Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A cake for Spring (and Breakfast)

Dear Boo,

I'm not much of a baker anymore, a fact that the Husband often laments. I first came to cooking through baking, as I think many people do, and I used to enjoy the methodical, detailed instructions and found it comforting to know that one must really follow the exact steps to come up with a successful product. No scary riffing or improvisation expected. And I've always been a very good rule follower. But over the years as I've gained some confidence in the kitchen, I've come to enjoy the freedom of trusting my taste and tweaking recipes as I go and to be increasingly frustrated by the precision, patience, and multiple dirty dishes required of baking. Coinciding with this was the mysterious disappearance of my sweet tooth, which miraculously and somewhat controversially reappeared recently without so much as a Hey, how ya been. 

Which is how I found myself making this cake. It seemed a perfect compromise for me: practically a one-bowl wonder, nicely unfussy but pretty in presentation, not too sweet as balanced by the sour lemon, and not too healthy (despite the yogurt) as balanced by the copious amounts of cream dolloped and cascading down the slice. And a very welcome taste of a very welcome new season. (There are bursting buds on the tree outside my window! They make the discarded plastic bags hanging off the branches look so whimsical!)

We ate it as dessert with Easter dinner, but it is equally appropriate with a cup of afternoon tea, or for that matter with morning coffee. I realized the next day when I brought the leftovers to work, that it suspiciously resembles the top of a muffin. And I'm just fine with that. 


The Mouse

Lemon-Blueberry Yogurt Cake with Lemon Cream 

Adapted by The Kitchn from Gourmet, Serves 8 

For the cake: 
1 cup all-purpose flour 
1/2 teaspoon baking powder 
1/2 teaspoon baking soda 
1/4 teaspoon salt 
2/3 cup granulated sugar 
Zest of one lemon (about 1 1/2 teaspoons) 
1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened 
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 
1 large egg 1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt (whole or 2%) 
1/4 cup milk 
1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries (no need to thaw) 
1 1/2 tablespoons turbinado sugar 

For the lemon cream: 

1/4 cup heavy whipping cream 
2 tablespoons store-bought lemon curd 

Preheat oven to 400°F with rack in the middle. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper. Flour the sides. 

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl and set aside. Place the granulated sugar and lemon zest in the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large mixing bowl. Using your fingers, rub the zest into the sugar until it is the texture of damp sand and smells like lemon candy. Add the butter and beat in a stand mixer or with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in the vanilla and the egg. Add the yogurt and beat well. 

At low speed, beat in half the flour mixture until just combined. Then beat in the milk and remaining flour mixture. 

Spread batter evenly in the pan. Scatter berries over top and sprinkle evenly with turbinado sugar. Bake until cake is golden-brown and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 25-30 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes in the pan, then turn out onto a rack and cool for 10-15 more minutes. Remove parchment and invert onto a plate. 

Meanwhile, using an electric mixer or immersion blender with a whisk attachment, beat cream and lemon curd on high speed until creamy, smooth and thick. It should be about the consistency of regular yogurt. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve. Serve cake warm or at room temperature, dolloped with lemon cream.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Everything is better with butter. Even tomato sauce. Even fiction.

Dear Boo,

So I'm probably like the 200 millionth person to try, and subsequently extol the virtues of this revelatory recipe, but that's not going to stop me from writing you about it. It's that good. And yes, butter has a lot to do with it, but equal parts of the goodness comes from the simplicity, the near magic that occurs when four simple ingredients come together in a way that is just SO right it makes you sigh, wipe your plate clean, and sigh again.

As you know, I've been part of this amazing little fiction writing group for well over a year now, a group which came together somewhat spontaneously, serendipitously, leap of faith-like, when four (now five) ingredients people came together to try out a (for many of us) new medium. What's come out of this is so much more than any of us anticipated, an artistic home, a motor which keeps us moving forward, a buoy that keeps us bobbing to the surface when we would have otherwise been sunk long ago. And what's come out of each of us, has been surprising and exciting, little pieces of ourselves, down on paper, images and ideas and people who come to life each week as we gather and read and listen. It's really phenomenal.

Of course, since I'm involved (along with a few other serious foodies), there's been a lot of eating as well as writing. Somewhere early on we transitioned from the rotating host providing snacks, to a full-on dinner at each meeting, of which I am--natch--a big fan. I swear my writing has improved tremendously since we implemented this. Of course, as the lovely J-Bow pointed out in a meeting recently after reading a section of my novel, "there's a whole food theme going on in this book..." So maybe it's seeped into my work a bit as well.

(Exhibit A, from one of my chapters:

If it weren’t for the platter of cold cuts on the kitchen table, little rolls of salami and ham and turkey and yellow and white cheese tucked into concentric circles ringed with wet, wilted lettuce leaves, you would never know anyone had died. That platter’s always a dead give-away. It’s the same platter we had on that same table when Uncle Jeff died in that swimming accident. And it showed up about three other times I can remember—one for each of my mother’s sisters. The only thing that ever changes is the lettuce. Sometimes it’s curly (Judith), sometimes it’s shredded (Suzanne), and sometimes it’s those huge flat green leaves that unroll to the size of a ceiling fan (Anita). Today the table is pushed out from the wall, I guess so people can get to the food from all sides, which would make sense if we were expecting a crowd, which means that whoever set this thing up, didn’t know my mother very well.) 

Anyway, for me, too often providing dinner for the group involves calling up Rocco's for a Grandma Pizza and salad (so delicious, highly recommend) as I rush from work to home to printing out my pages and neatening up before the group arrives. But the other day, I just wasn't up for this. I wanted something cheap, and something from my kitchen. And my options were somewhat limited, as I had about 45 minutes to shop and prep and do the dishes. That's when I thought of this sauce. Shopping for it takes about 10 minutes, costs less than ordering a pizza, and the whole thing can be ready in 45 minutes with only about 10 minutes of hands on time. Toss together some greens with good olive oil and vinegar and you have an absolutely lick your plate delicious meal. Also, the sauce magically tastes like its been cooking for hours, so you get a ton of credit.

Here's my deep thought of the day: to my mind, some of the best fiction--or I should say, writing in general, or for that matter, art in general!--comes when few, simple ingredients: a painfully honest line, a character who comes to life with one stroke describing the way their jacket falls over their shoulders, a truth that is rendered so simply and precisely we cannot help but see the deepest parts of ourselves reflected back; collide at just the right speed and velocity and time and space to create something utterly beautiful. Not to put too fine a point on this sauce, because, let's be honest, it's tomato sauce, but this, like so many good recipes, does the same thing. Make it, and have a delicious, cheap, and comforting dinner that might just make you a better artist as well. Hey, I'll take inspiration wherever I can find it.


The Mouse

Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion 


8 tbsp. unsalted butter, cubed
1 (28-oz.) can whole, peeled tomatoes in juice, crushed by hand
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and halved lengthwise
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Bring butter, sugar, tomatoes, and onion, to a boil in a 4-qt. saucepan over medium-high heat; reduce heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring occasionally, until flavors meld and sauce is slightly reduced, about 45 minutes. Discard onion, and season sauce with salt and pepper before serving.
**One time I made this, I left half the onion in and pureed it with some of the sauce. I also put in a clove of garlic, whole, to simmer along with the sauce. Both of these options were lovely, though not completely necessary. It'll be delicious either way.