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1917 Applesauce Cake

I’m not much of a cake baker. When I was growing up, any cake my mother made came from a commercial cake mix box, so I never acquired any of the skills. (She was a good pie maker, though, so I did learn that from her.) The few cakes I do make tend to be things like this one, which I wrote about here a few years ago: a very basic batter topped with fresh fruit before baking.

About two years ago, intending to expand my baking repertoire, I bought a copy of Anne Byrn’s American Cake. I couldn’t resist its subtitle: “From colonial gingerbread to classic layer, the stories and recipes behind more than 125 of our best-loved cakes.” Ever since, alas, I’ve mainly used it as a dream book: turning pages to admire the gorgeous big color photographs and reading about cake making history and techniques; but hardly ever venturing to make something from it.

Now I’ve stepped up to the (cake) plate – albeit with one of the book’s simpler recipes. Byrn’s 1917 Applesauce Cake is a model of wartime frugality. It has very little butter, no eggs, and not too much sugar, relying on the natural sweetness of apples and raisins. Nevertheless, it makes a hearty, moist cake with plenty of flavor. Frugality should always taste this good.
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The first step in the instructions was to cream the butter and sugar. Beating a mere two tablespoons of softened butter into a cup of sugar produced something more like a feathery fluff than a cream, but I hoped that would be all right. It was.
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The dry ingredients are two cups of flour and small quantities of salt, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. The raisins you see here have been tossed with a little flour, which the recipe footnote informed me keeps them from sinking as the cake bakes. The applesauce, totally unsweetened, I made from two big Winesap apples.
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I was a bit surprised to see baking soda alone as the leavening agent. I make scones, muffins, and quick breads fairly often, and whenever a recipe calls for baking soda rather than baking powder, there’s always buttermilk or yogurt for acidity. I guess the applesauce serves that purpose here.

I let my heavy-duty mixer stir the applesauce into the sugar-butter fluff, then the dry ingredients, last the raisins. The thick batter went into a buttered baking pan.
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The cake was to bake at 350° for 30 to 35 minutes. Mine took a little longer than that. It came out with a slight depression in the center. That was probably because the test for doneness was whether the top springs back when lightly pressed in the middle, and I had to do that three times, maybe with too much pressure. I usually test baked things with a skewer. No real harm done, though.
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This is the kind of cake I can manage: no layers, no icing, no decoration – just slice and serve. And it was fine: nothing that’s going to revolutionize my life, but just plain good. I want to call it a friendly cake. Not too sweet, not too spicy, nicely moist and gently fruity from the apple and raisin. It loved being served with a topping of crème fraiche, and I’m sure it would like whipped cream too, but it was just as pleasant on its own. It even went well with the white Rioja we’d been drinking with our dinner. You can’t ask for much more than that from an austerity-rations, wartime dessert.
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You might think some computer virus had ridiculously scrambled the words of my title above. But no: That’s the name of a new-to-me Thai dish that I made this week. I found the recipe in The Original Thai Cookbook, by Jennifer Brennan. A 1981 paperback, with much interesting historical, cultural, and culinary information about Thailand, it bills itself as “the first, complete, authentic, Thai cookbook published in America.”

