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August 2005
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October 2005

Marian Burros' Plum Torte

Doesn't that look glowing and warm and comforting and delicious? I thought so, too. And yet. I'd better tread carefully here, because apparently the recipe I made last night is the recipe to end all recipes. Reprinted every single year in the New York Times for 15 years running, or something like that. Let me tell you a bit about it.

Marian Burros, a longtime writer for the NY Times food section, first published the recipe for Plum Torte in 1981. Every year thereafter, because of reader demand, the food section would reprint it. A few years ago, the New York Times printed it one last time and exhorted readers to cut out and laminate the recipe: they would be printing it no longer. Marian Burros ended up immortalizing it in a few of her cookbooks, and it's available all over the internet, in case you weren't subscribing to the NY Times in those days. And last week, when Marian published an article about autumnal cooking, the Times decided to offer the recipe to accompany the online edition. So I felt I just had to make it. Nevermind the luscious asian-pear crisps asking longingly to be made from the L.A. Times, or the fact that an equally good-looking apple-phyllo dessert was in Marian's article. The Plum Torte was calling my name and so I answered.

I figured it would give me a chance to make one last dessert with plums before the beginning of fall. I'm going apple-picking in the Hudson River Valley this weekend, so there will be enough apple dishes coming in future weeks. I plucked twelve shiny Italian plums from the greenmarket earlier this week and last night got down to business. Very quick business, I might add. The batter is simple as can be - you simply cream butter and sugar, then sift in a small flurry of flour, salt and baking powder. This thick batter is poured (or rather, smeared, since it was pretty stiff) into a springform pan. The layer of batter seemed surprisingly thin to me.
I halved and pitted the plums, and arranged them in a circular pattern on the batter.
I stirred together cinnamon and sugar, which then got liberally sprinkled over the plums.
The pan went into the oven, where it was supposed to bake for 40 to 50 minutes. I set about making dinner for Barbara (a beet salad and spaghetti with pesto, which by the way, I should have mentioned yesterday, benefits greatly from the addition of a lump of butter added to the bowl of sauce and cheese. Lest my Italian forefathers and mothers turn over in their grave, I say, I read this in a book! An Italian book! So there. Go back to resting in peace.).

When I checked the torte after 50 minutes, it still looked pretty pale on top, and the skewer came out with lumps of raw batter still attached. So I closed the oven door, and we went out to the patio for dinner. I completely forgot about the cake (note to self: when eating outside, remember that smells from kitchen cannot migrate through closed doors). In the middle of a particularly interesting point that Barbara was making about something or other (I was paying attention, don't you worry), I smacked my head and ran back inside to the oven.

At this point, the cake had been baking for and hour and 15 minutes, at least. I yanked open the door and sighed with relief.
The cake was fine. We let it cool for a while, then cut in. Maybe it's because it was still warm and some cakes benefit from a day of being left alone. Maybe it's because I had such high expectations because of all the hype surrounding the recipe. Maybe it's because I grew up eating a different kind of plum torte with a yeasted base (that looks more like this) and has much more structure and character and lets the fruit shine through more. But (covers her head with protective hands) I didn't really like this. My roommate did! And Barbara did! And my coworkers (as usual - is there anything they won't eat?) did! But I didn't. It was too sweet, too flat, too flabby.
It wasn't bad. But I probably won't make it again. There, I said it. If anyone has had more success with this, will you tell me about it?

Weeklong Pesto

Summer is coming to an end, but basil plants are still pushing on determinedly. What to do with that bunch of basil going slowly limp in your crisper? It's more obvious than obvious, of course, but a pesto whirred together in your food processor is a quick way to preserve some of that summer aroma for colder, shorter days. I like to make my pesto without the cheese, in case I feel like freezing portions of it. When the time comes to serve the pesto, you defrost it, and grate fresh cheese into the mix.

I know that some people like to make pesto without a recipe, so they can adjust the garlic or oil levels. But when I've done so in the past, the pesto always comes out too garlicky or over-nutted or super-oily. So I follow the following well-balanced method each time. For someone who makes single portion servings of pasta for herself, this amount of pesto ends up serving me well for several days. I like to add a boiled, sliced potato and some boiled, thin green beans to the pasta and pesto.

