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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Let Them Eat Cake...on a weeknight

Let's talk about cake.
I don't like cake, said no one, ever, right?

When I was a kid, cake only made appearances for very special events... birthdays, weddings and the like. Everyday desserts were store bought, and they were usually some kind of packaged cookie. There was the classic pack of Archway oatmeal cookies, my father's favorite. (BO-ring.) Or a mixed selection of boxed “butter” cookies (and yes, the quotes mean I seriously doubt any butter came within a mile of these) that my brother and I would fight over and then ration in a very specific order...first the chocolate-vanilla pinwheels, followed by the shortbready spritz cookies topped with a tough, dehydrated blob of red jam, after which it didn't much matter what was there because now the “good” ones were gone.

Visits from my aunt usually included an eagerly awaited large box of Hostess Twinkies or Ho Ho's meaning my brother and I would perch at the window like two Pavlovian dogs, awaiting the arrival of our relations, only to bolt once said box of Twinkies was safely in hand. And right now, I have to think long and hard about what made the tubes of factory-processed yellow cake piped with sugary white frosting so great. I'm not entirely sure, so we'll chalk that one up to what was an evolving palate.

Actual home baking rarely happened at our house and, if my mother was in charge, convenience was fully embraced in the form of tubes of pre-made cookie dough, boxed cake mixes and pre-made frosting in small, round tubs.

I don't know that I really understood that one could make a cake or dessert from scratch until I was well into my teens and saw a friend of my mother's actually making a batter for a cake, from scratch. Like, with eggs and butter and sugar! Talk about a young mind being blown. Incidentally, this is the same person who told me she was making tomato soup one day and I was puzzled by her term “making”. Like, what's there to “make” with a tomato soup? Pick up can opener. Attach to can of Campbell's Tomato Soup. Open. There's no “making” tomato soup. Come to find out, you can “make” tomato soup ,and it's quite good!

Come to find out, one could “make” cookies... cakes... and all kinds of desserts from scratch with the added bonus that people were disproportionately impressed with you if you did!

Baking has never been my event though. It took a while, but I finally figured out that it had to do with my, ahem, imprecise nature. I'm not a big stickler for measurements, and in regular, savory cooking you can get away with a dash of this, or a splash of that...and follow it all up with a sip of wine. But bakers... sigh...they are sticklers for detail...the detail that makes up the complex chemical reactions which help souffles puff or cakes rise. So if you want success, you must be precise. Once I understood this, and applied it, my ratio of things-you-might- actually-want-to-consume to baking wreckage went way up.

So there's detail, and then there's process...and there is something very pleasing to me about the process part. Following the specific steps of a recipe can be very soothing at times. After we had to put Henry down, I was a walking, talking zombie. Going to work, apparently functioning, but draped in sadness that seemed to touch everything. My friend, C. suggested that I do some serious baking. The process: buttering pans, measuring, sifting, whisking...gave me refuge from the sad. Maybe it was the basic requirement to focus my mind on the task at hand that freed me from “thinking”? C. calls it “butter therapy” and for me it was an antidote for grief.

But the thing I love most about baking is the fragrance. It's hard to beat that cozy feeling that comes from the smell of a cake in the oven. I've read that the smell of baking cookies is often used by realtors when showing a home, so consider yourselves warned. People get all warm and fuzzy about things when the smell of chocolate chip cookies is wafting about. I know I do. And, really, to be honest, all I want in life right now is to enjoy the delicious fragrance of a cake baking in the oven on a weeknight. So, my life's mission has focused on finding a weeknight cake to do just that.

Home baking comes with varying levels of difficulty. And there will always be people who are drawn to recipes that are the Mt. Everest of baking. You know them...the show offs who are creating croissants or macarons at home. Let it be known: I am not one of these people. And, clearly, none of these items will make the cut in my quest for a weeknight cake. Neither will pie. Pie is not weeknight cake. Tortes are not weeknight cake. Nor are cookies.

Weeknight cake is all about ease. And simplicity. It needs to be something you can whip up in one bowl, pour in a pan and toss in an oven, so you can swiftly move to that delightful warm-and-fuzzy-cake- in-the-oven fragrance part.
Voila! Say hello to your new weeknight cake. Tested and approved, by yours truly.

This is the real deal, and it's called Raspberry Ricotta Cake.

