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Archive for the ‘Desserts’ Category

byrn-american-cakeI’ve just acquired an intriguing new cookbook, devoted entirely to cakes. Anne Byrn’s American Cake tells the story of cake making in this country from colonial days forward, illustrating changing trends and fashions in baking with well-documented classic recipes and gorgeous photography. I’ve never been much of a cake maker, relying more on pies and tarts for dessert-making occasions, but this book looked like a good opportunity to try new things.

As soon as the book arrived, Beloved Spouse – who has developed more of a sweet tooth than he had when we were young – fell on it joyfully and put in an immediate request for its Boston cream pie, a kind of cake I’d never made before and could only vaguely remember even having tasted:
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books-cake

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This picture made it look almost cloyingly rich, oozing with custard between the layers of cake and dripping with a thick chocolate glaze. I was sure the two of us wouldn’t be able to consume a whole cake that size before it went stale.

Then I had my Great Idea: Make half of it! Instead of baking two layers of cake, bake only one, slice it in half, and put the halves together with half batches of the custard and the glaze.  What simplicity! What genius!

It was easy enough to reduce the quantities of the ingredients, but it’s still an elaborate process to follow. I had to start early in the day, because the custard had to be made and chilled for at least five hours before being used.

First I whisked together milk, sugar, gelatin, and salt in a saucepan and simmered it until the sugar and gelatin were dissolved. Next I whisked together an egg yolk, cornstarch, and a little more milk, and gradually combined the two mixtures. It all went back into the saucepan, to be cooked and whisked continually until it thickened. It did, very properly. So far, so good.

I strained that mixture into a bowl, stirred in butter and vanilla, and whisked, yet again, until the custard was smooth. Covered the bowl with plastic wrap, pressing it right down onto the surface of the custard, and set it in the refrigerator.
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custard

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Then it was on to the cake. I creamed butter, sugar, and vanilla in the heavy-duty mixer, beat in an egg, then added flour, baking powder, and salt, alternately with milk, to make a smooth batter. The batter baked in a greased 8-inch round pan for about 20 minutes, until the cake was golden. Unmolded, it had to cool completely on a rack.
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cake

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I sliced the cake in half, put one piece on a plate, spread the custard filling over it, topped it with the other cake piece, and put the plate in the refrigerator while I made the glaze. That was easier to do than I expected. In a saucepan I melted semisweet chocolate, heavy cream, and a little syrup. (It should have been corn syrup but I didn’t have any and didn’t want to buy a whole bottle for one tablespoon’s worth, so I just made up a bit of simple sugar syrup.) Off heat, I added vanilla and stirred until the glaze was smooth.

The last step was to pour that glaze over the cake and let it drip artistically down the sides, as shown in the book’s photo above. That was not as easy as it sounds, as you can see from my results. There must be an art to manipulating glaze that I never learned.
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my-cake

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And if you think that looks terrible, have a peek at the cut side of the cake.
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back-side

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Not a thing of beauty, and not one I’d dare set before anyone other than ourselves. But you know what? – It was great. The textures and flavors of cake, custard, and glaze made a marvelous combination. Not as overly sweet as I’d feared it was going to be, either. I now see why Boston cream pie is such a classic American dessert.

And, when sliced and served, it was almost decent looking.
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cake-slice

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Beloved Spouse would like another.

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Christmas is the only time of year I ever bake cookies. And then, in keeping with the spirit of holiday abundance, I bake a lot of them! This year I did four kinds of nut cookies: one each with almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, and walnuts. Two are old favorites I make almost every year. One is a recent addition to my repertoire. And one is totally new to me.

Peanut Butter Cookies

peanut-butter

For me, these are the Ur Christmas cookie, going back to my earliest childhood. I don’t recall what recipe my mother used, but I love one that I clipped from an issue of Saveur magazine in 2000. With chunky peanut butter and dark brown sugar, it makes rich, luscious cookies that we look forward to every year.
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Toll House Cookies

toll-house

Another “wouldn’t be Christmas without” kind of cookie at our house – always from the recipe printed on the Nestle’s Toll House Morsels bag. This year I boldly tried one of its suggested variations, which is to add grated orange rind. A mere 1½ teaspoons of clementine rind made a surprisingly strong presence in 50 two-inch cookies. I found it a pleasant change, but Beloved Spouse – even more of a traditionalist than I – still prefers the classic version.
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Hazelnut-Brown Sugar Cookies

