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Archive for the ‘American’ Category

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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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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It isn’t officially winter yet, but some days are beginning to feel like it. Raw, damp weather naturally gets me thinking about hearty rib-sticking things to eat. In the vegetable category, winter squashes fill the bill, so on my latest trip to the Greenmarket, I picked up one from the heaps on display at all the stands.
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I almost always choose butternuts, pale and plain-looking as they are, because their thick, straight necks and small seed cavities provide a greater proportion of usable flesh and are easier to peel than the round, ridged varieties. Besides, they’re very tasty.

This day I wanted to try a new recipe I’d found in Elizabeth Schneider’s encyclopedic tome Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini. The author says her Baked Winter Squash and Apple Puree with Nuts is “more flavorful and subtle than you might expect from the few and familiar ingredients.” Hard to resist a come-on like that!

(I was going to be cutting back the recipe significantly. It gives quantities for 12 servings, and I was making it for just 2. Fortunately, its calling for 6 pounds of squash and 6 apples made it easy to scale down.)

It started out easily enough. In mid-afternoon I put the whole, unpeeled squash and a large Rome apple into a 350° oven to bake until they were tender.
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The recipe said to give the apple 45 minutes, but it cooked faster than that: I got it out of the oven just in time to keep it from turning to applesauce. Romes are like that: They’re the quintessential cooking apple.
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The squash took about two hours to soften, as expected. I cut it in half and left it to cool.
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The next step was to puree one cup of the squash flesh in a food mill, along with the peeled and cored flesh of the apple. My two-pound squash had made much more than a cup’s worth, but I was happy to put the rest of it into the freezer for a future “pumpkin” pie.
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Seasoned with salt, pepper, and a tablespoon of melted butter, the puree went into a buttered gratin dish to await its topping.
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While the squash was baking, I’d made the topping by grinding a sixth of a cup each of roughly chopped hazelnuts and dried breadcrumbs in my mini food processor.
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As dinner time approached, I sprinkled the nut mixture over the puree, grated on a little frozen butter, and baked the dish in a 425° oven for half an hour. The topping should have come out evenly browned, but mine didn’t. My frozen butter had stubbornly clung to the grater, had to be detached in little clots, and refused to spread evenly, so the only brown parts were where the butter had landed on the crumbs. But the dish looked pretty good anyway.
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And it tasted very good. From the faint fruit sweetness, you could tell there was something in addition to squash in the dish, but you might not guess it was apple. The effect was indeed subtle, as the headnote said. And the tiny crunch of the nutty crumbs was a nice contrast to the smooth puree. Altogether, this made an excellent companion to the simply roasted duck legs we served for dinner that evening: compatible flavors and very interesting textures.
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After you’ve been eating high on the hog for some time – and we’re now moving into that season – you need a day or two with a homely dinner of comfort food: something easy, familiar, and unchallenging, to get your overstimulated palate back onto an even keel. Lately what fills that bill for me is a dish of baked Italian sweet sausages, green Bell peppers, Spanish onions, and plain white potatoes.
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Oven baking is key here. Of course, these foods take very well to being sautéed or pan-fried, alone or in combination, but sizzling in hot oil over a direct flame is a harsh sort of treatment. The slower penetration of surrounding heat in an oven softens foods more gently, allows their flavors to blend more, and gives them quite a different effect in the mouth.
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Baking also needs only a fairly minimal effort and very little tending. The four named items do have to be cut up, in more or less equal-sized pieces..
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And the potatoes do have to be parboiled in salted water until they begin to soften enough that they’ll be fully cooked when the other components are. After that, you just put everything in a broad baking dish, slosh on as much olive oil as you like, stir, and add salt and pepper.
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The dish goes into a 400° or 425° oven for 30 to 45 minutes, until all the vegetables are soft. You can give it a stir occasionally if you like, when you’re testing things for doneness. Then just take it to the table and serve it out, sighing comfortably as you consume it..

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Tom wants me to mention that a bottle of young Chianti Classico is the final touch that exalts this homely, delicious fare.

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I’ve discovered a terrific stuffing for a pork shoulder roast. It’s made of apples, bacon, butter, mushrooms, onions, sage, a pinch of sugar and a touch of vinegar. The combination is from a recipe for a pork loin roast that I clipped from Saveur magazine several years ago and now have adapted for a piece of rolled and tied pork shoulder.

