April 30, 2012

In Many Ways

In many ways, it was doomed from the start. Sure, it had a beautifully taken photograph; yes, the parchment around the edges was perfectly crisped and browned; and indeed, those lemon slices looked caramelized and tart and toothsome. It could have gone a different way. Perhaps if I hadn’t been in the process of moving box-loads of historical relics out of my apartment, I might have been paying closer attention to things—I may have been able to intervene earlier on. But it had to happen, one of these days: that I would bake something that wouldn’t live up to its cookbook portrait, that needed serious modification, that was, perhaps, well intentioned, but not quite able to fulfill.

Today, my friends, apparently, is that day.

I knew from the start that I probably shouldn’t be baking another loaf cake. I had this one success a couple of weeks ago, and I should have left it at that for a bit. I was planning to offer you the following by way of excuses for this next loaf cake: (1) this one is made with butter not olive oil, and so we could compare and contrast; (2) I am defenseless before Nigel Slater and his beautiful photographs, and his brief jots of writing, and the way in which he chronicles, so simply, in so unadorned a way, the pleasures of cooking and eating; and (3) I’ve been reading way too much lately about the Great War.

I know that this last bit may come as a shock to any sane, mildly intelligent person out there. What on earth does loaf cake have to do with the Great War? Well, the answer, of course, is nothing really, nothing whatsoever. But I’ve been reading this book, primarily because I can’t seem to focus my mind on the sort of reading that I usually do, and in this book (which is really quite wonderful, actually) there is this section about the kinds of things that British troops at the front received as care packages while they were away at war. They received letters, and photographs, and news from home, of course, but they also received food—all manner of perishable and nonperishable things, including tarts, cakes, eggs, butter, fruit, and even fresh flowers “for the table” (specifically, violets and primroses). The idea of this passage is to point out the incredibly ironic, terribly sad, entirely ghastly proximity of these soldiers to their homes in England. They were at the front on the Sommes or in Amiens or in Ypres, but they were often just several hours away from home, a place that could be reached by boat along the Channel, and that was, in many cases, close enough to receive cakes and tarts from. This section of the book contains numerous humorous anecdotes about the sorts of food items that the troops received, including one letter from a captain in which he instructs his wife to package all future fruit tarts that she ships to him in cardboard rather than tin. (“I… received your parcel quite safe… I am sorry to say though that the tart had gone bad. I was so mad as I just felt like a bit of tart then too. I think the tin box done it. I don’t think a tin box is as good as a cardboard box or wood box for something in the tart line.”)

I won’t go on and on about this, but suffice it to say that it got me thinking: what could one make that would be sturdy enough to ship a long way, if one were pressed to the task? I might, I thought to myself, occasionally have something that I would like to send by the post; something that would hopefully arrive in one piece and that would still be delicious—perhaps even more delicious than when it was first baked?—once it got there. I settled on the idea of a loaf cake. And, specifically, this loaf cake, by Nigel Slater, with its lemon and brown sugar promises, its drizzle of lemon syrup, its luscious appearance, glossy finish, and parchment-wrapped exterior. This thing looked like it was built to travel. Perhaps it would be the kind of baked good that one could ship on, say, Mother’s Day, or for a friend’s birthday.

But alas, no. Not really at all.

Of course, I did just try it when it was first out of the oven; I haven’t given it time to settle yet; and I haven’t given myself time to warm up to it—but it’s not usually a good sign when one is not overcome with excitement with the thing that one has just baked. The just-out-of-the-oven moment should be filled with blissful enthusiasm, pride, satisfaction, and fulfillment—not sighs, frowns, and a scrunched, quizzical brow.

But I’m giving you the wrong idea here. It’s not a bad cake exactly, it’s just not amazing, and I find it to be too sweet. I’m also not singing home the praises of the lemon and brown sugar combination, though I really thought I would be. And it’s a little too sticky, and not in a way that I find appealing. To Nigel’s credit (and I do feel that he deserves a lot of credit; I may have been entirely to blame for the outcome of this cake), I did make one significant modification—I cut the amount of butter nearly by half. But I just couldn’t see, when it came down to it, how on earth I was going to be able to put 4 sticks of butter into a loaf cake—4 sticks of butter!! I consulted some other pound cake recipes and found that 2 sticks seemed to be a more generally accepted number, so that’s what I used.

Granted, I probably should have adjusted some other proportions once I made this change (for instance, the quantity of sugar), and I didn’t. I take full responsibility.

Next time, if there was going to be a next time, I would increase the amount of ground almonds, use a mixture of brown and granulated sugars, and perhaps I would even use oil instead of butter.

My favorite part of this cake is the lovely garnish of sliced lemons that adorns the top of it in a sort of haphazard meander. It’s a beautiful, rustic touch. And those lemon slices have been simmered in brown sugar and water, giving them a slightly caramelized quality and a beautiful, glimmering sheen. I like what this cake strives for. I like what the garnish beckons for it.