hazelnut

Two Christmases ago I tried this recipe from Lee Bailey’s book Country Desserts. It was very good, so I did it again this year. It’s a typical nut cookie procedure: You cream butter and brown sugar, beat in egg and vanilla, stir in flour, baking soda, and chopped nuts. Drop onto greased pans and bake in a moderate oven. This time they came out even better than last year’s – crisper and more delicate – possibly because I used light brown sugar instead of dark. Something to remember for next year.
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Granadinas

spanish

This was my new Christmas experiment. They’re almond cookies, a specialty of the Andalusian city of Granada. The recipe is from Penelope Casas’s Foods and Wines of Spain, and it’s the oddest cookie I’ve ever made. It starts with heating a cup of flour in a skillet for several minutes, not letting it brown. Cooled, the flour is mixed with ½ cup sugar, ¼ teaspoon cinnamon, and ¾ cup ground almonds. Add an egg and ½ cup of lard, and work the whole mixture into a dough. Shape it into one-inch balls, lay them on a baking sheet, and flatten the center of each one “with your index finger.”

three-stages

I did all that, baked them as directed, and they came out very well. You can’t actually taste the lard, but it provides a hint of savoriness underneath the almond nuttiness. Granadinas are supposed to be dusted with powdered sugar, but for us they’re sweet enough just plain.

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christmasdivider7

tins

So here are this season’s cookies in their tins, ready to make a sweet contribution to the year-end festivities for Beloved Spouse, our holiday guests, and – let us not forget – me.

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Science has shown that you can make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Sometimes kitchen arts can do that too. It worked, this week, for me.

Beloved Spouse had innocently brought home a new variety of bread to try – a large baguette-style loaf listed by our usually reliable market as Italian Bread. It looked reasonable, though it felt a bit hefty. When sliced into, it proved to be essentially commercial white bread: The dense, fine, slightly sweet crumb had to have been due to more ingredients than the flour, yeast, and salt that a proper Italian loaf uses.

loaf

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When we want white bread in our house I make the White Bread Plus recipe from Joy of Cooking, and it’s a very different animal. So this travesty was going to be useless unless I found something decent to do with it. Resourcefully (she modestly said), I did: Bread pudding.

From a few unfortunate restaurant experiences, I know it’s possible to produce a boring bread pudding, but all the ones I’ve ever made are wonderful simple desserts – easy enough for everyday use, interesting enough to serve to guests. So I set to work on this one, using only ingredients that I had on hand.

My bespoke knife man (a big bread pudding fan) cheerfully reduced the loaf of bread to cubes. It made almost six cups’ worth.

cubed

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The next thing I needed was two cups of milk. I didn’t have any fresh, so I made up some with nonfat dry milk powder, boosting its butterfat with a leftover half cup of heavy cream. I scalded that liquid, melted in half a stick of butter, stirred in ⅓ cup of sugar, poured it over the bread, and left it for 15 minutes to be absorbed.

Then I considered fruit for the filling. My fruit bowl contained several bananas, a pear, and an apple. Any of them would have been good. I chose the apple, peeled and chopped it, and added ¼ cup of raisins to it.

fruit

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When the bread was thoroughly moistened, I mixed in the fruit, along with two eggs beaten with a teaspoon of vanilla extract and a pinch of salt.

mixture

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The pudding mixture went into a heavily buttered baking dish and then into a 350° oven for about 45 minutes, until the top was lightly browned and a knife inserted into the center came out clean.

baked

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It was a delight, as always – warm and fragrant, lightly fruit-sweet, moist enough not to need a sauce (though it never objects to a ladleful of crème anglaise). Of course, there was far more than two of us could eat at a sitting, but one of the beauties of bread pudding is its resilience. It keeps well, reheats well – even freezes well, though mine rarely lasts long enough for that.

served

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Best of all, in any of its homely or elegant variations, bread pudding is a thoroughly comforting thing to eat. And given the way things have gone this fall, we all need as much comfort as we can get. Beloved Spouse and I may eat a lot of bread pudding this winter.

