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Birthday Bakes: Lemon Olive Oil Cake

23 Oct

I’ve been lost in a massive RA flare the last couple of weeks, and realized literally the night before it, that I hadn’t made or even conceived of a cake for my father-in-law’s birthday.  And of course this was the one time I was out of both butter and chocolate. Ugh. But you know, butter is certainly not the only fat around that can keep a cake moist and flavorful. While most average kitchen oils don’t have a ton of flavor to speak of, there is one that can bring out the fruitiness of citrus and makes a cake that is actually better after it sits for a day. That’s olive oil. Extra virgin is preferred, but it doesn’t have to be anything top shelf, just an extra virgin olive oil that you like the flavor of when you cook. If it doesn’t taste right on its own, it won’t make a cake you want to eat. Using liquid fat means a slightly different approach than the traditional creaming method for cakes, but this one is pretty forgiving so don’t stress!

Lemon Olive Oil Cake

  • 2 cups cake flour
  • ⅓ cup cornmeal
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. baking soda
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup plus 2 tbsp. granulated sugar
  • 1 tbsp. finely grated lemon zest
  • 1¼ cups extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ tsp. almond extract

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and sugar-coat a Bundt pan and set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk together the cake flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside. In another small bowl or measuring cup, combine the lemon juice and extracts.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, using the whisk attachment, beat the eggs, sugar, and lemon zest together until thick, light, and ribboning off of the whisk. It will take about 3 minutes.

With the mixer still on high speed, slowly stream in the olive oil and beat until thick.

Add the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the lemon juice mixture, beginning and ending with flour. Fold the mixture a few times with a large spatula to ensure that everything is well-incorporated.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and gently shake to even it out.

Put the cake in the oven and bake for 40-45 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes, and then invert onto another rack to cool completely. Once cool, cover in plastic wrap and leave at room temperature. The day you are going to serve, finish it with a simple powdered sugar and lemon juice glaze.

It cuts easily, revealing a beautiful fragrance from the lemon and fruity olive oil, a crisp exterior from sugaring the pan prior to baking, and a crumb that’s moist, dense, and citrusy. It’s soft, but the cornmeal adds a slight coarseness that keeps the texture from being one-note.

But don’t take my word for it, my father-in-law had three pieces the night I served it to him. That’s the ultimate in rave reviews from my perspective.

This recipe is another example of how some of the best cooking discoveries can come from creating from what you have on-hand. With a piece of fruit from the refrigerator and the oil I use in most of my cooking, I had the base of a really special cake and didn’t even know it. But now I do, and you do too!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Essential Kneads: French-style Country Bread

7 Sep

Since being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in June, life has kind of been a rollercoaster. How I feel when I wake up each day is a complete surprise. I live in a constant state of fatigue and trying to catch up with whatever joints are flaring that day. Sometimes I need a cane to walk, or can’t raise my arms overhead, or am unable to do things as simple as squatting down or bending over. Even a simple shower can be painful sometimes. It’s almost impossible to have a consistent schedule or make firm appointments. For someone who loves to move and be in the kitchen, this can be really, really difficult. I’m able to work, but the opportunities have become very limited. It feels like so much has been taken away, and my primary job has become working toward remission.

In the midst of all of this, I discovered something wonderful, something unexpected, and something I am beyond grateful to have. I’ve mentioned on this blog before that baking bread makes me feel soothed, comforted, and home. I was deeply worried that my often swollen and painful hands and fingers would keep me from this practice. Okay, sure, I could use my mixer to knead bread, but a huge part of handling bread dough and knowing when it is ready is how it feels. And you can’t do that kneading in a mixer.

One night, I made a sponge starter for a loaf of bread. When I woke up the next day, my fingers were puffy, swollen, and angry. I was heavily disappointed. Yet again, an unexpected flare had hit me. I was about to throw the sponge starter and rest of the ingredients into my mixer, and then remembered a self-massage technique my physical therapist had shown me. It basically involved rubbing down the palms and fingers to move the inflammation. I realized it was essentially the same act as kneading. So why not take 10 minutes to move my hands through soft dough and just see what happened? Worst case, I’d have to give up and let the mixer do the work.

But I was right. While it wasn’t a perfect solution, by the time I finished kneading the dough, the swelling in my hands had reduced significantly. They still ached, but I had more mobility and a better grip. My love, my home had again brought me comfort and soothed me during struggle. So in light of that, I want to share with you the bread I was making that morning (and again this week). Get your hands in there and enjoy every second of it.

