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Geraldine's Date Cake

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After sitting glumly on my butcher block for the past three weeks, my dryish Israeli dates - cast aside in favor of their juicy, more voluptuous sisters -  were finally used this weekend and, like an 80's movie wallflower in a pink dress at a long-awaited prom, they bloomed and shone.

You all offered up some great suggestions for my dates, but Heather's comment stood out:

"Luisa - I have an amazing date cake recipe from my Granny that is perfect for dates that are a little mangled or tough. The dates soak in hot coffee or chicory so they kind of fall slightly apart, giving the cake this awesome texture. It's got a little bit of chocolate in it for good measure. Let me know if you want the recipe!"

Key words: mangled, tough, a little bit of chocolate.

Um, yes, please?

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Heather's grandmother, Geraldine, sure knows her way around a dried date. Her chocolate-chip dappled cake combines coffee-soaked, pureed dates with an easy cocoa batter to velvety-soft effect. This is the kind of unassuming cake that you make once or twice and then commit to memory, enshrining yourself in family lore as the originator of a truly great snacking cake. You can't really taste the dates and coffee, but there are revelatory grace notes of fruit that give the cake an unexpected complexity. The elusive flavor of coffee deepens the chocolate flavor.

I made this cake for dessert on Saturday night and my friend Pat said, between mouthfuls as he ate, that it was the best cake he'd ever eaten. I know this just happened with the squash pie, but I swear to you that I do not put my friends up to this kind of hyperbole. I swear it! They come up with it all on their own.

I loved the fact that the cake required no fussy frosting or gilding-the-lily icing. Sliced into thick wedges, we topped them with a melting scoop of vanilla ice cream. But you don't even really need to do that. It can be nibbled on at the counter in the kitchen or refrigerated and cut into squares for a plain afternoon office snack. I baked it in a 10-inch pan, but you could do a 9 x 13-inch rectangular pan or even a 9-inch round pan for a thicker cake (just adjust the baking time somewhat). The cake is delicate, yet sturdy and has a crumb so soft and moist that it almost melts in your mouth.

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I made this cake to get rid of the dates sitting on my counter making me feel guilty, but we've both fallen so hard for it that I've now been instructed to keep our pantry stocked with dry-ish, sub-par dates. It turns out we need this cake on a regular basis. Sigh. Oh, okay. Twist my arm, why don't you.

Thank you, Heather and Geraldine!

Geraldine's Date Cake
Makes one 10-inch cake

2 cups of pitted dates, halved
1 1/4 cups hot coffee
2/3 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 cup unbleached white flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup good-quality chocolate chips

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 10-inch round cake pan, line the bottom with a round of parchment paper and butter the paper as well. Set aside. Loosely fill a 2-cup measure with the pitted, halved dates and cover with the hot coffee. Let sit for 5 minutes while you prepare the other ingredients.

2. Cream together the butter and sugars until fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, and the vanilla extract. Sift the flour, cocoa powder, salt, and baking soda into the butter-egg mixture. Mix gently to combine.

3. Pour the dates and coffee into a blender or use an immersion blender to puree the mixture completely. Add the pureed dates to the batter and blend to combine.

4. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle the top evenly with the chocolate chips.Bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until the edges begin to pull away from the side of the pan. Cool the pan on a rack until cool enough to handle, then gently turn the cake out onto a cake plate. Serve at room temperature.

New Orleans

In a few weeks, I'll be flying to New Orleans for IACP. I don't have much time while there to explore, but something tells me that a few of you might have strong opinions about where to go and what to do while in New Orleans, even with limited time. Hmm?

Go on, tell me. Hole-in-the-wall places are my favorite, but I'll take whatever advice you throw at me.


Lucy Young's Fish Tapenade

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It all looks a little slapdash, I know. A smeared knife, a half-empty ramekin. You can't see the grainy crackers in the background that would give this some context and now you're probably wondering what exactly we're looking at here, anyway. We plowed through that thing so quickly that by the time it registered that I should probably be documenting it for your sakes, it was half-eaten. Would you believe me if I told you that it was the best part of an already delicious Easter lunch?

