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September 2005
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November 2005

Mary Ellen Rae's Pear and Cardamom Upside-Down Cake


Oh, LA Times, how swiftly you have redeemed yourself. Despite my attempts at being fair and balanced, I couldn't deny that the NY Times was winning out as of late. But with this here recipe,  the LA Times has managed a real comeback. In Betty Baboujon's (what a name - it wouldn't stop repeating itself in my head all weekend) article about pears two weeks ago, she published a recipe developed by one of the LA Times Test Kitchen cooks, Mary Ellen Rae.

A simple white cake flavored with cardamom is baked on top of a brown-sugar caramel and a mess of sliced, peeled pears. The outcome was delicious - a crunchy, melty topping along with a tender-crumbed, delicately spiced cake. The recipe calls for fresh green cardamom to be pulverized in a spice grinder. For those of us who can't be bothered, I recommend just using the bottled stuff (I like a bottle of this, which I store in the freezer to give myself the illusion that it stays fresher than just hanging out in the cupboard). The LA Times has a bit of a love affair with cardamom and with good reason - it's lovely in northern European baked goods, but also in southeast Asian savory dishes.

A slice still warm from the oven was total nirvana, but it was also pretty great hours later, at room temperature (and as an ending to a roast-chicken-mashed-potatoes-glazed-carrots-aren't-we-traditional-and-middle-American meal that was preceded by a definitely untraditional exhibition of a certain someone's ability to not only do the Running Man but, after some coaching from one of our dinner companions, the Roger Rabbit as well. And no, there are no pictures of this feat, you'll just have to take my word for it). According to my dear coworker (who got the only remaining slice this morning), the cake was good two days later, too.

To make the caramel at the bottom of the cake, I melted some butter in a pan, then added the brown sugar. Oddly, this mixture seized up almost like a pate-a-choux batter and wouldn't really melt properly. I did my best to ignore this.
When I had had enough of stirring this viscous mixture around in the pan, I spread it at the bottom of the cake pan, then arranged two sliced and peeled pears on top.
Using my spanking new mixer (It's amazing! It has six different power levels! Oh, the joy of creaming butter at a low speed and not besmirching my clean kitchen walls. It takes so little to make me happy, doesn't it?) I mixed up the cake batter and folded in the cardamom, which is almost overpowering sniffed at in the jar, but mellows out into this wonderful, exotic flavor when baked. The batter went on top of the pears and the whole thing went into the oven until it was golden brown.
After resting for a few minutes on a rack, the cake pan was turned around onto a plate (or, you know, glass pie dish) and rested a bit longer there before I eased off the pan. Yum.

Pear and Cardamom Upside-Down Cake
Serves 8

1 1/2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cardamom (from about 6 to 8 pods)
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, room temperature, divided
3/4 cup packed golden brown sugar
2 firm-ripe Anjou pears
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup milk, room temperature

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter a 9-by-1 1/2-inch round cake pan.

2. Sift the flour, salt and baking powder together. Stir in the cardamom and set aside.

3. Melt one-fourth cup butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the brown sugar and stir for 2 to 3 minutes, until the sugar has melted and combined with the butter. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake pan, spreading it to reach the sides.

4. Peel the pears, cut in half and remove the core and stem. Cut each half crosswise into one-fourth-inch-thick slices. Arrange the pear slices in a slightly overlapping circle around the cake pan, starting at the outer rim. Finish with several slices in the center. Sprinkle the pears with the lemon juice. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.

5. Beat the remaining one-half cup butter in the bowl of an electric mixer until soft and fluffy. Add the sugar and beat until smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Beat in the vanilla, scraping down the sides of the bowl when needed. Alternately add the flour mixture and the milk, beating after each addition just until combined.

6. Gently spoon the cake batter on top of the pears, smoothing out to the edge of the pan and making sure the cake batter fills in around the pears.

7. Bake until the top is a deep golden brown and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Place the cake on a rack to cool for 5 minutes in the pan.

8. Run a small spatula or knife around the edge of the pan and invert onto a cake plate, leaving the pan on the cake for 10 minutes. Carefully remove the pan. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Russ Parsons' Mushroom Hash


Well, it's just a veritable Russ Parsons lovefest around here, isn't it? I swear this isn't on purpose, at least not consciously (and yes, it might have something to do with the fact that I think his recipes are more reliable, but I realize I haven't tested enough from the other writers to really make this a waterproof statement). His recipes in the LA Times just keep jumping out at me. Sometimes the results are just okay, but sometimes they're stellar, like with this mushroom hash. Oh oh, is it good. I ate some off my plate last night and then ended up standing at the stove, munching on the hash directly from the frying pan, until I put the rest in a Tupperware for lunch today.

