Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Just Because Lee Asked...

Here's the recipe for a cake I made along with the grape & wine pasta. It reminds me a lot of Crans Cake, playing on a similar nut & cream theme. The downside: pistachios are time-consuming to shell and blanch. And by the way, since the frosting is mostly butter (I'm really not kidding), be sure that the cake is completely cool before you try to spread it, else it will simply melt and dribble off. I mean completely cool. I ended up putting mine in the freezer for a few minutes.

Sicilian Pistachio Cake
for the batter:
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2/3 cup sour cream, divided
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp almond extract
  • 1/3 cup blanched pistachios
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1,1/2 sticks (12 Tbs) butter
for the buttercream:
  • 3 large eggs yolks
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 Tbs sugar
  • 1/4 cup light corn syrup
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • 2 sticks butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 3 drops pistachio essence (optional) // because everybody has that in their pantry, right?
  • 1/2 cup plus 1 Tbs blanched pistachio nuts, slivered or coarsely chopped

The Cake
Set an oven rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Coat a 9-by-2-inch round cake pan with butter and flour.

In a small bowl, whisk the eggs, 3 Tbs of the sour cream, the vanilla, and almond extract, just until lightly combined.

In a food processor, process the pistachios with the sugar until finely ground but not to a powder.

In a large bowl, mix the flour, the pistachio mixture, the baking powder, baking soda, and salt on low speed for 30sec. Add the butter and the remaining sour cream. Mix on low speed until the dry ingredients are moistened. Raise the speed to medium and beat for 1,1/2min. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.

Gradually add the egg mixture in two parts, beating for 30sec after each addition to incorporate the ingredients and strengthen their structure. Using a spatula, scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface evenly.

Bake for 35-45min, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the pan for 10min before removing the pan and allowing it to cool completely.

The Buttercream
In a medium bowl, mix the yolks until light in color.

In a small saucepan, preferably nonstick, combine the sugar, syrup, and lemon juice. Using a spatula, stir until all the sugar is moistened. Heat over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar dissolves and the syrup begins to boil around the edges. Stop stirring and continue cooking for a few minutes, until the syrup comes to a rolling boil (the entire surface will be covered with large bubbles). Immediately transfer the syrup to a heatproof glass measure (or ceramic bowl) to stop the cooking.

Beat the syrup into the yolks in a steady stream. Continue beating for 5min. Let cool completely. To speed cooling, place the bowl in the refrigerator, stirring occasionally.

When cool, beat in the butter 1 Tbs at a time. The buttercream will not thicken until almost all of the butter has been added. Add the vanilla and pistachio essence (if using), and beat until incorporated.

Use the buttercream at once. Otherwise, place in an airtight container and use up to 4hrs later. If you are keeping it longer, refrigerate it and bring it to room temperature before using.

The Presentation
When the cake is completely cool, frost the top and sides with swirls of buttercream. Coat the top and sides with the slivered or chopped pistachios.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Food for a Bad Week

I have spent the past week engulfed in melancholy.

Backstory: I was in New York last weekend, visiting friends from college -- you know, the important ones: those who make much of college worthwhile. It was glorious and exhausting and I relished every instant with a profound joy. The trip was touched with a bit of sadness, though; I learned that most of them are... (how to put this delicately?)... not in the best of places right now. Being the nosy nice guy that I am, I want to step in and help, changing the world so that they can have an easier time of it. That's simply not possible, of course, and it infuriates me. As a result, I have spent all my time since then brooding, frustrated and morose.

My mood deteriorated even further when I saw the state of the kitchen upon my return. Not only did it have the usual filthy characteristics that I hate (recycling: overflowed; sink: full of dishes; all surfaces: encrusted with grime), but furthermore, the dishwasher was broken! I realise that as students, we are incredibly spoiled to have this machine. But it is of little use when it refuses to use water. Disgusted, I withdrew to (read: hid in) my room for a few days.

Passive aggressive? Maybe. But you know things are bad in this apartment when I refuse to cook, especially since I'm the one who suffers most from that decision. I get antsy and irritable (if I'm not already) when I can't create anything.