It's hard to get better than rosemary-scented roasted lamb, with all its crusty pockets and yieldingly tender meat. It's even harder to best tiny boiled potatoes in their delicate jackets, glistening ever so slightly with a thin coating of freshly melting butter and the grassy flavor of minced parsley. It's practically impossible to top the first asparagus of the season, blistered in spots from a quick run in the oven. Should I mention that we even ended things with a billowing, marshmallowy cheesecake? (More on that next time.)

And yet it was all we could do to keep from making this fish tapenade our lunch.

Now, excuse me, but I have to have a word with some of my readers who are giving that first line of ingredients the hairy eyeball, their fingers hovering over their mouse pad, just itching to click away in a flash when the thought of those tiny little fillets gets to be a bit too much for them. I know I've said this before, but I really, really promise you that if you can get over your issues with handling the little suckers, this tapenade doesn't taste fishy in that unpleasant way that I know you're thinking it might. It's smooth and airy and has pleasant depth of flavor. It's subtle, if you can believe it, and creamy and has just the right amount of acidity and balance. Ooh, it's so so good. I would hate for you to miss out on it just because you think you hate anchovies.

(Now, that might be the most condescending thing I've ever written. Apologies, all. It's not really meant that way. It's just that I've seen, with my very own eyes, anchovy-haters eat things with anchovies in them and freak out with the deliciousness of what they're eating, and so I'd like to help, that's all.)

I know, if you want, why don't you use this as a gateway to the world of anchovies? Add just one or two to start. Blitz it up and have a quick taste. It needs a little something more, doesn't it? So add a few more. Now you're up to four. Squeeze some more lemon in there, blitz, and taste it again. If you think you've had enough, stop there. If you're surprising yourself by thinking that the tapenade could use a little more oomph, then throw a few more anchovies into the food processor and let down your hair, you wild one.

Would I lead you astray? You know I wouldn't.

Fish Tapenade
Serves 8-10 as an hors d'oeuvre
Note: Gemma, my friend and upstairs neighbor, is the source of this recipe. She's a nutritionist and thinks the tapenade might be worth attempting without the butter, if anyone is into that kind of experimentation.

8 oil-packed anchovies, drained
1 can (6 ounces) chunk light tuna
7 ounces cream cheese
4 ounces unsalted butter, cubed
Juice of 1 lemon
12 pitted black olives, halved
1 tablespoon snipped chives, plus more for garnish
Black pepper to taste

1. Place all the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth. Spoon into a serving dish and cover with plastic wrap.

2. Chill the tapenade in the refrigerator for at least one hour. Serve, garnished with snipped chives.


Cathal Armstrong's Irish Brown Bread

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Did you all run out to buy buttermilk for those griddle cakes from Edna Lewis? Do you now have a carton of it slouching about in your fridge, wondering if it will be used up before you have to toss it?

Well, if you're not going to drink a big cold glass of it with your breakfast toast, and frankly that's really more of a hot summer morning thing, here's what you should do with it: make bread. Yes, really. Okay, not really really, but sort of really.

Instead of spending the next 18 hours waiting for your (admittedly delicious) no-knead dough to proof, just mix that buttermilk with some whole-wheat flour, regular flour, salt, baking soda, and an egg, and - hey presto! - an hour later you'll have a loaf of warm bread. There's no proofing, no rising. Just a simple batter that rises quickly in the oven.

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Those savvy bakers among you might recognize that the texture and flavor of the bread will be akin to biscuits, albeit more wholesome, nourishing ones, I suppose. So that's what I meant by not really really. This isn't yeast bread, it's soda bread, but it'll do quite nicely if you're in one of those moods where you need something warm and craggy to put a waxy slab of butter on and nothing but fresh bread will do.