I read Parsons' article about mushrooms on Wednesday, then popped out to the farmer's market on my break, where I found a little Japanese man selling mushrooms from wire baskets. Communicating with him proved somewhat difficult as his English was restricted to only a few words, most of which I didn't really understand. But there was a lot of smiling and pointing and more smiling, and five dollars later, I was clutching two paper bags filled with small white mushrooms, one large portobello, and a few ounces of hen-of-the-woods.

At home, I chopped up the mushrooms into small pieces, after brushing off the dirt gently with a moist towel.
Then I melted some butter in a pan and when it started to turn nutty brown, I added the mushrooms, covered the pan and let them cook for a few minutes.
When I uncovered the pan, the mushrooms had browned nicely and a delicious roasty scent filled the air. I added chopped garlic and parsley to the pan and cooked the mushrooms a bit longer, then transferred them to a bowl, while I poured white wine into the hot pan. That reduced for a bit before I added a splash of heavy cream and fresh thyme leaves.
The reserved mushrooms went back into the pan and were tossed about with the sauce. I cubed up several new red potatoes and steamed them (by the way, I hadn't steamed potatoes before and I think I might not ever prepare them any other way again. So fast! So easy!) until they were tender, then added them immediately to the pan with the mushrooms. With Sherry vinegar sprinkled on top and some nice fat flakes of Maldon salt strewn about, the dish was ready to go.
Oh, it was good.

But wait. I have a few points to make. Personally, when I make this again it will be with less potatoes and more mushrooms. And if you're wondering how to serve this, I'd say as a side dish, or if you wanted, with a poached egg on top for dinner. But that might be overkill. Because the flavor is just so perfect - just enough herbs, a tiny hint of cream and butter (I left out the final pat of butter meant to be swirled in, by accident, but when I realized my mistake I also decided I liked it with less butter), a nice bite from the vinegar and garlic and salt - you don't really need to add anything else to it. I can't wait for lunch.

Mushroom Hash
Serves 6

1 pound mixed mushrooms (portabello, cremini, maitake, etc)
3 tablespoons butter, divided
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon minced parsley
1/2 cup white wine
6 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 1/2 pounds mixed small potatoes (fingerlings, boilers, etc)
1/2 teaspoon sherry vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Wipe the mushrooms clean, trim any hard stems and cut them into roughly almond-size pieces. Try to use a mixture of sizes of mushrooms so you get a diversity of shapes. The small ones can be left whole, those that are a little bigger can be cut in half, and so on.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter in a skillet over medium-high heat until the foam has subsided and the butter turns a light hazelnut color. Add the mushrooms, sprinkle with half a teaspoon of salt, cover tightly and cook, tossing occasionally until the mushrooms begin to glisten and give up their moisture, about 3 minutes. Remove the cover, add the garlic and the parsley, raise the heat to high and continue cooking, stirring constantly, until the mushrooms are richly aromatic and soft but not, but not flaccid, about 3 minutes.

3. Transfer the mushrooms to a bowl. Add the white wine to the skillet. Cook over high heat until it reduces to a syrup, about 2 minutes. Strip the leaves from the thyme between your thumbnail and finger and add them to the syrup along with the cream. Cook, stirring to incorporate into a smooth liquid. Add the mushrooms back to the sauce, toss to coat well and set aside.

4. Cut the potatoes into half-inch and steam in a tightly covered pot over rapidly boiling water until they are just tender, about 15 minutes.

5. Warm the mushroom mixture over medium heat and add the potatoes as soon as they are done. Do not let the potatoes cool or they won't absorb the flavors. Add the sherry vinegar and stir everything together. Adjust the salt seasoning and season with a grinding of fresh black pepper. The dish can be prepared to this point up to 1 hour in advance.

6. Before serving, warm the mixture over medium-high heat, add the remaining tablespoon of  butter and stir to mix well.

Russ Parsons' Southern Comfort Soup


I've told you a bit about my notebooks filled with clippings of NY Times recipes, but I also have ring-binders (plural, yes) filled with recipes from the LA Times. Back in January 2004, Russ Parsons wrote an article about winter greens that's sadly no longer available online. Accompanying the article were three recipes, including one for Southern Comfort Soup. I don't remember how the soup got its name (and no, there's no booze in it at all), and to me it seems more French than Southern, but either way, it's a real find.

