Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Let them eat 1-2-3-4 cake!

When I was a child, I often spent the night or even the weekend or a week with my grandmother -- "Celie Mama" for those of you who know my grandmothers from each other. She was not a grandmother who really loved cooking and baking and feeding people up, but we always had fun in the kitchen. One thing we made occasionally was a 1-2-3-4 Cake. I knew quite a bit about basic cake baking at a young age; my mother is a champ cake baker, and I was "helping" as soon as my precocious self could see over the edge of the counter. The 1-2-3-4 cake stuck in my mind, though, because the recipe was so easy: 1 cup of butter, 2 cups of sugar, 3 cups of self-rising flour, and 4 eggs (plus 1 cup of milk). It's a relative of the true, original pound cake (1 pound of butter, 1 pound of sugar ... etc.).

So anyway ... I've always had a soft spot in my heart for 1-2-3-4 cake, but rarely made it on my own. A few years ago, though, I ran across a 1-2-3-4 Cake recipe in the paper. This one came from an Alice Waters cookbook (probably not actually written by Alice Waters, but, whatever). Not being a Southern recipe, it used cake flour and leavening instead of self-rising flour. What really caught my eye, though, was that it used one of my favorite cake tricks -- combining butter cake ingredients with a chiffon cake technique. With this recipe in particular, it transforms a not-quite-pound-cake into a lighter, more tender cake.

The wonder of this recipe is not only its simplicity but its flexibility. It is almost a master class in cakes because it is a dead-basic, classic cake, but there are an endless number of things you can do with it. First, it is in every way a traditional butter cake except for the whipped egg whites folded in at the end. You can vary the dairy product to get a slightly different flavor and texture. You can vary the flavorings and add embellishments like nuts. You can bake in any size/shape pan. You can serve it plain, in all it's vanilla-butter glory, or you can glaze or frost it. It is a recipe that is easy to divide in half; I have even made a quarter recipe.

Today I took small loaves of a personal variation to work today as holiday gifts, and was inspired to make this rare blog post, so great is my love for this recipe. So, without further ado, here it is. First, the recipe and variations that were published in the paper; second, today's variation, plus other variation ideas and notes.

1-2-3-4 Cake
adapted from The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters
Makes 2 9-inch round cakes

1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks), softened
2 cups sugar
3 cups sifted cake flour*
1/2 tsp salt
4 teaspoons baking powder
4 eggs, separated**

1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup milk
  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Butter and flour 2 9-inch cake pans.***
  3. Sift together the flour, salt, and baking powder.
  4. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter until light and fluffy. Add sugar; cream together with butter.
  5. Beat in egg yolks, one at a time, then add vanilla.
  6. When well mixed, add the flour mixture and milk alternately, starting and ending with one third of the flour. Mix just until the flour is incorporated.
  7. In another bowl, whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks, but take care not to overbeat. Gently fold one third of the egg whites into the batter. Add the remaining egg whites and fold in; be careful not to over-mix.
  8. Pour batter into the prepared cake pans and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 30 to 40 minutes.
  9. Let cake cool in pans 10 minutes. Invert cake onto plate, then immediately invert again on a wire rack. If using a glaze, it may be applied while the cake is warm. Otherwise, allow cake to cool completely before cutting or frosting.
Variations:
  • Lemon cake: Add 1 Tablespoon finely grated fresh lemon zest and 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice to the batter.
  • Orange cake: Add 1 Tablespoon finely grated fresh orange zest and 2 Tablespoons fresh orange juice to the batter.
*I have been known to substitute White Lily All-Purpose flour for cake flour -- they have nearly the same (low) protein/gluten content, although cake flour is a little more finely milled. If using White Lily, be SURE to sift.
**If you want a slightly denser cake, closer to a pound cake, do not separate the eggs; add the whole eggs in step 5 and skip step 7.
***You can, of course, use any type pan you like. The full recipe will fit into a full-size (10-inch) tube pan, or two 9x5 loaf pans, or four 8x4 loaf pans, for example. If using different pans, DO NOT adjust the oven temperature. You may, however, have to adjust cooking time; the tube pan may take 50-60 minutes. For more information on pan substitutions, see the excellent Baking911.com reference page: http://www.baking911.com/pantry/substitutes_pansizes.htm