French-style Country Bread

Sponge:

  • 1 cup cool to lukewarm water (90-100 degrees F)
  • 1/2 tsp. instant yeast
  • 1 1/4 cups unbleached bread flour
  • 1/4 cup whole wheat flour

Dough:

  • Sponge
  • 1 cup lukewarm water (100-115 degrees F)
  • ½ tsp. instant yeast
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 3 3/4 to 4 cups unbleached bread flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt

Make the sponge by stirring all of the ingredients together in a large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and allow it to rest overnight or for as much as 16 hours.

After the resting period, stir the starter and add the water, yeast, sugar, 3 1/4 cups of the flour, and the salt. The dough will look rough and messy. Let it rest for minutes and then stir again. The dough will be more cohesive.

Knead the dough for 10-12 minutes, adding the remaining ¾ cups of flour only as needed to form a smooth dough. On a humid summer day, I needed all of the flour. When I’ve made this bread in the winter I have needed less than half, so it can vary a lot.

Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl or plastic container. I like a measured plastic container because it is easier to see the exact volume of the rise. Cover with lightly greased plastic wrap, and let the dough rise until almost doubled, 1-2 hours.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and sprinkle lightly with cornmeal or semolina.

Gently pour the risen dough out onto the counter and shape into a large ball.

Place this seam-side down on the prepared baking sheet.

Cover the loaf lightly with greased plastic wrap and allow it to rest until it becomes puffy and about 50% larger. This can take anywhere from 45-90 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 475 degrees F and place a 9×13 baking pan or cast iron pan on the bottom rack. Adjust the other rack to the middle position.

Make three slashes across the top of the loaf of bread, or make a tic-tac-toe pattern. Have ready 1 cup of hot water.

Place the bread in the oven on the middle rack and pour the hot water into the pan below it. Quickly close the oven to trap the steam and then reduce the oven temperature to 425 degrees F.

Bake the bread for 25 to 30 minutes, or until it’s a deep golden brown and the internal temperature is at least 190 degrees F. You can also test bread doneness by tapping the bottom of the loaf. It should sound hollow. Remove the bread from the oven, and cool it on a wire rack.

Maybe a lot has been taken away (temporarily), but RA has also become my greatest teacher, helping me learn greater patience, compassion, and gratitude for the ability to do even the simplest of tasks. I have discovered strength and perseverance I didn’t know that I had in me.

Whenever I feel myself struggling—and I know that is part of this too, I will go into the kitchen, massage my hands, and find myself home again.

Ciao for now,

Neen

 

Excellent Experiments: Cinnamon Twist Bread

1 Sep

I have had the experience on a few occasions of starting a recipe assuming I had certain ingredients on hand, only to realize partway through that I was actually missing something. Yes, yes, I know this breaks the cardinal rule of “mise en place,” but we all err sometimes. There are also occasions when I know I don’t have the right things on hand and don’t care, because I’m simply going to try something and see what happens.

I found a recipe for a cinnamon twist bread ages ago. I remember that I loved the concept of it, but it called for several ingredients (and a cooking vessel, as I recall) that were either hard to find or that I didn’t want to buy because I couldn’t think of how else I would use them. I wrote off the recipe and moved on to something else. I never like it when things go to waste, so it’s always my preference to use ingredients that can be located in an average grocery store and have multiple uses. For whatever reason, I thought back to that pretty-looking loaf this morning. I decided to take what I know about bread and recreate the idea with ingredients and tools that an average home cook would have available. I was worried that it would turn out strange, but if you never try, you never know. And many times it’s worth trusting your instincts.

Cinnamon Twist Bread

Bread dough:

  • 3 cups bread flour
  • 3 oz. (6 tbsp.) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1/4 cup instant mashed potato flakes
  • 1/4 cup nonfat dry milk
  • 3 tbsp. sugar
  • 2 1/4 tsp. instant yeast
  • 1 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 cup lukewarm water (105-110 degrees F)

Filling:

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon

Topping:

  • 1 tbsp. granulated sugar

 

To make the bread dough, combine all of the ingredients in either a stand mixer or by hand and then knead until the dough is soft, smooth, and elastic.

Roll the dough into a ball, placed it in an oiled bowl, and toss to coat with oil.

Cover the bowl and allow the dough to rise until it has doubled in size. This can take anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes, depending on the temperature and humidity of your kitchen.

Once the dough has risen, turn it out onto a lightly greased surface and roll it into a 24 x 10 in. rectangle.

Combine the cinnamon and sugar and then sprinkle the dough with the mixture.

Roll the dough up lengthwise into a log and pinch the seam closed. Place the seam side facing down.