From the current issue of Bon Appetit, the cake was featured in a photo that caught my eye initially. Raspberries? In a cake? But it's “winter”! Raspberries are sent to us from the southern hemisphere at this time of year. They travel great miles and (here's where I will go all locavore on you) I won't touch them. It's simply not their season, BUT, frozen raspberries or blackberries are another thing entirely! Easily obtainable at Trader Joe’s for a modest price, they're local, and actually quite good in a cake like this, where they add additional moisture to the surrounding cake batter. The cake batter itself is surprisingly ricotta- based, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this is some kind of icky cheesecake. The ricotta here gives this cake a beautiful rich texture making it easy to love with just a light dusting of powdered sugar. 

I could even see this being a big hit at a brunch, so let's not restrict it to just weeknights. It's a win-win for everyone!

So, let’s say it's a Wednesday night. Maybe you ordered some Thai takeout or brought home a pizza and are planning to catch up on the most recent episode of The Good Wife. Measure out your ingredients, carefully, and follow the instructions for a moment of zen. 

Sit back and let that golden smell of baking cake envelop you in a warm embrace.  And then, go ahead and enjoy a moment of smugness. It’s ok. That’s what comes with having baked a weeknight cake.

Raspberry Ricotta Cake

(adapted from Bon Appetit)
8 servings

1-2 tablespoons softened butter, for brushing the cake pan

1 1⁄2 cups all-purpose flour 1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder 3⁄4 teaspoons kosher salt

3 large eggs
1 1⁄2 cups ricotta
1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla
1⁄2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 1⁄2 cups frozen raspberries or blackberries, divided

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush a 9” cake pan with softened butter and line with parchment paper round. Brush the parchment lightly with butter.

2. Whisk flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl.

3. Whisk eggs, ricotta and vanilla in a medium bowl until smooth. Fold into dry ingredients just until blended. Then, fold in melted butter, bollowed by half the raspberries, being careful not to crush the berries. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Scatter the remaining berries across the top.

4. Bake the cake until golden brown and a tester comes out clean, about 45 to 50 minutes. Start checking at 40 minutes. Let cool at least 20 minutes before unmolding.

Store cake up to two days, tightly wrapped at room temperature. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

An Inspiring Feast

How often does one have the opportunity to experience a 14-plate spectacle with friends, at one of the most talked about restaurants in town with a kind benefactor picking up the tab?  Not often enough I tell you!

Recently, a friend and fellow epicure very kindly invites me, and Steve, to join her for a dining extravaganza at the hottest table in town, Lazy Bear, courtesy of her generous uncle.  (Clouds part, rainbows appear, unicorns prance, angels sing a hallelujah chorus).   To put it mildly, I am elated.

Counter to every producer instinct woven into the fiber of my being, I decide NOT to do any background research on what is about to come, and just let it all unfold.  (SHOCKER, I know.)

We arrive at a tastefully renovated building in the Mission and once inside, are greeted warmly and directed to the second level where cocktails and the first four or five courses will be served. (You did indeed read that correctly, FOUR or FIVE.  It’s good to be alive.)

The décor (a blend of ski lodge/lumberjack blended with a dash of mid-century modern) has me giddy with delight.  The people scattered about seem to be a convivial group.  It’s like a wonderful dinner party and it feels exactly right somehow.

Once upstairs, we order drinks and taste our way through a succession of small dishes meant to make our taste buds happy.

Whipped Scrambled Eggs   Bacon, Maple Hot Sauce
arrive in a small shot glass filled with a rather demure custard colored cream.  The beautiful texture, something between whipped cream and crème anglaise, is fragrant with bacon and gives you a little firework of surprise at the bottom of the glass:  a tiny dollop of hot sauce.  I decide that I am very much looking forward to hanging around to see what’s next….

Royal Sterling Caviar, Buttermilk Panna Cotta, Egg Yolk Jam, Scallion
Who says no to caviar?  Not I!  The panna cotta is interesting, shall we say, and they’ve topped it with the aforementioned caviar.  The Egg Yolk Jam is presented in the shape of a few pea-sized balls that has me thinking they are some kind of yellow gooseberries.  Surprise!  I declare my first encounter with Egg Yolk Jam a raging success.

Red Seabream Plum Blossom Salt, Almond Milk
is quite the favorite with our group.  Pristine fish topped with Plum Blossom Salt and nestled into a small puddle of almond milk. Though I am not quite certain what Plum Blossom Salt actually IS, I know with absolute certainty that I LOVE IT.

Sweetbread Nuggets Carmelized Orange Aioli
may have put some off, but not our intrepid group of gourmets.  We chowed down on these deep fried thymus glands, boldly dipping in the tasty aioli like the fearless foodies we are!  Crunchy coating surrounds a creamy texture and I all I can say is YUM.

