March 04, 2012

Everything that Rises Must Converge*

I guess you could say that I’m on a pancake streak. I can’t help myself. Or maybe it’s a citrus streak. I’m learning that I love citrus desserts—and citrus desserts that double as breakfast, or the other way around.

I have this old issue of Gourmet that’s been lying around my apartment. I shift it to various stacks, but I never quite let it out of my sight. It has a photograph of a strawberry tart on its cover. It’s from April 2009. Inside this magazine there is an article titled “Transformers” about the magical things that a cook can do with three eggs and two lemons (and a few other pantry staples). It’s better than it sounds. It’s better than I’m able to describe here. There is a simple lemon glazed butter cake, an airy and elegant Pavlova, a light-as-air snow pudding (a remarkable concept for a dessert—something like my favorite île flottant, I imagine), a pudding cake, and then today’s star: the Dutch baby with lemon sugar. What on earth is a Dutch baby, I asked myself? It looks a little like a large crêpe, but its edges are puffed and browned, it is crinkly in the center, and it’s made in the oven, in a hot skillet or Dutch oven. It’s a pancake that is also like a popover; it’s a simple breakfast that would also be a most elegant, romantic dessert.

I was intrigued. The magazine has been spread open to this page for weeks now. It began to take on epic proportions in the mind—will it live up to my fantasy of it, I wondered? Or will it fall flat, be much different in real life, much smaller, less perfectly imperfect, less lovingly browned, with less crisp turned-over edges? This is how it can be with reproductions—they enter the mind and then they, sometimes, collide unpleasantly with the real thing, leaving one in all manner of disappointment and malcontent (a bit like heartbreak).

I decided to give it a try nevertheless. It’s thanks to you, really, dear blog, and dear few reader friends that I have. I thought to myself, this crew won’t mind if I fail and perhaps, then, neither will I.

I rose early this morning. I went through the methodical preparations of readying the kitchen for baking—utensils spread out on a just-wiped kitchen table, measuring implements stacked, dirty dishes cleaned and put away. I thought of various things while I did this. I also thought of nothing—only the task that was before me. This is the greatest gift that cooking can bring—a total clearing out of mind. I felt myself begin to relax.

I didn’t use an electric mixer as the recipe suggests, but whipped up the ingredients by hand. I prefer to do things this way sometimes. I made other various divergences while following the recipe, but the largest, most significant one, was the substitution of a 10-inch skillet for my trusty old 9-inch, red Dutch oven. I thought to myself that I would simply use less of the batter—that there would not be any need, there could not be any need, to go out and buy a brand new skillet.

Then I thought that I was wrong.

I forgot to reduce the amount of the batter. I forgot to add the right amount of butter. In it went anyway and roughly 20 minutes later it had risen into the most frightening looking variation of a pancake I have ever seen—it was sticking to an oven rack high above it; it was puffed in unearthly, haphazard ways; it was glossy and not at all dimpled; and it was browning unevenly. The height of the thing was remarkable—it filled the entire depth of the Dutch oven (an apparatus meant to hold several cups of stew…).

It had risen to unnatural proportions. My blog entry would now be about my epic failure, brought about by my inability to follow simple directions, a trait that, really, has been hounding me more or less for my entire life…

But then the most amazing thing happened: I took it out of the oven, set it down, and began to photograph it. Ever-so-slightly, through the lens of the camera’s eye, it started to converge onto itself; it sank bit by bit, until it had become the height of a normal pancake—that is, save for the lovely, rustic, elegantly browned edge that surrounded it. This was monumental and this was epic, but not in the way of disappointment that I had originally feared.

It reminded me that cooking is forgiving—a lesson that I learned last week and then promptly forget.

I took it out of its pan and placed it on a large white plate. Then I followed the recipe exactly: I sprinkled it generously with sugar that had been soaking up the oils from the zest of two lemons.

In the end it was transformed indeed, and so, ever-so-slightly, was I.

*P.S. The title of this entry is taken from Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Everything that Rises Must Converge.”

Dutch Baby with Lemon Sugar (adapted from Gourmet, “Transformers,” April 2009)

1/3 cup sugar (I used organic sugar, which is not quite as white)
2 teaspoons lemon zest (from approximately 2 lemons)
3 eggs at room temperature for about 30 minutes
1/3 cup low-fat milk
1/3 cup half and half
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract (the real stuff)
1/8 teaspoon cinammon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon salt
2–3 tablespoons of unsalted butter (I like Straus)
Lemon wedges (and the juice inside of them) for serving

Place a rack in the middle of the oven and remove any racks above this one (I learned the hard way, with my pancake pushing itself adamantly into my top oven rack.)

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

In a small bowl or ramekin mix together the sugar and the lemon zest; set aside. Put a 9 to10­–inch Dutch oven or skillet in the warm oven to preheat.

Beat the eggs in a medium bowl with a whisk, until pale in color and frothy. Add the milk and half and half, flour, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt, and whisk this together until the batter is smooth. The original recipe suggests doing this with an electric mixer for about a minute. I beat it by hand, not very vigorously, for probably thirty seconds or so. The batter will be quite thin, and you will truly be unable to conceive of how on earth this will ever turn into the final product that you desire.

Place 2 to 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter in the hot skillet or Dutch oven and swirl it around until it is melted. Pour the batter into the pan and return it to the oven. Bake for approximately 25 minutes or until the pancake has puffed and the edges are browned.

Allow the Dutch baby to rest just until it has sunken inward. Turn out onto a plate (carefully) if desired, sprinkle generously with the lemon sugar and serve with lemon wedges for squeezing.

Notes: I used organic sugar; I liked the slightly beige color of the sugar mixed with the lemon zest on top of the pancake, but I’m sure pure white would also be nice in its own way, too. The recipe also calls for whole milk. I had only low-fat milk and half and half in my fridge, so I used 1/3 of each to reach the required 2/3 liquid total. (This was one of the many divergences or should I say, ahem, liberties, that I took with this recipe.) It worked out just fine. I would use whatever you have on hand, because a pancake for breakfast isn’t really that fun if it requires all sorts of special ingredients. This one won’t. It’ll take to your adjustments beautifully.

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