October 24, 2010

Almond Cake

Although it may take a lot to ruffle my feathers, it doesn't take much to tickle my fancy. Take almond cake, for example.

We're talking four ingredients here: almonds, sugar, eggs, and flour. That's it.* These four ingredients, thanks to Marcella Hazan, provide me a path to autumnal bliss. I wouldn't be the first to exalt Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, nor will I be the last.

That said, I may be one of the few Hazan devotees who speaks of her as though Hazan has been working in-flesh with me in the kitchen. After the boyfriend comments on the deliciousness of the cake, I proceed to explain how Hazan "had me whip the egg whites until they formed stiff peaks." He looked at me as though I had been talking to dead people. Hazan is like that, she'll jump right out of the page and ensure your egg whites have the stiffest of peaks, and that your cake is the most delicious of desserts.

Hazan aside, who can resist nuts? Not me, in any case. On any given day, it could very well be that 1/3 of my caloric sustenance comes from nuts. I'm nuts about nuts, so it only makes sense to sneak them into a cake. Plus, when you bake with nuts, it eliminates the need for any other fat. Take this recipe for an example, you won't see any butter, oil, or egg yolks. It's just nuts.

*In full disclosure, I did omit the mention of a pinch of salt and grated lemon. The lemon is optional (yet highly encouraged), but the salt actually has a pragmatic role in getting the egg whites to stiffen.

Almond Cake
Marcella Hazan

10 ounces shelled, unpeeled almonds, about 2 cups
1-1/3 cups granulated sugar
8 egg whites (keep the yolks, be creative with them)
The peel of one lemon, grated without digging into the white pith beneath
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
An 8-or 9-inch springform pan
Butter for greasing the pan

Preheat the oven to 350.

Place the almonds and sugar in a blender or food processor and grind to a fine consistency, turning the motor on and off. Don't let them turn to a paste. (Then you've got almond butter, which is great too!)

Beat the egg whites together with 1/2 teaspoon salt until they form stiff peaks.

Add the ground almonds and the grated lemon peel to the egg whites, a little bit at a time, folding them in gently, but thoroughly. The whites may deflate a bit, but if you mix carefully there should be no significant loss of volume.

Add the flour, shaking a little of it at a time through a strainer and again, mixing gently.

Thickly smear the pan with butter. Put the cake batter into the pan, shaking the pan to level it off. Place the pan in the middle level of the pre-heated oven and bake for 1 hour. Before taking it out of the oven, test the center of the cake by piercing it with a toothpick. If it comes out dry, the cake is done. If it doesn't, look a bit longer.

When done, unlock the pan and remove the hoop. When the cake has cooled somewhat, and it is just lukewarm, loosen it from the bottom of the pan. Serve when it is completely cold. It will keep a while if wrapped well.

October 18, 2010

What Fall Is About

We should have discussed this pie a looong time ago. My apologies. Usually, the summer months are what bring people outdoors, dipping toes in the sand and splashing in the water. But outdoor fun is all about the fall months for me. So I've been trapsing about the area, hunting for the best apples, driving 2 hours to obtain thick bratwursts (the kind whose casings buckle under your teeth) and German beer at a local Oktoberfest.

But I digress, I came to talk about pie and hot chocolate. In an attempt to bring in fall the proper way and have a reason to return to the bloggosphere, I baked a pumpkin pie for some coworkers a few weeks back.

This pumpkin pie recipe is not only from The New York Times Dessert Cookbook, it was developed by a former White House chef, Ronald Mesnier. (Doesn't he look like he knows what he's talking about, pie-wise?) It may sound like it'd be a fussy recipe, but it's nothing extreme.

The usual pinches of fall cinnamon, ginger, and cloves are involved, as is the assumed canned pumpkin puree. There are two elements that make it a bit more luxurious. That's the additional egg yolks (three eggs and two egg yolks) and the heavenly, additional cup of cream. If you'd like the recipe, pass me a note and I'll gladly pass it along.

The other fall treat I've been reveling in is hot chocolate.

In my book, good hot chocolate is dependent on two things: whole milk and unsweetened cocoa powder. When it comes to milk, don't mess around - go whole. To the full-fat phobics I say this: just have the fat, revel in its flavor (because that's what it's all about), and be done with it. There is absolutely no substitute for its flavor. As for the unsweetened cocoa powder, it gives you more control regarding the sweetness and character of the final product.

Call me crazy, but I prefer making this over the stovetop rather than the microwave. It allows me to adjust the flavor as it heats, ensures there are no cocoa powder chunks, and richly sweetens the air in our 650 square foot apartment. My process is the following: put a saucepan on medium heat, add some milk and unsweetened cocoa powder, and whisk until thoroughly combined and there are no more chunks. Have a tasting spoon and jar of sugar on hand, and continue to add milk and cocoa powder until it's at the quantity and flavor you like. Add sugar as desired.

From there, the hot chocolate can take on any personality you're in the mood for. You can add vanilla, cinnamon, a squeeze of an orange, dark liquor (if you're into that), or anything else that strikes your fancy with chocolate. Or just leave it plan. Tonight I was in the mood for something dark and rich, so I didn't add that much sugar, but I did add vanilla extract.

Warm, spicy, and sweet things from the kitchen - that's what fall's about for me. That, and traditional German celebrations of course.