TL's Almond Cake
  • The first change I made was to substitute buttermilk for the milk. You could also use sour cream or plain yogurt (preferably one without gelatin or other additives). These acidic dairy products not only give a subtle tangy flavor to the end product, but produce a more tender crumb. When you sub these acidic dairy products for regular milk, though, you have to add baking soda to counter the acidity. Otherwise, the leavening power of the other ingredients could be compromised. The rule of thumb is 1/2 tsp baking soda, added with the other dry ingredients, for every cup of buttermilk/sour cream/yogurt.
  • The second change was to add 1 teaspoon of almond flavoring. In many cases, bakers will omit the vanilla when adding almond or other flavorings, but I like to use both. I could see reducing the vanilla to 1/2 teaspoon, but in this case I used a full teaspoon of each.
  • To give a visual signal of the flavor of the cake, plus to provide a little embellishment to what was to be an un-iced cake, I added sliced almonds to the top of the batter right before putting the pans in the oven. It's a good idea to press them into the batter just a bit; otherwise, they'll fall off after baking.
Other Variation Ideas
I haven't tried any of these, but I think they would be *ahem* a piece of cake.
  • Coconut Cake: Add a little coconut flavoring and top with sweetened shredded coconut before baking. (You could also mix the coconut into the batter.)
  • Nut Cake: Top with any sort of chopped nuts before baking. I think chopped pecans would be great. Bonus points: Substitute Vanilla, Butter, & Nut flavoring for the vanilla extract.
  • Berry Cake: Add fresh berries, either a single variety or a combination, along with a few teaspoons of finely grated lemon zest. (I would toss the berries with a couple of tablespoons of flour before adding to the batter.
  • Spicy Cake: It might be fun to experiment with adding cardamom or ginger to this cake. Ginger and lime zest, maybe? mmmm
One final note ... BE CAREFUL about adding other fruits. For example, crushed pineapple or mashed banana might be a good add-ins, but they are acidic, and thus would need to be countered with some baking soda.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

It's Summer, So It Must Be Zucchini Time

This frittata is one of those dishes that's more than just the sum of its parts. It's a good way to use a generous amount of zucchini, it's a nice lower-fat vegetarian main dish, and is very tasty. The tomato side is optional but is a nice piquant contrast to the creamy greenness of the frittata, and rounds out the plate well.

The original recipe (from Eating Well) calls for fresh marjoram, but really you could use just about any herb or herb combination. The last time I made it I used a dried Italian herb blend, of course using only 1/3 of the amount of the fresh herb called for. To boost the heartiness of the dish and to provide some starch, I added a bit of cooked potato to the mix. I prefer to use grape, cherry, or plum tomatoes for the side; regular "slicing" tomatoes are too juicy and break down too much in the saute. Finally, since I was cooking for just me, I cut the recipe in half, using a medium well-seasoned iron skillet. If you use the non-stick skillet called for, be sure that it's one that is oven safe.



Zucchini-Ricotta Frittata with Warm Tomato Garnish
adapted from Eating Well

1 1/2 pounds zucchini, coarsely grated
1 1/8 tsp salt, divided
2 Tbsp olive oil, divided
4 large eggs
4 large egg whites
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Monterrey Jack cheese
1 Tbsp chopped fresh marjoram (or other herbs)
1 cup cooked diced red or white boiling potato (optional)
2/3 cup part-skim ricotta cheese

for the garnish:
2 1/2 cup chopped tomato (preferably grape, cherry, or plum)
1 medium shallot, minced
1 small clove garlic, minced
2 tsp chopped fresh marjoram (or other herbs)
2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
  1. Toss zucchini with 1 tsp salt in a medium bowl; put in colander to drain for 20-30 minutes. Rinse briefly and squeeze dry.
  2. Whisk eggs with pepper and remaining salt in a large bowl. Stir in cheese, herbs, and cooked potato (if using).
  3. Preheat broiler.
  4. Heat 1 Tbsp olive oil over in a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Add zucchini and cook, stirring frequently, until water evaporates (5-6 min). Add to egg mixture, stirring to mix well.
  5. Wipe skillet clean and return to medium-high heat. Heat remaining 1 Tbsp oil in the skillet, then add egg mixture and reduce heat to medium-low. Dollop ricotta over the top.
  6. Cook until eggs are set on bottom but the top is still wet (5-7 min). Transfer skillet to broiler and broil until done (3-5 min).
For tomato garnish: Toss all ingredients together. Cook in a skillet for a couple of minutes, until warm and releasing juices.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Pie: Epic Fail

With the frequency of my blog entries being so shamefully low, it might appear that I'm obsessed about pie, given that this will be the second entry of the last three about pie. I'm not obsessed, but I have had another memorable pie-centered event.