The recipe’s English title is Fried Pork and Long Beans. I’d have given it a name with a different emphasis, because (a) it’s not what we in the West mean by frying but stir-frying, (b) it uses as much shrimp as pork, and (c) the beans are definitely the largest component. So, Stir-fried Green Beans with Pork and Shrimp. By any name, it’s a good dish and very easy to make.
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Acknowledging the limited availability of Chinese “long beans” in American markets, the recipe promptly allows using conventional green beans, which I did. And, as is truly essential for the speed of stir-frying, I measured, prepped, and set out all my ingredients before beginning to cook. In addition to the shrimp, beans, and pork, here’s garlic, nam pla (Thailand’s ubiquitous fish sauce), granulated sugar, freshly ground black pepper, and cooking oil.
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Into the hot, oiled wok went first the garlic, just long enough to color; next the pork, for a few minutes to sear and seal.
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At that point I had to make a change in the recipe’s stir-frying sequence. The shrimp were to have gone in next, for one minute, and finally the long beans, for only two minutes. I knew that wouldn’t be enough time for my green beans to soften, so I tossed them in with the browning pork and gave them three more minutes together before adding the shrimp.
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Even my shrimp took more than one minute to lose their translucency. No size was specified for them, so possibly mine were larger than anticipated by the recipe. However, they still didn’t take long, and I was soon able to stir in the fish sauce, sugar, and pepper to finish the dish. I must admit, the green beans were still almost raw – very firm and squeaky – but that really wasn’t too bad.  In fact, it may have been ethnically authentic. They made a nice textural contrast with the other ingredients.
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What really completed the dish was the nam pla. On its own, this liquid from salted and fermented anchovies, much like the garum of ancient Rome, is extremely pungent – not to say stinky. But mixing with other ingredients here moderated its intensity and delivered a pleasing dose of umami, giving the dish a deliciously different set of flavors from my more customary Western cooking style. I must try it in other Thai recipes.

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As my second decade of writing this blog begins, I’m returning to the formula I started it with: trying out new-to-me recipes from my existing cookbook collection. I think of it as digging for treasure in my own back yard.

And I hit gold with my very first spadeful: grillade marinière de Valence, from Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking. This is a splendid book in many ways – for intensive coverage of all the provinces of France, for information both cultural and culinary, for photographs of landscapes and foodstuffs, and for recipes ranging from world-famous to all-but-forgotten local. Of its dishes I’d made before, a few have been a little disappointing but others were excellent, including the best poulet aux morilles I’ve ever achieved.

Willan’s current dish, translated as Sailor’s Steak with Anchovies, definitely falls in the excellent category. It’s an odd name in two respects. First, you may wonder why a deeply landlocked city like Valence has sailors. That’s because of its position on the Rhône river, a major barge transport route before the days of the railroad. The second is why a dish called a grillade is not grilled but stewed. For that you might have to ask the Academie Française – or a French sailor.

By the way: Willan indicates that, in the past, this dish was typically made with horse meat, which is much sweeter than beef. That may explain the now somewhat unexpected use of anchovies in a meat recipe.

But on to the cooking.

I was making the quantity for 4, which calls for 1¼ pounds of “beef stewing steak” (sort of an oxymoron to those of us who don’t stew our steaks), cut an inch thick. Happily, I had a piece of chuck in the freezer that was just the right weight and thickness. The other major component of the dish is onions: ¾ pound of them, thinly sliced.
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The first step was to rub a tablespoon of flour into five tablespoons of softened butter and keep it handy. Next, spread half the onions in an oiled casserole, lay on the steak pieces, add the remaining onions, and dot the floured butter over all.
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While my pot, covered, cooked over a low flame, I prepared a seasoning mix: chopping four large anchovy filets, two cloves of garlic, two tablespoons of parsley, salt, pepper, and a tablespoon of red wine vinegar. When the meat had simmered for half an hour, I poured on the seasonings and stirred them in.
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After another hour and a half of cooking over very low heat, the beef was tender. I served Tom and myself each a piece well slathered with the onions and gravy, accompanied by heirloom potatoes boiled in their jackets and sautéed zucchini.
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As you’ll have already gathered, we liked the dish very much. (And the leftovers were still good a few days later.) I’m still wondering about the name, though: I’d have called it sailor’s steak with onions. The great mass of sweet Spanish onions almost melted into the sauce and were a lush, inviting presence. As for the anchovies, you’d notice something a little sharp, a little spicy, in the sauce, but you might not guess it was anchovy. In different ways, that should please anchovy haters and anchovy lovers alike.