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There was a fair amount of preparation work to do for the stuffing: slice a medium onion, slice two ounces of mushrooms, chop a teaspoon of sage leaves, chop a thick slice of bacon; peel, core, and slice an apple, and toss the slices in a bowl with just a little sugar. Tom, my obliging knife man, did most of that work, leaving only the apple for me. He may have been thinking of the apple Eve gave Adam.

Well, that was fair enough. On to the cooking.

To begin, you crisp the bacon in a skillet, add the apples, and sauté them in the bacon fat until tender.
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Remove the apples and bacon to a bowl, melt a generous tablespoon of butter in the skillet, sauté the onions in it, add the mushrooms, and continue cooking until everything is tender. (The green bits you see below are scallions, which I used instead of yellow onions.)
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Raise heat, add two tablespoons of vinegar and stir until it evaporates. (The recipe calls for cider vinegar; I had sweet apple vinegar, which worked just as well.) Stir in the chopped sage, salt, and pepper.
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Finally, return the apples and bacon to the skillet, mix everything together, and set the pan aside to cool.
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For the recipe’s intended loin roast, a pocket is to be opened down the middle of each segment that will become a chop when the roast is carved, and as much of the stuffing as will fit is put in, with any excess being strewn around the meat in the roasting pan. For my piece of shoulder, I untied the strings, made one deep cut down the middle of the meat, filled the opening with all the stuffing, and retied the piece.
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I salted and peppered the meat, poured about half a cup of water in the roasting pan, and put it in a 350° oven for about two hours, basting occasionally. The little roast plumped up and browned beautifully . . .
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. . . though I must confess that it sliced rather messily.
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Nevertheless, it made for gorgeous eating: There was a wonderful exchange of flavors between the sweet, juicy pork and the varied medley of stuffing ingredients. This is a combination I look forward to making many times again.
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P.S. Jennifer, our dinner guest, looking on as Tom and I prepared to serve the meal, sneakily took a picture of me as I was taking a picture of the meat. She caught me leaning forward: I assure you my head and hands are not as much too big for the rest of my body as they appear here!
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Autumn is here, and it’s apple season again. The stands in my Greenmarket are spilling over with the abundant new crop. I counted two dozen varieties in a recent visit: from old standards like Cortland, Empire, Greening, Macintosh, Northern Spy, Rome, and Winesap, to some I’d never seen before, like Spartan, Snapdragon, Opalescent, and Zester. The Johnny Appleseeds of the world have been busy indeed.

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Just walking past the fragrant heaps gave me visions of apple pies and tarts, apple crisps and crumbles, apples baked and sautéed, apple fritters . . . all things I’ll be making in the fullness of time. But sometimes my apple craving can be satisfied with something much more modest than those treats: a simple apple compote.

The compote recipe I use is from my mother’s 1937 copy of America’s Cook Book. The recipe isn’t in a desserts chapter: It’s from “Fruits,” the very first recipe section in the book – which also includes recipes for avocados, kumquats, mangoes, papayas, persimmons, and quinces. At 1,000 pages, it’s an amazing book for its time.

For a little dessert for two, one recent evening, I made a compote with two crisp Braeburn apples.

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I peeled, quartered, and cored them, and dropped them into a bowl of cold water to wait while I prepared their syrup.
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In a medium pot I boiled a cup of water with half a cup of sugar for three minutes. The drained apple quarters went into the pot along with a small cinnamon stick.
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The next instruction was to cover the pot and simmer until the apples were transparent, which always takes longer than I expect it to. These particular apples weren’t very willing to cooperate at all, so when they began thinking about turning into applesauce I had to stop while they were only mildly translucent.
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Drained, they were very tender and not too messy looking. But next time I’ll try a different kind of apple, to see if the pieces will hold their shape better.
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To provide a bit of luxury, I topped our portions of compote with modest scoops of gelato. That’s stracciatella on the left, pistachio on the right. A sweet, light finish for a weekday dinner.

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Julia Child has let me down! Always before, her recipes have unfolded for me in smooth, sensible stages, the ingredients behaving exactly as described, and the results – if not as perfect as hers – totally satisfying. But I’ve just spent an exasperating afternoon with one of the so-called master recipes in Julia’s The Way to Cook.