You see, March 14 was Pi Day. Get it? Pi begins with the numbers 3.14, so, 3/14 every year is Pi Day. Congress even made it official this year. So, the natural way to celebrate Pi Day is to eat some pie. Not only are the two words homonyms, but pies have the added advantage of being circular. Ha.

Pi Day was on a Saturday this year, but since I have a new range that needed a workout, I thought I'd make a pie to take to work on Friday. Since I work in IT, I knew that my coworkers would be all over Pi Day and wouldn't look at me with that "you're a nerd, aren't you?" look I've gotten at other jobs.

I decided to make a basic chocolate cream, assuming that that would have the broadest appeal and wouldn't require too much work on a weeknight. (Despite the original intention to give the oven a workout, I wound up with a type of pie that wasn't baked, except for a brief stint for the crumb crust.) Not having a stand-by recipe, I perused my usual sources and narrowed it down to two candidates: A recipe from Gourmet, and one in Ruth Levy Beranbaum's
The Pie and Pastry Bible.

For the filling, I chose Ruth's -- the two recipes were very similar, but Ruth's promised to be a little darker chocolate-wise, and called for whole eggs, which appealed to me more than the egg-yolk-only formula from Gourmet. If you are unfamiliar with Ruth's books, she's a food scientist at heart, and the recipes are calculated and tested to the nth degree, so I had no fear of making a recipe of hers to serve to others without a trial run. I did use the chocolate crumb crust from the Gourmet recipe since I wouldn't have time for the dough resting needed for a good pastry crust.

Naturally, my hubris got me.

The end result, while tasting fine, was not something I'd be proud to present. You see, both recipes call for mixing cornstarch with the egg/egg yolk at the beginning; milk is added later. This runs counter to every recipe and rule of thumb I know about cornstarch, which states you should always dissolve it in cold liquid before adding to the other ingredients. I trusted that Ruth (and Gourmet) new what they were doing, and that the cornstarch would dissolve and mix in well with the eggs.

It didn't.

Now, I freely admit that this could be as much user error as anything else; perhaps I didn't use a sufficient whisking technique. The fact remains, though, that the egg was just too viscous to readily absorb the cornstarch. I soldiered on, hoping the rest of the process, including the straining called for at the end, would redeem the mixture. To make a long story short, it didn't. The end result was the right consistency, and tasted good; it had a grainy texture rather than the dead-smooth texture you expect in a cream pie, though.

So, I did not take it to work -- it just wasn't up to my standards. I did enjoy a slice Friday night, just for testing purposes, mind you.

I will make another of these pies another day ... the difference is that I will be sure to mix the cornstarch with a little of the milk before mixing with the eggs!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Hot Drinks for Cold Nights

Now that winter is really here and making itself a true pest, it's time to ramp up your repertoire of hot beverages. Besides the usual coffee and tea (my favorites are Earl Grey and Lady Grey), don't forget hot chocolate.

If you want to make a real treat rather than just something sweet, do yourself a favor and dump the little packets. Make some hot chocolate from scratch -- it's easy and so much better than the mix. There are a million recipes, but I like this one from the Hershey's Dutch Processed Cocoa container.

Hot and Creamy Cocoa

2 servings

3 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp cocoa
1/4 cup water
1 3/4 milk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Combine sugar and cocoa in saucepan; stir in water. Cook and stir over medium heat until mixture boils; stir in milk and heat. DO NOT BOIL after milk is added. Remove from heat; add vanilla.

Of course this is just a base for all sorts of variations. Give it some Mexican flair by adding cinnamon, or a grown-up kick with Kahlua or some other complementary liqueur. But now for something completely different ...