Using a sharp knife, cut the log in half lengthwise and leave the cut sides facing up. You may have to do a little pinching to make the ropes easier to handle. As you can see, there might be an errant rope or two. Just do your best! It won’t matter in a moment.

Cross the ropes in the middle and then twist tightly, keeping the cut sides facing up as best you can. Pinch the ends of the ropes.

Form the twisted rope into a coil and tuck the end underneath. Then transfer the bread to a parchment-lined baking sheet.

Cover the bread with a clean towel or lightly with oiled plastic wrap and allow it to rise for 45 minutes to an hour, or until it is noticeably puffy.

While the bread is rising, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Once the bread has risen, remove the towel or plastic wrap, sprinkle with 1 tbsp. sugar, place it in the oven, and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until deep golden brown. Check the bread half-way through baking. If it is browning quickly, tent the loaf with a piece of aluminum foil to prevent over-browning. The internal temperature of the finished loaf should be 190-200 degrees F if you have a thermometer handy.

The bread has a soft, pillowy interior with a crisp crunch on the outside from the sugar on top. It’s not too sweet either, just enough to compliment the spicy notes from the cinnamon. It’s a wonderful accompaniment to a cup of coffee or tea.

Sometimes you don’t need a recipe to tell you what to do. Go your own way from time to time and see what happens. Even if the experiment fails spectacularly, it’s giving you information to learn from, and that’s the only way to get good at anything: Learn, learn, learn and grow, grow, grow.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Leftover Treasures: Arancini

12 Aug

There are a lot of clever ways to revive leftovers, but one of my favorites makes a new dish that can be even better than the original. I am talking of course, about arancini, Sicily’s perfect little fried rice balls.

The name translates from Italian and Sicilian to mean “little oranges” for the shape and color of the finished product. They’re said to have originated in 10th century Sicily, and later gained popularity as a food eaten on the feast of Santa Lucia. “Arancini are a traditional food for the feast of Santa Lucia on 13 December when bread and pasta are not eaten. This commemorates arrival of a grain supply ship on Santa Lucia’s day in 1646, relieving a severe famine” [1]. Today, arancini are so popular that most food outlets in Sicily sell them year-round.

Though meat in tomato sauce (ragù) and mozzarella are a traditional filling, variants are sold all over Sicily. Like any good leftover application, they are malleable enough to accommodate what you have on hand. These deep-fried delights are the answer to “I made a full recipe of risotto and only needed to feed 1 or 2 people. What now?”

Risotto already has such a wonderful depth of flavor that we don’t need to do much at all to make it something special again. Arancini are simple to make, freeze well, and fry up in less than five minutes. Sound good? Let’s go for it.

Mushroom and Cheese Arancini

Ingredients

  • Well chilled leftovers from 1 recipe Mushroom and Romano Risotto (about 3 cups for me). You can certainly use other varieties of leftover risotto, just make sure you chill it well so that it’s firm.
  • 3 eggs (2 beaten in one bowl, 1 beaten in another)
  • 2 oz. mozzarella cheese (or other melting cheese), cut into ½ in. cubes
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups panko bread crumbs
  • Neutral oil such as peanut or canola for frying (enough to measure at least 2 in. deep in a saucepan)

Put the flour, 2 beaten eggs, and bread crumbs into separate bowls and arrange on the counter in that order. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Beat one egg and mix it into the chilled risotto.

Take 2 tbsp. of the risotto and flatten it gently into your palm. Place a cube of mozzarella in the center and then gently close your hand to surround the mozzarella with risotto. I also roll the ball between my hands a few times to get a nice compact shape.

Dip the ball into the flour, shaking off excess.

Next, dip it into the beaten egg, letting the excess drip off.

Finally, roll the ball in the panko breadcrumbs and place on the parchment-lined baking sheet. I got 18 from 3 cups of risotto. (Yes, yes, there are only 17 in the picture. One was not-so-elegantly dropped.)

At this moment, I realized that I am one human with a somewhat small appetite and what on earth was I going to do with a dozen and a half arancini? Thankfully, these freeze well. If you need to do so, freeze them on a baking sheet until firm, and then move to a freezer bag. From frozen, fry 3-4 minutes and then put in a 350 degree F oven for 5-7 minutes to get the center piping hot. Win!

If not freezing, chill the arancini in the refrigerator for at least an hour before frying. They will hold their shape much better.