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Today marks my completion of a decade of writing this blog. The culinary adventures (both successful and not so) about which I’ve told stories each week have given me great pleasure. To celebrate my tenth anniversary, this post will be a retrospective of some of the dishes I’ve most enjoyed making, eating, and writing about – one for each year.

You’ll notice a strong Western European emphasis in the choices here. That’s a reflection of Tom’s and my general eating preferences, but I’ve actually written about dishes from 24 countries in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. I could have featured many of those others among these favorites.

Clicking on an image below will open the full post about the dish.
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2010

Prosciutto-wrapped Broiled Shrimp

My first blogging year was devoted to one new recipe a week from one of the 200+ cookbooks in my collection. This one, from Ada Boni’s classic Il Talismano della Felicità, makes as good an appetizer as it did a main course.

 

2011

Plum Cake Cockaigne

From my second year, I began including posts about recipes I’d previously known and loved. This one, from Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking, has been a late-summer favorite in our household for more years than I can remember.

 

2012

Traditional Paella Valenciana

I found recipes for this relatively simple paella in two cookbooks: Penelope Casas’ Food and Wines of Spain, and Teresa Barrenechea’s Cuisines of Spain. Both looked good, so I drew steps from both recipes.

 

2013

Bluefish Gravlax

 

Here, I adapted a salmon gravlax recipe from the Cooking of Scandinavia volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series for local bluefish. I also made the book’s cucumber relish and mustard-dill sauce.

 

2014

Tripe in Golden Fontina Sauce

This is my own version of trippa alla valdostana, from Tom’s and my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. It makes a remarkably rich, mellow, elegant dish – if I do say so myself.

 

2015

Pheasant Pie with Noodles and Mushrooms

Under this pastry crust is faisan à la vosgienne, made from an Alsace recipe in Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking. Pheasant, noodles, mushrooms, sauce, and pastry were all lavishly endowed with butter.

 

2016

Chickpea and Cuttlefish Stew

Penelope Casas’s book La Cocina di Mama: The Great Home Cooking of Spain provided the recipe for this Andalucian dish intriguingly spiced with hot red pepper, sweet smoked paprika, and garlic.

 

2017

Poulet Marengo

Anyone familiar with my food preferences will know I couldn’t let this retrospective go by without including at least one chicken dish. This is a classic from Robert Courtine’s The Hundred Glories of French Cooking.

 

2018

Veselka’s Borscht

The Ukrainian restaurant Veselka, in NYC’s East Village neighborhood, serves the best borscht I’ve ever tasted or can imagine tasting. Making a batch of it from the place’s own cookbook was a major accomplishment for me.

 

2019

Apple-Stuffed Pork Roast

Apples, bacon, butter, mushrooms, onions, sage, a pinch of sugar, and a touch of wine vinegar made a delightful stuffing for roasted pork. It’s a recipe I clipped from Saveur magazine and pasted in my big recipe binder.

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So:  10 years, 512 posts, recipes from 120 cookbooks, as well as a few from magazines, newspapers, and the internet. I’ve learned a lot about food and cooking from all this. Now I plan to take the month of January off, to think about how I’d like to position my blog for the coming years.

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From my grocery shopping experience this Christmas season, I’d say there have been at least a million cartons of panettone on offer in local stores, in a dazzling array of varieties. With that abundance before me, naturally I chose to make one of my own.

I wanted a reasonably simple, traditional version of this festive bread, and I found a recipe for one in Michele Scicolone’s 1,000 Italian Recipes. I bake breads often, but very rarely are they this kind of sweet, fruit-dotted loaf. Making this one would be a tiny adventure.
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The first thing to do was to scald milk and, off heat, let butter melt and sugar dissolve in it. Already interesting: I hadn’t ever treated bread ingredients this way before.