Fortunately, the weekend has witnessed an upturn of sorts. Melancholy has given way to grim determination, somehow fueled by the memory of joy. I've managed to spend a few hours cleaning and running errands, and the dishwasher has reconciled itself with water. Life is getting tolerable again. I haven't made a difference in New York yet; that's next on my To-Do list. Me vs. the Universe. Yeah. Let's do this.

In the meantime, to keep myself distracted and celebrate the returned-to-functional kitchen, I continue to make interesting things. This here is a fascinating pasta dish that I once made a while ago, but didn't blog about it for some reason. If the mix of red wine, grapes, and Italian sausage doesn't grab your interest already, then think about the taste when the grapes macerate in the wine for 8 hours, along with sugar and vinegar. Hard to imagine, isn't it? Take it from me: the result is a delightful mix of sweetness from the fruit, bitterness from the vinegar, and spice from the sausage. And don't be intimidated by the wait; after the overnight maceration, the rest of dish assembles very quickly.

Strozzapreti with Sausage, Grapes, and Red Wine
  • 1 cup seedless red grapes, cut in half lengthwise
  • 1 cup dry red wine
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbs red wine vinegar
  • 1 lb dried strozzapreti pasta // or whatever type of pasta you happen to have on hand
  • 3 Tbs olive oil
  • 1,1/2 lbs Italian sausage (about 4 links, recommended 2 spicy and 2 sweet), casings cut away and meat roughly chopped
  • 1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 10 sage leaves
  • 2 Tbs butter
  • 1/2 cup grated pecorino cheese, plus extra for sprinkling
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1 Tbs chopped parsley
Day 1:
Combine the grapes, wine, sugar, and vinegar in an airtight container, and store in the fridge so that the grapes macerate for at least 8 hours or overnight.

Day 2:
Put a large pot of salted water on to boil for the pasta.

Remove the grape mixture from the fridge, place it in a medium saucepot, and bring it up to a boil over high heat. Cook the mixture at a boil until the liquid has reduced by half, about 10min.

When the pasta water comes to a boil, add the strozzapreti and cook until the pasta is just al dente.

Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the meat and begin to brown it for about 3-4min, stirring and breaking up the meat as you go.

Add the onion and continue cooking, stirring well, until the sausage and onion have cooked through, about 5-7min.

Add the sage and stir to combine.

Add the grape mixture and stir well.

When the pasta is cooked, drain it (but do not rinse it). Add the pasta to the pot with the grape-and-sausage mixture and cook together so the flavours combine and the pasta cooks a bit more, about 1,1/2min.

Remove the saucepot from the heat and add the butter, cheese, black pepper, and parsley. Sprinkle with more cheese and serve immediately.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Fancy Frozen Desserts

Falko continues to taunt me. I respond in kind.

Shamefully, I had never heard of semifreddo before. The Italian concoction (it translates to 'semi-cold'), I am told, is usually made with a mix of gelato and whipped cream, presented as a frozen cake or custard. I'm sure they must get pretty fancy. The one that I found doesn't call for gelato (thankfully), requiring instead simply your own eggs, sugar, and cream. As an added bonus, it is triple-layered; each third composes a radically different (and very accurate) taste. The first gives you a base of green pistachio cream, followed by a pink strawberry layer, and topped with a pure and simple vanilla flavour.

The technique is pretty straightforward in theory, being essentially three parallel processes occurring at the same time. First, you extract the essence of the flavours into milk, then you add beaten eggs and sugar to each, then to you add whipped cream to each, and assemble. It does eventually become time consuming when you have to wait for everything to chill or freeze, though, so it would probably be best to make this long ahead (up to 3 days) of when you intend to serve it.

Serving tips: though you can scoop it out of the loaf pan, I recommend turning it out on a platter and slicing it with a hot knife. It's very presentable, and you get a better cross-section (literally) of the different flavours. It does mean you'll probably have to eat most of it in one sitting, but I doubt many would mind that.

  • 1 cup shelled unsalted pistachios
  • 4 Tbsp sugar, divided, plus 1/2 cup
  • 1 cup whole milk, divided
  • 1/4 tsp almond extract
  • 1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise
  • 1 cup fresh strawberries (about 4oz), hulled, halved
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1,1/3 cups chilled heavy whipping cream
Line a metal loaf pan (approximately 9*5*3-inches) with 2 layers of plastic wrap, leaving generous overhang on all sides.