Perigord Truffle, Bone Marrow and Cheddar Fondue, Crudites
Fondue does not bring back good childhood memories but as the server shaved a small blizzard of fat truffle over the gooey, cheesy goodness in a cup, I threw caution to the wind and gave it a try.  Decent cheddar flavor, bot overall…meh.  Overshadowed by the previous winners, I give the fondue a B+.

We now move downstairs to the main level where two very long tables have been set and an open kitchen at one end is a hive of chef-ly activity.  The room is buzzing as we all seat ourselves and go quiet as the owner and head chef welcomes us.  He encourages us all to mingle, get up and check out the work going on in the kitchen and tweet-instagram-facebook-snapchat to our hearts’ content.  Everyone looks blissfully happy that no one is making us put our mobile devices away.

Valentine’s Bread, Cultured Butter
is introduced by the chef, Valentine, who makes it, and describes his butter as having “funk”.  The bread is good, and the butter is heavenly…almost cheese-like.  Sigh.  I would be happy to simply eat bread and butter for the rest of the evening and call it a day. 

Sorrels, Snails, Garden Herbs, Spot Prawn, Geoduck Clam, Barley
We are told the snails hail from Napa and they’ve been raised on basil.  Well bully for them, but on the plate scattered with leaves, it feels a bit TOO garden-to-table for me, if you know what I mean.

Charred Onion Broth, Country Ham, Egg Yolk, Apple, Scallion
Simply put, a tasty ramen, sans noodles.   After raving about the butter to one of the chefs between courses, the creator of the onion broth asks me what I thought of his broth and I have to be a little too enthusiastic so as not crush his creative spirit. 

Steelhead Trout, Cured Roe, Burnt Cream, Fingerling Potato, Rye, Grapefruit
A++.  One of the tastiest pieces of fish I’ve had in ages. This entire composition is perfect.  If I was Tom Colicchio, it would go like this, (in his signature staccato delivery):  “The fish was cooked perfectly.  The roe added zip.  The grapefruit, freshness.  It was a perfectly balanced dish.” 

Squab, Pear, Shallot, Foie Gras, Chicory-Almond Brittle
Not being a huge fan of squab, this is an excellent interpretation of these gamy little birds, and if one were to sprinkle some of the Chicory-Almond Brittle on a bike fender, I would eat it with delight.

I am now becoming a teensy bit concerned about my dining stamina.  My friend and I observe the chef squad plating up big lamb chops and we both feel done for the day.  You mean there’s going to be more?

Lamb, Date, Mustards, Farro, Blood Orange, Olive, Garum
Wow.  I love lamb, so I soldier on.  It is delicious, and I truly wish I could pounce on it with the vigor of a less sated person.  First World Problems.  I resolutely make my way through my chop, and well, part of my friend’s.  Steve holds his own and finishes his plate.  Let it never be said that Team Anderson shies from a dining challenge.

Carrot, Orange, Fennel, Cream Cheese
And then, the humble palate cleanser comes out and STEALS THE SHOW.  (or maybe my palate just needed to be cleansed??)  WOW.  Essence of carrot is somehow captured in small tapioca pearl shapes and floated in a carrot/blood orange sauce with a tiny blob of what one might call cheesecake, but that wouldn’t be doing the tiny blob justice.  This was, in a word, MAGNFICENT.  I am ruined for whatever comes next. 

Beets, Dark Chocolate, Burnt Vanilla, Pistachio
A sweet little chocolate cake, you say?  Oh, ooookaaaaay, if I must, but now my eyes are glazing over a bit and I can’t be the best judge of anything.

Treats  S’mores!
As they say in the business, But Wait!  There’s More!
A perfect little tray of treats…a perfect little rectangle of ‘smore…a cream puff…a hand made caramel wrapped in edible paper (why?  I don’t know, but let’s all pretend we’re in 5th grade and giggle over the fact that we’re eating paper!)

We made it.  Fait accompli!  We stagger to the exits, in a satisfied stupor, and bid our friends good night. 

The next day I do some reading on the chef, David Barzelay, and the birth of his restaurant and I marvel at his trajectory.  Turns out he went from being an out of work lawyer who enjoyed cooking to owning and cooking in a restaurant that breaks new ground as a business model and works, on his terms.  

This crazy generous gift of a meal has left me feeling grateful, humbled and inspired.  
Bravo Chef!