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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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Yesterday was Epiphany – Three Kings Day, or, as it’s better known in Italy, the feast of La Befana. The Befana is the old witch who fills children’s stockings with gifts if they’ve been good and lumps of coal if not. For several years our friend Lars has given splendid dinner parties to celebrate La Befana. This past weekend Tom and I hosted the feast, with many vinous and culinary contributions from our guests.

Here’s the lineup of wines that awaited the six of us.

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And here are the many good things that we had to eat.

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Sausages with Sweet-Sour Figs

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To nibble with the aperitif of champagne (NV Brut Rosé from small grower/producer André Clouet), I made this tasty combination from Penelope Casas’ Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain. A day ahead, I steamed dried figs to soften them; simmered them in sugar, wine vinegar, cinnamon, cloves, and lemon; and left them in that syrup overnight. Next day I cooked Italian sweet sausages in wine and olive oil; removed them, deglazed the pan with wine, and added a little tomato; and simmered the drained figs and sausages together in the deglazing sauce. Then it was just to cut them up, spear a piece of each on toothpicks, and reheat them in the sauce at serving time. The meat and fruit flavors contrasted nicely, and the substantial, complex Champagne played delightfully with both.

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Seafood Salad

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This dish is one of Tom’s specialties. Each time he makes it he riffs on a recipe from our book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. For this version he briefly sauteed cut up squid, scallops, shrimp, clams, and cod, then cooled them and dressed them with olive oil, lemon juice, chopped celery and onion, and strips of roasted red peppers. We mopped up the juices with chunks of Lars’s crusty country bread and drank a charming 2011 Frascati Luna Mater, Fontana Candida’s top-of-the-line bottling, also brought by Lars.

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Lars’s Timballo

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Lars makes his magnificent timballo every year for the Befana celebration, using the recipe of his aunt Rossana. It’s a specialty of the Lazio region, a sort of lasagna on steroids. The ingredients are homemade egg pasta; a tomato sauce enriched with carrots, celery, onion, rosemary, and sage; grated pecorino romano; and a stuffing mixture of ham, hard-boiled eggs and mozzarella. He brought it to us in a huge 12”x24” pan, which just barely fit into my oven. Delicious as it was, the six of us could eat only about half of it. (Great leftovers for all to take home.) With it we drank a 2000 Torre Ercolana red wine, also from Lazio, that Charles brought especially to match with the timballo. It did, lustily, and Charles lustily proclaimed the virtues of Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot grown in Lazio. No one dissented.

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Roasted Fresh Ham

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We have few enough occasions for as large and celebratory a hunk of meat as a fresh ham, so I wanted my nine-pound shank half to taste only of its own meat sweetness, not to be soaked in sugary brines and painted with cloying glazes, as too many recipes counsel. I found a simple treatment in the Pork volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series. Forgoing the traditional crackling, Tom carefully stripped the whole rind off the ham (not an easy job, but we have use for that rind), and I rubbed it all over with salt, thyme, oregano, and sage. I roasted it briefly at 400°, then lengthily at 325°, basting regularly.

The book said you could give it a rich mahogany sheen with a natural glaze, which looked and sounded good. So I took the pan out of the oven before the ham was entirely done, set it on a platter, deglazed the pan juices with water, transferred the resulting sauce to a bowl, returned the ham to its pan and the oven, and basted every five minutes with the sauce. Well, it didn’t work: My ham remained a light brown color. It was beautifully flavorful, though, and it matched well with a savoyard potato gratin, sauteed apples, and peas with prosciutto and green onions.

The wine with this course and with the cheeses that followed (Bleu d’Auvergne, Chabichou, Idiazabal, and Robiola) was Tuscan and also a beautiful match: a magnum of 1999 Flaccianello from Fontodi. This is a single-vineyard, 100% Sangiovese masterpiece from a great estate in the Chianti Classico zone.

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Meyer Lemon Upside-down Cake

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Dessert was a variation on the clementine upside-down cake recipe in Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook. Made and brought by the author herself, who was one of our guests. The light cake with its lemon topping made a lovely conclusion and was especially well companioned by the dessert wine, a 2007 Pieropan Recioto di Soave. Pieropan is generally acknowledged as the leading producer of the Soave zone, and this elegant bottle showed why.

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So: a brilliant finish to our holiday season. Now to face the rigors of the rest of the winter!  Happily, we’re well provided with delicious leftovers.

P.S. Charles has also written up the dinner, with much more commentary on the wines, on his blog.

 

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