again
If I'd had things my way, I'd have woken up late New Year's Day to a bowlful of this minestrone--warm, nourishing, vegetal, and earnest. I'm a firm believer in starting the year with a good soup. After all that splendid holiday fare--the roasts, the potatoes, the mounds of sweets--it's exactly what I need. 
And that was especially true of this past holiday in particular. Christmas was one thing, but New Year's Eve was really something else. My boyfriend and I were visiting with his parents, and they'd invited a few people over to celebrate. You have no idea how much we ate. We set the table no less than three times over the course of the evening. We had three dinners that night, each broken up with a few drinks, some cards, and a little pool. First came the meatball soup, the piles of smoked and cured meats, and a kale salad. Then there were cabbage rolls (glorious), sausages, and a luxurious cabbage gratin. Finally, as we rung in the New Year, there was a pork loin, potatoes, and Brussels sprouts on the table. (And of course there was dessert.) The Romanians know how to run a feast (but I should have known that already).
Prep for stock
The next day, there were leftovers galore, so I waited until I was back in Chicago to make this much-needed soup. Now, ordinarily, I wouldn't bother making my own vegetable stock. But I wanted this soup to be positively virtuous, so homemade stock it was. And after a string of lazy days, it felt right. All that scrubbing, peeling, and chopping was meditative, renewing--and well worth it, besides. The stock gives the minestrone its depth, sweetness, and complexity. It's the heart of this soup, really. It makes it just about as sumptuous as any humble vegetable soup can be. And at the start of the year, that's all the sumptuousness you might really need.
Happy 2012, friends.

January Minestrone
Adapted from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
Note: Make ahead. As with many soups, this minestrone just gets better in a day or two. If you aren't serving it all at once, only blanch as much chard and cook as much pasta as you'll need immediately. You risk overcooking them otherwise. Umami. Don't overlook the parmesan. The vegetables can't do it all on their own. The parm gives the soup the satisfying kick of umami it needs. Vegans, you'll have to make up for it in good-quality soy sauce or tamari. Parmesan rind. You can also improve the depth and flavour of any vegetable broth by adding the rind from a wedge of Reggiano. Think of it as the vegetarian's ham knuckle.

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more to finish
2 cups finely chopped onion
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/4 cup chopped parsley
4 garlic cloves, chopped
3 carrots, peeled and diced
1 cup diced celery
Salt and pepper
2 bay leaves
8 parsley branches
6 thyme sprigs
9 cups vegetable stock (recipe below)
Rind from a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano (optional)
3 cups cooked white beans (I used alubia blanca but cannellini would be just fine) 
Soy sauce, to taste
1 small bunch of Swiss chard or kale
2 1/2 cups cooked small pasta (I used ditalini, small and thimble-like)
Thin shavings of parmesan, preferably Parmigiano Reggiano

Heat the oil in a wide, heavy-bottomed pot with the onion. Saute over high heat, stirring frequently, until lightly browned, about 10 minutes.
Add the tomato paste, parsley, garlic, vegetables, and 2 teaspoons salt and cook 3 minutes more.
In the meantime, tie up the aromatics with kitchen twine or bundle them in cheesecloth. Add them to the pot along with the stock, and the rind, if using, and bring to a boil.
Lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes. At the 15 minute mark, add the beans to the pot.
In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt generously. Blanch the greens until bright, just a minute or two. Drain them and run them under cold water. Remove their stems and chop the leaves finely. Set aside.
Taste the soup for salt and season with freshly ground black pepper. If it needs more depth, stir in some soy sauce, starting with 1 tablespoon. Remove the aromatics.
Just before serving, add the greens and the pasta to the soup and heat through. Serve with extra virgin olive oil drizzled into each bowl, a generous grind of pepper, and the parmesan.
Serves 6.

Basic Vegetable Stock
Adapted from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
Note: Volume. My 5.5-quart dutch oven just fits all of the liquid and vegetables. If you don't have something nearly as big, you might try simmering everything in 2 quarts of water to make a more concentrated stock and then diluting it with an additional 3 cups of water for the minestrone.

3 small onions
3 large carrots
3 celery ribs, including a few leaves
1 large bunch of scallions
1 1/2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
12 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
12 parsley branches
9 thyme sprigs
2 bay laves

Scrub the vegetables and chop them roughly into 1-inch chunks. Heat the oil in a wide, heavy-bottomed pot. Add the vegetables, garlic, and herbs and cook them over high heat for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring frequently. The more colour they get, the richer the flavour of the stock. Add 3 teaspoons of salt and 3 quarts of cold water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth.
Makes about 9 cups.