12 February 2008

An Ode to the Cakes

You know how it is when you fall in love with a cake. And not just in that, 'Oh, that cake was awesome' kind of way. I mean, really, really fall in love. I remember distinctly the first time I fell in love with a cake. I was in college. We were living in the sextet. Audrey brought over her poppyseed rum cake for some boozy festival we were throwing. I don't remember much about the party itself, but what I DO remember was that I had to have the recipe. Seriously here, I LOVE this cake. It is moist and sweet and outrageously rum-liscous. What's more, it's a snap to make, and everyone, I mean EVERYONE, loves it. (Here's looking at you, Hatchlett.)

But really, let's be honest here. I just really like cake, of all sorts. I make a mean vanilla poundcake. Chocolate cake. Carrot cake. Apple-caramel cake. Cupcakes! I love them all. (OK, confession time: I don't really like cheesecake unless they're made with ricotta cheese and lemon, does that count? I didn't think so.) Cakes have an aura of specialness around them. They're so old-fashioned, and homey.

Recently, though, I find myself fallen for a new cake. Have you ever had Flancocho? Or even heard of it? I didn't think so. I had never heard of it, either, until I started working with women from Latin America (included therin a few of the hispanophone Caribbean isles). Tres Leches, yes. (YES.) Pastel a quatro leches, yes. But Flancocho? Flancocho is chocolate cake topped with, you guessed it, flan. And it has caramel sauce, like that of crème caramel, lacing the top.


I got the recipe. And I haven't made it at all, even though it's really the only thing I've really been craving (aside from chocolate chip walnut cookies from Levain, but that's another story altogether). It's intimidating.

The thing is, when I first looked at the recipe, I thought it was topsy-turvy: the cake batter goes in to the pan before the flan does. But with some amazing undercover sleuthing (ok, so I just asked my friend point blank, saying that it looked like a counter-intuitive step, and she confirmed that her instructions were correct, and that it just works out that way), it turns out that the flan leeches through the cake batter, which adds some chocolatey flavor to the flan itself.

Seriously, a slice is a small piece of cake heaven.

Have I mentioned that both of the cake loves of my life start out as a box of Betty Crocker (or Duncan Hines, or whatever is cheapest on the day I should go to the store)? Should I even admit to this? My kitchen sensiblity is hiding in shame at the bottom of my heels right now, not wanting to come out. But deliciousness trumps over that puritan cringing, at least sometimes.

09 February 2008

Do YOU want to rock the party?

Last night was a long night. First, I stayed at school for a while later than I had originally intended (there was snafu in the going out with colleagues after work; i.e. it just didn't happen), and then arrived far too early to the bar where I was supposed to meet Jeff and some friends, only to have them run late. We then proceeded to watch cricket (Sally, Jeff's Australian friend, explained some of the major concepts of the game) and devour the best fish and chips that I have ever eaten. The batter was crunchy and spicy and light and just plain good--it was a huge relief, too, as the last time I ate fish and chips, I was sick with grease overkill indigestion for a week. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that fried foods aren't as well coddled in Wisconsin. Maybe it had something to do with me not easily tolerating greasy food terribly well. But, there was wicked good beer to go with it all. Wicked. Good. Beer.

Unfortunately, though, I fizzled out earlier than I had intended. This, of course, is one of those obvious consequences of getting up early and then working a full day and not going home. So I got cranky. And bowed out all the way back to my bed. (And, of course, it being late, the train(s) did not come for a long, long time, only adding to my general grumpiness.)

Tonight, though, I'm hoping to keep the Crankenstein at home where she belongs--we're headed to a friend's party/soirée for wine and... probably more wine. (However, knowing our hostess, there will probably be cheese, too, but I'm not going to promise myself anything.) And to avoid being that guest who shows up without any libations or nibbles to offer (i.e the mooch that no one invited but always shows), I decided to revisit the Parmesan Black-Pepper Biscotti that I made the last time I had this sort of evening. They are delicious: pungent and tangy and sharp without being overpowering. They're also nice and small so that napkins or plates are a moot point, and the hand that's not holding your drink can very easily take care of it. Everyone likes them.