Maybe one day I’ll revisit it. For now, make this instead.

April 22, 2012

It’s New York, But It’s Much More than That

I’m almost afraid to write this, lest it diminish the sense of joy that I feel when I look back on the whole thing in memory. I want to write about it, of course, but I also want to keep it all inside, tucked away in that corner of the mind where only the best memories go (I’m learning that this part is larger than that sad, haunting part, ruled over by Mnemosyne like a lion in a lair).

It’s the trip to New York that I’m talking about. It’s like a long sigh; and a rush of adrenaline; and a good, hearty laugh; and a shy smile; and a sip of the most delicious wine, all rolled into one.

When New York does this to you, you can’t help but ignore all of the rest of it: sweaty bodies pressing into you on the subway, the pollution, smoke everywhere, the occasional screaming lunatic… who cares, I say. It’s New York—it wrapped its arms around me, and made it incredibly hard to leave.

Before I get to the sad part though, the part where I leave and ache all over as I sit, waiting, at the airport, I should tell you a bit about what it was like to be there. The summary version is that: I saw friends (friends! the best friends that a girl could have (I’m talking to you D., S., T., and R.)); I spent some quality time with my lovely, youthful mom; I went out on the town to openings and bars; I turned 30; I ate and ate and ate (whole grilled branzino, asparagus with capers and breadcrumbs, marinated artichokes…); I strolled in the West Village, sipped wine with an old friend as we sat in the warm afternoon sun, cobblestone sidewalk in view; I walked the highline (known to me originally through the photographs of this man, my former professor); and I let go of some things, some things that had been hard to shake back in San Francisco.

It was a good way to usher in a new decade. The best, in fact.

As I sat in the sun with my friend T., I remembered what it was like to be young and unencumbered, and to have truly good friends—the kind with whom you never feel far apart, regardless of the years that may have passed. Later, in another scenario, I was reminded of my days in college—my roommates, dear ones, laughing on the couch as we scoffed about love and men and recalled old times.

In Brooklyn, we bumped into more friends and acquaintances, we drank, we socialized, we joked around with strangers, we made plans for the future: I felt something akin to fear letting go its tiresome grip and leaving me.

I also took those train rides along the Hudson that I mentioned, and discovered that there was something wonderful to be had at both ends of each journey.

There were, of course, occasional fleeting moments of sadness and disorientation, especially at first—but these subsided, and now I can barely remember them. The thrilling, the youthful, the energized—slightly intoxicated—delicious taste of the whole thing is what remains.

I’ll have to go back soon, once this sense of euphoria diminishes.

For now, since this is supposed to be a food blog, I should really talk about what I ate while I was in New York. There were some highlights: Buvette lived up to its name, whisking my mom and I away to some other place—Paris, perhaps?—where we huddled around a tiny marble table in a quiet, bistro corner and tucked into one delicious small plate after the next: marinated artichokes with olives and lemon, chicken liver mousse  (a personal favorite), octopus salad with sliced celery and olives, warm potato salad with anchovy vinaigrette. 

Then came Prune, the other spot on my list, where I ate that whole grilled branzino that I mentioned (all by myself), and also: roasted marrow bones with parsley salad, another octopus salad, and crunchy endives and lettuces. For dessert we tried an olive oil cake (not as good as this one, I fear), lemon curd and meringue, and a chocolate-espresso semifreddo with hazelnuts.

In Chatham, New York, on my last night, I ate fish tacos with old friends at this lovely little spot, had happy birthday sung to me over a plate of magnificent desserts, and reconnected with people very dear to me who I hadn’t seen in years. You might remember them from this post, one of my very first.

Then, at the last, my mom made me an apricot brandy pound cake, which we consumed with strawberries and whipped cream.

There isn’t more that one can ask for out of a trip to New York, or perhaps anywhere else in the world at all.

Next week, I’ll be back to my usual baking and then writing about it—more food, less travelogue. In the meantime, my friend T. has promised to serenade me with this song, lest the farmer’s markets of San Francisco make me forget how much I loved being in New York this time around.

Here’s to being back, but having come far. 

April 09, 2012

Message from Afar

This is a bit strange. I’m not in my typical writing mode. The setting, where I now sit, is completely different:

Rather than my old wooden desk or my kitchen table, my cup of coffee, and my tattered flannel shirt, I find myself in a cramped seat, purple light emanating from the ceiling, the vague smell of diesel fumes slowly leaving the air. I’m in an airplane, hurdling through space at a speed of 500 miles per hour. I’m on my way to New York—the city where I grew up and where I spent more or less the first two decades of my life.

I’ve missed it, and I’m glad to be heading back for a bit.

