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Posts Tagged ‘pound cake’

Beloved Spouse and I will be in Rome next week. It’s just a short trip, to revisit the places we love in that city. Many of those places will be restaurants, because minchillidining is one of the things we most love about Rome. But in addition to our long-time favorites, we try to make some new discoveries each time we go there. Toward that end, I recently bought a copy of Elizabeth Minchilli’s book Eating Rome. Subtitled “Living the Good Life in the Eternal City,” it isn’t exactly a cookbook – more a culinary guide to Rome’s eating customs and eating places – but it does include many recipes.

I tried one of the very first ones in the book: Amor Polenta, which the author calls her favorite breakfast cake. The odd name seems to mean Cornmeal Love, and apparently it’s a very traditional bakery item throughout Italy. It’s a sort of cornmeal-flavored pound cake, though in this version, at least, there’s not a preponderance of cornmeal in it.

There are basically only two steps to the recipe. First you beat together softened butter, eggs, granulated sugar, and vanilla. Second, you stir in a mixture of all-purpose flour, corn flour, ground almonds, and baking powder. The resulting batter is to be poured into a loaf pan and baked for 40 minutes. The finished cake gets a coating of powdered sugar.

I had some trouble with the recipe, though. It calls for one cup of ground almonds, which Minchilli says equals 170 grams. I weighed my almonds (170 g = 6 oz) before grinding them, and that quantity gave me two cups’ worth of fluffy particles. I decided to use them all, thinking maybe a finer grind would have compressed them into a single cup. That may have been a bad choice, because when I combined all the ingredients, I got something more like a dough than a batter.

dough

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It certainly wouldn’t pour into the pan. And when baked, it made a very dense bread. We first tasted my loaf as a dessert, and it really needed the simple fruit compote (plums, oranges, and bananas) I served alongside to lighten it.

served

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However, over the next few days, the bread turned out to be nice enough when toasted for breakfast. It even seemed to improve as time went on. Nut breads always seem to keep well. Still, I’m a little suspicious of this author, because when I subsequently checked the weight-to-volume conversions she gives for the other dry ingredients (corn flour, all-purpose flour, and sugar), not one of them agreed with the authorities I consulted.

Now, when I get to Rome I’ll have to look for amor polenta in pastry shops, to see if it’s anything like this one that I made.

BTW, since I won’t be at home, there won’t be a new post on this blog for the next two weeks.

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None of the new dishes I’ve tried lately seems to deserve a whole post of its own, so here’s a roundup of a few small culinary experiments.

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No Trumpets for Crumpets

I’ll get “the Bad” over with first. Tom and I like English muffins a lot. One morning I had the idea that their cousins, Crumpets, which I’d never eaten, might be interesting to make for a breakfast, so I looked up the recipe in my Cooking of the British Isles volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series.

It calls for small metal flan rings to hold the crumpet batter in shape while it cooks on a griddle. Fortunately I had some, made from tunafish cans, which I use occasionally for making frittatine, miniature vegetable omelettes for antipasti. I dug them out and went to work. I made a yeast batter with flour, milk, egg, salt, sugar, and butter. While it was rising, I clarified more butter for brushing the griddle and the rings.

The batter rose ebulliently (it had a lot of yeast) and was extremely thick. As I spooned it into the rings on the hot griddle it only reluctantly spread out to fill them.

When bubbles appeared on the surface of the batter, the bottoms had browned, as the recipe promised, so I removed the rings and turned the little cakes over to finish cooking. As I understand crumpets, the bubbles are supposed to break and leave tiny holes all over the surface (for the butter you put on them to melt into), but mine didn’t. They came out looking like anemic English muffins.

Tom and I tried them for breakfast. Despite all the yeast, they were quite flat – both physically and palatally. Like tasteless pancakes, bland and boring. Butter and jam did nothing for them. Toasting didn’t help either. We each ate part of one and dumped the rest. Was it me? Do you have to be British to appreciate these? Do you have to have grown up with them? Was it a bad recipe? Was the griddle too hot? I don’t know, and I don’t think I’ll try again. I’ll just stick to store-bought Thomas’s English muffins.

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Praise for a Pound Cake

Next comes “the Good.” I had some sour cream in the refrigerator that it was time to use up. I was thinking about putting it in muffins, but when I browsed among my cookbooks for things to do with it I found a Sour Cream Pound Cake recipe in Lee Bailey’s Country Desserts.

I usually make pound cake from Joy of Cooking or from an old handwritten recipe of my mother’s. Those call for sweet milk and baking powder, while Bailey’s calls for sour cream and baking soda. His also separates the eggs and folds in the stiffly beaten whites at the end. In other respects it’s a typical pound cake: beat butter and sugar together until light, beat in egg (yolks, this time), flour, liquid (the sour cream) and vanilla; bake in a loaf pan in a moderate oven. I thought I’d give it a try.

It was really nice. A good, loose-textured crumb. Fragrant, mildly tangy, not too sweet (I cut back the sugar a bit). An especially tasty crust. Altogether a very successful pound cake, simply begging for a topping of fruit, with or without cream.