First, 2 cups of fresh basil leaves are washed and patted dry.
Then, 2 cloves of garlic are peeled and dropped into a food processor along with 3 tablespoons of pine nuts (feel like toasting them? go ahead), salt, and a half cup of olive oil.
Add the basil and puree until a bright green sauce comes together.
You can put this sauce in a container, cover it with a film of olive oil and store it in the fridge for a week. Take out as much as you like for each serving and while the pasta cooks, grate Parmigiano into the serving bowl, mixing in the basil puree to make pesto.

My Very First Meme

Oh boy, I'm "it". Cath, from A Blithe Palate, tagged me for my very first meme. This food-blogging community is quite a friendly and active one!

I am supposed to go through my posts until I stumble on the 23rd one, then seek out the 5th line, post it here along with some insights into what I wrote, in addition to the meme instructions for five more bloggers whom I tag.

Since my blog is but a wee baby blog right now, my 23rd post was actually posted just a few days ago, when I made ciabatta. The fifth line of the post is

"But, I told myself, I am a recipe-testing blogger!"

Ah yes, this was the intrepid, not-to-be-dissuaded tone I took with myself when the plethora of yeasts and flours needed for those breads threatened to overwhelm me into choosing an easier recipe. If I'm going to get all serious and mystical for a moment, I actually think this sentence pretty well sums up how I feel right now about the blog and the writing and cooking: it's a challenge that I need in my life. Even when crazy ingredient lists or complicated preparations might seem daunting, I am a recipe-testing blogger and I will conquer them all! At least for the most part...

So, now it's my turn to tag some folks. I choose Zarah Maria at Food and Thoughts, Debbie at words to eat by, David at David Lebovitz, Kim at Walker Eats, and Cherie at kitschenette: all of their blogs have been inspirations to me.

Simplest Panzanella


Searching for an authentic version of panzanella - that Italian salad made up basically of stale bread and fresh tomatoes - proved more difficult than I expected. Many recipes online and in cookbooks included fennel, raw garlic, tuna, chickpeas, Parmigiano, boiled eggs, and other such out-of-place ingredients that didn't really fulfill my ideas of one of the exemplary dishes of cucina povera. I wanted something much simpler and totally stripped down, with only the most essential ingredients playing off each other. Armed with these ideas, I went down to my local bookstore and nosed through several books. I ended up finding the most promising recipes in Saveur Cooks Authentic Italian and Flavors of Tuscany (a highly covetable book, at least in my estimation).

Saveur has you toast a cubed baguette in olive oil and garlic, which you then toss with sliced tomatoes, red wine vinegar and basil. Nancy Harmon Jenkins has you toss water-moistened stale bread with tomatoes and other vegetables, basil and red wine vinegar. I liked Saveur's plain and simple ingredient list better, but something about the moistened bread in the second recipe seemed more peasant-like to me. I decided to fuse the two ideas and make my own panzanella. I think it comes close to nirvana, especially if you are like me and think that tomatoes and bread might be the only two foods worth living for on this planet.

I started out with an assortment of gorgeous tomatoes. Miniature plum tomatoes called Juliet, which literally taste as sweet as candy, stripey Green Zebras, a delicate yellow tomato, and then one red and green striped one that looks like a Brandywine, but I'm not sure.

I cubed a hardened baguette (although now that I have some stale ciabatta lying around, that could certainly be used, too) and soaked the cubes in a small glass of lukewarm water for a second or two. I squeezed out the excess water and put the softened bread in a bowl. To that I added all the sliced tomatoes, a handful of sliced basil, and a good amount of salt. To dress the salad, I added some delicately flavored olive oil and a few drops of sherry vinegar (I think balsamic vinegar is too sweet and strong for the bread). Eaten straight away, the panzanella was refreshing and delicious.

I love using up stale bread, and while it's still warm out, this salad is a good way to do that. Soon enough, when the good tomatoes are gone and it's cool outside, it'll be time for the warmer dishes using up old bread, like pappa al pomodoro and many of Judy Rodgers' soups.