Prepare to fry by filling a saucepan with at least 2 in. of neutral oil. Clip a thermometer to the side of the pot and make sure the probe is at least ½ in. into the oil. This is important because greasy fried food is not what we’re after. Use an accurate thermometer, fry at the correct temperature, and the food will only absorb a very small amount of the oil. I’ve measured on a few occasions, and it’s usually only a few tablespoons total.

Bring the oil to 350 degrees F over moderate heat. You may be tempted to use high heat to get it there, but don’t. It will be harder to control the temperature later.

Fry the arancini 2-3 at a time to keep the oil temperature from dipping. They will cook in 2-4 minutes, depending on size. Remove when they are a deep golden brown. Bring the oil back to 350 degrees between batches.

Now you get a second course of your delicious risotto with added crunchy crust and gooey mozzarella center.

I mean, just check out that cheesiness:

They’re a great appetizer or lunch alongside a simple tomato salad. Now no delicious risotto leftovers need ever go to waste. And that feels pretty great.

Ciao for now,

Neen

1. Giuseppina Siotto, Vegetaliana, note di cucina italiana vegetale: La cucina vegetariana e vegana, 2014, ISBN8868101858, chapter 14

Reimagining Ribbon Cake

4 Aug

My grandmother turned 90 years old last week! For her birthday cake, we turned to an old recipe that my dad said she used to make frequently. It was a cake I’d never heard of that definitely doesn’t turn up in a basic or reverse Google Image Search, called Ribbon Cake. It’s a two layer white almond cake with white frosting, topped with piped ribbons of cherry and pineapple fillings, sprinkled with a layer of finely chopped walnuts, and finished with a final lattice of frosting to top it all off. It turned out pretty well, though I wasn’t crazy about the all-shortening frosting. And while I liked the fruit fillings, they were more sweet than fruity and were just a touch runny for easy cake topping.

Tradition is great, but I thought the recipe could benefit from an update. I really believe that recipes are live documents that morph over time as trends, ingredient availability, and food tech change. So for this version, let’s frost that fluffy white almond cake with an equally luxurious vanilla-almond buttercream. And while we’re at it, let’s make the fruit fillings from scratch too, for fruitier flavor and to help control the thickness for piping and standing at room temperature. Depending on where you live, you might even be able to make them completely fresh. My dad, mom, and I also learned a few lessons while frosting and decorating the cake that definitely helped make the second go at it a smoother process.

Reimagined Ribbon Cake

White Almond Cake

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 6 oz. unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 1/2 cups granulated sugar, divided into two 1 ¼ cup portions
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ tsp. almond extract
  • 1 1/4 cups whole milk
  • 6 egg whites at room temperature

Quick Buttercream Frosting

  •  6 cups powdered sugar, sifted
  • 16 oz. unsalted butter, softened
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ tsp. almond extract

Cherry Topping

  • 7 oz. cherries, pitted
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 heaping tbsp. cornstarch
  • 1 tbsp. lemon juice
  • ¼ cup water

Pineapple Topping

  • ½ cup + 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 1(20 ounce) can crushed pineapple, packed in its own juice or 2 cups mashed pineapple and 1 cup pineapple juice
  • 3 tbsp. cornstarch
  • 3 tablespoons butter

Walnut Topping

  • ½ cup walnuts, finely chopped

I made this cake over the course of two days, so I’ll describe that process here.

To make the cake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Prepare two 8 in. square pans by lining the bottoms with parchment paper and then greasing and flouring the pans. Alternatively you can use a baking release spray, but I would still recommend lining the bottoms with parchment paper.

In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and 1 1/4 cups of the sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in the vanilla and almond extracts.

Add the dry ingredients in three additions, alternating with the milk, until everything is combined. Transfer back to the large mixing bowl.

Clean and dry the stand mixer bowl thoroughly. Use the whip attachment for this next step.

Add the egg whites and a pinch of salt to the stand mixer bowl. Whip on high speed until the egg whites are frothy, and then very slowly add the remaining 1 ¼ cups of sugar. Whip until the meringue is thick, glossy, and holds stiff peaks.

Fold 1/3 of the meringue into the batter to lighten it, and then gently fold in the rest just until evenly incorporated.

Divide the batter evenly among the two prepared pans.

Bake the cakes for 33-37 minutes, or until pulling away from the sides of the pan. A toothpick inserted in the center should come out clean.

Allow the cakes to cool in the pans for 10 minutes, and then turn out onto wire racks to cool completely.

Next, make the fruit toppings.

To make the cherry topping, combine all of the ingredients in a saucepan over medium-low heat.

Mash the cherries while the mixture heats up.

Stir constantly until the mixture bubbles and thickens. It should be shiny and thickly coat a spoon. Cool and then move to a plastic container and store in the refrigerator.