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While the mixture cooled a little, I assembled candied citron, candied orange peel, raisins, and the grated zest of a lemon. Let me tell you, chopping candied fruits is a gooey business!
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Then, in the bowl of my heavy-duty mixer, I dissolved yeast in warm water, added the milk-butter-sugar mixture, and beat in two eggs and two extra yolks. That many yolks would certainly make a rich bread.
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The fruits and zest went in next, and finally the flour. Oddly, so it seemed to me, the recipe didn’t say to knead the dough: only beat it for two minutes. From long bread-making habit, I couldn’t resist sneaking in a few minutes of kneading with the machine’s dough hook.

In my bread-making, correcting for dryness or stickiness is often needed as a dough comes together. But this dough behaved beautifully – it quickly became smooth and springy, requiring neither a speck more flour nor a drop more moisture than the recipe’s given amounts.
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The dough was to have its first rise in a buttered bowl, covered by a towel, until doubled in bulk. That took considerably longer than the recipe’s approximation of 1½ hours: actually almost 3 hours. I’d expected something like that, with so rich and dense a dough – and also because it’s always fairly cool in my apartment. I waited with uncharacteristic patience until it was fully risen.
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Then came the choice of baking pan. The recipe called for one nine-inch round springform pan, deep enough to create the classic tall panettone shape. I didn’t want a single loaf that big. Unlike commercial panettones, which have additives to maintain freshness, a homemade one that size would surely go stale before we could finish it. I took a small half of the dough for a six-inch round pan and divided the rest over four tiny rectangular pans, whose loaves I could freeze handily for future pleasures.
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For the second rise, in the pans, the dough was again to double in bulk: about an hour, the recipe said. Again, I was called on for uncharacteristic patience; mine took another three hours, and even then I wasn’t sure it had fully doubled. But I proceeded anyway, lest I leave it too long and the dough collapse on itself. Good thing I’d started early in the day!
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I slashed the top of each loaf, hoping the cuts would encourage higher rising in the oven. The recipe said the big loaf would need an hour’s baking at 350°. My small ones tested done in half an hour, and the large one only ten minutes later. Regrettably, they hadn’t risen very much more at all. Nor had the slashes done much to open the tops. But they looked cheerful enough and smelled fine.
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I’d like to blame their sluggish rising on the age of my yeast, which was from the last of a one-pound bag that had been stored in my freezer for many months. But that’s an easy excuse. Somehow, I think it had to have been me. Sigh.

I wrapped and froze the little loaves and left the large one in a cake carrier on the kitchen counter overnight. The next morning, I cut it open to slice and toast for breakfast. It was extremely dense and weighty: not at all like the puffy softness of a store-bought panettone.
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Mirabile dictu! It had exactly the classic panettone flavor and aroma: lightly sweet, fresh, fragrant, and appetizing. Its feel in the mouth was perfectly acceptable; just more countrified in style – definitely homemade tasting. So this little Christmas cooking story has a very happy ending. Merry merry, everyone!

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I hate how this year’s Christmas marketing bling and blitz started a whole week before Thanksgiving. It’s enough to turn anyone into a Grinch. Even now it’s too early for me to put up my usual Christmas decorations. So when we had friends over for a casual dinner the other day, there was nothing Christmas-y on the menu.
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Instead I took the opportunity to make an autumnal dessert recipe I’d been meaning to try: Apple Tart Mapie. “Mapie” was the Countess de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose cookbook La Cuisine de France had a considerable following in the 1960s. I once had a copy of the book and was a fan of her recipe for skate with black butter, but I hadn’t thought about Mapie for decades. Then I found her recipe in the Pies & Pastries volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series.

Two things interested me about it: the apples were diced rather than sliced, and they were covered with custard of a kind I’d never made before. Seemed like a good use for some of the local fall apples I had in a brown bag in my refrigerator’s crisper drawer.