Maggie Glezer's Ciabatta


Nothing beats the smell of home-baked bread, except maybe the sense of accomplishment that comes along with it. That these fragrant, plump, and crusty loaves would have been the result of the somewhat ornery recipe published in last week's L.A. Times, was not what I expected. I was looking forward to baking bread, but when I realized I'd need to use four different kinds of flour and two different kinds of yeast, I started to balk. After all, my other baking books had recipes for ciabatta that required only one kind of flour - all purpose, unbleached. But, I told myself, I am a recipe-testing blogger! No shortcuts here. This was, after all, a challenge. So I trudged over to Whole Foods on Saturday morning, bought rye flour and bread flour and whole wheat flour, and instant yeast and active dry yeast, and then brought them all home. Let the baking begin, I muttered to myself.

To make ciabatta, you begin with a biga, which is a yeast-based starter. Unlike sourdough starter, which you can make and replenish indefinitely, a biga is made fresh for each batch of bread. Maggie has you combine bread flour, all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour and rye flour with some yeasted warm water and some fresh tap water (confusingly, she instructs you to use ice water in the summer and warm water in the winter: well, what do you do in the fall or spring? I improvised - using lukewarm water) to make a very stiff dough.
You're to leave this lumpy little ball, covered tightly, in a corner for 24 hours (again, cool in summer, warm in winter: I just left it in my kitchen. What a rebel!). The first ten hours nothing is supposed to happen. I went about my Saturday (taking my friends on a culinary stroll through Chelsea and the West Village, sitting out on the Christopher Street pier, having an amazing dinner at an unassuming Turkish restaurant on 34th Street, of all places) and came home 12 hours later to find that my biga had not budged one bit. More muttering ensued. I thought I'd have nothing but a bitter, angry post, replete with pictures of a stubborn mass of flour and yeast to show for my efforts. However, the next morning, as promised, the biga had grown! And it smelled yeasty and wonderful.
I did a little victory jig, then got back to business. Bread-baking is a serious matter. Because I only have one mixing bowl, I took the biga out carefully, filled the bowl with more flour and instant yeast and salt (a lot of salt!). Then I stirred in water and the biga. Using my hand-held mixer, I beat the mixture into a pliant, liquid mass for five minutes.
This was then tightly covered and let to rise for 20 minutes. I floured the top, floured the work space, poured out the very liquid dough, patted it about ineffectually, then scraped it back into the bowl for another 20 minutes.
This idiotic (and sticky) dance ensued three more times. Maggie's instructions read that the dough would be very soft but foldable. My dough didn't really comply until the end. But never mind, the dough was rising and bubbling happily, and that was enough for me. Isn't it funny how a goofy little yeast can become so dear?
At the end of the fourth rise (and subsequent patting and "folding"), I was to let the dough rise, undisturbed for two hours. When I came back, the bowl was filled with puffy, yeasty dough. I divided the dough into two halves, patted them out into approximated business-letter shapes, folded them in thirds and lay them down on a floured linen towel. I covered the loaves with more floured towels, then let them rise for 45 minutes while the oven preheated (in the meantime, the end of The Shining was on television and I kept on being summoned back to see Shelley Duvall run around, shrieking, with that butcher's knife dangling from her limp hands). I was supposed to be preparing a baking stone and a peel, but I don't have these things. Instead, I Iined a baking sheet with parchment, and asked Ben to help me flip the risen loaves
onto the sheet. I was supposed to dimple the loaves, but I forgot. Didn't matter in the slightest! I slid the sheet into the oven, and soon enough the loaves had puffed up in the oven. Forty-five minutes later, the loaves were golden brown and crusty. Maggie instructs that you bake them until they're very dark brown all around, but I liked them at the golden brown stage, so that's when I took them out. In Italy, ciabatta usually is a light-ish bread, while pane pugliese is the darker kind, so I took my liberty with the timing. I cooled the loaves on a rack, then sliced the heel off of one. Delicious! The crust was toasty and crunchy, while the bread was yeasty and pliant. Although it's a bit of a pain to make, I can't recommend it enough. I realize I took a few liberties with the baking in the end, but none of that ended up mattering. So, go! Buy your bags of flour! Bake bread! Feel accomplished! Your friends will love you.