To make the pineapple topping, combine all ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat and cook until mixture comes to a boil, stirring constantly.

Continue stirring until the mixture is thick and loses its milky look.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the butter.

Let cool and then move to a plastic container and store in the refrigerator.

At this point I wrapped the cakes tightly and stopped for the day. The next morning I began by making the buttercream.

Beat the butter on medium speed until creamy.

Gradually add the powdered sugar. Once it is all combined, add the salt and extracts and beat on high speed until thick and fluffy.

To assemble the cake, frost the first layer and stack the second on top.

Frost the cake with the buttercream, and then pipe a border around the top and the bottom of the cake. The top border is important as it acts as your frame for the fruit toppings. It can be as simple as a straight line if you prefer. I piped kisses using an open star tip.

Get out the fruit toppings and give them both a good stir. Transfer to piping bags with just couplers attached (no tips). Alternatively, use a plastic storage bag with the corner cut off. Pipe the first filling in diagonal lines about ½ in. apart.

Using the second filling, pipe lines in the spaces left between the first.

Sprinkle the walnuts over top of the fruit fillings.

Create the final layer by piping a lattice with lines spaced about 1 in. apart.

There you have it! My variation of grandma’s Ribbon Cake. The cake is moist and light, the buttercream silky smooth, and the fruit fillings are nice and bright. Saving most of this one for a visit from my parents. Maybe it will be a new tradition!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Double Dessert: Strawberry Cheesecake Brownies with a Graham Cracker Crust

23 Jul

Let’s face it, you have enough difficult decisions to make on a day to day basis, yes? So when it comes to having your dessert at the end of a long day, why add one more challenging choice into the equation? This is precisely the thought that came into my head Sunday afternoon. I wanted these super fudgy brownies I made earlier in the week (that seriously satisfied my illicit obsession with “testing” brownie/cake batter), but also had a craving for creamy cheesecake. And yes, the classic marbled chocolate and cheesecake brownie seemed like the obvious answer, but there were a few sticking points I needed to address.

First of all, if you are going to call something a cheesecake, it needs a delicious crust. And second of all, fudgy brownie and cheesecake together cry out for something fruity or acidic to cut all of that richness. So what I started to imagine was a crunchy, sweet crust, gooey, rich brownie, and smooth decadent cheesecake with a little strawberry swirl. I wandered into the kitchen without a recipe and only my cravings to guide me. And a few hours later, I definitely had no difficult choices to make.

Strawberry Cheesecake Brownies with Graham Cracker Crust

Crust

  • 1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs
  • 6 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 tbsp. sugar
  • 2 pinches of salt

Brownie Layer

  • 8 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 tbsp. cacao or cocoa butter,* melted
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ cup all purpose flour
  • ½ cup cacao or cocoa powder*
  • ½ tsp. salt

*Cacao butter/powder are the raw versions of cocoa butter/powder. This just means that these products have not been processed at temperatures higher than 115 degrees F. Either will produce great results, I just like the flavor of the raw product. Can’t find cocoa butter? Any neutral cooking oil will do in a pinch.

Cheesecake Layer

  • 8 oz. cream cheese, softened
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2 tbsp. strawberry preserves

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Line an 8×8 pan with aluminum foil and butter the foil.

Combine the graham crackers, sugar, salt and melted butter and mix well.

Press into the prepared pan in an even layer and bake for 12 minutes, or until just set. Move to a wire rack to cool slightly while you prepare the filling.

To make the brownie batter, combine the butter, cacao butter, and sugar and mix well.

Add the eggs and vanilla extract and beat until thick.

Stir in the dry ingredients, but do not overmix. Some lumps are fine.

Pour the brownie batter on top of the crust and set aside.

To make the cheesecake layer, blend the cream cheese, egg yolk, and sugar until smooth. I like to use a food processor for this.

Drop the strawberry preserves onto the cheesecake filling and swirl just slightly. Do not blend well.

Drop the cheesecake batter on top of the brownie layer in dollops and then use a butter knife to swirl the fillings together.

Bake for 35 minutes or until puffy and just set.

Allow the brownies to cool at room temperature for an hour, and then chill for 2 hours before cutting into 24 pieces. If you care about keeping it pretty, wipe down your knife with a warm, damp cloth between cuts.

This really is an awesome contrast of textures and flavors. You get that rich, fudgy brownie against smooth, creamy cheesecake with little swirls of strawberry to brighten it all up a little. Dessert need not be a difficult choice ever again. You’re welcome!

Ciao for now,

Neen