The pastry crust recommended was the book’s standard all-butter pâte brisée. Though the recipe indicated that a half quantity would work for any one-crust pie, it was barely enough to line my shallow 9-inch round tart pan, even needing a little patching.
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To start the filling, I had to melt a stick of butter and keep cooking it over low heat until it turned light brown. While waiting impatiently for that to happen, I cut up two apples.
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The butter took an unconscionably long time to color. My diced apples sat on the counter turning brown while my melted butter didn’t. Finally, I gave up and declared the butter dark enough.
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I poured it into a bowl in which I’d I put 1¼ cups of granulated sugar, stirring it well. The result looked kind of like scrambled eggs.
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Then I beat in four whole extra-large eggs, which thinned the mixture out to a slurry.
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With a final addition of three tablespoons of flour, that was the entire custard mix: no milk or cream of any kind. Can you really call that a custard? I don’t know. What I did know was that the apples alone had pretty much filled my pastry shell. Was all that dense liquid going to fit in as well? I was beginning to lose faith in this recipe.
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Fortunately, it did all fit – just!

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When I put the tart into a 400° oven, I set a sheet pan on the shelf underneath, to catch what I was sure would be an overflow as the custard swelled up. Surprise! It wasn’t needed: The custard pushed the apples up to the surface, making itself into a soft, even base layer. With a sprinkling of powdered sugar, it made quite a nice looking tart..
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A tasty one too. The custard was a little overly sweet for my taste, but everyone else said it was a fine dessert. Now I think I can finally let go of autumn and start getting ready for Christmas.

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This week I tried twice to reproduce a dish called Potatoes Fused with Cheese and Mushrooms that I’d enjoyed at the Bebedouro tapas bar in Lisbon last month. Both times I achieved what I’ll call successful failures. That is, though neither attempt came anywhere near its target, both results were extremely tasty and quite versatile. I can see either of them gaining a regular place in my repertory.

Here is the dish at the restaurant.
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From its flavors and texture, I thought the potatoes and mushrooms might have been roasted separately before being “fused” together in an oven to melt the cheese, so that’s what I’d do. I found a recipe online that seemed to have useful pointers for my initial foray.

The main challenge was the mushrooms. Black trumpets are the only kind I know that are so thoroughly dark, but the ones occasionally available here are always very small. And, this week, the ones at Eataly (best place locally for wild mushrooms) didn’t look very fresh. I’d have to forgo a color match and try another variety. I chose hedgehogs.
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The potatoes were no problem. A stand at my greenmarket carries German butterballs – a small, dense, waxy heirloom variety that holds its shape well in cooking.

In the afternoon I cut both vegetables in large pieces; tossed them separately with salt, pepper, and the luscious olive oil I’d brought back from my Portugal trip; and put the two pans in a 400° oven.

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The mushrooms took about 15 minutes to get tender; the potatoes about 45. When they were done and cooled, I combined them in two individual gratin dishes, along with more olive oil, and left them covered on the kitchen counter. In the evening I topped the dishes with grated Gruyere before reheating them under the broiler.
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Unfortunately, the cheese didn’t melt very well. And clearly, my dish bore no resemblance whatsoever to the Bebedouro one. But it made a delicious combination of flavors: richly meaty, even though totally vegetable. An excellent first course for our dinner.
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Nothing daunted (or at least not too badly daunted), I determined to try again. Roasting had left the vegetables fairly dry and crisp: nothing wrong with that, but not what I’d been aiming for. Next time, for the initial cooking I would boil the potatoes in their jackets and sauté the mushrooms. Also, I would try a different mushroom – oysters, this time. (Black trumpets still weren’t good.)
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So I did. For the final heating I dressed the veg with enough of that good Portuguese olive oil to make a noticeable puddle in the gratin dish. Instead of grating the cheese for the topping, I took thin shavings with a vegetable peeler. And instead of finishing the dish under the broiler, I baked it at 350° for almost 30 minutes.
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This second version didn’t come out looking anything like Bebedouro’s either. But, like my first, it was very, very good. A softer, moister version than the other, it made a fine dinner companion to a small broiled steak.

I don’t think I’ll venture a third try. Some travel-encountered dishes are best left to fond recollection – she said reluctantly.

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