I made a few adjustments to the recipe this time over; I used pecorino romano instead of parmesan, which makes the biscotti lose some of it's bite, but it's just as good. Also, I went easier on the salt, as cheese is nice and salty to begin with. The recipe below reflects the version I made.

Should you need something to take to the next party that you've been invited too, this may be it.

Parmesan Black-Pepper Biscotti
-adapted from Gourmet, December 2006

1 1/4 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
4 cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for dusting
2 teaspoons baking powder
1-1 1/2 teaspoons salt
4 1/2 oz Parmesan-Reggiano (or another cheese of its ilk), finely grated (2 1/4 cups)
1 1/2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cut into smallish cubes
4 large eggs
1 cup whole milk

1. Preheat oven to 350F, and put rack in upper and lower thirds of oven.
2. Pulse peppercorns in grinder until coarsely ground, or crush them in a mortar and pestle.
3. Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, 2 cups cheese, and 1 tablespoon ground black pepper in a large bowl. Blend in butter with a pastry blender until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Whisk 3 eggs with milk and add to flour mixture, stirring with a fork until a soft dough forms. (It will be very sticky.)
4. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and quarter the dough. Have flour at the ready, and flour your hands. Form each piece into a slightly flattened 12-inch long log (approximately 2 inches wide and 3/4 inch high). Transfer logs to 2 ungreased large baking sheets, arranging logs 3 inches apart (two logs will fit onto a pan).
5. Whisk remaining egg and brush some over logs, then sprinkle tops of logs evenly with the remaining 1/4 cup cheese and 1/2 tablespoon ground pepper. Bake, rotating sheets 180 degrees and switching position of sheets halfway through baking, until logs are pale golden and firm, about 30 minutes total. Cool logs to warm on sheets on a rack, about 10 minutes.
6. Reduce oven temperature to 300F.
7. Carefully transfer 1 warm log onto a cutting board and cut diagonally into 1/2-inch-thick slices with a serrated knife. Arrange slices, cut sides down, in 1 layer on a baking sheet. Repeat with remaining logs, transferring slices to sheets. Bake, turning over once, until golden and crisp, 35-45 minutes total. Cool biscotti on baking sheets on rack, about 15 minutes.

Makes 5-6 dozen.

03 February 2008

Fondue YOU!

Why is melted cheese the epitome of deliciousness? I mean really, here--it's good on everything. Kids will eat greens with it (well, stereotypical kids, anyway). And who doesn't like a good grilled cheese sandwich? Espeically with tomato soup? I digress.

For Christmas, my parents got us a fondue set. A fondue set! It's the real deal, too, all shiny and lovely with long forks that spear in that fondue-y fashion. And at long last we made fondue. I was a little irked at first, since there are no instructions as to how to use the pot, it's just like, here's a fondue pot! Make yourself some fondue, folks! Easy as pie!

Well. It might be easy as pie once you have figured out what the heck you are doing, but getting to that point is terribly unclear. Especially once you realize that you need to get yourself a heat source for the pot itself and your guests are coming in, oh, ten minutes.

But it all worked out in the end (many thanks, Internet and The Joy of Cooking, and the hardware store across the street! We used Gruyère and Appenzeller cheeses, some wine we had sitting in the fridge, and a little lemon juice to make sure the acidity was enough. (Note: apparently, fondue needs to be nice and acidic for it to melt properly. This is particularly true of firmer cheeses, or so I have read. They won't just melt on their own--they may, in fact, curdle, and really, no one wants that.) To boot, we made boiled potatoes, and we had raw veggies and some bread.

The suggested amount for the amount of cheese we used was 4-6 people. We were three, and we ate it all.

And it was delicious.