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As Thanksgiving approached last week, I had to decide on a dessert that would be my contribution to the festive dinner we have every year at the home of friends. What should it be this time? I’m a traditionalist, so my mind turned to pie – a dish that’s both generally popular and easy to transport.

pie-fixes-everything

Apple pie is always nice, but a little ordinary. Mince pie is too heavy after a rich meal. I make a very good pumpkin pie (using butternut squash), from a recipe in Bernard Clayton’s Complete Book of Pastry, but that’s almost too obvious. Then I remembered a recipe for pumpkin gelatin chiffon pie that I’d tried once from Joy of Cooking. Just the thing – familiar but also slightly unusual, and with a filling lighter than the dense custard of a typical pumpkin pie.

The recipe calls for a fully baked pie shell – kind not specified. With soft, moist fillings I like to use Clayton’s hot-water crust. For this type of pastry, rather than cutting chilled shortening into the flour and then adding ice water, you dissolve butter or lard in boiling water and mix the flour into the resulting cream. You lose the flakiness of a regular short crust, but the crisp shell never gets soggy from the filling, which is particularly useful for a pie that must be refrigerated.

I made the pastry the day before Thanksgiving. Also, that evening I took a pie’s worth of previously baked, strained squash from the freezer and left it to defrost overnight. The next morning I rolled out the crust, baked it, and let it cool.

baked-shell-2

(No, it wasn’t all gray on the left side. My camera was doing some strange things with light.)

For the filling I first soaked a tablespoon of unflavored gelatin in ¼ cup of water and let it hydrate while I stirred ½ cup of milk, ½ cup of sugar, 3 egg yolks, salt, and spices into my squash. Actually, I increased the recipe’s spice mixture. Rombauer calls for ½ teaspoon each of cinnamon and nutmeg. I doubled the cinnamon, went a bit heavy on the nutmeg, and added ½ teaspoon of ginger and a pinch of cloves. The mixture cooked in a double boiler until it thickened, which took only a few minutes.

double-boiler

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Off heat, I stirred in the soaked gelatin and stirred until it dissolved. Poured that mixture into a bowl and put it in the refrigerator to chill. When the gelatin began to set, whipped three egg whites and folded them in. And that was all the “cooking” it needed.

pumpkin-egg-whites

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I filled the pie shell with the light, cushiony curds and put the finished pie into the refrigerator.

It’s only a mile walk from our home to our friends’, so in the cool late afternoon the pie traveled along with us serenely in its plastic carrier. It had another brief stint in the hosts’ refrigerator, while everyone around the table tucked into several courses of an excellent dinner, and then appeared – a perfect (if I do say so myself), spicily rich but palatally light conclusion for the feast.

pumpkin-chiffon-pie

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The tiny portion left over we took home and happily consumed the next day. It tasted just as good. I should make this excellent pie more often (enthusiastic yesses in the background from Beloved Spouse).

last-slice

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In our recent week’s vacation in Rome, Beloved Spouse and I dined only in restaurants we’d known and loved for years. We really had meant to try new places – I had a list – but once we were there, we couldn’t resist our old favorites. In my last post I wrote about our dinners at three of them; now I’ll describe the other three.
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campana-menu

We’ve been dining at La Campana for more than 30 years. It never seems to change, which is a comfort in this very unstable world. The image above is from my copy of its paper menu of July 7, 1979, all handwritten entries, reproduced in lurid purple ink. We’ve always eaten very well there and did again this time. Extravagantly, we both chose fettucine with white truffles for our first course (€50 a portion: about $55).
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white-truffle

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These truffles were much whiter than the ones Tom had a few days previously (a good thing: the paler, the better). Though they weren’t strewn as lavishly over the pasta as in the other dish, their flavor was much more intense, almost intoxicating. Interestingly, I have another of La Campana’s paper menus from fall 1990, which lists fettucine with white truffles for 35,000 lire. That amounted to $28 then, which would be about $50 in today’s dollars, so the price has hardly gone up in all that time.