I made the soup very quickly last night (and ate it too quickly too, burning my tongue in the process, ouch) because I had to run out to see Flightplan, which, by the way, is pretty much a waste of a movie ticket, although Jodie Foster is amazing, as usual. The soup didn't seem to suffer from the rush. Russ has you chop up a bunch of different leafy greens, like mustard or kale or chard, but my farmers market only has largish bunches of the greens, so I used just chard. If you can buy small amounts of each green where you shop, I'm sure it would make the soup a bit more multi-dimensional in terms of bite and flavor. But I very much liked my mono-vegetable version, too.

After sauteeing minced garlic in olive oil for a few minutes, the chopped greens are dumped into the pot.
The greens are cooked until they've wilted and darkened a bit. You'll note I didn't do a particularly good job of stemming my leafy greens. Did I mention my vegetable deprivation during the previous week? I need every little bit of fiber I can get.
Then in goes all the stock and water, and some salt. While this bubbles away, the rice is boiled with water in a separate pot. When the greens are cooked through, you're supposed to puree them in a blender, but not being in possession of such an appliance, I just pureed my way through the pot with an immersion blender.
The resulting greenish goo looked pretty repulsive. It was very liquid and tiny green bits kept spattering up at me. But then I added the rice, which thickened the soup up a bit, and swirled in the Sherry vinegar. Along with the grated cheese and the floral rice, the soup got elevated from a plain old vegetable potage into something special. It was warm and filling and nutritious. Not the most beautiful soup I ever saw, but definitely one to make over and over again.

Dar Liqama's Tangy Roasted Beet Salad


Doesn't that look dull? And trust me, this post probably won't be much of anything either. I've been back for three days and the closest I've come to cooking was getting on Ben's nerves as he kindly roasted a chicken for me on my first night home again, and then microwaving spinach in the plastic bag it came in last night. I almost passed out from the total grossness of this, but the convenience factor was huge, and besides, after ten days of not a single fruit or leafy green vegetable passing my lips, I could not be picky about how I prepared my vitamins before getting them into my system. Time was of the essence.

Before I left on my trip, I put a sack of beets in the fridge, figuring one of my roommates might cook them up while I was gone. But she hadn't and so last night, I decided to use them up, after making sure they hadn't gone to rot in the crisper. I used a recipe from Food and Wine that was contributed by an American woman who teaches at a Moroccan cooking school near Marrakech. The recipe is not anything earth-shattering, but I loved the method for preparing the beets.

You plunk three pounds of beets (or 1.5 pounds, if that's all you have, like me) in a cake pan. No oil, no cleaning, no nothing. You cover the pan with aluminum foil. You stick the pan in a preheated oven. An hour and a half later you have tender, full-flavored, delicious beets that you cool off for a bit before peeling.

The recipe has you cut the beets into strips and toss with paprika, cumin, lemon juice, oil and salt. It's a perfectly serviceable salad and especially good if you've been deprived of fresh vegetables for some time. Did it blow my mind, this recipe? Not really. But I did like how easy it was to prepare. And that is that (I warned you).

An aside: I am so happy to be home again. Ah, the glory of pouring myself a bowl of organic cereal for breakfast, and dousing the flakes with skim, skim!, milk. And having a crunchy apple to snack on. Whenever I like! Morning, noon, night. It's a luxury we take for granted until we're stranded in some massive convention center that makes the Javits Center look like someone's postage stamp garden, eating only cardboard Broetchen filled with one limp slice of cheese and a forlorn little disc of cucumber. Yes, it's good to be back.

The Kindness of Strangers

Way back in the beginning days of this blog, I mentioned in a post off-handedly that my hand-held mixer was stuck at the highest stage, making whipping egg whites and creaming butter exercises in frustration and rendering my kitchen bespattered every time I had to use it, which was often. Little did I know that an attentive reader would read this aside and decide to help me out.

Cath, at A Blithe Palate, is in possession of several mixers, both hand-held and standing (and if you have to ask if this isn't overkill, you obviously know nothing about kitchen appliance obsession. Or how important it is to have his-and-hers mixers. Because it is! Very important.) Cath decided that instead of letting one of her mixers languish unused in a drawer somewhere, she'd send it off to me.

