September 28, 2014

No such thing as perfect

A few weeks ago, I wrote about this little ricotta cake—it was stout and petite and rather heavy with cheese. Immediately after making it, possibly even the next day, I made another ricotta cake (see above). I told people that night at dinner, slightly embarrassed, cake in tow, “I’m trying to find the perfect ricotta cake recipe.” My friend Josh—who spent a year baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies every morning (and I mean, every morning) in search of the perfect recipe—wisely said something to the effect of: “Quit while you’re ahead. There’s no such thing as perfect.” 

So, shall I call myself an expert after two tries, and declare this version the shining victor? 

Is that a giant cop-out? 

Does it matter? 
Not really. 

Whether or not I keep going, you still get this recipe, all nestled with Italian prune plums—those dusty, almond-shaped, little specimens, the color of a bruise, that you can only find for a couple weeks in early Autumn. You get those airy, glistening-with-olive-oil pockets of cake as your fork spears the powdered-sugar surface. You get mouthfuls infused with orange zest, the baked plums like spoonfuls of jam. You get all of this—so many things!—and I only had to give it two goes. 

There is the even more dire imperative of needing to get this recipe into your hands before prune plums disappear from the markets. I recommend buying these plums by the bushel. I guarantee you will always find something to do with them. They bake incredibly well, making easy stove-top jam in no time, reducing quickly to an earthy-sweet compote for pork, or eating out of hand, cold and beaded with condensation from the refrigerator. They are so small and tear-drop shaped that you usually want to eat more than one in a sitting. They are a perfectly simple dessert, all on their own.  

We used to buy these plums from a roadside stand in the summertime in upstate New York from a farmer, was his name Walt?, who had a disfigured tongue from a sledding accident. He had a permanent lisp as a result. I think his shining moment was showing the kids who passed by his stand his deformity and gauging reactions. I had never before encountered a tongue injury… but I wasn’t from the country, and there wasn’t much sledding in New York City.

But enough with tongue injuries. 

You know what would be great for your tongue? 
Eating this cake. 

You’ll have to make it first, of course. But you only need a couple of hours for that. I dare say you could even drop figs into this batter, if you wanted to shake things up a bit. 

Speaking of which, I’ll be back soon with more fig recipes. For now, happy Sunday, folks. 

Ricotta Cake with Italian Prune Plums
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen via Food52

Butter for cake pan
1 cup fresh ricotta, such as Bellweather or Belfiore
1/3 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon orange zest (organic, since you are using the rind)
1 cup (scant) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
8 Italian prune plums, or other small plums
Confectioner's sugar (for dusting)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan, line with parchment, and butter the parchment. Halve the plums, remove the pits, and set the halved plums aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the ricotta, olive oil, orange zest, and granulated sugar. Whisk in the eggs, one at a time. Sift the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into the bowl with the ricotta, oil, and eggs. Fold wet and dry ingredients together gently until just combined.

Pour batter into cake pan. Smooth the surface lightly with a wooden spoon. Place the plum halves, cut side down, onto the batter.

Bake for 40–45 minutes, or until the cake is golden brown, and a toothpick inserting into the center (avoiding the fruit) comes out clean.

Cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then remove the cake from the pan, using the parchment to pull it out gently, and finish cooling completely on a wire rack.

Dust with confectioner's sugar (by placing a couple tablespoons of confectioner's sugar into a sifter, and tapping it against your palm over the cake) right before serving.

September 20, 2014

Quite the show

In the country, when I was young, there was an apple tree that had been planted by a family member now long gone. It was gnarled and old and it produced very little. From my bedroom, I could see the branches outlined in the night sky. I never thought much about it. It was a part of the background, but it was still “the” apple tree. It’s presence was singular. I remember the silvery bark, crackled all over the surface of the tree trunk—this was where the light caught. 

One year my father trimmed it back so stiffly that we were assured it would soon die. Another season passed, and it survived and made new leaves. 

Where I live now, there is a young tree. It’s apples are large and round and green. They are mild—not particularly crisp—but pleasantly tart. They are no macoun apple—that tart, snappy New York variety that I always considered a favorite. These young apples are beautifully round and bright with mottled brown patches over their skin. 