For our second courses, Tom had petto di vitello arrosto, roasted breast of veal, and I had abbacchio arrosto, baby lamb, both with roasted rosemary potatoes and a light pan gravy. Both were quite simple and quite delicious Roman classics. Baby lamb here really is baby lamb: a tiny, pale-fleshed animal with a lot of gelatin and cartilage where Americans expect bone. And veal here means a milk-fed young animal, not a half-grown steer.
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vitello

abbacchio-campana

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La Campana’s menus now are multi-paged, printed, and encased in leather binders, so I fear I won’t be able to expand my collection any further. But I do cherish the old ones I have.
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sora-lella

Sora Lella is the only restaurant on the tiny Tiber Island, which stands in the middle of the river in Rome. Still family-owned and -run, it offers a large menu of classic Roman dishes, ever-so-slightly lightened. We started with two of the house’s specialty fried antipasti: suppli (rice balls) and polpettini (meat balls).
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polpettini-suppli

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Uncharacteristically for us, we skipped pasta that evening and went on to secondi: trippa alla romana for Tom, pollo alla romana for me. The tripe was of several kinds, not just the honeycomb that’s all we get in the US, well cooked to tenderness in a tomato sauce flavored with celery and cloves and generously topped with pecorino cheese. My chicken was a free-range farm bird, stewed with luscious sweet red peppers and a little tomato.
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trippa

pollo

torta.
With just room for a little dessert, we shared another very typical Roman dish: a slice of ricotta torte with a bottom layer of sour-cherry preserve.

 

 

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ar-galletto-awning

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And now I have to report the one disappointing experience of our Roman dining week: Ar Galletto. We used to love this place when it was known as Da Giovanni ar Galletto, a scruffy, unpretentious, side-street trattoria, cheerful, noisy, and much frequented by locals. A few years ago it moved a short distance to large quarters on the Piazza Farnese, decorated its rooms in chilly Milanese-modern style, extensively upgraded its menu – and sold its soul.

It disappointed us on our last trip to Rome, but we wanted to try it again this time in case it had recovered. It hasn’t. Giovanni’s brusque charm and his devotion to quality have gone forever. The waiters now seem to see their role as jollying international tourists rather than intelligently serving their food or knowing their wine list. The kitchen turns out some good dishes, but also some bad ones, apparently aiming more to impress than to please.

For example, of our pasta courses, ravioli filled with oxtail (coda alla vaccinara) and dressed with the same oxtail sauce was excellent. Short pasta alla gricia (the sauce mainly rendered guanciale and grated pecorino) was thick and gummy, not much improved by the addition of cooked artichoke.
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ravioli-gricia

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And of our main courses, abbacchio arrosto was as it should be, but maialino arrosto was inedible. The pork seemed to have been cooked and sliced in the morning, left out to dry and harden, and then heated up in a microwave.
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abbacchio-galletto

maialino-galletto

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Finally, ordering the wine produced a textbook example of waiterly ineptitude: See Tom’s blog post “Wining in Rome” for the absurd story. So, here’s one name to strike off our list of Roman restaurants to return to. But the contrast in the experience makes us appreciate the other great dining places all the more. Maybe not everything is eternal in the Eternal City, but enough good survives to make us look forward to our next visit.

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My trip to Rome earlier this month was, gastronomically, very much of an auld lang syne experience. Beloved Spouse and I dined only at restaurants we’ve known and loved for years, and mostly on dishes that we’ve often eaten there and that are a large part of the reason we love them. Here are what we had on three of the days.

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fortunato-al-pantheon

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Fortunato al Pantheon
is a slightly austere establishment, favored by politicians from the nearby national Parliament. It was a modest trattoria years ago, when we first discovered it, but it has grown in elegance while still retaining its basic honesty.

The moment we walked into the dining room, we smelled truffles. Wow! We hadn’t expected the season to have started yet. We couldn’t resist them, but first we had to have antipasti: a pair of carciofi alla romana and a plate of salume.
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fortunato-1

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Then came the truffles. For Tom, tagliarini topped at tableside with shavings of a single large white truffle; and for me tagliarini already dressed with a sauce of black truffle and porcini mushrooms. By our waiter’s courtesy, I also received the last little bits of Tom’s white truffle.
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tartufi-bianchi

Tagliarini con tartufi bianchi

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tartufi-neri

Tagliarini con tartufi neri e funghi porcini

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These were both stunningly rich dishes, but after them we felt we could manage a little dessert: a dish of fragoline con panna and a small tiramisù.
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fortunato-3

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Walking back to our hotel, we pondered one of the enduring mysteries of Roman dining: How do you get fresh artichokes, wild strawberries, and truffles at the same season?
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checchino

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Another evening found us at Checchino dal 1887. It’s in Testaccio, the epicenter of Rome’s ancient quinto quarto cuisine – i.e., variety meats, or more simply, offal. Testaccio used to be the butcher’s section of the city, and the “fifth quarter” of the animal was what the poor got, after the best cuts went to the aristocracy, the clergy, the bourgeoisie, and the military. Dishes made from those innards, though not for today’s faint-hearted eater, are central to Rome’s traditional cuisine.