I’m going to New York to celebrate my birthday. But more than that, I'm going to see and visit with old friends, to spend some time with my Mom, and to, as a certain television countess-to-be once expressed, “hear my heels clicking on the pavement.” Sure there’s pavement in San Francisco, but it sounds and feels different than a New York sidewalk. In New York I’ll relish (and simultaneously loathe) the sense of anonymity, the brief exchanges and glances shared with strangers, the folding inward that occurs when one is on a crowded street in a familiar city. I don’t have to pay attention to where I’m going when I’m in New York, because I always, no matter where in the city I am, have the impression of being home.

I never used to feel this way; it’s a phenomenon that has occurred only since I left it behind when I moved west five years ago.

While I’m in New York, I have a few things planned. Of course, with New York, what one longs for are the unexpected moments, but I’ll not try to predict what those might be. New York is a never-ending landscape of changing faces and situations. When I was little, I used to look up at the high-rises at night and think with amazement and awe how in each window there were lives, moments, and stories constantly unfolding. It’s overwhelming. But this is true of any city.

Apart from the conversations and drinks with friends that I hope to have, the late-night strolls along cobblestone streets in the West Village, the long train rides up and down the Hudson, I plan to, more specifically: eat at Prune, a place that I’ve read so much about (I’ve even purchased the chef’s recent book Blood, Bones & Butter in preparation for the event); to take in small bites at Buvette; to see the Biennial; and to go with my good friend L. to this show at the Natural History Museum. I’m getting more excited by the minute.

Before I left San Francisco, though, in the midst of the bustle of packing, the last-minute trips to the store, the tidying up and the sweeping, and the endless stacking of papers and books, I did something crazy: I baked a cake. I thought it would be a good thing to do before my trip, however rushed and frazzled I felt: to use up those few blood oranges in my fridge, to have an excuse to make a chocolate ganache, to pass some cake along to friends before my flight. And plus, I’ve smushed some of it into my suitcase, so I’ll be prepared for dessert when I land.

There’s yet another reason that I’ve baked this cake, and it’s a celebratory one. This post will be my tenth, and while that’s a very modest number at best, it’s still a milestone of sorts. In the beginning, there was near-paralysis, fear of failure, an incessant and relentless over-thinking of things, procrastination, and self-deprecation (all that good stuff)—but now, ten posts in, I feel things are beginning to take shape. I might, after all, be able to keep this blog thing going, even if it occasionally means getting up at 5 am to bake, or writing the occasional entry from the sky.

The cake, apart from all of this, this list of “reasons,” is delicious—buttermilk and blood orange juice in the batter (a kind of frenetic creamsicle combination), olive oil rather than butter to make it moist, zest and blood orange compote, and a chaotic drizzle of deep, dark chocolate ganache. It reminded me of a sort of paired-down, weeknight version of this decadent cake that I grew up eating.

I’d never made—and I may not have ever even eaten—an olive oil cake. It’s an unexpected and delicious thing—it imparts a sort of savory sensibility to the cake that protects it from all possibility of being overly sweet. It’s also tender—dare I say, more tender and moist than loaf cakes using butter?

Orange and olive oil seemed like a natural combination to me when I read the recipe, and it felt that way to consume as well: natural, moist, simple, and fresh. It’s also pleasingly tart with the addition of a blood orange compote that is riddled with feisty strips of zest. Just a drizzle of chocolate ganache adds complexity and warmth.

The cake also comes together fairly quickly and easily, making it the kind of thing that you could imagine effortlessly incorporating into your repertoire, unlike a certain chocolate cake that I made recently, which takes a bit more time and more careful attention to detail.

Both are good, of course, for different reasons.

The real time that you need for the cake is the time required to let it cool before you can drizzle on the ganache; and then, once the ganache is drizzled, you need still more time to let it set. But this kind of investment of time just increases the anticipation. It’s not arduous in the least. (And you can pack in between.)

Stuffed into a tupperware and bundled up in a paper bag, it can be easily delivered to a friend’s door—a friend who is then kind enough to take you to the airport. (I hope she enjoys it.)

For next week, my plan is to report back with the recounting of meals and various other travel musings from my time in that city of all cities, New York.

For now, from 35,000 feet above ground, happy baking.

Orange-Scented Olive Oil Cake with Blood Orange Compote and Ganache (adapted from Martha Stewart Living, February 2009)

For the cake and the compote:
Unsalted butter, softened (for greasing the pan)
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour (plus more for the pan)
4 blood oranges, or a mixture of blood oranges and Cara Cara oranges
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup buttermilk
3 large eggs
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt

For the ganache:
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup bittersweet chocolate, chopped or in morsels

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter and flour a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan.

Using a vegetable peeler, remove the rind from one of the blood oranges, carefully avoiding the white pith. Slice this rind into thin strips for a total amount of 1 tablespoon of zest strips; place in a bowl and set aside.

Into a medium mixing bowl, finely grate 1 tablespoon of zest from the blood oranges. Now, into your first bowl with the zest strips, segment the blood oranges. (You may also use a mixture of blood oranges and Cara Cara oranges here for a nice variation in color.) Squeeze the juice from the orange membranes into a measuring cup, for a total of 1/4 cup blood orange juice.