The book says the cake improves with a day of aging, so I toasted a slice for breakfast the next day. The fresh-baked fragrance came right back up, and the flavor was excellent. This is a recipe that will probably enter my repertory.

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Decent Dessert Bananas

Finally, here’s the “So-So.” I’ve never understood the appeal of Ferran Adrià’s “molecular gastronomy” and never felt any compulsion to visit El Bulli or purchase any of the famous chef’s cookbooks. But a newspaper review, some time ago, of The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adrià included a very simple recipe of his for Bananas in Lime Syrup. No foams, no chemicals, no technology: just bananas, limes, and sugar. I clipped it out for my recipe binder.

Tom and I like good bananas, and this week the stores had them from Costa Rica, which we’re convinced have a richer flavor than other countries’ bananas. (We learned to love them from several birding expeditions to that fascinating little country, where the eco-lodges would hang whole huge bunches of bananas on the porch that guests could help themselves to.) Naturally, I bought too many and had to find ways to use them before they turned totally black.

Out came the Adrià recipe. I made a simple sugar-and-water syrup, let it cool, added the juice and grated zest of a lime, submerged two thinly sliced bananas into it, and refrigerated the bowl for a few hours.

The recipe said to serve the bananas either alone with their syrup or over ice cream. Wickedly, we chose ice cream: crema and cioccolata from L’Arte del Gelato, whose local shop is a constant temptation to overindulgence.

The bananas were nice enough. They tasted exactly like bananas in sweetened lime juice. Nothing to complain about, but nothing exciting either. The gelato, which was delicious, tolerantly accepted the companionship of the fruit. I guess I’d been hoping the molecular gastronomy genius had discovered some obscure chemical affinity of ingredients that would make the dish greater than the sum of its parts. Nope.

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I don’t often make (or eat) desserts. It’s partly because I know from experience I have no talent for making them, partly because it’s the easiest part of a meal for me to forgo. For my dinner parties, I usually rely on a few tried-and-true recipes like simple fruit tarts. But once in a while I feel adventurous, and this time I went exploring in Baking with Julia. Published in 1996, it was based on Child’s Master Chefs television series.

It’s a big handsome book, and many of its recipes are too ambitious for me. However, I’d had one solid success with it in the past – beautiful buttermilk scones – so I took courage and looked for a not-too-elaborate dessert. (An additional incentive was that, in writing up my results, I’d be able to tell my very own Julia Child story; see the end of this post.)

Hazelnut Baby Loaves looked like something in my league. I hasten to say these are not made from, with, or for actual babies. I’d describe them as the world’s lushest hazelnut-flavored pound cake, baked in individual loaves and served with the world’s richest cream topping.

Pound cake is something I’m comfortable with. No separating of eggs, no elaborate fillings or frostings. You just cream butter and sugar, beat in eggs, add dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, salt) alternately with liquid (milk, other flavorings), transfer the batter to a loaf pan and bake it. That was the technique for these little loaves, all right, but they had some special twists.

The dry ingredients for this recipe included ground hazelnuts. I happened to have some excellent ones from Italy, which was an attraction in the first place. Rather than milk, the recipe called for a cup of crème fraiche and a little almond extract. You had to gently fold the dry and wet ingredients into the butter-sugar-egg base, rather than beating them in. The baby loaves were supposed to be baked in 8 tiny pans, 4 by 2 by 2 inches. The smallest pans I had were twice that size, so I suppose my 4 should be called toddler loaves.

Being larger, they took longer to bake than the small ones would have, so I had to watch them carefully. They came out with a slight depression in the center, rather than being nicely rounded. Maybe the batter was too delicate to hold itself up in the bigger pans, or maybe I folded too vigorously and deflated the batter somewhat. The texture and flavor of the finished loaves were wonderful, though.

And oh, the cream that’s also part of the recipe! Sweetened whipped cream is certainly a good thing. Sweetened whipped cream mixed with mascarpone and a dash of grappa is a whole nother thing – to die for. This is a cream that makes you think about smearing it all over a lover’s body and licking it off. Or at least, buying some strawberries to have with the leftover cream the next day. Which is what we did, and I’m looking forward to it for tonight.

By the way, all the recipes in the book are credited to professional chefs who worked with Julia on the television series. This recipe is from Johanne Killeen, a chef-owner of El Forno restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island.

My Julia Child Story

In 1992, I was invited on a food writers’ trip to Sicily. To everyone’s excitement, Julia Child was also among the participants. When I was introduced to her, the first thing Julia said to me, looking down from her 6-foot-plus height to my 5-foot-10 inches, was “Where do you buy your shoes?” The perennial challenge for big women!

Julia was a joy on that trip. Already 80 years old, she never missed a meal, she never missed a drink, and she was interested in everything that we saw and did. On the bus that took our group from one extravagant culinary event to the next, when most of us wanted only to nap off the latest indulgence, if you were sitting near Julia she’d poke you awake and start a conversation.

I took this photo of Julia examining a 6½ pound astice (lobster) that the chef of Ristorante Porto Bello, on the island of Lipari, off the Sicilian coast, was about to prepare for our group.

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