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.

Set aside and refrigerate the bowl containing the orange segments and zest strips—this is your compote.

Into the mixing bowl containing the zest, add the sugar; rub the sugar and zest together with your fingers. Add the blood orange juice and the buttermilk and whisk to combine, dissolving the sugar. Add the eggs and the oil.

In a separate bowl, combine your dry ingredients: flour, baking powder and soda, and salt. Add this to the wet ingredients and whisk until the batter is smooth and any lumps are broken up.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50-60 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean and the cake is a deep golden brown. Let the cake rest in the pan (on a rack) for 15 minutes, then turn it out directly onto the rack and let it cool for 2 hours.

Once the cake has cooled, you may prepare the ganache. Place the chocolate in a small bowl. Then bring the cream to a simmer over low heat in a small saucepan. When the cream begins to bubble gently, pour it over the chocolate and let this sit for 5 minutes. Stir until smooth and then drizzle the chocolate over the cake. Let the ganache set for 1 hour before slicing the cake.

Serve slices of the cake with spoonfuls of blood orange compote and enjoy.

Notes: The recipe suggests adding honey to the compote, which I forgot to do, but I found it to be sweet enough in its natural state. Just use your judgment based on the natural sweetness of the oranges. Also, I used semisweet chocolate rather than the recommended bittersweet, which may be part of why I found it to be sweet enough without sweetening the compote. I would use whichever you prefer, or whichever you happen to have lying around your kitchen.

1 comment:

  1. The cake is as elegant and delectable as your writing. I love that this one, lovingly-made cake is being experienced at the same time, on separate coasts, 3,000 miles away. Artful. XO