I remember now this image from Woolf’s book The Waves of an apple tree. It took on epic proportion in the mind of a character—I can’t remember which—when encountered in the middle of the night, lit by the moon. I googled The Waves and “tree” and came up with no fewer than 175 mentions of the word in a digital version of the book. Woolf alternates in her discussion between elm trees and apple trees, but the tree as implacable and unwavering is what appears each time. 
There were the floating, pale-grey clouds; and the immitigable tree; the implacable tree with its greaved silver bark. The ripple of my life was unavailing. I was unable to pass by. There was an obstacle. ‘I cannot surmount this unintelligible obstacle,’ I said. And the others passed on. But we are doomed, all of us, by the apple trees, by the immitigable tree which we cannot pass.
The tree alone resisted our eternal flux. For I changed and changed.
The tree did, I suppose, resist us. It remains gnarled and un-producing. Still, in the spring, it puts on quite the show. Blossoms and bees cover it and the tree almost hums and vibrates. 
I wonder what stories I will tell one day of this new tree, in a place 3,000 miles away with no family history. It is more neatly manicured. It is resigned to a small corner, next to a fence. I don’t have any close associations with it yet; only the moment of pulling the first apple, and cutting off three slices, sharing it between Carissa and Rob and me. 
When the apples started to fall, I collected enough to make a pie—one that was mounded in the center and latticed and fragrant with rose and pink peppercorn. Roses share the yard with the apple tree, so this seemed right. The crust was perfumed with apple cider vinegar. We ate it with friends in the course of one night. It was buttery and sweet and slightly spiced and very gentle for a pie. The fragrance of the rose lifted us away. The apples were grounding, homey, and familiar. 

It is a different thing to bake with something that you picked, though I am not responsible for the tree, or for the apples that it makes. Still, there is a sense of place that somehow—maybe only to me—comes through.

Whether or not you have a tree, or some Virginia Woolf, or even some rose water—it is almost fall, and there should be pie. 

Apple Rose Pie with Pink Peppercorn
Adapted from The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book
Note: This recipe has been updated. It is better than ever, and it was really good before.

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 sticks cold butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
7 ice cubes (a handful), plus enough cold water to make 1 cup total with the ice
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

2 meyer lemons (or regular lemons)
8–9 apples 
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Scant 1/3 cup light brown sugar
2 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon 
2 pinches finely crushed pink peppercorn
1/2 teaspoon Maldon sea salt
2 1/2 tablespoons rose water
2 dashes angostura bitters

Egg wash (1 egg whisked with a pinch of salt and 1 teaspoon water or cream)
Raw or demerara sugar for sprinkling

Make the crust:
Gently combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Add the butter pieces, tossing briefly in the flour to coat. Next, using a pastry cutter, cut the butter into the flour mixture until it is mostly combined (there should be pieces of butter the size of large peas throughout). Do not over-mix.

In a liquid measuring cup, combine the ice, water, and vinegar. Sprinkle two tablespoons of this liquid mixture over the flour mixture and toss it together gently with the pastry cutter. Add the liquid one tablespoon at a time and gently work the liquid into the dough until it comes together in a ball, using the pastry cutter and your hands. Only add as much liquid as you need for the ball to come together, and take care not to allow the dough to become too warm from the heat of your hands. Divide the dough in half, and shape each half into a disc. Wrap each disc in plastic wrap, and chill for at least 1 hour.

When the dough has chilled, prepare your top and bottom crust. For the bottom crust, roll one of the disks out on a lightly floured surface to a thickness of about 1/8–1/4 inch. It should be 12–13 inches in diameter. Fold the dough in half, and then in half again (folding the second time in the opposite direction), and then place in one quadrant of the pie dish. Unfold the dough and center it in the dish, so it hangs over on all sides. Trim the dough so there is about 1 1/2 inches of overhang, measuring from the outer rim of the dish. Cover with plastic wrap, and return to the refrigerator.

Roll out the second disk to the same thickness and diameter. Using a pizza cutter or a sharp knife, cut the dough into 6–7 large strips—this will be used to make the lattice. Transfer the strips to a parchment-lined baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate.

Make the filling:
Juice the meyer lemons and pour the juice into a large mixing bowl. Peel the apples and slice them thinly. Add the slices to the lemon juice as you work to prevent them from browning. Once they are all added, toss them in the juice to coat as much as possible. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons sugar, toss gently, and set aside for 30 minutes. 

In a separate large bowl combine the remaining dry ingredients: 1/3 cup granulated sugar, brown sugar, flour, cardamom, allspice, cinnamon, pink peppercorn, and salt. Drain the apples of the liquid that has accumulated, and add them to the dry ingredients. Toss them together, and then add the bitters and the rose water, tossing gently once more. 

Mound the apples in the prepared pie dish. Arrange the large pastry strips so they overlay asymmetrically to create a rustic, modern lattice. Fold the overhanging pastry from the bottom crust over the lattice strips, pressing them together, and then crimp all around to seal the pie. Chill the prepared pie for 15 minutes.

Place baking sheet on the bottom rack of the oven, and preheat the oven to 425 degrees. 

Whisk together the egg wash—1 egg with 1 teaspoon water (or cream) and a pinch of salt. Brush the egg wash over the lattice and sprinkle heavily with raw sugar. 

Place the pie on the baking sheet on the bottom rack and bake for 20–25 minutes. The pastry will have begun to brown. Lower the oven temperature to 375 degrees and move the pie to the center rack. Bake for 35–40 minutes longer until the filling is bubbling and the pastry is a deep golden.

Serve at room temperature. It will keep well in the refrigerator, and makes an excellent breakfast chilled.