Here's an unusual treat that I found on MyRecipes.com recently. The combination of white chocolate and ginger is inspired in a hot drink -- the spice of the ginger intensifies the warmth of the drink and gives it a depth beyond the sweet smoothness of the chocolate. This is a Cooking Light recipe so it does use skim milk; of course you could use whole or any other type of milk. Also, I have used a good-quality, fresh powdered ginger in place of the fresh in a pinch, but fresh really is wonderful.

Hot White Chocolate with Ginger

Cooking Light, Dec 2002
8 servings (serving size: 1 cup)

2/3 cup chopped peeled fresh ginger
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
8 cups fat-free milk
1 cup chopped premium white baking chocolate (about 4 ounces)

Combine first 3 ingredients in a large saucepan; cook over medium-high heat until sugar dissolves and mixture is golden (about 5 minutes), stirring frequently. Remove from heat; cool slightly.

Add milk and chocolate, stirring with a whisk. Heat over medium-low heat to 180° or until bubbles form around edge of pan, stirring frequently (do not boil). Strain mixture through a sieve into a bowl; discard solids.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Baby don't you cry, gonna make a pie

If you've seen the film Waitress, you know that the title of this post is also the first two lines of a song the eponymous waitress sings as she ... makes the pies that she loves to make. Pie IS a glorious, fabulous thing, sometimes shunted aside in favor of its showier cousin Cake. A good pie is heaven-sent, though, and should never be taken for granted. I think we've gotten used to the excuse for pie we're often presented with: Frozen, commercially-prepared products that may satisfy a sweet tooth but which fail to live up to the wonder that is good pie.

I could spend an entire post on the home-made vs. store-bought crust issue; let's just say I've availed myself of both. When time and circumstances permit, though, home-made is definitely the way to go. Don't let Fear of Piecrust stand in your way, though -- if using that frozen pastry crust or packaged crumb crust gets you into the kitchen to make a pie, then by golly go right ahead. I won't look askance.

For the holidays recently I made four different pies (plus a cake). Thanksgiving was a mincemeat pie, because that is my mother's favorite for that holiday. The filling was packaged but the double crust was made from scratch. The other Thanksgiving pie was a two-layer pumpkin: A cheesecake-like layer topped by a fairly traditional pumpkin layer. The crust for that pie was also from scratch, using the same recipe as for the mincemeat. I'm told the mincemeat was good -- I didn't have any -- but I did love the pumpkin pie.

Pumpkin Cheesecake Pie - King Arthur Flour

The pie crust itself is a bit of a story. I didn't make the crust recipe that was part of the pumpkin pie recipe; instead, I made Rose Levy Beranbaum's recipe from The Pie and Pastry Bible. The recipe, while not more difficult than others, has more steps and takes more time. Still, I think the results are worth it and it's my standard recipe. I plan on making some others for the sake of comparison (for example, Cook's Illustrated's version that uses vodka instead of vinegar). The techniques and science behind Beranbaum's is sound, though, and no matter what recipe I use in the future I'll carry what I've learned from her with me.

Basic Flaky Pie Crust - Rose Levy Beranbaum
(NOTE: I use about half the amount of vinegar called for in the recipe, and sometimes omit the baking powder, esp. if I want the crust to hold a decorative shape.)

I made the second two pies for Christmas dinner. I was in the mood for some old-school, diner-type pies, and I thought these fit the bill. The first, a coconut cream, used Beranbaum's crust again. While my parents and I like coconut and are especially appreciative of a good coconut cream pie, my siblings are strongly anti-coconut. So, I knew that pie was going to have a limited audience. The second pie was destined to have broader appeal because it was chocolate -- a real old-fashioned French Silk pie.

French Silk has gone out of style -- indeed, it can be hard to find a recipe for it -- because it calls for raw eggs. We now have pasteurized raw eggs available, though. I have heard of people using Egg Beaters or the like as well, but I haven't tried that myself. A French Silk pie is beyond decadent, though, without being heavy like the leaden, almost bombastic death-by-chocolate sort of desserts that are so popular. Creamy and, well, silky, a French Silk is everything a pie should be.

Instead of a pastry crust, I used a crumb crust made with the Nabisco "Famous Chocolate Wafers." I also grated dark chocolate over the whipped cream rather than making the chocolate curls.

French Silk Chocolate Pie - Pioneer Woman blog

Coconut Cream Pie - Bon Appetit