Here, Tom always starts with the same pasta dish: rigatoni con pajata. Pajata is the small intestine of milk-fed lamb, still filled with partially digested milk. Tied into little sausages and cooked in tomato sauce, it’s delicious beyond what you would expect. That evening I chose an equally traditional, though meatless, first course: pasta e ceci (chickpeas).
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checchino-1-1

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I made up for that reticence with my second course, padellotto alla macellara. This “butcher’s platter” was a sauté of pajata, liver, sweetbreads, and testicolo. (Yes, testicle). Not your everyday plate of protein. Tom had a bollito misto – mixed boiled meats – including on this occasion beef, calf’s tongue, and a small pig’s foot.
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padelotto.
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I must admit, we couldn’t finish either of these ample plates.
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zi-umberto

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Osteria da Zi’ Umberto
is a small, lively, bustling, casual eating place in Trastevere. Though not strong on atmosphere and looking a little run-down, it turns out very good, mostly rustic food at relatively modest prices. After starting with a few fiori fritti (batter-fried zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese and anchovies), we had first courses of pappardelle with wild boar sauce and fettuccine with porcini mushrooms.
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2-umberto-pastas

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Then Tom had oxtails – coda alla vaccinara – and I had suckling pig – maialino arrosto con patate. Both were beautifully prepared.
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coda

 

maialino-arrosto.

At all these meals we drank wine, of course – mostly wines of Rome’s Lazio region, which aren’t commonly available in New York – and ended with espressos and grappa. Many interesting kinds of grappa. Tom has written a post about the wines for his blog, which you can see here.

Our remaining three dinners in Rome are described in my next post.

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Peach Cake

August is National Peach Month, and it’s easy to see why. The markets are full of peaches now, all bursting ripe and fragrant; and it won’t be many weeks before the lovely fruits are gone.

peach collage

I’ve read that their season is so short because peach trees ripen all their fruits at once, rather than in succession over the growing season, as other fruit trees do. So it behooves us to eat peaches as often as we can while they’re at their luscious summer best, and avoid the flavorless, rock-hard, never-ripening things that agribusiness calls peaches during the rest of the year.

In that spirit, I made an excellent peach cake the other day, adapting a recipe for pear cake that appears in my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. It’s a quick and easy cake to make, with just one mixing bowl and no separating of eggs. The only extravagant thing about it is the 10 tablespoons of butter that go into a 9- or 10-inch cake. This is the original recipe:

Pear Cake Recipe

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For my peach version, I creamed unsalted Irish butter with the confectioner’s sugar and beat in two jumbo eggs. I sifted in a cup of cake flour and the baking powder, and beat it into a smooth batter. I spread the batter in the baking dish and arranged three sliced peaches over the top.

unbaked

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The cake baked at 350° for 45 minutes. As it cooked, it scented half the apartment with the warm, sweet essence of peaches. The batter obligingly rose up around the fruit to fill the dish but not enough to spill over, and the surface turned a pretty golden brown.

baked

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Experimentally, this time I’d tried a few changes from the pear version of the recipe. Because I had jumbo eggs, I used two instead of three; and because I had cake flour in the pantry I used it instead of all-purpose. (The lower protein content of cake flour is supposed to give cakes more structure and tenderness.) Also, I skipped the indicated topping of granulated sugar before baking. None of those changes seemed to harm the cake any: It was a delightful summer dessert.

slice

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And the next morning, when Beloved Spouse took the remaining cake out of the refrigerator, cut himself a slice, spread it with butter, and warmed it in the toaster oven, he declared it to be an excellent summer breakfast too. Happy Peach Month, everyone!

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