I can't really put into words how this makes me feel. I'm obviously grateful, but it's not just about a total stranger sending me a gift for no good reason except for her own kind-hearted sweetness. I've also made my very first Internet friend. So, "stranger" doesn't really feel right anymore.  Cath, my dear, thanks a million!

Croquet Bourbonnais

During my Paris weekend, I stumbled across a bakery on the rue des Deux Ponts on l'Ile Saint Louis. The windows were filled with the kind of old-fashioned baked goods which set a special boulangerie apart from the more quotidian ones. I couldn't help but go inside and poke around for a bit. I ended up buying something I'd never seen before, a croquet bourbonnais. Made with pulverized almonds, salted butter and sugar, it was a flat and hard and square confection, only about an eighth of a inch thick. We broke off shards of it and crunched away while standing on one of the two ponts. The croquet was a satisfying snack, with a nice snap to it and not too sweet. I haven't quite figured out yet where it comes from or how you make it, but for now I'm savoring the memory of my mother and I, standing in the sun and breaking off piece after piece until there was nothing left but a square of waxed paper. Thanks for the lovely weekend, Mami.

SHF #13 - Maida Heatter's Robert Redford Cake

For this month's Sugar High Friday, Kelli at Lovescool decided that we all should use deep, dark chocolate as the main ingredient for our entries. To prevent boredom, she stipulated that we try something new and interesting, not the everyday workhorse recipes that are foolproof and deja-vu (and -lu). I guess there is such a thing as too many molten chocolate cakes.

To cap off a Sunday dinner I had for some friends, I decided to make a recipe from an old issue of The New York Times Magazine - cut out and glued into my trusty little book. Once again, I don't remember much about the article, but the recipe came from Maida Heatter, a doyenne of American baking. In addition to calling for 24 ounces of chocolate and 10 whole eggs (I kid you not), it included honey as the sweetener. I thought this was an interesting twist on the average flourless chocolate cake recipe. An aside: the recipe heading says Robert's Redford Cake. But Googling it punctuated that way turned up nothing. So I have to assume that Maida intended this cake for Robert Redford himself and that The New York Times might have printed a typo. Minds blowing left and right on that one.

The cake was gorgeous to look at and tasted just fine. Of course, anything with that amount of chocolate and butter and eggs would be bound to taste just fine. But it didn't blow us away. The ganache was incredible - especially since it was still fresh and warm and sort of flopped luxuriously over each slice. But the cake itself was oddly devoid of much deep chocolate flavor. The consensus was that, all in all, this dessert wasn't all that special.

Robert Redford Cake
(Adapted from Maida Heatter)

For the cake:
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, plus additional for greasing the pan
flour for dusting
1 cup blanched hazelnuts or almonds
12 ounces semisweet chocolate
1/2 cup honey
10 eggs, separated
1/4 teaspoon salt

For the frosting:
3/4 cup heavy cream
12 ounces semisweet chocolate

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 10-by-3-inch round or springform cake pan. Line bottom with parchment. Butter parchment. Dust with flour. Shake out excess.

2. Grind nuts to a powder in a food processor. Set aside.

3. Break up chocolate and melt in the top of a double boiler over shallow, warm water on moderate heat. Transfer to a bowl and let cool.

4. Meanwhile, in the bowl of a mixer, beat butter until soft. Gradually add honey; beat until smooth. Add egg yolks, two or three at a time, beating until mixed after each addition. The mixture will look curdled, but this is OK). Add nuts and cooled chocolate. 

5. In another bowl, beat egg whites with salt until whites barely stand up when beater is raised. Fold egg whites into chocolate in three batches. Pour into pan. Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350 degrees and bake for 50 minutes more, or until a cake tester comes out clean. Remove and let cool. Remove from pan. With a long sharp knife, level top.

6. Break up the chocolate for the frosting. In a saucepan over medium heat, cook cream until it forms a skin on top. Add chocolate, reduce heat to low and stir with a whisk until smooth. Transfer to a bowl and stir occasionally until cool and slightly thick. Pour icing over cake and smooth top and sides until covered. Serve immediately, or store at room temperature overnight.

*To see all the other entries in this month's Sugar High Friday, go to Lovescool for Kelli's exhaustive round-up and the glorious chocolate whatsits that everyone else created for the event.