As delicious as it is straight from the oven, you'd better have a few people to help you with the loaf, because it doesn't last for more than a day or two. But while it's fresh and hot, eat the bread with wedges of sharp Cheddar or spread it with good unsalted butter (or good unsalted butter and cherry jam).

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And in other news, you can now find this site at www.thewednesdaychef.com, so if you feel like updating your bookmarks or links, go for it. The old Typepad address will still continue to work, however, so don't worry about broken links or anything like that. I have to thank the kind and patient Laura at Typepad for helping me with this. Thanks, Laura!

Irish Brown Bread
Makes 1 loaf

3 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
1 large egg, lightly beaten

1. Preheat the oven to 375°. Butter an  8-by-5-inch metal loaf pan.

2. In a large bowl, whisk both flours with the baking soda and salt. In a small bowl, whisk the buttermilk with the egg; stir into the dry ingredients with a wooden spoon until a rough dough forms.

3. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth. Form the dough into a loaf and put it in the prepared pan. Bake for about 50 minutes, until the bread has risen about 1/2 inch above the rim of the pan. Once unmolded, the loaf should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Let cool to warm or room temperature, then slice and serve.


What Shall I Do With My Dates?

At the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, I was transfixed by the mountainous piles of dates I saw, lustrous, dark, and sticky. To be sure, we'd seen dates wherever we went in Israel, but the ones at that market seemed particularly glossy and fragrant, just itching to be bought. They bewitched me in the end.

I bought two sacks of dates. One was filled with the darkest, fattest, juiciest dates I'd ever seen. They promptly got squashed in my luggage and are now a fudgy lump that I have to gingerly pry apart, but when I do, I'm rewarded with soft, yielding fruit that melts in my mouth. The second bag was filled with caramel-colored dates, slightly wrinkled, and hardier than their brethren. They are not the sensuous joy to eat than the other ones are, but they have great flavor, so I think I might cook with them instead.

Shall I make a Sticky Toffee Pudding? Or this Date-Nut Loaf? Am I missing out on your favorite date recipe? Do you have to tell me about it, quick, before I go wasting those dates on something not worthy enough? Hurry, tell me what to do!


Things To Eat/Drink/Learn/Plant/Pick Before I Go

On our flight back from Israel, I started thinking about keeping a list of life goals. You know, drive the Ring Road, take a tango class in Buenos Aires, learn Arabic, that kind of thing. Then I saw Maggie's lists and thought it might be nice to share mine with you. So I narrowed my list to just the food-related (loosely, at least) things.

1. Make cheese from scratch.
2. Get a little more educated about wine.
3. Drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to find taco stands like this woman.
4. Eat plum dumplings in Vienna.
5. Make my own sourdough.
6. Take a week-long cooking class in Vietnam.
7. Master boning and carving a chicken.
8. Taste raw milk.
9. Have dinner at Chez Panisse.
10. Shop at the Santa Monica Farmer's Market every week for a year.
11. Plant, tend, and eat from a garden.
12. Pick wild blueberries.
13. Cook every recipe in Sunday Suppers at Lucques.
14. Eat a home-cooked meal in Morocco.
15. Go to Darjeeling during the tea harvest.
16. Learn to gather honey with beekeepers.
17. Harvest the olives on my family's land in Italy.
18. Run a lunch catering operation out of my kitchen.
19. Write a cookbook.
20. Volunteer in a soup kitchen.
21. Give my children, when I have them, taste memories that will remind them of me when I'm gone.
22. Eat the roast chicken bread salad at Zuni Cafe.
23. Work on a farm for a summer.
24. Host a holiday meal for my family.
25. Take a jam class with June Taylor.

It's neat to read over them and think about which ones will be easy to cross off and which ones won't. Maybe I'll do an update on this a year from now and see how far I got.

Now it's your turn. Share a goal or two in the comments, won't you?