That morning, I was looking for something new to make with a chicken that I’d just taken out of the freezer. The book’s Ragout of Chicken and Onions in Red Wine had an encouraging list of ingredients, and the dish looked very attractive in the photograph:
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The recipe calls for three pounds of chicken parts for four servings, but there’d be only two of us for dinner. To avoid having to defrost the whole chicken in order to cut it up, I used my ever-reliable rubber mallet and Chinese cleaver to whomp the bird neatly in two.
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One half went straight back into the freezer. When the other half had defrosted, I cut it up and proceeded to the cooking.

The first step was to brown the chicken pieces in butter and oil. Now, I’ve been browning chicken all my adult life, including for many previous Julia Child recipes, so imagine my surprise to find that what I do is apparently no longer The Way to Cook.

I was to dry the chicken well (OK), get butter and oil very hot in a sauté pan (OK), add the chicken pieces, leaving air space between each of them (Huh?), and turn them every 20 seconds (What?) for about 5 minutes, when they’d be colored “a fairly even walnut brown.” (Oh yeah?) My chicken pieces, which required two batches when spaced, tried to come apart under so much handling and barely browned at all, even after 10 minutes.
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But all right, let’s go on with the recipe. I removed the chicken to a dish, added 1½ cups of chopped onion to the pan, and sautéed it until it softened and browned a bit. (A mistake here: the onion was supposed to be sliced. As things turned out, it made no difference at all.)
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Next was to transfer the onions to a sieve set over a bowl to drain off “excess fat.” Then – leaving the rest of the fat in the pan – put back the chicken pieces and the onions. Since I’d be defatting the whole sauce later, that onion treatment made no sense to me: It seemed a totally unnecessary step. But I did it.

Other ingredients went into the pan at the same time as the chicken and onions. A large garlic clove, “puréed.” (Purée one single clove? I used a garlic press.) Salt, pepper, and a pinch of thyme. Half a large tomato, chopped. 1½ cups of red wine; and enough chicken broth to barely cover the chicken pieces.
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It all had to simmer, covered, for 20 minutes “or until the chicken is tender when pressed.” I guess testing with the tines of a fork is not The Way to Cook any more, either.

Again, I took the chicken pieces out of the pan. I tasted the cooking liquid for strength and seasoning. It seemed fine to me, so I strained it into a pot, pressing hard on the solids to preserve their juices.
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I was reluctant to see them go. I often like a little texture in my sauces, and the book’s picture does show onions scattered among the chicken pieces.

Now I had to thoroughly degrease the strained liquid. That’s a task I hate, particularly when the layer of fat is so shallow that it can’t be spooned off without taking good liquid with it. This time I was reduced to drawing pieces of paper towel across the surface to absorb the fat – an expedient I suspect may also not qualify as The Way to Cook. Also, that was well-flavored fat, which I was sorry to lose.

Next was to thicken the sauce with beurre manié. Julia is precise about the technique: Off heat, you must whisk, not stir, the butter-flour paste into the sauce and bring it to a boil, whereupon it will thicken. Not for me, it didn’t. I repeated the process with a little more beurre manié. Still hardly any change.
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Well, I said to myself, it’s still early in the day. The sauce will sit at the back of the stove for a while and then be reheated with the chicken at dinner time. Maybe it’ll thicken by then.

Actually, it did, to some degree, but less than I would have liked. Not being a fan of curly parsley, I skipped the recipe’s serving decoration.
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So, how was it? The best I can say is Acceptable. The sauce tasted good, if a little acidic from the large quantity of wine. But the chicken itself hadn’t acquired any flavor from the other ingredients, which seemed a pity given all that effort. Fortunately, it was a tasty free-range bird to begin with. But I’ll never make the dish again: It’s too fussy for a family meal and not good enough for guests.

One last cavil about this recipe. Notice the color of my sauce: It’s purplish. That’s what happens when you cook with a lot of red wine. (Think coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon.) It does not produce the glowing golden brown of the book’s photo. Caveat coquus.

Given how I revere Julia Child, I do wonder how closely she herself was involved in creating the content of this book.

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