Russ Parsons' Fresh Corn Blini


Blini are those smallish Russian pancakes made from buckwheat flour, often topped off with a cap of sour cream and a spoonful of caviar. In a recent article in the L.A. Times about corn, Russ Parsons fiddled with a recipe from Jeremiah Tower for cornmeal blini, adding fresh corn and jalapeno peppers. They were to be finished off with a spoonful of Mexican crema and a cilantro leaf. Now, to me, not much else can beat the repulsiveness of cilantro. I believe someone somewhere is doing a study on how some of us are missing the cilantro enzyme in our mouths, rendering the flavor of a leaf of it akin to, oh, say, a chemical meant to kill us all off in a few minutes or less. So I tend to avoid all recipes that include cilantro. In this case, I figured I could easily leave out the garnish and so would also remove the jalapeno from the batter (these two go together like peas in a pod, so what's one without the other?). To make up for this omission, and because I had two cobs in the fridge, not one, I doubled the amount of fresh corn in the recipe.

Don't attempt to make these blini any larger than the two tablespoons or so that are recommended in the recipe. The batter is thin, and the blini will rip apart if they are too big to be flipped easily. They are pretty salty, so the sour cream or creme fraiche is essential to smoothing out the taste a bit. I'd sprinkle some minced chives on top for an elegant, crunchy little appetizer. I can imagine getting creative with the toppings: slivers of smoked fish, a few tiny cubes of tomatoes soaked in basil oil, or perhaps even a tangle of caramelized onions. In total, the blini were not bad, though I do think that plain old buckwheat blini are somewhat easier to make (no pesky corn kernels flying through the kitchen), and that wonderful buckwheat texture really can't be beat.

First, I whisked together cornmeal, salt, sugar and some boiling water to create a thickish  batter.
After this cooled off, I beat in two eggs, some milk, sifted flour and a bit of melted butter. The batter becomes very thin.
I added in the cooked corn kernels and let the batter rest in the fridge for a while.
After melting butter in a pan (I don't use nonstick, but the recipe instructs you to), I poured in five or six little puddles of batter.
I cooked them a few minutes on each side, then turned them out onto a plate. Keep the plate warm in the oven until you're ready to serve.

Peaches and Cream


What do you do when the gloriously perfumed stone fruit that you so carefully selected from large bins at the market one day, transitions too quickly from the promise of juicy, pliant flesh to an almost decadent state of over-ripeness? Slice away the offending areas, douse in an acidic slosh of citrus juice and booze, and serve with a floppy crown of cream. There's no real recipe for this, because so much depends on the state of your fruit and what you have on hand in your kitchen cupboards, and what your personal taste decrees. So, use my suggestions as a guideline and feel free to experiment. Important is only that your fruit not be the mealy supermarket kind, devoid of all flavor and texture.

First, I slice up whatever stone fruit I have that needs to consumed that very minute. Last night, it consisted of a nectarine and two white peaches. Don't bother peeling them - this is a rustic kind of dessert. Cut away whatever parts of the fruit may already be over the hill. You could use any combination of peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots and so on.

Squeeze half a lemon (or more, depending on the amount of fruit; or else use a lime or perhaps an orange) over the fruit and pour in a glug or two of dark rum (you could use Armagnac, cognac, fruit liqueur, Prosecco or whatever else seems appropriate). The alcohol pulls out some interesting flavors in the fruit - last night my peaches tasted almost like the freshest, sweetest bananas you could imagine. You won't need any additional sugar because your fruit should be chockful of the natural stuff. Toss the fruit with the citrus juice and alcohol, then let it sit for a while. Only have 20 minutes? That's fine. Want to make it a few hours in advance? That's probably fine, too, although the fruit might darken a bit.

When it's time to serve, plop a dollop of sour cream on top. You could sweeten this cream with honey or sugar or maple syrup, but plain is a nice balance to the sweet fruit. You could use plain yogurt or some heavy cream or creme fraiche or... you get the picture. Serve a bowlful with a snappy cookie alongside, or maybe with your morning toast. Whenever, whatever - this is one easygoing and forgiving recipe.