Grind pistachios and 2 Tbs sugar in a food processor until very finely chopped. Transfer pistachio mixture to a small saucepan. Add 1/2 cup milk; bring to a boil. Remove from heat, cover, and let steep for 20min. Set a fine-mesh strainer over a medium bowl; strain, discarding solids. Stir in almond extract; set pistachio mixture aside.

Place remaining 1/2 cup milk in a separate small saucepan. Scrape in seeds from vanilla bean; add bean and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat, cover, and let steep for 15min. Set a strainer over another medium bowl; strain, discarding solids, and chill vanilla mixture.

Purée strawberries and 2 Tbs sugar in a food processor until smooth. Set a fine-mesh strainer over another medium bowl; strain, pressing on solids to extract as much juice as possible. Discard solids. Stir in vanilla extract and set strawberry mixture aside.

Whisk eggs, salt, and remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a medium metal bowl. Set bowl over a medium saucepan of simmering water (do not allow bottom of bowl to touch water). Beat egg mixture at high speed until it triples in volume and an instant-read thermometer inserted into mixture registers 170 degrees, about 3min. Remove bowl from over water and continue beating until thick and cool, about 3min. Add one third of egg mixture to each of the pistachio, strawberry, and vanilla mixtures; fold each just to blend.

Beat cream in a large bowl until soft peaks form. Add on third of cream to each of the pistachio, strawberry, and vanilla mixtures; fold each just to blend. Cover vanilla and strawberry mixtures separately; chill. Pour pistachio mixture into pan; smooth top. Cover and freeze until firm, about 45min. Gently pour strawberry mixture over pistachio layer; smooth top. Freeze until firm, about 45min. Gently fold vanilla mixture to blend; pour over and smooth top. Freeze until firm, about 4hrs.

Ice Cream Bonbons
This is fancy and delicious, but before I talk about that, I have two issues with this dessert. First, I dislike the name "bonbon." Bonbon, to me, is the French word for candy -- just simple candy. Tootsie rolls and Hershey's chocolate are bonbons. But when the word is used in American English, it seems the height of presumption: "this thing is so good, we must give it a French name". An inaccurate French name. And frankly, the French are doing excellently well with their own desserts; they don't need this attributed to them.

My apologies. As you might have noticed, the adoption and misuse of foreign languages is a pet peeve of mine.

Secondly, the recipe is a bit of a cheat: it calls for ice cream as an ingredient. So I guess instead of being an alternative to homemade cream, it's more of a fancification of what you already have: a hardened chocolate shell with a center of ice cream and a sprinkling of rock salt. It's kind of complicated to make (you have to work fast), but well worth it if you want to turn store-bought ice cream into a fancy dessert. Besides, it's really tasty.

  • 10 oz extra-dark chocolate, finely chopped
  • 2 oz good-quality white chocolate from a bar, chopped
  • 1 cup finely crushed chocolate wafer cookies
  • 1 pint ice cream // I used mint; they recommend caramel, strawberry, chocolate, vanilla, or coffee
  • Flaky sea salt, for sprinkling
In a medium heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water, melt the dark and white chocolates together. Scrape into a smaller bowl and let cool slightly.

Put the crushed cookies on a small plate. Line 2 baking sheets with wax paper and place on in the freezer. Fill a cup with ice water.

Working very quickly, scoop a 1-Tbs-size scoop of ice cream, packing it tightly. Transfer it to the melted chocolate. Using a skewer, poke the rounded top of the ice cream and coat the ball in the chocolate. Lift the bonbon, allowing the excess chocolate to drip into the bowl. Dip the bottom of the bonbon in the cookie crumbs and set on the baking sheet. Sprinkle salt on top. Let stand for 10 seconds, then transfer the bonbon to the baking sheet in the freezer. Repeat to form the remaining bonbons; dip the ice cream scoop in the ice water between scoops. Freeze the bonbons until firm, 30min, then serve.